Saturday, December 31, 2016

Stony Night

It seems to me Van Gogh's work lends itself to the kind of pebble art being done a lot these days. Am I crazy? 

Anyway, I had a go at his Starry Night with some stones I gathered from the stony frozen beach yesterday. 

Have a warm and wonderful New Year's Eve everyone ! 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The dry stone toolshed

The short slideshow video documents the various stages of the cladding of an ugly old metal garden shed we had in our backyard, and didn't want to see any more.  Evan, Joe, Akira, and Corrie who were working for me at the time, built it with my help and supervision on breaks between bigger jobs over the summer, back in 2010. 

The stones we used ( mostly granite, limestone ,sandstone and schist ) were left over from several equally interesting dry stone projects we did that year. The huge stone roof slabs were brought in from a quarry up in Buckhorn Ontario.

The shed is still looking beautiful as ever and is presently vacant. We are thinking of keeping chickens in it next year, or maybe we'll make it available on airbnb.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The blank page and the undrawn comparison.

This Christmas I was given a blank Moleskine journal of 120 unlined pages. 

Inside I stare at the first blank page of my book. Just holding it in my hands I become acutely aware of the implied potential contained within. I recognize a responsibility and an opportunity, to find what it is and happily produce something of worth. 

This is not unlike having been given a fresh pile of stones to work with. Like the pages which are silently waiting to be filled, the stones too are waiting to be put together in some creative way. 

The New Year is waiting too. It is our new journey/journal into an, as yet, unsystematized, uncatalogued, delightfully unstandardized future.  

Fill the pages. Write the words. Arrange the stones. Connect the dots. Bring new order out of all that is disguised as 'random' and 'confused'.  Make a positive, loving, artistic difference in 2017. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Stones by Wendell Berry

I owned a slope full of stones.
Like buried pianos they lay in the ground,
shards of old sea-ledges, stumbling blocks
where the earth caught and kept them
dark, an old music mute in them
that my head keeps now I have dug them out.
I broke them where they slugged in the dark
cells, and lifted them up in pieces.

As I piled them in the light
I began their music. I heard their old lime
rouse in breath of song that had not left me.
I gave pain and weariness to their bearing out.
What bond have I made with the earth,
having worn myself against it? It is a fatal singing
I have carried with me out of that day.
The stones have given me music
that figures for me their holes in the earth
and their long lying in them dark.
They have taught me the weariness that loves the ground,
and I must prepare a fitting silence.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Snowball Lights - A Temporary Installation

We finished hanging all our special handmade snowball decorations yesterday, just in time for Christmas. Hooray !   

The front walls will be beautifully lit tonight, hopefully - that is, if the snowballs don't all melt first. 


We still need to find where the serviceberry roots are buried  and make sure we have the right currant bush.

Anyway, a special Merry Christmas to those of you who have so wonderfully brightened our lives this year.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Jolly and Folly

This time of year a good many of us make a kind of a special thing about being jolly. Those who would choose to scorn or poo poo the idea of any kind of cheeriness have had their opportunity all year to be gloomy. They need to let up a bit now, at least for these few festive days when strangers and friends and family want to take time to joyfully wish each other 'Seasons Greetings'. 

Being jolly is not all folly, and if it is, it's a kind of folly that often leads to such positive things as art and music and dance. Follies (fanciful structures of stone, of all kinds) are similar magical whimsical expressions of something inside us that refuses to always be solemn, somber and drearily pragmatic. A folly is a kind of architectural wish - a permanent installation giving substance to our desire to have that ephemeral something (can we call it joy ?) last for more than a season.  Happy folly holidays ! 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Winter Has Officially Arrived

It's true, as of yesterday winter again kept its scheduled calendar appointment with the northern hemisphere. Snow is everywhere here in Ontario. 

The cantilevered stile steps I built now have decorative clumps of the stuff on every step. 

Do you want to see how the snow got there? Take a peek at the short video clip below.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A small gothic arch form.

Here's a simple illustration on how to make and use a small plywood form for supporting a dry stone arch until it supports itself. Most arches have something to hold them up until they are made. This one is a Gothic arch form. You could make a Roman arch or an elliptical arch the same way. 

By the way, don't confuse elliptical arches with electrical arcs. Even though they sometimes have similar shapes, one is kind of 'magical' (the way the stones hold together) but the other, if your holding live wires close together, is just 'shocking'.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Let's Go Screeing!

People do the craziest things, especially when they are on holidays. Running down a scree slope looks like a good way to celebrate Christmas. 

Oh Christmas scree, 
Oh Christmas scree, 
I'm causing avalanches...

Apparently they do a lot of this in the Lake District. Ironically, the word they have for mountain is fell . Dah !

I'm crazy about rocks and like to do a bit of rock climbing too, which often involves getting back down. 
But running down ???

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Better than a metal culvert.

Though the arch is not dry laid I rather like this bridge at Fox Harbour, Nova Scotia   

Under the bridge the concrete looks to have been poured onto flexible plastic culvert pipes, all cut in half and joined together to form a kind of elliptical arch. The stonework on the abutment looks to be all dry laid. In any case the ivy makes everything look good. Except of course if you live in Ireland and it's taking over and you'd rather not see it.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Mountain seen.

Good stonework never looks odd, even when it's the wrong way round.

Mark Ricard's Salem Creek dry stone retaining wall . December 13, 2016

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Going round the block with an idea.

I wonder which would be easier - actually building this photoshopped cube idea I had, or figuring out how to put a standard Rubiks Cube back together? 

In any case, I'm hoping to build one someday, somewhere. 

Contact me if you need one .

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Neighbours and Stone Fences

When your neighbour hasn't even used many stones, it's still actually not that hard for him (or you) to take a fence along the length of both properties.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Callum Gray has great a new website

"Callum Gray is a drystone waller and landscaper based in Central Scotland and is ideally placed to work on large and small scale projects across the UK. Callum has established a considerable portfolio using traditional techniques to design and build home and garden features which will delight for many years to come." 

Callum always injects a lot of his own creativity and clever expertise into everything he builds. His stuff is truly amazing.
Congrats on your new website, Callum.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Laughable Wall

I painted an imaginary wall yesterday.
It took longer than I thought it would.
It went for miles and miles over an imaginary landscape.
It ended up looking cartoony. It made me smile.
It had all sorts of flaws in it and was quite wobbly in places, but I still liked it.
It reminded me of something -
Not to take life too seriously.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Very Coarse Sandstone

Along parts of the coast of California there is a lot of this type of rock. It’s called Greywacke. Greywacke is a type of sandstone, a sedimentary rock which is made from particles (sediment) that have been glued together under pressure. This coarse sandstone consists of poorly sorted, angular to sub angular, grains of quartz and feldspar. It is physically hard and dark grey in colour. Texturally it is an immature sandstone composed of sand mixed with mud.  

Graywacke sandstone is made up mostly of sand-size grains that were rapidly deposited very near the source rock from which they were weathered.  This type of sandstone contains fewer grains made of quartz and more made of feldspars, volcanic rock fragments, as well as silt and clay, than most sandstone.  It is therefore also known as “dirty sandstone.” The volcanic rock fragments give graywacke its greenish-gray colours. In terms of building walls it’s a pretty creepy material to work with. It's basically not a very good stone at all.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

With a little imagination

At the end of a long day working in the cold, it's nice to relax for a tiny moment, take off your normal clothes and wrap yourself in some spacial warp, and slowly immerse yourself in some cozy miniature dry stone enclosed hot tub. All it takes is a little imagination.

Just spas for a moment. There are so many things that can be done with stones. Just let the thought of that soak in for a while. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Dreams and Paintings

Stones like painting.

Here's one they did of me.

Stones have dreams and wishes too.
Mostly, they wish you well.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

How dry stone wall building can release your inner zen


Stone free: Jim experiences mindfulness as he grades rocks for his wall CREDIT: CHARLOTTE GRAHAM/GUZELIAN

By Jim White 

7 DECEMBER 2016 • 7:00AM

To most of us, a dry stone wall is just there. Stretching off into the distance, dividing up the fields, it is something you drive past without noticing, something for sheep to scratch up against. For John Matthews, however, a dry stone wall is a thing of unmatched loveliness. More than that, in its earthiness, its natural heft, its timeless resilience, he finds inspiration. When John walks across the Peak District and sees a wall he doesn’t take it in his stride, its glories stop him in his tracks.

“Just look at that,” he says, pointing towards what, to my untutored eye, looks like a jumble of stones snaking their way across the brooding moorland. “How can you not see that’s beautiful?”

So enamoured is he with the structures he is convinced that they have qualities beyond mere division of property or the holding back of inquisitive cattle. A renowned documentary film-maker (his Grand Prix: The Killer Years accrued substantial acclaim when shown on the BBC) he discovered walls a couple of summers ago. He needed, he said, an escape from the relentless hurly-burly of trying to get films commissioned and financed. So he learnt how to build walls. And as he did so he quickly came to appreciate something extraordinary about the slow, precise and complex process: it was hugely contemplative.

So struck was he, he couldn’t stop building the things. As he did so, his blood pressure reduced, his shoulders shed their knots, his breathing relaxed. He found his mind clearing, the jumble of modern life easing. He describes it as “The Zen of Dry”.

Now he is hoping to help others appreciate the wonder of walls. He has set up a company called Dog With a Bone, which is doing two things: introducing anyone interested to the meditative aspect of building one, and passing on its benefits to unemployed youngsters. Everything about building a wall, he says, is educative. “There’s a big life lesson in this,” he explains. “The Japanese have a saying, 'chop wood, carry water’. It’s very useful advice for those of us stuck in the modern nonsense: get back to basics. Build a wall, sort yourself out.”


So it is that I find myself in a field near the village of Diggle in the Peak District, faced with a tumbledown jumble of a wall that I am going to rebuild, alongside a 20-year-old unemployed lad from Oldham called Kyle Barrow who has been sent along by the Mahdlo Youth Centre. But Kyle is late. He is having difficulty finding the place. Up here in the hills one wall looks very like any other.

John, though, doesn’t have time to waste, not when there’s a wall to build. He begins with me alone. He wants me to tune in to the environment, to realise where I am. So he gets me to stand with my eyes shut for five minutes, just listening. It’s an intense sensory experience, out there in the middle of nowhere. I immediately pick up the distant rush of water tumbling down the moorland after a heavy night’s rain. There’s the gentle munching of a couple of sheep on the other side of the field. There’s a couple of crows squawking. And then there’s the chirrup of John’s mobile. It’s Kyle, calling to say he’s still lost.

Next, John introduces me to the tools required. This is the lowest-tech of trades. There’s no machinery . All that is needed is a pickaxe, a hammer, a spool of string and some pegs to mark the course of the wall.

“You’re going back in time,” says John. “The whole point is, the wall was designed to suit the environment. You couldn’t lug cement up on to the hillside, you couldn’t get heavy lifting gear on site. It was in the middle of a field, you couldn’t bring special stones in. You just used what were available .”

So basically, it’s an outdoor game of Tetris
And what is available here is Yorkshire gritstone, lumps of rock that at one time would have been pulled from the fields and now sit splayed out all over the tumbledown bit of wall we are reconstructing. For the next hour or two, we unpick the old wall, laying out the stones in size order on the grass, ready for the rebuild. John suggests we work as much as possible without talking, the better to absorb the process, the better to let our minds tune in to the environment. The silence is only occasionally broken by John’s phone ringing. It is Kyle, still requiring route instructions.

When all the stones are removed and graded, we prepare the ground, carefully flattening the earth. As we do so, I can feel my mind wandering. I am not immediately sure if that is the first effects of mindfulness or just through the boredom of such a repetitive task. When we stop for a midmorning cup of tea, I ask if walling has always been a job people found contemplative.

“Old wallers were paid on piece work, so I doubt they’d have been very Zen in their approach,” he says. “It would be a case of 'chuck the thing up’.” There will be no chucking the thing up here, however.

“There should be something you learn beyond the indulgence of contemplation,” says John of his course. “Yes, we’re here for an exercise in mindfulness. But we’re going to finish this bit of wall today. And we’re going to do it properly.”

As we begin, the first thing I discover is that a dry stone wall is in fact two walls, built about a foot apart, filled with a sandwich of gravelly grit called hearting. The walls are put together by placing appropriately shaped stones one on top of the other and ensuring they are flat and rigid by gently wedging in smaller stones. John has an idea that he has introduced to all his walls: he inserts a time capsule into the hearting, a little treasure to be discovered perhaps 200 years into the future when the wall finally collapses. Or probably earlier in the case of my construction.


A dry stone wall (like this one in the Lake District) is actually two walls, with a layer of grit known as 'hearting’ between them  CREDIT: ALAMY
I am just placing in the grit my time capsule (with the front page of that day’s Telegraph in it), when Kyle finally turns up, no more than two hours late. After he has taken him up the hillside for a five-minute silent retune, John asks me to explain to the new arrival how to build a wall. I tell him about the grading, the sizing, how you need to find stones that fit the spaces. Taking one look at what I am doing, Kyle says: “So basically it’s like an outdoor game of Tetris.”

This is someone already one step ahead of me. We make a good team, Kyle and me, soon finding the right stone to slot in, sensing what’s needed, ensuring every piece sits tight in place. We quickly develop an unspoken arrangement, where one of us moves in with a stone, while the other steps back to take a breather. And we need it.

“It’s hard work,” John says. “After a day of walling  you’ll notice it.”

He is right. All the lifting, the hoicking, the fresh air: it’s tiring. Most mindfulness has no element of physical stretch. With walling, you are soon exhausted. As the early winter sun begins to fade we have placed the final vertical line of stones known as coping on the top of our construction. It may be no more than a yard or so long, but we have built a wall. And my mind does feel, if not liberated, then oddly rested.

Reposted from The Telegraph

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Is it the space that's negative?

Given enough time, and the right conditions, emptiness starts to become its opposite. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Monday, December 5, 2016

Another Dry Stone Bridge Workshop

A ten day dry stone bridge building course is going to be held near Brighton, Ontario next June 2017. 

A permanent stone bridge will be built by students to replace the old wooden footbridge on this lovely rural property. It will span about 12 feet across a fast flowing year round creek.

The course will be held during two consecutive 5 day work weeks. It will be taught by me and one other instructor.  Participants will get ten days of full hands-on experience learning to build a typical Scottish packhorse bridge. 

Providing there are no weather issues causing lost days, we are scheduling two days off during the weekend of June 22nd and June 23rd . 

Camping is available on site. The course fee of 130 dollars a day ( provided students attend the full ten days) has been deliberately set low to encourage stone enthusiasts with or without experience, not just professionals.  

In addition to students having the standard instructional printed material provided for this DSWAC course, registrants in the Salem Creek Bridge Workshop will get a copy of my recently published book How To Build Dry Stacked Walls and Bridges 

How to Build Dry-Stacked Stone Walls: Design and Build Walls, Bridges and Follies Without Mortar

More details can be provided upon request.
Registration is limited and done by email only. Cheques only please. If you wish to be part of this unique dry stone workshop experience please write to, 

Click on the links below to read about some of the other previous bridge workshops that  DSWAC Dry Stone Walling Across Canada has put on over the last 14 years.

Hubb Creek Bridge Seminar

Macdougall Bridge Workshop

Bruce Bridge Workshop 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Short Span

I built this arch over 20 years ago on our farm property in Cannington Ontario. It is built mostly with old reclaimed barn foundation stones. 

Round granite fieldstone and irregular limestone chunks deposited by the glaciers were originally cleared from the land, split and then squared by skilled masons and then laid up with a lime mortar to make strong structural foundations. You can still see some pretty impressive stonework on old barns and houses all over this part of Southern Ontario. 

The small arch in the photo stands as a reminder of the short span of time that has passed from then to where we are now. Now nobody anywhere in Canada does structural stonework anything like those magnificent stone houses and barn foundations built in the past - just concrete, block work and stone veneers. It's a bit sad really.

Friday, December 2, 2016


We knew we had to jump to be able to get this dry stone wall finished before the cold weather set in.  Phew !

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The simple 'arch' of dry stone walling

There was already an old wall on this property  with a small opening in it. I was asked by the owner to build a dry stone arch over the opening. 
The arch wasn't difficult. I think it took me a day to build. Every time I visit there I check out how it's doing. It's doing fine. 
There's something magical about an arch. As you walk through it's easy to imagine entering a different dimension or a different time zone.
I don't think there is anything more satisfying to do with stones than build a permanent dry stone arch.