“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. That wants it down.”
—“Mending Wall,” The Poetry of Robert Frost, 1916
That may be true in a psychological sense, but I adore old walls. I’m writing this from England where stone walls have marked out boundary lines for millennia. The oldest dry stone walls in Britain—“dry” meaning those built without mortar—are found in Skara Brae, Europe’s most complete Neolithic village in the Scottish Orkneys. There, stone walls and ten clustered stone houses are thought to be about 3,500 years old, important because they represent a shift from a nomadic hunting society to a permanent, farm-based community.
Anywhere you look in the British countryside, you’ll find stone walls. In England alone, there are approximately 125,000 miles of them. The oldest were usually “clearance” walls—built of stones cleared from a field to grow crops. Clearance walls served two basic purposes—to prevent livestock from wandering away and to distinguish one person’s field from his neighbor’s. They were also a very convenient way to get rid of all those stones.
Last week my husband and I spent the better part of a day trekking on Dartmoor in Devon. There we saw stone walls built in the 1300s. The stones, we were told, were so skillfully fitted together, they rarely fall. Dry stone walls long outlive their human makers. Over the centuries, they have witnessed births and deaths, celebrations and wars, abundance and famine. Stone walls have provided places of concealment for highway robbers and lovers. If walls could talk, think of the secrets they could tell.
Seeing miles and miles of old stone walls these past weeks has reminded me of “walls” in literature—the emotional walls our characters build to protect themselves and to prevent others from getting too close. Walls conceal secrets, and walls divide people—inner conflict and outer conflict, the stuff stories are made of. In a mystery, the job of the sleuth is to dismantle those walls, stone by stone.
I’m getting awfully philosophical (England has that effect on me), so rather than continue down my metaphorical path, here’s a photo of another wall I’ve loved this time in England.
Do you love walls or want to tear them down?
What metaphoric walls have you dealt with in your life?
How might you use the concept of walls in your WIP?
Comment here or on our Facebook page.