Robert Frost famously wrote, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall/ That wants it down." Perhaps. But from my end, it's the raising of walls that gives me great satisfaction. I'm not talking about barriers separating me from my neighbors, or the foundation walls of a new home. My bailiwick is the modest retaining wall, the garden border, the low run of cobblestonesdelimitating my lawn from the meadow beyond.
I live on the banks of the Penobscot River in Maine. When the water is low, I am treated to a natural quarry of rocks of all shapes and sizes: flat slates, piles of old bricks, round cobbles the size of cantaloupes, and chunks of almost-indestructible "ledge" rock. I have availed myself of all of these, and, over the years, my projects have grown and multiplied.
It is a slow process, as I have to load the rocks into my canoe and then transport them to the bank behind my house. It is hard, painstaking work. Often I have to tramp through mud to get to the prize that's caught my eye. Then there is the delicate balancing act of carrying a heavy piece of ledge over slick, algae-covered outcroppings, hoping that I don't fall and drop the rock through the bottom of the canoe.
It may take me years to complete one modest project. The retaining wall around the gravel base of my garage has been in process for half a decade. The reason? The granite I am using comes from a collapsed railroad piling on the other side of the river.
These beautiful, black-speckled blocks are on the bottom and can be retrieved only when the river is unusually low. And so I must seize the moment, ferrying the heavy things back before the water rises again. In a good summer I can excavate and transport maybe 10 blocks. By 2015 I should be finished.
As I approach the door to my house, I raise my eyes and see the low rock wall that keeps nothing out or in, but simply states: "Here the yard ends – beyond lies a steep bank."
Down on the flood plain is my small garden, a raised bed bordered by riverine bricks, many with edges smoothed by the current to the point where they resemble adobe. And lower down on the plain is the stone wall that I erected as a reminder to myself that what lies beyond is to be left wild, reflecting the seasons and the will of the Penobscot.
The main virtue in working with rock is patience. When I bring a new chunk to one of my walls, it may not fit anywhere. And so I lay it aside and hunt for another piece that does find a snug home.
Eventually, the wall changes to the point where it will accommodate the idler.
There are few things more gratifying than hoisting a rock that has bided its time, waited its turn to join its fellows in something bigger and better than itself.
One cliché attributed to professional wall builders is that the rocks "speak" to them, telling them where exactly they belong.
It's a romantic image, but my own experience discounts it. Rocks are heavy and unwieldy. They are hard on the hands and sometimes harbor biting insects that would rather be left alone. If any of my rocks were ever to speak to me, I'm sure they'd say things like, "Watch your fingers," "Don't drop me on your foot," and "Guess which poisonous plant I've been consorting with."
Perhaps most interesting of all is how something so pedestrian as moving stones can produce the unexpected. The other day my 10-year-old son was in some sort of preadolescent funk, beyond consolation. Something to do with boredom. "Get in the canoe," I directed him.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
And off we went.
We soon arrived at a shoal of lovely river-worn granite cobblestones. My son looked at me with doubt in his eyes. I picked up one of them, took his small hand, and rolled it around in his palm. "It's millions of years old," I told him. "And you're probably the first human being ever to hold it in his hand."
His eyes flashed and the first smile of the day broadened across his face. "You mean the second," he said. "After you, Dad."
Then he joined me in the scouting and toting process, cheerfully delivering his share of the bounty to the canoe.
Rocks can be used to build walls – but they're also good for tearing them down.