Garden Wall, Stone Roots

Growing home.

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The year we were married, I moved with my husband to a white farmhouse in northeastern Pennsylvania. The place, old but well cared-for, was once part of a much larger, still-operating family farm. From my porch, I can see the wide fields, red barns, and pastured hills of the farm next door rising in the distance.

Each spring, the aging farmer mounts his old green tractor and lurches over the berm into the far corner of the field across the road from our house. He pauses in the far corner to let down the tiller, a lethal-looking stretch of steel several feet wide that sports claw-shaped tines. Black smoke belches from the tractor as it struggles back and forth, the tiller gouging long black furrows in the earth. Two of the farmer’s sons follow behind, gathering the rocks that have frost-heaved through the frozen soil by the relentless forces of expanding and contracting ice that birth stones from deep glacial deposits. The boys toss their haul into a wheelbarrow and eventually dump the load onto a messy rock wall bordering the field.

When I finally finished, it was October, and the wind bore the tang of woodsmoke.

This field has been tilled and planted and harvested by this family for decades while the wall kept the tally, growing from a single lean line of gray rock to this wider, more portly version. Now it lumbers around the field, matronly and stolid, ending at the road in a lazy delta of tumbled stone.

Directly across, on our side of the road, the wall continues its course. No sluggard here, this wall. It races lithe and supple between the trees, like a child running away from its mother. It had no time to accumulate the spring-thaw-middle-aged bulge of its partner across the way. Its land was abandoned early by farmers, so this wall was built over only a few spring seasons when children picked rocks and their elders planted corn. Stones have dropped from its crest and lie half-buried in the leaf mold, and its silhouette is choppy against the encroaching trees.

Until now. I am building a garden out in the backyard, close to where the stone wall kisses the lawn before returning to the woods. This garden is hard work; every shovelful of soil turns up another spiteful stone lazing nonchalantly on the blade, daring me to throw it away. I do, fashioning little piles along the boundaries of my plots. “No wonder they left,” I would sigh to myself after heaving another remnant of forgotten glacier onto the mound.

I have abandoned gardens myself. Moving from college to graduate school, to the first job and the second and the third, means I’ve left irises planted by the mailbox in Mississippi, peonies along the fence in New York, and primroses scattered in the lawn in Washington. I moved without regret, liking the idea of leaving a garden with flowers for the next tenant. But nothing I’ve left compares to these walls, mute reminders of mutual rejection: hard work rewarded by more work.

That first spring, I picked rocks and made piles, too anxious to get seeds into the ground to bother with the little mounds of harvested stones. Unlike my husband, who has lived in this area all his life and has the memories of people and places to prove it, this tilling and planting is my way of laying down roots, preparing the earth to accept the stories of my life as well. Planting this time meant my own permanence, my connection to a new place. I put in pink peonies and white roses, a skinny lilac and a white oak tree, all perennials that would need years of nurturing before they’d reach their peak.

The stone wall needed nurturing, too. I walked along, surveying the damage left by years of winter ice storms and invading tree roots, memorizing the gaps. The trick to rebuilding a stone wall is learning to find stones that will fit the empty spaces. The problem is not having enough stones. It’s finding the right places for the stones you have. I lined up the stone harvest from the garden like soldiers and reviewed the assembled company. Most were loaf-sized, jagged pieces of creamy gray-brown shale or blue-gray slabs of multi-layered slate, along with round, tan cobbles, evidence of an ancient riverbed. These rocks are compliments of the last glacier that squeezed through the Delaware Water Gap and hung about wiping its feet before it receded back to its Canadian homeland. Thirteen thousand years later, I mulled over these remnants of the glacier’s terminal moraine, trying to find the perfect one that would fill each breach and make the wall whole again.

In the beginning it was slow, absorbing work, and I would huff a little in the chilly damp air as I rolled a likely candidate out of the wheelbarrow and held it poised above the gap, like the “old-stone savage armed” in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” Fitting a stone is a small triumph, like moving into a new house and discovering that the old bureau that you love just fits into its bedroom niche. After a while, I could choose and fit stones a little faster, and I had time to wonder if the original wall builders wanted to build connections to their land, too, or were they building just to keep the cows in, or to get the darned rocks out of the way? Were they sorry to leave, or glad to move to richer, rock-free prairies farther west, where their fences were built of wood or barbed wire? For me, fitting stones was learning to fit into this landscape, seeing how spring eases into summer while the mayapple blooms, and summer’s heat cools on stone flushed with lichens.

When I finally trundled the last load of stones into the woods, it was October and the garden had yielded its bounty of tomatoes and squash and beans. Pumpkins gleamed in the chilly golden afternoon light, and a few sunflowers bowed to the inevitable winter. Leaves drifted around the wall like snow, and I puffed a little in the cold air as I wrestled the last stone into place.

There! My first story of this place was complete: I had built a garden, and a stone wall, too. The wind bore the tang of wood smoke as I wheeled the empty barrel back to the yard. My husband came out to survey the progress. The wall looked a little odd: old stones interspersed with new, like revisions in a book.

When he realized it was finished, he turned to me, beaming in the fading light.

“Welcome home,” he said.

This article was published originally in 2016, in GreenPrints Issue #107.


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