The stone walls are snowed under now, like bolster pillows, along the roadside – the meridians of ownership, habitation, memory and settlement.

They endure in front of the old farms on the Castine Road, where the Perkins, Wardwell and Westcott families eked pasture out of forest for generations, their small, efficient houses built snug with the road at a time when 5 miles per hour was haste. Today we drive these roads at 10 times the speed. New houses tend to be set farther back. Walls and curvilinear roads seem like a persistence of 19th-century vision.

And we forget the hundreds of miles of old fieldstone walls still traipsing secretively through the surrounding forests, where only woodcutters and hunters and a few occasional wanderers witness this evidence of things not seen any longer: cleared land and the old farm field lines.

Look at any old landscape painting to see the extent of cleared land in New England’s past – almost within living memory. I like cleared land, since it demands the ritual of bringing spring stones to the walls and adding them to their brethren from an earlier era. But most of today’s land is not valued for arability, hence clearing. Building new walls creates quaintness, an adherence to the picturesque look of New England farmland, rather than a proceed of plowing.

Ancient is, of course, relative. As trees were felled to make way for fields, frosts penetrated deeper and deeper into the ground. Freezing and thawing pried more rocks loose and sent them upward, like a splinter squeezed to the surface of a finger.

A tightly chinked, straight stone wall, whether newly laid or revived on these old lines, is archival preservation. New craftsmen come along to handle the lapsed stones, mending walls. You can extract rocks from the ground with a backhoe, but there is no substitute for the knuckle-grating puzzle assembly required to fit stone to stone in the time-honored fashion. I admire the lichen-encrusted stones being realigned on their field-girdling foundations. The ancient rule of “plumb” has not been forgotten: two over one, one over two to shed water and foil frost.

The walls come out of dormancy, little by little, as new landowners clear the alder-infiltrated fields. A stone wall is not a fence; alder never misses a chance to jump the wall. E.B. White said, “Rocks and alders are the most conspicuous crops.”

Of these rogue crops, I prefer rocks to alder. Freezing and thawing will topple the stones too casually stacked. The next winter storm will drop firs and cedars to the forest floor to decay, another annual layer of organic debris putting the surface at a further reach from the rocks rising from below. They are undeterred, however. I expect a bumper rock crop by spring. But for the next four months, the land slumbers and the boulders dream of surfacing.

 

 


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