Anyone who has spent time wandering through the woods of New England has come across an old, mossy line of stacked rocks in their explorations. Stone walls are ubiquitous around here, as much a part of the New England character as thick accents or a complete disdain for the New York Yankees. I’ve stumbled across them in deep woods, far from any homes or roads, where they meander out of sight in both directions or disappear beneath a deep layer of loam accumulated from centuries of fallen leaves. These walls offer a tangible link to the labors of the past – after all, someone’s hands carried each of these rocks, set them in place, and wiped a sweaty brow before continuing with their work.
We have several such constructions in the woods around our home. This piece of property has an interesting history – it was the site of a mill some centuries ago and was also the terminus of an old corduroy road that ran across the peninsula. Metal detecting never fails to turn up wrought nails or old bullets. I always try to envision what the land might have looked like all those years ago. But the walls especially fascinate me.
In his book, Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, author Tom Wessels offers valuable insight to seeing the story of the land and piecing together clues about how it was used in the past. About the walls, he says, “Stone fences with numerous small rocks in their construction are a sure sign that adjacent land was used for cultivation. Fences composed solely of larger rocks…were built to keep livestock wither in pastures or out of mowings.” Our walls were likely used for livestock. The fences around agricultural plots were built of the smaller rocks removed to make way for planting. New England fields were said to be far more productive of rocks than of crops, and the freeze/thaw cycle keeps rocks moving up through the soil to emerge on the surface. These would be tossed onto the bordering stone wall every year – the wall would get bigger, but the rocks kept coming.
Many stone walls are artifacts left from a short-lived period of “sheep fever” in the early 19th century. After the War of 1812, English imports were heavily taxed, included the woolen goods so relied upon by those in the colder states. This led to a massive boom in domestic wool production in New England – Vermont, for example, went from 4,000 resident sheep to 1.7 million in just a few decades. All these sheep needed pasture and fences, so forests were cleared and hasty stone walls were erected. This immense undertaking reached its zenith before the middle of the century and quickly began to decline, and the forest reclaimed those now-unused fences.
Once, while working on an old stone wall near his Connecticut home, author Eric Sloane discovered an 18th-century bog-iron woodworking gouge within the pile of rocks. He marveled at the fact that there was no rust on the tool. “How farm-bound bog iron, privately smelted, hammered together at a farm forge, could be better in any way than today’s steel is a mystery,” he wrote in A Museum of Early American Tools. The fact that such discoveries are still out there to be made keeps us wandering through the woods.