Sunday, January 31, 2010

I left my 'hearting' in San Francisco

Today John Scott, who teaches masonry of Algonquin College in Perth Ontario, and I, taught the first day of a wonderful weekend dry stone wall workshop in Redwood City California for Lyngso Stone Supplies. The weather which was predicted to be cold and wet turned out to be warm and sunny. The 14 students were eager and appreciative of all that we shared with them about how to stack stones one upon the other. It seems wrong to come all the way from Canada to show Californians how to do anything weird and crazy, but oh well, here we are, and that's what we are doing.

The stones are a blasted polygonal rhyolite called Windsor Wall Stone and while it is a local stone and fairly inexpensive it is very challenging stone to work with. We are mixing it with a stone from Colorado that Lyngso supplies called Chief Rock which is chunkier and good for building the cheek ends.

I recognized this grey stone material as the stone that we used to build the arch with at the San Francisco Garden show last year. Lyngso supplied all the stone for the Mariposa Gardening dry stone display which we had the pleasure of helping design and build.

As well as the Chief Rock and the Windsor Wall Stone we needed lots and lots of hearting material for our dry stone wall workshop today. Amazingly Vic, the sales manager, was able to come up with three large crates of the stuff, which he had actually been saving. It was beautiful. Right there in the three boxes were all the right sizes and shapes and small sharp reddish shards we would be able to use for pinning and shimming the larger stones in the dry stone wall we were building.

I thought to myself how unusual it was for a stone supply company to be able to provide this very specific finely broken up material which is really only used for walling purposes. Suddenly I recognized what the stuff was. It was the very same peices of red Colorado sandstone I had broken up to use for in-fill at the San Francisco Garden Show wall display we built. I thought to myself how neat it was that I was actually able to re-use the 'hearting' I left in San Francisco.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Father's Hands.

My father was an artist and a sculptor. I grew up in a house where being creative was as important as brushing your teeth and doing the dishes. I learned from my dad about form and colour, about the golden mean, about composition, balance, movement and above all about the importance of using my imagination. I was taught never to entertain the idea of boredom just because there didn't appear to be anything to do. I was an only child, but what he showed me about making things and keeping busy with my hands, meant I would never be stuck for ideas or lost for ways to pass any day, no matter how alone I was. I learned to not be afraid of change, but rather to be open to seeing the world in new way every day. Creativity was a part of life. It was a way of communicating. All of this I discoverd in the context of having fun, whether it was playing music together, making things with whatever was at hand or visiting art galleries and museums.

I never noticed how immersed I was in the creative process until much later when I began to realize that it wasn't as much a part of the lives of people around me. The need to be spontaneous, to improvise, to adapt and to take the things that life threw at you and turn them into something, not just positive but hopefully imaginative and beautiful, was apparently not 'second nature' to everyone.

My father made his living working with his hands, His hands traced the contours and molded the forms that others would recognize and delight to see, and want hold, and have, and own. His mind was keen and his hands were skillful. These two faculties made the important connections back and forth between image and imagination. All this was attractive and inviting to me and I was never intimidated by all this creativity in my family as I was growing up .

And so after having mentioned all of this, it seems a bit strange to also admit that even though I remember getting along so well with him, we were not really all that 'close'. We definitely were not close in the way that I perceived some of my other friends were with their dads.

But here is the thing, I think he and I enjoyed something which can't really be defined in terms of 'closeness' or measured in the traditional sense of family bonding. What he did enable me to discover and shared with me was a sense of a 'creative purpose' in a world where even if perhaps I didn't feel like I 'belonged', (or where I might not have family or friends around to support me) I could still tune in to that creative energy and be more than content.

Today Jan 29 2010, after enduring, without complaint, his last few years on earth, putting up with a gradual deterioration of his health, my father quietly let go of the loose hold he had on this world and departed gracefully and silently into another place. I was not there to say goodbye.

Of this I am certain, that he has had, and will continue to have, an influential hand on my life. Where he was going 'creatively' continues to draw me, and I will, as he did, keep delving into the 'creative process' which I believe is a looking, not so much beyond death, but rather a peering forward into the very source of life.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Begrudging Hands


In the cold lean purity
the lemon sun anneals the dry stone wall.
The wind in planes and panels cannot shake
the stones which wear away before they break.
Yet no mortar seals them, nothing at all
holds them together in such nicety-
except the bitter skill that human hand
begrudged to claim an unresponsive land.

Clean with wind, and bent where the earth is bent,
the walls are grimy perfect, and the bridges
arch uncompromisingly their grey
parable of ruthless craft, today
lost among the dry and frozen ridges
like art of building walls without cement:
the art of building lives without regard
for weakness, love, compassion, or reward.

The men who built these walls took wife and field
for the same need, fertility and food,
and both they plowed and sowed until they ceased
to bear and one of them, the last at least,
was left to rest. They made a house of wood
for God, a Protestant who did yield
to supplication, though his laws of stone
claimed he was wholly good and good alone.

They saved their money, paid their taxes, sent
their sons to die in was, and all without
knowledge, pity, grace, or admiration
for the land they left these stone memorials on,
a land which never bore them faith or doubt.
Their labours now are but impediment
to straying cattle; and a winter sun
hardens the earth they bought but never own.

The newer fences, further on ahead,
made of wood or wire, are somehow better-
they warp and rust and sometimes fall apart,
weaker than dry-stone, and not an art.
Strength only lays the stone, then is its debtor,
and the earth consumes the strength which once it fed.
Weakness sows its love without a fence
and makes an art out of impermanence.

by Paris Leary 1957

Thanks to Evan Oxland (our integrated resource consultant) for sending us this poem which he recently came across while doing research for a university paper he is writing. (They are his hands in the photograph )

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fragile Rock and Hand Puppets.

So let's have a show of hands. Who here likes dry stone puppets ?

While dry stone walling is certainly a number of important respectable things it can also be a very whimsical thing. I have been asked to add some more walls this week to the dry stone ruins I designed for a client and actually built last year here in California. Along with two helpers Patrick Callon and Dean Mclellan we created a lovely enclosed space of stacked stone to look like a kind of abandoned dry stone stage coach house.

No one has ever seen a dry stone stage coach house and there are certainly no pictures of such a structure on Google. It is purely fanciful and perhaps more in the realm of an imaginative folly than a serious reproduction of any historic building. It almost goes without saying that this type of work is really fun and yet in its celebration of a legitimate and traditional method of construction it seems completely appropriate.

The walls are made of a Bouquet Canyon schist stone and New Mexico red sandstone. It is a delight to work with these materials. The red sandstone shapes nicely with a hammer and chisel and you can make nice blocky cornerstones with it. The schist is nice and flat and stacks well. The schist however stratifies along the bedding plane in thin slabs and fractures badly and can only to be used in the shapes and sizes it comes in. It is a stone, without a sense of humour, so when you work with it you have to be careful, because you cant make 'faces'. Not even that joke breaks it up.

So anyway, that's what made me start thinking about whimsy. My hands seemed to enjoy working on this dry stone ruins partly because it is not like work at all, but play. They are pleased to be the puppets or the jesters and create something that looks so good now and will give pleasure for years to come to anyone who stumbles upon this lovely enclosed dry stone space nestled here in the redwood forrest on the California coast. I had my helper Jerry take this picture for the blog entry today. My hands were thinking this would be a cool thing and it is hoped that it gives some the followers of this daily walling blog a chuckle. We do thank you for your comments and feedback.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Hand-Off

Unlike stone masonry, dry stone walling is more of a team sport. Masons can labour alone in their particular area of the country for years without ever working along side another mason or indeed even meeting another one. Dry stone wallers on the other hand generally like to work together on projects. For sure there is the occasional 'stone ranger' who prefers to build walls without anyone else's help, but I wonder if this is by choice or rather a result of not really having discovered the satisfaction that comes with being involved working together, helping one another on a dry stone project.

Such projects are usually lengthy enough (in linear feet or actual duration) for there to be plenty of spots along the wall to get stuck in to, and so be 'stacking' as part of a team. There are many different aspects of the job which shouldn't be considered menial or less important. The hearting for instance is paramount. The pinning and filling of the wall with stones inside the wall is often more important than just the lifting and putting big stones in to place. Finding or making hearting material is always appreciated by those who have to work on the wall itself. Shaping and squaring stones is an activity that naturally comes into this category too. In traditional stone masonry building, the stones often are shaped at a quarry and then transported sometimes a long distance to the site, for other masons to assemble. In walling, this shaping can go on right at the wall and the job can be done by anyone who may see a particular need for making several certain shaped stones for everyone to use.

Sometimes when I see that things are getting cramped along the wall (or there are areas where it is difficult to get the stone material up to people) I will try to find the special shaped stones or 'problem solvers' as I call them, for my colleagues, who perhaps dont have a very good selection.

Providing stones, sharing tools, distributing the workload and passing down ideas, suggestions and compliments to co-workers, is what dry stone walling is all about. The willingness to be a team player by asking a colleague to takeover for a while on a project you have been working on, a kind of 'handing-off of the wall' so to speak, is not only a sign that you trust that individual but also shows professionalism and strength of character. Each project provides an opportunity for everyone to give a helping 'hand' without anyone needing to take credit for more than their share or looking to belittle one-another's efforts.

I have never been reluctant to share the tasks and the credit involved in completing the many interesting projects I personally have had an opportunity to design or been called to work on. Looking at the greater picture, that of 'building-up' an appreciation and awareness of dry stone walling here in Canada, Ive got to 'hand' it to the many wonderful people across the nation who have helped me and see the sense of 'building upon' what has already been done, and continuing to work as a team, rather than trying to tear things down and going out on their own.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Getting a handle on vandalism.

The whole vandal / liability thing is getting way out of hand. Our obsession with making everything completely indestructible is an over-reaction to the problem. In the case of making dry stone walls less vulnerable to senseless damage, or the possibility of people hurting themselves on them, we are missing the point if we have to bring concrete into the equation. The answer is not to taunt would-be vandals by challenging them to find new ways to destroy the bunker-like objects we introduce to our parks and public places, but to consider natural designs that are much more effective. In the case of liability concerns, what was God thinking anyway when he created trees and stones. How could he have been so careless as to create steep hills or ponds? In the case of vandalism what was he thinking when he made just about everything? We need to ask ourselves whether creating things that are more 'natural' and hence more vulnerable to mischief, might be more effective in maintaining damage control.
A dry stone wall works not just because it is strong and structural but also because it 'yields' to the forces of nature rather than obstinately resists them. The whole idea of yielding is the key to the problem of public installations. In the same way dry stone walls 'yield' to the vandalism of the elements, they can also assimilate many of destructive elements of society.
A vandal will be less likely to try to wreck something that is not challenging his imagination as to how to take it apart. He is also less likely to carry away or destroy the stones that he does manage to take off a wall. The whole idea is to accept the fact that nothing can be made vandal proof but that things can be designed which involve materials that can be taken apart but not actually broken or built in such a way that they can be repaired easily and quickly. We can introduce less confrontational elements into the community by tuning in to how to care for our walls, which on occasion may suffer from abuse, rather than designing war zone installations that are more abusive to our sensibilities than anything a vandal could do.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pick your own.

It is rewarding to collect stones from our jaunts back and forth from the cottage, or from visits to friends in the country. The pleasure of spotting a well- shaped moss or lichen covered rock, under some leafy hiding spot, and the enthusiasm felt , carrying it back home and imagining where it will go in a wall, is something magical beyond description.
The gathering of stones is not something that takes time, because you can stop any time you want. Gathering enough stones to build a wall, may take forever, but the joy that comes adding each hand picked specimen to our pile outweighs the magnitude of the task undertaken.

This is the strange thing about rocks and time. Onlookers may see the work as labour intensive and a waste of time, it is in fact the very opposite: gathering stones becomes a way of transcending time and slowing down. What could be more maintenance free than a rock? A dry stone wall is simply a well stacked pile of maintenance free objects. Any section of wall we finally build, no matter how long it takes or how small it is, becomes a profound monument to our decision to step outside the demands of modernity with all its hustle-bustle. We have entered a world that is calming and therapeutic. There exists a healing benefit, a type of inner maintenance, free to anyone who takes time to gather and stack stones.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cold Hands, Warm Heart

I travelled from sea level at a beach in Ventura today to an elevation over 5000 feet east of Bakersfield at a log cabin overlooking Isabella Lake (along Kern Canyon Rd near Kernville California). The weather and scenery changes were remarkable. I went from a mistywarm ocean vista to a cold and bright rocky landscape. The terrain turned from dry sandy beach to slippery snow covered mountains. Along the way I saw some dry stone walls in Santa Clara enclosing lemon orchards along the 126 . I saw many rocks and stoney outcroppings, as well as rolling hills, mountains and flat flat farm land.

The changing vista along the Kern Canyon Rd is particularly dramatic. The jumble of boulders and rocks peppering both the sides of the steep mountain canyon seems to create an almost messy look to the landscape. By the time we neared the log cabin that my friend Matthew was taking me to see, the snow was everywhere. The road became too slippery to drive on. We had to walk the last half mile up to the site.

Matthew wanted to show me the pile of granite rocks he has been stockpiling at his property which he eventually wants to build walls and a fireplace with. As we stumbled through the thick snow leading to his cabin I stopped to make this hand print in the snow. I thought about the extremes of scenery I had seen today. My hands had held warm stones on the beach this morning and now it was too snowy to find even one of the rocks Matthew wanted me to look at.

My hands were cold but my heart was warmed by the experience of having travelled through the spectrum of sensational California geography and geology, all in one day.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hands Off !

The dry stone wall competition on the beach was a bust. It started fairly well despite high winds and rain. Getting to the Symposium beach walling site required, among other things, a half mile hike in the rain over a muddy trail around a flooded footpath through the bush and up over a railway embankment. When we got there we were all focused on our various stacking projects and we were determined not to be thwarted by anything else nature or the local geography would try to throw at us. The various walls and cairns and balanced stones were all coming along splendidly. However we hadn't taken into account one other slight technicality; the rigorous enforcement of a little known official Ventura California Emma Wood State Beach Park regulation. A police ranger appeared on the scene around 10:30 am out of nowhere (presumably having risked the same obstacle course we had gone through, to get there) and told everyone they had to stop what they were doing immediately. Apparently it is against the law to 'stack stones' on the beach.

Our ill-fated event had finally been shut down not by the elements but by the law and every one participating would have to stop and go home or we would all be arrested.


So, what was supposed to be a friendly 'hands-on-event' became a 'take-your-hands-off-or-you-will all-be-hand-cuffed-and -taken-to-jail-event'.

As we trudged home from the beach in the rain, back to our vehicles, my hands couldn't grasp the logic of everything that had transpired that morning.

"What was everyone thinking?"

Friday, January 22, 2010

Hands On Holiday

The stones on the beach in Ventura will be the building material for an informal dry stone competition on Friday. The contestants will be a mixed assembly of various wallers who have been attending the International Stonefoundation Symposium here in Ventura California. The Symposium is winding down with the last day being devoted to the annual 'Olithic Events' as Tomas Lipps, director of the Stonefoundation, calls them.
The stones are very rounded but most of them have shapes that are calling out for them to be picked up and balanced or used in some creative artistic way. Some of us will discover how well they can be made into a dry stone wall. (Though the weather is calling for rain all day Friday and any walls that are made will definitely be a wet ones)
The stones are not huge. They are well within the the range of one-to-two-handers. ( Not large two person 'four-handers') They are worn smooth and have fleshy colour and quality to them. They are easy to pick up and their smoothness makes them kind on the hands.
Everything about this rounded sandstone material is attractive. My hands will enjoy a holiday from working with the rough jagged sandstone of last week's workshop, as they now find ways to slide and fit these beauties into the form of a temporary structure. Whatever we make will not have to be something that has to last. This is not the criteria for this to be a worthwhile walling event. Besides getting the exercise and practice there will be a great opportunity for the hands to do some spacial thinking. It looks like there are a number of styles one could experiment with and all the hand data can be useful for future walling problem solving.
Since there is a great variety of very similar almost modular shapes, the decision making will be a kind of modular progress as both the hand coordination and stone cooperation improves. Hopefully there will be a 'meshing' of the two and very little 'mashing'.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hand Picked

The little stones are important. The chips that we gather and bring to the wall are very usefull. It's not just the big ones that make up a wall. We may only see the huge stones in the wall when it is done but there are many more smaller stones there we cant see. These are all painstakingly placed there by hand to shim and pin the bigger ones. It takes time to do all the small fitting. Often these smaller stones are the very shards and fragments we have broken off the larger rocks while we have hammered and chiseled them. It seems fitting that the perfect wedge-shaped pieces we find to stop a big stone to stop from rocking in the wall are obviously pieces that were split off that very stone when we were shaping it.
Our hands feel these similarities of contour and texture. They make these associations and send the information to the brain.
And while we wonder what this may all mean, our hands look for another stone to put in the wall.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

If you're happy and you know it clap your hands.

If the stones had hands Im sure at the end of a wall building project they would clap. Sometimes you can almost sense the stones cheering you on as you build. As you get close to the end of the work it's like the end of a performance or athletic event. They, in a way, are just spectators. Stones like to watch us put them together in there favorite way of fitting, structurally. Even though they are hard and heavy this is so they fit together better. We are the ones who make the stones sing and the wall shout. The stones come together in a wall and it is like hands clapping, like cheering. They meet and make no sound, but there is certainly celebration, as the form of the wall is revealed. All the stones in the wall merge together in a kind of silent applause. Come on people, let's put your stones together, let's help give the walls a hand.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I am aware of how much more can be said about hands and gestures. I read somewhere that gestures are processed in the same areas of the brain as speech. This makes sense because the hands and mouth often work in conjunction with one another. Our words and their meaning are augmented by the things we do with our hands. These gestures are often movements we make unconsciously.

I just watched a video of a speech I gave in Mallorca a few years ago. I was talking about creativity and stone. It went well, but as I forwarded ahead on the video, it seemed to me my hand motions and body movements seemed like they could have been a bit distracting. I'm thinking a lot about this because I have to speak today at Ventura California- 'Creativity Part 2' and I wish there was a way I could sit on my hands while I am giving the presentation.

Having said that, I suppose it could be just as bad to talk standing absolutely motionless and maybe bore people to tears. People need something, some movement, to interact with, to involve the eyes as well as the mind. The gestures have to suit the subject matter and the substance of what is being conveyed.

Gesture drawings are sketches done quickly to capture the essence on paper of the subject matter . There are techniques to being able to do this well, but mostly it takes practice and a good eye.

And the hands? They do the drawing. They gesture, they speak, not just with movement but with pen or pencil. The hands help convey the image of something that hopefully captures the imagination or reminds us of something. A good gesture drawing can inspire us or give us a sense that the thing we are looking at, though not an exact representation, or incomplete ( perhaps still looking unfinished, or completely abstracted) non-the-less 'rings' and has some essence of truth or beauty about it.

Gesture drawings don't have to be drawings. I think of some wonderful garden features I have seen that accomplish a similar effect of creating a sense of place or feeling of peace. A well designed landscape or well designed garden can sometimes capture the imagination with the simplest of lines and the minimum of elements.

A dry stone wall is a simple line. It has a minimum of elements, just well placed stones. A short section of well built wall in a garden can be a gesture drawing of sorts. It can be the thing that draws you into a garden and reminds you of something you saw as a child, or saw in a book or on a holiday abroad. A charming stone wall, even an unfinished one, or one that is in ruins, can still look right, can still look fresh and alive.

A wall like this, made with human hands, can be a gesture drawing us into a place where the stones come alive and almost seem to speak to us.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Getting A Grip

Sometimes it just so hard to get a grip on things. Hands-on workshops can be very free form unpredictable things. There are so many variables. The stones can be way too large or difficult to shape. There can be too many of the same sizes or too few of them. The weather may not cooperate. The scope of the project may be beyond the level of the students abilities. There may be scheduling problems or misunderstanding as to just exactly what is supposed to be done.

However, the Ventura dry stone workshop went amazingly well. The project was held at the perfect place with the perfect combination of scenery and sunny weather and completed just in time before the rain moved in. The locals have treated us like kings. The stone was just challenging enough to keep it interesting for everyone. The sizes ranged from 6 ton boulders to soccer ball sizes, with plenty of nice shaped hearting. Everyone got to work on different parts of the walls and everyone got along. And the final product, two huge curved-cornered dry stone ramparts looked amazing.

There is a real sense of accomplishment amongst the people tonight. Some of us are going home, pumped up with ideas of how to incorporate this new Japanese style of walling into our own projects. Some of us are staying to be involved in the second part of this international symposium. People have been driving and flying in from all over. Wallers of every age and skill level are here, both male and female, all backgrounds and all excited to be together for these two weeks.
So despite the wondering prior to this event how it all was going to turn out, it does seem that most of us have got a pretty good grip now and we'll ride the next few days of rain out no problem and still have lots of fun. Special thanks goes to Stonefoundation director Tomas Lipps and Ventura's own stone man Paul Lindhard.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hand Signals

Junji Awata an expert in the traditional style of Japanese dry stone walling is gesturing to Frank Kane of Kane Brothers Construction. He is telling Frank to wait till the heavy stone is positioned better before adding an all important shim stone. Hand signals are essential. Frank doesn't know any Japanese, Jyungi knows very little English. Together with other Americans, Canadians and Japanese wallers we are building two huge dry stone ramparts in Ventura California. The hands are doing a lot of the talking.

There is a hand language for Peter Mullins the crane operator. Thumbs pointing away from each other means "extend the boom". Thumbs pointing in, means "retract the boom". Thumb and baby finger of one hand outstretched , three middle knuckles closed, and a rocking motion of the hand, means "tip the grader bucket slowly". Palms of fists together quickly means "Stop right there"

And there are the other hand gestures, one to one between the wallers. Many of the gestures are universal. A pointing motion here from Jyungi's son, Suminori, who is in charge of this workshop/project means 'get on that'. A gesture of waving means 'come over here'. A flat hand shot sideways away from the body means 'good enough' And of course the sign we are all looking for is the encouraging thumbs up to say "good job".

Intelligent hands know how to give these positive signs to each other. They are not just skilled at what they do but precise in how they communicate approval and express other important information amongst the other hands on the job.

Hand gestures are extremely important for safety and accuracy. Words can sometimes not be heard or understood. There is not just the language barrier. The job site is too noisy. The crane operator can't see the huge stone he is lowering into position. Conditions like these require the hands to move into action to take a leading role in accomplishing the double task of providing the communication and doing the actual construction.

I would like to give a big thumbs up to everyone who has worked on this project, skilled or unskilled, professional or student, those who are here for the practice and those who are here to teach, those who are certified through testing and those who have proven themselves through experience. A specific hand signal of approval can be so much more constructive than the mincing of words.

In Japan and on this project too we often stop to honour each other, bowing towards one another with our hands together.

Knowing how to honour a fellow waller is a handy skill to have.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Handling Bars

There are all kinds of 'bars' that wallers find useful in the world of dry stone walling. No we are not talking brew pubs and drinking taverns . Here in Ventura California at the Japanese Dry Stone Walling Workshop we are using several variations of the five foot wrecking bar to move huge boulders into different positions so that we can split and shape them. Some are rounded rods with a pry part at either end, some are square stock steel with a flattened wedge on one end curving gently to about 10 inches for different applications of moving and tipping stones.
It is possible to "walk" a large boulder by resting the pivot point further ahead in the direction you wish to go and push down and then rotate the bar backwards so the stone moves forwards. The fulcrum is then repositioned and the rock is slid again in direction you want it to go. A little bit at a time. Often you have to move to the other side of the stone and alternate postitions or you just go in circles. Two people using these long pry bars are really useful in moving stones forward towards their final destination in the wall.
The hands are the prime movers. Their strength is augmented by the simple yet profound physics of the lever. This way of moving heavy objects seems to be a very natural and intuitive extension of the hand's capabilities. Many other tools don't really work with the kinetic potential of the hands, but only reduce them to trigger-pulling automatons, or keyboard punching adjuncts of our brains. My hands like to be more useful than that.
If my hands could speak they would say they really enjoy moving big stones, some far heavier than the weight of three men, with just a bar.They would take great pleasure in not being relegated to switching on and off some mechanized contraption that was in fact making them redundant by doing the actual work. If my hands thought a lot about it, they would probably make sure I threw in a couple of bars in the truck at the beginning of the day. They would think of ways to use these bars to put big stones in the wall rather than have me get lazy in my thinking and avoid having to use any huge stones in the wall.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The bucket: the waller's hand bag.

The waller's tool bag or tool box is often just a bucket. We can carry it out to the field and empty the tools out, if necessary, and then use it for a container for 'hearting' as well. I have seen some pretty fancy tool bags and seen some pretty beat up ones as well. We masons tend to be tough on things. But a simple plastic 5 gallon bucket isnt very expensive and can be easily replaced. A lot of small stones can be brought to the wall at one time, instead of picking them up individually, tossing them near the wall, and looking for, and collecting them again. The waller who comes to work without a bucket or two has forgotten his most useful tool.
The hands do the carrying. It is called hand-balming. This is a pretty simple concept but still worth thinking about.
There have been some pretty humble professions throughout history that involve mostly carrying things.
I think about the people who go back and forth from the fields carrying produce, or those who bring water back from a river or a hand dug well, or those who lug stone material back from the quarries or move rocks by hand from the fields they are clearing. I think about how they came up with different ways to carry things and different things to carry them in. And how their hands got tired and they would stop and switch hands. I think about the people who depended on them to carry things day after day. It was a noble and meaningful occupation for anyone with a good back and strong hands, or so it seemed.
Our hands don't carry things much any more. It's not smart. We have nap sacks, suitcases and hockey bags on wheels, golf carts, shopping carts, motorized vehicles, as well as water pipes to provide water, gas lines to provide heating, snowmobiles trucks and ATVs to transport supplies, and any number of gadgets to save us lifting or carrying just about anything.
The hands presumably now have a lot of time to do other things. But I still like to carry stuff when I can. I often don't re-park my truck but carry my tools the extra distance.
Maybe that's why I like walling so much. It's silly really. Maybe I do it just to make sure my hands don't get out of practice carrying things. Or perhaps my hands can't come up with any better ways to be 'handier'.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hands Up!

Hands up, who enjoys dry stone walling! Hands up, if you cant think of a better way to spend January 2010. If you are enjoying the sunny California weather? If the food and the friendship and the teaching and the laughter and the scenery is about as good as it gets.

Yes the hands tell it all. The hands raised as a sign of surrender to a craft that has captured our imagination. As a gesture of helplessness, in our inability to think or talk about much else this last week here in Ventura. The hands are waving like flags in the sky and waving high above the surf and the sea of crashing waves we can see far down below us

"Look what we have been able to do! We silly humans. We insignificant temporary beings."

The hands know they are blessed, and that they have left a blessing, in the form of a stone rampart they have created for people to see for years and years to come.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Handset

The pitching tool or 'handset' as it is sometimes called, is a great tool for taking off ledges of stone along the face of a rock, even deep into the meat of a stone. It can be very useful in taking off a lot of stone and squaring it up. These are chisels that have a very flat blunt edge to them whereas tracers are chisels that look similar but come to a sharper edge. You can be more precise with a tracer but it is generally not used to take off a lot of stone or used like a point. I however tend to use it that way all the time. But thats not the point. Next to the point, (a pointed chisel) the handset is a the hand tool of choice amongst the stone masons here in Ventura at the Japanese dry stone wall workshop being run by the Stonefoundation. The other hand tool some people like to use on big stones is the 'bull set'. This baby is used for roughing out or shaping large blocks of stone. Using the bull set is a 2-person operation - one person holds the special bull-nosed hammer angled on its edge, set in place along the edge of the area of stone to be removed, angling the blade slightly toward the outside of the stone. The other person then hits it with the heavy striking hammer. The bull set hammer is not meant to be swung at all. But I've seen people do just that. So people break the rules and the stones all the time.
Anyway, like the handset which specifically refers to the hands, all these tools are hand tools. They are for changing the shape of stones by applying some sort of grip and swing action which is what the hands can do very well. Hands can eventually become comfortable even continuously using tools like these.
Power tools by comparison often wear the hands and arms out much faster, with the constant machine-gun impact and the violent vibrations. The hands are continuously subject to jarring torquing motions with various power stone tools and must also watch out for dangerous whirling blades, screaming twirling drills, and gas and electric tools that produce fumes and on-site dust storms which make it hard to see and breath. It is no wonder that 'thinking hands', ( belonging to someone who is a dry stone walling enthusiast ) try to stay away from these not-so-hand-friendly tools as much as possible.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Holding hands.

My hands held things all day today. They not only held rocks of all sizes and shapes to carry them to the wall we are building, but they also held chisels of all sizes and hammers of all sizes. Some hammers took two hands to hold. Everything I held required that my hands worked together. They never argued with each other or worked against each other. They augmented each other's capacity to split rocks and fit difficult stones together and basically get things done.

We talk about the way a thing 'holds'. A temporary wedge under a stone 'holds' until we find a better shaped one to fill the gap properly. A wooden handle 'holds' the head that is fitted tightly onto it. The batter-frame 'holds' the string-lines taunt while we sight down the wall. The whole wall holds together because we have built it well by maximizing the friction between each stone we have placed in the wall. We have made use of stone's three great properties, it's tremendous weight, it's great compressive strength and it's relative immutability.

Hands add another important capacity for holding dry stone walls together. Their flexibility. This flexibility is what is transfered to the structure of the wall when we don't use mortar. The wall becomes alive. It can move. It can yield to the forces of nature without breaking and falling apart. A wall holds, for all these reasons, and hopefully it holds for a long time. My grip gets tired after a while. My hands need to take breaks. But the wall goes on holding. A day of me constantly holding and letting go of things is translated into years and years of stones holding together. I am ok with this exchange of 'states 'of holding, like some metaphysical equation. I am pleased with my investment of energy, my holdings. Everything is held in place, because nothing is withheld.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hand-held devices

In a way Jason Sivak from lower New York State was thinking with his hands on Sunday. Jason and two of his guys who work for him, flew in to Ventura on Thursday to join twenty-five other stoneworkers for the 10 day International Japanese Dry Stone Wall Workshop being held here this month. Much of what is being taught in this course is shared through demonstration but also through translation. Jason has been finding it is a lot to take in. He told me he lay in bed Saturday night wondering how he was ever going to remember all the information that was being shared about how to split and shape and place the big stones we are using in this traditional Japanese style of building. The next morning while keying in a reminder to himself he remembered the app on his new iphone which enables you to record anything, wherever you are. It was the perfect thing for documenting the conversation he was to have with Suminori about the large triangular rock he would need to accurately shape before it could be fitted back properly in the south side of the rampart he's working on. Mimi translated for them while the hand-held micro-phone recorded it all, to be listened to, when Jason gets back to New York.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Handing It Down

Handing down the knowledge of how to build dry stone walls is a fascinating subject in itself. Im just thinking about the phrase 'to hand something down' and how it relates to expressions like 'grasping the concept', 'picking up some pointers' and 'trying our hand at it'. Many of us have learned how to work with stone with the help of someone who has not only had the time and patience to show us the things we need to know, but has 'held our hands' in order for us to get some of the concepts. In a way it's a skill not 'taught' so much in theory, but literally 'passed from one hand to another', almost like passing a baton. It is our hands that pick up much of the kinetic information and learn how to make skilled motor decisions, there-by making the learning more about how to register and store the information in our hands subconscious so to speak, rather than just in our heads.

Stone tradition doesnt change the way many modern skilled professions like computer technology and programming languages do (and the various technical innovations associated with the way we build new machinery and buildings) There is little time to reinforce these modern skills before different skills are required . By contrast the tradition of splitting and shaping stone that we have been learning over the last few days here in Ventura has not changed for thousands of years. Suminori Awata from Japan is teaching us, at the 2010 Stonefoundation Dry Stone Workshop in Ventura California, how to use a selection of different size points to make a series of rectangular pockets in a rock in order to then fit special wedges in those holes to break it along a straight line, and so make a flat face. We will not be using electric drills or saws. As I work away on my first hole with the tools he has provided I gradually let my hands get comfortable with the technique Suminori has demonstrated. I work for over an hour to drill 5 holes. It takes time, too much time one might argue, to split a stone this way.
Is it a waste of time? Why not just use power tools instead of hand tools?
Because, there is an inexplicable satisfaction that comes with patiently letting the hand coordination and skill sink in. It is quiet and contemplative. The mind and the hands both have time to think. As for the hour it took me to split this stone, that's not time wasted. I could have been sitting in traffic for that hour.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Does the right hand know what the left is doing?

Hand tools are useful in building a wall. Of course people have built some pretty amazing walls without the use of even tools such as hammers and chisels. But a hammer definitely helps. It is an extension of the fist which is pretty useless when it comes to breaking rocks. And a chisel I suppose is like an extension of the fingernails. They (fingernails) are good at splitting and prying open things and scratching lumps off things, but not rocks.

So hands that are thinking wisely about laying stone efficiently choose hand tools to make their life easier. I didnt say less dangerous. As soon as you introduce the simplest of hand tools you introduce an element of danger. It will be more easy to get the job done but more easy to get hurt too . The trade off for efficiency has always been thus.

If I walk to work, I get there slower. If I bicycle there, I will likely get there faster but I risk falling off and breaking my arm. If I drive, it gets me there even faster but I increase the severity of the consequences if I drive badly, or someone else does.

Hands can get hurt all the time if they are not thinking. Usually it is from a rock rolling or dropping onto to a finger or a thumb. But hands usually take more of a beating from each other. My right hand has smashed the daylights out of my left hand many times. I've got chips of stone in them and splinters of handles and scratches and grazes from all sorts of configurations of using my tools.

It seems funny to think hands can inflict so much pain on each other. But if the hands are thinking at all, they try to minimize these confrontations and unlike stonemasons they almost always 'make up' right away if one of them hurts the other.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Take the gloves off!

My hands don't like to be blindfolded. They like to feel and comprehend the different shapes of the stones. Walling is an 'engagement' as such, and though not confrontational, the activity is worthy of all the attention the phrase "It's time to take the gloves off" brings to mind. As wallers, we have to be closely involved with the material we have chosen to build with. It isnt hand-to-hand combat, but rather hand-to-stone contact. We pick them up to identify their qualities and potential and to understand how we can accommodate them in the wall we are building. It isn't often necessary to wear gloves, unless it is unusually cold or the stones are wet. Then the stones are just too abrasive to go bare handed. But otherwise I like to work without gloves.
When you think about it. We don't put gloves on to pick up a child or greet a friend. We dont wear gloves to play an instrument unless we are in a santa clause parade. The wearing of gloves while trying to build a dry stone wall is like steering a car by looking at the GPS. There is an expression for when there is too much going on around you- ' I cant hear myself think.' My hands have an expression that roughly translates 'we cant hear ourselves feeling'
Walling hands can't hear if their extremities are muffled in clumsy work gloves
They cant feel or "see" the heart (or hearting) of the wall
They cant tell how large the gaps are or what the shapes are under the and between the stones that need to be filled.
These are all things that occur to me while Im working and 'thinking' with my hands.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The hands don't know where the time goes?

Hands are also very good at remembering.
Thinking with our hands is essentially another way of saying 'turning off our mind'.
It describes a way of walling where we are no longer thinking about what we are doing.
We are not aware of the weather or the time or that we are hungry or thirsty, too hot or too cold.
There is no sense of time, and usually after we look back on the day of 'good walling' we see that 'time' has gone much slower or faster than we imagined.
It is our hands that have taken over from our minds and although they have done a great job during these mind-in-neutral phases, they aren't as well wired as our minds to keep a proper account of the passing of time.

There are times when our brain should do all the thinking
but there are times when it should just switch off !
Sleep is one of those times, it is on the low activity side of the scale.
The automated, skilled movement of satisfying work is the active side of the scale and usually in this mode, the brain gets to switch off or at least ponder other things.
This is fairly common occurrence in most activities of manual labour. And walling is a lot of, just that, 'manual' labour - working with our hands. It is in fact often labour intensive but usually it is not back-breaking, and while it is time consuming too you may not notice that part of it. With a desk job letting the mind 'switch off' rarely happens. If it is engrossing desk work there may be a sense of time flying but there is often associated with that the sense of not having got enough done. A section of wall after a day of building can look pretty magnificent and usually it's pretty surprising even for a beginner, how much work he or she accomplished.

What makes dry stone walling (and thinking with our hands) such an interesting phenomena is
that there is this strange combination of ongoing object-specific spacial decision making combined with the repetition of routinely having to create the same pattern and shape over the length of the wall. Hands are very good at grasping this shape and seeing that the job gets done.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Letting Go

As hard as it is to 'pick up' skills and useful knowledge, letting go of things is even harder. We are not good at letting go of bitterness and resentment. Our minds have too much of a sense of being wronged. We hold things in mentally and emotionally and they eat away at the very framework of who we are. On the other 'hand' things we hold on to physically are much easier to let go of when necessary. A hot cooking utensil perhaps. A sharp object. A rock that isn't useful or even a stone that is. No doubt we can learn how to let go of the things in life, things that are weighing us down or that we a clinging to, by watching how our hands let go of things and even drop them. Our hands are good at it.

The heavy awkward stones are only in transition when we pick them up to build a wall with them. It gets way too tiring otherwise. Our hands are being used, not just to pick them up and move them, but to release the stones too. Nor is it our job to hold them in place in the wall forever or keep coming back to reposition them continuously. Good structure depends on maximizing the friction and centre of gravity of each stone and to make sure the stones are nestled securely into each other within the wall. We are not trying to just stack them in some temporary balancing act and hover round them with our hands wondering when it's going to fall over. If we are good at walling we are good at putting things where they need to be, and letting go.

The letting go part is not abstract or gradual. It is definite and precise. And more importantly it is with an understanding and a complete appreciation for function. Our minds might understand 'purpose', and resolve to be a better person, but it is our hands that demonstrate the higher level of commitment, which is function. We are making a wall not theorizing or imagining. If we think with our hands we 'think' with something different than purpose. Even if we make mistakes it is not on purpose, but it is part or how we function. If people criticize us for what we do and we sense a tendency to hang on to how hurt we feel, we can still function actively by finding the right place for that awkward seemingly useless 'stone' and put it in its place. It will intuitively be an integral part of that very thing we are building, a beautiful wall that is made up of many many similarly awkward stones that, once they are in position, merge into the wall, and then have individually, and completely, been forgotten. The hands are very good at forgetting. It is the whole hands-on hands-off process that can produce not just a wall, but a work of art.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Picking Up Things

Being creative isn't something you can just pick up, especially if you are not using your hands. Stonework is maybe easier to pick up, as a kind of transition to becoming more creative. As we place and fit stones in a wall our mind sometimes discovers solutions that it didn't imagine were there before. We are learning how to express ourselves, and this is the beginning of art. There are no perfect answers, but there are enough good solutions to be able to make a good wall. It is important to embrace this concept, instead of being intimidated by all the wrong choices. Don't let your mind tell you that it will never be good enough. Today I want to emphasize the idea of being willing to make mistakes, by encouraging everyone to risk failure. There is always someone out there is going to throw stones at your work, instead of helping you build with them. Creativity is a reward in itself and the feeling of accomplishment is well worth the effort, even if people (and even you) are in a hurry to question your credibility and your skill level.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Let's all have a hand in this.


How are you doing?

I want to officially invite you to join me here at this wonderful new place in cyberspace called

'Thinking With My Hands'

This is a daily blog venture continuing along the lines of the website 'articles' postings, which are accessible online if you are DSWAC member

Basically it is thoughts on 'stones', and working with stones, and exploring why it makes people feel so good to build these things called 'dry stone walls' .

We have an opportunity here to add to these ideas and develop an understanding of what it means to ' think with one's hands '.

I will be coming at this from many different directions, in order to have a better 'grasp' of what is implied by the phrase...not just typing with your hands, not signing or gesturing or even feeling around by hand, with eyes closed, but actually thinking with, and through, our hands as we build things with stones!

I hope to be more specific about all this as my hands tell my brain the kinds of things that need to be written, instead of the other way around.

This is just to get a foot in the door, so to speak, and also to invite you all to have a hand in this project too.

Im certainly going to be here. Talking a lot, but I hope you come too and tell me what your thoughts are... thoughts not just in your head, but in your hands as well.

So thanks in advance for your 'comments' and enabling this blog to be interactive and even more thought provoking.