A Tapestry of Stone: Rock Walls of New England

By Olsen, Eric P. | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

A Tapestry of Stone: Rock Walls of New England


Olsen, Eric P., The World and I


Out of sight of farmhouse windows, two boys tramp through an abandoned orchard toward a low stone wall winding along the ridge of a hill. Pausing a track a foraging woodchuck, or toss a stick at a bulging hornet's nest, the two continue their desultory march toward the boundary wall. From the hilltop the boys cast a reconnoitering eye across a prospect pasture, forest, and lacy, intersecting rock walls.

As the two scale the wall, probably six feet in width and weathered by gray, flaky lichen, the adventure begins. Clinging to the wall, the boys descent into a hollow out of sight of the neighboring home, before bolting across an open field to an abandoned structure: the remains of a lost civilization.

Peering through the broken glass of the high windows, the boys shudder at the discovery of the purpose of this ancient and crumbling ruin. A large, primitive slate blackboard at the front of the unpartitioned hall is grim witness to interminable lessons inflicted upon earlier generations of kids in this one-room schoolhouse.

A generation later, little remains from this scene. The schoolhouse has long since fallen, and its existence is forgotten save by local historians. Its locations is rough conjecture (except for a couple of middle-aged men), for the hayfield is now overgrown by dense stands of birch, spruce, maple, and pine. What remains unchanged, however, is the rock wall, which to these adult eyes on a recent visit home to Jefferson, Maine, had the weathered and craggy face of an old friend.

A past recovered

The lost civilization of which the schoolhouse was a memorable artifact is neither childish fancy nor exactly "lost" today, even to the casual observer. For throughout the backcountry, along rural roads and forest trails, remnants of a forgotten past are everywhere evident. Altogether, some 250,000 miles of stone walls once rambled through the hills and woods of New England and adjacent New York. Together these walls rival the greatest works of antiquity in extent and expenditure of human labor. By some estimates, it would have taken fifteen thousand men more than 240 years to raise these walls, an effort that would have built the pyramids of Egypt one hundred times over.

The stone walls of New England contradict the casual notion that the Northeast's forests have known nothing other than the Indian's moccasin, the woodsman's boot, or the hiker's walking shoe. In fact, the walls testify to the extraordinary extent that now-forested regions were once farmed. Practicing systems of husbandry brought from Europe, early colonists responded to the environment in radically different ways than the area's indigenous inhabitants.

The Indians "do but run over the grass, as do also the foxes and the wild beasts," wrote John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Arguing that the native peoples neither enclosed the land nor had any settled habitation, Winthrop, like other colonial theorists, claimed that the Indians had only a "natural right" to the land they occupied. "Civil ownership," secured through husbandry, enclosure, and sustained habitation, represented a superior claim. Based on long-standing Old World precedents, the right of civil ownership traced its roots to the biblical injunction to "subdue" and "have dominion" over the earth.

Such theoretical propositions merged nicely with practical necessity. The urgency of fencing for containment of livestock in the raw wilderness, for protection of sheep and cattle against predators and preservation of crops from stray animals, led to the quick construction of fences. These hasty affairs of brush, rail, or stump signified an "intention" to improve the land and thus a basis to lay claim to it.

By the first decades of the nineteenth century, small farms overspread the region and some 70 to 80 percent of the forest was cut down. According to Susan Allport, in her 1994 book Sermons in Stone: The Stone Walls of New England and New York, the "renaissance" of wall building from the years 1775 to about 1825 coincided with dwindling supplies of wood and the end of the practice of common grazing. …

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