Old and new stone walls line many roads in Rye and pop up in unexpected places throughout Westchester County. Did you know that Rye Nature Center has stone walls in the middle of the forest? These walls are clues that the land here looked very different years ago. Our dense forest was nearly treeless and used for agriculture at one time. At another time it featured graceful lawns and ornamental gardens, as seen in the photos near the stone ruins of the old Parsons house. By our Con Edison STEM Challenge Course there is a section of stone wall that is under water for part of the year (including now). There are stone walls in Larchmont and Ossining that run into reservoirs, reminding us that there were dry fields used for grazing and cultivating fields before the streams were dammed to create bodies of water.
These walls were built by hand, with farmers pulling the abundant stones from deforested areas they would later plow as fields. The stone walls marked off fields for three purposes: livestock grazing, providing hay for livestock, and growing crops. These walls needed to be high enough so that sheep could not jump over and strong enough to withstand cattle bumping up against them. If you walk along an intact stone wall, you notice that many are no higher than your waist, but in the past they were topped by wooden fence staves to make them taller. If livestock got into the wrong field, they could devastate crops in a matter of hours, so every town had a fence inspector that doled out hefty fines for stone walls in need of repair.
Today, stone walls are not only an important part of the natural history of New England, they also provide a micro-habitat for plants and animals. An essential piece of the ecosystem, typically one side of a stone wall is dryer and warmer, while the other side takes the brunt of the wind and precipitation. This provides a place for insects, amphibians, and small mammals to make a home or spend the winter. They also provide a helpful perch for birds of prey in places without many trees. If you would like to learn more about the history of stone walls, as well as other natural features of Rye Nature Center, I recommend the book Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England by Tom Wessels.
- Rachael Pothula, Early Childhood Education Specialist