Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Stonewalls and Shepherd Songs

Like the rest of our blogs for April, this post explores how our local history ties in with celebrating NH Archaeology Month and National Poetry Month. It also explores how a war in Europe led to the stone walls we have in New England.  

Earlier this week we received a donation of a very rare piece of local history, a copy of Thomas Randall's The Farmer's Meditations or Shepherd's Songs. While it was printed in Limerick Maine in 1833, the author was known as the Eaton Poet, for Eaton, New Hampshire.

It is a small leather bound volume of 255 pages and 108 poems that cover a wide range of farming subjects from oxen, horses, apples, wheat, barley and corn. He also covers money, cities, stores, lead mines, cholera, the Saco River, a tall lawyer and George Washington.

Within the book, the poet Thomas Randall wrote of loss and several poems are designed to provide comfort to those who survive.

The book was donated by a family in South Paris, Maine in memory of their daughter Sherry Lynn Foster.

Much of the poetry in the book celebrates the kind of rustic county life expressed in Silas Draper's painting of sheep grazing in the shadow of Mount Chocorua from 1900 at the Conway Public Library.

Caring for livestock is about clearing land, maintaining pasture and controlling livestock. Most livestock are relatively docile and have a strong herding behavior. As a result, they have traditionally been shepherded by a sheep herder, often with the help of sheep dogs. On a tangent, New Hampshire's State dog breed, the Chinook, is descended from the Anatolian Sheep Dog (more on that in a future blog). 

If livestock escaped their herders they could be identified with markings. In an essay on this book, Nella Braddy Henney (for whom the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room is named) describes the mark the poet Randall registered to identify his sheep. It was "A swallers tail cut out of the Right ear and a notch out of the under part of the left ear"

To keep livestock from straying from their fields or from roads while being driven between fields or to market, stone walls and wooden fences were built. These structures can be seen in many of the paintings of Chocorua. As a result, sheep herding has left a mark on the landscape that can still be seen or "read" today even if the buildings and wooden fences are long gone due to fire and rot.

Tom Wessels has written a couple great guides for learning to read the historic landscape.

In Reading the Forested Landscape, Wessels argues that Napoleon’s victory over Portugal in 1809 led to a series of events that led to the stone walls in New England.

In Forest Forensics, he provides a formal system using a dichotomous key for more detailed analysis of the historic landscape. 

For example, if a stone wall has small, softball size stones (cobbles) in them the adjoining field was most likely used for crops.

On the other hand, if the wall contains mostly large stones and no small stones, the adjoining field was most likely used for livestock.

These two types of stone walls can be found across the street from each other at one of the most famous views painted by White Mountain artists, Chocorua.

Compared to the wall on the east side of the road, this wall on the west side of the road is lower, wider and includes a large number of small stones or cobbles among the larger stones. This cobble wall was associated with crops. Compared to the next wall we will examine across the street it can also be said to have been "cobbled" together instead of carefully laid. The lidar imagery on the stone wall mapper site clearly shows the furrow lines made by years of plowing resulting in a smoother, flatter field. See it at this link and in this image below (click on images to enlarge them).

...and the detail here.

Just across the street to the east is a taller, narrower wall made of large stones. This was a wall for livestock.

This type of wall is also known as a "lace wall" as it is only one stone wide and as a result you can see through it and imagine it as a piece of lace. It is also layered and well laid. The alliterations should help you remember the different types of walls.

If you want to learn more about how to read the historic landscape, The Conway Public Library offers free outreach programs for schools and community groups about these subjects.

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