Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Lost walls in the woods.

This old wall has been tidied up to make a modern boundary.

Our summer home.
Note the log pile and regeneration.
Our summer home lies at the point of a rough and tumble peninsula that juts out into the tidal New Meadows River in Maine. I do not think the property was ever farmed but the timber has been cut over many times for house and ship building and for firewood. There is the remains of a trackway and a substantial dock made from stones suggesting an industrial use such as lobster fishing or a timber yard. Further back along the neck the land widens out and flattens off, giving more space for bigger houses with broad rolling lawns. I walked through the woods there and found a wall of large granite stones, completely lost in the woods.

You come across walls like these throughout most of New England and I have always assumed them to be property boundary markers. They are only knee-high; not neatly built like the limestone walls of the Yorkshire Dales. They would never hold livestock, so you might think that the boundary idea makes sense. But mostly you would be wrong.

A man mows the grass every Saturday,
otherwise you would soon lose sight of the house.
To understand the reason for these lost walls, we need to look at how the land was settled in the 18th century.

The first English settlement in these parts was the Popham Colony, which only lasted a year in 1607-08 before the "colonists" built their own ship and sailed home. All the same, they represent the first ripple in a huge tide of change. After a hundred years of tentative settlements on the very edge of the continent, people spread in-land to make their own farms in the glacial soil that filled pockets and hollows along rivers and rolling slopes.

Typically, a man would mark out his holding by blazing trees with his axe, then he would spend two years clearing away the trees and building a cabin. Pine and oak timber was good for all manner of carpentry, but the house and post-and-rail fencing took priority. The rest of the woodland was burned to make potash that was sold to make gunpowder in that century of European wars. You didn't need a barn until you had crops and livestock.

A post and rail fence intersects an old wall.
And so a farm got started, but that was not the end of the hard, backbreaking work of building a community, a state or a nation. Men, women and children all worked the land to produce crops and many branched out into fishing and lumbering.

Those small farms were just isolated clearings in an unimaginably large forest. Before settlement, such clearings were created naturally by storms and fires and by the native American people such as the Abenaki. The forest soon took them all back. But these new farmers were from the English south west and wished to replicate Devon, Cornwall and Somerset in the New World. They only knew how to farm the same piece of land over and over again, which meant a constant battle with the climate, the forest, it's people and it's wildlife.

A "telescope house".
Exposed soil in a permanent clearing experiences a different climate to a nearby forest glade. It gets hotter in summer and colder in winter and the wind dries the ground out. When it rains, there is no shelter and run-off from storms causes erosion. Frost-heave slowly lifts rocks and stones, even boulders, to the surface and they have to be removed from the fields by hand. Stone-picking was a huge chore and could only be done by strong men using a sled pulled by an ox or a horse. The carried them for the shortest possible distance, dumping them along their fence-lines. The stones arrived at the fence in random sizes, but many were too heavy to lift. Those that could be lifted would be hugged to a man's belly and then dropped onto the bigger rocks, which explains why the walls are only knee-high. The walls are also broad-based, simply because they would have fallen over otherwise. All of the stones were un-dressed so they had rounded edges mostly; not good for stacking.

My lost walls in the forest marked out old fence-lines from farms that were long-gone. The forest took nearly all of them back. Today, agriculture is mostly practiced on mid-sized farms in the larger valleys, away from the coast. However a few small farmsteads can be found, especially where people keep horses or specialise in vegetables for the local farmers' markets.

These small farms are still fighting back the forest. Seedlings of oak, ash, birch, hickory and pine pop up every year amid the cone-flowers, black-eyed-Susans and goldenrods along field margins and in corners. You can see walls that are still being added to and, where there is livestock, post and rail fences.

An interesting feature of the oldest wooden houses is the way that the original small cabin was extended repeatedly as families grew and fortunes improved. The result is the "telescope house" with each extension being larger than the last.

On the peninsula the trees are being cleared again to build homes and "camps" for summer people. Many of the houses are designed to look like colonial homes, but often on a grand scale. Some are even telescope houses, incorporating barns and garages, decks and porches. The new owners find old walls on their property and have a local man build them a new one, out front where people can see it. You may also spot new-ish walls around cemeteries but they differ from the old walls in a fundamental way; they are neat and finished off with flat stones on top. These are deliberate walls, not piles of waste stone.