If there’s one thing we have plenty of here in New Hampshire it is stones, and you can hardly walk a mile even in the deepest woods without seeing a wall built with them. Though there are many types of stone walls the most common in this area are “tossed walls.” Farmers worked from dawn to dusk in Colonial New England and tossed walls required the least amount of time and effort because smaller stones were literally tossed or thrown on top of one another. In the early years getting rid of the plentiful stones quickly and efficiently was more important than enclosing the fields and boy, did famers get rid of them. In 1872 there were an estimated 270,000 miles of stone walls in New England. Today these masses of stone collect a lot of heat from the sun and snow melts from them quickly, leaving perfect places to explore in the winter.
I can remember when I was a young boy reading a book (by Beatrix Potter I think) which showed a painting of a stone house. The stones were all colors including blue, orange and yellow, so I knew right off that whoever wrote this dumb old book had never seen anything built of stone. Why, everybody knew that stones were gray! As I grew older and started paying closer attention to the world around me I realized once again that I didn’t know what I was talking about because, as whoever illustrated that book knew, stones could indeed come in many colors. The orange yellow color in this example comes from sulfur firedot lichens (Caloplaca flavovirescens.)
An even brighter yellow is found on stones colored by sulfur dust lichens (Chrysothrix chlorina). This lichen doesn’t like to be rained on so it is usually found hiding under some type of overhang.
Stones can be green when covered by a carpet of moss. This stone was too big for three men to carry and wore the biggest patch of Hedwigia ciliata moss that I’ve seen.
The white leaf tips drawn out to long, fine points help confirm the identity of Hedwigia ciliata moss.
Sometimes stones don’t need any help from lichens to show their colors as this orange granite shows. Granite comes in many colors, including red, brown, pink, blue-gray, black, and white. Often though, over the years the wall stones will weather to a uniform gray before the lichens move in and lend their colors to the wall.
My grandfather was the town blacksmith for years in Westmoreland, New Hampshire so I always look for old wrought iron hardware in stone walls. This photo shows an old iron hitching ring for a horse, which its reins would have been passed through to keep it from running off. Why the landowner wanted to hitch his horse to this exact spot in the wall is a mystery. Maybe it was shaded at one time.
This chain hook was my favorite find during this walk. A link from a chain would have been hooked over it and then another link hooked over a similar hook a certain distance away. Chains were (and are) often hung across roads or driveways as a way to say “no admittance.” What I like about this example is the way the blacksmith tapered the hook over its length and finally ended it in what looks like a dragon’s tail. He didn’t have to do any of that because this was something that would have hardly ever been seen and it meant more time and effort, but he had the skill and used it and took pride in his work. I also like the Cumberland rock shield lichens growing all over the stone.
Cumberland rock shield lichens (Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia) have cinnamon to dark brown fruiting bodies, called apothecia, where spores are produced. They produce spores quite regularly so it is always worth stopping to get a closer look. The curled margins of the apothecia cups are helpful with identification.
Squirrels and chipmunks choose the flattest stones to have their lunch on, which in this case consisted of white pine (Pinus strobus) seeds.
Plain old gray lichens are plentiful and easy to walk by without a second look, but you might be missing something quite fascinating if you do.
This is a close up look at the gray lichen in the previous photo. I think it’s a barnacle lichen (Thelotrema lepadinum.) The darker bits are its apothecia. It looks like some kind of alien landscape.
Many plants hug stone walls for the winter warmth given off by the stones and protection from mower blades. Everything from lowly mosses to towering trees can be found along these old walls.
Many ferns release their spores in the fall and if you want to see how it all works all you need to do is follow a stone wall, because there are sure to be ferns growing along it. This example shows the many sori (clusters of spore producing sporangia) on the underside of a marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis.) Thicker cells on one side of the sourus create tension as it ages and dries out, and causes its cover (indusium) to burst open and release its spores. These burst indusia can be seen in several places in this photo. Not all ferns have covered sori; some, like the polypody fern’s (Polypodium vulgare,) are naked.
In this region white pine trees are common and they (or their stumps) are especially common along stone walls. Old, rotting pine stumps are great places to look for mosses and lichens.
New Hampshire was nearly 150 years old when the Revolutionary War began and though no battles were fought here we still have our British soldiers- in the form of lichens (Cladonia cristatella). These were found on the base of the old white pine stump in the previous photo.
Like a negative to a photograph, stone walls are most visible when life is most invisible. Typically this occurs in January when snow frames the wall from bottom to top and when the strengthening, crystal-clear sun casts strong shadows. ~Robert M. Thorson
Thanks for stopping in.