Sunday, January 13, 2013

Stone wall article in 'Watershed Magazine'

Stonewall Reverie 

A quiet drizzle blankets the shoreline of South Marysburgh, a peninsula in Prince Edward County that extends out into Lake Ontario. I have stopped to take a closer look at the stone walls that border a distance of Morrison Point Road. Running parallel to the roadway, the walls chase through dense forest to reappear in a clearing, only to vanish again into the shadows of the woods. The wall construction is tied to a militia troop stationed here during the War of 1812 yet they hold a presence all of their own. I stand here amidst the chant of swallows that shelter in a nearby windrow, uncertain of what it is that compels me to pause, to commune with a wall in the rain, but I do.

Something I discover is that even when these walls were new they were old. The dry masonry skills that went into building the walls that stand before me were skills that had been passed down for thousands of years. Something else I discover is that the art of the dry stone wall lasts to this day. My curiosities take me to two people who share a first hand appreciation of them. Phil Ainsworth has built his own walls in Prince Edward County. John Shaw–Rimmington of Port Hope, Ontario is a specialist in restorative masonry. I find their insights to be revealing.

“I think about the walls on Morrison Point and wonder what it was like to work at that time, how much they enjoyed it or how much was drudgery,” Phil Ainsworth shares. A retired educator, he has garnered a love for dry stone walls. “Most of what I have learned about them has come from reading,” he tells me as we meander along a 300-foot length of wall he has built at his home in nearby Cressy.

Ainsworth’s descriptive of wall building transports me back to Morrison Point Road where I noticed a section had collapsed, spilling a carload of rock while exposing the skeleton of its makeup. Flat stones, ranging from car hubcap to coffee-table-top in size were stacked course by course in an interlocking design of two thinner outer walls that leaned into each other. Like a saw-horse, the sides approached towards the top without meeting and were spanned at intervals by large tie-stones that served as beams between the two faces. The hollow within the structure was filled with stone rubble, adding mass and support all round. The whole effect had a certain grace; the massiveness of the thing was striking as each foot of wall seemed to hold a ton of stone.

The walls of Morrison Point hold a mystique that stretches beyond, not unlike Stonehenge in a way. They hold a sense of continuity, the ordinary work of people throughout history. As Ainsworth shows me the process of assembling his walls I ask about the unseen qualities of handling ancient rock and whether the material suggests an order of its own.

“Maybe it’s a kind of silly thing to say, but yes, I feel that way,” he confides. “I love doing the jigsaw puzzle of putting them together, finding the right stones…the ones that look like they should be together. At first I used a masonry level to keep the walls as even as possible. Now I do it pretty well by eye.”

Ainsworth puts his hand on the top ridge of his wall. “I try to save triangular stones for here so they stand vertically with a flat base. I got the idea from the Morrison Point fences and also from looking at pictures of walls in England, in particular the walls of the Cotswold region. I’ve been told they built them this way so that sheep wouldn’t jump over…most things had a purpose: they were not done for decoration,” he summarizes.

“Let the stones speak to you,” is the philosophy of John Shaw-Rimmington who has worked in stone construction for 28 years, the last 10 in dry stone work. His experience convinces him “that there are deeper striations of information in the stone beyond the visible. While we are missing all of the knowledge, the pieces of the story about a structure, there are so few other examples of where nature and humans work in harmony. The building of a dry stone wall presents an opportunity to dance with the landscape and to collaborate with nature,” he tells me. “Dry stone walls need no other intervention to support them. They don’t need cement and yet hold together for thousands of years. The stone is inspiring in its latitude, like fractural equations unfolding across the countryside, using ancient materials to create new designs,” he continues.

Called dry stone hedges, dykes or rock fences in Scotland and Ireland, the same construction is used for buildings and bridges as well as field boundaries and retaining walls. The Inca of Peru used the technology to create terraces on otherwise unusable slopes. House foundations, shed walls and fortifications date to 1400AD in south-eastern Africa. Early civilizations throughout North America left many examples of dry masonry construction, and with the arrival of Europeans, it was the Scots and Irish that spread the know-how.

Shaw-Rimmington founded ‘Dry Stone Walling Across Canada, an organization whose members gather in workshops to learn to construct and repair stone walls. “Assembling a wall is intuitive, what I call 'thinking with your hands'. It’s a real material from the earth that is both beautiful and structural, something manufacturers spend countless energy trying to replicate, ending up with only a faux façade.”

It seems like the walls are a world unto their own and somehow I no longer feel alone communing with a stone wall on Morrison Point Road when Shaw-Rimmington shares his sensibilities. “I feel the stones speak to me and I allow what I'm hearing to guide me in deciding what goes where…going slow and keeping it simple. Stones are not just decoration; they are not ornamentation; they are fundamentally structural. We use them at our peril and disrespect their most important property if we ignore this fact,” he adds.
The rhythm of stone on stone holds form like a stanza in a poem. Each stone, unique in shape and character, keeps a pace and metre all of its own while at the same time remaining dependent on its neighbour. “At the end of a section is what I call a tower. I raise it to help tie in the last stone. It delineates space and I like the idea of having a gate with rails inserted…it can serve as an entrance to a field,” Ainsworth articulates as he continues to guide me along his walls.

“Where I lived previously, in the moraine of the Oak Hills near StirlingOntario I used round stones deposited by glaciers,” Ainsworth describes. “But here I’m using flat limestone, most of which was uncovered when we built our house,” he points here and there recounting his adventures with stone. “Some of these rocks were broken during excavating so the open face is quite fresh...some of the rocks on top of the ground have moss growing on them and I leave it,” he continues. “And I like where I can see fossils or striations in the rock.” He pauses at a section. “Even though the stones are basically shades of grey and brown you try to mix them so there is some variation. Here is one with a nice plant fossil…apparently this area was at the bottom of a tropical sea at one time  and when the continent shifted over millions of years, the rock that is here was nearer to the equator.”

When I ask about personal insights derived from the work, Ainsworth responds by saying, “I like to learn and at the same time prove to myself that I can do certain things…I think that the stone reveals that while we may be important to ourselves and to others, in terms of the history of the world or the universe, we are incidental.” He then leans against a wall in comfort. “As one of my friends said, these walls will be here long after I’m gone.” And Shaw-Rimmington concurs. “Stones have got it figured out…we’re just a blip on the horizon in the earth’s evolution.”

And so, the walls of Morrison Point Road call to passers-by, strangers like me, offering invitation to stop awhile, momentarily allowing a peak beyond a veil of mystery. Captured in these walls are voices belonging to calloused hands that cradled heavy rock; skilled hands passing along to apprenticing hands a story; stories of cultures, of customs, of family loyalties; stories resurrected from the earth just as the stones were by the steel of the plough. The walls stand in a quiet presence, sentinels that guard the legacy of the Scottish and Irish masons who brought their craft to the Canadas.

Soon a car whizzes by, rubber hissing on asphalt, wiper blades marking a metronome rhythm; the sky eases long enough to spill a glaze of afternoon light over craggy limestone. And I am on my way.    Conrad Beaubien

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