A Celebration of Natural Stone: Why I Love Stone Walls
Natural Stone Walls | Design Ideas
All photos courtesy of Jan Johnsen, author The Spirit of Stone
As a landscape designer in the rocky Northeast United States, I have developed a passion for stone walls. Besides being functional, stone walls add a timeless touch and an earthy richness to any outdoor setting. The natural stones, stacked or mortared together, appear as a mosaic of rocky faces. They may be rounded or blocky, fractured or smooth, depending on what was available and what the builder chose to use. The variety of stone walls that I see as I travel around is truly remarkable and I have become what I call ‘a connoisseur’ of stone walls.
I love all kinds of natural stone walls. Those that are made up of small stones appear intricate and detailed, a veritable tapestry of stone. Large angular rocks create an imposing, massive look. Block-like stone creates an ordered wall while weathered, lichen-covered fieldstone, with moss and ferns rooted in the crevices, results in a wall of the softest kind. Once you notice these differences, you may, like me, begin to see stone walls as art pieces in their own right and become a wall aficionado, appreciating them wherever you go.
The Enduring Legacy of Dry Stone Walls
I am particularly fond of dry stone walls. These are walls where the stones are carefully fitted together without the benefit of any adhesive mortar. Dry stone is one of the oldest construction techniques in the world.
Historically, when stones were unearthed by farmers’ plows, it was natural to stack them on a property line to act as a fence. These dry stone walls, built with no mortar or cement, were clear markers, and in some cases, effective barriers, keeping livestock in and intruders out. You can still see our predecessors’ rugged dry stone walls bordering fields, woods, and roadways. They are a potent visual reminder of a different way of life, when fieldstones were moved with heavy labor and maybe a horse, winch, and rock sled. Their presence is emblematic of specific regions: Kentucky horse farm country, Pennsylvania farmland, and the New England countryside.
I love these walls for their history and also for the artistry and skill entailed in their construction. Dry stack walls, with stones fitted and balanced on top of each other like a puzzle, are remarkably durable and stand for eons if properly built. They also utilize local materials and do not require a deep footing. This means that the wall rises and falls with the earth when frost forms and expands in the soil. The walls, if correctly built, do not fall apart due to frost heave or even earthquakes! They are easily repaired, require a minimum of tools to build, and resist fire and water. What else could you ask for in a wall?
Anyone who has visited New England’s countryside has probably noticed the ubiquitous presence of fieldstone walls. Many of these walls were built shortly after the American Revolution, and the amount of effort that went into building them is staggering. They are in the woods, along roads and by ponds. Some of them even end with large rocks that appear as serpent heads. These walls contribute to a sense of regional geographic identity which was highlighted by Robert Frost, the 20th century New England poet. He was inspired by a rough and tumble stone wall on his farm in Derry, New Hampshire, and his poem “Mending Wall” became a classic in American literature: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”
Robert Frost’s Wall
The rugged, dry stone wall that Robert Frost made famous in “Mending Wall” is a three minute walk in the woods from the Robert Frost Farm. The farm is a National Historic Landmark, and tours, displays, and programs are offered to the public at no charge. About 80% of the visitors to the Frost farm take the short walk to see the mending wall.
Robert Frost so eloquently stated what I feel for natural stone walls. They are the anchors of a garden. They ground us and confine us and retain our hillsides. Stone walls speak to us of endurance. They are a true collaboration between man and nature. And they are a visual celebration of Nature’s most enduring material.