Holes and Walls
It took me thirty years of living in New England and eight years of marriage to notice rock walls and cellar holes, and now I can’t help but see them everywhere. The walls run alongside my car—like a terrier racing its owner’s vehicle—through back roads and main roads, to the daycare center or grocery store, and on a highway commute. The walls are a code of dashes that continue until interrupted by a big-box store parking lot, an exit ramp, or the federally preserved wetland before the big box. In southern New Hampshire, rock walls crisscross colonials and ranches, contemporaries and Capes; they walk past our baby showers and birthday parties (balloons tied to the mailbox, Mason Is Six!!!), our barbecues and open-house tours led by the real estate agent, the property assessor with his notepad and calculator, the graduation parties. A bit of a rock wall here, some more over there, like a parlor game of Exquisite Corpse or a half-erased tic-tac-toe board that appears both across Mcmansions with their outsourced lawn care and in the dandelion patches of trailer parks.
It’s as though horse and buggies were parallel parked beside our minivans and Subarus, yet no one seems to think anything strange about this constant archaeology, this incessant historical reenactment. The presence of rock walls should be a startling anachronism—like looking out one’s window and seeing the polished tools of husbandry scattered across the lawn, the leather straps and wooden handles still warm from use, or finding a petticoat with bone buttons among your dry-cleaning bags, the smell of wood smoke curling inside your microwave.
Inward-slanted, double-face, single-stack, disposal wall, cannonball wall, lace wall, triangular wall, returns, curves, symmetrical and asymmetrical, dumped, stacked, and laid. These are the styles of walls. The condition of the same stone wall varies from house lot to house lot: in one, the wall looks tightened and repaired, in another the stones have left each other’s side but still form a thick mark, in another, a dribble of granite.
To be around these signs of erased lives and erased efforts is simply part of the scenery here, part of the New England mythos, although Robert M. Thorson, author of two good books on rock walls ( Exploring Stone Walls: A Field Guide to New England’s Stone Walls and Stone by Stone) says that the visibility of rock walls has varied over the years according to people’s purpose, sometimes aesthetic. Stone walls have been subject to manipulation well beyond the handto-hand pass between farmers during their original construction. The Hudson River school of painters preferred to ignore stone walls in their celebration
of the wilderness, but the Impressionists “couldn’t paint enough fieldstones” and sometimes manufactured new walls for the sake of appearances. Then with Currier and Ives and with Wallace Nutting (who had the early twentiethcentury branding power of Martha Stewart) occurred the real marketing of New England, not with real but with imagined walls: “Old stone walls, deliberately left out of earlier paintings, were now being painted into scenes, whether they existed in the actual landscape or not.”
Rock wall preservation societies are growing in New England to prevent more recent erasures of the walls, many in Connecticut, the home state of Thorson, including the Guilford Preservation Alliance and the Foster Preservation Society. The Stone Wall Initiative, founded by Robert Thorson and his wife Kristine, identifies five threats to rock walls: strip mining, theft, insensitivity, new walls, and overgrowth. Thorson might also count bad grammar among the offenses against walls, as he fingers one wall destroyer from a 2009 Craigslist posting and provides its “original bad grammar and spelling”: “takeing apart a peace of a 2 hundred year old wall excelant stones 800$ truck load will delver about 9 tons.” Ordinances and fines have been established of late to protect walls. In 2009, the governor of New Hampshire signed a bill that increased the fine for rock-wall theft from fifteen dollars to the cost of replacing the wall along with the lawyer’s bill. A citizen of Framingham, Massachusetts, has proposed an amendment to that state’s law, upping the ante for wall theft from a ten-dollar fine to imprisonment for up to six months, and other defenders of old walls in Massachusetts have asked for the revoking of the offender’s driver’s license for a year. According to an official at the town offices of Londonderry, New Hampshire, statute RSA 539:4 decrees that the removal of rock walls shared between two neighbors without consent of both parties becomes a civil matter, but you are free to do as you wish with a wall in the center of your property. The wall in Robert Frost’s famous poem is only a few miles from the town offices in neighboring Derry. A half mile down from the Frost House in one direction is Clam Haven, with a school-bus–sized pink and purple spotted elephant next to a broken-down backhoe; in the other direction, a welding shop stands where Napoleon Guay lived—the man with a handlebar moustache who tells Frost in “Mending Walls” that “Good fences make good neighbors.”
A rock wall is a tattoo on the land, a property line is part of a henna design on the palm of a hand. These rock strips are usually parallel to the current road but not always. Many of them served a real purpose but are now most likely sporadic and lead to nothing. If they manage to indicate a limit, the rules they point to may no longer be relevant. Do not follow a rock wall into the woods thinking it will provide you a tour because it may be speaking nonsense, a babble rather than the guidance of GPS. You might follow it for a half mile, but then it runs off helter-skelter with no pretense of staying by your side. The walls are like the road into the woods described by Robert Frost, not one of the two roads that diverged in a yellow wood, but the one in “Directive,” Frost’s walk right straight to a cellar hole: “The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you / Who
only has at heart your getting lost . . .” Some walls are not agricultural at all but were built by Native Americans and are more cairn and effigy—spirit walls. And even the colonists’ walls weren’t always entirely practical. While they seem like demarcations of fields now reduced to half- or one-acre subdivision lots, these walls have been chastised as a bit excessive. Thorson says that “New England had far more ‘fences’ than it needed.” He cites George Washington who also “had spotted the problem” and who had noted that in New England “landed property is more divided than it is in the states south of them.” Thorson concludes that some fences were built as a way of dispensing of extra stone—which icebergs and glacial changes had kicked up a lot of—that they were in fact “linear landfills.”
I look out my sliding glass door at the scraggly woods in the back of my house, built in 1987, at the mounds of extra fill the contractors dumped out back twenty-five years ago, making no effort to hide or smooth them over. Now the fern-covered mounds—serpentine, like primitive burial mounds—are thick with fallen leaves, and out of them have grown birch and swamp maple, trees with little solid foundation beneath them, so that many have snapped in half or fallen over. One did so last summer just as I was looking at it.
Cellar holes are different in that they are not continuous, not line but square, a momentary dip in the landscape, the dust mark left when the Washington Monument or the St. Louis Arch is picked up and moved to another location. Thoreau apparently called them “dents” on a landscape. Thoreau did not think highly of walls either; they interrupted his walks in the woods. A fence builder was a “worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him.” (A friend of mine lives in a raised ranch in Nashua, New Hampshire, two streets back from a four-lane strip of car dealerships, Mexican restaurants, and big-box bookstores, though her back deck overlooks a little twist in the Merrimack River where Thoreau once floated past.) Thoreau, in his walking, may have encountered these cellar holes when they hefted the weight of large houses like children on their shoulders, house lights he would have avoided for he felt there were quite enough “champions of civilization: the minister and the school-committee,” and not enough fields and woods. They are like rock walls gone underground, though they once held up a whole house.
The holes are also models for the way house foundations should still be built, if contractors and homeowners had the time and funding. Kevin Gardner in The Granite Kiss asks us to consider the craftsmanship of cellar holes—often superior to that of their colleague walls, those who make a bigger show of it above ground: “The best of the old foundations exhibit levels of care and creativity few walls can match.” In the matter of walls, he says, you want to avoid the cheap seducer, “a stone that appears at first glance to be ideal for presentation as part of your wall’s face. Cheap seducers occur in a variety of guises. They can be too round or too shallow, or angularly misshapen in any number of unhelpful ways. All attempts to place a cheap seducer, then, are doomed by structural defects that prevent its stable installation on previous work or the laying of later stones upon or around it. Once identified, they should be consigned to oblivion as
backers or discarded altogether.”
In Londonderry, New Hampshire, just a few miles away from that Frost farmhouse where visitors give pause before a length of rock wall, there’s hardly an old house in sight. It’s all excavation and the new growth of shopping plazas for pizza-dollar-store-payless-planet-fitness. The red landmark of an eighteenthcentury tavern was demolished the week we moved to Londonderry, to make way for a Panera and a pet supply store. The citizenry has voted to tear down one of the old apple orchards to reverse time and construct a New England–style town center. What can be figured out in the green, green woods? The woods was our Sociology and Psychology, our Women’s Studies, our Literature, and for my brother, perhaps cellar holes were his Engineering. One summer vacation for a stretch of several weeks, my brother, sister, and I spent nearly all our daylight hours inside a cellar hole a street corner up from our parents’ country store in central Maine. Climb down into a cellar hole and hear the creak of floorboards overhead in the sky, the tapping of shoes, a flour sack being dragged, wood being dumped into the fireplace; wait among the perennials (lady’s slippers, daffodils) that still appear here.
It wasn’t exactly a hole anymore, as over the years it had been filled in with the refuse of farmers: the skeletons of used-up dairy cows with enormous hip bones as yellowed as old piano keys, mattress springs, oil cans shot through with rust and containing frowning spiders on thrones of leaf-rot, soda bottles, beer bottles. (That our parents let us dig in the cellar hole without inspecting it for themselves is amazing—perhaps they were counting on that modern invention of the tetanus shot. In general, the only warning we were given about our wanderings was to look out for abandoned wells.) We moved from trash to collector’s items to antiques to history. The deeper we dug, the more foreign became the labels on containers, no longer recognizable from the shelves of our parents’ country store but from older times, the 1940s and World War II, and lower, the 1920s of assigned high school reading, that of The Great Gatsby, the Dust Bowl, and lower, lower, to the Victorians, and still descending. We felt like archaeologists on our multi-day project.
Apparently, that’s one similarity walls and holes share—the capacity to hold surprises from the past. I asked Kevin Fife, a nationally recognized mason who lives in New Hampshire, if he discovered surprises when restoring old stone walls. Fife said he sometimes found trashed farming equipment, parts of ploughs that broke and that the farmer threw into the mix to make the wall. When he worked at the Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire, he would occasionally find parts of headstones—bits of names, dates, age—inside walls. The Shakers originally used headstones in their graveyard, but when they decided to remove the individual markers in favor of a single big stone, the broken parts of the old
grave markers were dropped into the walls.
By the time we reached the near-bottom of our hole, my siblings and I found, among the broken things, intact blue medicine bottles, vanilla bottles, and the more unlikely sliver of a bone button, iridescent, the size of a pinky fingernail. Had it slipped off a woman’s dress as she left the house when it was still a house or had the whole dress been thrown into the hole? Given the thriftiness of New Englanders, more likely the former. The bottles held the air of medicine before it was organized into a career—more quackery than profession—of spices mixing with pharmaceuticals, cure-alls, violet extracts by sawbones. Labels marked “Dr.” ended with carnival-like surnames—and the promise of Purity. In fact, we were digging in the cellar hole of a former pastor’s house. It was more hut than house, really, and the hole was small by today’s standards—or perhaps that’s what happens with cellar holes: like the elderly, they shrink without their wooden purpose overhead.
In Monson Center, a 1700s village straddling the New Hampshire towns of Milford and Hollis but once belonging to Massachusetts, the cellar holes are all that remain since the town was abandoned in 1760 when the residents couldn’t afford the Massachusetts taxes (some things never change) and disagreed about the location of a meeting house that was in the works. If you visit, as my young family of four did one Mother’s Day, you can walk on the former town roads. The cellar holes are labeled with the type of plaques you’d expect in an urban setting, posted by some local historical society. But instead of the construction date of the house or the name of a famous person who once lived there, the plaques list the profession and birth and death dates of the designated owner (male), and lists of progeny from second and third wives are provided like a scroll of movie credits. In the cellar hole of the town physician, Dr. John Brown, born in 1724 and died in 1776, stand two lady’s slippers and a stinky Benjamin. In William Nevin’s cellar hole, there’s a floor of rainwater and leaves to a house where once eight children had been born—the first in 1746 and the last in 1770. (I duly noted the twenty-four-plus years of pregnancy, nursing, and toddler-rearing.) One son of Nevin, Phineas, joined several other children in the neighborhood to become a veteran of the Revolutionary War. I glanced back at my straggling fiveyear-old, a tiny pale person standing by herself down the tunnel of the road made by overarching trees in May, feeling a twinge of fear. The caretaker of Monson Center—its mayor and in a way its sole remaining resident—russell Dickerman, stood in the doorway to the J. Gould House, a sixteen-by-forty–foot house built in 1756, originally as one room. He lives elsewhere and comes several times a week to mow the eight-acre field and pick up litter left by thoughtless teenagers, pagans, and ghost hunters. His deceased wife used to tend the flower beds. That Mother’s Day, he displayed the photographs of relatives, who died of influenza or of starvation in Civil War military prison camps, while I kept an eye on my children and the open displays of nineteenth-century household objects. Mr. Dickerman worries about the future of the town. Without children and standing among his ancestors, he is the end of a line, like the end of this road.
The pastor’s hole from our childhood was in a copse of beech and birch trees across from the house of the spinster Alice Hammond (whose second floor had once been a dance hall) and a third of a mile away from the settlers’ graves in the backyard of a large Catholic family’s house. The trees were like a privacy screen at a hospital or a tent set up around an actual archaeological dig—a contrast to the largely open landscape of the town of Sidney with its bottle-green rolling hills and pastures dotted by circular hay bales. It was on the property of an old white house, the first of many our parents would remodel to convert into rental units.
As children, we wandered freely through many properties, though the pastor’s was the only fully deleted place. In all four seasons, we spent entire days walking in tracts of woods, crossing pastures and negotiating half-ton livestock, lifting pants legs above barbed wire and later avoiding electric fences, stepping into farmers’ barns to dive into hay lofts with twenty feet of straw. As Thoreau said, “He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river.” There was the tower, a homespun two-story construction like one of Pablo Neruda’s houses, built by some farmer’s hippy daughter or son, a mattress sprinkled with the jimmies of mouse droppings, corroded electric wires (though the structure was off the grid), and a jar of rotting peanut butter in the cupboard. In the kitchen of the Quakers’ farm, where a widow lived and her son tended the livestock, we took off our cross-country skis and were invited to hang our mittens near the woodstove, sit in a rocking chair, and pull an oatmeal cookie from a wooden box. In one of my parents’ first rental purchases, an abandoned trailer in the lot next door, it seemed as though it had rained inside, and we poked through sodden stuffed animals and trash heaped in flimsy corners.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, as our parents remodeled or built one apartment building after another, the three of us children were always clambering around rooms that people had vacated quickly or on schedule, in the middle of the night or shaking hands and in broad daylight—one-window bedrooms with landlord-white walls, baseboard heating, Berber carpets. In the best of circumstances, for those who would get their full damage deposit back, Formica and appliances had been cleaned with sanitizing agents to wipe away signs of occupancy. In other cases, belongings were cast off—stereo equipment, broken toys, cheap clothing—the last fast meals eaten in the apartment, rubbish in the sink, decaying food in the fridge.
Each house in the town was set atop its own underlining. The various instabilities that I knew of included spouse-swapping (though that arrangement did seem to work out), the wife who poisoned her husband with arsenic a hundred years back, the man who came home to die (rumored) of AIDS in a squalid cabin with his father, crib deaths, drunk-driving crashes into telephone poles, helicopter deaths in Vietnam, the man who cheated on his wife and gave her syphilis that went untreated, arm stubs from medication taken for morning sickness, the chain suicides of men in one family, the usual divorces.
In my current neighborhood, an earth-toned contemporary, all geometry and glass and solar panels, has been abandoned and is slowly falling to the ground, a strange sight. Driving around Maine or New Hampshire, you’ll surely encounter great and small farmhouses falling down, their boards long unpainted and more like planks than siding. Or the derelict and vaguely sexual Victorians, like parts of the unconscious falling aside, the cupolas of analysis, the death of a parent in another room, the symbol of the iron-work on the fence. But a contemporary? A place where Tupperware and large-screen TVS reside? Its mailbox fell over the other day. My daughters and I slipped onto its porch and peered inside at rooms that had the same floor plan as our own: the Formica starting to curl in the sealed-up kitchen humidity, mildew blossoming on windows. Milkweed on the front lawn. Branches are beginning to enclose the cracked drive like in a fairytale. An airline pilot in the neighborhood—the one who had mowed the overgrown lawn to our house as it waited short-sale to us—tsk-tsks over this weedy disrepair.
My childhood best friend lived across from a once stately house that was caving in because of a family dispute. But what was the cause of the decline of the contemporary? Was it infidelity, divorce, or illness? We made gentle inquiries around the neighborhood, a group of people who keep to themselves, and eventually learned it was a matter of inheritance, a dispute between several adult children living in another state.
At the time when Robert Frost wrote his heartbreaking poem “Directive,” in which he walks straight to the cellar hole with its bouquet of lilacs and feels he is “being watched from forty cellar holes,” his wife had turned him away from her hospital bed—for offenses of the heart and marital shadows we can only guess. His poem must have been written only a few decades after the woods had returned in New England, filling in the deforestation (as much as 80 percent) wrought by the settlers.
Even with their non sequitur, rock walls can still be serviceable, still be real demarcations of limits, but the cellar holes are truly demolition. We might hope that there were real limits, that the walls set the perimeters of things, conduct, of what you could and could not do with another person. We have laws for that kind of thing.
In the house I sit in right now, which lacks a cellar hole but does have a basement garage, there is yet another level below—one of foreclosure and shortsale. We bought the house from the Allens, he the son of the owner of the car dealership in town, which meant that in different financial times the house would have been beyond our means. For months, we saw the crisscrosses of their lives. I’d walk into the upstairs bathroom and envision the senior Mrs. Allen, smoking, in her fashionable clothes, perched on a beam during the construction of that room, based on some image in the photo album they gave us. Her handiwork is in the flower beds—the surprise performance of perennials week by week the first year we lived in the house. She made sure her son told us to look for the lady’s slippers she had planted in the woods down to the pond. The son and
his wife at the signing—the sorrow and undoubtedly shame at losing the house and my bootstraps arrogance at acquiring it—with their marriage intact though not their bank account. Holding hands, they told us they had been high school sweethearts and had done their math homework together at the kitchen counter. In our excavation and wanderings, my siblings and I explored others’ lives, but I can now descend into my own lower level just by walking around in life, crossing a room to turn off the tea kettle or answering the phone. An underline precedes me, appearing almost typographically, like breaks in sunlight across the floorboards. Each intact house, each happy family, is built on a similar underlining. With each footstep, I am closer to plunging into the cellar hole, but I always move on at the last moment. Underlines are not just about sensing the past but sensing upcoming deletions of what is present now—the structures and relationships. For one thing is surely true: if walls are not heeded, what you will end up with is a hole; the line disappears and so does the home.
As I grow older, I notice that so much of what people say is underlined, and these underlined words go straight down to another meaning. Sometimes it’s only one word per paragraph, like an accidental break in the wall of the social.
A January day and I remember riding the school bus. The steamy heat of a bus full of kids in parkas and snow pants. Looking out at a winter afternoon, not sharing the vinyl bench with anyone. Silent except the grind of the engine. Lines left by a ruler on the whiteness. Black trees in contrast. Less often, the dents in the snow.
Walls and holes are like a place setting: rock wall to the left of the cellar hole. Boundaries and deep, deep plunges into loss (what has been and what could be lost). Cellars and the stone necks of wells, hopefully sealed over and not just by leaves. Or some scribbles on a snowy landscape: a binary code of line indent, line indent, line line. Old apple trees in an abandoned orchard are halfway beings, never to be cellar holes but just as reproachful.
You think you are contemporary, new, property taxes and riding lawn mower, but there’s a mark on your land like someone has borrowed your book and written in it.
In Wally Swist’s “Tone Poem for Summer Solstice,” one word is stacked on another in even rows—“say oxeye daisy tansy yarrow orange hawkweed / purple clover Say skipper mourning cloak silver- / bordered fritillary monarch clouded sulfur”—and I’m outside walking again to the purple sounds of field birds and the striped smell of clover.
When your past grows taller than your waist, pause. At age forty-two, I walked into the scraggly poplar woods outside my parents’ raised ranch in Maine, a house they were trying to put on the market. I stood on top of the rock wall, holding the hand of each of my children, ages four and six, during a light summer rain. Thirty years had passed since I’d been near the wall, which was slippery
with rain and lichen. A few boards from what must have been our tree house leaned against the base of a tree. Instead of Frost’s children’s playthings, I found soda cans with images of the 1980s—michael Jackson and break dancing—shot through with rust from target practice. Under a rock, a crushed license plate from Rhode Island with pom-poms of spider cocoons, 1976, off the VW Bug my parents drove when we moved to this state.
Over the wet rock wall, I encountered the same blue sky at the wrong time of day that is precisely the sky inside the high-school reunion, the Big 25th, the reason for my return to central Maine. Time here is off kilter. Time is playing tricks like in a Magritte painting. The personal violence of twenty-five years having passed. You push open the doors to the country club to a display of people, many of whom once rode the school bus with you, but now wear taped-on faces, masks with grooves around the mouth, gray or receding hair. The stones of the wall are being replaced with lines. The organizer, a cheerleader, much smaller than you remember her, stands like a Wal-mart greeter. Over the cash bar, the blue sky of morning although it is evening. Coat room for your cardigan, suit jacket, clutch. Prom Queen, Desert Storm Vet, Quarterback, Restaurateur, Washington Bureaucrat, Works at Home Depot. You Look Exactly The Same. You Who Married Your High School Sweetheart. Cellar holes have replaced several homes. Some half-worry about the health of their parents; how is Mr. So-and-so, Mrs.?—images of afterschool snacks at a counter. One person’s father died last week, ashes scattered that very morning. A table set with forks and spoons around cellar holes. Pick up your purse, pay for the wine at the cash bar, retrieve your cardigan, walk with keys in hand to your minivan. Drive down a road cornered by rock walls, past fields pitted with holes; there’s no way to entirely avoid them.