If you want to know what beauty is and how it is created in this life, build a simple stone wall.
When I decided to build two low stone walls on either side of the driveway into our home in Pennsylvania, I went in search of stone. I wished for a truck that would drop off a few tons of perfectly cut stones, but it did not appear. Instead I had to take my hand truck and go find them.
This land is like a glacial moraine, a valley where rocks and boulders have broken off from the hills above and tumbled down, breaking and shearing and spalling until they come to rest. The earth coughs up new ones every spring. They are everywhere. The stone for my walls is going to come only from this property. The imaginary truck is not coming.
The first order of creation is this: you must work with what you have.
I find a small boulder with at least two flat sides. I can barely lift it, but I oonch it onto the hand truck and cart it to the site. It isn’t a perfect rock. It is gibbous here and hollow there; it may have an odd tail growing out of it. Now I must find another stone that accommodates the eccentricities of this one. When I do, and nestle it in place, the natural beauty resides in just this imperfection. My art, if that is what you call this trial and error, mix and match, is to put two odd things together until they seem inseparable.
The second order of creation is this: beauty is not in perfection but imperfection rightly ordered. (Francis Bacon must have been working in stone when he said, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”)
Sourcing the material for this wall is back-breaking (where is that truck?). I want great big stones, especially for the base, but they are almost immovable. I heave and push. The sun is blazing and my eyes are half-blind from sweat. Progress is slow. I have been at this for days with almost nothing to show.
The third order of creation is this: it is hard work. Nothing of beauty is made without travail. “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery,” said Michaelangelo, “it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.”
Just because I liken my work to something Michaelangelo said doesn’t mean I am good at this, to say nothing of great. You would never mistake my wall for one built by a professional. That, however, makes it no less a creation nor detracts a whit from its beauty.
The fourth order of creation is this: do not compare your art to anyone else’s. Though fourth in sequence, this is actually first. (Perfectionists and those with “high standards” take note.) More of what is good and beautiful has been miscarried—never brought to birth—because the maker was too good for himself.
The two walls on either side of the driveway stand unfinished. With scores of stones strewn around the worksite, some rejected, some still awaiting the perfect setting, a passerby might see only a rock pile. Perhaps. But, “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile,” said Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral,” or a simple wall.