Thursday, November 17, 2016

Curious in Cambridge

     You were probably wondering, "If you lined up all the stonewalls in New York and New England, would they reach to the Moon?" And had you been at a recent Curiosity Forum program you'd know the answer. Yes! The Moon orbits at an average distance of 238,900 miles while there are at least 250,000 miles of stone walls in the northeast.

     I don't know how many of those miles are in Washington County, but they're certainly a much loved feature of the local landscape. And nobody loves them more than John Delano, the SUNY Albany professor who gave the Curiosity Forum talk. Although retired, the scientist in him obviously needs to keep finding things out. On walks in the woods surrounding his Rensselaer County home he became intrigued by the stone walls he came across. Measuring, photographing, mapping and much research followed and is ongoing.

     Our stone walls were delivered by the last glacier - some assembly required. Glaciers are a mess. Lot's of ice, for sure, but also a good measure of ground up rock. When the climate warmed, the ice turned to water and headed for the nearest ocean. The heavy load it was carrying was mostly left behind and is called glacial till. It's a mishmash of everything from microscopic clay particles to sand to boulders. 

Images from the web

     Till covers much of the hill country of Washington County. In some valleys and lowlands the till was washed away or covered over by outwash deposits, kames, deltas and deep lacustrine clays. These are the various original sources from which present day soils developed.
     Rocks in the till were both a problem and a resource for early settlers. The obvious problem was that they made the ground very hard to work. Their utility came from being raw materials for foundations, chimneys and fences. As the land was cleared of trees and cultivation began, the rocks were arduously moved to field edges where they marked property lines and served to contain grazing animals.

     Delano uses advanced technology to probe the secrets of these simple structures. We learned that Earth's magnetic field wanders over time, resulting in modern coordinates that don't line up with compass bearings on old surveys. Also, that by using LiDar (Light Detection and Ranging) he can find walls that are no longer easily visible from the ground because they have gradually sunk and become obscured. Once he has found and mapped patterns of walls across the landscape he can then draw conclusions about how settlement unfolded, including the ethnicity and socio-economic class of the early pioneers. 

From the web

     Years ago Gwenne and I built a stone wall in front of our small cottage in Bacon Hill. It's still there and I hope it will be long after I'm gone. There's legacy both in the wall itself and in the appreciation it gave me for how hard it is to build these things. Listening to Delano rekindled my love for stone. I can easily identify with his obsession.

     Quiet dirt roads bordered by moss covered walls are my idea of heaven. I have cherished memories of long runs and rides on just such roads. Washington County isn't wilderness but, thank God, it isn't suburbia either. At its best, it's a place where people have lived, worked and built in pleasing harmony with nature. Stone walls are their enduring signature across the landscape.
     Stone walls are common in the Taconic hills of eastern Washington County. Just poke around the backroads and chances are you'll see some. I remember a beautiful one on a trail the monks built up at New Skete, in White Creek. Some of the photos on this post were taken there. It's also interesting to note how many rural cemeteries are wrapped in a stone wall. Wouldn't want those tombstones wandering off now, would we? 

     Should you get bitten by the stone wall bug here are a few recommended resources:


"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice...
Lewis Carroll
     It is beyond curious, all the way to amazing, how many interesting and talented people there are in Cambridge and the surrounding area. So why not give them a forum to introduce their work to their neighbors? A Curiosity Forum.  Such was the epiphany shared by Leslie Parke, Hubbard Hall and Battenkill Books.

Hubbard Hall

     Their idea has resulted in a stimulating series of readings, illustrated lectures and film screenings that have enriched the intellectual and cultural life of this southern Washington County village. Recent events include Sue Van Hook on mushroom materials, Paul and Mary Liz Stewart talking about the underground railroad and Almost Famous Women with Megan Mayhew Bergman. 
     Their facebook page says The Forum is currently taking a break. Certainly well deserved. Remember that these are homegrown events created by people who have busy lives with work, business' and families. A local project giving local people a chance to share their expertise with their community...that's The Curiosity Forum.
     Here's some links:
     -Hubbard Hall


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