The Stone Wall Initiative
Ten Easy Steps -- Primer
Below is a short history of stone walls in ten easy steps.
It is self evident that a stone wall is made of matter, rather than of energy. However, there once was a time -- approximately 13.7 billion years ago -- when matter and energy, as well as time and place, were indistinguishable. This moment, called the Big Bang, marks the beginning of everything we know. Only after the first few moments of creation, and in ways we do not yet understand, did matter come into being.
Initially, matter consisted of nothing more than the lightest element hydrogen, with minor helium. Heavier elements were produced later, either in stars undergoing nuclear fusion, or during times when stars exploded, events called supernovae. Elements are the basic building blocks of everything we can touch or hold, whether solid, liquid, or gas. Oxygen, for example, isn't just something we breathe. It's an element, the most a common one in familar minerals. Quartz, for example, consists of two large atoms of oxygen and one smaller atom of silicon. Lime, for example, consists of one part calcium, one part carbon, and three parts oxygen. All of the elements found in New England walls -- dominated by oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, sodium, potassium, etc. -- were part of the stellar dust and debris from which our present solar system was gathered, about five billion years go, and from which earth formed about 4.6 billion years ago.
A rock is an aggregate of one or more minerals, which are naturally occurring, inorganic, crystalline substances whose composition varies within specified limits. Most of the minerals making up the bedrock in New England were created when older materials such as mud, sand, and lava were transformed by heat and pressure -- often to the melting stage -- during a prolonged episode of mountain building that created the Appalachians between 500 million and 250 million years ago. At the time, the northern Appalachians were a seam of compressed and partially molten crust within the center of supercontinent called Pangea. Mountain building spanned the evolution of primitive fish into archaic reptiles, and primitive mosses and horsetail rushes to primitive, tree-like forms called lycopods and seed ferns. Neither dinosaurs nor flowering plants had yet been invented.
Deep in the crust, Earth's bedrock is an unbroken amalgam of discrete masses welded together within the roots of ancient mountains. To this day, there are no fractures or voids, and therefore no stones at the depths the rock formed. During the last few tens of million of years, however, as the weight of eroded rocks was removed by erosion, the top mile or so of the of New England's crust expanded slightly, rupturing progressively into billions of tightly nested fragments. This took place gradually, coinciding with the time when the great apes in east Africa were evolving into humans. Beginning less than a million years ago, giant ice sheets began to ooze southward from Canada every 100,000 years or so. When they encountered the bumpy bedrock surface of the New England interior, they quarried countless boulders, crushing most of them into mud and sand before those that escaped crushing were smeared on to the land as a substance called lodgment till. When the glacier stopped moving forward, uncrushed stones within the ice were let down gently upon it by melting ice. These are the stones -- produced between 150,000 and 15,000 years ago -- that would later end up in stone walls.
When the last ice sheet melted northward, it uncovered a landscape that was dusty, rocky and barren. Running water, frost heaving, and relentless wind concenrated stones at the surface. Gradually, however, plants invaded the surface. Rock, sand, and silt yielded to tundra which yielded to boreal parkland, then to a continuous coniferous forest, then to a largely deciduous forest, the one in which Native Americans lived for millennia, the one encountered by the first Europeans. In the fifteen thousand-year interlude between deglaciation and English settlement, rich forest soils developed on sand and silt that was fractionated upward from the till, hiding many of the stones by burial. European settlers arrived at a time when the stones were most deeply buried, typically at least 18 inches beneath the surface.
The subsequent conversion of forest to farm precipitated great changes in the soil. Most important was the gradual loss of the soft organic mulch and black topsoil, which had previously helped insulate the mineral subsoil from winter's cold. Loss of this insulating organic layer coincided with a climatic interval known as the Little Ice Age, during which winters were colder than today. The combination of exposure to the winter wind, bare mineral soil and cold climate enhanced the rate at which stones were heaved upward by frost to reach the surface of the soil. Deep freezing also accelerated the loss of organic topsoil by erosion, because spring rains had more difficulty infiltrating, and therefore no alternative except to run off over the surface. For at least a generation of farmers, stones appeared at the surface like magic.
The accumulation of stones in cleared fields, mowlands, and pastures required that they be removed. In an age before petroleum-powered heavy equipment, this was done either directly by hand or indirectly with the assistance of oxen and draft horses. Stones were scuttled aside and seldom hauled further than necessary, which usually meant to the nearest fence line, where there were pitched. A pumpkin or a pile of pumpkins thrown in the same place would disappear by the following fall. A stone, or a pile of stones, however would not. Hence, over the years, elongate piles of stone and primitive tossed walls accumulated along fencelines -- almost automatically -- year after year.
Broadly speaking, the cultural prestige of farming in New England and its profitability began to decline after the 1830s, following: completion of the Erie Canal; construction of large mill-powered factories; and the spread of early railroads. Before the tide turned, however, rural upland farmers experienced several decades of great prosperity, one that coincided with a movement towards scientific farming, a surplus of labor, and rural population growth. During this interval, even as pioneering farmsteads were being created in more remote regions, many of the ragged tossed walls that had accumulated in earlier settlements were rebuilt into more aesthetically pleasing forms, especially by wealthy farmers and early industrialists. This was particularly true along property boundaries, many of which were being subdivided along earlier generations of walls.
By the 1880s, thousands of rural farms had been abandoned, especially in upland terrain removed from growing industrial cities. Those stone walls not already enveloped by forest were often quarried for the stone they contained for use in bridges, canals, and piers, or crushed for road sub-grade. Walls on remaining working farms were often destroyed to create larger fields or to drain the land. The invention of concrete and structural steel, the allure of all things urban, and the steadily growing secondary forest rendered walls into an almost forgotten phenomenon, invisible at first because they were buried in brush, then remote because they were deep in the closed canopy forest. The walls tumbled apart and crusted over with lichens, the trees grew larger, and dryland stone habitats were colonized by a wide array of creatures that would otherwise have no place to live. Throughout it all, walls separated discrete patches of forest, ensuring that the woods would more diverse than without them.
Beginning in the first decades of the 20th century, and accelerating toward the present, rural farmstead walls have become cultural icons to the origin of America as a nation, as well as a reminder of the slower, simpler life before the modern era. The allure of stone walls, especially old and time-tarnished ones, led to the re-building of walls on many properties reclaimed during the last half century. Other walls were torn apart for their stone for use elsewhere. The allure of walls is now so great, however, that they are increasingly being destroyed to make newer walls in wealthier places. In the process, the archaeology is lost to architecture, the habitat compromised by becoming more simple, and the authenticity of place is being compromised by change. Efforts are now being made to preserve old stone walls.
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