Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Rock Piles of Appalachia

One of the more charming aspects of living in Appalachia are the stories. When I first heard John Denver sing that " is old there" (Country Roads, 1971) it was a truth I didn't have the means to appreciate. Yet. I'm learning that now through the sights and sounds and tastes and endless stories.

Everything has a story here... even the rock piles.

Most often the ones I see have a logical and evident explanation. They've been chiseled and then dry stacked as fences, retaining walls, foundations, stairs, road surfaces and structures. The early American settlers were surely not strangers to hard physical work. Think what it took to heft some of those stones into place even using cantalever!

A partially collapsed retaining wall. These are holding back terraces
which demarcate property lines on the downward side of a hill in
Mount Savage, MD.  If only it were mine... I would love to restore
this charming feature!

The old springhouse on the same property.  Time and neglect and [effective
though historically insensitive] rennovations have left it ravaged almost
beyond repair but how I would like to try...

You might be wondering what a "springhouse" is. I'm going to call it a necessity of both early American life and for those seeking a self-sufficient lifestyle not so tied to today's utility grid. The most basic purpose of a springhouse is to cover a spring with a simple, usually just one room, structure to keep the water clean and potable. It keeps out fallen leaves and animals that could introduce infectious bacteria to the water source. The cold water and stone construction keep a springhouse cool year round so it also provides refrigeration to store foods like cured meats, fruit, vegetables, and dairy products safely away from predators.

And then sometimes you randomly find a huge pile of stacked rocks out in the middle of the forest.  It's neat and ordered and shows intelligent design in its construction. It just doesn't make sense in context of its location. At least not with how the locale is used today. And since Appalachia has been continually populated by uncounted cultures for thousands of years we are left to speculate about the purpose these rocks served and any meanings attributed to them in the distant past. Couple that with a landscape that holds onto the secrets of what may hide deep within its volcanic ancient history...

This example is near Spruceton NY. I found it in this 2008 blogpost from
Rock Piles. They refer to them as cairns, which to me suggests
a burial site.  Perhaps?  It makes for a good story!

And there you have mystery and intrigue... essential ingredients to any good story!

Were these stones laid by some of America's first inhabitants? Perhaps they are altars of worship like The Book of Mormon describes... or trail markers, or defense structures in an ancient war, or hunting blinds maybe? Along with the equally mysterious stone circles (like Scotland's Stonehenge and the smaller less well known circles here in Appalachia) are they evidence of an ancient alien presence? Are they just stones cleared from the fields of a farm that has been reclaimed by nature? The answer, and the story, depends on who you ask!

I would say many of the less easily explained rock piles come from preparing a field for planting crops. Stones were removed to make it possible for the farmer to work his field and produce a crop. They were stacked somewhere out of the way. Most of us who grew up on or around farms or in families that gardened are familiar with the process and have likely spent some time "pickin' rock."  That familiarity tugs at the heartstrings... These rocks remind us that there's something both comforting and disturbing about the temporary nature of our time on Earth. This is work that's as important as it is fleeting... What once served as a family's livelihood is reduced to nothing more than a few tons of stone... and a mystery for future generations to wonder about.

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