Walls or piles of fieldstones are being restored in many places

Restored fieldstone wall at Bürglen, Switzerland. Photo: Bümausa-project

They provide habitats for animals and plants and are evidence of rural culture / Examples from Switzerland and the New England states

Fieldstone piles or walls in the landscape are receiving new attention and appreciation. They were once built by farmers from stones collected from their fields. They were tipped or piled up at the edge of the fields.

One of their functions was to mark the boundaries of the land.

Nowadays, they are being restored for two reasons: firstly, they provide habitats for plants and small animals that play important roles in a landscape’s ecological balance and food chain.

Secondly, they are valued as a tribute to old farming cultures.

Restored fieldstone wall at Bürglen, Switzerland. Photo: Bümausa-project

One example is the “Bümausa“ project in the village of Bürglen in the Swiss canton of Uri. The abbreviation stands for “Bürgler Wall Restoration.“ It refers to the restoration of dry-stone walls and piles of stones that had been left to decay for many decades.

Old stones that have been exposed to the wind and weather for a long time have a picturesque growth of lichen, moss, and fungi. Depending on the orientation to the sun or the wind and rain, different microclimates can establish themselves on the sides of such a wall, in which flora and fauna find food and shelter.

In mountainous regions, frost and ice can result in the formation of cairns in the fields. In the Arctic Circle or in the tundra, where the ground freezes deeply, they can be pulled up or lifted out of the ground in the freeze-thaw cycle.

Walls and piles of fieldstones at the Örkelljunga Friluftsmuseum, Sweden. Photo: Dguendel / <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/"target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>

Where the ice ages passed over the land and planed off the mountains under ice that was sometimes 1000 m thick, they brought with them the large erratic blocks or small boulders that remained on the grasslands during the warm period.

Elsewhere, the erratic boulders are repeatedly brought up from the ground by humans. Depending on the planting, fields are plowed at regular intervals, which breaks up the bedrock. The plow then brings the boulders to the surface.

The curious thing is that you do not see them at first – which leads to great astonishment among private gardeners when the rocks suddenly appear after a downpour. This is due to the fact that the stones at bedrock level initially have soil attached to them, which has to be removed.

Also in Ireland, fieldstone walls are characteristic of the landscape. Photo: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/"target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>

The fieldstone walls in the New England states of the USA are characteristic of the landscape. This refers to the six states on the east coast, from Maine in the north on the Canadian border to Connecticut, which is bordered by New York. They are said to have a total length of 240,000 miles (430,000 km), which would correspond to the shortest distance from the Earth to the moon or four times around the equator, according to Robert Thorson, a professor at the University of Connecticut.

Thorson founded the Stone Wall Initiative (SWI) in 2002, on whose website you can find a lot of information on the subject.

At first glance, the positive role as a demarcation between neighbors that Thorson ascribes to the walls is curious. But he quotes the poem “Mending Wall“ by Robert Frost from 1914, which ends with a profound insight into how people live together: “Good fences make good neighbors,“ it says.

As Thorson writes, John F. Kennedy is said to have been so impressed by this insight that he sent the aging poet Frost to Moscow to meet President Nikita Khrushchev in hope of improving relations between the two superpowers during the Cold War.

Stone Wall Initiative (SWI)

Smithsonian Magazine

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(25.03.2024, USA: 03.25.2024)