Poetic Stone Walls
We’ve had one of the first real winters in quite a few years here on the Currant Farm. The unblemished snow in the upper fields is almost knee deep and still powdery because of the cold temperatures which have slipped over the Hudson Valley like a silver sheath. We finished pruning the grapevines in the vineyard this week which was no easy task in the deep snow. Next week we’ll tackle the winter pruning in the fruit tree orchard. I anticipate hearing the “conk-la-ree” of the returning Red-winged blackbirds any day now. They have always been, for me, the harbinger of the change in this season. Now that March is nigh, I expect to see more 40° days so it won’t be long before winter’s act comes to a close. The pristine snow will melt stage left and the mud of March will make its entrance to a standing ovation of tree frogs, returning song birds and honey bees packing their pollen baskets with the first nutrients of spring from the red maples and pussy willows. March is Mud Month on the farm. Mud challenges both tractor and boot but I’m glad to enter spring with well sparged soil. It hasn’t been so for several years.
On my morning walk up the hill across from the farm house today, a whiteish rock in one of the stone walls bordering the field caught my eye. I’ve pondered the miles of stone walls surrounding the fields and traversing the woods of the farm for a couple of decades and I still find an interesting rock once in a while that I haven’t noticed before. This particular large chunk of quartz was resting on three pieces of dark shale with more shale carefully arranged around and on top of it. The contrast between the globular, white quartz and the planate, blue/grey shale made it stand out in the flat rays of the winter sun rising low in the morning sky. As I bent to inspect it more closely, I envisioned the callous hands of the first European resident of this land, over 200 hundred years ago, strategically placing it so that the weight was distributed on the three slabs of shale below. This technique locks everything into place. These ancient walls, stained with the timeless marriage of lichens and algae have withstood the arcs of countless seasons with storms, floods, freezing and thawing all without moving. They’ve been home to myriads of chipmunks, ground squirrels, garter snakes and more insects, spiders and mollusks than the stars. That farmer of two centuries ago, could not have imagined my taking notice of this single, carefully placed stone among hundreds of thousands on the farm, all kissed by the same callouses. These stone walls remember what all the residents of this land have forgotten.
But why all these stone walls, ubiquitous throughout the Northeast?
When the farm house was built around 1794, the land was covered with a mixture of old virgin hardwoods, among them elms, walnuts, oaks, maples and hickories and various conifers including hemlock and giant white pines which could reach the height of a twenty story building. As soon as the basic house was built and heated for shelter from the elements, work would have begun on clearing the fields for crops and livestock. It took the family and perhaps an itinerant worker or two about 5 years to clear a single acre. The impediment wasn’t so much cutting the trees, it was removing the enormous stumps and accompanying surface roots and rocks that ranged in size from that of a well bucket to as large as a half of cord of wood. This had to be done before the fields could be plowed and planted. The rocks that still persist on the farm today as with all the rocks in the Northeast are a gift left behind by the glaciers of the last ice age. As the world warmed beginning almost 12,000 years ago, the glaciers, some thousands of feet thick, began to slide south. They not only gouged out valleys for future rivers and shaped the contours of mountains but they also brought with them enough rocks and boulders to start a nice small mountain range. They didn’t pile up the rocks into a mountains, however, they scattered them right here on the farm. And, of course, everywhere else in this part of the country. Anyone who’s ever attempted to dig a post hole in the Northeast, and I’ve done my share, knows this to be true.
The bigger rocks were impossible to move from the fields even if the newcomers were affluent enough to possess a brace of oxen which usually wasn’t the case. So, the method used was what we know of today as poor man’s dynamite. A series of holes in a straight line would be pounded into the rock with a cold chisel as deep as the chisel and the triceps of the farmer could accomplish. The holes would be filled with water just before winter’s freeze and as the water froze, the expanding ice, stronger than any rock, would crack the boulder along the line of holes into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Once the trees and roots were removed, there was nothing to stabilize the now friable soil in the new fields so each winter, the freezing and thawing action would force millions of pebbles, rocks and boulders to the surface. Every spring after the snow took its leave, the family would go out the fields to harvest the new crop of stones before plowing could take place. They would load them onto beast drawn wagons and dump them into great piles at the edge of the field. Later on, after the fields were plowed and planted, and the new spring lambs, calves and piglets were weaned, the farmer and his family would set to work on the mounds of stone arranging them into great stretches that would demarcate fields and later, as more neighbors arrived, property borders. I feel quite certain they were function over form but their inceptive intention is mostly lost today. These common but beautiful lapidary sculptures have transformed into romantic landscape accents that can stir the imagination of painters, photographers and writers, this one among them.