Lessons in Stone


stonw wall 2

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.

13 Responses to Lessons in Stone
  1. Mark Mosier
    September 8, 2014 | 10:19 am

    I groan and smile at the thought of you working that hard. No boot camp needed for you! Your walls will be wonderful–sometime. I know you are, of course, using good body-back mechanics–your church needs you upright for a long time.

    Your reaching as far back as Bacon has,after a tiring work-week/weekend for me, been uplifting for a dragging body and falling face. Thanks to you as you labor on.

  2. Steve Hickok
    September 8, 2014 | 11:31 am

    Love this!

    • David Anderson
      September 8, 2014 | 2:39 pm

      FYI, readers: Steve is a working artist. So–he would know.

  3. Michael
    September 8, 2014 | 12:44 pm

    Amen to what Mark said.

    And thanks for the reminder that art is work and that life is work. I couldn’t help thinking, David, a al Robert Frost, the work isn’t over.

    You’ve made the walls but next Spring you’ll be mending them because “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,/that sends the frozen groundswell under it/and spills the upper boulders in the sun/and makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”

    But all that means is that you’ll have more grist for you blog-mill. Thanks for writing about real things.

    • David Anderson
      September 8, 2014 | 10:32 pm

      Yes–and I had Frost in mind when I was saying that the earth coughs up new stones every spring–isn’t that also a line from “Mending Wall”?

      • Michael
        September 9, 2014 | 11:32 am

        In Mending Wall there’s no explicit mention of eruption of stone from the earth. He speaks only of the walls which the Spring groundswell displaces, the gaps it makes, gaps which have to be repaired. But of course the reason the wall is there is the first place is because, as you say, the earth disgorges them and then it’s more efficient to use them for fencing, even in places where you don’t really need a fence–the main point of Frost’s poem.

  4. Mimi
    September 8, 2014 | 5:01 pm

    The 5th order of creation is to ask for help, especially for those of us of a certain age.
    the 6th is to be happy with smaller rocks!

    • David Anderson
      September 8, 2014 | 7:05 pm

      You’re so right about that 5th order–and I’m still laughing about the 6th.

  5. Eric E.
    September 8, 2014 | 9:25 pm

    Ah clearly you did not torture yourself enough with the patio wall at your Solebury home. It now makes even more sense that you view yourself as having many less years than Father Time’s Calendar would indicate. Perhaps your next post should explore the Sisyphus Syndrome 🙂 Love you brother!

    • David Anderson
      September 8, 2014 | 10:30 pm

      Yes, this is not my first love affair with stone. (I just wish I could fall in love with wood or something not so heavy and unyielding.)

  6. Jeffery Koller
    September 8, 2014 | 9:49 pm

    And to totally complete your wall, one must realize that it takes a diversity of stones to establish what you started out to finish!

  7. Ginny Lovas
    September 9, 2014 | 9:49 pm

    Me – I find myself being happy with doing Needlepoint – that is my wall —– tho I know many who are wall builders.

    Watch your back!


    • Tom Paulson
      September 9, 2014 | 10:21 pm

      We drove by 816 Pine Street today.
      The stone wall surrounding the property is still there – probably a subconscious motivation.

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