Ancient walls of dry-laid stone angle oddly across my lovely piece of New Hampshire land, tracing long gone meadows where I’m told herds of sheep, cows and goats once grazed. Today, these ingenious rustic structures course their way up, down and across the gently sloping floor of my now mature north woods forest. Here and there mighty bull hemlocks, century trees of impressive girth, rise to skyscraping heights. Grove upon grove of improbably tall and slender white pine and jack pine predominate the property. Deciduous varieties also weave their leafy signatures throughout the vibrant canopy that shelters most of my walls in perpetual shade.
The walls are solid built, measuring four to five feet wide at their base, embedded in soft deep accretions of pine needles and natural compost, laid down by countless repetitions of the striking New England cycle of seasons. The wall sides taper unevenly upward to a top width of about one to two feet. While their surfaces are too uneven and unstable to walk upon, they offer many an impromptu seat, availing unique prospects on this placid landscape, providing exquisite places for quiet contemplation and spiritual refreshment.
While the walls remain fairly intact, some segments are in a tumbledown state creating notches and breaches that permit scenic walkabouts with my trusty staff helping keep erect these unreliable old bones. I’ve rescued a number of fallen stones from their accidental resting places and used them to augment my various flower beds. I have plans to build some cairns from others.
Many wall stones are clad in vivid mosses, while others are mottled and splotched by polychrome lichens, the dense leafiness overhead preserving the rich dampness that allows these comely parasites to flourish. If you look closely along one wall’s face, rusted remnants of hand-turned, iron barbed-wire will be found lodged in its horizontal crevices. In random locations, naturally fallen tree trunks and lost limbs lean against the walls, appearing like organic cannon that fortify bucolic battlements but are armed only with their slow-grown memories of witnessed history.
They speak to me of that history, these three-hundred-year-old walls. They speak of a pleasing orderliness to the primitive business of single-handed husbandry, of a deliberate plan that wanted neat geometric pockets of specified use for this land. They tell me this is good land that was once prized and proudly tended. And they tell me I made a good choice to make my home here.
I try to imagine the sturdy colonist who first laid them down in order to then build them up. Surely, he was a burly fellow. I expect he had powerful arms with which to wrench each stone from its ice age repose somewhere on the grounds, no doubt assisted by an iron ploughshare or stout tree limb on a rock fulcrum. He’d likely pile his heavy harvest on a mule-drawn sledge and coax the mule to the wall site. Here, with a practiced eye, he would select stones for size and shape, fitting them into place one by one, achieving through artful employment of gravity the humble edifice that remarkably still endures.
He would have repeated that arduous process thousands of times, taking years to complete it, or, possibly, he never did finish the job. That might explain why some of the walls just peter out at seemingly arbitrary points. Maybe a rash of harsh winters dwindled his livestock or destabilized his markets. Perhaps some later landowner dismantled sections of wall, reclaiming their stones for service in a wellhead or barn foundation.
Gazing upon these remaining walls brings me serenity and contentment. They somehow ground me to this place in a way I never quite felt in my prior homes. And they connect me to traditional Yankee values I have always admired, and to the very way of life that composes the saga of this land.
Winter here exhibits a pastoral beauty worth rendering by artists. It’s like living in a Currier and Ives print. No surprise this vicinity was actually among their working venues. With each wall topped by successive snowfalls, pear-shaped white dollops squat on every protuberance that bumps and bulges from its vertical face. In all seasons, as the changing light of day moves across their hollows and their edges, momentary flecks and larger lozenges of light dance on the walls amid flickering shadows from overhanging trees. But it’s winter sunlight that creates the most splendid pictures, when the broad bright paddings of new white snow set off the age-worn charcoals and grays of the stones in riveting chiaroscuro.
I’ve been delighted by the exuberant springtime antics of chipmunks and squirrels who ceaselessly scurry along the wall tops, dart in and out its cavities, playing a kind of hyper-excited hide-and-seek with my shepherd/collie. Jessie, sadly no longer with us, never won that particular game, but she sure loved to play. Week-long spring rains soak the walls, bringing out remarkable darkened hues unseen at any other time of year. And as the water soaks and seeps, tender tips of opportunistic plants begin to poke their way out from between the stones.
Through the summer, lush verdant low-growth all but conceals large portions of the one wall that otherwise would enjoy steady sunshine. It borders the back edge of my yard lawn and stands along the base of a forested rise that carries upward behind it. A quick running vernal stream charged with seasonal snowmelt cuts the land at this wall’s feet and runs most of its length, nourishing natural screens of thirsty ferns, saplings and shrubs. You have to peer hard through the profuse green to see this wall, even though it stands head high.
There’s only one thing I can say about the autumn. Spectacular! No better adjective exists. Blazing maple reds, bright birch yellows, burnished hickory bronzes, radiant sycamore oranges, and rich oak russets burst in overlapping sequences against a backdrop of deep pine greens. As this virtual painter’s palette of foliage turns to brown and then thins, its leaves gyring and wafting to the woodland floor, the walls gradually reemerge in all their understated glory.
We’ve spotted moose and deer in our forest and on our lawns. Bear stalk the inner sanctums of the surrounding forest. Quail have been seen crossing my driveway, as have mallard ducks when the rains are heavy and the wetland portions of my land swell to succulence. Geese and wild turkeys occasionally flop down for brief waddling visits. Wolves, coyotes, fisher cats, foxes, porcupines, groundhogs and skunks live here, too. Turtles, snakes and frogs seem to enjoy the hidden pathways of the terrain, and legions of diminutive “peeper” frogs give voluble serenade to our summer nights. Frenetic squirrels, the red ones and brown ones in addition to the grays, cavort in the trees with abandon. But what most captivates me are the birds.
I bought my first pair of binoculars to watch them, something I never imagined doing when I was growing up in the asphalt jungle. Imagine an old rooftop-jumping, two-sewer-stickball-playing, urban street urchin like me growing into a bird-watcher! I’m fairly sure of the more obvious species like crows, cardinals, jays and robins, but I don’t yet know the names of most. While I’ve yet to see one, the sounds of owls are unmistakable in the night. Back in the city, the only bird I surely recognized was a pigeon. But the birds here in rural New Hampshire are no pigeons. Like the variegated trees they inhabit, they sport a stunning array of colors. Like the hardy human natives of this region, they exhibit fiercely independent attitudes in their daily enterprise.
And when a bird grants me the privilege of seeing it perch on one of my stone walls or prodigious branches, pecking the nooks and crannies for food and nesting materials, preening and strutting and chirping away to beat the band, I find myself thinking that this was the best move of my life. I’m glad I named this place Stonewood.