A Revolutionary Wall

Old Manse
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Robert M. Thorson is the author of Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England's Stone Walls (2002), Exploring Stone Walls: A Field Guide to New England's Stone Walls (2005), and Stone Wall Secrets (1998), an illustrated children's book co-authored with Kristine Thorson. His most recent book is Beyond Walden: The Hidden History of America's Kettle Lakes and Ponds.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Special Places, The Trustees’ member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

You’d never expect to stumble over the Constitution in someone’s back yard. But one Trustees reservation is home to a living piece of history that’s nearly as important: the stone wall that separates the back yard of the Old Manse from the adjoining meadow.

by Robert M. Thorson

It’s not much to look at. In fact, it’s little more than a thigh-high stack of odd-shaped, lichen-crusted boulders running several hundred feet from the house down to the Concord River. In the cultural lexicon, these are known as single walls; also tossed, thrown, pasture, and farmer walls. This one was probably built by farmers in the early 18th century, and has been maintained ever since.      

A card-carrying stonemason would probably feel the urge to take the wall apart, fit the stones more neatly together, square the faces, and top it off with capstones. Indeed, that’s precisely what happened in the 20th century to the eastern section of the wall where it flanks the house. But I’m no stonemason. I’m a geologist who moved from Alaska to New England in 1984, and was immediately smitten by New England’s historic stone walls. After more than a quarter century of measuring, mapping, photographing, and classifying walls, writing three books about them, and discussing walls with thousands of residents and resource managers, I’m convinced the humble specimen behind the Old Manse is the most important one in North America. It’s precious enough to be curated in the Smithsonian, were that either possible or desirable.

Why is it so significant?
First, economics: Concord was settled in 1635, making it the country’s oldest inland town, the first removed from the smell of the sea and the chaos of docksides. Its economy was based on livestock, grain, orchards, and gardens, and the fencing required to manage all that was costly. By the time of the Revolution, six or seven generations had cleared forests for pasture and tillage fields, using the downed trees for timber, firewood, and fences. Gradually, the wood supply diminished. But it didn't take the settlers long to realize that the bounty of stones surfacing on their cleared land could substitute for wood fencing. Hence, stone walls became a pocketbook issue for nearly every 18th-century farmer. 

Reason two involves the military action at the Old North Bridge on April 19, 1775, when the “shot heard round the world” was fired (and heard by the Reverend William Emerson, who had built and was living at the Old Manse). Following the initial exchange of musket fire, the British returned to Boston via the Lexington Road, which was bordered most of the way by humble granite walls. The Minutemen “gave them ball for ball, From behind each fence and farmyard wall.” Those lines, from “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Longfellow, reveal the importance of farm walls to the colonial victory.

And third: In October of 1834, a lapsed Unitarian minister named Ralph Waldo Emerson moved to the Old Manse to board with his step-grandfather, Ezra Ripley. From his second-floor study, he wrote an extended essay arguing that nature was, or should be, an essential part of religious spirituality. Published in 1836 as a small book titled Nature, these ideas marked a turning point in American literature. They fueled the Transcendentalist movement of the 1840s, led to Thoreau’s Walden in 1854, inspired wilderness preservation policies in the early 20th century, and became a foundation for today’s environmental movement. Every time Emerson looked out his study window toward the Old North Bridge he would have seen that wall, a curious mix of nature and culture. Its grainy rock, weathered roughness, and geological antiquity spoke of a nature potent enough to last, and ubiquitous enough to underlie earth, farm, meadow, and philosophy.

Economy-saver, revolution-winner, philosophy-builder: those are grand accomplishments for a humble structure. And that’s why I’m thankful that the most important stone wall in the country is properly protected, so that it may be shared with all the world.