Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Step Right Up. Swing the Hammer. Ring the Bell.

It's generally not a good thing to be recognized as a one hit wonder, unless of course you build dry stone walls and split stones for a living. Then if you can split them single handedly and often enough with just one blow, people may be impressed and not only consider you to be a one hit 'wonder' but think of you also as a bit of a 'rock star'. The unfortunate people in history on the other hand, who for one reason or another, got only one kick at the can musically (or is that one swing of the cat, or one recipe for that cake they left in the rain ?) probably wouldn't enjoy the notoriety associated with being on the many one-hit-wonder lists so feverishly documented and posted on all those heartless websites one finds on the internet.

Never mind rock stars, even classical composers are not exempt from this indignity. The name Pachelbel comes to mind. Poor old Johann (did you even know his first name?) His 'Canon' written in 1680 scored a big hit in the music world for him back then, and still does even today, but relatively speaking the common consensus amidst the general public is that he never fired another shot. Maybe he did write an 'artillery suite' perhaps or a 'musical musket' but alas his only well-known piece was a bit of a loose canon that sunk any aspirations of staying afloat musically.

It is probably not a good thing ( if you want to go the distance or develop an extensive repertoire) musically speaking, to start with a hit that has a title analogous to hitting the mark, ( ie. taking aim at something for first time) or anything generally having to do with 'big bangs'. Handel may have been pushing his luck with his Royal Fireworks Suite especially if they/it had fizzled, but then he already had a few 'hits' under his belt.
This week I will be taking a whimsical 'waller's swing' at 'one hit wonders' of the rock world . There are several that I can't wait to get my 'hands' on.
Please feel free to make suggestions (in the comments box) of any of your favorite 'single hits' too, for us to go ahead and 'knock'

Monday, March 29, 2010

It all can change with the wave of the hand.

It seems that some days I can be in the zone and other days I'm not. Some days my hands know exactly what to do and other days they fumble and hesitate and don't make very good choices. They can pick up several stones before they discover the right one to go in the next space in the wall. This is not very efficient. It is also frustrating. Often being out of the zone is a matter of being too crowded. If the stones you are using are too near the wall there is no room to work. If all the stones you have to choose from are all piled up on top of each other this makes for awkward working conditions too. Sometimes the ambient noise is distracting. Music can put you out of the zone as often as it can glide you into it. Ironically 'rock music' is not always the best music for working to. Weather is sometimes a factor. However cold wet weather isn't always a problem and one can be 'in the zone' in the most adverse conditions. Conversely one can be out of the zone when absolutely all the working conditions are ideal.
If I feel like I am getting out of the zone I usually do a lot of the hearting for a while. Taking time to just place the filler stones until you get back in your stride seems to work. Your eyes and hands mull over the material available to you and the spaces that still need filling while you are hearting and you get a much better feel for the types of shapes available. Slowing down helps too. If you are trying to rush (rather than going with the flow) it's as though the stones purposely work against you.

I think of walling like surfing. You have to wait for the big waves. You cant make them happen. And then when you get in front of a good one, you paddle like crazy and then ride it out.

My helper admitted he was out of the zone all day today. He was quiet and persevered but it was obvious I had a better day productively. We joked about it. We agreed it would be good if you knew ahead of time if you were going to be 'out-of-the-zone' the entire day. Then you could just skip going to build walls altogether and go do something else that day (like surfing on the internet instead).

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Welcoming Hands- A Stone's View.

The Dry Stone Waller Revisits Spring's Surfacing Fieldstones

Before stones of eggs hatch feathered heads

or tadpoles eel from gel-a-ti-nous embryos,

fieldstones crown the brown, thawing ground

and, after decades of mid-wifing stones,

I'm so smitten with my youthful marvel exhumed

in desiring, like a child around puppies,

to lift each newborn up, turn them over,

and run hands over wet heads and torsos,

that, over supper, my wife spies the young buck

who, long ago, abruptly frostheaved her life

and, that evening, she loves me so much

that, as I thust up and up and up in lust,

I'm like a rising stone given a second life,

and I welcome hands gripping my schist hips

before feet scamper the granite shoulders

and, when it's over, one warm fingertip

alights the forehead's cliff, slides down the

face-wall of the jowels, and, like the lost hiker

in the White Mountains, seems to know home

is somewhere close, now that she stares into

that familiar old-man-on-the-mountain nose.

A poem, by Dennis Camire, whose chapbook of poems about Dry Stone Walls (being published by Fishing Line Press) will be coming out shortly.

The Task at Hand

We had a meeting today with a number of people involved with the DSWAC who are all still very much interested in promoting the quality and type of dry stone activities our organization has made available here in Canada for the last ten years. It was gratifying to have such a positive enthusiastic group together and to find ourselves in agreement about certain key issues.

Our decision to continue to maintain our direction while better establishing the status of 'association' is based on our enthusiasm for the craft with all its creative opportunities rather than thinking we need to 'prove' something to those watching from the sidelines. We realized that we all were motivated by the same love of what we do, walling, and the genuine desire to see more people develop skills and find creative opportunities here in Canada without taking on any unnecessary trappings.

The process right from the beginning of our coming together as an organization has been a refreshing mix of experimentation combined with the knowledge acquired through good teaching, hands-on practice and a focused application of walling principles which are consistent with our unique Canadian geographic, economic and historical circumstances. We will of course continue to encourage any members interested in accreditation to make use of the excellent DSWA of UK examination program which provides testing here in Canada every year at our annual dry stone wall festival in October

Many of us are committed to supporting a Canadian movement, which while respecting past traditions and bonds, continues to find new avenues for pursing the art of building with stone without mortar and will be looking ahead to have those who work with dry laid stone (whether within the landscape trades or any other associations) unified in the task at hand, by emphasizing the enjoyment in doing what we do, rather than finding fault with others who for whatever reason do it differently.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hands on the Rebound.

This image of a new basketball net fixed to an old dry stone barn in a barnyard in Cumbria presented an interesting juxtaposition of ideas.

I think I was quite on the 'ball' when I 'passed' this 'hoop' in the 'perimeter' area of Doddon Valley while 'traveling', as it were, in the Lake District. I 'jumped' at the opportunity and took this 'shot' with my camera from the 'back court'.

The picture was a real 'slam dunk' visually, with the contrasting hand and rock imagery. I understand that in basketball slang, the ball is often referred to as a 'rock'. Hands that built walls of rock and stone in the past have now given way to younger hands that play games with balls nicknamed 'rocks'. In 'past times' it was essential to know how to work with rocks building walls and shelters in order to survive. Hands had to do it. Today some of these same walls now serve as backdrops for recreational 'pastimes' and outdoor games. Hands are involved but now there is an element of choice and fun. Hands score on the rebound.

On another note,

I remember my friend Peter Mullins, who ran the large Gradall 6000 rear-'pivot' steering forklift at the 2010 Ventura Stone Symposium, kept a basketball with him at all times, taking breaks now and then to flex and strengthen his hands with it. He told me that exercising, by dribbling the basketball throughout the day, provides a valuable back-stretching for the hands that apparently can not be achieved through any other form of exercise. I watched him not only dribble the ball on his breaks but also gracefully 'pivot' the Gradall many times, as he competed against the Ventura Rocks.

I pretty much get enough hand-exercise still lifting rocks everyday.

Friday, March 26, 2010

No Hands!

Walling isn't backbreaking. It is labour intensive, but it isn't really strenuous work. That's why it is always funny to hear people say things like "Boy, that looks like a lot of work ! " or, " I could never lift those stones and do the kind of work you guys do all day".

People will often come by while were working and actually nod their heads and genuinely feel bad for us having to build walls all day for a living. Here we are enjoying the great outdoors, sun shining, no noisy machinery, no stressful deadlines, not confined to some fluorescent lit office working at some high stress job, just hugging stones all day, getting lots of exercise, making beautiful walls that will last hundreds of years, and people are actually feeling sorry for us.

As wallers go I am not really that strong. I generally don't lift really heavy stones. I think with my hands and lift with my legs or with boards or better yet, try not to have to lift them at all. A heavy stone can be rolled into place or simply moved into place with a dolly. If I have to lift a big stone, I don't lift it right up to my chest but let my legs do the work. I can sometimes move a big stone around like this using one hand. Sometimes if a rock is heavy enough you don't need hands at all. Here is one I lifted today. I guess if the stone got any heavier it would just float away!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A 'Touching' Song

Where it began, I can't begin to know when
But then I know it's growing high
It wasn't the string, whooo
The string seems to look lower
Who'd believe how we fly!

Hands, touching stones, reaching out
Touching one, touching two.
Oh, sweet 'Contour Line'
Good fits never seem so good
I've been inclined to believe it never would

And now I, I look at the wall, whooo
And it doesnt seem so stoney
We fill it up one over two, oh
And then we heart
Hearting up to the boulders
How can I heart when there's a 'thru'?

Oh, one, touching one, reaching out
Touching three, touching two.
Oh, sweet 'Contour Line'
Good fits never seem so tight
Oh I'd been inclined to believe it looks right.

Ohhh, sweet 'Contour Line', good fits never seem so good

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How Digits Do it?

At one time the expression "digitally manipulated" referred to moving things around by hand, using some or all of one's fingers (digits) to position things carefully . Nowadays it signifys the way a pixelated computer image has been enhanced or retouched using a software program like photoshop.

A digital image is different from a film image.Traditional film image editing is known as photo retouching, using tools such as an airbrush to modify photographs, or editing illustrations with any traditional art medium. Graphic software programs on the other 'hand' which can be broadly grouped into vector graphics editors, raster graphics editors, and 3d modelers, are the primary tools with which a computer user may manipulate, enhance, and transform images. Many image editing programs are also used to render or create computer art from scratch.

My favorite program for doing this sort of digital image manipulation is Photoshop.

While it used to be that you could often tell if a photograph had been altered, with digital image manipulation programs like Photoshop you can't tell anymore. Many funny and unusual effects can be created, which if done right, can trick the viewer into thinking that what you are looking at is real and that the camera simply recorded what actually happened.

Like a magic trick the 'slight of hand' is created by using computer technology rather than using any hands at all.

Although all the stones in this old slate wall were laid by hand and in the original sense of the word 'digitally' manipulated into place, ( in this case by Cumberland farmers walling nearly two-hundred years ago ) the photo above was not in any way 'digitally' altered. While the image may at first be difficult to figure out, once you realize that it is the throughstones I am lying on, the photo makes sense.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Experienced First, Second and Third Hand.

Today we waved good bye to Cumbria and the great congregation of dry stone walls circumscribing many of the farm fields in Great Langdale.

This has been 'hands-down', the best holiday we have had in a long time. I feel very privileged.
Unless you come from this place or have visited here, you might not understand what the overwhelming attraction of dry stone walls actually is. For me, experiencing again such a diversity and density of dry stone structures 'first hand' has recharged my batteries and made me determine afresh that, one way or another, my Canada should include stone walls.

Walking is definitely the way to see the Lake District. Everyone walks. Unlike Canada, where to go for a walk in the countryside, you often have to make your way along straight, dusty concession roads with cars and trucks constantly whizzing by, the meandering British footpaths by contrast make everything more accessible and hiking so enjoyable. It helps that the whole country has been designed (as if by by some uber-landscaper) on a pleasingly human scale. Even though everything is so much closer together, people walk not just to get somewhere, but as an end in itself. I think of the lyrics to the James Taylor song which affirms, "It's enough to be on your way," and realize that it is more than enough when you are surrounded by such beauty. Yes, there is the exercise you get, and many interesting things to see and talk about along the way, and then there are all the historic points of interest to get to, but essentially it is just the 'perambulation' that is the real attraction. Perhaps Ambleside in Cumbria was actually named in recognition of its pleasing accessibility by foot.

I try to imagine this Cumbrian landscape without the walls. Yes, it would still be dramatic and beautiful, but there would be an essential ingredient missing. The walls delineate and give perspective to a vista, otherwise inaccessible to those who pass this way once or twice, and would still require a lifetime to absorb if you lived here. Walls give proportion and scale to everything. These ribbons of stone draw our eyes across the hills and allow us to cover a greater area than we could ever reach by foot. In the same way as having our dog run ahead and splash through water we would never run through ourselves and flush out the birds and sniff out things off in the distance we might never have noticed, the walls act as a kind of extension of our being. They provide a kind of OBE. (out of body experience); not just part of the scenery but a geographical extension our hands and feet.

There is a kind of 'second-hand experience' contained in this Cumbrian landscape. We don't have to touch it 'first-hand' but merely let ourselves reflect on it from a distance. For those who slowly grasp how far these walls extend and the amount of work involved, a kind of affinity is established with the landscape. We join with others who have lived and worked and walked here in a collective appreciation for the intensity of labour that went into humanizing the environment, without destroying it, as so often can happen.

Is there a 'third-hand' experience here too? Like some sort of 'all-feeling' all-seeing third eye?
I can't dismiss the feeling that my hands have been given eyes to see beyond what is here.
There is a sense of getting 'in touch' again with something important, which so often is merely interesting, or perhaps monumental at best, There is a feeling of having passed this way before and somehow having gained wisdom.

The tradition of stone has been established here which sanctifies the vernacular. We find ourselves on a continuous pilgrimage pondering again and again the lingering, almost spiritual significance of a country of walls built by common people. This flowing tapestry of stone walls perhaps will never be understood.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pointing 'Along' the Wall- No Pointing 'In' It!

Along with seven other people and myself, Martyn Leaver participated in a walling weekend at Cleabarrow farm near Windermere on the second weekend of March. The three hundred plus acres of rolling farmland owned for many years by the Scott family (who are related to Captain Scott who led the famous expedition to Antarctica ) is criss crossed with seventeen and a half miles of free standing dry stone walls, some of them quite tall. The farm and the walls were built in the early 1600s. Martyn who is a professional waller and a member of the DSWA of UK single handedly maintains these walls and over the years has repaired many of the sections where time has begun to take its toll.
He is seen here standing in front of a large section 'pointing' to the rest of the 250 feet of wall he has recently completely rebuilt. All the stones which are mostly mill gritstone including the large through-stones and heavier cams were lifted by 'hand' into place, using milk crates to stand on.
Martyn lives with his family in Kendal in Cumbria which is part of the lake district. He told me he enjoys working with his hands. His interests include restoring old boats, shooting the longbow and rock climbing. He spends every other weekend doing volunteer walling with other members of the DSWA repairing many of the walls in the area.
Martyn has a private business, Leaver Stonework and Paving, and explained to me that he does mortared work and cement 'pointing' as well as dry stone work. Like many other waller/masons Martyn admits that he loves building free-standing walls and prefers it far more to having to work with cement or doing flatwork. This preference seems to be the acid test amongst stoneworkers in Canada as well as Britain. To work with stone structurally, without adhesives or cements is far more satisfying and is considered a craft rather than a just a job. Martyn talked about hoping to visit us in Canada in the future to help 'lend a hand' and further strenghten ties between the DSWA Canada and the many wallers in Britain.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Restless Hands

On the outside my hands may look inactive and merely in my pockets 'waiting around', so to speak, but on the inside they are busy fixing the 'gap' in this old dry stone wall. They can hardly hold back from doing it. There have been several other times this week where I have wanted to stop along a Lake District hiking trail and repair parts of a wall.

There is an expression used for a certain kind of activity where someone does something positive or constructive for strangers without any reward, and for no particular reason. It's called a 'Random Act of Kindness'. Ive read about it and even seen bumper stickers encouraging this sort of thing. I think any wall that is in need of a little bit of repair could use this sort of thing.
It occurs to me that leaving a community with a newly repaired wall is kind of a 'random stack of kindness' The DSWA here in Britain makes a point of doing this sort of thing all the time. Volunteers go out and fix walls for the day, purely out of an appreciation for them and a desire to see them not all disappear from the British landscape.

I think of this as a type of "contra-vandalism". It is a way of us getting back at the chaos, destruction, meaningless and yes often bureaucratic red tape surrounding our lives. Its a way of doing something structural, beautiful and uplifting in our community without having to always jump through a myriad of administrative hoops to get it approved.

In fact, I'd like to be part of a guerrilla squad of dry stone wallers who take it even further, not just repairing walls (as we have so few of those in Canada) but build whole new walls and nice stone benches and small sections of old-looking dry stone gardens and beautiful enclosed areas of stone, all done covertly by an efficient group of volunteers during the night, and leave these stone 'features' to be 'discovered' the next day. Hopefully people would be happy to have something as wonderful as a natural stone wall to walk by . No doubt they would appreciate the added character to their park. In this way the dreary public places people pass by every day could be gradually transformed.

Or would they all have to be taken down? I wonder.

My hands are getting restless just thinking about it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Hand of a Professional

Master-craftsman and chief examiner for the DSWA of UK, Andy Louden, took us on an all day tour of some interesting dry stone walls and bridges in a very remote part of the Lake District yesterday. Andy explains (with his hands) that his favorite stone to work with is this irregular volcanic stone ( seen in this picture) found in the walls throughout the area we walked through, near Wasdale, Cumbria. The stones are quite small and slightly rounded and few of them have any length at all. These are not easy stones to work with and the walls have no through-stones and generally no caps. The slate stone found in many of the other parts of Great and Little Langdale provide a much better selection for wall building. Nevertheless these walls are both beautiful and obviously structural as they have survived the test of time. Many of the walls are much wider than necessary and reminded me of the consumption walls found in parts of New England. The corners of the walled fields broaden out into great stockpiles, made up of all the extra stones that have long ago been cleared off the land.
At the end of the day we stopped into Andy's Local pub for a drink and met with John Aitkinson of the National Trust and learned more about the training session Andy is going to be teaching coming up later this month, which will be run for several of the National Trust trail workers including our good friend Gavin Rose.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Handling Things Together

Last week we were repairing an old wall at Cleabarrow farm near Windermere. Martyn, Joe, Pat and Tony, all members of the DSWA of UK carried this heavy lintel stone over to the new opening we had created in the stone wall. They placed it over the opening to finish the top section of 'hog hole' we were building. Everyone had different 'skill levels' but the job got done smoothly and efficiently.

Handling a big stone requires that everybody works together. If one person lifts too much, someone else will end having to work harder to compensate for the imbalance, while another's efforts to help lift may become redundant. It is important to share the load equally. Cooperation involves not so much duplicating or copying what others do, but finding where there is both a place and opportunity to support the weight, and then simply fitting in. Each hand has a unique responsibility to balance the load without tipping up everyone else. There is danger of hurting someone if there isn't communication. There is danger of hands or people getting crushed if someone lets his end down (or lifts it too high) without telling people. Deferring to oneanother helps too. This isn't the place for hands to show off or compete or insist that they are more officially qualified. This isn't the place for too many hands either, no matter how good their intentions.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hand Delivery

DSWA secretary Alison Shaw met with her Canadian counterpart Mary Harris in the lounge of the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel to discuss new DSWA books and dry stone literature that we will be taking back to Canada to make available at our 2010 walling events. Alison has done a great job for the DSWA for some time now and has ran a very tight ship for them. We have been able to order a lot of very good dry stone literature from her over the last 8 years of our association. This time the walling books will be 'hand- delivered'.

Along with professional waller George Eddington and National Trust trail builder Gavin Rose, dry stone artist Andy Loudon also joined us for a social drink. Discussions turned to differing walling techniques and career opportunities in Britain and Canada.
Andy shared some interesting asides about working with well-known artist Andy Goldsworthy on the Tilberthwaithe Sheepfold.

Alison tells us the DSWA is gearing up to host the 12th International Congress on Dry Stone Walling September 4-6 in Ambleside Cumbria. This year's theme will be 'Dry Stone Walls as part of the Cultural Landscape'
Ambleside is a beautiful town right in the middle of Cumbria and has many dry stone walls.
We walked Ambleside today and posted this from Esquires, a Starbucks like coffee shop with a view overlooking all the old slate stone buildings.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bridge Hands

It was about 8 years ago that I saw my first dry stone bridge. My friend and colleague Norman Haddow took me to see this bridge which he had built using local stone in what seemed like quite a remote part of Scotland. It was based on the bridge at Glenn Lion which he had visited with his family many times as a boy. He had built this bridge barely two years before he showed me it and yet it looked as old as the hills.

I had a bit of an epiphany when I saw it. I couldn't remember ever seeing anything built of stone that looked so right, so beautiful, and so structural. I was pretty sure that we didn't have any bridges like it anywhere in Canada and yet it was plain to see as far as adding character it would be a wonderful thing to introduce into the Canadian garden landscapes.

A year later and with Norman's help we organized the first DSWAC 'pack horse' dry stone bridge building workshop in Canada. A handful of enthusiastic stone aficionados signed up for the course and together tried their 'hand' at building a bridge in Port Hope, Ontario at the first Canadian Dry Stone Wall Festival. Norman was a fantastic teacher.The footbridge we built and the whole idea of the festival too was a tremendous success.

The rest is history. Five Canadian bridges later and another one planned for this October at our 'Rocktoberfest' in Gananoque, Ontario (which Norman will be attending again, as he has done for the last seven years) we have now returned to Britain to tour the Lake District visiting the many beautiful stone bridges that can be found all through this part of the country.

I am particularly fascinated with one in little Langdale called Slater's Bridge, made of, you guessed it, slate. It has a very uneven walking surface consisting of the rounded-down well-worn tops of the long slate voussoirs. It has an unusual rugged look created by even longer voussoirs forming what may have been the original handrail posts which have since been replaced with metal ones. I suspect it was the bridge the quarry men used every day when they went to and from the local quarry.

Ironically they don't build dry stone bridges here anymore in the Lake District. They build new ones and replace the old stone bridges using wood or metal. This is a great shame because so much of the countryside and architecture here has been maintained and preserved so well. Perhaps we can bring dry stone bridge building back to this part of the world some day, like reintroducing some endangered species to its native habitat.

A dry stone bridge perhaps represents all that is good in this craft. Where the idea of someone 'putting up walls' can sometimes have a negative connotation, the analogy that is suggested by describing someone as a 'builder of bridges' is a very positive one. Of the people I have worked with on stone projects, those who have worked on bridges with me have demonstrated a fairly unique strength of character. While a person might build a 'wall' out of selfish or guarded motives, a bridge by definition requires a cooperative and accommodating nature. If a waller loves his craft and he is good at it, and more importantly, has integrity, then he will have no trouble making and maintaining 'bridges' in all areas of his life.

Friday, March 12, 2010


We have been in Cumbria in the Lake District for 4 days now and I really have to 'hand' it to the weather. It has been unseasonably warm and sunny and so perfect for hiking along the scenic trails that lead up and down the hills and around the lakes that it may not leave us opportunity to justify visiting any indoor 'places of interest' at all. Even if there were no dry stone walls crisscrossing the countryside, this area of Britain remains a superbly beautiful place combining spectacular scenery, Victorian gardens, rugged slate stone buildings, and bridges .

The dry stone walls just add another dimension which turns everything into a fairy tale. It is almost impossible to take it all in. The miles and miles of walls that can be seen in every direction leaves one breathless, even for those who find that walking up and down the steep slopes, doesn't.

Can hands be breathless? Can the 'thinking hand' take it all in? Not without 'letting it out' too. Perhaps with pen in hand someone will attempt to describe it afresh, just as Wordsworth did while he lived here in Grassmere. Perhaps other hands will try to paint the tarns and fells in water colours. Musicians will finger the notes of new compositions that reinterpret the same recurring theme, just as Vaughn William's Fantasia borrowed from Thomas Tallis's pastoral inspiration and released the beauty of the English countryside in yet another form.

But for some 'taking it in' will require the help of other hands - hands that we have know and have trusted most of our lives - hands that we still care about. The hands of others hold many memories for us. They remind us of all those times of holding one another up, or helping each other over stiles and across becs or up some slippery rocky path. And this looming landscape of clinging walls and prying ghylls stretching upwards into the fells is surely the place for walking hand-in-hand. Here there are winding paths where friends and couples have walked for years. Here hands have grown old together. I sense that great handfuls of blessing have been lavishly heaped upon the outstretched arms of this place and upon those who still come here to take it all in.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Handy Goldsworthys

Any in depth exploration into the connection between hands and walling would have to include a section on Andy Goldsworthy. The stunningly beautiful and uniquely impressive body of work he has created and documented so well continues to be a powerfuly positive influence on everyone who comes in contact with his work. His energy and output is a testament to a seemingly relentless drive to push the envelope of the creative process. While a lot of his installations are not permanent, many of his dry stone pieces are. And while some might quibble whether his work fits into the category of art at all, there are many others of us who think he just might be the most significant living artist today.

Having said that, it surprises me how often I run into people who have never heard of him. It is always a treat then to have the opportunity to introduce them to his amazing work.

Yesterday Mary and I were hiking in Cumbria from The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in Little Langdale to Coniston. We were being shown many of the more interesting and historic dry stone walls as well as abandoned stone quarries in the area along the way. I wonder if you can imagine how exciting it was for us to come around the corner from Tilberthwaite to discover one of Goldsworthy's famous sheepfold installations situated unobtrusibvely off to the side of the road. Our friend and guide Gavin Rose very cleverly made sure we 'stumbled' across it in our ramblings. There were no signs.

This sheepfold is one of many others which are part of a major countywide sculpture project created by Andy Goldsworthy. The project began in January 1996 as part of the UK year of Visual Arts and the building program continued until its official conclusion in April 2003 having achieved 46 folds.

The offical website explains that "Rather than making new sheepfolds Goldsworthy committed himself to working with existing folds in various states of disrepair or in some cases folds which had disappeared altogether but were clearly indicated on old maps. This enabled him to connect directly with the farming tradition and history of Cumbria but, at the same time, as each sheepfold was rebuilt so he invigorated them with a new energy by incorporating his sculptural response."

Andy and his colleagues (one of them being Andy Loudon) built the particular sheepfold we visited as a large squared-in area. The four traditional dry stone wall sides each contained an unusual large square section of thin slate each incorporating a four foot circle of the same slate material fitted so that the stones in each circle of each wall angled in four different orientations.

These circles are so tightly fitted you can't wiggle even the smallest of the thin slate pieces. The structure invites you to touch it and try. As with so many of the beautiful older slate walls (examples of what could also be considerd artist's handiwork) that we had been seeing all day on our walk through Cumbria, there was no sign anywhere that said 'Work of Art by so and so' or 'Please Dont Touch'. I was reminded again about this connection there is between 'hands' and 'dry stone walls'. It was this 'touchstone fold' structure that made me realize that it is not just those who create them but those who come to discover and appreciate beautiful dry stone walls (found in so many 'handy' places throughout parts of Britain) who also are drawn to touch the stones with their hands.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Walling on the lefthand side of the road.

It only makes sense that wallers in Britain wall differently than we do here in Canada. They have been at it longer and it has developed and is developing differently than it is here. It would be unreasonable for them to suppose, or worse, insist on driving on the left whenever they came to Canada for a visit. There would be calamitous complications

But at the same token it is no more our business telling the Brits how to wall than it would be to tell them what side of the road to drive on when they are in their own country. That we can agree on so many principles of dry stone walling is wonderful. It is tantamount to discovering that the normal mode and mechanics of transportation along roads in both countries is basically the same. i.e. that generally we travel along roads in motorized vehicles having at least 2 wheels and that we must avoid bumping into each other, any stationary objects and of course people.

That we have some differences of opinion about things like whether we should all stop at major intersections for interminably long red lights instead of smoothly meshing with cross-traffic at roundabouts is where the temptation to compare the logic of one system over another begins (whether it be walling or driving). There are some things they do right which we would do well to emulate or at least to try to promote. And here we are all doing our best to encourage that very thing at the DSWAC.

Of course when it comes to the rules of the road the biggest difference between the two countries is the issue of which 'hand' side one drives on. It is also the most arbitrary. I now ask myself is there a dry stone walling equivalent to this?

I would suggest that while we in Canada strive (rightly or not) to build new dry stone walls and garden features, the British strive, with what's left of their still many miles of traditional walls, to primarily maintain them.

They, so much of the time, are constrained to rebuild these walls taking into account the elements of the local style (working in the accepted method of construction and utilizing the peculiarities of the local stone ) at the same time recognizing the wall's historic context, and functionality, while we in Canada are literally able to build walls along a number of new roads.

While we don't need, nor want to 'reinvent the wall', surely we can take the opportunity presented to us (in this new time and place) to explore our options, and perhaps adapt, avoid or just 'loosen up', if necessary, some of the 'rules' where they are proving to be traditional formalities or unhelpful contrivances.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The secret handshake or the secret cold shoulder ?

While we might wonder what the secret Masonic handshake actually is, we understand that it was developed as a way masons could recognize and show 'respect' for each other, without necessarily speaking. ( The 'nonspeaking' part didn't imply that they didn't like each other ! ) The handshakes were a way for those who worked in stone to express their solidarity with other masons. As part of these perhaps antiquated rituals, secret handshakes allowed masons to express fraternity and above all 'friendship'.

 When a mason apprenticed with a skilled Freemason, that mason would teach him a secret handshake, reflective of the degree of learning the apprentice mason acquired. When the mason traveled for work and gave another foreman the secret handshake, that person would know that the apprentice had learned a certain degree of masonry skill (along with the appropriate handshake) from his instructor.

Presumably these masons saw it was important to acknowledge from whence and whom they acquired much of their knowledge. It was not right to pretend they arrived at their level of skill and method of construction without any other mason's help or learned what they did without being associated with any organization along the way. Unfortunately this may not be the case anymore. Competitiveness amongst masons is not necessarily a bad thing, however to refuse to give reference to those one has learned from or been helped by in ones acquiring of those skills, belies a basic fault which is likely to 'show up' in other ways later on, not only in their work but in their character too.

I tend to think that the stones in the wall will hold together to the degree that the person who builds it recognizes the responsibility he has in valuing and maintaining the freindships he has with those who have helped him along the way in his craft. 

To that end it is only right to make sure the contriving of contentious and rivalrous factions amidst the community of wallers here in Canada is discouraged amidst those of us who seek to continue cooperating with one another to build not only 'walls without mortar ' but also without hostility.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Handy Man

Many of us who are familiar with him, know that Mr Red Green's closing line "If the women don't find you handsome they should at least find you handy" is a humorous maxim that is not that far off the mark. 'Handsome is what handsome does' perhaps confirms the same thing but without the sense of it being a poor consolation. Again as I made mention in previous posts, the inference to 'hands' is important, since they are etymologically implicated as the source of how we associate what functions are involved in getting approval from the opposite sex and or registering true and pleasing form. 

Form again follows function. The attractiveness of the neolithic repairman is a function of his ability to fix things. The skill lies in knowing not to be in Mr Fix-It mode all the time. As the expression goes- 'If it aint broke, don't fix it'.

However the word handy implies more than being able to fix things or even being good at making things. It means knowing how to touch things, how to handle things and not the least: how to deal with people. A woman knows that a handy man knows not only how to take care of her but how to handle anyone who might cause her any problems.

Our species is defined by how we handle these things.

But might not a woman find someone who didn't have particularly attractive lips, still mouthy? Or a man with flabby abs, still find him gutsy?  

There are those too who are looking to find in a mate, someone 'brainy'?  I suspect however that there is a swing away from intellectual prowess, it being not as important as it used to be amongst the heaving masses.

Anyway the thing that fascinates me is how 'handy' we are as a species. And perhaps this fact is no more obvious than when we compare ourselves to say, how handy other animals are. 

Take the dog for example. One would hardly define a dog's best attribute as it being  'pawy'!  No the real place where the dog gets things done, the business end, so to speak, focuses largely around its mouth. A dog approaches a dangerous animal, not as you and I might, ( perhaps with a stick held firmly in hand or at the very least trying to ward it off with our bare hands) but 'mouth first' with its teeth. I cant imagine having to pick up a dead rat, let alone a live one, using only my mouth. By the same token a dog, if he were to build a stone wall would have to try and build it with its teeth. A dog in order to be the human equivalent of handsome or handy has to be 'mouthy'.

But then again there is also the dog's nose, I suppose. (Which in the case of most dogs is really part and parcel of the mouth)  Certainly the canine olfactory gland discerns a whole world we humans know nothing of. So maybe the importance of peeing everywhere is to establish who is the 'nosiest'.

What does this all have to do with building things with stone?
Just this: that our hands set us apart, not just from other species but from one another. Our handiwork is our fingerprint, our identity. The walls we build with our hands mark not only our territory or merely enhance our surroundings they define the true nature of the person inside.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Handsome to me.

The word 'handsome' originally had something to do with hands. Something that was handsome was easy to 'handle' in the sense that your hands could 'work with it'. The word evolved to mean 'something of a fair size' and ample, as in 'a hand full' and then later the meaning extended to implying 'fine form'. Hands were the defining factor. Nowadays if something looks good we might say it is 'easy on the eyes'. Back then people placed more emphasis on holding and handling the particular commodity. They needed to 'grasp' it.

If we were to talk about a 'handsome' wall, looking back into its original etymological meaning and developing the idea, we would have to conclude that it had something to do with hands, and that the elements and materials in the wall would have to be handled and worked with properly and that it would have ample mass involving many handfuls of stone, in other words not lacking in form, structure or material. And presumably the end result was that the wall looked quite handsome.

Handsome stones on the other hand would be manageable stones, easily shaped and fitted, easy to work with and not too irregular.

Now in having built many walls myself and in studying many more walls too, it occurs to me that there exists an inherent problem with trying to make a handsome wall with handsome stones. The truth of this is born out by many examples I have seen of what appears to be much 'better looking' walls generally being made from a lot of very 'troublesome' stones. These are stones that not only look 'irksome' or 'cumbersome' to work with, but in my experience are often more 'gruesome' than 'handsome'.

A wall, on the other hand, made from stones that are 'fair-sized', easy to handle and handsome: those that are 'manageable' and easy to shape (say coming on pallets with modular or guillotined stones) - a wall made from this material, unless you are really really careful, will often end up looking quite plain and uninteresting and indeed not very handsome at all.

In short I have discovered that in general, the more awkward and challenging the stone looks to work with, the more impressive the wall looks. (as long as it is built well, of course) By contrast if a waller uses a less awkward stone, it is not likely to be as impressive. Unless you build it absolutely 'right', a wall can easily look 'bad' or unattractive when using and shaping regular squarish stone, where as a good honest attempt at building with awkward stone can often produce a good looking, handsome wall.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Farewell to Arms

I have always maintained that building a dry stone wall doesn't have to be a trade-off between beauty and sturdiness, and that both can be accomplished using even a random assortment of stones. It is possible to erect something that is built like a tank, but is a tank really beautiful. A wall, unless it is built in a war zone, doesn't have to look like a tank-barrier either, just the same way a house surely doesn't have to look like a bunker.

Like good art and much of life, restraint is the key. War is about excess. A wall built without restraint is a wall that wastes too many of the better sized and squarer flatter shaped stones. Such a wall demands that more and more 'recruits' come in and lay down their lives for the 'wall cause', which doesn't so much 'raise the standard' as raise the cost .

"But" you say to yourself, "why spare any expense?"

I suppose such a walling effort will appear to be a kind of heroic 'war effort'. If you are not in love with what you are doing, then your wall can be excessively blocky and dull, and you can call for throughstones to be inserted every other foot and use fairly unchallenging stones everywhere. It is no longer about being ecological or being frugal with what you have or even being creative, but it's about militarily 'securing' your position and establishing your dominance over a section of wall, even if it requires using a lot of pre-cut stuff from the pallet and anything else you secretly know is pretty hard to come by .

Yours becomes a pragmatic wall, the antithesis of art. You can pretend it is the 'Wall to End All Walls'. You can assure yourself that you haven't skimped on anything in a slavish commitment to permanence. But there is an obvious point where the beauty and spontaneity are lost. A wall like that might win the battle for lasting the longest or the prize for looking like you couldn't push it over with a tank, but it won't necessarily be is a 'handsome' wall, and in the end, ironically, it wont be a wall you will want to remember..

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Skiing With My Hands.

Since it is still a bit early in the year to do any significant dry stone walling, my hands took up miniature cross-country skiing today to get in some exercise before all the snow completely melts here in our part of southern Ontario. The weather was brisk, but the snow was too sticky and the trails were barely there. I decided to go home and Google whether conditions would be better tomorrow and found this bit of sobering information, which has caused me to put my skis away for the season.

Skier's thumb describes an injury of the soft tissue that connects the bones of your thumb together. In medical terms, this soft tissue is called a ligament. This injury was originally noted in 1955 as a chronic ligament problem seen in Scottish gamekeepers who damaged their thumbs by repeatedly twisting the necks of hares. The injury was termed the gamekeeper's thumb at that time. The popularity of recreational downhill skiing has caused this injury to become much more common in the United States and has caused the term gamekeeper's thumb to be replaced with the more contemporary term, skier's thumb.

Skier’s thumb now accounts for a significant number of skiing injuries. In severe cases, with complete tearing of the ligament, this injury must be surgically repaired. The ultimate stability of the ligament is important because of its contribution to the grasping function of the thumb. People with skier’s thumb may be able to return to work and even skiing in a short period with proper rehabilitation.

Note to self : Walling with my hands is probably safer than skiing with them.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


My hands went for a walk today down by Sylven Glen conservation area, where there is a lovely trail through the forest along the swollen banks of the muddy Ganaraska river. The snow is melting and there are patches of mud and ice everywhere. The path winds through a spacious grove of Cedars and there are rocks, dead leaves and sticks protruding through the snow. My fingers had to skip playfully from moss-covered rock to moss-covered rock. They just had to !

It was good exercise and it is also very tactile. It's wonderful to feel the breeze through your hands, to feel the green under your index fingers, and to get some good clean mud between your fingernails - It's great to be alive.

Finger-walking along stone walls is very satisfying too. Your fingers can take great leaps along the tops of copes and land gracefully and then fly off again further along the wall, all the time keeping up with the the rest of the body. Stone walls are easier for fingers to travel along than chain-link fences. Concrete walls and retaining walls are boring. Hedges are nice, but a bit scratchy sometimes.

Because spring is just around the corner, there is a spring in our step. My hands are thinking this is the time when you don't have to wear gloves anymore. No need to be all 'cooped up' inside those gloomy pockets today. There are all kinds of opportunities for picking up a good looking stone somewhere along the way. They wont be as cold as they were last time we passed by this part of the forest. Perhaps we can take one home and introduce it into the wall that we started last fall.
Today I have also posted this short clip of