Sunday, September 9, 2007

Playing with Rocks

I spent the majority of this weekend past playing with rocks.

It has been my intention for some time now to build stone wall in front of my house. I happen to have a deep and abiding infatuation with stone walls. Not the kind that are all fancy pants, with the stones all cut and dressed to the nines so that each fits perfectly. Those are all well and good in their own way. The kind of stone wall that appeals to me is the type made of New England field stone, natural and uncut, piled without the use of mortar, held together only by gravity and friction. This is the kind of stone wall you are likely to run into in the middle of the woods around here. Those who lack historical perspective will tend to wonder why someone would take all that trouble to build a wall out here in the middle of the forest. What they fail to comprehend, in the chronological myopia, is that this was not always forest. In fact, until about 100 years ago, most of NH was open fields. When all the New Hampshire dairymen moved to Wisconsin, where the fields actually have more dirt than rocks, the field began to grow over in trees. The stone wall that had formed the boundaries of those fields remained.

I own about three quarters of an acre on a corner lot. It has in front of it a rather sad and dilapidated post and rail fence. I have already torn out about half of it. I would like to replace the entire thing with a low wall composed of stones. A true farmer’s wall, as you might now see along most back roads in NH is simply one row of stones pile atop another, the larger stones forming the foundation and smaller stones on top. It is a strictly utilitarian thing, not requiring thought or planning. It mostly provides a place to dump rocks pulled out of the field, and putting them to good use to separate the fields. Frugality in granite.

The wall I intend to create will involve a bit more thought and effort. I propose to construct a double foundation wall, involving two rows of stones running in parallel courses, leaning in toward each other. This creates a more stable structure over the long term, much more likely to survive the thrusting and dipping created by the freeze thaw cycles so delightfully characteristic of our northern climate.

Last Father’s Day, my lovely bride presented me with a gift of an enrollment in a two day course in building of traditional dry-laid stone walls. The course is offered through the Canterbury Shaker Village, and is taught by master stone mason Kevin Fife of Twin Elms Landscape in Northfield NH. Kevin is internationally recognized for his work – both restoration of historic stone walls and new construction. I will say that he is also a fine teacher. The design of the workshop is not complicated. It was simply a bunch of guys building a wall with the aid and instruction of someone who really knows what he is doing. Kevin was alway ready with a quick word, a quiet suggestion, a simple correction and more often than not a solution to a problem. It is the kind of skill that one must really learn by doing. And that's exactly what we did.

I arrived Saturday morning, along with 9 other men of varying ages and shapes. We spent the first hour or so viewing slides and discussing the basic principles of dry-laid stone walls. Then about 10:30 we got out and walked around the village to examine actual walls and see the principles in action, as well as reviewing tools used to move and shape stones. A bit past 11:00 we reached our project area. A section of a long stone wall fronting Shaker Village Road had been torn apart by Kevin and his trusty Bobcat loader. The wall was well over 100 years old and had spread, shifted and collapsed inward with time. It needed rebuilding and we were just the crew to do it. This particular section was chosen because it was the worst. I estimate that our span was perhaps 40 feet. The entire wall was easily over 1000 feet long in total. A long portion of it down the hill (about 350 feet) had been rebuilt by Kevin almost 10 years ago over a span of 6 weeks.

The day was nasty hot. It was not good weather for carrying large rock. No matter, we gamely laid into the work. It did not take long for us to learn to pace ourselves. Our efforts were greatly aided by Kevin’s Bobcat excavator. It has a handy little thumb attachment to the bucket that enabled him to lift rocks and place them where he wanted them. Half the fun was watching Kevin gently lift these 150 lb chunks and place them with delicate surgical precision. It sure beat using ropes, ramps, block and tackle and sheer muscle. We could have done it, but the Bobcat just made everything quicker. If you are at all inclined to give me grief that we used a machine to do this work, don't bother. I will simply consider you rude and untutored.

It was so hot that several time I looked down at the stones I was working on and noticed that they were spattered with rain drops. I was about to look up, then I realized that those were not rain drops. They were coming from me. Yeah. I have exceptionally powerful sweat glands.We made a good start the first day, but we were cut off by thunder and lightning approaching from the Northwest about 3:00.

We reconvened on a rainy Sunday. The weather was much cooler. There was just enough rain to keep down the dust. It was excellent stone tossing weather. We set to with a will and we had most of the wall done by 3:00. We were still a little short, so we made a run across the fields and orchards to an old stone dump (where they apparently dumped stones picked from the gardens) and loaded up about a ton of smaller stones to finish off the top layer of wall. Within about a half hour after dumping the load, we had laid them all in and pronounced it done. You can see the results for yourself.

I found laying stones to be very meditative. This surprised me a bit. In a carefully built wall the stones are not dropped, but are placed purposefully. Each stone must find the right place, in proper relation to all the other stones. A stone that may not seem to fit may often work if you turn it, turn it again, flip it and turn it again until you find the right angle. At times you may pull out a stone you already laid in order to put in another two that fit better. You note a space or a gap, and you wander through the stone pile until you see a stone that just seems like it might work. You take back and try it and it does. Or it doesn’t. No matter. A few minutes later, you end up finding the perfect spot for it, almost as if it were meant to be. This process involves a sort of quiet concentration that I found very pleasant and restful, even though it involved a fair amount of labor.

And looking at the finished wall….well, it’s beautiful. It may not be the most artful example of it’s kind. It certainly could have used more careful fitting and chinking in places. It was built by amateurs, but I think it’s lovely. I believe I shall go back soon and spend an hour or two just looking it at.


Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

I'm bringing a book to church for you.

Anonymous said...


makes me speechless.

thank you.

Anonymous said...


renders me speechless.

thank you.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Dave, you are now Zach's hero. That is something because it means you have beaten out Mr. Bentz and Mr. Grunwald. He has been looking at/reading Macaulay's book on Castles and has been very impressed with their ability to make stone walls. So I showed him what you have been doing and you are d' bomb! Ron Jung