Recently, I had the chance to examine an old stone wall in some detail. I was crouched under a hemlock tree on a ridgetop, wondering at dawn about the likelihood of finding a deer in the neighborhood.
Right in front of me was an old stone wall, long ago lost to the woods, more fenced-in than fence, partially cloaked by decades of fallen leaves and limbs. A steady stream of red squirrels was commuting to work along the top stones, and one squirrel, taking particular exception to my presence, scampered up a limb over my head to unleash a string of shrieking expletives, punctuated every now and again by a hemlock cone dropped expertly onto my head.
But later it was the old wall that stuck with me, a cryptic message from the past, the New England version of the cave painting or scratched petroglyph. Who built it? Why? When?
Fortunately, a copy of Robert Thorson’s new book, Exploring Stone Walls: A Field Guide to Stone Walls, soon landed on my desk. Thorson has spent a lifetime thinking about stone walls, and to help the rest of us organize our thoughts and observations, he’s used the format of a field guide to demonstrate and explain the wide variety of forms and functions of this classic New England structure.
For example, is the wall constructed of two rows of stone side by side, or only one? If one, the wall in all likelihood was designed as a fence or possibly a boundary line. If two, does the wall have cap stones, possibly quarried, on top? If so, the wall served an ornamental purpose and suggests wealth. If not, the two rows may have simply created a linear repository for smaller junk stones being dragged out of a field in need of organized disposal.
Thorson does a wonderful job convincing the reader that each stone means something, and that stone walls have always been too difficult and expensive to have been constructed by chance or accident. Each wall was built for a purpose, and each wall can shed light on the financial circumstances, intentions, and abilities of those who inhabited this land before us.
Exploring Stone Walls is divided into three sections: A Closer Look at Stones; A Closer Look at Walls; and Walls in Space and Time. The first part was a very close look at stones indeed – closer, in fact, than this geology major was ever interested in exploring. It covers so many Geology 101 topics so quickly that it will likely be impenetrable to the casual reader. But Thorson hits his stride in sections two and three, where he examines and classifies the various type of walls and then describes why different types of walls are unique to different parts of New England. Finally, the appendix includes a classification key, where, as in any good field guide, you can fit your specimen into the overall taxonomy.
Thorson writes, “New England is a place where human activities are so thoroughly blended into the otherwise natural landscape that the distinction between them is moot and meaningless. Stone walls are the most important, most visible part of this impact. They link historical sites into a heritage landscape. They link habitats into an ecological mosaic. They allow the history to be linked to the ecology, creating a landscape in which history and natural history are one in the same.”
I sure wish I’d had Exploring Stone Walls with me back in November, while I was waiting under the hemlock tree for that elusive buck. I could have figured out if that old wall was a single or a double, stacked or laid, and who might have built it and why. Plus, I could have used the book to keep those dang hemlock cones from landing on my head.