Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Sept. 14, 1974.
I was sitting upon a wall one day
Musing the time away
When, suddenly, I saw the wall itself,
Like a candle upon a a shelf
You know it’s there
Yet, you do not see it, where
It’s always been
Handed down from kin to kin.
And so it is with a wall
Made of God’s wherewithal.
A stone wall is a poetic tribute of one generation to another. Great distances of grey stone, a heritage of walls, trail across New England. Stones laid close enough together, yet far enough apart to give protection for chipmunks, squirrels, woodchucks, and such as would escape from earth awhile. That’s what I was doing, musing upon the wall — thinking of warm and pleasant things, feeling the gentle touch of shaded sun beneath a maple.
I looked out across a field that once held these very stones I sat upon. Held them too close for farmers to enjoy. And so the farmers made use of them. They knew not waste of anything and especially the “bones” of the field. They laid them thus, stretched them across their land to hold the woodlands back, to bound their lines, to set things straight between neighbors, to keep their stock at home. I wonder, did they know their walls would live beyond them? They must have, for laying up a wall takes more skill than writing verse. One stone had to be balanced upon another and made sturdy so that no cow would push them over. They didn’t want them back in their clover.
I’ve never tried to lay a wall starting with naked stones on bare ground. Once I tried to put one back after I had tumbled it. I had valued my peas more than my eye and when my dog chased a woodchuck into my wall, I tore it down. I do so with little thought as to how it went so’s I might have a clue as to how it might be put back. Before I was through I hoped it wouldn’t have to be done again. When finished, I left it but it really never looked the same. I’d pleased the dog though. He’d taken his quarry and headed for the house to show his mistress what he’d done. He wanted praise, and praise he’d got from us both. He’d saved the peas and that’s what counted with us then.
I’d like to know how much of a man’s life went into building a wall. John Burroughs came close to telling me when he wrote in his book, “My Boyhood”:
“The old farm must have had at least 10 miles of stone walls upon it, many of them built new by Father from stones picked up in the fields, and many of them relaid by him, or rather by his boys and hired men. Father was not skillful at any sort of craft work. He was a good ploughman, a good mower and cradler, excellent with a team of oxen drawing rocks, and good at most general farm work, but not adept at constructing anything ... Father used to count on building 40 or 50 rods of stone walls a year usually in the spring and early summer. These were the only lines of poetry and prose Father wrote. They are still very legible on the face of the landscape and cannot be easily erased from it.”
Others have written of walls and men, but none as well I think as Robert Frost with “Mending Wall.” I won’t quote the whole, for it is easily found, and in the search you might find another that would please you more. But suffice these lines:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
That wants it down. I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again,
‘Good fences make good neighbors.’”
Stacey Cole, Nature Talks author for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at firstname.lastname@example.org.