259,000 Miles of Them

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We are in New England for the week, staying on a farm in a quiet corner of Rhode Island. It’s beautiful here–because it’s New England, because it’s green and wooded, because it’s about ten degrees cooler than any July at home.

Of course we want New England to look as it *should,* and Rhode Island does not disappoint: the stone walls are everywhere. Gorgeous, rambling, antique lines of them. They appear along the sides of the roads, a sudden demarcation between roadside and woods or farmland, the edge of someone’s lawn. Or they spill out of the woods, and if you look quick enough as the car goes by you can see them extending away from you, dividing the trees. They trace the topography of a hillside, they mark the undulating line of the ground.

Stone walls are what New England is supposed to have, like clapboard, and shutters, and steeply pitched roofs. Here in New England, stone walls are–to borrow the overused word–“appropriate.”

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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.

Robert Frost, a 20th century New England poet, won four Pulitzer Prizes for his work and was the inaugural poet for President Kennedy in 1961. He was born in San Francisco and later had a winter home in Florida, but for the most part, he spent his life in New England: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts.

For a long time, he farmed (unsuccessfully) in New Hampshire. He knew a thing or two about stone walls.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

These walls are ubiquitous in New England. There must be miles and miles of them. Bill and I have wondered aloud about them as we drive. We guess a wall is just the thing to do with the stones. The soil here must be rife with them.

And certainly, in addition to the stone walls that trace the landscape, the ground here is forever exposing large slabs of rock, huge outcroppings that one can only assume might be the tip of a proverbial iceberg. Bill and I imagine making a life from the soil here, tilling the earth with our rudimentary, colonial tools and finding–again and again and again–a rock and yet another rock to prize from the ground.

Fruitless, tiresome, unintended crop.

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In 1939 the mining engineer Oliver Bowles estimated that there were probably more than 259,000 miles of stone walls in the northeastern U.S., most of which is in New England. Many walls have since been destroyed, but probably more than half of these remain. –Connecticut State Museum of Natural History.

It was the glaciers that started it, eons ago, sliding slowly southward over what would eventually become New England. The glaciers themselves were apparently full of stones, the hardest of which–granite, gneiss, limestone–survived the grinding journey locked in ice. As the glaciers melted, they deposited the stone in the ground.

Hence, so many stones. A real hassle for sowing crops, but perfect for building a wall. Walls. 259,000 miles of them.

The tenacity of these walls is impressive: no adhesive was used in their construction; each wall is a balancing act, stones supporting stones. Most of the walls were built between 1775 and 1850, and yet here they stand today.

Nonetheless, “Mending Wall” is a poem about the process of repairing the holes in one of these walls. Apparently, they had their periodic ruptures, their sudden and inexplicable “gaps.”

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

Frost questions the process. His is a 20th-century sensibility:  Why should we bother repairing the wall? Do we need the wall in the first place?

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Well, but all farms have fences, right? We need something to mark the edges. It’s difficult to imagine now, but I’m told that when the original farmers had cleared the land here, trees soon became scarce. It was sensible, if not incredibly labor-intensive, to use the natural resource of stone to form animal pounds or fencing, to outline the boundary between one and one’s neighbor.

If you on your farm have cows, say, and I have apple trees, I’ll want to prevent your cows coming over to my property and decimating my bumper crop of apples.

Solution: stone walls.

And yet,

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

And here begins Frost’s metaphor. Or mine.

What is it about a wall that makes us feel safe? Here in the 21st century? I’m not talking about actual, physical boundaries. I know enough from movies and the news–don’t we all?–about technologies used in heist or warfare. The jig is up: something (someone) somewhere will always be able to get through.

No, I’m talking about those other walls, the ones each of us constructs, the separations, the divisions that, somehow, make me imagine I’m safe.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.

The news these days in this country is rightly all about these walls. But we’ve found they are not, after all, unique to New England. They are everywhere. They seem to cross every region, state, heart, and are (and have been) more visible to some of us than others.

But the walls–even the ancient, “wild walls,” so long untouched that they have become their own vibrant ecosystems–didn’t arrive of their own accord. They didn’t emerge from the ground in tidy rows, vestigial trace of a glacier’s wake.

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No. The walls come from stone farmed, mined, balanced, planted. I can’t help but think–studying them, even my own–that these walls are cultivated. They are the product of rehearsed anger, of practiced bitterness, the insistence *not* to forgive. And while we rightly find them most grievously offensive in shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, Orlando, Dallas, I believe they have their origins in the smallest places: in every prideful thought, every smug estimation of our superiority.

Any time we ever imagine–even for an instant–that we are better than someone else.

…many farmers would find that their farmland would have many stones on it that weren’t there previously…. When a farm is plowed, it causes layers of soil beneath the surface to push up their rocks from different soil layers to another…Many farmers would have to remove the rocks on their farm if they wanted to plow it again, only to find that they would have to repeat the process of removing stones. -Corey Schweizer

I think everyone’s field is full of stones. Everyone’s. It’s the human condition. And just when we think we’ve got our soil cleared, we’re unearthing more: more selfishness, more hard-heartedness, the chronic tendency to love ourselves more than our neighbors, to be willfully blind to another’s experience, hurt, need, goodness, worth.

I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old stone-savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me

Not only of woods and his father’s trees.

We do this, as a society, on a large scale. And we do it personally, too. Daily. Minute by minute.

We are–to a person–rocky soil, laden with the deposits of that long-gone glacier, burdened with its mineral waste. Being alive means tilling that soil, making a place to sow good seeds, and pulling up rocks in that effort.

It’s ours to decide what to do with the stones.

 

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. -Ezekiel 36: 26.

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Sources here, here, and here.

 


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