Gathering Moss Mapping the Miles of State’s Stone Walls
By Tom Long
Fiddlehead Contributing Editor
Generations of New Hampshire farmers have proven that it doesn’t have to cost a billion dollars to build a wall.
The thousands of miles of lichen-splotched stone walls that wend their ways through the Granite State were made with little more than strong backs and sweat equity. But the agricultural artifacts hiding in plain sight are disappearing, and the New Hampshire Geological Survey is looking for our help to create a crowdsourced map of the earthy enclosures.
At the kickoff of the New Hampshire Stone Wall Mapping Project earlier this year, State Geologist Rick Chormann said, “We will fuse new technology with New Hampshire history to create a unique cultural preservation asset and learning experience.”
The project uses Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, images harvested from overflights to provide a detailed map of the state on which members of the public are invited to help identify stone walls in their area. LiDAR is an imaging technique recently used to create a detailed map of Stonehenge in England.
“Generations of farmers and masons built thousands of miles of stone walls out of New Hampshire granite, and today those walls are vanishing,” said Elizabeth H. Muzzey, director of the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources.
“Identifying what remains is the important first step of preserving them for generations to come.”
“Stone walls are the most important artifacts in rural New England,” said Robert Thorson of the University of Connecticut’s Stone Wall Initiative. “They’re a visceral connection to the past. They are just as surely a remnant of a former civilization as a ruin in the Amazon rainforest.”
By the middle of the 19th century more than 70 percent of New England was deforested, and small farms stretched as far as the eye could see. Most of those fields were enclosed by rock walls. The stones found in New England’s notoriously rocky soil had to be removed to avoid damaging or destroying plows.
Those rocks were left behind by a retreating glacier 12,000 years ago. And they kept on coming. Each winter frost heaves threw up more rocks and they were added to the walls. Many settlers thought it was the devil’s work.
By the end of the 1800s, when it became obvious how hard it was to eke a living out of rock-strewn land, many took the advice of Granite State-born journalist Horace Greeley to “Go west, young man,” or got jobs in mills during the Industrial Revolution, and the lichen-splotched rock walls were soon obscured by the resurgent forest.
In 1939, using data from an 1875 United States Department of Agriculture report, mining engineer Oliver Bowles estimated that there were about 240,000 miles of stone walls in New England, enough to stretch to the moon. Thorson has estimated that about 100,000 miles remain.
The walls create micro-climates and corridors for critters to travel through the woods and provide cover for foxes, chipmunks, mice and salamanders. Bobcats and coyotes travel atop them for a better vantage point to spot prey.
Some of the walls are more historic than others. The oldest documented stone wall in the country was built in 1607 at the English settlement at Popham Point, Maine. The stone wall that Minutemen hid behind to fire at the Redcoats during the retreat from Lexington still stands at the Old Manse in Concord, Mass.
And the stone wall still stands at the Derry farm of poet Robert Frost, the inspiration for his poem, “Mending Wall,” which immortalized the aphorism, “good fences make good neighbors.”
For more information on the New Hampshire Stone Wall Mapping Project, visit granit.unh.edu/resourcelibrary/specialtopics/stonewalls or facebook.com/groups/NHstonewalls.