New England's distinctive stone walls are estimated to stretch 240,000 miles, the distance from Earth to the Moon. Though the layout seems maze-like, there was a method behind the construction. And with winter's reduced foliage, now is an especially good time to take a closer look.
A homesteading family worked the land in four ways, each requiring different precision of sifting of the land.
Food crops required frequent tending, so it made sense to have them closest to the house. Once the land was cleared, rocks of all sizes had to be removed to allow plowing and planting, so walls with the smallest stones indicate where a family grew its food. It's been said that a farmer's first spring crop is rocks, due to the stones thrown up by winter's annual freeze and thaw. And these rocks also ended up in the walls nearest to the house.
Just beyond the cropland were the hayfields. Hay to feed farm animals over the winter was cut by a hand scythe. There was no need to remove small field stones when clearing land to grow hay. Accordingly, walls surrounding hayfields are generally made up of larger stones.
There was even less need to remove rocks from Pasturelands, where farm animals grazed. So the walls ringing them in were constructed with the largest stones - some so large you have to wonder how they were muscled into place.
Finally, a family's woodlot was located farthest from the front door, on the rockiest, poorest soil. There was no need to clear a woodlot of rocks, so no stone walls border that land.
New Hampshire's stone walls can tell you a lot about the land, if you know how to read them.