November 21, 2008

ORDER IMPOSED (via The Mother Judd):

Stone's flow: The past, and reshaped present, of New England's iconic stone walls (Dan Snow, November 16, 2008, Boston Globe)

Stone fences were an important tool of order for early American farmers. They were the warp and weft of the cultural fabric. Rules for height, location, and maintenance of fences were strict. The laws of the day were truly written in stone. A town's "fence viewer" held a powerful position in the community. Even now the office sometimes survives as an unpaid, symbolic appointment.

Today, the stone fences of rural New England have lost their purpose but not their impact. They still draw our attention as we pass them by. We think of them as endless and immutable. In fact, they have changed. Over time, many have disappeared. And some are being reshaped into other things entirely.

By 1900, 5-foot-high, livestock-proof, dry stone fences had shrunk and become 3-foot-high stone walls. Over many seasons of exposure to the elements their bases had spread apart and sunk into the ground, sod had built up around them, and the stones that had once defined their crisp top line had toppled and tumbled. The animals they were intended to confine also played a part in reducing their stature, with agile sheep attempting to scale the walls and laconic cattle using them to scratch their behinds.

Where farmland reverted back to forestland, the walls were further disturbed. Dead trees and harvested timber crashed down on them from above. Thick root growth heaved them from below. The stone walls were disassembled into stone piles. The collection of stones that were once 2-foot-wide, 5-foot-high fences became 2-foot-high, 5-foot-wide mounds. As the walls became piles, evidence of their original handmade structure all but disappeared.

A derelict old wall can be restored to its original profile, but even when the same stones are used, it can never be the same wall twice. Every builder will handle the stones differently, resulting in a unique creation every time.

Throw stones for awhile and you understand why Cain whacked Abel.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 21, 2008 5:12 PM
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