Off Neck / Seasons / The Land

Something there is that does love a wall

They’re all snowed-under now, like pillows along the roadside for the next four months. But the stone walls hereabout are making a comeback. It’s not that they ever went anywhere. They had, however, fallen on hard times through neglect, misunderstanding, and, as it turns out, a dearth of plowing.

I like to think that “something there is that [does] like a wall,” to reparaphrase Frost’s musing, walking his boundary wall with his neighbor. On every trip out of town, I would see more of these old lichen-encrusted wall stones being realigned on their ancient field-girdling foundations. The ancient wall building rule of “plumb,” two over one, one over two to shed water and foil frost, has not been forgotten.

There must be hundreds of miles of stone walls running secretively through the surrounding forests, where only woodcutters and hunters can appreciate them as evidence of things not seen any longer: cleared farm land. So the most visible walls are the links in a necklace bordering a centuries-old line of sinuous roads running past the old farms of North Castine. Here the Perkins, Wardwell, and Westcott families eked fields out of forest and farmed for generations. Their small, efficient farmhouses were built snug with the road at a time when five miles per hour was haste. Today I drive the road going ten times that. Modern houses tend to be set back a ways.

Arthur Wardwell still owns a huge parcel of pasture down this road from me. The rest of the farms have pretty much given way to new owners, or to descendents of the original families living in small capes or ranch style houses, like the Cyrs. They are summer people, tradesmen, or workers at the paper mill, or excavators: making a living by moving the earth with heavy machinery. No one is farming anymore. But their farm walls persist, though trees grow through them.

Since today’s land is not valued for arability, building a new wall has little practical value beyond recreating a certain picturesque quality–the look of New England farmland. Ancient is, of course, relative. It was explained to me recently just why boulders keep migrating to the surface. As trees were felled to make way for farming, frosts penetrated deeper and deeper into the earth. Each winter, freezing and thawing would pry more rocks loose and send them upward, like splinters being squeezed to the surface, or wild irises renewing their vigor for spring blooms.

To me, a tightly chinked, straight stone wall, whether newly laid or revived on its old line, is a sign of preservation. New craftsmen are coming along to handle the lapsed stones, and their work is in demand. Mark McCloskey, for instance, has been building a fresh wall, with stones trucked in, at the apple tree verge of the Boninis’ fields. And McKie Roth is exhuming the old wall of original fieldstones that fronts his property on the Castine Road. You can pull rocks from the earth with a backhoe, but there is no substitute for the knuckle-grating puzzling required to fit stone to stone by hand. It can only be done right in the time-honored fashion.

I recognize two kinds of commerce going on between the present and the past: craftsmanship and land use. McCloskey is perpetuating a time-honored rural art; Roth is preserving the most enduring vestige of the human impact on forested land. Field stone walls mark the time when oxen were used to pull stumps out of nascent fields, and horses followed, tilling the top eight inches for planting grain and hay. Though many fields are kept open even today, a lapse of haying for even a single summer would start Arthur Wardwell’s large pasture reverting to forest.

My walls form part of the Castine necklace, at least the walls out by the road. They have been coming out of dormancy little by little as I clear away the alder trees that have seeped into my front field. A stone wall is not a fence, and alder never misses a chance to infiltrate. I’ve been cutting and mowing cedar, fir, birch, and alder from my fields for two years now, reclaiming room for a large garden, or at least open space.

I like cleared land, and though I’ll never restore all of my twenty-one acres to the pasture they were a hundred years ago, I’m ambitious to have as much garden as the deer will allow me. Just mowing and tilling the small patch I’ve started on resumes the ritual of bringing spring stones to the walls and adding them to their brethren from an earlier era. “Rocks and alders are the most conspicuous crops,” as E.B. White observed. I prefer to farm rocks than alder.

And the earth is constantly trying to reclaim its rocks. We’ve gotten an early start on the freezing and thawing that will test and topple stones that are casually stacked. The next winter storms will snap firs and cedars to the forest floor where they’ll decay, another annual layer of plant debris putting the surface at a further and further reach from the rocks below. They are undeterred, however, and I anticipate a bumper rock crop next spring. My walls will surely grow. As to other crops: I hope to get a few rows of corn, beans, and potatoes out of the ground as well.

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