The Native American name for the town where I live means “long rocky place,” and as resilient New Englanders built their farms here, they cleared stones, then lined their borders with them. Although our land backs up to deep woods, we know long ago, the place was clear, because the stone wall lining one side of our property trundles deep into second growth, meandering through pine and oak before ending up by a pond. I have this image of a farmer in a straw hat, driving his cows there to drink.
The front of our property is lined with stone too, a tumbled row of rocks placed back when our road was the major north-south byway, long before the two lane highway was built. I like our wall the way it is, a bit toppled, covered with moss and lichen, speaking a language of history and antiquity. Two houses across the way have had their stone walls rebuilt and they look nice, straight, planned, beautiful even—but they no longer conjure up evidence of what came before.
My attention to stone walls occurs because we are having work done at our house. Our 1958 “custom” ranch rests on a plot carved out of a bigger piece of land, and if you look out the back door, almost half of the backyard is ledge. Over the twenty-three years we’ve lived here, we’ve added shrubs and gardens, and like those ancient farmers, we’ve encountered many a rock. My husband shaped walls, too, placing stones to mark off edges and paths. But, as we know from our antique wall in front, without footings, stones sink, or heave with the frost, and in our case, become reabsorbed by the ground. Add to that a fifties-style, concrete block patio, with broken tiles and moss too thick to scrape. In a last “do-it-ourselves” effort this spring, we tried to clean the patio with a power washer, but after coating ourselves in mud, we caved and hired a stone mason to build walls and update the patio.
The man doing the job has been in business around town for years and his work is stunning. In truth, we never thought we’d be in a position to hire him. But his quote was competitive, and now things are in progress. Nineteen-inch sitting walls are taking shape, straighter and perhaps more “stylish” than what they’re replacing, but lovely in their own way. Soon a bluestone patio will replace the cement, and here's the thing. As I look out to this work in progress, it occurs to me that the same way those long ago farmers left their mark, through this skilled artisan, we’re leaving our mark, too. The house may go, but perhaps the walls will stay. Stone as witness—to what is, and what will come. Perhaps some day, long into the future, our walls will tell a little of our story, long after we cease to be.