Stone walls symbolize a delicate balance
OLD STONE WALLS
“A whole book could be written on the natural history of an ancient stone wall.”
– Edwin Way Teale, a naturalist, buys an old farm (1974)
We are drawn to those places where the forces of the natural and human world have come to terms with one another and live in harmony: run-down barns full of hay; long-established, but abandoned garden spaces that independently produce conspicuous perennials year after year; and farmsteads by a stream with lamplight shimmering in the window, smoke rose in the starry night.
Old stone walls are the epitome of this kind of balanced existence. The stone walls that trace the forests and fields here in the mountains are built with hard work and real care by human hands using the most basic of materials and often take on a life of their own, somewhere between the obvious human desires for use and the sly chaos of nature lies. A stone wall that once towered up the creek from our place here on the southern slope of the Smokies near the border to the national park was typical for most of these structures.
It was certainly nothing special to look at. About 50 feet long and several feet high and wide, it was by no means a pretentious structure. Even if the walls go, it was a pretty quiet wall. But it was also a clear sign of an attempt by a previous family to make a permanent declaration of their residence in a certain area and take care of it. The wall lined a footpath that led up the stream through a small wooded area where a pedestrian bridge once led into the “real” world.
In these days the “real” world has captured this forest area. A few years ago we spent an afternoon with a chainsaw, hoes, and bare hands trying to reclaim the wall of honeysuckle and poison ivy tendrils. Many of the stone walls and stakes on the slopes above the valley were built to stack and remove field stones from acreage, mainly corn. Not only do they serve as waste areas and means of preventing soil erosion, but they are also not particularly attractive. But the wall through the woods next to the stream was built to define a quiet path – a connection – between the fields and the various homesteads. It was a calculated down-to-earth rural project that was also some kind of spiritual statement.
John Burroughs, my favorite nineteenth-century naturalist, once remarked in an essay titled Notes By The Way that he “often pondered what kind of chapter in natural history could be written about” Life Under a Stone “, like that many of our smaller creatures take refuge there – ants, crickets, spiders, wasps, bumblebees, the lone bee, mice, toads, snakes, and newts. What do these things in a land without stones? A stone makes a good roof, a good shield; It is waterproof and fireproof and, until the season gets too severe, also frost-proof. The field mouse doesn’t want a better place to nest than under a large, flat stone, and the bumblebee is perfectly content to move into the old or abandoned quarters of a mouse Can take possession. ”
Burroughs wrote about stones in general, of course, but his observations would also apply to stone walls, which – in my opinion – are incomplete without chipmunks. I had always hoped a couple would settle into that partially collapsed stone wall, but they never did. Copperheads lived there. And skinks and mice. Encrusted, flat lichen adorned the stones, creating fantastic cards with their doily patterns. Some of these slow-growing lichen patches were so large that they were apparently centuries before the Wall was built itself. You may have been there when the first Indians entered the watershed we now live in thousands of years ago.
When I paused and studied the wall, it was difficult to see where exactly the bottom of the The path ended and the lichen-spotted stone began. These two beings had gradually assimilated, mixed and become one. This path and wall become part of our family’s everyday life – a designated path to come and go in daylight, starlight or moonlight. Even if we did not notice the wall, its presence arranged an important part of our lives. It was a calming, unpretentious, stable presence that was always there and always would be, I assumed. What can happen to a stone wall? In a single day – less than eight hours – the wall was wiped out by a bulldozer. The new owner of the property above our at the brook cleared the area for rental huts. It wasn’t our land or our wall. I don’t regret that I didn’t take a picture. The sunlit path and its calm border made of hand-laid stones live on in our memories and those of our children. It’s a kind of immortality, I suppose.
(Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in a May 2001 issue of Smoky Mountain News.)