Winter and early spring as noted by Robert Thorson, a New England stone wall preservation advocate, is the best time to observe them. “Like a negative to a photograph, walls are most visible when life is most invisible.”
Being a city, we often forget that to the west and south of the center of town is a large swath of farmland within Newburyport’s boundaries. Most of it is open land and presently being used by our farms, but further to the north, it is largely forest.
It is in this area, that you will find the Little River Trail System of which the Little River Nature Trail is but a small part. A favorite place for birdwatchers, nature lovers and dog walkers; the paths meander through some absolutely stunning patches of woodland. Further southwest is the Artichoke Reservoir and the breathtakingly beautiful Artichoke Nature Trail.
As heavily wooded as they may seem; there was a time when the area was mostly treeless. This was an area (and of course extends for miles through Newbury and beyond) where subsistence farming occurred. Families would grow just enough to feed themselves and perhaps, if lucky, had some left over to sell at the local market. These first settlers lived just fine for a few years, but this type of agriculture can’t tolerate a high level of human population and it ends up depleting trees, stresses the soil until it is barren and it isn’t long before heavy erosion drives the families into poverty. It was this lifestyle that drove large populations to migrate and colonize the western expanses of America.
Worse, the land was littered with rocks from the great glacier that had once covered New England. Before they could plow the land, they had to do back breaking work to clear the stones. (many very large) I have tried to move some of the stones in those same walls and could not believe their weight. They must have been deliriously happy when so many arrived in Ohio with its flat, rich, stone-less, loam-filled, fields!
To appreciate this iconic New England feature and the hard work of our ancestors; I pulled some statistics. (references below) In 1871, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that more stone walls existed in New England than all the miles of railroad track laid down to that date. A book written at that time indicated, “The work that went into them, according to one estimate, would have built the pyramids of Egypt (all of them) one hundred times over. In 1939, the U.S. D. A. noted that at that time, as much as 240,000 miles of stone walls existed in New England and if placed end to end would have made it to the Moon at its closest approach.
So, this is the best time to go and see them before the trees are in bloom. When you do, marvel at how small some of these farms actually were.
As you go through these barren landscapes and see the stones, I encourage you to go with a trained eye – There are two main types. First, walls that marked property boundaries are often times even in rock size. As Robert Frost noted, “Fences make good neighbors”, and so they would try to keep these in excellent condition. The second type of wall marked where the fields were. These would have small stones jumbled in with big stones and often reflected the farmer tirelessly lugging another one out of the field.
Sadly, many modern property owners have absolutely no desire to sustain our New England character and will either remove the walls or put up some modern version. This stripping away of our romance is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the saddest things about living in the 21st century. Taking away our native beauty and replacing it with a cultureless, senseless thug-like modern existence made up of aluminum, plastic and steel. No wonder there’s been an alarming rise in suicides!
Fortunately, most of us who have chosen to live in Newburyport; are here precisely because we value our local beauty, man-made and natural, and our high, uplifting quality of life.
So, head for the trails! Get that leash for your dog! Maybe grab some binoculars for bird watching.
And take some time to gaze with wonder at our uniquely-New England stone walls!
“Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History of New England’s Stone Walls” by University of Connecticut geology professor Robert M. Thorson, 2002.
The Stonewall Initiative, (http://stonewall.uconn.edu/), dedicated to the preservation of New England’s iconic stone walls.
The history, science and poetry of New England’s stone walls, By John-Manuel Andriote, (http://www.earthmagazine.org/article/history-science-and-poetry-new-englands-stone-walls),
The Walls of New England: A Forgotten Wonder of the World, (www.field-notebook.com/?p=119), Posted on 11/10/2006 by Curtiss Clark