The Hunter and I went exploring a new patch of woods the other day. Perhaps exploring is not quite the right word. Exploring implies direction and urgency. I should say that The Hunter and I went wandering in a new patch of woods. It was a delightful patch, too, with easily negotiable paths, unexpected brooks and lots and lots of stonewalls. Quintessential New England.
It was partly cloudy, so we weren’t too hot; it was still early in the year, so we weren’t bothered by bugs; and it was too cool to step on a snake. This last is probably the most important detail (from my perspective) when it comes to walks in the woods. The Hunter is unmoved one way or another by snakes. I am moved to be as far away from them as possible. However, this is not meant to be about snakes. It is meant to be about stonewalls.
Stonewalls are everywhere in these parts – lining old roads, marking pastures and threading through woods. They are so common here, you forget they are uncommon elsewhere.
The old walls are mostly overgrown and if you aren’t familiar with them, you might wonder why people would build walls through the woods. They didn’t. These woods were once fields and the walls enclosed crops and animals. These walls also aren’t quite as old as they sometimes appear. The golden age of wall building was actually in the early part of the 19th century, not during the colonial period.
When the settlers first arrived in New England in the early 1600s, the landscape was a big forest. Each farmer had to clear his own patch of land, and because there were so many trees, farm fences were generally of the split rail type. And, surprisingly, during this time, the ground wasn’t all that rocky.
The rocks started to emerge when the forests had been mostly cut down. By the mid 1700s, due to the building of houses, the heating of those houses, and the building of fences to keep the livestock from wandering about, timber was getting scarce. All this former forest, now newly exposed fields and pastures, was subject to much deeper freezing and thawing, which, in turn, pushed all the glacial rubble, i.e. the rocks, to the surface.
These emerging rocks interfered with the farmers’ ability to grow food. Being thrifty Yankees, and in absence of wood, these farmers used the rocks to build their fences. I once read that you can tell the type of field the stonewall enclosed by the size of the rocks in it.
A wall that marked an animal pasture is supposedly made up of mostly larger stones. The farmer could leave the smaller ones in the field without any damage. If, however, the field was one used for crops, then the farmer needed to get all the stones out, and so those walls are made up of both large and small rocks.
I have also read that the number of stonewalls skyrocketed in New England after Napoleon conquered Portugal in 1809. This is because he allowed the prized Portuguese merino sheep to be exported. Previously, to protect a Portuguese monopoly on merino wool, merino sheep were not allowed out. The American ambassador was one of the first to take advantage of this new arrangement, shipping 4,000 sheep to his Vermont farm.
Then, along came the war of 1812, and with it, a huge tariff on the import of British goods – including textiles. Home grown wool, especially merino wool, was in great demand. This led to an increase in sheep farming, which led to an increase in stonewalls.
In addition to building these picturesque, yet functional walls, enterprising New England famers also used the stones to line their house and barn foundations. On our wander we came across one of these cellar holes. The house is long gone, and what’s left looks like a large, square pit, neatly faced with rocks. These things always bear investigating and so we stood at the edge looking down into it.
“Now,” said The Hunter, “If I wanted to get snake bit, this is exactly where I would come. I would bet a lot of money there are copperheads in there somewhere.”
Why he felt it necessary to say this out loud, I don’t know. I stopped speculating on who might have once lived over this cellar hole and headed back to the path. “It’s too cold today for any snakes to be out,” he assured me once he had caught up.
“That’s what you said last March when we went on a similar walk and I came within inches of landing my foot on one.”
“That wasn’t a copperhead. That was a milk snake.”
Normally, I am all about the details and The Hunter knows this. The look told him, this was one detail that didn’t matter.