- By Robert M. Thorson, Professor of Geology & Geophysics
University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269-2045
Stone walling is a New England tradition. It’s a lot like weaving. Neither is necessary in today’s urgent, electronic society, yet they persist. They urge us to touch the past as we think about it deeply and slowly. In the process, as our muscles, hands and fingers work together, we realize, almost subconsciously, that history only accumulates event by event, thread by thread, and stone by stone. In the process of finding our way back through time, we produce something of beauty and lasting value.
Weaving is done indoors; we blend soft materials in an ambience of hearth and home. Stone walling is done outdoors; we blend hard materials in an ambience of fresh air and the sensual physicality of muscular motion.
Indeed, walls are woven: stone by stone, tier by tier, segment by segment. A wall with a good dry weave will flex with the random swelling and shrinking of the soil, whether due to soaking and drying, freezing and thawing, or when underground life – roots, voles, grubs, ants, worms microbes – expands the soil after autumn die-back. In contrast, a mortared wall acts like a weak, but rigid bar on the otherwise flexible landscape, lasting only until the soil moves, as it should. A dry laid wall is a stout stone rope. A mortared wall is weak stone bolt.
At a larger scale, the walls our New England culture has built over the last four centuries are now woven into the physical landscape. They are actual landforms, enmeshed within the terrain, rather than artifacts placed above it. Freestanding fences catch the soil that creeps down hillsides everywhere, transforming themselves into retaining walls, holding the soil that otherwise would creep quickly down to our streams, should the walls be removed. Many walls have inadvertently become low, stone-faced dams, impounding the very wetlands we protect so vigilantly, especially their habitat. On more than a few abandoned tillage fields, buried walls have become drains, keeping the landscape above them dry. In alluvial lowlands, walls buried naturally by floodplain mud become "natural" springs where the water they carry seeps to the surface. Many walls I have encountered have accidentally changed the courses of streams. In dozens of small brooks, washed-out stone causeways have become riffles, below which are accidental trout pools. On flat terraces, some walls have caught enough blowing sand to qualify as the cores of dunes. Some stone walls on marshes below coastal bluffs, now nearly drowned by rising sea level, have become accidental piers and groins.
Indeed, every wall in every town, stands like a low stone ridge in an otherwise softer, world. Each wall is a local, two-way conductor for heat and moisture, depending on season and circumstance, sometimes forcing water in, sometimes wicking it out, sometimes chilling the soil, sometimes warming it. The grid of walls has transformed what would otherwise be a more homogeneous woodland into thousands of parcels, each with its own special microclimates. Each and every creeping thing is forced to respond, whether by reaching (roots, rhizomes, tubers, hyphae), or by movement (wriggling, walking, and burrowing). Sun or shade, hot or cold, snow-covered or exposed, dew-covered or crusty, windward or leeward, stone walls give woodland species plenty of choices.
To remove such walls from the landscape —whether for sale or for rebuilding elsewhere – is like pulling threads out of the fabric that is our woodland landscape. Pull one out, and the effects are local; little is likely to happen. Pull several out, and you might begin to notice a change, perhaps in the species composition of small mammals. Pull dozens out, and the broader landscape will become transformed, the fabric unraveled, and the land more boring, at least aesthetically.
At an even larger scale is the cultural landscape, the one in which we live conceptually, and the one that brings in tourist dollars. Clearly, New England has more than its fair share of historic districts, villages, battlefields, cemeteries, special buildings, and houses, each with its own special charm and tourist cachet. Regardless of their number, however, they are little more than a collection of dots on the very broad, forest-green canvas called New England. Sometimes, the dots line up along rivers, coastlines, and important roads, producing heritage corridors. But, even along such corridors, most of New England is still open space, at least with respect to the presence or absence of cultural focal points.
Well….guess what lies between the corridors and the dots? It’s the stone walls, which are present almost everywhere, often in such abundance that we tend not to see them at all. Yet without them, our “heritage” landscape wouldn't be a fabric; it would be a collection of dots and lines. Being humble and ubiquitous, stone walls are usually not thought of as cultural sites. But they are cultural threads, collectively responsible for binding our heritage places into a single fabric.
From the time the Puritans chiseled their first grave marker in the early 17th century, to the onset of New England's agricultural demise in the middle of the 19th century, farmers and foresters culled billions of tons of stone from the region’s glacial soil and stacked it up for all to see and appreciate. The result was as much as 240,000 miles of stone wall east of the Hudson River (based on a census of fencing published in 1871); enough stone wall to encircle the earth ten times; enough to reach to the moon. No one knows how many walls of these walls are left today, but I suspect it’s only about half the original amount. Many of these farmstead walls, especially those adjacent to roads or in the middle of overly small agricultural fields, were converted to other uses prior to the widespread use of concrete and bituminous pavement; at the time, stone was seen principally as a material resource to be crushed for road material or to be used to build bridges, rather than an aesthetic and environmental one. Clearly, there was nothing wrong with destroying walls in an era in which industrial and engineering hegemony were broadly celebrated.
This is not longer the case. Today, we live in an urgent, information-based era where our material needs are met primarily by plastics and polymers from petroleum and stone from concrete. Today, we use stone to satisfy our craving for authenticity, and for making a personal link to a past. We have become consumers of stone, not for its mass, but for its messages.
As a result, stone walls are being built nearly everywhere. But where does that stone come from? Mostly, it comes from antique stone walls, which are being cannibalized by diesel-powered yellow machines, loaded into pallets for interstate shipment on flatbed trucks, then rebuilt as architectural walls in upscale real estate developments where the supply of money exceeds the supply of stone, and where the addition of stone is supposed to somehow make up for the lack of authenticity elsewhere. Time after time, segments of rustic, tumbled down, lichen-stained, knee-high walls are converted into shorter segments of beautiful, head-high barriers surrounding ostentatious Mac Mansions, somewhere in Fakeville, U.S.A. Lot after lot, the sprawling stone habitat for untold creatures is converted into private habitat for the nouveau riche.
Such strip-mining is, of course, perfectly legal. But that doesn’t make it right.
New England's namesake fish, the Atlantic Cod, was initially so abundant that they could have been dip-netted blindfold into boats. Nobody then could have imagined them disappearing. Now, however, there are so few cod left that the market price is close to that of lobster, and the fishery is strictly regulated. Like the cod, the seemingly superabundant stone walls of New England are also disappearing, one at a time, almost too slowly to notice. Most are not yet leaving the region. But they are being taken from our rural landscape and increasingly concentrated in gated communities, or exclusive ones under surveilance. What’s to be done?
First, proceed with caution. Any attempt to interfere with New England’s tradition of stone walling would be like taking a tiger by the tail. One might as well try to stop New England’s literary tradition, a place with more poets and philosophers per square mile, per decade, than any other region in America. Hence, any call for stronger stone wall regulations cannot simultaneously be a call to prevent a private landowner's right to work with stone on their properties. The tradition of stone weaving must continue, for it allows us – in fact it forces us – to remain connected to the past. Without that connection, we will spin into cultural chaos.
Personally, I would like to see less regulation, and more incentives to leave old stone walls in place. But some restrictions are inevitable, especially those that would prevent the strip mining of old walls for commercial purposes, especially those along property boundaries and roadsides. I would also argue that some walls justify protection based solely on their archaeological and habitat value.
Any restrictions on stone walling, however, cannot be imposed from the top down. They must come from the bottom up, beginning with small, generally conservation minded groups – foresters, park associations, town planners and conservation commissions, museums, land trusts, heritage properties, outdoor education centers -- who have begun to notice their lands being degraded by a cash-driven, market for weather-beaten stone. It is the members of such groups who are now raising the first questions in local situations, who are making that first phone call to a local representative, and who are writing letters and newsletters for local media. If warranted, state-level regulation should be enabling legislation, laws that give power to those who care the most to protect the lands that they love.
In the worst case scenario, one that borders on science fiction, the New England stone working tradition just might go the way of the New England fisherman. By this, I mean that sea-faring old salt, that rugged individualist from a family tradition of fishing, the guy rendered nearly extinct because he is over-regulated, because the ability to capture cod (and other fin fish) greatly exceeded the supply of it. What made the supply disappear was not a few boats, lines, and nets, but fishing at the scale of supertankers and campus-sized, bottom-scraping trawlers. If the tradition of the New England stone mason goes the way of the old fisherman, it will not because a few old farmers traded stones or made deals with stone masons. It will be that we, as a society, allowed the industrial-scale strip-mining and export of our stone to places like, San Jose, California, Dallas, Texas, and Seattle, Washington, places where my informants have discovered our stone at the local greenhouse. It makes me wonder -- as with the case of the cod -- what our stone will be worth when it begins to become scarce.
New England--geologically, ecologically, and culturally -- is a fabric woven from stone. The weave of each wall is one stone on two, then two on one, layer after layer. The weave within our woodlands is a wall by wall in different directions, yielding a grid, hundreds to thousands of feet on a side. The weave of our heritage landscape is farmstead after farm, then village by village, most of which were once abandoned. The whole thing still looks beautiful, but is beginning to unravel, slowly, insidiously, and unfortunately, legally.
©Robert Thorson 2003
Editor’s note: Professor Robert Thorson’s article has been printed in its entirety. It does not reflect a position necessarily held by either the editor nor the organization ECFLA/WDLT.
This article originally appeared in the June 2003 ECFLA/WDLT Newsletter.
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