They meander all across New England, marking forgotten boundaries of farmlands. Sturdy and seemingly impervious to the elements, yet at places, they are overgrown by vegetation and hidden to the eye. I’m referring to stonewalls and I’m fascinated by them.
I noticed them during my first week in New England. I was driving along a winding road, dwarfed by tall trees whose canopy produced a dappled pattern on the road. It was July, and I was admiring the dense woods that seemed to be held back by the asphalt on the road but if given the opportunity would gladly reclaim what was once theirs. I had just moved up from South Florida and was exploring the area. South Florida is beautiful in its own right – tropical and green throughout the year. But it is a manicured beauty with its “three palm trees a house” Home Owner Association rules. In contrast, the woods of New England seemed majestic and natural, a reminder of what land used to be before men settled these places.
I saw it as I came around a bend in the road. A gently sloping meadow with bales of hay and a stonewall languidly tracing the contour of the field. I slowed down and marveled at the scene in front of me. I had read about stonewalls in James Herriot’s books as he described the scenery in Yorkshire. I had seen pictures of them in the Cotswolds in old National Geographics but here I was seeing my first stonewall!
As I settled down, I started noticing houses with orderly stonewalls. The stones fit together neatly like a jigsaw puzzle and the walls were of a uniform height. To me, they lent a certain solidity to the otherwise seemingly frail frame houses. They served a practical purpose too, serving as retaining walls. My first encounter with stonewalls in the wild came when I walked through the woods behind my house. Here were walls crisscrossing the woods where I least expected to find them! Some were seemingly carelessly assembled and probably just a foot high while others were thicker and a couple of feet high. It was winter and they were covered with a generous dusting of snow. They would have faded into the background if not for patches of lichens and moss that peeped through. I wondered what drove men to construct these walls. It was probably easier to mark the boundary with fences. They seemed to be a labor-intensive way to demarcate boundaries. They would do well to keep livestock in but it just seemed to be a lot of hard work.
I discovered the answer in an interesting book “Stone by Stone” by Robert Thorson. Thorson explains that these stones trace their origins to the glacial history of this region. New England was covered by an ice sheet a mile thick and as it receded, it abraded the land leaving behind these stones. They were buried deep in the ground when the Europeans started settling and cultivating New England. The rampant deforestation to cultivate the land as well to provide firewood to heat the farmhouses during the cold New England winters lead to frost heaves that subsequently pushed these stones up. Farmers who encountered these stones whilst tilling their fields moved them laboriously to the edges of their properties where they dumped them roughly to mark their boundaries. Over time, some of these were assembled neatly into walls while others were left as is. The Industrial revolution saw an exodus to the towns and cities. The advent of railroads meant that food could easily be transported from the Midwest and many farms were abandoned and the forests took over.
This explains the origin of the stonewalls, but the origin of the stones is even more fascinating. Thorson, a geologist, starts off with the fiery origins of the earth. He traces the formation of the crust on the surface as well as the formation of the oceans followed by that of the continents. Around 300 million years ago, the Iapetos ocean occupied the current location of the Atlantic ocean. (In Greek mythology, Iapetos, a Titan, is the father of Atlas after whom the Atlantic Ocean is named). When the ancient land masses of Europe, Asia and North America converged together to form the supercontinent of Pangaea, the waters of the ocean flowed off elsewhere but the debris in the ocean – marine mud, flotsam, volcanic islands and limy reefs were added to the edge of North America. The eventual collision of the continents formed a mountain range that spanned the center of Pangaea. As Thorson postulates, the lands in between – New England, maritime Canada and Britain were pressed tightly together during the three-way collision. It was in the root of these mountains that the stones that are dispersed across New England were created – baked in high temperatures deep within the earth. The mud and sand that once lay below the Iapetos Ocean were baked into rocks.
Pangea broke apart over time and as the continents of Europe and North America started to drift away, New England and Britain broke away. About 2 million years ago, both New England and Britain were under glaciers and as the glaciers moved, they abraded the bedrock, breaking them and grinding them into stones that lay buried under the earth and eventually rose up to the surface. The stones in the walls that James Herriot describes and the stones that I find in my backyard were forged in the same crucible deep within the bowels of this earth!
Fortunately, a lot of towns have set aside vast tracts of conservation lands where these walls can still be seen. I love walking along these walls in the woods marveling at the effort that went into building them. I sometimes sit on them for a little while taking in the sights and the sounds. The men and women who toiled and built them have long since gone and are forgotten, but the walls still remain. A testimony to the awesome forces of nature – fire and ice that fashioned them and the indomitable will of the people who assembled them!