The Ripple Effect: How New England's Stone Walls Prompted a Journey of Discovery

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by Catherine Kaplan, Humanities to Go Coordinator

The forecast for Waterville Valley on the evening of Friday, January 8, 2016 was iffy at best: a cold rain, likely changing to snow; the destination, an hour plus away from Concord on a good day, was The Margret and H.A. Rey Center at the Curious George Cottage. Why not bring the kids along, I thought? The overt part of this mission would be to hear Kevin Gardner present his Humanities to Go program, “Discovering New England Stone Walls.” Miranda (at the time, age 15) and Henry (13) doubted that they’d find it interesting. As for the venue, this was an opportunity (the covert mission) for my children to confront their joint and lifelong fear of the “The Man with the Yellow Hat.”

We stopped for dinner around 4:30 pm just a few miles from the Cottage. We had the entire restaurant to ourselves – not a good scene if you happen to be a young person who prefers NOT to be the center of attention. Several appetizers, three entrees, and two desserts later, Miranda and Henry urged me to finish my coffee so we could hit the road. I obliged, and after several wrong turns courtesy of our GPS, we arrived at the Cottage and made our way inside.

The kids explored (and later reported that despite having visited this place, they would never be able to forgive “The Man” for his part in Curious George’s anxiety-provoking escapades) while I talked to the hosts, who were awaiting what turned out to be a standing-room-only audience. Kevin’s presentation was creative, captivating and provocative, and was followed by an animated conversation with the audience. It’s what transpired during the 24 hours after leaving the Cottage, however, which best illustrated for me the transformative power of the humanities.

Heading back to the highway that night (in the snow), I asked the kids if they had enjoyed the presentation. Silent at first, Miranda eventually offered: “I really liked how he talked about the sheep and their grazing, and the connection between stone walls and farmers having to leave New England. And how if you stretched all the stone walls in New England into one long line, the line would stretch from the earth to beyond the moon.” Henry added, “I liked that, too, but I was mostly interested in how the rocks used to build the stone walls were originally piled up to support wooden fences. I wonder who built the first stone wall?” “How about you?” they asked. I offered that I was most intrigued by the Zen and physics of stone wall building. Soon the car was silent save for the radio keeping me company. 

The very next day, Miranda, Henry and I were on our way to visit my parents who, at the time, lived in Hopkinton just over the town line. What started out as a typical seven-mile trip with iPhones on board to help pass the time, transformed itself into a remarkable humanities moment lasting ten full minutes. I spotted the first stone wall in Concord proper and made the observation aloud. Both phones were soon pocketed and by the time we pulled into my parents’ driveway, we had compiled an inventory of the stone walls visible from the road (including one, I later learned, that was built by Kevin and his associates during the sweltering summer of 1988). Nearly a year later, our search for stone walls, with a nod to the “curious” in Curious George, continues.

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