The Barn Foundation

Copyright Peter Mauss/Esto
Copyright Peter Mauss/Esto
Copyright Peter Mauss/Esto
Copyright Peter Mauss/Esto
Dan – photo by Gordon Hayward 1986
This is the fifth of ten short essays on the design and stone work I did on Rice Mountain for the Berg family over an 18 year period beginning in the late 1980’s.

When Mrs. Berg called and asked Gordon and me to meet her on the mountain to discuss a project idea I didn’t know what to expect. After she and Mr. Berg led us across the front lawn to look down a steep, bramble covered bank I was still clueless. Mrs. Berg said she thought their place could use an old barn foundation; the stone relics of a farmstead she imagined might have once existed there. And wouldn’t such a ruin be filled with a mixture of naturalized plants commonly enjoyed by 18th century country folks, along with volunteer species from the wild? We couldn’t agree more. The project idea appealed thoroughly to our sense of play. The rough slope was now fertile ground for our imaginations. All that was left to do was build and plant.

Abandoned barn foundations are ubiquitous in the New England landscape but not always evident to the casual countryside observer. When one does find an old stone structure it is often hidden in thick underbrush. The wild vegetation is lush for two reasons: the earth has been enriched by a high concentration of animal dung, and for the likely fact that there is a natural water source nearby. Pioneer farmers depended on springs to water their livestock. They sited their barns accordingly. It was with these thoughts in mind that the design of the Berg’s barn foundation ruin took shape. A well spring would be central to, and intimately entwined with, the building and planting scheme.

Construction commenced in the fall with walls at the southern end of the excavation being completed first. Due to the topographical challenges there, I had to work my way out of the site, backing across the plateau that had been carved in the slope. Building stone from multiple sources was stockpiled along the lane on the north side of the house. From those tarpaulin covered piles I brought loader bucket after loader bucket full of stone, and built. Twice in the winter the Clark brothers brought in heavy equipment to help me set the long granite sill stones for wall capping. Time-worn “ginger stones” were erected to simulate support columns for the wood floor of the imagined barn. Within and through the rectilinear exterior walls I wove curving terrace walls of Townshend stone. And at its heart rose the mound of field stone from where the spring would bubble.

My fantasy rubbed up against reality when I realized that the well spring would not be complete without lilac shoots sprouting from cracks between the stones, and that I couldn’t continue working my way out of the site without first finishing the well spring. Gordon didn’t skip a beat when I called, in mid February, and asked if he could get some lilacs. In no time, they were there on the snow covered mountain and I was plugging them into soil pockets concealed in the stone work.

I had no reason to hope they’d survive such brutal punishment except to know lilacs were favored by colonial settlers, and that they wouldn’t have chosen anything but hardy stock to decorate their rustic homesteads. Sure enough, the lilac roots slowly took hold and after a few years began to thrive and blossom on their stony perch.

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2 Responses to The Barn Foundation

  1. In the Company of Stone January 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    Hi Dean, thanks for the comment.
    Once I’ve picked up my tools and moved on from a project I don’t give it much thought after that. It’s done and I’m gone, on to the next thing. Current interests fuel the designs. Sometimes just roaming a shelf in the library sparks an interest that I follow from there.

  2. Dean McLellan January 14, 2011 at 11:32 am #

    I’m very much enjoying the articles here on your blog. I was wondering if, looking back at your past projects, are there things that you would do differently now, or wish that you had done differently? And where do you draw your inspiration from for these constructs? Was it your extensive travels? Photos? Research? I’ve been examining the process of research for writing and am curious as to how it compares for the dry stone waller/designer. Very interesting projects! Thanks Dean.

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