Stone Walls

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why our county is called Rockland; scratch the surface and you hit the rock of the Palisades. It is no surprise, then, to find stone walls throughout our hamlet lining the roads, buttressing residents’ terraces, delineating garden beds, and outlining old fields abandoned to the forest. They are so much a part of our landscape they scarcely attract notice.

I myself took them for granted until we decided to repair our own tumble down heap of stones edging the road. I thought there was nothing to know about our wall except what I could assume by looking at it. For instance, it was old. Trees were growing out of the middle of it. Secondly, it appeared to be part of the remains of a much longer wall that could still be traced from the beginning of Ludlow Lane to just short of Corbett Lane, the expanse of land once belonging to Henry Cole. He probably built it.

We went over to Cleatus Farms on Rte 303 to buy stones because somehow we didn’t have enough. There we found pallets of them the right size and color, and beautifully weathered with lichens and mosses. In from Pennsylvania, the proprietor said.

After a few days, I looked over the work so far. The new wall snaked around corners, incorporated trees in its path, curled around others. Alarmed, I asked the stonemason if the wall shouldn’t be straight. No, he said he was following the original footprint. The rubble might have been straight, but the wall had never been so and he showed me how he was right.

Coincidentally, we went with friends of ours up to Storm King where by chance we came upon Andy Goldworthy’s Storm King Wall, a stone wall that snaked through the landscape, over hills and through a lake, around corners, curling back on itself like ribbon candy and then straightening out again. Just like ours, I observed, only half-joking with my companions. They nodded. So now I understood; our wall was an installation.

I have subsequently learned that while the building of a stone wall is an art, it is several other things as well. The New England Antiquities Research Association makes a forceful argument for the existence of stone wall construction by native Americans in the northeast, one at least having been dated to 4700 BC.

They assert that a significant number of stone rows commonly thought to have been built by colonists do not conform to colonial practices or functions. These rows meander through the woods connecting large boulders, bedrock outcroppings with hill tops, rivers and swamps, exactly as does the Storm King Wall. Some of these rows mark the rising or the setting of the sun on the solstice or the equinox, suggesting they were built to connect features of the landscape in a sacred way.

The first documentary evidence of a colonial stone wall in the New World dates from 1607 and was found on the Kennebec River, north of Portland, Maine where a group of English settlers attempted to form a colony. Early colonial walls were purely functional. Rocks had to be cleared from the fields to allow for the cultivation of crops. An able-bodied man, a winch, a rope and a horse were all that was needed to scuttle rocks from the field to the fence line. The original walls were mere accumulations of stones and every year, the frost would heave up more to be added to the pile from the substrate below.

Stone wall building is mostly concentrated in the New England states. In 1939, Oliver Bowles, a mining engineer, estimated that there were over 250,000 miles of stone walls in the northeastern US, most of them in New England. Geologically speaking, New England includes Long Island and Eastern New York and represents the intersection of glacial and human activity. I hope I can explain. Many millions of years ago, the top mile or so of the New England region expanded slightly (my apologies to Lynn Sykes!) and ruptured into countless tightly nested fragments of rock. Later, massive ice sheets descending from Canada picked up boulders from these rock nests, crushing them and mixing them into the glacial till.

Subsequent clearing of the land by the Europeans to allow for the planting of crops resulted in the loss of insulating mulch and topsoil, producing severely cold winters. The combination of bare soil and cold weather promoted the heaving of rocks from the till to the surface which then had to be cleared.

The most active period of wall building by American settlers occurred from 1750 to 1850 at the height of agricultural prosperity in New England. Many farmers and landowners now had the wealth to rebuild their stacked piles into aesthetically pleasing, well-ordered walls. By the late 1800’s, however, agriculture was giving way to industrialization and the upland farms were abandoned. As fields were overgrown with vegetation, stone walls grew wild along with them, losing any direct human purpose, and gradually assuming their new role as habitat for wild life and a natural barrier allowing diverse species of vegetation to take hold within a small range. There are wild walls in our own neighborhood, in the woodland of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and next to Judy Tomkins’ house. These walls are fully integrated into their wild environments. In contrast, view Nadine Keegen’s long low wall disappearing into the distance. Although it runs through her woods, it is clearly tamed, retaining its human purpose of marking an active boundary.

It can be hard to know how old a wall is. Alice Gerard explains that the local diabase, an igneous rock, when freshly mined can have a tannish yellow cast. Exposed to the elements for 100 to 150 years, it turns a uniform grey. Or one can measure the annual growth of crustose lichen on its stones. Lichen dating is approximate at best and requires knowing that the wall had no lichen when new.

Now the old walls of New England are being dismantled to sell to homeowners who wish their new walls to look authentic. Google ‘stone walls’ and you can see ads for them. Pillaging walls has become such a problem that the New England states fear they are losing their local archeological history and heritage of respect for hard work and closeness to the land. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut have recently passed groundbreaking legislation protecting old walls from theft, but the threat of development is perhaps greater and harder to halt.

No doubt my new stones from Pennsylvania were dismantled, legally, from some farm of a previous era or ancient ‘classical ruin’ as old walls are called by Robert M. Thorson, a geologist at the University of Connecticut who studies the archeology of stone walls. While I remain somewhat uncomfortable with my role in providing a market in old stones, I have come to accept and admire the anomalous nature of my repaired wall, with a newfound appreciation for what it is, and I am honored that it is, however slightly, part of the New England stone wall narrative.

Much more can be learned by going to the Stone Wall Initiative website: www.stonewall., and to that of the New England Antiquities Research Association, www.

A "wild" Palisades stone wall