Preservation - Introduction
There's good and bad news. On the one hand, New Hamsphire has just passed regulations against the theft of stone walls, as reported by the Boston Globe ( August, 2009; see story under news), the Providence Journal (May, 2009), the National Trust for Historic Preservation (December, 2008, Story of the Week), Yankee Magazine (The Stone Wall Defender, March/April 2009) ring out the alarm regarding the theft of historic stone walls from the New England landscape.
On the other hand, legal strip-mining of stone walls is still taking place. For example, one can go to Craigslist (January 17, 2009) and find postings from the Boston area, complete with original bad grammar and spelling, reporting that someone is "takeing apart a peace of a 2 hundred year old wall excelant stones 800$ truck load will delver about 9 tons" and selling the stones to the one who meets the purchase price. Indeed, a perfectly legal stone trade fosters the destruction of New England archaeology for profit, something that will likely get worse in syncopation with rising unemployment and rising desperation. This is a tragedy what the SWI hopes to slow down before its too late, before the character-defining stone walls that are so much a part of the natural landscape are converted to private patios hidden from us all.
Yikes ! Strip-mining!
In 2007, this truck travelled up and down State Highway 195 in Mansfield CT, right through the heart of the University of Connecticut. The back of the truck says "WE BUY STONE WALLS."
The driver probably doesn't know that the University's beloved former president, Homer Babbidge, had students build walls :
- For beauty's sake.
- To help delimit land as part of social necessity, and, in his own words,
- "as a reminder of the monumental labors of our forebears."
THE MAIN QUESTION
Why should we let the availability of heavy machinery and petroleum undo the work of the past? Since when is the conversion of archaeology into architecture a good thing?
See below for
- CONSERVATION MANUAL
- MAKING NEW WALLS LOOK OLD
- ASSESSING THE VALUE OF WALLS
Wall about to be strip-mined, converting archaeology into architecture. Not a good idea. Photo courtesy of Shaun Provencher, Mass Dept. of Conservation and Recreation, sent to him by Electa Tritsch.
There are several major threats to New England stone walls.
Strip-Mining -- Most damaging is the legal, wholescale strip-mining of New England's abandoned stone walls from old farm properties, followed by their commercial sale. This activity fails to take into account that abandoned stone walls are both habitat and cultural ruin. This means the transfer from old woods to new properties is also the transfer of archaeology into architecture. This typically occurs on properties that are land rich and house poor, such as the inland rural areas away from cities. It would be impolitic to make the removal of interior walls illegal, it would not be impolitic to create incentives for keeping them intact as part of the cultural commons.
Theft -- Stone walls are being stolen stone by stone, layer by layer. Often the capstones go missing. In some places, however, entire walls are stolen wihout the owners permission. There is very little data on this phenomenon because taxpayer-funded law enforcement officers are stretched thin by more urgent concerns, and have very little legal punch to arrest offenders.
Insensitivity -- Owners of old walls damage them with multiple breaks and cuts, only some of which are necessary. This is happening in all of our neighborhoods, including mine.
New Walls -- This is the biggest problem is in districts that are house rich but land poor (Greenwich, CT and Lexington, MA are good examples). There, the problem is that massive new walls are being constructed in a way that is judged ugly or out-of-place by long-term residents who are psychologically and socially invested in what properties should look like. Usually such walls do not follow the local folk art style, being excessively ornate; for example with portholes or turrets.
Overgrowth -- In the woodland where the forest canopy has developed, walls have that familiar abandoned look. When the land is cleared and exposed to sunlight, however (such as along new roadsides and driveways), the walls can develop a heavy overgrowths of plants and vines, which both obscures them and helps break them down. Thought must be given to this process when clearing of closed-canopy woodland is done. Once a wall is exposed, keeping it clear is usually the right thing to do.
As of January 19, 2009, I have learned the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut are all in the process of redoing their stone wall state laws. For now, the SWI offers these links
RHODE ISLAND: Link to Title 45 and Title 11 , and Tax Exemption. (Courtesy of July Lewis, Policy Assistant, Audobon Society of Rhode Island).
MASSACHUSETTS: Review of Old and Proposed Laws.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Link Here for article on legislation signed into law in August, 2009.
Lots of people have asked the SWI whether it is better to leave old walls alone to decay or whether it is best to maintain them in their "present" form. There is no simple answer, but there is a good one. Show respect for one of two traditions.
TRADITION #1: Honor the Wall . The folks who built that old wall would be pleased to have someone maintain their work. In this strategy, we can maintain them by keeping them from being hidden by ivy and invasives and brought down by vegetation. This approach is probably best for well-laid (mason-built) walls along public roads, which are exposed to full sun.
TRADITION #2: Honor the Ruin . The other tradition is to respect old walls and cellar holes as the cultural ruins they are, especially when they are present in a closed canopy forest. Here, the most powerful messages are to honor the integrity of work, the passage of time, and the conversion of present into past, vis a vis an antique or semi-sacred place. This is the archaeological approach.
Effective management of stone walls as a cultural resource requires taking several steps.
Rationale -- One must first understand the rationale for preserving or conserving stone walls as part of a cultural commons. The big irony here is that the walls arose in response to the intensive management of private farm properties, yet have since become a cultural commons that most New Englander's couldn't bear to be without.
Stakeholders -- One must realize that we are all in this together, the private landowners, the conservationists, the stonemasons and architects, educators, and government officials.
Regulations -- These should come from the bottom up, i.e. a grass roots effort. A land trust or town can choose to implement whatever regulations best suits their local needs: easements, ordinances, recommendations, or whatever. This link contains an example. State regulations should be enabling, meaning they allow towns to do what they want.
Inventory -- To manage a resource, one must know what is there. To make this as simple as possible, we recommend using a sorting process called the Snowplow Typology, which divides the stone wall resource into three easily-recognized types: abandoned, heritage, and recent & rebuilt walls. This method is simple enough to be done without training and without cost while doing something else. Hence, the name. In a few cases, the coordinator has done a thorough inventory on historic properties.
Recommendations -- The more information you have, the more focussed the recommendations can be. Until such information comes available, we recommend a simple method based on the Snowplow Typology.
Inspiration -- Here is a letter that capitalizes on what Harwinton, in Litchfield, CT has done. The SWI is making several articles available to help inspire other towns to follow their example.
MANUAL FOR CONSERVATION
Mary Everett, a graduate student in the Landscape Architecture Program at the University of Massachusetts has produced the first regional Handbook for the Preservation of New England's Dry Stone Walls. I believe it is now out of print, but copies might be available, especially if you go to t he original source.
Contact the author Mary Everett by Email. This has been a challenge for some folks.
MAKING NEW WALLS LOOK OLD
A critical conservation issue is for builders of new walls to use new material (from rock quarries or underground excavations) rather than old weathered wall stone, which is preferred for aesthetic reasons.
Link here to a not-so-folk recipe for giving new stone that Time-Tarnished Look.
ASSESSING THE VALUE OF WALLS
Link to Assessment