I own 40 acres in Swanville Maine, half woods, half fields. The land is on a plateau known as Marden Hill—it’s always breezy here, wind usually from the north or west, which keeps down the mosquitoes in the summer and leaves huge snowdrifts across the road in the winter, drifts so persistent that the plow has to come three or four times after a storm. That plow salts so heavily trying to keep ahead of the drifts that it’s killed three old maple trees by the road and has nearly done for three more.
My 40 acres have a slight northward tilt. It’s nothing you’d notice driving past in a car, but my neighbor’s fields to the south of mine, across a stone wall and treeline, tilt just as slightly south and lose their snow two full weeks earlier than mine do. Back when this land was farmed and when farming was a serious business, two weeks more frost on the ground—and that slight northward tilt slowing all crops—probably made the difference between a hardscrabble farm and a prosperous one. The neighbor had two weeks more grass. He was two weeks earlier with the hay and with the peas for the Boston market and with the harvest of corn. Even his animals were warmer in the winter, sheltered from the north wind by that slight east-west ridge that marks the tilt.
I moved here in the spring of 1973. Most of what is ever going to be done to this land had already been done 100 years earlier: 40 acres of first growth woods all cut down, some of the trees gone into the making of my house a century and a half ago; years and years of springtime rocks and boulders, thousands of them, dragged out of the fields and pastures over to the property lines and piled into the long heaps called stone walls; storm drains laid across one pasture; two wells dug and lined with stones; foundations dug and cellar walls lined with more stones; apple trees planted in an orchard and around the edges of the fields; rhubarb, asparagus, grapes, and hops tucked in here and there.
The changes I’ve made are not impressive. In several pastures, I’ve reclaimed rocked-out land that had been lost to alders and red maples. I’ve kept the woods out of the pastures and cut back the popple and cherry growing by the stone walls. I’ve dug a farm pond, home to a few shiners, some frogs, and the occasional heron and migratory duck. Once we had a beaver and another time a big turtle. Our poodle Timmie takes a dip when it’s hot. I’ve planted a few trees, more asparagus, blueberry bushes, and built a small barn and a covered ring for the horses. Put a porch on the house and laid in a new chimney at the insistence of my insurance company. Not really much compared to what the first generation or two on Marden Hill was faced with doing.
There is one stone wall here that was not just a stone dump. It runs east-west behind the house and separates the orchard from the south pasture. Its builder took some care with it, saving out flat stones from the springtime gathering of rocks, digging a foundation for some larger stones, and then fitting the flats into a neat jigsaw pattern, vertical-sided and flat topped. Unfortunately, this wall I was entrusted with is collapsing.
At the east end a huge old ash tree sent its roots under the foundation. That let frost got under there and heave the whole wall. At the other end, a bulldozer took down part of it to allow dumptrucks through for the building of the horse ring, and without that west-end anchor or buttress,the wall began wobbling and weaving, stones toppling right and left, flat top growing wavy.
The old-timers used draft animals, limbers, and tripods with block and tackle to move those stones around and lift them into position. I’ve got a tractor, a crowbar, a few heavy boards to help slide stones around. I’ve even got a pair of work gloves to keep my fingers from being crushed, but what I don’t have is that old-time motivation. Under my care, most of the wall will probably collapse.
I feel ashamed, but not ashamed enough to do much about it, though a few years ago I did move the stones of the 12 foot section that the ash tree was heaving across the gateway to create a right angle wall, something new. Unfortunately, that new wall, not nearly as well-laid and well-made as the old one, has become a rubbing station for one of the horses who has sweet itch, an allergic reaction to insects.
Showing far more patience in its destruction than I ever did in its construction, he rubs his head, shoulders, and fanny against those glacial stones which the old farmers hauled out of the fields and built into the handsome wall I partially dismantled and rebuilt. Nearly daily the horse shifts a keystone, knocks out a wedge stone, edges off a capstone.
All my hard work being undone bit by bit by a dumb horse! Some days I’d like to brain the silly beast with one of those stones he’s such a champion at dislodging. Most days though--as I register my own burstitis, arthritis, lumbago, sciatica, weakening muscles, previously broken fingers—I resign myself to the collapsing wall and turn my attention to something more immediate and easier to cope with: Colorado potato beetles, cleaning last year’s creosote out of my new chimney, driving in a fence post and giving the electric wire a nice fat snap so that the silly itchy horse and his two pasture mates will stay here on Marden Hill where they belong: in the pastures cleared by farmers nearly two centuries ago.
Copyright (c) 2010 by jag