Like most wooded areas in New England, stonewalls are a permanent feature of the landscape in the large forest that is situated to the south of our residence. Within these 20,000 acres there are stonewalls to be found both close to the road and deep in the woods. They reflect a time when the lands were cleared for raising livestock, a necessary commodity of most homesteads and farms. These stonewalls, constructed out of stones pulled from the rocky soil by stubborn Yankees who toiled for years and years clearing land and raising stock, are a marvel to behold. Stonewalls once margined pasture lands, creating physical barriers for livestock keeping them in their proper places, and demarking the boundaries of individual property ownership. Presently most of these stonewalls serve little function as far as holding livestock, but many continue to serve as long standing boundary markers. Throughout the 20th century, as farm land reverted to forest due to the failure of the family farm and homestead, these seemingly endless structures that cover miles and miles of territory became an artifact of a time when people hand carved the landscape utilizing only the materials available from the natural world. While many people have worked rebuilding a section of stonewall here and there, few can imagine the great effort put forth, one heavy stone at a time, by generations of men, women, children, and draft animals in the laying of these monolithic structures. If one examines an old stonewall closely, the fortitude, dedication, and sheer will of the effort to build these structures is inscribed in each ten foot section.
Although unintentional, these man-mad wonders are now an integral part of the natural world. The rocks that comprise the stonewall catch the warm sun and hold the heat into the cool evening serving as a good nesting area during the warmer times of the year for many animals, large and small, alike. The many crevices found between the hand-laid stones provide good hiding and escape habitat, as well as a handy place to store a collection of acorns, nuts, cones, or other food that can be stored as a cache for the winter. Hedgerows growing along these stonewalls are evidence of trees that were not cut when the pastures were cleared. These rows of trees were left to provide shade for livestock in an otherwise denuded forest and to support barbed wire that supplemented the man-made rocky barricade. These trees provide a striking ecotone that is rich in food, cover, and escape habitat. Some of these trees are as old, or even older, than these stonewalls that were constructed in the early and mid 19th century, reminding the observer that human lifespan is dwarfed in comparison.
There is a very large red oak tree at the end of one of these stonewalls in the woods near our home. This great tree is about four and a half feet in diameter and about ninety feet tall. The tree acted as a corner boundary between two adjacent properties under different ownership and so was preserved as a readily identifiable object that was to remain for generations to come. Judging from the huge size of this formidable tree it was quite sizable at the time the property boundaries were deemed necessary. It still remains as a visible marker some two hundred years later.
This old red oak is about three hundred years old. It shows the age of time. Some of the tree’s lower branches, dead for many years, reach lifelessly into the surrounding area. They still resist the steady pulling of gravity, but will eventually yield to this endless force and fall to the ground. Much of the upper portion of the tree is still supporting life. Each year new twigs, leaves, and acorns are produced, defying the inevitable stress of time. The tree stands as a monument to years of surviving all that storm gods could throw at it. Countless ice storms, gale force winds, torrential rains, frigid winters, and even the occasional hurricane have failed to break nary a major limb from the body of this mighty tree. And despite all of this the tree still produces, year after year, unfathomable quantities of acorns every other year or so in order to spread its good genes to the surrounding countryside.
Beneath the thick, ridged bark of this red oak there is rusted barbed wire buried about a foot an a half into the scarred trunk. This is a reminder of some long past human effort to eke out a living from the landscape.
This corner of the landscape where the great red oak and the old stonewall converge provides a place where, at the end of a day’s journey, I often stop to sit and absorb all of the glories of a journey in the woods. With my back against the moss covered bark I usually position myself so that I can look along hundreds of gray and green covered stone climbing a gentle hill to my south. It is a place where the natural world and past human efforts join, and they are now complementary rather than competitive.
I return to this special place often. Sometimes I sit there just long enough to rejuvenate a few tired muscles, and sometimes I sit there long enough to sort out all of my thoughts. But never do I sit there without thinking of a long ago time when chiseled muscle and calloused hands worked to build a stone wall where the natural world and human world could converge harmoniously. It is a place where I can look into the past while reflecting on the present. There is no better place to be.
Originally written in March of 1997.