What’s growing in your field? ‘Rocks’

Life was hard for the 18th Century New England farmer. Not only did they clear their land by felling massive primeval trees, but their fields were loaded with glacial rocks and boulders that had to be dug up and moved to the edge of the field.

This process of moving stones year after year never ended. Each spring, more rocks appeared pushed up from below the earth’s surface.

To preserve their plows, the farmers dug each rock out by hand and and carried the stones to the edge of the property. (I sure hope they had oxen. The fields were large and that was a lot of lugging.) The old stone walls that crisscross New England today were born out of necessity and hard work. The rocks had to go somewhere.

They can be found along roads and property lines. They oddly stretch through woods far from houses and fields and strangely surrounded by trees and overgrowth.

Robert Thorson, a University of Connecticut geology professor and an authority on old stone walls estimates in his book Stone by Stone that more than 100,000 miles of stone walls weave throughout the U.S. northeast.

About seven of those miles are on my rural/suburban country lane.

In addition to marking property lines, it’s common to see old stone walls in woods, land trust properties, conservation easements and other open spaces. These seemingly out from nowhere walls are remnants of a time when 70% of New England was deforested by farmers in what was then an agrarian economy. Twentieth century industrialization and large scale farming resulted in thousands of fields being abandoned and reforested. The stone walls became permanent markers of another time.

The classic stone wall is thigh high (because it’s hard to lift a 50 pound stone above your waist) and piled in messy tiers. Sometimes they were dumped, since farmers had much better things to do than landscape design. Adding mortar was a fairly late advance, according to Thorson, since this cement-like substance didn’t come into widespread use until after the American Civil War.

Every stone in every wall is animated with life. On the outside the stones are painted by microbes, stained by fallen leaves, and crusted by lichens. On the inside, especially near their bases, stone walls are filled with roots and humus, within which live a myriad of creeping creatures… Old walls in the deep woods, slowly disintegrating with age, enhance the biodiversity of our woodlands. They are as wild as the life they contain.

Robert M. Thorson, Exploring Stone Walls

Sources: Robert M. Thorson.

Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls.

Exploring Stone Walls: A field guide to New England’s Stone Walls.

Is there something in your neighborhood that is a remnant of another era?


    • Thank you. This geologist is a wonderful writer. That’s why I quoted that whole paragraph. After he wrote three books on stone walls, he became an expert on Thoreau and wrote four books on Walden Pond. I am truly awed by his talent.

      Liked by 1 person

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