Stone Farming

By Alice Rose

Each spring, I farm the stones in the field behind my home in Casco. Many are stones that the earth drove to the surface over the winter and the now soggy ground allows them to be pried out with shovel and long-handled spade. A wet spring is best for farming stones before the grass gets too high, and before the seedling trees and brambles appear. Still, this is no easy task.

Lacking brawn and a backhoe, stone farming involves a series of negotiations with earth and stones. No two stones are the same, but each has its own curves and edges, its own color and texture, its own heft and assurance. The earth is softer, loamier here and held tight by witch grass there. I prod each stone with a foot first, inviting a response. Stay or leave, I ask. If the stone moves, even slightly, I ease the spade into the four corners of the visible stone to gauge its actual circumference. If I suspect from this that the stone is manageable, and I am often wrong, then I begin working the shovel under one side of the stone and then another, prying and rocking until either the stone or the earth give, or I do. Those I can heave out of the ground without bending and lifting are rolled into the trees.

Some stones come easier than others; they fairly leap from the soil. Some resist at first. However, the tiny sharp edges that protrude from the ground mask the surprising girth and weight of many of these stones and some simply refuse to release their bony stony tentacles. I leave off negotiations until next year, next spring, when perhaps the stones will be ready to move, to translate themselves into another formation between the trees away from the blades of my tractor and away from the tires of the dirt bikes and ATVs that periodically storm the field.

Despite the care I take mowing the field, the tractor blades grow duller throughout the season nicked by the stones that refuse dislodging, that sit with their eyes just above the surface like deadly crocodiles hidden in a river of grass. I fret that one of these sharp-edged stones will catch a tire, hurling rider into the trees or onto one of the many immoveable boulders. Helmeted or not, at 40 mph or more, this cannot be good.

Several years ago, a good number of those boulders and an equal number of the stones I had rolled into the trees became a stone wall in my driveway. My house sits on a small knoll with a steep slope in the front that runs along the right of the driveway. A previous owner had planted a low-growing juniper as ground cover on this slope that over time had become tough and rangy. Even on a sunny day its dull green-black color was unattractive, but when disease turned it a duller rust color it had to go. Unlike the stones, however, neither spade nor shovel would dislodge it.

I called a landscaper who promptly came with a tractor and pulled it out. “You know what would look really good here?” he asked with much enthusiasm, “a stone wall!”

Dubious, I responded that my budget did not include buying stones. He laughed. “This is New England! You have more than enough stones in your yard, I bet.” Less than ten minutes later, his practiced eye had located just the right size, shapes and number of boulders and stones to create a lovely stone wall four-feet high and 12-feet long.

The morning the landscaper arrived with the bulldozer, I watched with amazement as each boulder and stone plucked randomly it seemed from the field and woods fit perfectly together like puzzle pieces. It didn’t fall down as I thought it must when I filled behind the wall with soil and compost to create a raised flowerbed. Amongst the perennials and annuals are unusual stones found during stone farming since the wall was built. Their shapes, colors and textures are pieces in the puzzle created by the wall and by the flowers — a new formation.

This stone farming has taught me two things that a lifetime has not: sight and patience. Stones are not just obstacles to mowing; they can be the makings of more stone walls. This is New England. Instead of conquest, I accept not defeat but surrender — surrender to an untamable cycle of shifting earth and stone of which I am a small part.

Revised from an article published earlier in Women in God, 2007.

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