I live in a hardscrabble landscape, where the soil’s freeze-thaw cycles break up and thrust rocks deposited by the last glacier to the surface every spring.
Highways and secondary roads bulge with “frost heaves,” boulders heaved up under the asphalt, which often create yawning crevasses in the pavement that will challenge bicyclists spinning by later.
In my area of New Hampshire, the Granite State, you see evidence everywhere of the boulders our forefathers and their sturdy beasts dug up and hauled away to make room for pastures and row crops.
They put them to good use, as walls to mark property boundaries and shore up slopes, as foundations for homes and barns, as liners for the shallow wells that still serve many rural households.
They used smaller rocks indoors, too. I grew up hearing stories about how my Vermont grandmother Carrie Martin heated fist-sized stones in her kitchen woodstove, removed them with tongs, and dropped them into the long-handled brass bed warmer, which she slid up and down between the sheets to warm them before putting her nine children to sleep, two and three to a bed.
Some gardeners today make stone pathways and pile rocks around plants as a weed-suppressing and heat-storing mulch. Some homeowners paint rocks and use them to edge walks and driveways.
Rocks litter the surface of my vegetable garden, and more emerge from the ground every year. Some have poked up that I've founnd far too huge to move, so I simply plant around them. In the working gravel pit a few hundred yards through the woods from my house, I can see the soil profile of my garden in the cutaway and understand why it was so difficult to plant asparagus 30 years ago.
I’ve always loved these rocks. They lie there so humbly and seemingly passive, yet the minerals leached and weathered from them stiffen the trees, the underbrush, and even my own backbone, since I eat the food that grows among them.
Despite the way they thwart my hoe and cultivators, I love handling and rearranging the stones in my garden. I find it strangely calming. Over the years, I’ve talked to many gardeners who feel the same way.
I have neither the skill nor the patience to build beautiful dry stone walls, though I admire the few artisans who still do. But when I find a stone I especially like, I often bring it inside to admire for a while before tossing it back out.
Three years ago, we replaced a sagging porch with a small solar greenhouse and eliminated the lawn in front of it with six raised beds. We dug a foot-deep trench between the greenhouse wall and the raised beds, and over three gardening seasons, collected buckets of small stones every time we weeded the garden, using them to gradually fill the trench.
This allows good drainage and prevent weeds from growing there and shedding their seeds into the soil of the garden beds. (see photo)
I also hired my neighbor to dig a trench between the house and driveway and fill it with pea gravel screened from the pit next door. Not ideal, but cheap, and attractive.
In the process of taking down the old porch, we unearthed a stunning granite step, more than six feet long and two feet wide that now serves as the entryway to the greenhouse. This chunk of unpolished rock probably mined more than a century ago from the Swenson Granite quarry still operating a few miles down the road in Concord.
The poet in me also loves the symbolism of rocks. Think of the concrete idiomatic uses of rock and stone in everyday speech: e.g., rock-solid, rock steady, rock bottom, between a rock and a hard place, stone cold, stone sober, written in stone, etched in stone, leave no stone unturned, stone’s throw.
Robert Frost’s Mending Wall—among my favorite poems—uses the imagery of New England rock walls to get at even deeper themes. Here’s a snippet. I hope you give the whole poem a careful read.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.