Failure, Part 1

Stone Wall, Andover MA

Those picturesque New England stone walls were not put there for their looks. They weren’t even the first choice of material. Fences were originally wood, using the zigzag design that calls for a lot of wood for the length. Wood became scarce and too valuable for fencing after the forests were cleared, so stone walls became the default.

Clearing the forests, paradoxically, had the unintended effect of making rocks more abundant. Soil in a forest freezes gradually in the fall and thaws slowly in the spring. When the soil was exposed to the sun, it would freeze and thaw suddenly and repeatedly. The result is like what happens when you shake a half-full can of mixed nuts: the Brazil nuts come to the top, and the salt and broken bits fall to the bottom. The glacial soil of New England was full of rocks, and there would be new ones pushed to the surface every spring. The walls were a place to put this abundant crop.

Eventually, most people who wanted to farm went west. Farms were abandoned, and the forests grew back. It is not uncommon to find small towns in Vermont and New Hampshire where the population peaked around the time of the Civil War, when the railroads solved the problem of getting crops from the fertile, stone-free farmland of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Many who stayed moved on to other pursuits, and other failures. Continued…

4 thoughts on “Failure, Part 1”

  1. Very few modern people realize that the picturesque stone borders and fences in many rural areas of the world represent literally thousands of man-hours of backbreaking physical labor. The borders weren’t built for beauty or, in some cases, even for any great function; in any area where agriculture and glacial till coexisted, it was simply a necessity to find somewhere to put all the damn rocks. People came up with the same solution to the stone problem in many different places on the planet, which is why you can now find the same types of low stone walls in almost any agricultural (currently or historically) region in the world.

  2. Yeah, the principle crop of my backyard is rocks, that’s for sure. The percolating phenomenon lets you know just how much vibration and movement allegedly stable ground undergoes over the course of a year. I’m glad I don’t live near a fault line or the rocks would be coming up through the concrete in my basement.

    I live for the day I can retire back down South. No rocks, less snow, and decent BBQ.

  3. It’s the frost heave that brings them up.
    Supposedly, John Quincy Adams was deeded a piece of property by his father, John Adams, who had not yet become president. Given the choice of being a gentleman farmer, or selling and going to Harvard to study law, JQA decided to sell ‘Stony Acres’, as it was called, and go for the books.

  4. This is why you’ll read of farmers’ complaints that the only thing their fields are good for is “growing rocks”. A farmer will go out to his fields in the spring and find it full of stones and boulders that weren’t there the previous fall.

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