Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “Every wall is a door.&rdquo
His friend Henry David Thoreau noted that “Deep are the foundations of sincerity. Even stone walls have their foundation below the frost.”
In either case, neither of them could be more right — about stone walls or sincerity. When it comes to New England’s stone walls, it appears that they are doors to the past, and an opening for a discourse about our geologic and regional history.
Although these are not my words, the story of stone walls “begins with the beginning of everything, and ends with the present moment.”
It would not be going back too far in time to start with the matter that created elements, and the elements which became the minerals that combined to form rocks. Minerals differ from rocks in that they are the same material through and through (have the same chemical composition); while rocks are aggregates of minerals. Think of a chocolate chip cookie: the chips are comparable to minerals while the entire delicious cookie (chips, flour, sugar, etc.) would represent the rock.
Rocks are further distinguished by their type or origin — igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary. It is the former two types (which include granite, limestone, and gneiss) that are found in our stone walls, as they are the harder, stronger ones that were able to best survive their geologic tossing, turning and travelling with the great glaciers that moved them and laid them down on our Island.
Glaciers left rocks large and small at the surface of the land, and also below the ground. The rocks lay under the dirt in forests until our agricultural activities increased enough to clear the woodlands and begin the farming activities that stripped the soils and encouraged the heaving that brought the underground rocks to the surface.
Popping up in farmers’ fields, rocks became simple nonorganic detritus that had to be disposed of. The easiest thing to do was pile them up at the edge of the fields to get them out of the way. A simultaneous benefit was the resulting delineation of the fields’ boundaries. Ever utilitarian, farmers stacked the rocks and built up walls to create recordable edging for fields, and to keep animals from wandering in or out.
Most of these walls were built between 1750 and 1850; however, the true ‘Golden Age’ of stone walls in New England occurred in the period between 1776 and 1820. A good reason to be proud of where you live is that the epicenter of stone walls was a 50-mile radius of the state boundaries of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. A survey in 1939 by engineer Oliver Bowles counted 250,000 miles of stone walls in the northeastern United States, presumably the highest concentration in the nation, given these states’ affinity for this type of wall.
“The thing that might impress you most about New England,” wrote historian Eric Sloane, “is its stone ‘walls.’ When they were built anything forming an enclosure was called a fence. Whether it was made of roots or wood or stone, they were never referred to as walls; they are more properly called stone fences.”
Those fences, it has been noted, are one of the reasons why rural Scotland, Ireland and England are so breathtakingly charming.
Other have pointed out that the stone fence is the signature New England trademark, complementing and setting off so many vistas here. A number of municipalities in New England have passed laws requiring their preservation and preventing their destruction.
Our Island stone walls result from a history and geology similar to those in the rest of New England, and conservation organizations have done a remarkable job of preserving and even restoring the ones that stretch across their nature preserves. What has happened with stone walls both on and off-Island is abandonment, which resulted from the decline of farming. Some reclamation has occurred, thankfully, as these now-aesthetic (and each one-of-a-kind) structures have become emblematic symbols of our history and culture.
It isn’t hard to understand our love affair with stone walls, although it is difficult to fathom the latest threat to these walls. Less than half of them remain, due to neglect, abandonment, and most unfortunately and unforgivably, theft of stones for home landscaping projects. Massachusetts does have a specific law to protect stone walls; but the penalties prescribed are not yet stringent enough for the criminal rock remover. Clearly, stricter laws (written in stone or otherwise) to protect these historic structures are sorely needed.
These beautiful boundaries should remain forever (or as close as possible) as a reminder of our agricultural past. If good fences make good neighbors, good walls make even better landscapes.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.