Stone Bulwarks Against Chaos

TO my teenage eye, the house was gloriously authentic. It had perched on a ridge of the Pelham Hills since the 17th century, when that part of Massachusetts was still the frontier and the land gave unsparingly of rock and timber. The old boys who built it, using the natural insulation of earth and stone, dug it so deeply into a sloping hillside that the first and second stories both opened out at ground level on different sides. They had sheathed it with slender clapboards and chimneyed it with a massive structure of narrow bricks, complete with bee-hive oven and multiple fireplaces. Through small, many-paned windows of rippled glass, the sun warmed the floorboards and wainscoting, so that a reddish-brown glow seemed to rise from some translucent depth within the pine.

In decor as well as structure, it fairly seethed with character. There was pewter on the sideboard, and a small doorbell fastened to a curlicue of iron that sprang to life at the slightest touch. There was a blackened iron crane mounted above the hearth, and ceiling beams hung with herbs and kettles and baskets, and wrought-iron latches that worked easily through worn holes in the doors. It was all of a piece, with a pattern and design of its own, and everything had its place.

Behind the house were several outbuildings. One of them, similarly carved into a hillside, was a modest storage shed almost hidden by bushes. It had stone foundation walls on three sides, a rough-board front, and a peaked roof that sat level with the hillside at the rear and stood well above your head over the door. Inside, the lower stones near the dirt floor were beaded with dampness from springs in the ground above, keeping it cool and earth-scented even on the sultriest days.

To further insulate it, the builders had planted an oak on the hill above. It was now a mammoth tree, with limb and leaf so tightly woven that the sun never once peeked through from June until October. It also had mammoth roots, which is why I was there that summer morning.

`YOU see that rear wall?'' said Al, who owned the farm and who looked to be less than half an age removed from those original builders. Propping the door open for light, he shuffled into the dankness.

``See how she's bowed right out?'' he said, carving a gentle convexity in the air with a gnarled hand. ``That's the roots behind, pushing on her.'' My job, he explained, was to remove the center portion of rocks, chop out the offending dirt and roots, and rebuild the wall. There was a solid beam stretching from corner to corner above the wall, he noted, so the roof wouldn't come down while I was working.

I didn't know much about dry-walls - he'd hired me that summer to cut grass and putter around the garden at his wife's behest - but I didn't see there was much to it. ``Just do the best you can,'' he said, with a knowing smile.

It didn't occur to me at the time that those words carried any deep significance. I got the old iron pry-bar and the pick and shovel and the wheelbarrow, and took off my shirt and set to work. The stones ranged in size from small hams to nail kegs, and came out easily: They'd been gradually dislodging for decades, and were pretty near ready to tumble down on their own. I had them out in about an hour. By noon I'd cut back the earth enough so that I judged the stones would set up smooth and flush when I put them back.

So after lunch I tied a string tight from corner to corner and began rebuilding - turning each stone to find its best face, hefting it into place, jiggling it around until it just touched the string, and chinking up the holes with little rocks. I'd noticed that the old boys had built with the larger stones near the bottom, so I did that, too. But it was only as I approached the upper beam, and eyeballed the remaining stones, that I saw there would be a couple of big ones left over.

That's funny, I thought. I had figured this to be a kind of natural jigsaw puzzle, where everything had its place and you just had to find the right slot. But when the puzzle was complete, there were the spare pieces.

I opened the door good and wide and stood back to study my handiwork. And that's when I noticed something else. You could run your eye right along the side walls from front to back, following a single layer of stones all the way. You could turn the corner, and trace the same straight, level lines across the back - until you got to my part of the wall. Then the lines dissolved, fracturing into a hodge-podge of crooked stones pointing every which-way. What's more, the side walls were close fitting and tight, while my part of the back looked distinctly more porous.

The more I studied it, the worse it got. It wasn't that it was badly done: It was flush with the string, and it was tucked up tight under the beam to support the roof, and it certainly wasn't going anywhere. It was just that something wasn't right.

I cleaned up and went to find Al. He poked his head in and was quiet for a moment.

``You can tell where I rebuilt it,'' I offered hesitantly. He nodded, going over to the corner to squint along it.

``That's good,'' he finally said. ``That'll stay there a while.'' As he was leaving, he shot me a quiet grin. ``You did the best you could.''

I suppose it's still standing. That was three decades ago, and I've never been back to look. I knew Al for years afterwards, and he never said anything more about it. He was right. Being what I was, what else could I have done - the hapless child of the age of the back-hoes and bulldozers that had conquered the wilderness spreading westward for thousands of miles beyond the Pelham Hills?

I THINK of those old boys now and then, when the pulse and pressure of our quick-built age wells up in my life. I think of them building for the long haul - for their grandchildren, for a nation still unformed from a new continent, for a future they cared deeply about. For them, a sense of pattern was neither a luxury nor a burden. It must have been something internal - some intuition, as they studied the rocks already set up and the ones still to go, that within the manifest chaos of the world there was a discoverable order.

Maybe, like their stonework, they saw themselves as bulwarks against that chaos. Maybe they sensed a deeper purpose, served not only by building level and true but by crafting every part of their life with an innate design. Maybe, in the end, they left us less with a collection of antiques than with a set of intrinsic convictions - that, even in their least public places, function never should overrule form, and that foundation ultimately determines superstructure. Maybe they saw something we've almost forgotten: that what you are when nobody's looking is what you really are.

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