Stoned

The Farm is bordered, to the east, by a stone wall. It grew when the ground was turned by frost heaves in late winter and by plows and harrows in the weeks which followed. To keep planters and combines from harm, farmers, or more often their children, walked the fields to pick rocks. These were placed on skids and hauled, by draft in the old days, to the nearest property line to be deposited. Boundaries at the Farm are composed of mostly roundish pieces of sedimentary sand stones and shales. We’ve also got stone constructions at our new placeSome act as property boundaries while many were clearly intended as pens or pasture enclosures. Still others were built as foundations. No matter the function, the composition of Vermont’s rock architecture results from the hardscrabble, hilly ground, characteristic of the region. Rocks lay abundantly across the landscape and are made of large and larger pieces of metamorphic (shists and gneisses) and igneous stone (such as granite). I enjoy exploring these evidences of human effort. I wonder about the people who planned and built them and about their hard work and dedication. I know that building a strong wall, building one that will last a century or two, or more, must be a thoughtful process. In the most literal sense. Stone foundations are not jumbles of haphazardly piled elements, like the boundary walls we have back at the Farm. Before being put in place, each stone is compared to many others like it, selected for its particular suitability, and then carefully set in position alongside its neighbors. The weight of each stone is calculated to add to the stability, strength, and integrity of the whole. I like to think that when I stand before, or better yet lean against, a well-built stone wall, I can hear the sounds of people like me, straining to pull rock from the ground. I can hear the sounds of people like me calling draft to haul slabs across the landscape. And I can hear the satisfying sound of rocks being placed, gently, thoughtfully, into position. For me, at least, old walls have the capacity to act as portals to the past. If you press your ear against any of the shallow spaces between the stones, you may hear something as one does when one hears the ocean in a sea shell. These sounds, however, emanate from some distant past. Try it, next time you happen upon one of these beautiful places.

Stones

21 thoughts on “Stoned

  1. Nice to see the Pennsylvania muse is doing just fine in Vermont. While NL does not have much farmland, the stone boundaries are not uncommon, although not nearly so amenable to wall building. They’re mostly comprised of glacial erratics that pile reasonably well into boundaries of sorts but not nicely defined walls. In most cases, the slopes are such that moss and small grasses have taken them over and they resemble railway beds, not walls. Still, though, they, too evoke times past just as do yours. All the best in the new year!

    • Hi Maurice … good wishes to you too. We are finding our new digs here in Vermont to be quite satisfactory. The farm, back home, remains on the real estate market and we will both feel much more relaxed about lots of things once that sells. D

  2. Oh I just love this post David … listening to the spaces in walls of course appeals to me … and hearing the past whisper it’s tales is just magic. Beautiful image to match the thought provoking words😄✨

    • Your comments always have the effect of boosting my spirits Seonaid. Thank you. I have so little confidence in BOTH the photography and the writing that comments from those whose work I admire always have special meaning. D

  3. I feel the same when I see old walls! Our house is about 90 years old, some parts of it maybe older, and in renovation projects we had the chance to explore the ancient materials used for building the oldest walls. Not beautiful stones, like the ones in your image, but it seemed poor people in post-war times took every stone or old brick or whatever to build a wall … with their hands I assume, not having elaborated tools.

  4. As always, I enjoy your thoughtful prose. Old rock walls and other structures are certainly magical …

  5. I was looking at a stone wall this weekend near the Quabbin dawn. Finding them in the middle of the woods is always a treat and leads one to wonder who built them and for what purpose. Some are obvious and others not. You might find the books by Tom Wessels of interest. I always enjoy visiting someone’s home with a stone foundation and many are visible in the woods, especially in the Quabbin where so many homes were removed to establish the protected watershed.

  6. Dry stone walls are part of our ancient English landscape. I love the idea of them being portals to our past. I shall try listening to them next time I am walking alongside one.

  7. Have you heard of the “otter sheep” that were kept within the stone-walled pastures of Vermont? The walls, built of stone, aren’t that tall for sheep/livestock fences, right? But that’s because the otter sheep that were kept had shorter legs and couldn’t get over. We have many, many stone walls here in Shaftsbury because of the ton of sheep farms that used to be here.

  8. You see rock walls like this all over Ireland. They are beautiful because they lend character and are not prefabricated or machine made. They exist in concert with the earth and are a natural and suitable part of the landscape.

    • Indeed. Thanks for the response. Have you seen forum discussions, in various places and around the internet, concerning the building of cairns along hiking trails and in other natural areas? Some folks argue that they blend in as part of the natural environment, while others claim that they are anything but natural and only serve to mar the landscape. As a builder of cairns myself I’m not sure whether to feel guilty or not.

  9. The same process can be seen in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Stone buildings and walls dating back to the mid-1800s bear testament to the efforts of people who chose to stop their journey there, and begin clearing the fields. The stone barn built by a founder of Council Grove still exists, as do a variety of other barns, houses and outbuildings.

    Most interesting is the Kansas Native Stone Scenic Byway. I’ve taken that drive, and visited some of the fences being restored by people who are learning the stonemason’s skills. There’s a very nice, short video made by some workshop participants that you might like You can see it here, along with some examples of the stonework.

  10. I love these old walls. Their construction/composition is amazing. That particular wall has probably been there for over 200 years. We have a rock retaining wall in our backyard. The rocks are larger and there is cement, but it certainly has character and LOOKS old. Pretty sure these walls have seen a lot in their day. If only they COULD speak! PS: Had to chuckle at your title!

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