November 20 shone bright and clear but with a stiff breeze that reminded anyone outside that winter is indeed on the way. That did not dissuade about 20 hearty souls from attending a stone wall-building workshop hosted by the Mattapoisett Land Trust. The workshop was led by MLT’s Peter Davies at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. summer homestead.
When first acquired, the parcel was a little more than piles of rocks and decades of brambles and other vegetation, obscuring its potential as part of the Pine Island Watershed in the area MLT calls the Old Aucoot District, some 400 acres of woodlands and saltmarsh. Now, with the help of Davies and many other land-trust members and friends, this section of that vast holding is rising up one stone at a time just off Angelica Road.
Davies showed the group the practical aspects and theory they’d be employing, wedge-and-lever mechanics. He demonstrated the proper way to move stones weighing several hundred pounds and positioning them with exactitude with a wedge, a lever and a pry bar. Davies told the assembled to let the tools do the job, not their backs.
For about 30 years, Davies, a retired school administrator, has been perfecting his stone wall building skills, and that can be seen in the barn foundation at the OWH site. What was once just piles of stones now reflect the ancient art of stone wall building. The site now features a dry, stone wall foundation of rustic beauty.
According to Robert Thorson of the University of Connecticut, humans began building stone walls with regularity in the Bronze Age. While walls going back that far are unlikely to ever be discovered in New England, Thorson treats “farmer’s walls,” the type of walls we are familiar with, as archeological reminders left behind by our forebearers.
“By the mid-nineteenth century, a whopping 70 percent of the New England countryside had been deforested for fuel, for buildings and for farmlands,” he wrote. Thorson said that, if we could wander back in time, what we would find as far as the eye could see would be small farm holdings surrounded by “dump walls.”
Another whopper of a statistic from Thorson’s research is that some 240,000 miles of stone walls have been erected weighing 400 million tons, “enough to build the Great Pyramid of Giza 60 times over.”
Appearing on landscapes throughout the Tri-Town area are various types of stone walls, from those dry laid, tightly fitted upon gravel foundations and seen primarily as gorgeous landscape features to dump walls or farmer’s walls, a classic mounding of stone to midthigh, or tossed walls erected to use the plentiful stones for fencing in animals and establishing property lines. However stone is used in the crafting of walls, the statement is one of elegance.
Davies and the crew were able to erect about 15 feet of stone wall as edging along a trail snaking from behind the OWH stone foundation into the surrounding woods. He said that in the spring another workshop will be held and all are invited to join.
Mattapoisett Land Trust
By Marilou Newell