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Originally published in Castine Patriot, July 31, 2014
Stonewalls of Maine

A stone wall in Castine

Stone walls, like the one above found in Castine, Maine can be viewed as geological legacies from the past.

Photo by Peter Cooperdock Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Peter Cooperdock

They weave along the roadsides or along a property line. They may be found in singles or in pairs, as in lining a long-forgotten path. A wet area may be found on the far side, as if to keep it away. They may make up small squares of land, to mark out playgrounds or lawns. These are the stonewalls that are so typical of the New England landscape. Where did they come from? Why are they here?

Our stonewalls are collections of stones either dumped in a row or carefully placed as an architectural feature. Some are tightly fitted, revealing intense concentration on form and beauty. Some represent the past while others are modern improvements. All reflect a heritage that is seldom repeated throughout the world.

The walls are here because the stones are here. The stones are here because the glaciers were here. The glaciers came through during a cold spell of thousands of years’ duration, grinding away at the bedrock below, spinning the accumulated boulders into smaller and smaller particles. Most of the bedrock was ground up to make the soil on which our forests, lawns and gardens grow, but some of it withstood the force of the glacier.

The igneous rocks which formed from the molten earth, or metamorphosed igneous rocks which were transformed again through additional heating below the surface, make up our hardest rock. These are our granite and gneiss. New England is abundant in these minerals due to the volcanic activity which once dominated our area when what is now Africa bumped into what is now North America.

As the glacier receded, it left the rocks behind. Some were scattered on the surface, but many more were left below the surface. As the saying goes, a farm field’s best crop is often rocks. When the European settlers brought their farm techniques to New England, including farm animals, much greater areas required clearing than previously necessary.

The initial clearing removed some rocks from the fields, which were generally put in piles, but most were worked around since labor was better used for more basic needs. As farming became more established and sophisticated, rocks kept appearing in the fields. The initial fertile soils of the forest had been used, the fields were plowed to a more uniform surface, and the frost could penetrate deeper into the ground, pushing the rocks to the surface.

With more time, more labor due to larger, surviving families, and more tools available, stonewall construction began in earnest to define field usage, property lines, and roadways. Between 1775 and 1825 the majority of New England’s 240,000 miles of stonewalls were constructed. This activity has been called the greatest decentralized, unorganized construction project ever undertaken on Earth. No government mandate required it, little public funds were expended on it, and no subsidies were available for it.

These stonewalls are a legacy from the past. When stonewalls are viewed, they can be a reminder of ancient labor spent out of need and desire. They may be casually removed without understanding the context of their construction. The rocks may command a good price as landscape features or other walls. All of that may be fine, as long as there is thought and consideration applied. These walls are part of history.