Moving Forward, Looking Back / When stonewalling wasn't a stall tactic
Updated 2:54 pm, Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Since the early 1960s, the artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude have created large-scale works of "environmental art" around the world. They wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris with fabric; they scattered 1,300 umbrellas on a field in Japan; they strung a 25-mile fabric fence across California hills; they erected 7,500 steel-and-fabric "gates" in New York's Central Park. These famous "installations" are as controversial as they are impressive, but the artistic intent is simple: The aesthetic enjoyment of familiar environments, seen in different and surprising ways.
Twenty feet from my window is a stone wall that runs the entire length of my property, and well beyond. It's a silent reminder that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been hopelessly outclassed by New England farmers. We in fact live in the epicenter of a vast environmental art installation, so vast that no one person can ever hope to see all of it. We're literally embedded in a staggering regional network of stone walls.
Think about it -- you can't go very far in Fairfield without seeing one. In 1939, it was estimated that there were 250,000 miles (no, that's not a typo) of stone walls in the northeastern U.S. That's 10 times around the Equator. It's likely that half of them still stand, despite the ravages of time and intentional destruction. Our stone walls are unique to our corner of the continent, and the reason for that lies in the intersection of geologic and colonial history.
We can thank a series of Ice Ages for the maddening proliferation of buried stones, always right where we want to plant something. Fifteen thousand years ago, as the most recent glacial ice sheet came down to our continental neighborhood and then receded, it scraped off the top layer of bedrock, ground it up, and left sand, mud, and stones scattered over a barren landscape. Hardy tundra plants set the stage for parkland, and eventually, forests. Countless cycles of forest growth and decay covered these stones under a thick layer of soil.
Enter the Puritan colonists in the early 1600s. At first, they didn't venture beyond their coastal settlements, in part for security and in part because of their tight-knit culture. By day they worked nearby arable land, and at dusk returned to their cluster of homes. A century later, the Native American threat had subsided (not a pretty story, I'm afraid), and the descendents of the founding colonists were not as committed to Puritan social organization. Furthermore, the coast was getting too crowded for their tastes. So a new breed of colonists struck out inland to the forests, and it's only at this point that stone walls begin to appear.
The rich forest soil was ready to grow crops -- once, that is, the forest that produced the soil was cleared away. But after the multiyear clearing job was done and the fields were finally tilled, the stones rose up, followed each year (as every gardener knows) by more stones, heaved up to the surface as the insulating blanket of soil was disrupted.
What to do with all these annoying stones? This "non-biodegradable agricultural refuse," as they have been called, was simply dragged to the edge of the property and piled up. These earliest, "tossed" stone walls gave way to more refined and durable dry-wall constructions. By the mid-19th century, after several generations of prosperity, agriculture waned in New England. Nature reclaimed abandoned farmland and, starting from scratch, grew the second-growth forests we enjoy today. The stone walls we come upon in deep woods are hidden monuments to our agrarian past. Two centuries ago, we'd be walking through a cleared field.
In the 21st century, the surviving stone walls have become organic parts of the New England landscape, providing habitats for wildlife (think chipmunks) and supporting the diversity of forest flora. Mainly, though, they are the iconic remains of industrious people who occupied the land long ago. Some people would disqualify the stone walls "environmental art" because they were built to serve mundane agricultural purposes, such as marking property or containing livestock. I disagree. The creators of stone walls could have stuck with "tossed walls," but chose to develop a style, perhaps for durability, but also to improve the way they looked. They succeeded in every way.
My wall, with its classic dry-wall construction, its rugged texture and subtle colors, its solid, unbroken stance as it traces the slope of the hill, connects me to the skill, hard work and individualism of New England farmers of centuries past, but also transmits a timeless aesthetic statement. I owe it far more appreciation than it has received. It's a tiny sliver of a huge, historic installation, an artistic and cultural legacy. That stone wall was here long before I arrived, and may it be here long after I'm gone.
Top that, Christo.
Background for this article came from the website of the Stone Wall Initiative. For a richly detailed account, get the superb "Stone by Stone: the Magnificent History of New England's Stone Walls," by Robert Thorsen. Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" apears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: email@example.com.