Stone walls. Driving down the roads of New England you see them companionably hugging the side of the road, or meandering away up a hill, or nestling between trees in the woods. As simple and natural as they look stone walls are a designed phenomenon, each one consciously constructed using a specific type of order which accommodates the shapes of rock.
Do you think of the famous Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall,” where a neighbor tells the curious Frost: “Fences make good neighbors”? Why they were built, or by whom? Was it a way to clear a field for farming, or to form a land-boundary marker?
Look closely and you will see that not all stone walls are the same. Some look like a pile of rubble, while others are meticulously executed in elaborate patterns, and others lie somewhere in between. Regardless, each wall was created with careful deliberation and an eye for aesthetics. These stone walls could easily be called works of art.
Robert Thorson’s two books, “Exploring Stone Walls” and “Stone by Stone”, are necessary handbooks for anyone interested in learning more about stone walls. Thorson, a geologist by training, helps us decipher these mysterious anonymous creations. He helps us interpret the geological history of the local landscape through the stones; how to understand the miniature ecosystem that has established the wall as its home; and how to “read” a stone wall to deduce its specific life story.
He divides walls into hierarchical categories of intention and arrangement, and therefore design and artfulness. A dumped wall (which is self-explanatory) is the lowest level of order, followed by a placed wall, where single stones are maneuvered into a line. Next comes the stacked wall, where stones are balanced on top of each other, but without any real concern as to how they fit together. And finally, the laid wall, where stones are fitted together in a deliberate arrangement, and the chinked wall, where the gaps between laid stones are filled with smaller stones to create a smooth face.
Where each wall falls within the hierarchy tells you a lot about the intention and financial situation of the wall’s creator. A stacked wall may have been created by poor farmers, who were tilling the field by hand and so only needed to remove the largest stones. A carefully laid wall could be the creation of wealthier landowners, people who could afford machines to till the land that might be ruined by a smaller stone, or who wanted to impress with the design of their bounding walls. The stones themselves often bear the marks of the tools that positioned them.
These days, stone walls are rarely created as the by-product of clearing a field for farming. They are more often looking for decorative walls or retaining walls in a landscaped garden or an entry gate. But contemporary stone wall designers have many of the same considerations of those historic craftsmen. Shayne Izatt, co-owner of Sightline scenery studio in New York City and a self-taught stone wall builder, likens the process to a puzzle, “except you get no help with having an image on the face and the pieces are a lot heavier!”
Of course, modern technology and tools give us an advantage over those early farmers, allowing us to more easily shape the stone to suit our needs. But true skill and art shine through in the same timeless way, in simply fitting together what nature has provided. As Shayne says, “I try not to ‘touch’ a stone when I’m building a wall. I find the joy in finding the right spot for each stone a challenge and the art of stone work.”
Newly created stone walls may be less about back-breaking creation, boundaries and functionality than those centuries-old ones you see criss-crossing the New England landscape, but they still have a story to tell, and one that will be read over centuries to come.