Stone walls have always had the capacity to capture one’s imagination. In the eyes and fingers of the writer, this imaginative thought can bring the mass of stone onto the nearly weightless paper. In these poems and stories, the authors paint the pictures of times long ago. A time when there were no computers or cellular phones, nor the consistent distraction of industrialization all-together, there was only the farm, and the moment. From the ponderings of stone walls, to the life-experiences just before the Industrial Revolution, and to the modern day ties to farming, stone walls have left their mark, and this time its not just on the side of the road.
Stone walls have a multi-personality. Their history consists of several different backgrounds, each equally important in its entirety. They had many purposes historically, including fencing in farms, animal pounds, and cemeteries. An example of this is the Conant Street Cemetery in Beverly, Massachusetts. Colonial New England cemeteries are the best place to look for stone walls. In this picture of the cemetery at Conant (Figure 1), the stone wall encases and protects the cemetery from the outside world, keeping this little section of land in a sort of a time warp. The stone wall shown is like a portal into the past, looking into where many years ago the lives of New England people were influenced by farming.
Perhaps the most recognizable piece of literature that comes to mind when thinking about stone walls is Robert Frost’s “The Mending Wall”. Here is the ever-popular ” Good fences make good neighbors”. The mending wall mentioned is site thirteen at his home in New Hampshire. The poem is not only about the repair of a stone wall, but more so about a bond between neighbors. It can trace back to the colonial times when such walls were not only needed, but required. Walls were needed not only to keep things in, but to keep things out as well. Most walls were used to fence animals of all sorts, preventing them from intermingling with other animals. So, if one had a good fence, a practical reason of that resulting in good neighbors would be the prevention of trouble. Frost speaks about his neighbor coming to help him mend the wall during the springtime, which also mends the bond they have as neighbors.
New England was not well-known for farming, because of the rocky terrain. The rocks were not on the topsoil, but were unearthed as the farmers plowed the land, leaving them with tons of stone and nowhere to put it. It was because of this that farming did not last in the northeast when the Industrial Revolution came about. Many farmers had to find other work, because they simply could not keep up with the south’s ability to ship and produce farmed goods. One such story came from Lucy Larcom,
a Beverly Massachusetts native and popular poetess in the Lowell mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. An example of stone walls in her biography is such, “The hill behind her house was our general playground; and I supposed she owned that, too, since through her dooryard, and over her stone wall, was our permitted thoroughfare thither.” Stone walls and their memories are best presented here, because she remembered the specific stone wall that bordered her friend’s property. This reminiscing of her past adds to the theory of the symbol of stone walls being more than just a border around a given piece of land. Stone walls are the link to a past that many had to leave with the coming of the Industrial Revolution. Thus, the stone wall is yet another link to the past she had on a farm, a past she had to leave once the Industrial Revolution began. She describes how she had to go to Lowell to begin work after her father’s death. She wasn’t able to go to high school because of the need to work for the family, but became popular in the “Mills Girls Magazine” with her poetry.
Another story of leaving and returning to the farm comes from Jane Brox, a modern day writer who uses her ability to mingle the threads of history and her own life story to create a rich trilogy that provides insight to the farm of New England today. The mention of stone walls is first in the first book of the trilogy, Here and Nowhere Else. “Every once in a while I come to a place where the walls are seamed clean as fontanels, as if one stone had been fractured somehow. Exposure has dulled and smoothed their surfaces, in dank places moss grows on them. They are mapped with lichen.” This description of the stone walls follows her memory of walking in the woods, and how she used to find her way through the woods using the wall. As Lucy Larcom’s story was about leaving the farm, Jane Brox’s story begins with her coming back to the place where her father and brother tended to the crops she left many years prior. The last book in the trilogy, Clearing Land, tells of how she finally let the farm go, and the happiness and heartbreak that came with it. The tone of her writing is both informative and strong, using descriptive wording and her ability to reach out to the audience to connect the history of the area with the history and experiences of her and her family.
There are many forms of writing, and many forms of telling a story. Looking at the more informative side of stone walls, there are some sources that seem purely informational, but also supply something about the beauty and mystical-nature of the wall itself. Kevin Gardner’s book, The Granite Kiss, supplies the inquiring reader with information on the construction of stone walls. While eighty percent of the book deals with terms and ways to build the stone walls, Gardner includes his reasoning as to why stone walls are beautiful. He makes a point to say how dry masonry is in every culture all round the world. The answer to his question is simple, ” Stone walls are beautiful because even when they are new, they are very, very old. Theirs is a beauty of continuity with the ordinary work of people throughout history.”
There are other kinds of stone walls as well, of which even experts have no idea who built. This mystery is known as the American Stonehenge. Even since 1892, there has been a great mystery surrounding a mass of caves. Author Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote a well known poem about the American Stonehenge, furthering the mystique over the stones. ” Serpents in stone, they wind o’er hill and dell” It seems to venture off into the ponderings of why would anyone go through such a difficult feat, and not get any credit for it whatsoever.
Needless to say, stone walls continue to capture the spirit of those around them, whether it be novelist, poet, or a field guide. The stone walls of New England that are still standing present their story to anyone who will listen. It is a story of harsh times and playful seasons, one that will stand on until other walls are built.
Gardner, Kevin and Guillermo Nunez. The Granite Kiss. Woodstock, Vermont: The Countryman Press 2001.
Allport, Susan. Sermons in Stone. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.
Brox, Jane. Here and Nowhere Else. New York: North Print Press a division of Ferrar, Straus and Giroux. 1995.
Brox, Jane. Clearing Land. New York: North Print Press a division of Ferrar, Straus and Giroux. 2004.
Larcom, Lucy. A New England Girlhood. Project Gutenberg. http://promo.net/pg/ August, 2000 [Etext # 2293].
Larcom, Lucy. “A Strip of Blue.” Poetry Archive. Poetry Archive Online. http://www.poetry-archive.com/l/a_strip_of_blue.html (October 21, 2004).
Larcom, Lucy. “A Year in Heaven.” Poetry Archive. Poetry Archive Online. http://www.poetry-archive.com/l/a_year_in_heaven.html (October 21, 2004).
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth, An American Stonehenge. The New England Magazine, 12: 5 (July 1892)
Olsen, Eric. “A Tapestry of Stone: The Rockwalls of New England.” The World and I (June 1998 ) p. 196.
Frost, Robert. “The Mending Wall.” Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. Modern & Contemporary Poetry Online.http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/frost-mending.html (October 30, 2004)
Raymond, Robert. “Conant Street Old Cemetery: A Web-book by Robert Raymond.” Online. October 6, 2001 http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~raymondfamily /OldCemeteryNorthBeverly/images_index.html (December 2, 2004).
Synenki, Amy. “Lucy Larcom” Primary Research Through the History of Beverly. Primary Research Online. http://www.primaryresearch.org/PRTHB/halloffame/larcom.htm ( October 25. 2004)