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Book Review: ‘Sermons in Stone’ Is Weighty in a Good Way

The stone walls of New England aren’t as old as the pyramids, but in their own way they’re as inscrutable, and evidence of human industry and life in places long ago abandoned and overtaken by nature. A ramble through the woods of Northern New England, on old, isolated roads cut through steep hillsides, often takes you past cellar holes that are the remains of houses and barns and stone walls that were intended to pen livestock.

The walls march up and down hills, run across fields and skirt streams. Time has weathered the granite and slate, moss and lichen have crept in, some of the rocks have fallen away, trees have taken root in the chinks between the stones, but as structures they’ve survived largely intact.

Who built the walls, and why and how, are the subject of Countryman Press’s reissue of Sermons in Stone by Susan Allport, with charming illustrations by David Howell. In a book filled with facts, two stand out. The Northeast is the only part of the country that relied primarily on stone walls for fencing, and there are approximately 250,000 miles of them throughout New York and New England, a distance greater than the amount of railroad track in the U.S.

The reason why settlers in the Northeast from the post-Revolution era through the early 20th century used stone to the exclusion of nearly every other material isn’t difficult to discern. The Northeast abounds with stone — granite, schist, gneiss, limestone — and glacial erratics, the huge boulders deposited as the crushing force of the glaciers carved out valleys and mountains, and brought rocks with them.

With the exception of the Connecticut River Valley, this wasn’t flat, easily tilled land. There were millions of acres of forest that the settlers set about clearing for agriculture, and then innumerable tree stumps to remove. The climate was harsh in winter, and after cycles of freezing and thawing, the terrain heaved up rocks every spring that would have to be disposed of to make fields arable.

Settlers used the stones in a number of ways: they built walls and enclosures and they tossed them into makeshift piles to get them out of the way. They harnessed teams of oxen to move boulders and rocks on stone boats, a kind of sledge. They erected pounds for livestock. (“Pound” can be traced back to Late Middle English, according to the Oxford Dictionary of American English. The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it’s a derivation of pund, a place where straying livestock could be confined.)

When you see an old stone wall today, it often seems too short to have deterred any cow or sheep from escaping. But Allport points out that some walls were built to a height of four or five feet — a huge undertaking when you think about it — and that farmers often erected wooden fences or rails atop the walls for a further barrier. Eventually the wood was removed or it rotted away, leaving behind walls that look inadequate to their original purpose.

Allport debunks a number of lingering myths about stone walls and other structures. First, structures that seem mysterious to us now, like a stone enclosure or oven-shaped dome made from rocks, are not the relics of long-ago Viking or Celtic settlements, as some maintain, but pounds, root cellars or grain holders.

If there had been Viking or Celtic incursions into what is now New England, Allport argues, you would have expected to find other evidence of them. At the only verified Viking settlement in North America, L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which dates roughly to 1000 C.E. there were ample artifacts and structural remains. No such hard evidence exists for any European settlements in New England and New York prior to those of the Dutch and the English.

Allport also expands our understanding of who built the stone walls. Tradition has it that they were erected early on by sturdy English settlers. In fact, the building of stone walls begins a decade or two after the Revolution and reaches its apex between 1820 and 1850. And they were built not just by farmers, but by slaves, indentured servants and Algonquins and Narragansetts, among other tribes, who were pressed into service.

The material in Sermons in Stone isn’t new; there have been books written in the past, and there will be books written in the future, on the stone walls of the Northeast.

But you can’t help but respond to Allport’s abiding interest in them and her zeal in uncovering germane and occasionally odd facts. She writes succinctly and clearly, and has the ability to make the subject seem as if it’s one of the most fascinating topics in the world. Which is about all you can ask of a writer.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.