Lace is certainly not the first word that comes to mind when I look at the miles of rock crisscrossing the roads and fields of Westport. But, according to stone wall expert Kevin Baker, that’s precisely the style of many of these field and lane dividers. The style gets it name from the fact that you can literally see through gaps in these dry stacked single width walls since they were thrown together so loosely. Kevin Baker, of Kevin Baker Landscapes and Stonescapes of Barrington,RI, was the featured speaker last Sunday at the Westport Historical Society’s site at the old Bell School House on 25 Drift Road in Westport. Bill Wyatt, president of the society, introduced Mr. Baker with a humorous anecdote about his own stone wall building experience.
Before I attended this lecture, all I knew is that one of the first things that shaped my fancy to Westport three years ago was an overwhelming sense that these walls, as much as the plaqued captain’s houses down on the Point, were silent sentinels of the past, an evocation of New England history that’s not evident in most other parts of the state. Their eloquent simplicity and durability represent stony ribbons of Westport’s unique history. Who built them, where did all those stones come from, what kind of stones are they, how on earth did they manage to move some of those huge round stones that I can see as foundations to many of these field walls?
Mr. Baker knows his stuff. He’s been building “stonescapes” - stone walls, patios, retaining walls, for many years. He talks about rocks the way I imagine Westport farmers talk about their cows, knowing their characteristics, names, and ancestry. And he’s as comfortable addressing a small group of folks in a 163 year old school house in Westport as presenting to students and professors in an air conditioned room at Rhode Island School of Design.
Kevin’s forty five minute slide show which meandered through New England in slides from Block Island to Martha’s Vineyard to Rhode Island to Westport was an engaging primer about the types, sources, and uses of stone around New England. The most common walls around Westport are ‘dry walls’, built without cement, which rely for stability on placement of rocks bottom to top. Baker’s rules of thumb on what to look for: walls are usually laid over a foundation, with large stones placed in a trench which has been dug into the ground. Next, the stones are placed two over one for equitable weight distribution and water shedding purposes. Larger stones are usually placed on the bottom, smaller ones on top. He described Westport’s characteristic stones as “big medicine balls or beach balls”, weathered and rounded field stones of granite. If you can see through gaps in the wall, as you’d see light streaming through a lace curtain, you’re looking at one of those ironically named lace walls.
While delicacy and heft might be contrary concepts to most of us, Kevin Baker works them together. During the slide presentation he talked about texture, color, form and function with the fervor of an artist. Nothing escaped his attention, including the patterns and color of the lichen attached to older stones. He has a healthy disregard for even his own ‘rules’ and encourages neophytes to develop an intuitive sense of what works and what doesn't. His slides of stone cutting quarries, walls from Maine to Main Road, patios and walls he’s built over the years, a look into stone work past and present. Besides the obvious “good fences make good neighbors” reasons, Baker noted that walls were historically made to either keep animals in place or keep them out of cultivated fields. With amazing skill, he could identify the locale of the old stone work by the type of stone used. As Westport is known for its rounded granite field stone, so Acquidneck Island is known for its shale, a rock Baker says is easy to work with.
The last part of the program featured a caravan trip to the Cuffee family cemetery on Fisher Road. On site, Kevin demonstrated the art and science of stone building on a short section of wall, repeating his construction mantras: two stones over one to shed water and promote stability, use small rocks as shims to prevent wobbling, and don’t get too cerebral about the process. Incredibly, we could clearly hear the satisfying “thunk” as one stone was placed correctly on one of its brothers.
As with all good programs, this one satisfied with answers to many questions and for each question answered others rose to take their place (sort of like finding rocks in Westport). Now that I know more about the how, I’m looking forward to a program which will shed light on who built these walls and how they managed to move those monster stones.