Thursday, March 17, 2011

Want: Fewer Stones

Being a native of the Internet, common interests have inspired me to meet a number of people from around the country that I first knew online. It turned out that I didn’t fit their preconceived notions about residents of northern New England: I’ve never seen a live chicken up close, I don't have lift tickets hanging from my jacket’s zipper, and I'm not particularly emotional about maple syrup.

But even I can’t completely avoid a relationship with the land and its history, if only because it’s everywhere I look—often in the form of long-abandoned stone walls.

From beside the highway to the middle of the woods, they’re leftovers of New England’s agricultural past. Once upon a time, some farmer cleared those rocks from his pasture and used them to build a wall nearby. According to Robert Thorson, founder of the StoneWall Initiative, it was estimated in 1939 that there were more than 250,000 miles of stone walls in the northeast.

Based on the following entry in the Dictionary of Every-day Wants, some of those stones may have been moved with the help of clever Dr. Youman.

This technique dates all the way back to Hannibal’s trip to Rome—he had to get those pesky elephants over the Alps somehow—and it turns out that it’s use in even today. (Don’t try this at home, kids! Stones sometimes explode when exposed to temperature extremes.)

By the time the Dictionary of Every-day Wants was written, New Englanders had already been moving West for at least fifty years. The stone walls I see practically every day are ghosts they left behind, abandoned homes and farms reclaimed by Mother Nature. Thanks to that eager beaver, the landscape around here is pretty different: In 1850, 30 percent of Vermont was covered by forest. Today that number is closer 80 percent.