A friend told a joke about the nature of the Yankee: He farms here because there are stones in the soil. The teller got an easy laugh from the gathered folks, but I felt the line missed something vital. The next morning I attempted to crystallize my own relationship to the stone wall that marks the end of what nature allows me to claim as mine. Fieldstone walls are part of the texture of New England; perhaps we don't see them individually, but are dimly aware of their presence as part of the peripheral world we accept. Yet the one I contemplate from several windows and two floors provides me with a constantly changing study in stability. I watch the light play on the shades of green lichen and rich dark tones. The wall is, first, my sundial. In February, I watch the snow cover the wall like cake frosting, never really hiding it. I always know where I am because I know where it is.
The carefully balanced stones also stand as a backdrop to minor adventures. A chipmunk that I like to think of as my outdoor pet uses the wall as its highway to the best seeds and a shortcut to the small pond. It scampers in fits and starts, pausing on smooth-surfaced stones to get the best vantage on the predator situation. It must know it's picturesque, often posing artistically beside a cluster of red leaves or astride a shoot of English ivy creeping over the top of the wall. As if by agreement, it does not appear when the red squirrel or the several grays come to survey the ground below for choice acorns or a fetching female.
Juncos are confident on the wall, their slate feathers blending perfectly. As they pick through various crannies, their yellow beaks are the only tip-off to the human being waiting for their visits. Jays, titmice, chickadees, and nuthatches use the wall as an anvil, as they whack mightily at the sunflower seeds I leave in tribute.
I never cease to marvel that there is always a new harvest of the stones, eternal but born anew on the land. These most ancient of the earth's wonders become the contrast against which I judge nature's other beauties. For instance, the daffodils framed by the wall outshine those in my meadow. Additions to my landscaping efforts by the wall arrive independently, as if to thwart my poor attempt to control beauty. The wall seems to beckon Johnny-jump-ups, lady-slippers, and trillium to dance in its breeze and shelter. When I gather pine cones for kindling, the best cache is always at the base of the wall.
Builders have made much of field- stone in gentrification projects. But the best fieldstone fireplace I've ever seen is one in a small church in my town. The fledgling congregation wanted to heat a meeting room. After some consideration, the minister asked each person to come to a chimney-raising, bringing the best fieldstone he or she could find. As the chimney grew stone by stone, each member became a tangible part of the solid whole.
Some see the walls as practical barriers, preventing straying children and animals from wandering at will. Others as settling boundary disputes before they arise. They would agree with Robert Frost, who would have us consider how walls help humans get along with each other.
Mine shows me other perceptions: The walls that crisscross the land are seams in the fabric of our towns. They are the mortar holding the natural world and what is human together.