Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Thirteen Foot Span

The river splashes and gurgles under the temporary gangway as work is being done to add rows of suitcase size/shape voussoirs over the arc of the wooden former. 

There are few things as exciting as being involved with building a dry stone bridge. Watching it being built is fascinating enough to merit making it a televised event.

Matt Smith's talented crew.

Thirteen feet is not an unlucky span because the arc the stones pass over is actually a distance of more like fourteen feet plus.  (I haven't done the calculations).


Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Building dry stone bridges is really cool.

One thing you can be sure of if you take on a bridge project – You're going to be close to water. So even if you decide you might have to schedule one in for June or July or even August you know that if it gets intolerably hot, (and it will) you're always close enough to water to just stagger into the river any time during the build, and let that cool water soak that aching hot body of yours.


Sunday, May 12, 2024

Nature Loves Bridges

While we were in Asheville N C Mary and I went with Matt Smith to visit the Franklin Bridge just outside a place called Sandy Mush . I had not been back there since we’d built the bridge (run as a workshop ) five years earlier, and I was more than curious to find out what, if anything had changed, or if it was indeed as charming a structure as I remembered it. 

It was going to be helpful for Matt to see it too, as he had a somewhat larger dry stone bridge project going on at the time an hour and a half, in the other direction from Asheville. The settings of both bridges are similar. Both beautiful properties in the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains . Both bridges have smooth ancient bedrock to build off of and both span lovely year round babbling mountain streams. Matt's project would be his first bridge and I’d been called in to give him an experienced hand, not so much a physical hand, as handy bridge building advice.  

Even after five years and a lot of water flowing under it, Franklin Bridge looked as splendid as ever. The moss had crept over much of the walking surface and lichen had started to grow in patches over the craggily granite voussoirs. The span looked convincingly in tact. Except for a few cobbles that looked liked they’d shifted on the top walking surface ( due to a big flood two years prior)  the bridge looked as sturdy as ever. Thankfully it still possessed that pleasing rustic look I associate with some of the old footbridges I’ve seen in England and Scotland. 

Enchanting is the best word I can think of to describe the scene as we approached along the narrow path that led through the woods to the bridge. This was the same winding path we used to carry well over 12 tons of random shaped rock, all by wheelbarrow, to the site of the bridge.

I can’t imagine a more agreeable enhancement to a walk in the woods than coming across a stone footbridge carefully 

integrated into the landscape , spanning the splashing watery path made by the babbling mountain stream.

Matt's new bridge will be (is being) built in a singularly beautiful location which I’m sure will inspire fantasies of magical days of old. A well-shaped and well-weathered collection rocks will be worked into the bridge mix. Hopefully moss will eventually cover everything in a feathery green carpet.

A maiden could step across this future bridge and step into the past. Two people may meet in the middle and find their soul mate . 

Proper footbridges are not to be so wide that mechanized vehicles use them. These dry stone bridges are for hikers and lovers and children.

A bridge is not a dam either. It doesn’t stop the flow of nature. It gently rises over and connects us with the other side without hindering the connections of nature in other directions . 

There is a reason to bridges. And the answer is beautiful. It is the great agreement, a working collaboration between the human ingenuity and the beauty and flow of Mother Nature .

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Archistic Licence


Sean Adcock wrote to me recently and told me he had been trawling through pics for an upcoming talk in South Korea at the Jeju Peace Forum and came across this photo montage he and Sunny Weiler took when they found this interactive "arch thing in some castle type building somewhere". 
He hoped it would make me smile. Of course it did. 
Even with a limited number of voussoir shapes there is sometimes more than one way to build an arch. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

We, the Hunter Gatherers

 Hunter Gatherer’s 🙌

The contours or these hands stencilled onto the rock by blowing pigment through hollow bones of animals they had hunted and eaten, is the art of conversation.

It is a conversation between positive and negative space.

They are conflicting entries written on stone

We are looking at a stencil pattern of ‘missing hands’.

We see contrasting colour and non-colour, defining shapes where those hands once have been.

The hands have long disappeared

And yet the missing hands are forever in conversation with the smooth rock .

And we ( by studying them ) join that conversation . 

We try to imagine what has been said and what we are to say back to hem now?

How do we ‘spray’ our response ? Where do we stencil in our spaces and non spaces . This is an archaic calendar, a primitive journal, of overlapping entries  

Perhaps when we perform our handiwork on the rocks, perhaps when we create art with them, we are leaving not just a mark, but a remark. 

We, the modern hunter gatherers, use that same material .  It’s ‘rock, all the time’ for us. 

Rock always was the canvas.

It’s where art is made. 

It's our canvas now .

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

We have a trade unlike any other

Imagine you had a job , let’s say you were a surgeon or a carpenter or a brick layer or a potter, and all to had to work with was irregular crap ?  Castoffs, from other jobs, inconsistent-sized, broken, disorganized piles of what have you ! 

The irregularity of the material wallers have to work with demonstrates how good a waller they really are. The best wallers can do great work with anything. 

If you spin gold from straw you are a professional in your trade . If you can make structural, well built , beautiful looking walls, with what you’ve been given , (or found in the fields around you ) without complaining , without relying on expensive pallets of ‘easier’ pre-squared, pre-dressed, creatively less-challenging material having to be delivered on site, then you earn the right to be proud and sit for a moment and contemplate how strange and wonderful our craft is .

Friday, March 15, 2024

What to do with the whites.

The dark gritty oatmeal textured fieldstone granite distributed across the rolling landscape here in Virginia is peppered with a beautiful salt-coloured quartzite material. In some places in Rappahannock County these stark white rocks make up about twenty percent of the usable material for building dry stone walls. The question presents itself : What do we do with it ? Does it look good randomly dotted in the walls. Sometimes not.  From a distance it can look like wet plastic shopping bags having blown across the fields, all got hung up on the walls. This is usually not a satisfying look.

If we are intent on using all the stones available, including the white quartzite, there are several imaginative solutions to the problem. One wall I’ve seen here incorporates the white rocks by creating random belts of coursed white rocks worked into the mix.


Another idea involves using the white material strictly for the tops of the walls.

One outbuilding I came across in my bike ride had dark stones making up the whole the west side and used all lighter coloured quartzite rocks for the east wall.

Whatever the case, the building material we wallers choose to use is not purchased at some big box building supply store. It’s not manufactured cookie-cutter, all one size, one colour stuff. No it is sourced locally by hunter gatherers like ourselves who are thankful for such abundance of diversified natural material however it comes. We appreciate, and take seriously the challenge of, being able to accommodate its diversity of colour and shape, and happy enough to put it all to good use. 

I think there is a parable here somewhere.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The time has come



The time has come 

The wallers said

To talk of different states,  

Of shale and schist, and surface cracks

And amethyst and slates

And why debris forms mountain scree

And why the earth has plates.

They spoke of sub-atomic mass

Of particles and strings,

Of quantum leaps and isotopes

And earth's magnetic rings.

And after that they took some stones 

And built some arty things .

Saturday, March 9, 2024

There is A story here

There is a story here. There are Many stories here. Some are made up . Some are partially true based on who’s telling the story. Some of the stories incorporate things imagined in our dreams.

We’ve been here before . We respond to the image and try to understand the story that is implied. The point is there are many stories here . There isn’t ‘THE Story‘. THE story is just A story. It could be a good one or a bad one, a clever one or a crazy one, a new one or an old one. It is just another story .

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Rocks of Ages

A rock, when it gets employed in a dry laid wall, becomes a 'stone'. It now has a  job. An employed stone can be any colour, shape, type of material or religious persuasion, and more importantly it can be any...any age.

The newer aged stones, ( usually taken from a freshly quarried source) we like to call toddlers.

Yes, it may seem wrong to put young toddler rocks to work, but then they really are already, millions of years old!  The geological material they have broken off from has had plenty of time to form . It's just that having been recently extracted from the bedrock, they've not had a lot of exposure to the elements yet, so their 'character' has not really had time to develop.

In a wall they may look too new, too uninteresting, or worse, too brash or too sure of themselves. Their sharp, freshly hewn faces don't possess that patient beauty and calm humility that only comes with time. 

After a while, at a certain age, newly quarried  material changes from young 'ado-lesstones' through puberty to full grown adults. They begin to have character. 

As they pass from the awkward ages, they maybe start to grow lichen or moss and develop interesting textures. In a wall they will all start to have what is called a 'patina'.

It will take time, but the pre'Patin-Agers' will eventually become as experienced, and look as aesthetically attractive as their wizened elders.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

What happened here?

What happened here? Why did this stone monument fall apart? Did they skimp on concrete footings ? Did they not compact the soil before they started building? Maybe they should have built it in a better place, with better drainage? Maybe it was just built badly?  

Now if they’d just engineered it a bit better, you know, like made the sarsens bigger, fatter, maybe the thing wouldn’t have fallen down so soon? 

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Rocks really know how to stay in shape

 We can learn a lot from stones and rocks. They're hard, working. They are infinitely patient. You know where you stand with a them. They're friendly and easy going and if they don't like you they'll never tell you. Of course they might pinch you, or smash your foot, but generally they are not the first to start a confrontation.

We don't really know how hard stones have to be on themselves to stay in shape. Most of the time we only observe them relaxing doing nothing. But on occasion you might find one getting good on the freeze/thaw cycle. If they didn't, they'd be useless in a dry stone wall. 

If they were the friable type ( all crumbly looking ) they will sweat a lot and in cold weather, they will start to fall apart. Thats why stones that haven't passed the freeze/thaw exercise program, will never be chosen for a job in a wall.

By the way that's how you can tell the difference between a stone and a rock. A rock is an unemployed stone.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Synchronicity and Serendipity


This video was created by Karina Sinclair for Landscape Ontario Trade magazine. I am thankful that some of the questions Carina asked me, allowed an opportunity to probe a little deeper into what dry stone walling (particularly faux ruins, fictional dwellings and landscape follies) is all about. 

In the next few posts on Thinking With My Hands I hope to explore the connection between Synchronicity and Serendipity further.

Sunday, February 25, 2024



I encourage StonEscaping

Stones escaping from their enemy : concrete products

Escaping from metal bars , rebar, tie pins, fixatives, adhesives, and threaded bolts. 

Escaping from the machinery, the manufacturing the crushing burning, moulding, cookie-cutter, mechanized, landscraping industry 

Escaping from the mad toxic bland manmade world of fabricated (so called) natural products

Escaping from the advancing army of bull dozers

Escaping from being dumped in holes and buried under the ground 

Escaping being imprisoned in cement and concrete 

Escaping from being plonked, abandoned, in meaningless artless clumps in public places 

Escaping from being lined up at borders, from their parking-lot-in-life non-curb appeal fate . 

Escaping to the freedom of a dry laid wall. Where all the parts are connected, yet free to move . 

Escaping from the saw. The grinder. Escaping from the jaws of mass production, over engineering, monoculture, unimaginative, repetitive, mass produced carbon-emitting copies of real stone...... 

to become beautiful liberated stones in 'Walls Without Mortar' 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Where do you get your straw from?

A waller often has to do magic with the material he finds himself having to work with. It’s like spinning gold out of straw.  It seems impossible, and yet the "straw" is somehow slowly magically transformed into a work of solid gold . It happens so often. But I wonder do magicians ever fuss over what kind of special hats they are going to need to pull rabbits from, or might an Imp like Rumplestiltskin ever complain about the poor quality of moldy straw he’s expected to attempt to spin into gold, No I think that if you doing sorcery, its not at all dependent on having special grade material to begin with.

Yes there are different grades of straw But I assume it doesn’t make a difference what kind of straw you use, if magic is going to be applied to it, anyway. Isn’t it all of the same order of magic-natude ? And so what do you say to someone who comes along later and sees the solid magic you've created, and (as if it makes a difference) asks “Where do you get your straw from ?


Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Mortar Without Stones

When I used to do mortar masonry back in the 80's , we had a helper Eric who mixed all our mortar, wheel barrows of it. When we'd finish a chimney or a stone addition, and took away all the scaffolding, we'd often stand back and admire the stonework. I'd say something like "Look at all that beautiful stonework". He'd stand there for a while and then say "Look at all that beautiful mortar"

Monday, February 19, 2024

No Entry

I saw this when I was bicycling through Menton, France last month. Could they have walled this entrance in better so that they didn't need the No Entry sign too? It looks like it would stop a tank, but maybe someone thought it still looked a little under-engineered. 

Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Picturesque

John Ruskin, on the necessity of properly anticipating the picturesque ruined look that comes only with time

"In architecture, the superinduced and accidental beauty is most commonly inconsistent with the preservation of original character, and the picturesque is therefore sought in ruin, and supposed to consist in decay. Whereas, even when so sought, it consists in the mere sublimity of the rents, or fractures, or stains, or vegetation, which assimilate the architecture with the work of Nature, and bestow upon it those circumstances of colour and form which are universally beloved by the eye of man. 

So far as this is done, to the extinction of the true characters of the architecture, it is 'picturesque', and the artist who looks to the stem of the ivy instead of the shaft of the pillar, is carrying out in more daring freedom the debased sculptor's choice of the hair instead of the countenance. But so far as it can be rendered consistent with the inherent character, the picturesque or extraneous sublimity of architecture has just this of nobler function in it than that of any other object whatsoever, that it is an exponent of age, of that in which, as has been said, the greatest glory of the building consists; and, therefore, the external signs of this glory, having power and purpose greater than any belonging to their mere sensible beauty, may be considered as taking rank among pure and essential characters; so essential to my mind, that I think a building cannot be considered as in its prime until four or five centuries have passed over it; and that the entire choice and arrangement of its details should have reference to their appearance after that period, so that none should be admitted which would suffer material injury either by the weather-staining, or the mechanical degradation which the lapse of such a period would necessitate.

Seven Lamps of Architecture

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Discovering the Borie Story.

In the vicinity of the Village of the Bories at Gordes in Vaucluse, France we looked amidst the bushes for other unique structures. We found one that had not been restored to someone else’s concept of what it should or could have looked like .  

Everyone has an interpretation of the original. But we wanted to see a site (inside and out) before it was all fixed up. We wanted to learn its story. Its good to be able to study deterioration that has not yet been repaired, to see for ourselves things like, how and why a section of wall failed, or how a strange shaped opening fell apart or why a thin lintel in the side opening hadn't cracked. 

We learn more from seeing the mistakes of the original builder than the repairs of those who follow . 

And are they all mistakes?, Really?  OR, Were they the best answer for the circumstance, for the purpose perceived at the time. What was the time period the structure was determined to likely be of use. 

It's difficult to surmise what happened if the evidence has been removed. 

Questions like -

“Were there any long through stones or did they all break? Or did someone steal them?”


“Why is this door opening so short  ?" (unlike all the ones in the Village of Bories , that had been rebuilt a foot taller)

We enjoy sandcastles, not just seing them in their pristine state, but to delight in watching the sped-up processes of 'decay over time' – to watch how an arch collapses, or where incoming water erodes away the wall, first. We gradually learn to appreciate the inevitability of impermanence. 

To every thing there is a season, and then, that season is over. We want to watch the seasons change. We want to take pleasure in that gradual eventuality.

It seems foolishness not to accept or take any pleasure in or at least be curious in that 'eventuality'. After all it is an essential component of existence, – the propensity of all things to move towards their expiry date.

We shall continue to build things to last, yes, but never suppose we can, or indeed think we can defy, or ever win over the forces of entropy.

A modern ( over engineered ?)  building often makes, no concessions to the reality of beautiful decay. 

Vernacular rustic humble aged structures seem better, more beautiful, for accepting their lot in the process of time. 

Whether it is a humble dry stone hut, or a proud Roman aqueduct, the reality of its journey towards obsolescence need not be disguised.

We all start as adolescents and THEN ... we become obsolescent. The 'then' can be a long beautiful journey.