(November 17, 1991)
By KEITH SCHNEIDER
HANOVER, N.H.— The product of stubborn people plowing rocky ground, New England's stone walls have long been considered an almost perfect union of form and function. Fencing the boundaries of a backbreaking farm era long past, they function today as telling ornaments of Yankee thrift, hard work and pious persistence.
But what if most of New England's stone walls were never meant as walls at all? What if they are merely "linear landfills," in the words of a University of Connecticut geologist, long piles of refuse that are a direct result of the first man-made upheaval in America's environment, the deforestation of New England in the 18th and early 19th centuries?
Gingerly treading on ideological ground hallowed by poets and artists, the 40-year-old scientist, Prof. Robert M. Thorson, is offering a theory that could open new perspectives on the ecological factors that influenced the behavior of New England's pioneering farm families.
Yesterday's Beer Can?
Cutting the forests, he says, destroyed the natural insulation of New England's soils. That caused frost to reach much deeper underground and heave vast numbers of stones to the surface. To get the stones out of the way, the farmers had to stack them into piles that had nothing to do with marking boundaries or fencing cattle: "They're waste piles," he said, "the refuse of an agricultural age," in just the way "a beer can in the woods is evidence of modern society."
"Don't get me wrong," he went on, during a walk in serene woods crisscrossed by stone walls near this college town. "There are bona fide walls out there. But I say there is nothing heroic about most of them."
Professor Thorson's research, using archeology and physics as well as geology, could be influential in modern environmental struggles by helping to set higher standards of evidence and drawing more accurate conclusions about human effects on the surroundings.
"There are parallels to be drawn between stone walls and modern environmental issues," he said. "Can you imagine what farmers would have had to go through if they tried the same thing today? What would they have said in the environmental impact statement about the unintended effects of taking down all the trees? 'Stones will be heaved out of the soil because of deeper frosts, and linear piles of agricultural refuse that don't biodegrade will turn up everywhere'?
Now They Are Quaint
"Now these same piles of refuse figure prominently in every bed-and-breakfast brochure," Professor Thorson added.
Such talk comes not from a champion of industrial development but from a self-described renegade, one of seven children born to two teachers who was raised along the banks of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Dr. Thorson spent a decade roaming in Alaska, studying landscapes. He now volunteers in campaigns run by environmental groups, and has come to new conclusions about himself and his times through the study of stone walls.
"It has to do with the honesty of the debate on environmental issues," he said. "You know, Maine is considering legislation to protect stone walls because people are going into the woods to steal rocks for walls in developments. Now if you think of these as refuse piles, would people get so upset about saving them? Or would we think this is a great example of recycling?"
Among the small group of experts who study New England's colonial agriculture and stone walls, Dr. Thorson's views have caused a small stir.
"I wonder if he's just trying to cause divisions between people," said Susan Allport, a writer from Katonah, N.Y., who is the author of "Sermons in Stone," (W. W. Norton, 1990), a history of stone wall building in New York and New England. "It bothers me he sees stone walls first as waste piles. You see these walls, and there was a method to their construction that is beautiful and clearly indicates a different purpose."
Approach Called 'Reasonable'
But other researchers say that in a purely technical light, Dr. Thorson's view appears cogent. "What he suggests is reasonable," said William F. Quinn, a branch chief at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, an Army Corps of Engineers laboratory here. "Proof will depend on understanding the snow patterns at the time, studying frost in soil, and the effect of removing the trees."
It is not known how many miles of stone walls remain in New England, but an idea of their original mass and range is found in a 1871 Agriculture Department census of fencing that Ms. Allport cites in "Sermons in Stone." The Goverment study found that 252,000 miles of stone walls existed in New York and New England, enough to wind around the earth 10 times.
Ms. Allport says that the great age of wall building in New England came after the Revolutionary War, lasted through the first quarter of the 19th century, and was the result of deforestation that left farmers without enough wood to build the fences they had used earlier to protect crops and corral livestock.
Dr. Thorson says there is more to it. Many of the walls he has studied are too short to corral livestock, he says. Others do not enclose anything, and miles of walls waver in height like the scales on a serpent's back, as though farmers piled rocks haphazardly. Dr. Thorson says they were designed to maximize the mass of waste in the minimum of space and were built with the least amount of human effort.
At the center of Dr. Thorson's explanations of stone walls is the phenomenon of frost heave. In the ground, frost surrounds a stone and lifts it slightly when the soil expands with the freeze. The gap caused by the freeze fills with grit and pebbles. Successive patterns of frost and thaw gradually raise even the largest stones.
More Research Planned
The question Dr. Thorson asks is whether New England's farmers made their fields rockier by cutting 75 percent of the forests. Texts on colonial farming rarely mention rocks until the late 18th and early 19th century, well after most farms had been established. Was that because removing rocks from fields was so common it was not worth mentioning, or because something important was happening that produced an unintended solid waste problem?
As part of a project sponsored by Earthwatch, an environmental organization in Watertown, Mass., Dr. Thorson is preparing to lead volunteers next year into the Natchaug State Forest in Connecticut to gather data about soils, stones and walls. The data will be fed into computers to draw conclusions about how environmental factors influenced wall construction.
Dr. Thorson, who is on sabbatical at Dartmouth College here, is concerned that he is wearing the sweet idea of stone walls threadbare, and unnecessarily prompting disfavor. But others have shared his fascination. "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out," Robert Frost wrote in "Mending Wall," "and to whom I was like to give offense."
(There was no) Photo: (of) Prof. Robert M. Thorson, a geologist at the University of Connecticut, (who) is offering a theory that many of New England's stone walls were waste piles, not boundary markers, for 18th and 19th century farmers (so I used some of my own photos that call attention to some details that might be Indigenous in origin, suggesting that these walls may be related to the older cultures that inhabited the area for thousands of years, creating a Sacred Stone Ceremonial Landscape). (Jon Gilbert Fox for The New York Times) (There was no) Diagram: "Stone Walls: Landmark or Landfill?" shows how cutting down forests may have resulted in more rocks coming to surface.
Original article here:
If there are many free standing stone concentrations/constructions that resemble animals, both actual and legendary, that figured highly in the Indigenous People of Turtle Island (Native Americans of North America) Worldview – the turtle, bear and deer etc. along with the Great Serpents etc., - then who was more likely to have the time and motivation to create this artwork?
If those same techniques of artwork can be found in those longer piles of stones most often called “stone walls” then again, who was most likely to have the time and motivation to create this artwork?
If the Indigenous People of Turtle Island (Native Americans of North America) maintained the landscape with fire then how were those fires controlled, especially in areas of dense population?
If Paleo-Indians (the Ancestors of the Indigenous People of Turtle Island) made “sophisticated prehistoric stone walls deep beneath the surface of Lake Huron,” the most recent find described as “two stone lines forming a lane about 30 metres long and eight metres wide which ended in a corral-type structure” with “hunting blinds built into the sides as well as other lanes and structures,” then why not elsewhere on Turtle Island?