Monday, November 14, 2016

One Fact



Learning one fact can cause you to observe differently.  Tracy and I went to see a local lecture by Kevin Gardner on New England stone walls, where I asked how it is that those older walls were supposedly at least 4 feet high (if sheep can see the next field, they want to go there), but few seemed much more than two feet high now.  Though there were clearly places where stones had been taken to be used for something else, these were near roads and structures.  Deeper in the forest this seemed unlikely.

Mr. Gardner explained that I should look at both the tops and the bottoms of the wall.  Most people do notice that stones have fallen to the ground from the top, though unevenly, but fail to notice the buildup of soil at the base of stone walls.  Just as a snow fence causes snow to drift, any wall does this with soil, though much more slowly.  Leaves especially get forced up against the granite, becoming soil in their time. This obscures or even buries some stones that have fallen, but even with intact structures can disguise where the real base of the wall originally was.

Sure enough, I see fallen stones that I missed before, and notice that the soil slopes up a bit on both sides of these walls, obscuring at least six inches and more commonly a foot of wall or more.  I mentally scratch that away from the base and place the layabout stones back on top.  They didn’t all fall to the same side, I remind myself (duh), so I add again the equivalent number of stones likely to be on the other side. (I do observe that far side at the end to check my work.) The effect is striking. The near view of whole landscapes can look different – and more like they did originally. The difference between 2-3 ft walls and 4-5 ft walls changes the whole perception of the space - for humans as well as sheep, apparently.

11 comments:

Sam L. said...

What we see is only part of the whole. Kinda like snap judgments.

Retriever said...

My grandmother used to (tediously) remind us about the backbreaking labor by our New England ancestors clearing fields and building such walls and would say that it was a crime when people were so lazy as to let trees take over the fields they had cleared and marked with these stone walls.

One thing that becomes clear to me now I am older is that if you don't keep animals within these fields, it is VERY difficult to keep the trees from taking over. A neighbor up North spent a fortune reclaiming a field from second growth scrub forest for beef cattle he ultimately didn't have the heart to eat (expensive pets). God knows how many types of heavy machines, and expensive rip off artists manning them. Stump pulling and grading. Left. Four years empty house and the field unmowed for those sumemrs. Baby Christmas trees growing up and brambles. Another year and another fortune will be necessary to make it mowable by animal jaws....But if you just keep animals grazing (especially goats) , you can keep it clear....Better than fancy attachment and clippers.

Altho goats climb stone walls, and are so intelligent they need a virtual Stalag Luft electrified fence to keep them contained, they are God's miracle for clearing brush and getting rid of poison ivy etc.....

And, like Sam L, I am mulling over your example as a very useful metaphor. A bit like an iceberg? THere's more there than you realize...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The stone walls were not so much a 1620 sorta thing. The Bay Colonists had them, but most of it was put up by the Scots-Irish, with redoubled effort when the Merino sheep were smuggled in, and abandoned before the Civil War. 1780-1850. That's my whole section of NH, running up the Merrimack River, and about 1/8 of my ancestors. They still had use for cattle, horses, hay fields and the like, but sheep drove the stone wall explosion. If your grandmother comes to you in a dream, Retriever, remind her that those ancestors moved to Ohio, where there was 6 feet instead of 6 inches of topsoil, and those who stayed behind did what was most important for the farms they actually had.

Retriever said...

That's interesting. Maybe she was wrong? She was usually lecturing in Massachusetts or Vermont, but perhaps it was part of the project to impress on the young how TOTALLY INFERIOR, SOFT, and WITHOUT CHARACTER we all were compared to our hardy and devout forebears. My cynical and worldly brother used to say "Why even bother, we are all just hopeless losers compared to the Venerable Ones...."

Don't talk to me about topsoil.... I dream of six feet of topsoil as I garden in two places with horrible soil, composting and trucking in manure and peat moss and even "garden soil" and STILL it's on a wing and a prayer and years of experience that gets any kind of food out of it....Up North, ya, I'd have gone to Ohio. Near where we are here, most of the time, there IS good potato growing soil but not in my neighborhood (which floods). Raised beds...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Oh, I'm sure they worked hard enough. Hence, Ohio.

RichardJohnson said...

One thing that becomes clear to me now I am older is that if you don't keep animals within these fields, it is VERY difficult to keep the trees from taking over.

Or at least mow it. There was a neighbor's field that could be entered only through our property. I remember seeing as a child a tractor crossing our property to mow the field. A decade after the last mowing, there were some trees and bushes in the field, but it was still a field with grass dominating. A half century after the mowing, back to forest. Ecological succession.

Wandering through the woods, it is not difficult to understand why the farmers took off for Ohio farmland or for the city. Take away the stone walls, and you still see a lot of rocks/stone sticking up. Glacial till, indeed. As anyone who has tried to garden in New England knows, frost heaves can bring a new crop of rocks to harvest in the spring.

AVI, the stone walls weren't a 1620 thing in your part of NH because your part of NH didn't get settled until later.

Re the 4 feet stone walls: would they be needed if there were no sheep?

DCE said...

I've seen old pictures dating back to the late 1800's that show the farm fields of the farm where my son makes his living. In those pictures it appears the stone walls are much taller than they are today, 140+ years later. Then when you look closely you see that the more recognizable sections of the walls are still intact and you realize the level of the soil has changed, in some cases by as much as two feet!

Of course I like telling tourists who inquire about all of the "stone walls running through the forests" that it was the local tribes - the Abenaki and Miq'Mac - built the walls as a tribute to their sacred spirits....usually while trying to keep a straight face. You'd be amazed at how many of the folks from away buy it hook, line, and sinker.

James Graham said...

Having tried to clear all the buried rocks from a tiny area of Southern Connecticut land (I was installing a lawn) I soon quit because of the high number of rocks. There seemed to be ten rocks in every square yard of top soil.

The Ice Age scrapped rocks from northern Canada southward and dumped them in that part of North American.

My explanation for rock walls: they had to remove rocks in order to grow oats for the hundreds of thousands of horses that existed at that time.

Using rocks to build walls was an obvious choice. They were not built to enclose sheep.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Stone walls dis start early. Because rocks. But they weren't as high, because pigs, and especially cows, do not like to climb over stuff anyway, so all you have to do is discourage them. And deer from getting into your gardens. So there plenty of Puritan walls as well. Those were originally more likely to be wood, sometimes in the zigzag pattern one saw in the South. But they had to get rid of rocks in most places in order to grown most crops. Walls, foundations, dams and jetties - plenty of uses for them, but never enough to get rid of all the rocks, seemingly.

It was the Scots-Irish that really expanded the amount of wall, however, and sheep were a big part of that. The lecturer gave an unsubstantiated claim he had heard that there was as much length of stone wall in the Northeast (New England plus New York) as the rest of the world together. Sounds fishy, but impressive that it's even a possibility.

Linguistic note: In New England, people tend to call the things "rocks" when they are in the ground or unused and in the way, but "stones" when they are part of an organised structure. Same item, but changes its name.

Donna B. said...

"God knows how many types of heavy machines, and expensive rip off artists manning them."

That's an offensive statement to both your neighbor and the equipment operators he hired.

Retriever said...

Donna, I always take your criticisms to heart. But please trust me if I say that there are some unique local circumstances and history at play here...AVI probably knows about them--he is certainly aware of issues in one of the adjacent towns--but I don't want to be a bore about it in a public comment....