Living on Earth: New England’s Stone Walls

Air date: week from November 30, 2018

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Many of New England’s stone walls, like this one in New Hampshire, go back to nature when they become dilapidated and overgrown with moss. (Photo: mwms1916, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The first farmers in New England of European descent plowed the ground, which was littered with rocks left behind by glaciers. So brick by brick they piled the rocks into waist-high walls. Some say these walls helped win the American Revolution, and they later inspired Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”. Host Steve Curwood takes stone wall expert Robert Thorson, author of Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls, for a walk in the New Hampshire woods.


BASCOMB: The New England colonists faced an uphill battle as they turned the region’s vast forests into farmland. They had to cut down massive trees and deal with stones that were strewn across the ground they were about to plow. So brick by brick they piled the rocks left over from the glaciers into waist-high walls. Every year, gusts of frost drove more stones to the surface that some of these early farmers said was the work of the devil.

Generations later, the farmers kept coming back over the years to repair the walls. That is the subject of Robert Frost’s famous poem The Mending Wall, which is read here by the poet himself.

FROST: Repair the wall
There’s something a wall doesn’t love
That sends the frozen bump underneath
And shed the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps that can even lie next to each other in pairs.
The work of the hunters is a different matter:
I followed them up and made repairs
Where they haven’t left a stone on a stone
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding
To please the howling dogs. I mean the gaps
Nobody saw them made or heard them made
But we can find them there for spring repairs.
I’ll let my neighbor behind the hill know;
And one day we meet to walk the line
And put the wall between us again.
We hold the wall between us as we walk.
To each the boulders that each fell.
And some are breads and some are almost balls
We have to use a spell to balance them out:
“Stay where you are until we turn our backs!”
We wear out our fingers roughly with them.
Oh just a different kind of outdoor game
One on one side. It depends on a little more:
We don’t need the wall where it is:
It’s all pine and I’m apple orchard.
My apple trees will never come over
And eat the cones under his jaw, I tell him.
He just says: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the nonsense in me and I wonder
If I could put an idea in his head:
“Why are they good neighbors?
Where are there cows? But there are no cows here.
Before I built a wall, I would ask her
What I walled up or walled up
And who I liked to offend.
There’s something a wall doesn’t love
That wants it down. “I could say” elves “to him
But they’re not exactly elves, and I’d rather be
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bring a stone that is firmly gripped by the tip
In each hand, armed like a stone savage.
He moves in the dark it seems to me
Not just from the woods and in the shade of the trees.
He won’t fall short of his father’s words
And he likes to have thought of it so well
He says again: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

A New Hampshire stone wall in winter. (Photo: Steve Curwood)

CURWOOD: These stone walls from Robert Frost’s verse still exist in southern New Hampshire, as do thousands of them in all of New England. These mostly granite walls serve as windows into the geological and cultural history of the region. I took a walk through an old homestead with a stone wall expert to learn more.


CURWOOD: So we’re here in Nottingham, New Hampshire, in a 1755 farmhouse. It’s stone walled, and now we’re joined by Robert Thorson. He is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut. And he is the author of Brick by Brick: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls. Welcome to life on earth, Professor.

THORSON: Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: How did you come to study stones?

THORSON: Well, I moved here from Alaska and I was raised in some kind of Scandinavian Midwest-Upper Midwest heritage where you don’t see any stone walls at all, and I moved here from Alaska in 1984 as a landscape archaeologist and a geologist and a Scientist employed. And I figured I’d rather look at the stone walls. So I went to the Natchaug State Forest, which is near east Connecticut, where I worked. And I just started walking a traverse. And I went over one after the other and over another and another stone wall and it just came to me that day. What are these things? Why are they the size, the color, the mass, the continuity, the pattern … all these questions a trained scientist would ask about them.

CURWOOD: So stone walls are everywhere in the region. Who built these walls?

THORSON: When you talk about the abandoned agricultural landscape of the 19th and 18th centuries, it is almost exclusively the people who own the land and have used the money from the land to get things done. If you are talking about the Gilded Age, or the 1920s, or the Edwardian or even the late Victorian Age, when you have passed the zenith of New England agriculture, then most of the walls are built by immigrant groups for very low wages, but the money came from somewhere else. The result is a beautiful, tidy, long, uniform degree of construction that an architect may recognize. The walls that I like are the ones that were built by the people in the country because they have an ecological component, a human-ecological component.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was a prolific American poet whose works included The Road Not Taken, Fire And Ice, and Mending Wall. (Photo: Walter Albertin, Wikimedia Commons via US Library of Congress)

CURWOOD: Let’s go up the wall a little further, because I want to ask you about the ecology of what’s inside these walls today.


CURWOOD: So a lot of these stone walls have obviously been abandoned. This farm probably stopped raising cattle a century and a half ago. But you say that these are important parts of our ecosystem. What makes it so important in the ecosystem?

THORSON: Well, if you look at the stone wall right in front of us, you don’t see surface moisture, and neither will you, unless it rains or you get thawing snow. These are very, very dry. They are effectively deserts. They are hollow, open spaces where animals can live that do not exist on the forest floor. It’s also a corridor. If you wanted to move around your territory and were a fox, squirrel or cat, bobcat or fishing cat, you could drive along the wall upstairs and see more. You would be more exposed if you were a predator. If you were prey, you would likely scurry under the edge of the wall and find cover. As a border, a corridor and a living space, stone walls have a life of their own.

CURWOOD: And the geological history here?

THORSON: Well, if you accept that humans are geological agents – which I do because I am the strongest – then they are part of this geological story. If you just said, OK, what’s happened here since the icing, we’re in. I mean, glaciation and then human activity, these are the two dominant events that happened here in the landscape to shape and change the landscape. That is not to say that other people have not lived here for a long time, but they are the main designers, and one is of Ice Age origin, climatic, and one is human, economically driven.

CURWOOD: Thor, talk to me about the famous stone walls here in New England.

THORSON: I think the best known is Robert Frost’s Mending Wall because the people of Iowa know about that wall. The people of Florida know this wall, and it’s one of New England’s real treasures, this poem. And I’ve been to Derry a few times and spoken there and scouted and examined the repair wall. It turns out that the mending wall is a combination of two different walls. This poem was written when Frost was in England. It was one of his earliest and he writes it from memory. And, deliberately or not, he put two things together that are really important to the New England psyche. One of the ideas, preservation, structure, order, you know, keeping brick by brick, repairing the wall, and the other, of course, is territorialism, the fences that we put up between us in our communities and elsewhere. And he lingers really well on both of them. The mending wall, the poem, has both the border wall and the precarious stones as round as balls like loaves of bread, but the actual walls on this property are very different. One is a border and one is a place where you can barely stack a stone and not map them on top of each other.

CURWOOD: What do you think philosophically when he thinks that there is something that a wall doesn’t like?

THORSON: That something is all of nature itself, which a wall dislikes because a wall is created by humans on purpose. Whatever the reason, it’s going to come down, and for me that’s nice. I love the old, abandoned, lichen-encrusted forest walls in the age of the Anthropocene because they tell us that the effects of the Anthropocene are already being healed in some places. And the wild-looking person in me likes to see that.

Robert Thorson (left) and presenter Steve Curwood examine a rock from a wall in New Hampshire. (Photo: Jenni Döring)

CURWOOD: So some would say that stone walls helped win the American Revolution. Why should you say that?

THORSON: The main reason you would say that would be because the colonists, the ragged minutemen, used the walls as cover, and they were very difficult to get caught by the British marching in columns down the street. At a deeper level, one could argue that the walls are useful parts of the farms that provided the beef, butter, and bacon and bread that fed these armies. We know armies don’t march on an empty stomach. I also think there is a territorial border element. I think when you see a stone wall you feel safer, you feel trapped. It makes you feel like you are locked in. This makes you feel separate. So you could say that at the psychological bedrock level they helped with the idea of ​​separation.

CURWOOD: Robert Thorson is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut. Thor, thank you very much for your time with us.

Thorson: It’s been a pleasure. What could be nicer than being in the forest, surrounded by stone walls?


Brick by Brick: The Great Story in the Stone Walls of New England

“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost

About Robert Thorson

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