Stone gardens inspire meditation, evoke nostalgia, and can be aesthetically pleasing
POUND RIDGE, N.Y. – Mention of a rock garden evokes images of plants against a background of stones. But stones also have a dramatic mystique and beauty suited for solo performances of their own.
Contrast the emphasis on the flower in Wordsworth’s, “A violet by a mossy stone half-hidden from the eye,” to James Merrill’s perception that it was useless to try to name the many “forms numbed in one small rock.”
The Japanese are renowned for creating rock gardens, even tiny ones made of just a stone or two and gravel. A touch of moss, perhaps, to bring in some sense of life. Either way, they inspire meditation.
In New York and New England, what once was a backbreaking farmer’s hell of stones has now become a paradise of stone fences enhancing the landscape. Anyone owning a little land is likely to boast a fence, or part of one, maybe dating back to colonial times.
In her fine book “Sermons in Stone,” (W.W. Norton & Co., 1990) Susan Allport cites a 19th century estimate that in New York alone a staggering 95,364 miles of fences were made of stone, more miles than in the entire U.S. coastline. Similar astonishing figures were cited for New England.
The oldest fences, built of the sweat of men and oxen to create arable soil and also to pen cattle, crisscrossed a land that had been bared of trees. Now that the farms have gone, the forest has come back and the once-utilitarian fences play cosmetic roles, especially as they become visible in winter. In summer, they’re hidden in the green but are thrilling to come upon suddenly when walking in the woods.
They evoke nostalgia and thoughts of the timelessness of stone.
They’re valuable, too, and preyed upon by poachers looking for stones for various purposes – for chimneys, or fireplaces or to build other fences. Local news reports often tell of looted fences.
These old fences are easy to plunder because they’re free-standing, built stone upon stone with no mortar to hold them together. Over time, some stones become dislodged and fall to the ground, making them easier to carry away.
Some owners of fences bordering the road have brought in skilled labor to mortar the stones together to create a smoother, tidier effect. But are the rebuilt fences pleasanter to the eye than the weather-beaten old-timers?
On my grounds a barn dating from pre-Revolutionary days is fronted by what used to be a sheep pen made entirely of many-sized rocks. Some of them are so large you can imagine hearing the long-ago grunts of men and beast straining to haul them there. It’s a thing of beauty in itself, but we also have created beds of plants and flowers along it.
Within one’s own property, individual stones taken from a fence serve to create stone paths or rock gardens featuring both the stones and plants. In a sunny spot, junipers, creeping thyme and phlox will thrive among the stones. Ground covers like myrtle and ajuga prosper in shadier areas. Rocks also make nice-looking retaining walls for raised beds.
Big, flat boulders make attractive, long-enduring doorsteps.
Fifty years ago I had a big stone moved by tractor to make my front doorstep. It shows no wear at all from the decades of footsteps that have trod upon it. Later on, in a Japanese mood, I hauled a sizeable round boulder to sit atop a flat one on a lawn. It has no practical use, but I like the geometry and haven’t tired of it.