Times Past, Pausing to Remember


stone wall Stones stacked atop one another without mortar seem to have existed as long as humans have lived in semi-enduring communities and certainly as long as they have carried on agriculture. Such walls are held together solely by their own weight and were being built prior to recorded history; in Ireland the remains of field walls have been dated to the late Neolithic period, about 1750 B.C. Old walls of stone occur on every continent, with the possible exception of Antarctica. If all stone walls on the planet were laid end to end - who knows how many times it might circle the earth?

We'll never know the answer to that, because even North America has walls hidden away in places only the occasional hiker frequents in the 21st century. What looks today like a very old forest can be criss-crossed with the remnants of some farmer's labor, pioneers perhaps clearing fields to plant their crops. A well-built dry wall can last 200 years. Even a poorly-built one will betray its presence by a line of stones collected together, meandering along in ways that nature would not have devised.

Walls might have been built to keep something out, or to keep something else in, or just an economical way of placing the stones off the fields and out of the way of the plow and of the wagon. Sometimes, they served as boundaries for property, more durable than the tiny iron posts with their ridiculously ephemeral orange flags that surveyors use today.

Stone walls were favorite shelters during battles; there weren't many large infantry engagements during the American Civil War that didn't immortalize some farmer's wall. Many suffered dismantlement, but they made the history books for all time.

Mead's Headquarters
After the battle at Gettysburg
Mead had his headquarters here

Old stone walls had a purpose; they were never built as ornaments as they are today in suburbs everywhere. In such settings, they nearly always look out of place, keeping nothing in and keeping nothing out. The American poet Robert Frost would smile to see them. He knew a great deal about walls.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulder in the sun,
And make gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there,
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There were it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
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 though of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."