Thursday, November 12, 2015

Stephen Hren's Review of Talking Walls for the Huffington Post

Having been a frequent visitor to the beautiful countryside of New England, traveling a byroad or ambling along on Amtrak, it's impossible not to notice the astounding quantity of stone walls or piles that are simply everywhere. Composed mostly of grey granite, they meander hither and yon, up ridges and along ancient streams. They are rarely spoken of, or thought of much either I suppose, and there's a general sense that they were built some time by our industrious pioneer forebears, early Europeans who were clearing fields or building fences to keep their livestock from wandering off.
How mind-blowing, then, to stumble upon a book such as Matt Bua's Talking Walls: Casting Out the Post-Contact Stone-Wall-Building Myth, recently published byPublication Studio Hudson in Catskill, NY. While the myth of pioneers building this colossal earthworks has a veneer of warm, fuzzy wholesomeness at first blush, Bua's closer examination of the revelant facts makes this no more likely to be true than any other fairy tale. Bua keeps the book moving through crisp prose, thankfully keeping the minutia and more detail-oriented asides in a long footnotes section. He succintly lays out many cogent arguments that point to the likely historical source of these walls being constructed over a much longer time period, and for perhaps less banal reasons than mere livestock enclosure, well before any Europeans set foot on New England's rocky shores.
Here are the highlights:
First off, when one actually looks at them, the walls make no sense as livestock enclosures or for property line demarcations. They are erratic, often meandering over mountaintops and stopping abrupting at waterways. They have numerous secondary features such as large (8' or more) cone-shaped cairns that make absolutely no sense for time and energy strapped pioneers who also had to farm, build homes and barns, chop wood, and all the rest.
Secondly, there are simply too many walls, and not nearly enough people and time in the pioneer days, to come even remotely close to having enough labor to build all those walls. Given a timeframe of roughly 250 years (1620-1870), and if the population of New England all worked on these walls continuously with one day off a week and three months off for winter, they would need to construct roughly four miles of stone walls a day, or about a foot of wall every two seconds. Hell, maybe there were a few Paul Bunyun types back then that could have busted that out...and then maybe spent their nights farming and chopping wood...but everyone? For 250 years? Folks, that ain't right.
Thirdly, you would think that such a gargantuan undertaking would be written about somewhere, at least in someone's diary, at least once, right? "Alexander came down with the flu today. The sow birthed six piglets. Built twelve miles of stone wall today." But alas, no. Okay, I know what you're thinking - they were too tired to write about it. But really? No one?
So, who built them? How about the folks that were here before us? Native Americans built them. For what? Mr. Bua has lots of ideas on this score, and I'm not going to give everything away in this review. But consider the fact that elsewhere in the Americas, North and South, large earthworks and colossal structures are the norm, not the exception. And consider that New England was inhabited for ten millennia before the European colonists showed up...and then read this great book and let Mr. Bua pry your mind open to what might really have gone down with all those stone walls.
Stephen Hren's most recent book is the illustrated ribald epic Max's Hungry Ghost, available at his website:

Paul Smart's 'Talking Walls' review in the Saugerties Times

Excerpt from Paul Smart's review from Oct 15th edition of the Saugerties Times:

Many know of Matt Bua from his sculptural art works, such as the two
story handmade cat he constructed from found twigs and lumber in
Catskill several years ago, his wild drawings and curating/editing of
a great book about visionary architecture or B Home experiments with
building myths and new realities out in backcountry Greene County, or
even his self-made instruments and musical adventures. Nothing he's
done to date, though, properly prepares one for the deep joys, and
varied catharses, immersed in his newest book put together with
Catskill's enterprising Publication Studio Hudson.

Talking Walls: Casting Out The Post-Contact Stone-Wall-Building Myth,
which Bua will be discussing at a book launch event at Saugerties'
Inquiring Mind Bookstore starting at 7:00 PM on Saturday, October 17,
is an artist's book of a brand-new stripe. Like some classics that
begot entire fields of science in the 18th and 19th centuries, or
great explorers' memoirs, the author admits the limitations of his
curiosity-driven and chaotic methodology right from the start.

"I am not a scientist. I am an artist. My training is in connecting
seemingly disparate dots. My practice involves training my
consciousness to deal with loose ends and dancing around the
unanswerable," he writes in his own Forward. "This book is far from
anything close to a complete theory concerning the stone walls and
their builders. It is essentially just a 'stepping off' place,
considering existing explanations so each of us can experience what's
still here firsthand. There is no training or school that can prepare
one for this, just the desire for anything and everything to happen
with splendor and grandeur."

What results, care of new Creative Commons licensing allowances, is a
mash-up of materials always based on Bua's in-the-field walks and
ramblings, his deep observations and ruminations about all the stone
walls throughout our greater region. He starts with a shake of the
head -- is there really any way this could have all been done by
settlers while pioneering and farming and raising families and
starting communities? Then he shows off all he's found in the woods,
in books, in ever-widening gyres of research, and finally his own
mapmaking and creative conjurings.

Who cares, in the final round, what's truly true? THis is a book of
voyaging and making history, and the world, one's very own.