Make a list of our monuments to the dead. Start small with the headstones in the village cemetery and move to statues in the public square and civic buildings with great names affixed above the door. Then add the obelisks and marble mausoleums and Rushmores and pyramids of presidents and kings.
It is an impressive list. Yet it is dwarfed by monuments we see every day that stand in testament to one of the most heroic and back-breaking construction efforts in history: New England’s stone walls.
In November, after the curtain of leaves has been drawn from the woodlands, we once again see the old stone walls tracing the boundaries of lives lived long ago when our forests were the pastures and fields of our ancestors. The walls stand pretty much as they stood 250 years ago when they were built to specifications defined by property rights and the wanderlust of livestock. And what a construction project it was.
No one has taken a recent inventory of these colonial stone walls, but in 1939 a mining engineer using historical data from the US Department of Agriculture estimated that there are 240,000 miles of stone walls in New England, which would stretch nearly ten times around the earth’s equator or all the way to the moon at its closet approach — that is if the walls were all in a straight line. But as we know, there is no such thing as a straight line in New England.
In 1871, the US Department of Agriculture reported on the Statistics of Fences in the United States. Susan Allport’s classic history of stone walls in New England and New York, Sermons In Stone, notes that at the time of that federal fence survey, New England and New York State had more miles of stone wall than the United States has miles of railroad track today. Ms Allport also offers this incredible calculation: “The work that went into them, according to one estimate, would have built the pyramids of Egypt one hundred times over.”
The walls that merely marked boundaries or enclosed livestock were often made of stones uniform in size, reflecting the selective preference of the person building the wall. Stones that did not satisfy that preference were left behind in the field.
The stone walls built at the edges of cultivated fields, however, often have a greater variety of stone sizes from full-fledged boulders to smaller stones dragged up from the soil indiscriminately by the plow; all the stones, regardless of size, were cleared from the field so the plow would not have to contend with them the following season.
New England’s soil is constantly in motion, however, and a new crop of stones is fetched up each spring thanks to the perpetual cycle of freeze and thaw at this latitude. The stones are the calling cards left behind 13,000 years ago by the mother of all thaws, the melting Laurentian Ice Sheet, which dropped a load of granite it scraped off the mountaintops in Vermont and New Hampshire that was headed for the terminal moraines of Cape Cod and Long Island.
Stone walls are now as much a part of New England’s identity as the Green Mountains, the White Mountains, or Cape Cod. They have settled into the landscape and seem as natural and organic a part of the scenery as the hills themselves. The walls are truly monuments to the grit and tenacity of their builders, long dead and now forgotten, who followed the simple formula of dry stone masonry day in, day out, year in, year out: one stone over two; two stones over one. Stone by stone, they built one of the great wonders of the world.
Centuries pass, generations pass, and most of the hubbub associated with human life rises up and falls down over and over again. Yet employing only gravity and friction, the stone walls of New England still stand as monuments to their builders.