In 1939, mining engineer Oliver Bowles estimated 259,000 miles of stone walls have been built in New England. Damage from theft, strip-mining for commercial sale, and demolition for housing construction has left about 100,000 miles, according to the Stone Wall Initiative, https://stonewall.uconn.edu/# (from which most of this entry is gleaned). Re-building these iconic land forms causes archaeologic sites to be changed into modern architecture, resulting in the loss of cultural significance. A bit of saving grace is that many stone walls are described within property deeds, in which boundaries are memorialized by the wall’s locations…giving them monument status and a bit of protection from removal. Some folks realize the benefits of stone walls and have enacted state laws and municipal ordinances for their protection and considerations.
So, what about stone walls? How’d the stones get there? Where’d they all come from? Well, comets and asteroids containing ice formed from space dust and slammed into each other, eventually forming Earth. Ice turned to water thanks to the Sun and collected into a great ocean. Polar caps formed and glacial periods followed. Back-and-forth glacial movements along with erosion from winds and rains eroded Earth’s surface, dumping rocks everywhere. The glaciers were very generous with the New England area! The settlers needed someplace to set the rocks they cleared for their crops, so walls served to denote field boundaries and helped to contain livestock.
But another creation is offered by these structures…habitat!
The stone provides a surface upon which lichens will live. Lichens provide an inviting substrate for various mosses, ferns, and trees to root; black birch are especially fond of beginning their lives within a mossy world. These rock-loving plants provide the little bugs upon which many returning birds rely to recuperate from their migrations, and which help sustain other, over-wintering creatures: turkey and other birds, various amphibians…and the animals that eat them!
Cats, squirrels, and foxes use them as travel lanes, and the extra elevation helps them spot prey, or predators. Endangered Blanding’s turtles migrate to breeding sites along stone walls, where the leaf litter provides moisture and there’s more protection from predators. Chipmunks and white-footed mice are attracted by the protection, while mink, snakes, foxes, and owls await their emergence. Stone walls literally make our landscape come alive, creating a keystone habitat and the basis for a food chain.
Stone walls create their own ecosystems. Being attached to, and rising from, the soil and earth, summer’s heat and winter’s cold are tempered, easing the effects of temperature extremes on the many reptiles and amphibians that make their home within the walls protective stones. The base is cool and moist, the crevices like tiny caves; the top…warmer, drier, and more barren. One side might be woods, the other field. Many animals are attracted by the diverse habitat made by the redirection of winds, affording protection on the leeward side. Snow pack and rainwater drainage is heavier on the uphill slopes, causing soil run-off to be deposited there thus providing a rich growing medium for plants to thrive on one side, and not quite so much on the other side; Often there will be shade-loving plants and sun-loving plants on either side. These habitats create a diverse ecosystem throughout the length of the wall, strengthening the overall health of the surrounding landscape.