Sunday, February 28, 2010

It's All In The 'Hand-Release'.

We are pretty excited here about the men's curling team winning the Gold at the Vancouver Winter Olympics on Saturday.
As we watched the precision and mastery of both the Canadian and Norwegian teams play, I marveled at the ability these men had to project a heavy hunk of granite along the ice positioning it precisely behind another stone at a distance of nearly a hundred feet away.

The game was exciting to watch too because of all the strategy involved, though sometimes it was not obvious what was a good shot and what wasn't until the game played out further. The complexity of decision making about where to play the next stone makes it difficult for a novice to understand just who is winning until the last shot is played. What looks like a good placement of stone to me, is often scorned by the curler who made the shot as being totally in the wrong spot.

I started to wonder about the history of curling and particularly the evolution of the tactics and strategy of the game. Getting the stones to curve is an interesting aspect of the game which actually was not introduced until much later. Silly me, I thought that was where the name 'curling' came from.

Of course there a great controversy as to who invented the game. Scotland and the Netherlands are in dispute about where it originated but generally agree it happened sometime around the 15th century. I imagine it was the Scots who first slid onto the idea, because I don't think they actually have any stones in Holland.

The first game of curling was probably played on a frozen pond with whatever rounded rocks could be pried out of the frozen ground at the time. Stones that worked well were later notched to give them a better 'hand' grip for throwing.

The 1650s saw the first handles, often nothing more than iron hinges from gate posts, making it easier to move the heavy stones. It wasn't until the late 1700s that the stones began to be ground into a spherical or round form, but even well past this date their form and shape could vary. Conical-shaped stones were used until the 1830s.

Of course my interest revolves around the fact that they use stones at all. I've read that a curling stone weighs approximately 42 lbs and is made of a unique type of granite, which is exclusively found on Ailsa Craig, an island off the Ayrshire coast in Scotland. .

How these specially selected stones are remotely guided along the ice into position is a mystery to me. The curlers, still sliding themselves after having 'hand-launched' their stones, continue to glide on, totally focused on magically willing their drifting projectile towards the exact spot where they want it to be.

The magical effect is amplified by the fact that it all seems to happen in slow motion.
It is as though it is happening in outer space. It is an easy mental leap for me to imagine the game being played in complete silence and in total weightlessness.

Sometimes when Im working alone I can picture building dry stone walls under the same conditions. I can imagine walling competitions too there. They would be held on some frozen scottish-like planet, where the stones all float above the ice, and the winning team's stones slowly, gracefully slide together into a perfect wall.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hand-drawn Conclusions- Part 3

In thinking about how to 'conclude' this current blog subject, I have decided to add a third segment, in order to make reference to a lovely piece of 'hand-printed' silkscreen art by Robert Rutherford depicting the stone beacon we built for Farley and Claire Mowat back in 2006 at their summer residence in St Peters, Nova Scotia.

The beacon was to be a replica of the mysterious dry stone cairns that have been found (and sparsely documented) not only on Diana Island, off Quebec's Ugava Peninsula, but also along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador.

These ancient structures were brought to my attention when I first began reading Farley's book The Farfarers . It was this book too, that prompted us to build the dry stone boat structure (described later in his book) at the third annual Canadian dry stone wall festival in 2006. ( see )

This boat roofed 'Alban house' as it is called, now stands proudly as a tribute to this revered Canadian writer, who (unlike many other notable individuals having memorials dedicated to them) is still very much alive and continues to reside here in Port Hope (as does the boat structure) . Both the beacon in Nova Scotia and the boat roofed house in Ontario continue to 'draw' a attention to the fact that there is a much longer history of dry stone walling here in Canada than once first believed.

Robert Rutherford's interest in art began at Trinity College School here in Port Hope, while under the instruction of David Blackwood. He was awarded scholarships to study at the Banff School of Fine Arts and the Ontario College of Art and Design where he studied printmaking with Frederick Hagen. He also spent a year in France, studying at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts d'Avignon. He has spent the past twenty years developing his distinctive style of Maritime images. His works are characterized by: "a lot of wonderful curved movement, powerful, animated lines and dramatic skies."

You can visit his site at

For me, Rutherford's print of Farley's 'beacon' empasizes not only the 'continuity' which exists between things built of dry laid stone and the ensuing artistic creativity they so often inspire, but also, the 'conclusion' to this structure's status as merely a curious pile of 'hand-stacked' stones.

Hand-drawn Conclusions- Part 2


The need for closure is universal. Recognizing the conclusion to a period of days or weeks of working with your hands is uniquely gratifying. Yet many activities don't allow for the registering of the actual moment when something is finished. Our daily routine at home and at work can seem almost relentlessness at times. We need to be able do some things every now and then that clearly get finished. Even in wall building, on a long job particularly, it can be difficult to tell when the project is actually completed, what with clean up and removal of the left over stone, or just the knowledge that you still need to come back to add more sections to it here or there.

Conclusion is something more likely to happen if there is a focus, a special element to the project, that you can pace the rest of the work around. If we have introduced into the wall design an interesting stile, or niche or small arched opening, the finishing of the other parts of the project will often be coordinated to coincide with its completion, and so, more than likely there will be this recognizable sense of closure. It is easy to appreciate what you have done when everything comes together this way in a kind of walling crescendo, particularly if there are a number of people working together on the last day. The cleaning up can coincide with the last touches on the wall, so that everything seems to work to this end.

This is usually the time all the cameras come out. While we perceive that the look of the wall has not changed drastically over the final few hours of our working on it, and we all know that it is not going to magically disappear at any moment, there is nonetheless a point when it just seems right to stop everything and take pictures. This is the moment when a wall stops being an event and becomes an 'actuality'. It feels to some extent like the wall has just been born.

While it is very satisfying to be there to appreciate the point when this transition happens, there can, in some cases, be another opportunity to appreciate this phenomena. That is when you are fortunate enough to see it for the first time (again) in a painting or drawing. Through the artist's eye it is as if we are allowed to see what has been 'created' at the very moment of its 'becoming'.

The painting in the photo below is a watercolour an artist did for our client of a dry stone enclosure we built in the backyard of a property in Oakville Ontario several years ago. It represents, to my mind, not just the actual 'enclosure' but the 'conclusion' of the event - a hand drawn conclusion to the whole process of working with one's hands.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Hand-drawn Conclusions- Part 1

I am fascinated with the duality of meaning there exits in dry stone terminology. Bonding, hearting, coping, facing and bedding are just a few of the words that draw you into their double meaning. Now I am thinking about all the aspects of a dry stone wall project that incorporate the concept of 'drawing'. The basic design for instance: I am often asked to do a drawing of what it is I will be building for a client. In a sense these can be thought of as 'pre-drawn' conclusions. There is the initial 'concept', and then there is the photoshop 'application', and then there is the actual 'installation'.

Carts, wagons and hand-dollys (or 'hand trucks') are 'hand-drawn' four-or-two-wheeled devices that help in moving very big rocks. We use them all the time when we are building dry stone walls. They are quiet and maneuverable and far less expensive than bobcats or forklifts. A very large stone becomes a simple problem when you approach it with an industry-grade 'tree dolly' for instance. Two men can usually gently lever it up onto the dolly and draw it to where they need it with little difficulty at all. You just have to be careful letting it down or you may be catapulted into the stratosphere.

You would often see horse-drawn carts, in the old days, being filled with a fresh spring crop of rocks drawn from farmers field's ready to be taken to build walls with. These days it is hard to find a horse that can even do a 'rough sketch', but anyway, even with the help of 'hand-drawn' carts, a job can be 'drawn out' if the weather is bad or if the building season 'draws' to a close too soon, things have to be shut down altogether. Over the winter months new ideas for wall designs can be drawn from other sources such as magazines and websites pages. A good design can draw a client to committing to having a contract drawn up in time to start walling again in the spring. Otherwise you will have to draw from your savings. Ok so there is nothing about a lot of this that is uniquely associated with dry stone walling, granted, but I am just trying to draw out my blog entry for today.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fabrications- The Weaving of Tales or Hands.

The herringbone pattern can be an effective design solution for a variety of spacial challenges besides being a merely interesting ornamentation. The basic herringbone skeleton is very structural.

Surely it's great functionality, as evidenced in many fish skeletal systems, is the reason you see it used in all kinds of fabrications. After all, if it is good enough for a fishy tail why not a wall or even a tweed jacket? Even though it is an attractive pattern, Im sure this type of weave has its structural merits too.

Usually any kind of construction can be made stronger if you incorporate a diagonal element. In a herringbone dry stone wall the dynamic force of each stone placed at an angle is carried along the length of the wall rather than just downwards. Every stone you place by hand puts weight on its neighbour, whereas regular horizontal coursing leaves adjacent stones 'disconnected' with only the spanning weight of a few stones laid above them to keep them secure.

I remember seeing these type of herringbone walls in the south of England.

The parallel cleavage planes of the natural slate and shale stone found in some parts of Cornwall England, are often quite thin, and demand this radically different pattern of Cornish hedging. The flat smallish stones require great skill to build with because they are so thin. They are sometimes soft too, breaking easily under the weight of those above, and often slippery, so the hedge sides more easily develop a bulge; a badly-built slate hedge soon falls down. To counteract these tendencies this unusual way of building with shale and slate evolved to produce walls which Nick Aitken tells me are properly called 'claddiau' (one wall is a called a clawdd) They have favourite affectionate local names too: 'Jack and Jill', 'Darby and Joan', 'Kersey way'.

Someone told me once that Cornwall may actually have been named based on the distinctive alternating diagonal grain pattern seen in wheat or corn, which is so similar to the herringbone pattern of certain Cornish hedges, but when I wrote to Sean Adcock to ask about this theory, he assured me I could pretty much dismiss it as just an "interesting" tale.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My Second-Hand Harris Tweed Coat.

Since completing the workshop on Vancouver Island last weekend, I have been thinking a lot about the 'herringbone' pattern. I have a second-'hand' jacket that I have started wearing on occasion when Im walling and actually wore it teaching this course. It is an old, but still fairly good-looking Harris tweed coat.

Why do I work in it? It is comfortable, warm, and in many ways weather resistant. And, it has several pockets; pockets both inside and out. These are handy spots for putting things in, and nice places for the hands to hang-out in when they're cold or not too busy.I think a sports coat looks 'classy' and brings an academic mood to the job site and/or the 'class'room. It's much easier than a sweatshirt, pullover, or a hoodie, for taking on and off.

I have seen lots of old black-and-white photos taken of banker masons and stoneworkers in the old country, wearing jackets and ties while they are working.

The first time I saw a sports coat actually being worn by someone working in stone was in Ventura California last January at the 2010 Symposium. Katsumi Ida an amazing Japanese stone sculptor and carver teaching students how to split stone with just 4 chisels (called points) and stubby wedges, wore a brown tweed jacket on the first day of the Symposium and a tidy looking navy sports coat on the next. He introduced a very academic 'look' to the dry stone building project.

I though to myself why not encourage some of that look to come back into fashion. People often wear jackets and ties to maintain a certain formality and to show respect. It is all part of a raising or maintaining of the standard. Wouldn't wearing more formal clothes at our work encourage a raising of the walling standard? Why should we wallers always dress down?

Anyway, tomorrow I shall be looking at the 'herringbone pattern' more carefully and exploring some other ways 'hand'-woven wool and 'hand'-woven walls (of herringbone) are connected.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sitting On My Hands

While it may be true that it is easier to write about dry stone walling than actually build them, both activities are easier than sitting around on your hands.

Some time ago I wrote an article about it not being good to be away from stones too long. Writing about dry stone walls is a poor substitute but sometimes it's all you can do. The weather was harsh that winter in Canada. Where I live sometimes months go by without being able to build the walls that make up so much of my work throughout the rest of the year. This morning I am looking at the stretch of wall I finished several years ago when we first moved to Port Hope. It looks like it has always been there, nestling in amongst the tall pines and cedars.

The wall looks great. The weather doesn't. I can only think about walls today and contemplate why they look so good and seem to 'work' so well in any weather. Unlike me. I don't work well in really freezing weather. The best conditions for working are the cool misty days. I guess they remind me of Scotland. I seem to be able to build better walls on those days. As I work I sometimes imagine I hear bagpipes droning off in the distance . The timeworn elements of the craft feel like they are draining back into my hands and body as I work in the cool dampness. But today it is too cold. My hands would start to go numb, but not as numb as they would be if I was sitting around on them all day!

It's a funny thing about the word 'numb'. The silent B makes me think it is so cold, the word itself is starting to freeze phonetically.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Red Knuckle Flight

I flew home from teaching a course in Victoria BC late last night. My legs and back and hands are weary. I am glad to be home. I hardly notice my hands have numerous cuts and bruises typical for the kind of activity they have been subjected to recently, lifting rocks and shaping stones. Nothing major, just normal scrapes. However my miniature dachshund Cloe who is very pleased to see me after a week of being away, is quite interested in all these wounds. She licks them long and hard as I lay in bed reading a book about the Lake District, a delightful place we will be traveling to in two weeks time.
I can not remember the details of where and how it was the scrapes and cuts came about. I am too sleepy. My dog however takes great delight in tasting and scrutinizing all the lurid details. She is delighted to discover what she can about my trip with all its seemingly gory details and cant wait to read all the parts of my hands and palms that may be red.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Putting Your Finger On It

The weather and the many other things change on a whim. Human nature itself is fickle. The stock market fluctuates. The value of our possessions depreciate. Our future is uncertain. It's all so unpredictable. Notions come and go as with varying 'elements' of fashion which clutter the fundamentals of our existence. With a stone however, you know where you stand. The elements of the mineral world have combined long ago. They have made up their minds, and decided to stay with it, and more importantly, stick it out for eternity or at least until heaven and earth pass away. This is something you can count on. A physical stone is something you can actually grasp and 'put your finger on'.

Look out over the endless fields of choice, doubt and misunderstanding. A dry stone wall passes through these things, onward over the landscape in an ordered march of solid purpose. In a wall there are few areas of indecision or preponderance. Everything is reduced to a simple number of considerations. Nothing is taken for granted or over emphasized. You work with what you have, and although there may be a lot of stones and a lot of time, there doesn't really have to be a dazzling variety of anything else.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

On the other Hand

The great thing about building walls with a random natural stone material is that you have many creative options. Blocks or bricks do not afford such choice. With walling you are not confined to a continuous repeating pattern using the same shapes all the time. This is the 'on the other hand' method of building. Variety is the spice of life and all that. What a pleasure it is to have to make creative decisions with every stone you pick up. I could use this OR then again I could use that shape. I suppose you could do that with bricks but it would be bit silly.

The choices that one has on hand when walling are one of the most important aspects of this craft. Just as it is neccesary to have a wide spectrum of grain sizes in a good lime-mortar sand, a good selection of sizes and shapes in the wall ensure many and various connections between all the stones in the wall.

If for instance, I was building a wall with a lot of the same size cantaloup shapes, these individual stones might touch their surrounding neighbours in perhaps 6 or 7 different places, whereas if I introduce some lemon wedge shapes and some smaller banana shapes I can improve the proportion of connectivity and therefore congeal everything like a dense fruit torte .

Just as healthy bodies need a balanced diet of fruit and vegetables, legumes and grains (this is the NEW Four basic food groups, by the way) a good healthy wall needs a variety of sizes and shapes of mixed minerals and rocks to build strong healthy walls.

Happily, there usually is this kind of varied stone selection to be found locally over much of the geological regions of Canada. To have the same sized stones shipped in from far way on pallets to your walling job is not only inefficient and wasteful it goes against this basic concept of walling, which is making sure there is an abundance of different choices of shapes. This variety is there not just to accommodate a practical and structural construction but also to ensure we will be looking at beautiful and interesting walls when we are finished.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thyme On Our Hands

Evan Oxland doesn't have thyme on his hands, but he does have sedum.. When he isn't traveling through Europe inspecting historic stonework, or at university upgrading his 'history of gardening' knowledge, or pouring over architectural stone or garden design material in books or online, then he is usually building walls with me here in Canada.

Here is a photo of his hands inspecting a sedum mat material that is a product designed and produced by Mathis Natvik of Navik Ecological in Guelph Ontario Canada. It is a perfect alternative finish for the top of a wall instead of using either flat or vertical traditional coping stone. These are mats that come in 1X1 metre squares and weigh 25 KG’s each (depending on water content at the moment).They are pre-grown on the ground and then can be installed anywhere, usually as green roof material, but we are starting to use them as a very nice wall capping material too. Walls with sedum tops look beautiful and soft, as if they have been there for hundreds of years. We topped one of the workshop walls at our festival last year with sedum. It looked great.

Evan and I discovered, by growing/testing various vegetative material, that sedum grows much better on Canadian walls than thyme or sod (sod topping on a wall is know in Scotland as 'turf-top'). Our first attempts proved to us that sedum could last the dryer hotter Canadian summer, though we still have experimental walls with both grass and thyme growing on them, and it is surviving reasonably well.

It is a treat to see plants and dry stone walls skillfully combined in a landscape. On the other 'hand' it is so sad to see a nice use of plant material but lacking any really inspired stonework around it, or the reverse, where the stonework on a property is exceptional but the plantings are glitzy and inappropriate.

What we need are tripple combination 'gardener-designer-wallers'. I am excited for Evan to keep 'thinking' and working in this direction (with his hands, of course)

Look at these hands!

You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their hands. Hands that do physical work are quick to give away their occupation. However, there are people that make a living telling you what your hands say about you. They are called psychics and they don't give this information away for free: you have to pay.

I, on the other hand, can tell you — for free — that these are the hands of Alan Ash, Master Stonemason. These appear to be hands that have just recently been used to help build the Japanese Ramparts in Ventura California. I perceive that they are hands of a professional mason who often works with a difficult-to-work-with Basalt material. There is evidence, even in his palms, that he does lovely structural retaining walls and installations in parks. His hands are well-trained and also very skilled, from years experience. I see a lifetime of walling in his future, and lots of dancing too.

It appears there is an impressive assortment of accreditations and papers that verify a quality of workmanship that anyone who knew about this sort of thing could see right away if they inspected any of the works of his hands. He has a website too which is

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, so I decided to feature Alan Ash on the blog with a picture of his weathered, rugged-looking hands. Happily, Alan doesn't look as creased as his hands.

I am wondering whether hand images like these are interesting to readers? I hope to have more of a show of hands about this in the future.

It occurs to me too, that fortune tellers and psychics could keep their overhead costs down if they practiced their business all online. Palm-reading becomes expensive if you have to rent a spooky house and decorate it with all the appropriate psychic para-normal-phernalia . They could more economically read people's palms by merely looking at photos sent to them by email and, for a fee, paid online through Pay Palm, tell them everything about their lives (perhaps by Googling them, first).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hand Rising

Im not sure where Norman Haddow was when this photo was taken, but this is apparently a picture of his hand. In the email he writes that it was 'taken' 25 years ago by his friend David Wallace. No other information.

I know that he must have found it again because he had both of his hands and was using them building a beautiful dry stone wall when I saw him last at our Dry Stone Wall A. of C. Festival in Grand Valley Ontario last October.

I was delighted to get this picture as it represents a new phase of feedback for the Thinking With My Hands blog. It's great to see people adding their comments on certain daily entries, and while there have been no checks in the mail (just joking) it's encouraging to see lots of checks in the 'funny', 'interesting' and 'cool' boxes.

However except for this one, no other pictures have been sent in. The idea of picture submissions has put an new spin on the content of this blog. Perhaps people will begin to send in all sorts of thoughts and clever 'hand-responses'. Wallers, especially, please feel free to send in any interesting pics of your hands, with or without any body ( ie. accompanying text).

As I look at Norman's younger hand and try to read between the lines, so to speak, I see
a delightfully funny man. Just as his hand appears here coming out of the humus, humour is always coming out of his hands. If you have ever met him you will know he has humour to spare. His walls too are not just well built and beautiful, they often express a kind of creative whimsy that makes you smile. You might like to visit his blog at where he documents some of his work as well as all kinds of wonderful walls and stonework from all over the world.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The 'Handling Our Overheads' Department.

A few weeks ago the airlines had a strict no carry-on policy in place. It has changed a little bit now, but when I last travelled to the states it was pretty crazy. This condition was a reaction to the terrorist incident that happened over the Christmas holidays. The whole of the US was on strict alert and so anyone who needed to be traveling to that country had to comply and 'fly naked' so to speak. You wernt allowed to bring anything on board to any plane going to the states except a small hand bag or laptop bag.

I'll admit that in the plane there was a lot less confusion and time wasted jostling around looking for space in an overhead compartment. It was not needed. As we sat quietly waiting to take off it occurred to me as I looked up how much space was not being used. There was nearly two full rows of at least a hundred feet of horizontal cubical space above our heads. Each of the many individual compartments (on this flight anyway) were easily long enough to hold a full length person in a reclining position.

It made me wonder what actually had the over-all over-head been all these years for the airlines? And were they making money storing just 'hand bags' all these years, when whole 'person bags' could be accommodated . This could be a great additional income for the airlines companies. All sorts of people would surely pay extra to be able to sleep in comfortable overhead bins all the way to their destination. I know I would.

It occurs to me that these are the thoughts of thinking hands with too much time on their hands. If they can't keep busy working out ways to bed more rocks into different tight configurations, they just try to find ways to bed more folks having different flight considerations.

This Hand is My Hand, This Hand is Your Hand...

Hand to Hand directed by Tamás Wormser of Quebec
A baby’s grasp, a lover’s caress, an athlete’s grip, a dancer’s gesture, a craftsman’s touch: hands shape our world. A sensuous visual odyssey following our ever-moving hands, Hand to Hand is a poetic celebration of our quintessential tool.

I was delighted to discover this short film 'Hand to Hand' today about, what else, 'hands' which was commissioned by CODE Motion Pictures and posted by the Cultural Olympiad on their Winter Olympics Site. It explores the motion and emotion of the hands.

Though there are no shots of hands gracefully placing stones into any dry stone walls, there is a lot of hand-thinking going on. The whole film is carefully 'handcrafted' to express much of the impressions and ideas that I hope this blog has successfully begun to explore in the last month and a half since I started posting thoughts about Thinking With My Hands.

I am posting the link to this film here today in support of the Canadian Winter Olympics which are now in full swing in Vancouver . It seems fitting too, since today I am flying to Victoria B.C. where I'm sure the Olympic fever is spilling over from la 'main' land.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hands Across The Silence.

My grand daughter was born 5 weeks before my father died on January 29th, 2010. He was eighty-four. He never saw her. If he passes on anything on to her it will not just be through a genetic heredity and not just through the process of our remembering. Yes we will convey to her our love for him and the happiness that is associated with this creative, funny, albeit fairly private man. We will go on enjoying his impressions which he brought to life in his sculptures and paintings. We will reminisce about how uniquely he expressed himself even when reluctantly he was drawn into social conversation or compelled upon to put words to paper. When we sit down together as a family, there will be happy stories and memories, triggered perhaps by a photo or some collective experience, that will continue to help solidify our deep affection for him.

I suppose Fiona will wonder about him. She will no doubt wish she could have got to know him. Maybe it will take the form of simply imagining holding his hands and going for a walk with him, or being carried on his shoulders. Might he have had some wise thing to reveal to her about life? Perhaps she will think about who she is, and wonder if he was like her in any way. When she picks up a paint brush or plays in the sand box and starts to make things with her hands, will she recognize that same inherent artistic skill. She may perhaps sense some 'provision', a kind of environment of encouragement (which has trickled down from him through our family) to trust the out-workings of her imagination.

I look at her hands and see beauty there. I take them in my rugged hands and am amazed by her grasp. Her hands, like my fathers, may never build walls of stone, but I know they will grasp beauty. I sense the immense potential contained therein, a potential to inspire others and to be touched by that same inspiration which is extended to her across the gulf of discontinuity and silence.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Walls Have Fingers

In John Ruskin's extensive book 'The Stones of Venice' which I'm presently reading, I was interested to come across a chapter he wrote on walls, which includes a introductory reference to them having 'fingers'.

Our first business, then, is with the Wall, and to find out wherein
lies (it's) true excellence ....A wall has no business to be dead. It ought to
have members in its make, and purposes in its existence, like an
organized creature, and to answer its ends in a living and energetic
way; and it is only when we do not choose to put any strength nor
organization into it, that it offends us by its deadness. Every wall
ought to be a "sweet and lovely wall." I do not care about its having
ears; but, for instruction and exhortation, I would often have it to
"hold up its fingers."

A wall, in a way, mirrors the means by which it has been built.

If it is constructed mechanically with bobcats, back-hoes, industrial power-tools, cranes, manufactured blocks, and guillotined or concrete-based stone products, it will reflect these aspects and appear to be 'dead'.

If, however, it is constructed carefully, with human hands, there will be life to it.

Surely as wallers, this is what we are looking for.

And surely, if we are building and thinking with them, they will be reflected in our 'handiwork'.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hand Tricks - Turning 'Rocks' into 'Stones'

Unlike the few problem-types we come across occasionally, (examples of which I described earlier this week) rocks are simply a pleasure to work with. Masonry restoration expert, and good friend Bobby Watt explains that the difference between a rock and a stone is that "a rock is simply an unemployed stone". It is safe to say all kinds of rocks will end up being very useful in your wall if they get half a chance. When you try to build with them, it's as if they actually 'want' to be part of your dry stone wall. They often have at least one or two nice faces. They are usually 'kind' faces too, the kind that are agreeable in terms of working together well with others in a wall.

Almost any rock will 'work' naturally in the wall because of its elongated shape or flatness ( making them able to not only show the best face but also really 'get into' the wall). Many others 'work' because of their ability to take the hard breaks and still stay together or their willingness to take up the slack and add 'heart' to the middle of the wall.

Anyone who 'employs' rocks and makes good stone walls will know you can make walls out of any of the three basic types of rock - igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic. ( as well as almost any combination of these naturally occurring geological materials ) While I cant quite say that 'I have never meta-morphic rock I didn't like', I have found most rocks, like most people, to be level bedded, cooperative, responsive and dependable, individuals who bond well with each other and are beholden to the basic principles of form and function. They make good stones.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Special Handling Requirements

There's a kind of hard to place rock that thinks it is special and needs special recognition. It's a rock that often 'sticks out' from the wall, or appears to be set too far back into the wall. Usually this is because its difficult to know where the 'plane' of its 'special' face actually is, and so setting it becomes a problem. While it may seem that this type of rock would best be put in a prominent place in your wall due to its special shape or interesting colour, it is usually not a good idea. If a rock is chosen and placed merely for its looks, disregarding its structural value, then it will be a rock that is basically in a 'race to the bottom' While others in the wall cooperate and become one tidy entity, these 'posers' may end up bringing their part of the wall down, visually, if not literally.

These high-maintenance rocks, the kind you'd actually like to cement in the wall, can come in other shapes too. There are the ones that are not very natural at all. They are more than likely guillotined, or specially quarried/chosen 'veneer' stones. A wall that incorporates a lot of these so-called 'tracers', the kind that are way too shallow or with their bed face showing ( no matter how special or beautiful they are ) will start to slump and fall apart before too long.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hard to Handle

Another type to be aware of is the 'hard-to-handle' rock. The kind that play and lay 'dirty'. They never seem to be happy where they are put. These are mean stones that not only pinch and crush and give you what Kevin Gardner refers to as a 'granite kiss', but have an agenda and want to bite your whole leg off. They are the temperamental ones which you would do best just to avoid. In thinking with my hands, is it ironic to describe these easily irritated stones as 'touchy'? Perhaps they are related to 'erratics'? Basically everything about them is edgy and angular. Their shape seems totally unadaptable. Their hardness only makes them more hard to handle.

While most useful walling material almost 'speaks' to you (if you are patient enough and take time to listen) these rocks don't seem to have anything to say. If you have to, place these rocks very carefully in your wall but remember you don't have to use every rock that you have in your stock pile.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Falling apart in your hands.

Some rocks have faults that may end up giving you trouble if you use them in a dry stone wall. They might have questionable qualities that hardly show up at first, but when conditions get a bit tough, or you rely on them too much, they start to disintegrate and really let their side down.

You will recognize these rocks because they are generally quite coarse and rough around the edges. They are usually a bit flakey too. They would rather break the wrong way, than actually commit to any structure you are trying to build. They have such a questionable make-up that they may crumble away, shear apart or 'cut off' who-knows-what, to spite their face. There is no place for these kind of rocks in your wall.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Rocks That Get Out of Hand.

In the field of dry stone walling, it would seem that rocks and people are not all that different.

I was thinking about the expression we use about something when it is 'getting out of hand'.
In terms of people, you know the type, a slippery awkward person who not only gets 'out of line', but can actually do a lot of harm if not firmly put in their place.
Well, many of us wallers have have experience with tricky rocks that meet that description. So maybe its worth looking at the comparison a bit more.

Rocks can have some pretty annoying characteristics. To use certain crummy or 'iffy' rocks in a wall that you are thinking of building might not be such a good thing. This week I am going to be looking at what it is about these kind of rocks that makes them not worth 'putting up' with in a wall, (along any length of it ) or similarly, if these were people, the ones you really wouldn't enjoy having to put up with either, for any 'length' of time.

I would like to explore some expressions that deal with uncooperative rocks, and specifically (to stay in keeping with the 'thinking with our hands' theme) consider the implications of what a 'handful' they are. Can we call them the 'trouble makers'? Perhaps it would be more accurate to call them the ones who aren't good for very much, except for making rubble?

See you tomorrow.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Thinking Back

My hands think back to the time when they first learned to split a rock. A musician friend of mine Peter Cardy and I had been hired on this particular day as 'mason's helpers'. I was fortunate enough to start out that first morning with the master mason showing me how to actually split fieldstone with a large hammer and chisel, while my friend Peter was given instructions on how to mix mortar and pick out the stones they needed and bring them over to the job site in a wheel barrow. From that day on Peter only mixed the mortar and brought stones while I had the opportunity (for the next twenty-five years) to learn that plus almost every aspect of structural and restoration stonemasonry.

My hands remember that momentus day, holding those simple tools for the first time, and being shown how to 'trace' a line around a particularly large round hunk of granite fieldstone, and being instructed to forcefully hammer the chisel over and over again along that line (and occasionally turn the stone over and hammer a corresponding line where the stone was supposed to break through, on the other side) until by some kind of masonry magic I should expect to see the rock split apart to produce two flat faces. I kept working at that granite rock for what seemed like over an hour. Nothing seemed to be happening. I thought my hands were thinking they wanted to give up. The mason who was teaching me would come back now and then, to see how I was doing.

"Keep at it." He said "It should open up pretty soon."

Sure enough after another 100 hits or so the stone started making a different sound. I could see a faint crack beginning to appear along the pulverized groove I had inflicted around the entire circumference of what now seemed to me like my very own personalized boulder.
My masonry instructor came over to see how I was doing again.

"Don't hit it anymore in the places where you already see a hairline crack has formed" he explained "but keep chiseling where the stone doesn't appear to be splitting yet."

I kept at it, chiseling these, as yet, unformed cracks , until amazingly enough, the stone split right down the middle, magnificently, like some stale, pre-sliced, over-sized hamburger bun. Two sparkling faces, never seen before by human eyes, appeared staring back at me.

I immediately forgot how numb my fingers felt. I wanted to shout out, 'we did it, we did it ' ! This was my first successful collaboration of mind and hands over matter - ie stone. And yet it wasn't at all aggressive. For all the pounding and effort, the actual event seemed amazingly natural. There was no sense of any violation done to the stone. It was more like a freeing or releasing of it into the world.

I immediately learned how to shape the halves I had made into cube shapes, basically by chiseling four straight sides around each face where there was only a circular shape contour before.
When I was done, my two chunky squarish stones lay beside all the other shaped stones, waiting to be put into the stone foundation being built by the company I had been hired to work for. I had split and squared my first small granite boulder. My hands already were eager to get started on the next one.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Spanning the gap.

How do you measure the sizes of stones you are looking for to build in your wall? Developing spacial memory is something that is very useful in walling. Identifying shapes and remembering those shapes and sizes we need as we walk through a random pile of stones, can be difficult. Perhaps the last time most of us practiced trying to find and fit different shaped objects into various sized openings was when we played with those coloured wooden educational toys in Kindergarten.

A tape measure is good for measuring and remembering the particular stone you are looking for, but then your hands will not be free to carry more than one stone back to the section of wall you are building unless you put your tape down or stuff it in your pocket. Better to register the size of the stones with your hands. Is it a hand width wide? That's about nine inches, referred to as a 'span'. Perhaps the stone you want is two fists in length. Maybe an elbow plus an outstretched hand? Our hands are our means of measuring. Handy? Yes, and accurate. A tape measure cant match their ability to multitask, as they sort, measure, carry and place. Part of the satisfaction of walling is finding simpler and simpler ways to do the job. Leave it to the hands to come through again with the answer.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Keep your hands off those public places (and your private parks)

Handprints possibly 2000 years old found on cliff walls in Grand Gulch in Utah have got me thinking about vandalism again.

Today Charles Honeycut a California photographer showed me some of his vivid 13 x19 photos of these amazing pictographs.
Is this art? Is this a form of language? Or is this perhaps graffiti?
The Anasazai lived in this rocky landscape building dwellings of stone right in the cliff faces (Todd Campbell tells me that they're maybe the highest concentration of these stone ruins in the US) They did paintings too of people and bizarre animals on the rocky walls that surrounded them. They left their mark there. Prints of hands are dotted over the surface of the rock, as if each of those ancient native americans were saying, "I was here".

This phenomena is a very recognizable tendency throughout the history of mankind. There seems to be a need for individual human expression in some visual form or other within all of us.
Maybe it is all part of why we like building walls so much.

While authorities attempt to preserve the mysterious designs and carvings the Indians 'created' on these walls and caves hundreds of years ago, these are nonetheless acts that, if done today in the same location, would be considered 'defacing' public property and result in prosecution if the culprit could be caught. If it were proved these were your 'hand prints' it would mean getting your hands-cuffed and getting your fingerprints taken and then off to jail with you or more likely community service, making you clean up your messy prints that perhaps in a couple hundred years, might be called 'artistic hand-made designs'. Oh well. Timing is everything.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Lasting Impressions

While it may be that our eyes record first impressions, our hands give first impressions. To build with our hands something as beautiful as a dry stone wall is to make an impression more lasting than 'memory foam'. There are many metaphors that 'memory foam' might generate concerning physical imprinting, but nothing can outlast the association that exists between natural stone and our hands. Nothing is more lasting, nothing leaves a more recognizable impression . A wall that is well built can be recognized even by the untrained eye of someone traveling quickly passing by. In the same way a wall that is inferior and built badly reveals many of its shortcomings in a few seconds of inspection.

Visually, first impressions are usually right. Walls of stone, the 'imprint' of our own or our ancestors hands creating stacked stones in ordered rows along fields and along roads, built out of necessity, convey a certain 'rightness' that can not be defined.

'If you build it, they will come'. If you build it 'right', then they will come 'again'. It wont have fallen down in the interim. The wall built of stone, without mortar, without machinery, often without tools, can impress, inspire and capture the imagination. The memory of these walls of dry laid stone which were first built to contain livestock or define the boarder of a property or just piled neatly in rows to clear the land, remind us of something inherently primeval. We somehow remember our beginnings with stone. Our ancestral connection to stone triggers those original impressions( originating from our very genetic makeup) so that we register 'rightness', through a subconscious appreciation of structural stonework. Unlike a veneer, unlike a glued culture stone, unlike synthetic products, real stonework, real handiwork leaves a lasting impression.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hand versus machine.

"The machine has got to be accepted, but it is probably better to accept it rather as one accepts a drug -- that is, grudgingly and suspiciously. Like a drug, the machine is useful, dangerous, and habit-forming. The oftener one surrenders to it the tighter its grip becomes." -George Orwell, novelist (1903-1950)

The machine lifted another great big red-sandstone lintel onto our dry stone handiwork in Gualala Ca last week ( a lintel similar to the one Patrick Callon is standing under here ). Yes it was useful and it was dangerous, but as far as habit forming, Im not sure. When I am building with dry stone and there is someone using heavy machinery on the site,I think to myself, I will never get addicted to having them around.

I guess I have too much of a conflict of interest, I am grateful for the occasional introduction of mechanical help, but most of the time I would prefer not to introduce what seems like an unnecessary and annoying number of complexities into the equation. My hands ( and body ) really are content to work with the other hired hands lifting and moving stuff and not have to use motorized mechanical means. It is not idealistic or stupid. It is quieter, more healthy, in some ways safer, often more efficient and definitely on every level and at every stage of the progress of these projects ( and of the planet's )less environmentally detrimental. Among other things there is always the incessantly annoying sound of these bleeping vehicles as they back up everywhere, too. My, that is distracting, and not at all conducive to working creatively with one's hands.

I still feel bad turning down help from a contractor with a big machine just standing by with it's big motor running, roaring, thundering in the background. Do I need this moved, lifted, shoved, graded, buried, or pushed out of the way, he asks? Well, no, actually.

Any project has its labour intensive elements as well as the joy of the creative and less strenuous aspects. The more strenuous elements are part of the satisfaction of doing the job by hand. I like exerting myself rather than going to the gym, and so do most of the men I work with on a regular basis. So as far as machinery goes 'no thank you', unless it is absolutely necessary, like this huge lintel we had lifted in place, but again, I think we could have done it, the 4 of us, and had more fun doing it too.

Many hands make light work (and it is a lot quieter, too).