I’m quite often asked, “I have an old stone wall on my property that’s half broken down. What should I do?” The questioner is perplexed because they like the way the wall has “naturalized” over time but don’t want to see it slip further into disrepair. They worry that the effort to regain structural integrity will sacrifice the character of the wall they’ve grown so fond of. They find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The mending of old dry stone walls lies at the heart of the walling trade. It’s often where the beginner waller cuts his or her teeth in the craft. An old wall is a lesson book waiting to be opened. It teaches correct methods of construction by example, and offers many cautionary tales with full-color illustrations. Chapter by chapter, the story of a derelict wall section unfolds in reverse as it’s dismantled.
The cause of a rent in the fabric of the wall becomes apparent as toppled stone and debris are cleared away. Perhaps a rotted tree limb fell across it, a tree root upheaved it, animals scaled it or burrowed under it. Choices made by the original waller may explain why the wall has come undone. Mistakes shouldn’t be repeated, but a logic in the way the stones were previously handled usually reveals itself. The waller who came before spent many days, maybe years, becoming acquainted with the local materials. Their experience in that place, with those stones, can be gleaned from the work they left behind and respectfully reinterpreted.
This month I’m mending pasture fences built of single stacked, granite boulders. Some sections need only minor corrections and additions, others require wholesale stripping out and starting from scratch. I hope the ghosts of wallers past, peering over my shoulder, are pleased with the work they spy.