dry stone wall

What I Learned From Building A Dry Stone Wall

The lessons were worth the tired back and the smashed fingers.

I’d always wanted to build something from stone and a dry stone wall surrounding my garden seemed like a good idea at the time.

my dry stone wall under construction
My dry stone wall under construction

I’m a retired specialist plant nurseryman who needs firm boundaries to control his plant collecting. If I want to expand this garden, first I have to move 15 tonnes of one of the rock walls enclosing the garden.

I note this first load of 26 tonnes is only half of what I’ll need to finish this project and what you’re seeing is roughly the half-way mark along the front. The brown on the top of the wall is soil. I’ve filled the top 3–6 inches (between the two outer walls) with soil (the bottom 2.5-feet between the outer walls is hearting stone — individual smaller stones placed one by one to stabilize the wall.)

But with my plans exposed, and the stone delivered, a member of the dry stone wall association suggested I could have a group of professional wallers here to help and finish this project in an afternoon.

But this is my dry stone wall

It’s my project. To lift, sweat, bleed when a rock and fingers collide, and celebrate when a stone lands perfectly. And to celebrate at the end of each work session when the wall is longer or taller.

It’s my wall, my life. For all its faults, it’s an unbroken chain of hours and days spent in a significant project.

And I learned a great deal in the process

  • The biggest heaviest stones should on the bottom. But it takes all sizes and shapes to make a wall strong.
  • The biggest stones are nothing without the smaller hearting stones holding them in place. (Wallers individually place hearting stones to interlock and fill the spaces between the two outer walls)
  • A good foundation is essential.
  • The strangest looking stones fit in the most interesting places.
  • A stone put in the wrong place will crack and ruin the wall.
  • Every stone depends on its neighbours to work properly.
  • A well built wall will last for centuries.
  • Removing stones of any shape or size makes the wall unstable.
  • A wall of all — the — same stones is boring and doesn’t get a glance from passers by.
  • A wall of different stones is admired and people comment on it positively.
  • Cracked stones need to be removed and replaced with good ones. This would not happen in a well-built and maintained wall.
  • The cracked stones will likely fit somewhere else. As will very small, very big, very thin, very fat, different shaped and coloured stones.
  • And it’s all these different stones that gives the wall its unique character and appeal.
  • And this makes it stand for centuries.
  • Old walls mark our world with grace

A dry stone wall also makes it a perfect analogy for my neighbourhood, country and world.

I also learned something from the oldest walls

stone wall at Jericho
The Wall at Jericho.

What can this ancient dry stone wall in Jericho teach us?

Jericho was inhabited 11,000 years ago and this wall dates from 7000BC (or earlier). Jericho is the earliest known walled city and was on my bucket list for places to see on a recent trip to Jordan. I was fortunate to be able to take a side trip up into the West Bank to see and touch parts of it.

This wall endures and has endured for over 9000 years. Even when it was buried 8 metres down in the sand, ignored and finally uncovered a few years ago, it endured.

It tells me the story that my wall building shares a history, a tradition and a story with my human ancestors.

And that message and story, of sharing values with people from that long ago, from an entirely different culture is one to cherish.

Dry stone walls connect me to the world, to the peoples in it and our shared history even as I sweat by myself on my own.

And what connects you?

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