Saturday, December 31, 2011

Venus Gate In December

I just found this photo taken this week by Louise Knight-Warn of the Venus Gate we built at Hart House Farm during our 2011 Festival of Stone. I thought it was worth sharing here. I like to think of this shot as representing a wonderful year of great accomplishments here in Canada in the realm of dry stone walling. The festival was certainly the crowning achievement but there were other memorable events and projects throughout the year.

As I look at this dry stone entrance way lit up festively in green and red lights I peer on through the  opening into the darkness. I realize the future, though unknown, has a lot of direction to it already. The momentum is there. I know everyone who got involved with dry stone walling across Canada this year is looking forward to what we've got planned for the new year. It looks like there will be a number of interesting walling collaborations, including some free walling events, new workshops, a walling tour of Mallorca and plans in the works for our upcoming 2012 festival to be held near Ottawa.

One thing I have realized however is that it's better not to post (boast?) about things that haven't happened yet and indeed might not materialize at all. This arch way, this 'opening' of the present is certainly enough to celebrate. Our past achievements as an organization have encompassed much of the resurgence in dry stone walling here in Canada.   Through this beautiful 'gate' there may well be a universe of possibilities but shining here in the dark it represents a testament to nine years of skilled collaboration and well channelled enthusiasm amongst wallers throughout Canada. This structure is a guide post, even in a wintry storm. It provides a realistic reference point to proceed from.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Stones are always in season.

Stones are always ready for us to be creative with. 

Stones just want  to be used. 

You get the sense that the material is constantly looking for some way to be put together. 
You could say that they are always in season. 

Whereas pumpkins are only in season for a little while each year. They can only to be built with after they've matured and before they start to rot. You can't build pumpkin walls the whole year round.

Unlike pumpkins, potatoes or squash, stones are a fruit that is always in season.

They continuously offer us the possibility of taking part in the 'creative inevitable'.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The creative act.

Being creative is the highest form of human fulfillment. It beats any other kind of  're'creation. It is the opposite of so much of what we do, ie. wrecking creation. Some would argue that it is more important than 'pro'creation.

The creative act is vital. Other activities and endeavors can not achieve the same level of satisfaction. No amount shopping, education, entertainment, competitiveness, or commitment to selflessness or selfishness will secure the sense of pleasure and purpose that comes with being involved in a creative act, no matter how brief.

We are all supposed to be creative. It is our function.

There are many ways to be creative, but stone alone provides the rawest potential for human beings to explore.

Stone exists in abundance as the silent, unformed, motionless protagonist ever able to unleash that inner artist in many of us.

There is bond between us and stones. They are more animate than we think. We have more of an affinity with them than they openly acknowledge.

When we come to a stone we must see it as more than a
blank canvas to create on. The very mass of stone contains within it an endless source of possibilities to build on or with. 

Stones are the basic building blocks for our creative survival.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A little frost and the little glued stone wall is destroyed

Well the industrial glue gun didn't do the job very well. The tiny stone wall that I'd stuck together  (see It's a small wall after all. ) was left outside over night and the thing literally blew apart, affected I presume by the little bit of frost we had on Christmas eve. If it had been just a 'dry' stone miniature wall I had fashioned (of small stones fitted in place) it probably would have stayed together better. Because I depended on the glue to keep the stones in place instead of relying on fitting them so they stayed on their own, then as soon as the glue released, the wall fell apart.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

It's a small wall after all.

I was making Christmas presents for friends and family last week. I figure, what better gift can you give someone than something that you've made yourself? Moreover, what says 'I love you' more than a dry stone wall? Hence, I have ventured into building miniature dry stone walls again. This time I have a heavy duty dry stone wall glue gun, not just an amateur  'unofficial' one!  

The tiny stones I collected over the past few years were fragments painstakingly gathered from the ground at various walling sites I've worked at where life-size stones were being shaped. These shards are proving to be perfect for doing some nice delicate free-standing walls.

There are a lot of similarities between building walls on a miniature scale and full scale versions, but obviously there are some very striking differences as well. 
Tiny stones, while weighing proportionately less than big ones, seem to lose that all important gripping aspect more exponentially. Stones carefully balanced and even well fitted together have surprisingly little locking power. One might be tempted to think smaller stones could still be configured to hold together as well as the bigger ones in real dry stone walls regardless of their difference in weight. Not so. In fact, building anything structural becomes very difficult. 

Let's consider how this translates if were are building a real wall. While it is tempting to think it would be a lot easier to build any wall if stones in general didn't weigh as much as they do, in real life, it turns out if they were lighter it would be almost impossible. They would never bond properly. While most stones have basically three main properties, weight, hardness and roughness - it becomes strikingly obvious in wall building ( on any scale ) that 'heaviness' is an extremely important factor. 

Next week, let's consider other aspects of mini walling such as hearting, batter, types of tools needed and material/site accessibility. Another question worth exploring is - what helps make a miniature wall look convincingly realistic? Things like - keeping your finger out of the picture.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dry Stone Christmas Music

What better way to 'rock the night away' this Christmas Eve than by getting together with friendly wallers and singing along with these remastercrafted hits from the past  

This special 2011 dry stone compilation includes three Bonus Songs to complete your walling collective.

-I saw scree chips go sailing by 
-Dyke the walls
-It's beginning to be a rock-like Christmas

( Readers might like to suggest other song titles to include in next year's Christmas Cd )

Friday, December 23, 2011

Stone-ifferous trees.

Over the years I've had an opportunity to do a number of Stone-ifferous Trees.
I thought it would be nice to see a few of them again this Christmas season.  

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Wreath of Stones

Wreaths, stone circles and sheepfolds. What do they have in common? This holiday season, if there is a 'holy-day' presence to be discovered, I would suggest that is all wrapped up in 'rings'.

Consider the circular configuration known as Stonehenge. Overlooking the Plains of Salisbury like some monumental ornament, on this day the huge stones align our attention to the moment of the earth's orbit when the sun reaches the critical angle marking the winter solstice.

For years it has stood there as a reminder of the cycle of life, and a signal to the start of each new year. The standing stones of many other ancient circular structures have the same function. Their 'rings' tell a timeless story.  We earth dwellers come and go. Those of us going round on this tiny globe realize once more the timeless potential for love, hope and peace, as we align ourselves with that story. 

Is it that strange that these stone circles have such a 'ring of truth' about them?  Do they not all echo the same circular shaped message of unity and completion? Gradually the megalithic theme is developed through other configurations as it echos down through history in a variety of circular reminders . Our lives are encircled by wreaths signalling the celebration of life and creativity. Like children around the maypole, all our lives move in circles - family circles - social circles - musical, dancing, festive circles - calendar cycles - decorative, spiraling motifs, every one of them. All of this is alluded to in the ornamental loops of Christmas garlands and balls we decorate with. 

From before birth, to our departure from this mortal coil, we are enclosed in a protective circle.

Here we are, metaphorically speaking, huddled in a circle around the camp fire, drawing circles in the dirt with our sticks and making glowing circles in the night sky with our fiery brands. We look up to see the familiar round shapes of the moon (and the sun) as they cross the vault of heaven, and we celebrate the circle.

As in olden times, and still to this day, Shepherds enclose their flock within round walls of stone to protect them from harm each night. As one approaches such an enclosure of stones, stacked in a free-standing circular configuration, there is, for those who enter in, a reaffirming sense of place and purpose amidst the wreath of stones.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Corbelling Arches and Bridges in Irelend

In response to a comment John Scott made on a post I wrote last week concerning Arch Chronology, Patrick McAfee went on to add some other very interesting comments.

"I'd like to mention that we love to corbel here in Ireland and had done so for about 6,000 years when eventually we began to shape the underside of lintels to look like arches. We were happy enough with this until one day quite unexpectedly we were struck by the arrival of the real arch. Although this magically worked only in compression it was a bit too far for us because we were hung up on creating tension. It took many years for us to succumb to the show-off easy ways of compression. But every so often, quite unexpectedly, there is an outbreak of corbelling, I've done it myself, even on your continent. I cant help it, it's a neolithic gene thing.

.... I'd like to add a lesser known fact (probably only of interest to myself) to do with corbelling. It is to be found on some medieval (say 15th century) stone bridges here. They are arched, (pointed or slightly pointed is common) but from the springing stone up say a quarter to one third the rise of the arch the voussoirs are corbelled and not radiated towards centre points. Above that they are are radiated. I have not come across a good reason for it yet but it's common enough and must have had a purpose. "

Does anyone have any thoughts about this?

Monday, December 19, 2011

An Arch Never Sleeps. Part 2

A gothic arch was built next, a revolutionary shape in its efficiency, following more closely the catenary shape of the invisible force of gravity. The gothic arch changed everything, walls became thinner and opened up allowing light more light in. The audience were advised to go to Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin and see how in the 12th century they started to build Romanesque with semi-circular arches but then during the course of the building changed to the pointed  gothic arch.

Since Roman times lime mortar was very much a part of arch building and is one reason why so many arches still survive. Why? because lime allows movement; the arch barrel of the bridge moves with traffic and expands and contracts with changes in temperature but these movements mostly occur in the lime mortar joints and not in the stones themselves otherwise they would crack and fail.
Next a segmental arch was built in brick and lime mortar. This is another common arch but it often hides away where we cannot see it behind plasters and renders relieving or taking the weight that would otherwise be applied to the timber lintel underneath.

Lastly a single light round headed window was built with a cill, two sides and a lintel having a semi-circular arch shape cut in it. Not an arch at all but simply an arch shape, beautiful and commonly seen in Irish medieval architecture. Finally the lintel was swapped for an ogee arch shaped lintel to reflect an arch shape common in the 15th and 16th centuries.

If the world was abandoned for a millennium I doubt we would find many surviving examples of modern buildings, the steel would have rusted and destroyed the concrete and anyway very few buildings today are designed to last much more than half a century. Amongst the thick undergrowth stone and lime mortar structures would be found that are historic even in today’s terms and a prominent feature of those structures would be the arch, still working, dutiful, tired but never once in a thousand years having fallen asleep.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

An Arch Never Sleeps Part 1

An article sent to me by my good friend Patrick McAfee (shown here in the photo)

Building Limes Forum Ireland (BLFI) in conjunction with Drimnagh Castle, Dublin ran a Heritage Week event over the course of three mornings in August called ‘An Arch Never Sleeps’. The aim was to introduce the general public to the wonderful world of arches having a brief look at their history and then to experience in practice how they were built.

If children were to assist in the building process then the arches or the separate stones (voussoirs) in the arches had to be light in weight.  It was either build mini-arches using stone or use a lightweight material and build full scale. Quinnlite blocks were selected; these are lightweight and easily cut to shape using traditional stonecutting tools.

The expression ‘an arch never sleeps’ is attributed to the Arab world and beautifully sums up what an arch does, it safely transfers its own weight and applied forces down its sides, it is therefore ‘alive’ dynamic, relentlessly working.

Facing each days audience were the many arch shapes of Drimnagh Castle itself. As one member of the audience said ‘It is only when you really look that you see arches everywhere’, this is equally true of our cities, towns and villages.

The limitations of the beam was explained and demonstrated by Lisa Edden, a structural engineer and member of BLFI. The problem with the stone lintel Lisa explained is that it is weak in tension. The magic of the arch is that it eliminates this weakness, it has no tension, just compression and this is where stone is at its strongest. Further explanation of how forces run down an arch was explained by holding a rope between her two hands forming an inverted curve called a catenary arch displaying the shape of these forces.

Pat McAfee, stonemason and also a member of BLFI started with the building of a semi-circular arch. The semi-circular arch was beloved of the Romans and used extensively by them throughout their empire. It has been popular here in Ireland from at least the Romanesque period of architecture.

Each day a young volunteer/s from the audience came forward to assist with building the arches. When the final stone of each arch (keystone) was laid and the timber centre removed the arch came alive, it was as if suddenly something magic had occurred and it had, not only in the eyes of the young helpers but also amongst the adults in the audience. Something taken for granted and not thought about until now became something to think and marvel about. The response from the audience was always the same, spontaneous applause, with the young helper/s taking a bow. 

(part two tomorrow)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Coral Christmas

The  coral wreath post today has absolutely nothing to do with dry stone walling, but interestingly enough I've discovered they do build walls out of coral in several parts of the world. 

My friend Mikelos came back from Bermuda and showed me some photos he took of some very cool dry coral walls there. Apparently they are everywhere. They don't use stone at all to build walls. There isn't enough stone but there is so much coral there and it seems to be just as durable and shapable as stone.

Wouldn't it be nice to go on a trip and see coral walls like these somewhere - maybe go this time of year and experience a balmy Christmas in Bermuda perhaps?

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Advent of the Arch.

A long time ago when people first started stacking stones to make buildings, rather than just find caves to live in, it would have seemed logical that doors could be created by merely erecting stone pillars (or making openings between walls) for lintels to be lifted up onto. (the first example on left)

Corbelling over, or stepping over, one stone at a time to cover an opening may have been the next development.

Then there was the advent of the arch.

One would have thought that the 'pointed opening' would have come along first as a kind of natural progression. The pillars for an opening may have been built with a lean on purpose (or more likely inadvertently) and then the conclusion that butting them up against each other to support each other to form an opening beneath the two columns, (the second example from the left) would have seemed like a logical way to make a door. It was very structural.

A variation of this, (the middle example) where the individual stones of the two pillars angle in slightly but still come to a point, creates a wider very adequate pointed arch, later to become the Gothic arch opening. This would have no tendency to separate or slip downwards. Supporting stones over the opening would be fairly simple.

There is now a very difficult leap of the imagination in the development and design of the arch to have the insight to balance stones in an 'arc' to form a rounded or Roman arch (the two examples on the right)

This would have required more than leaning pillars. It would need more than tapered stones. The concept would be revolutionary and it would need someone to come up with the idea of a form to support the weight of the many stones which would have to 'hang' in the air until the thing was built. When it was completed the pillars would tend to separate and the stones would start to slip straight down if there wasn't proper side support. This was a lot of extra work to straddle essentially the same width opening as the Gothic arch.

This kind of rounded arch would have been a big departure from the pointed or leaning arch. It would have been developed many years after the pointed arch.

But it wasn't . The Roman Arch came many many years before the pointed arch!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

BEETLEMASONRY Remastered Rock Rolling

Photo by Brad Bolton 1995

Thanks to Nancy Wisser for sending this amazing photo yesterday of a stone clad Volkswagen Beetle .

When I enquired to know more about it, Nancy  sent this from her brother.

"The whole episode of the construction of the Stone VW is revealed by the owner in a book titled simply "My Bug".   The editor, Michael J. Rosen, has collected the stories of dozens of VW owners.  Stephen Gibian was the builder and the year was 1976.   There was a rusted hulk of a 60's Beetle in the field and, nearby, the remains of a stone foundation.   Put them together, and...voila!   The book has additional photos of the construction stages as well as descriptive text, e.g.:  "The windows were slabs of stone found at a local quarry..."

You can find the book at Amazon.Com.   The other stories contain lots of memories of Beetles long-gone, but it's worth getting just for the Stone VW story.
The book is ISBN 1-57965-135-6"

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Trying to understand the point.

Everyone knows what a Gothic arch looks like. It is an arch with a point. There are many variations on the pointed arch theme. There are formulas as to how to make these arches, all with various shapes and names including Lancet, Equilateral, Ogee and Reverse Ogee Arches. The point is they are not rounded at the top.

The Gothic arch came about after the Roman arch in about 1120. It has two advantages; in that a Gothic arch reaches higher for a given width and it will produce only half the side-thrust of a similar Roman arch . A major consideration when building a masonry arch is the amount of horizontal thrust that it produces on its foundations. Masonry walls can easily absorb large vertical compressive forces. A Gothic arch sends the force downward more vertically.

Where the Gothic arch came from is another question. It is often described as an invention of medieval French masons, as if was just dreamed up from nowhere. Some people say the pointed arch was a graft on the Romanesque, Lombard, and Byzantine architecture of Europe. It's interesting to note however that the pointed vault was developed in Persia many years before. The actual first appearance of the pointed arch in the Muslim World has been traced to the Al-Aqsa Mosque built in the late 700's . Some scholars think it was this mosque that inspired the Crusaders to imitate the Muslim pointed arch in Europe.

No matter where it came from, the crazy thing is that the Gothic arch came after the Roman arch. In a later blog I'll explain why I think this is so strange.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Celebrate while you can.

Let's all 'lighten up' this Holiday Season and do some festive Christmas Stacking around the house, with real stones, before the forces of darkness make it illegal to decorate with anything except plastic.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Arch Chronology

I always thought that the Romans invented the arch. I was wrong. 

Some time before the Romans,  the first true arch was discovered, or should we say invented. The arch proved to be a huge quantum leap over the earlier post and lintel approach to spanning openings. The corbel vault with a similar arc shape and principle, but quite different from the proper fanned arch, was perhaps an intermediate step. The challenges of corbelling over wider and wider openings may have led to the discovery of the arch. No matter how it happened who ever came up with the first arch changed the course of architectural history.

Contrary to what people think however, it wasn't the Romans who discovered it. Examples and evidence of arch structures have been found in earlier civilizations, beginning with the Mesopotamians. The Egyptians also constructed arch vaults to roof the tombs they built.  Then there were the Greeks who utilized the arch idea now and then but only in very simple structural applications.

It was not until the Etruscans came along that the arch became a practical element in some of their early 'monumental' architecture. One example is the Porta Augusta, where the idea of the arch was refined and merged with Greek elements. 

The Romans took this knowledge and developed it further and did some amazing things with it. They invented the idea of setting an arch on top of columns or abutments to span wide walkways and decorative entrance openings. They showed off and used it brilliantly in a number of their buildings. The Romans developed the arch also to be used for the very practical purpose of building bridges and aqueducts.

Pont du Gard in France built by the Romans

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Some Pre-Christmas Stacking Thoughts

Think how many more books we could stack in a room if we didn't store them on shelves.

Think about all the weird ways people would stack computers, if they weren't monitored

Think of the varied compositions we could leave bags stacked in, if the fall didn't happen so fast .

Stack of leaves installation and photo by John Scott 

Please send in any of your cool 'stacking-filler' pics to

Friday, December 9, 2011

Slater's Bridge in Flood

Gavin Rose sent me some great pics yesterday of Slater's Bridge being besieged by recent flood waters. The Lake District where he works as a trail builder has received lots of rain this season. 

The old dry stone bridge is still keeping those who cross it dry. Gavin writes "Its amazing to think that this structure has stood up to that amount of punishment for centuries and certainly testiment to the durability of drystone arch bridges in general."

Check my previous blog entry to see what it normally looks like. Happy Bridge Day

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dun Aonghasa

The majority of the dry laid stonework at the ancient fort known as Dun Aonghasa on the Aran Island of Inishmore is amazing and intriguing. At first glance it looks too random and almost ugly.

As I stand there, with a cold brisk wind from the west nearly pushing me over, I'm looking at the magnificent arrangement of stones and finding it very hard to understand the pattern. I take a picture and tell myself I will study it closer when I get back to Canada.

The wall stones are chunky squares arranged in an almost vertical pattern. The smaller stones create a network of snecks beside many of these larger rectangles.

These are impressively high walls that have stood the test of time yet they seem so primitively constructed with no purposed attention to coursing or conventional bonding.

What can we learn from this wall? What are the stones saying?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Walk the Walk

Photo by Tomas Lipps

Walk the Walls Tour 
March 25-April 02 2012

The Balearic Islands-Mallorca and Menorca-Spain

Join John Shaw-Rimmington and Ireland's Patrick McAfee  for our second annual D.S.W.C.A. walking tour - this time to the Balearic Islands of Mallorca and Menorca, Spain.

Our trip to Mallorca and Menorca will  catch the majestic Tramuntana mountains  in full  spring bloom and we will stay away from the overdeveloped coastal resorts to discover the other world of Mallorca seldom seen by tourists.  We will follow the Ruta de Pedra en Sec, the dry stone way (approx. 300k.), the old cobbled paths and ancient bridle ways of the northwestern massif of limestone,  that tumbles down to the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea.  We will walk this magnificent landscape of valleys and cascading streams through citrus groves,  olive terraces and forests of Holm oak.    Along these paths that once linked Mallorca's isolated villages, we pass dry stone huts, threshing circles, walls, lime kilns, byres, stiles and bread ovens.

Tentatively we will stay at an "agrotourism"  finca, an old farm home/hotel,  and at a 17th  Century monastery  at Lluc, that boasts a choral group singing  each evening, and the song of a nightingale to lull us to sleep.

We will hike the " Pilgrims Way",  the "Archduke's Walk" -- all traditional wall walks and visit a "marger  school"  for  stone wall construction.

The second half of the tour we will spend in Menorca, a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve known for its collection of megalithic stone monuments dating from the second millennium, B.C.   Menorca is a less developed and a more pastoral landscape than Mallorca.    In every field on the island, thousands of  metres of dry stone walls protect the topsoil from eroding, shelter the olive tree roots and keep livestock from the strong Tramuntana winds.

Absorb yourself in the  Mediterranean landscape, home to vultures, ferrets and 100 species of plants...enjoy the music, the food and the traditions of the region.  John Shaw-Rimmington and Patrick McAfee are familiar with the islands and will share their knowledge and experiences with us.
The Walk the Walls portion of the tour  and the flight portion are priced separately so  those wishing to make their own travel plans to and from  our destination  may do so. Debbie at the Travel Broker can help you with your plans. We are designing this tour for the hikers, walkers or  wanderers. Our itinerary will be as casual as possible.Our goal is to introduce the culture, the history, the ecology and for many, to connect with the stones of our past!Costs and Dates:
Mallorca and Menorca, Spain-March 25-April 02 .  Cost $ 2589.00 taxes included. (based on double occupancy)  Flight from Toronto to Palma return approx.
$1,300.00 dependent on booking time.  (Please note:  if you choose to travel with our group from Toronto we will depart the evening of  March 24 arriving in Spain on March 25, depart Spain April 03, arrive Canada  April 03)
Space is limited, please book a.s.a.p.
For travel information please contact Debbie Lloyd CTC, The Travel Broker, atdeblloyd@the or  613 389 7914 or 888 830 5324.  For general tour information contact:
 Margot Miller, <>or 613 659 3415 or <>

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Outlasting qualities.

Here is another wall.  It doesn't matter who built it or where it is.  I will resort to a quote from the friend who sent the photo to me to describe it. "The stone is not very nice looking to work with, but the build quality manages to be worse." 

The fact is, this structure is now preserved in stone, because it is made of stone. It will probably last much longer that the wooden porch (with bell-cast roof ) which I built on the front of our house, that is, if I don't replace the shingles in 20 years,  paint it now and then and maintain the wooden deck. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Lasting ugliness

A bad looking dry stone wall can still last for years, because it's built of stone. 

Is the fact that it probably can last the only criteria then for not insisting on building a more aesthetic looking dry stone wall?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Objectives without objections

Yesterday sixteen people assembled upstairs at Highway 61 Barbeque Restaurant in Toronto to discuss the direction of organized dry stone walling in Canada. Enthusiasts and professionals alike gathered at the request of our DSWAC integrated resources consultant Evan Oxland to hear what Dean Mclellan had to say about becoming a not for profit organization. 

We were encouraged to link ourselves as closely as possible with the DSWA in Great Britain and adopt their well tested certification scheme and uphold their rigorous standards as a model of Canadian walling. Discussion was lively and a board of five members were chosen to discuss and agree upon the objectives of such an organization for all members to then approve in order to proceed to the next stage of legal incorporation.  

Dr Carlan Stants was asked to chair the meeting and did a fine job. Jo Hodgson and he drove all the way from Quebec to attend this important meeting. Everyone felt that this was a successful step to a new phase of the development of the association and agreed to meet together again soon.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

An opening

A door through a dry stone wall.

When you come up against a stone wall, you don't have to give up.

If it is a dry stone wall you can always make a door and go through it.

If there is someone on the other side helping to make that opening, there is a collaboration.

An opening, unlike a collaboration, gets bigger the more you take away from it.

But both get easier as they get bigger.

It may take time to move all the rocks and you will need to watch out you don't drop any on the one you are collaborating with, 
but in the end a 'way' can be made.

And the wall will not been be destroyed. In fact, it will be improved.

Friday, December 2, 2011


There is a difference in just "taking up the space" and actually "packing the space" between all the stones inside a dry stone wall. The distinction is quite important. Perhaps a way to better understand this is to consider the analogy of packing a van on moving day. If we are careful, and fit things closely together, it is possible to move all of the furniture we have in just one truck load. If we are rushed or not paying attention to how things can fit together, our truck may only be able to hold half the things we want to take with us.

 Building a wall is an exercise in regrouping . The mass of stones which have been randomly gathered or dumped in a pile onto our property are going to be regrouped into a much smaller space. There is something inherently pleasing about this undertaking. Regrouping stones can often become a visual or physical equivalent to regrouping mentally or emotionally. We are taking the time to turn the seemingly random aspects of our lives into some well organized structural pattern. Regrouping is a fundamental part of our sense of well being and contentment. If we can watch what we are doing during wall building we can better understand what regrouping involves in the more complex and abstract applications of daily life.

 First off, we are not just piling stones together. Stones plopped together or even placed next to, and onto, one another do not make for a properly built wall. All the stones in the middle of the wall, and many of these are the smallest ones, need to all be fitted and packed adjacent to one another in such a way as to densely reinforce the space between larger 'building stones'. Ideally there should be little or no space between any stones (big or small) in our wall. This is done primarily so that the wall will last a long time without falling down. We are looking especially for the places (gaps) that occur under the stones that we have placed in our wall, where a similar shaped hearting piece can fit and eliminate the possibility of those stones slipping or slumping. The more exactly the space is filled the better the structure. Placing one uniquely shaped stone to fill a specific gap instead of having two stones placed to fit the same cavity, is a far better solution. Small wedge shaped stones particularly fit and tighten up better into all those V shaped gaps that commonly occur between the stones we are building with, whether they are roundish stones or flat ones.

Packing is an art. In the process of building a wall we are refining our skills and getting better and better at this craft of fitting shapes together. Much of the art of the wall will be unseen within the wall, much of the complexity will go undiscovered, and much of how we build the wall will be a mystery to those who come along after to see the finished masterpiece. The creative process has been primarily one of seeing how that which seems infinite can be squeezed into a section of the finite, thus recapturing a sense of simple wonder and ordered beauty.   What we are doing too is like an intricate mosaic. It takes time and patience. We should be trying to get the pieces to fit more an more like inlaid wood or marble rather than dropping chunks of kindling into a firewood box. In any case what we are doing is definitely not like shoveling gravel into a hole.

It would be enough to concede that carefully fitted and stacked stones make the best walls; that this activity of regrouping stones is actually enjoyable and therapeutic in itself, says a lot about who we are as humans. We are a species of regroupers. Is this concept so strange? I think not. If nothing else it is just giving a broader meaning to a rather quaint term used to describe early man. We, dry stone wallers, are the new hunter/ gatherers, densely gathering and compacting the stone shapes we have been hunting for. We are those who see the need to stop and regroup. All the piles of aggregated confusion around us may not be as big as we think. Anyway, let's take the time to sort things out. Letting the dust settle is just the beginning; next we have to gather it up and pack it and build with it again.

 Come on then, let's regroup.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Another look at Wade's memorial cairn

Another look at the dry stone memorial built in Canada recently by John Scott of Algonquin College Heritage Masonry School.  It looks rather stately perched there on the solid rock of this exposed part of the Canadian shield. The stone structure stands as a peaceful reminder to John and many of Wade's friends and family, that he was very happy here. Stones shaped and set carefully in piles at some isolated place like this one can express the inexpressible.