Retaining Walls

Retaining Walls

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” begins Robert Frost’s oft-read poem “Mending Wall.” Frost is lamenting all the things that bring down his old stone walls, requiring him and his neighbor to repair them each spring: the “frozen-ground-swell”; hunters in search of a hiding rabbit; even, he imagines, “elves.” He’d just as soon let the walls tumble down, but his neighbor, “like an old-stone savage armed,” merely responds with that old New England saying: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

“Good fences” still wend their broken way through forests and along roads throughout New Haven County. “To know New England well, one must know its stone walls,” claims Robert M. Thorson, author of the definitive history Stone by Stone (2002).

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

To help us know them, Thorson, a professor of geosciences at UConn, lists the purposes of the estimated 140,000 miles of stone walls in the northeast: to fence in livestock, to mark the boundaries of private land, to display wealth or beauty and, most of all, “to hold the waste stone that once littered farm fields. However tidy well-built walls might appear, most functioned originally as linear landfills.” In other words, early walls were more like dumps than decorations.

But we need to go back even further to really understand them. According to Thorson, New England’s soil wasn’t rocky enough to support the building of stone walls before the arrival of colonists, who clear-cut the land. That exposure, coinciding with a period of colder, drier winters in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, caused the ground to freeze to a greater depth. Conditions “worked together to accelerate the heaving of stones from the soil,” Thorson writes. Combine those circumstances with a dearth of wood for fencing—since forests had been cleared for farms and fuel—and the stone wall was born.

Most of our stone walls were built between the American Revolution and the advent of the railroad, when settlers moved from the coast into the rocky uplands and property ideals shifted from the communal to the private, Thorson explains. However, some stone walls in southern Connecticut date to the colonial era. Early on, Thorson says, farmers simply rolled stones into piles in the middle of their fields.

Within a few decades, they’d begun relegating them to the edges, where it was easiest to pile them into informal “tossed walls,” the most common type. Later generations sometimes came along and tidied up the walls, as Robert Frost and his neighbor did, and some went so far as to create more thoughtfully designed “laid walls.” The strongest kind, “disposal walls,” were constructed of two parallel walls with stone fill between them. Then there were “walking walls” with “broad capstones… laid flat, like a sidewalk,” Thorson writes.

“English-style” is the way one Woodbridge resident describes that same type of wall. I meet him one icy afternoon while I’m taking photographs and he’s walking with his dog. He rebuilt his own wall, he tells me, from the tumbledown remnants lining his small stretch of Sperry Road. He points east toward the Glen Lake reservoir, just over the rise. When the water is low, he says, old stone walls can be seen in the flooded valley.

They’re tough to find within New Haven’s city limits, but Woodbridge, especially up Route 69, is replete with the remains of old farm barriers like those. Rural Hamden is home to many of these relics, too, lining the roadsides and snaking into the woods. On aptly named Stonewall Drive, nearly every neighbor has incorporated stones into their landscape.

Despite being human constructions, our stone walls are also habitats, “barriers to some creatures, but homes and highways for many more,” Thorson writes. They incubate seeds and nuts, “control local microclimates,” serve as “climatic buffers” partly by conducting heat, collect dew and host mosses and lichens.

“Left untended, every wall will come apart,” Thorson tells us. Some are even plundered, with or without landowners’ permission, to be sold at rates around $200 per ton, according to an Internet search. While Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island have protected their stone walls with legislation, Connecticut hasn’t, though they “may be protected under historic preservation laws,” the General Assembly’s website says.

Facts may help us get to know the old walls, as Thorson insists we should. But perhaps the best way is to bundle up and walk into the woods. Rounded and flat, bramble-covered and exposed, green with moss or white with snow, you can find them there, no longer keeping cows from corn or neighbors from one another. It seems we may love them more than those who built them ever did, which makes you wonder: What casual constructions of ours will our descendants value?

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims. Image features a fallen tree meeting a stone wall along Route 69. This story was originally published on March 9, 2018.

More Stories