I had been thinking for a while that I wanted to improve and enlarge the stone patio that I had built 10 years ago or so on the west side of the house, but the job was daunting. The entire retaining wall would have to be dismantled and rebuilt and there is a lot of stone in a four foot high wall that is thirty feet long!
I always know that I am ready to begin another stone project when I see a stone on one of my walks that I must have. One morning in early spring, I spied just such a stone, triangular in shape, about 2.5 inches thick and 16 inches on a side. It was covered with lichen and had fallen off one of our old walls. Without thinking about it too much, I picked it up and carried it the few hundred yards back to the house. A few days later, again without thinking about it too much, I started taking the old patio wall apart. I find that sometimes if you think about something too much, you never do it! After setting aside the top most stones, a collection of fossil laden and stream smoothed beauties, I started throwing stones off the wall at a steady pace. It really did not take long to make a huge mess in the yard, I was fully committed!
I love doing stone work in the springtime; it is a great motivator for getting out of doors during one of the most beautiful times of the year . The apple blossoms from the orchard smell wonderful, the birds are singing, and the black flies buzz merry circles all around your head. A few years ago when I was building a wall in a wooded area, I witnessed two male Pileated woodpeckers swooping through the trees, battling for territory.
When most of the wall was down, I laid out the new arc for the wall which makes a graceful curve around a bizarre Honey Locust tree which is covered with 3 inch long spikes that can, and have pierced our lawn mower tires. I feel quite sure that Sleeping Beauty was pierced by one of these thorns. And by the way, while taking pictures today, one of those thorns pricked me too. So…. I wonder what it will be like in 100 years when I awaken in 3017.
Stone by stone the wall grows taller.
Building a wall is a great metaphor for tackling anything difficult. One stone at a time and all of that. I find myself humming happily and completely absorbed as I work, I guess you could say that it is a form of therapy.
I had to make regular runs out for more stone pulling a trailer behind our heavy duty garden tractor. Because the wall is built on an embankment, I needed a lot of fill stones. I found some old chunks of concrete, left over from somebody’s project… and into the wall they went. We reasoned that we were discovering the remains of the original chimney when we found a quantity of bricks mostly buried at the edge of the woods. The bricks were really useful to use as spacers and shims on the back side of the wall. Fortunately, we have 13 acres of land which is well endowed with stones, so there are always plenty! I had to pay particular attention to the strength of the wall as it curved down the hill past the spike tree. This is where I was not careful enough last time and the wall had started to pull apart. Here in the Northeast, the frost heaves can really damage a wall that is not built well.
I worked on the wall for about a month, but only a few hours each day. It is very heavy work, and for me this works best.
Many people ask me for tips on wall building so here are a few. It is always one over two and two over one…this is the stone masons credo. I build small sections that are level and then try to seat a larger stone there in order to connect the front of the wall to the back for instance. I fit the stones pretty tightly so that if the frost pushes on a section of the wall, there is no empty place just out of sight for the stone to move to. I always wear gloves and I don’t pick up anything that I am not sure that I can handle. I roll, or flip heavy stones rather than lift them. I don’t work when the stones and work area are wet and muddy, one’s footing absolutely has to be secure. Lastly, I try not to be too attached to a section that I have just built. If I am stuck, or if I think that I can make it better, down it comes. It is worth it! At the end of a project, you have something that will be there for a very long time. People also ask me if I build walls for money. No, not usually although I have done so a couple of times. It is more fun for me to work on our own property where I can really enjoy the results.
We loved the setting of the new house. The ancient Sugar Maples in the yard, the apple orchard, the barn, and the pond made for an idyllic New England setting and we decided to go for it…. unfortunately, our “new” circa 1850 saltbox style house was just as small as our former circa 1850 saltbox house. No problem, we are good at renovation!
Although the house was old, most of the interior had been rebuilt in the 1960’s after a catastrophic fire. The 60’s not being my favorite architectural period made contemplating another big renovation/restoration plan seem like a reasonable idea. Like most renovation projects, the scope the project grew and GREW. Every time we turned a corner, we discovered something else that needed to be redone. Maybe I will blog about that another time.
Our renovations took the better part of a year, during which time we continued to live in our old house.
our son wasn’t at all sure about this…the fireplace before and after
After we were well underway on the main living spaces I decided to address the issue of the 8’ by 8’ 1960’s stone fireplace that dominated the small front room. It was too modern looking for my taste; I wanted something smaller made of river stone. Since we were doing a complete renovation on the house, it was not a problem to wreck off the old fireplace and fill the living room with piles of stone and bags of mortar while I worked on the project. Bret and Amy gave us access to the stones in their creek and I rebuilt the face of the fireplace with this beautiful worn stone. We had a lot of fun searching the creek beds for the perfect stones with which to build the arch. Our friend Gavin, a real stone mason, built me an ingenious wooden form to support the arch during the construction phase. The form was designed to drop down after the mortar had set, and it worked perfectly.
We have lived in the new house for 12 years now, and it has been fun rebuilding the many collapsed walls on the property .
The most ambitious wall to rebuild in terms of length was the 300 foot wall that lines the driveway.
The most ambitious wall in terms of the weight of the stones was this one to the right of the barn which contains many huge limestones. I found that with some antique pry bars and a heavy duty hand truck, you can move stones weighing a couple hundred pounds by yourself!
This wall defines the courtyard to the side of the barn. We keep our maple syrup boiler in this section of the barn, and boil the sap down in the courtyard in early spring.
I had always collected small stones and have always loved anything built of stone, but I never thought of doing it myself until I moved into my first house(circa 1850) which was so close to the road that the cars whizzing by seemed about to enter the living room. After an accident during which a car spun out and overturned just a few feet past our house, (nobody was hurt thankfully), we were very motivated to build a stone wall barrier between our house and the road.
My future husband Paul and I each tackled a section on either side of the front walkway. Neither of us had any experience, we only knew the basic stone mason’s mantra of “one over two and two over one”. Thanks to the relatively flat local bluestone, our efforts were somewhat successful and along the way I discovered that I totally loved wall building! For me it is a great complimentary activity to the fine detail work required in jewelry making. If you like doing jigsaw puzzles, you might like wall building. As in puzzle building, one has to remember the location of as many stones as possible from the pile, and be able to picture how they will fit. I particularly love that with perseverance and some time, a woman of average size and strength can build a massive wall!
Over the years that we lived in and renovated the house, my most ambitious stone project was working on restoring the collapsed terraces behind the house. If you like gardening, (which I do), stone walls provide a fabulous background for flowers. While I worked on the terraces, Paul rebuilt the gorgeous exposed stone foundation.
We loved the old house with it’s hand hewn beams and wide plank floors, but by and by we had two sons and as the boys grew, our little house seemed to become ever smaller. The living room contained the wood stove, our only source of heat, and so we all gathered there in cold weather. We shared the space first with toy trains, tracks and cars, which were followed by a vast collections of K’nex and then legions of Legos. After stepping on lots of small plastic parts repeatedly, we realized that we had to move to a larger space. We looked for a new house for a couple years and then were lucky enough to know someone who knew someone who was selling an old farm house that was 400 feet off the road. The hardest part of moving was leaving behind my terraces and walls so I was really happy to see that our next house had plenty of stones around!
After leaving Killarney National Park, we continued our journey south to County Cork and the home of my Irish ancestors, the McKewans and the Renehens. This was my second visit to this area; the first was in 1976 when my mother and I bicycled the Irish coast exploring the homeland of my great great grandfather.
As we journeyed south, I was intrigued with the craggy stone walls that seemed to be everywhere. Huge slabs of limestone stacked at all angles made for amazing sculptural formations. Having built a limestone wall myself I know how sharp and heavy this stone is to work with and that the larger stones must weigh well in excess of 100 pounds!
Southern Ireland, which is moderated by warm ocean currents, does not have frost heaves like we do here in the Northeast. This aids the long term survival of these wonderful improbable walls!
Our hosts took us on a hike along the wild southern coast where we spent a lovely day. The kids found a beach with an endless supply of perfect skipping stones and thus were happily engaged while I took dozens of photos of the stone walls and escarpments all around. Some of my favorite one of a kind and production pieces are from drawings made here.
One of the things that I love about traveling is the release from the usual responsibilities… like blogging! In the spring of 2007, we received an invitation to visit the southern coast of Ireland from my long time craft show friend, quilter Cherry Schacher, who had recently inherited a house on the sea near Schull. The idea, which at first seemed impossible, gained traction when I found tickets to Shannon at a great price, yay! We packed up the kids, (then 9 and 13), and were off on our adventure just a couple weeks after the idea was hatched!
Anyone who has traveled to Europe knows that odd jet lagged feeling of being so excited and at the same time so tired after a long flight. We really needed to get out and walk after a long night on the plane, and determined to stop at beautiful Killarney Park. The opportunity to row out to a small island on the lake there presented itself, and provided for a lovely picnic and an exploration of the ruins of the 12th century Augustinian priory. As always, I was keeping an eye out for interesting rocks, and there I found many! My geologist brother tells me that the combination of hard and soft rocks, (in this case sandstone and basalt), make for these very interestingly eroded specimens. Two of the rocks discovered on the island inspired the Fossil Pin and the Killarney Bracelet!