Square Frame of Stone – Curved Field of Grass

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Though this is a time-worn cliche, I believe it’s astonishingly accurate in the case I describe below.

Here’s the setup. Recently, I was invited to give several talks for the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University on my latest book, The Boatman (Harvard UP, 2017) which has almost nothing do with stone walls. Rather, it’s about the battle over stone-free river meadowlands being fought between industrial and agrarian interests.  Wanting to know something more about the program, I googled “Yale University Agrarian Studies” and this is the image that showed up.  (I haven’t yet sourced the image, but will do so soon.)

This image captures the totality –point by point– of my summary description of New England’s lodgment till landscape published in my earlier book Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls (Walker/Bloomsbury, 2002):

“Lodgment till is almost singlehandedly responsible for rural New England’s bucolic image–gracefully curved hillside pastures framed by stone walls.”

I was so stunned by the match between this painting and my text  that I was immediately prompted to write this post, which is only half a 1000 words long.

Travels in New England and New York (1815) by the Reverend Timothy Dwight is arguably the most widely read and appreciated overview of New England scenery during the years of the new republic.  Here’s what he –a widely traveled president of Yale College– had this to say about the lodgment till soils beneath the fertile uplands of his southern New England landscape.

The hills of this country and of New England at large, are perfectly suited to the production of grass. They are moist to their summits. Water is everywhere found on them at a less depth than in the valleys or on the plains. I attribute the peculiar moisture of these grounds to the stratum lying immediately under the soil, which throughout a great part of this country is what is here called the hardpan.

His summary links the words: hill, grass, moist, stratum, soil, and finally, hardpan.  Reordering these words as narrative, we get: hill, stratum, hardpan, summitssoil, moist, and grass. Here’s my geological explanation of his summary.

During the last glaciation, the hills of southern New England were high enough to be fairly resistant to glacial erosion. This led to the preservation of an older stratum of hardpan (technically, a lodgment till) beneath the broad summits. Though stones are present, this material easily disaggregates to create a highly fertile, loamy mineral soil, yet remains moist because it is impervious to rain and snowmelt percolating downward. The combination of high fertility and high moisture is perfect for the production of grass, New England’s historically most important crop, whether grazed a pasture and cut for hay. For this reason, the hilltops were sought after, their stones easily moved downhill and stacked into walls.

Now here’s the longer quote from Stone by Stone:

Lodgment till was a gift to the pioneers, with or without the stones. It provided a physical barrier that blocked the seepage into the earth of rainfall and snowmelt. This kept the soils moist, gave rise to perennial springs, and trapped the water in small ponds needed to water livestock. Agricultural soils developed on lodgment till were highly fertile because they were composed of microscopic pieces of glacially pulverized minerals that provided an enormous surface area for biological reactions in the soil, especially those that feed nutrients to plant roots. Lodgment till also produced a terrain of smoothly rolling hills that were usually steep enough to let the water drain away, yet gentle enough to prevent surface gullying. Rock hard beneath the surface, lodgment till was strong enough to support the largest barns. Finally, the gently rolling till-covered landscapes allowed easy movement of humans and their creatures because there was little need to build bridges or avoid rock crags.

In short, “Lodgment till is almost singlehandedly responsible for rural New England’s bucolic image–gracefully curved hillside pastures framed by stone walls.”

Point by point, that’s what the painting chosen by Yale’s Agrarian Studies shows us:  A square frame of stone surrounding a gracefully curved hillside of grass; land  firm enough to support the large barn needed to hold the great quantities of hay that fed livestock that served as the foundation of New England’s early agricultural economy.