On my way to the Saugerties Fish and Gun Club, I travel five different roads, about 12 miles. I pass by 14 stone walls in various states of disrepair.
My family of hunters had a favorite stone wall at the base of the mountain in the woods behind our home in Willow, where I grew up. It was a place where countless deer were taken along a well-worn game trail. I remember one day going along with my dad on a day of hunting. I was too young to have a license myself. I remember asking my dad why anyone would build a stone wall in the middle of the woods, so far from anything. He told me to look around and imagine no trees, just an open meadow. The wall before us had been built a long time ago to mark boundary lines or keep livestock in; he pointed out evidence of an old foundation nearby which may have been a barn.
Homo sapiens began farming about 10,000 years ago, and it was probably this activity that first created a need (and the supply) for stone walls. Clearing the land for growing crops threw up the stones that made the boundaries, separating one field from another. Sheep needed to be herded and guarded, leading to larger human settlements (and work for the recently domesticated dog). The Latin for sheep, ovis, and the English ewe both emerge from the Sanskrit avi, which has its roots in av, meaning “to guard or protect.” Looking after sheep meant building walls. Building walls was the beginning of civilization.
Dry stone walls are found wherever stone is abundant or the weather too rough for hedges. On the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland, three islands covering less than 18 square miles contain 1,500 miles of dry stone wall (stretched end to end, they’d reach halfway to America). Although local styles vary, a basic rule is for the width of the base to equal the height and the width of the top to be half the base. In windy sites (such as the Aran Islands), some walls have holes to let the wind through. Known as “lace walls”, they are less likely to be blown down.
In the past century or so, the image of an old stone wall has become a nostalgic icon of a time past. Poets and artists like Robert Frost or Currier & Ives used stone walls in their work as romantic symbols, suggesting an earlier, simpler time before industrialization took hold over the rural economy. Finding an old stone wall in the middle of dense woods reminds us that once these were deforested for farm and pasture lands. Woods containing stone walls offer clues to historic land tenure. Later, as families and communities grew and lots were subdivided, stone fencing became important for establishing property lines. Stone walls are often the only evidence of the extensive human activity that occurred before farms were abandoned and families fled to cities or towns for better and easier opportunities.
Any geologist will tell you stone walls, left untended, must fall apart. No matter the skill and effort of the mason or determination of the farmer, walls built from stones from the soil and carefully arranged will eventually fall back to the ground.
A larger threat that has developed recently is the theft and sale of stones to be used in new walls, patios and landscaping projects. Weathered and lichen-encrusted stones with an authentic look and antique patina sell for up to $700 a ton, and a ton of stone is not a very big pile.
Alarmed by the increased thefts and sales of stone walls, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation included stone walls on its list of most endangered properties and at least three towns in Connecticut have strict laws against dismantling stone walls. New York State is lacking in any such laws.
A number of walls that are in parks or along roadways can often be legally protected, but the more remote walls on public and private lands are more prone to theft and removal for sale and new construction. As more rural land is developed, the threat to stone walls becomes more significant. In Massachusetts, advocates trying to protect stonewalls have enforced fines and jail time for offenders.
In his book Stone By Stone, Robert Thorson writes, “When I place my hand on one of the sun-warmed stones of my wall, it’s easy for me to conjure up an image of the farmer who placed the stone there: his trousers muddy from the knees down, his shoulders locked for strength, his arms toughened by a thousand liftings, and his bruised hands gripping the skull-size cobble.” Doing our part to help preserve these geological, ecological, historical and cultural artifacts will help ensure that these stories in stone can live on into the far future.
On your next hunting adventure, check out the stone wall you will surely encounter; sit for a moment and imagine the industrious farmer who spent countless hours in this herculean task, leaving behind a legacy of a bygone era.
By the way, my dad did not get a deer that day, maybe due to my asking too many questions; unfortunately, it is a trait I have never lost.
Skipping stones has been going since ancient times and is a common occurrence around the world.
How does a stone “skip” across water? Spin, speed, shape and angle are the crucial factors, with angle being the most important.
Spin stabilizes an object and keeps it from simply falling into the water. A minimum speed must be achieved or the stone will hit the water and sink immediately. Flat, round stones are best because the surface area creates a bounce on impact, but the “magic angle” takes practice.
According to Jerry McGhee, founder of the North American Stone Skipping Association (NASSA), both Shakespeare and Homer mentioned stone skipping. Who would have believed that there was an association for stone skipping?
Eskimos skip rocks on ice and Bedouins use smooth sand. In England, stone skipping is known as “ducks and drakes,” in France, as “ricochet,” in Ireland, as “stone skiffing,” in Denmark as “smutting,” and every language, from Hindi to Russian to Chinese, has a unique word or term for skipping stones.
A word used in American English is “to dap,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “to rebound, bounce; to hop or skip (as a stone along the surface of water).
The North American Stone Skipping Association (NASSA), formed in 1989 and based in Driftwood, Texas, holds world championships each year. A similar event takes place every year in Easdale, Scotland.
The world record, according to the “Guinness Book of Records,” is 40 skips, set by Kurt Steiner at the Pennsylvania Qualifying Stone Skipping Tournament on September 14, 2002.
The rules in formal competitions are:
The stone’s diameter shall not exceed three inches at any point.
The stone must have been formed naturally.
The stone must bounce three times before sinking.
The stone that skims the farthest within the marked lane wins, irrespective of the number of bounces.
Each competitor gets five attempts, with the longest skim counting.
Barbara Buono’s column appears the fourth week of each month.