Reflections on stone walls and chimneys

John Walsh (john@walshadv.com), a monthly contributor, is a partner at East Greenwich-based communications company Walsh & Associates.

I knot my sneakers and walk down Third Beach Road in Middletown, where my family is on vacation. Peabody’s Beach is less than a mile away.

The road is flanked by stone walls on both sides: some tidy, others crumbling, most of them at least a few green patches of lichen and moss. At one point dozens of orange tiger lilies brush themselves in the sun, their petals a bold antidote to the dull gray stones behind them.

A line by Robert Frost echoes from an English class long ago: “There’s something a wall doesn’t love, something it wants to tear down.” When I look at the beautiful and intricate facades on either side of me, I disagree. They are amazing.

Most of the stone walls in our region were built between 1810 and 1840 when the New Englanders were mostly farmers. If New York is included, these partitions rose up to 250,000 miles and piled up more rocks than were required to build the great pyramids of Egypt. Most of the stones were “two-handed,” which meant that one person could lift and carry them.

The walls are a permanent testimony to human perseverance, born of necessity. When farmers cleared forests in New England to reclaim their land, they found rocks left by glaciers everywhere. The farmers pulled the plowstones out of the ground and set them at the edges of their fields, an unlikely combination of raw strength and craftsmanship.

But with each spring thaw, more stones came to light. “People in the northeast thought the devil had brought them there,” writes stone wall expert Susan Allport.

On my walk to the beach near Indian Avenue, I see a stone wall caught in the claws of spiral tendrils. New Englanders began abandoning their fields in the mid-19th century when the fertile, rock-free plains of the Midwest became the nation’s breadbasket. In the northeast, subsistence farming gave way to jobs fueled by the American Industrial Revolution. Forests and vegetation returned to previously cleared tracts of land, knotted the walls that the farmers had painstakingly erected, and toppled them to the ground again.

Nevertheless, many of the walls were preserved because of their strong delimitation from property lines, which is reminiscent of Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”. In the spring, two neighbors walk the stone sheath between their fields to see what repairs are needed. Of the boulders that they lift and reposition, a neighbor says: “We wear out our fingers when we handle them.”

When my wife and I bought Rose Cottage, the stone walls at the back were not piled up to clear a field, but to preserve the sloping earth of the yard. We put a barrier around our yard: a five foot high cedar fence to keep our children, anyone under five, from roaming half the block to Main Street. The wooden enclosure stood for almost two decades, its blond boards turning gray before succumbing to wind and weather section by section. Today the last remaining boards provide fuel for our fireplace. Meanwhile, the stone walls continue to keep our tiered yard in check.

As Third Beach Road curves towards the coast, another stone artifact – a chimney – rises above the path to Peabody’s Beach. Like the walls along the street, the pile has stories to tell, I suspect, but I can no longer decipher them. As I walk past, I only know: The house in which the chimney once served has long since disappeared.

The words of another poet, Nikki Giovanni, come to mind: “Life is a wonderful, passing adventure.”

I go down the sandy path until it turns into a wide beach. Parasols flutter, children laugh, a single cloud hovers in the perfect blue sky. I’m drinking right now, as life-affirming and fleeting as an ocean wave.

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