Endless Small Decisions


September 22, 1990|By Barbara Mallonee

WEARE, NEW HAMPSHIRE — Weare, New Hampshire. CONCORD SITS on the west bank of the Merrimack. From the river's shore, one can see the dome of the state capitol, blue sky beyond each open arch. The drive up to Concord from the Connecticut River valley winds among innumerable lakes, deep pine forests and rustling woods at their edges giving way to golden fields and green orchards. Tucked into the countryside are small New England towns, each with its church spire, its monument to the Civil War dead, Main Street, a shady cemetery, gardens bright with petunias and American flags. Most of the houses are clapboard, most of the clapboard is white, most of the shutters are black.

Could David Souter leave his native state to live in Washington? Concord is, after all, no large metropolitan center, and David Souter lives neither in Concord nor in Hopkinton, the picturesque town where he goes to church. David Souter lives in Weare.

There isn't much to Weare, to nearby North Weare, to South Weare either. A school. A firehouse. A general store. A farmhouse where horses graze at the foot of the back porch. Weare has a new self-storage structure and a 20-lap speedway, but these are hidden in the woods near Sugar Hill, and the road to David Souter's house is rough. ''If it turns into a dirt lane,'' cautions a clerk as she scoops ice cream, ''you've gonetoo far.''

I worry I have gone too far as we approach the mailbox with SOUTER on top. This sturdy house that sits close to the road is, after all, David Souter's home, and, though he isn't home, I am wary of breaching a line between private and public domain. Whether David Souter could leave his home is his decision, though whether he should leave his house for a seat on the Supreme Court is a matter of public choice.

Choice has become an issue more divisive than the spare wood fence that cuts across the field behind the Souter house. ''Good fences make good neighbors,'' argued Robert Frost's crusty neighbor, but he and Frost were mending an old stone wall. One sees a lot of stone walls in New Hampshire. A wall is not a fence. A good solid fence is a firm divider, its details derived from a prior plan. Stone walls seem almost accidental, less planned than placed where someone tossed rocks while clearing open space. Such walls keep some cows in, some sheep out, but, as boundaries, they are at best provisional.

Walls grow in response to whatever circumstance turns up -- boulders, pebbles, limestone slabs, granite chunks, stones that are round, flat, oblong, worn, sharp. Stone walls are born of gentle balance. They are wedged and fitted together by hands )) that test, rock by rock, the broad implications of each and every choice.

New Hampshire has its share of upscale clapboard houses, built only recently on land untouched since the Revolutionary War. Some have split-rail fences. Others have, not stone walls, but stone fences built of rocks too carefully arranged, their faces too flat, held in place with mortar, a band of concrete across the top. One has a sense not of more care in the building, but of less -- of a readiness to toss aside rocks that might mar the symmetry, that do not readily fit.

Concord has a square of massive public buildings. Washington is a city of granite block and wrought iron fence. There are those in power whose style is to stonewall, but they confuse the facile force of rock-hard resistance with the deeper strength that comes from being right. A good stone wall is a study in the thoughtful process of accommodation, built by those who learn to trust a private sense of natural principles and the steadying effect of gravity. Those who build walls choose how to use whatever comes their way. They make endless small decisions that a century hence will have met the test of time.

David Souter leaves his clapboard house that, in the sunlight, suits a quiet, contemplative man. His past, at a glance, only suggests his future stance. Through his back field runs a small fence; in a cluster of shadetrees in the front lie weathered stones. Perhaps a random pile of rocks. Perhaps an old wall not worth mending. Perhaps a sign of someone clearing ground anew.

Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College.

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