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.


  1. This reminds me of a comment made by a gamekeeper who had been watching me gtahering rocks and building a wall.He said that I didn't look for stones I stalked them. Another thing I remember from my very first training course was the instruction never to pour hearting into the wall.

  2. How fitting your analogy is here!!
    Well written John !

  3. A well built wall has a place for every stone. Every stone also needs to fit snugly with its neighbours too.

  4. Very true Jason. And so you would think it would make sense to be 'inclusive', rather than insisting on just making do and trying to prove you can build a 'better' wall without employing 'every' usable stone that is actually available to you.

  5. Well, according to the DSWA leaflets it's always best to sort your stone into different types - foundations, builders, hearting, copes and throughs - before rebuilding.

    Sometimes though you just get started on the rebuilding, and you always find good stones left over at the end...

  6. Excellent post--so applicable to all facets of life.

    I don't build stone walls, but I pack a FedEx truck every day--your words ring true in that field as well...especially at this time of year! ;-)

  7. Wow. Thanks FPC. I used to move furniture for a living.
    It was a really good training ground for what I do now.
    I'm guessing you are developing some pretty good walling skills there at FedEx.
    How are you at Tetris?

  8. Heheh I haven't played Tetris in forever! I'm ok until it gets fast... :P

  9. when stones hear the hammer they run away..