HUNKER DOWN at home but get out into the fresh air and exercise – maintaining social distancing, of course.
Yes, more people are out walking than we usually see in early spring. According to reports, the problem is we are getting into the same fresh air. Mount Monadnock, Mount Major and other popular hiking trails are mobbed with visitors seeking a stroll in the country. There is a better way.
Most New Hampshire residents are only a few miles from scenic country roads that have webbed the Granite State since the early 19th century or before. These old byways hold the history of our state. Our lives’ present strictures offer an opportunity to get close to that history, human and natural, that gives New Hampshire its identity. Simply park the car off the road and walk.
How do you know if you are on a “real” old country road? First, it will generally be called “road” and never terrace, circle or drive. Having “old” in the name, as in Old Nottingham Road, makes it likely that you are on the original 18th-century track between two neighboring villages. The real identity marker, however, is that the road will be lined with stone walls.
Every roadside fieldstone wall once enclosed farmland that was cleared for pasturing, orchards, grain and gardens. After trees were felled and cleared, stumps burned and pulled, there remained the stones. Every stone was moved from the field, placed and replaced by hand.
A horse, ox or team were hitched to a flat iron-reinforced wooden sledge – a stoneboat. Each stone was pried from the ground with a crowbar and lifted or rolled onto the stoneboat. When the boat was heavy enough for its horsepower, it was driven to the field’s edge. Each stone was lifted and placed into the growing wall. It was slow, back-breaking work and almost impossible for one man to do by himself. The walls we see often stood several feet higher when they were built. Over the decades that followed stones have gradually sunk into the subsoil from the piled weight.
Acre by acre, the Granite State was cleared and the stone wall network grew. It began in the late 1630s around Great Bay – Dover, Exeter and Durham – and along the seacoast. The web grew as settlement did, first along the navigable river valleys. Early tracks and roads followed the tributary rivers and streams. Farms and villages grew along these routes, and stone walls soon spread upward along the hillsides and ridges.
The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests reports that by the 1850s south of the White Mountains some 70 percent of the land had been cleared, parsed with dry fieldstone walls. By the end of the 19th century, however, farmers were already leaving behind New Hampshire’s rocky terrain for the fertile, thick topsoil to the West. That pattern of agricultural out-migration continued for 100 years. As many small farms were abandoned, it took the forest only a generation to reclaim the fields and pasture. But the stone boundaries remained.
From the walls lining the roads, fieldstone ribbons lead off into the woods. Follow their trail and before long you will come upon an old cellar hole where a farmhouse once stood, built by the same hands that wrested those stones. Clues that a hand-dug, fieldstone-lined cellar hole is near include a convergence of walls or small enclosures, and perhaps a stand of old lilacs or day lilies.
Such remnants of long-gone farms are often set back, but close beside the road you may come across a small cemetery. Family burial plots from the 1700s and 1800s tell the story of generations who were born, lived, died and were buried on the family farm. The headstones tell their family tale of infant deaths and child-bearing deaths, persevering faith and fortitude in a harsh land. Here in Epping alone there are almost 70 such small burial grounds along our back roads.
Over the next few weeks, New Hampshire is greening up with grasses and bulb flowers, fiddlehead ferns and dandelions – all beside our country roads. It is a wonderful time to rediscover our natural world. Wildlife activity returns from its long winter’s nap or southern migration. Look for squirrels in the leafing trees, chipmunks bouncing around the stonewalls and red-winged blackbirds nesting in wetland rushes. There are forsythia and daffodils adorning grand old farmhouses and the barns that often now stand sadly empty and deteriorating.
No writer has so evocatively captured this bygone New Hampshire world as Robert Frost. Back home with an afternoon coffee or quarantini, you might read Frost’s “Mending Wall” and his poignant “Home Burial.” There is always another road not taken to explore tomorrow.