Building a Wall in Concert With Nature

THEY call them ``dry-stane dikes'' in Scotland. They're really walls built of random-size stones without the use of mortar. When we decided to build a dike just over a year ago, the objective was to establish a defined boundary between the garden and the field. It seemed a perfectly straightforward task. But a bird, a pied wagtail to be precise, changed all that. He appeared from nowhere one morning about a week after I had started building the dike. Alighting on the half-built section a few feet away from me, he dipped and bobbed a couple of times, preened himself, and then flew away. Nothing very unusual about that, but somehow his brief visit put a different perspective on the wall. He had lifted it from a mere boundary to a piece of countryside furniture. I unbent myself, folded my jacket twice to make a cushion, and sat down on a large boulder to give the whole matter some serious thought.

The more I considered it, the more important the project appeared. There were ramifications I had not considered. Not only was the status quo of the immediate rural scene being disrupted, but I was intruding new form and line to the landscape, throwing shadows where shadows had never fallen before, even creating new microclimates for plant and insect to reject or applaud. Unthinkingly, I had assumed a new responsibility.

The whole concept of the undertaking changed. The purely practical function of a wall to mark where the lawn mower should stop, where wildflowers became weeds, and field mice changed from wildlife to vermin drifted into insignificance. This wall had become a statement of 1989, and if it was to take space in the storybook of our valley, it had better be valid.

With a new interest I looked at the stones, casually strewn in a haphazard line beside the intended course of the wall; primeval stones that had been in at the very beginning of this valley. They had felt the weight of the brontosaurus's tread, had seen the Ice Age come and go, and mutely witnessed the fumbling efforts of man to resolve his differences in two world wars. Yet only five minutes earlier I had raised my hammer and shattered one of these primeval rocks, simply because its shape made its placement in the wall more difficult!

Across the valley the great bulk of Crofthead Hill smiled benevolently at my concern and with an almost imperceptible inclination drew my attention to its lower bracken-covered slopes, which swept down to the riverbank where I stood. From my study window I frequently scan these slopes with careless familiarity, but today my eyes settled with interest on the slumbering walls that loosely lattice the hillside; walls built of ageless stones like mine.

Unobtrusively they flow over the contours, faithfully sculpting every dip, every knoll. Had their builders been reminded by some envoy of nature of the import of their work? Probably not. Most of these walls were built as a result of the agrarian revolution in the early 1700s, when the advantages of enclosed grazing first came to the notice of landowners. Those ``dikers'' were men of humble origin, glad to find a source of income to keep home and family together.

Nevertheless, the walls were built with care and skill and remarkable stoicism. Diking is a slow and laborious job - a good diker can build only five yards of wall in a day. Yet there are more than 25,000 miles of dikes in the southwest corner of Scotland alone, many of them surviving the snows of 200 winters or more. Better testimony to the integrity and craftsmanship of their builders would be difficult to find.

I felt a glow of satisfaction that we had opted for stone. We were keeping faith, in a modest way, with our antecedents. It had been a near-thing. A post and wire fence had been our earlier choice. But that decision was based on the criteria of cheapness and ease of erection. Aesthetically, fences have little to commend them. Their drawn steel strands dissect the landscape into basic, formal shapes attractive only to plow and combine harvester. Their purpose is purely practical; their life transient; their legacy a tangle of rusting metal.

Minute by minute the role of my struggling heap of stones increased in significance. This would be no mere functional barricade, rather an amalgam of rural services. Protection for the blackface ewe and newborn lamb caught in a late spring storm; a refuge of safe crevices in which mice could cache their food when September frosts threatened winter's approach; a backrest for the weary shepherd eating his cheese and chutney ``piece'' and, hopefully, a pleasing brushstroke on nature's canvas.

With just a soup,con of Michelangelo's awe when confronted with his greatest commission, I bent again to the wall. Each stone had become unique, to be placed with respect, almost reverence, so that it supported its fellows in the best possible tradition and contributed with complex simplicity to the excellence of the whole. The job was slow, but history takes time.

Today I finished the task. The wagtail didn't make an appearance, but as I wedged the last stone in place, a whisper of wind sighed across the field and settled contentedly in the heart of my dike.... Had nature issued her seal of approval? I hope so.

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