Length In: Developing a Frame of Mind in Dry Stone Walling

Where do beliefs come from? Social norms, cultural traditions, religious doctrines, codified laws and plain old, daily habits are all part of the way we view and move through the world. There are beliefs that steer the direction in which entire civilizations evolve. And then there are subconscious beliefs an individual may hold without even being aware of them.

A belief in the minds of many beginner, dry stone wallers is that a wall is defined by its outward appearance, when actually it’s the unseen interior that gives it substance. Individual stones in a wall have more than just face value. For the most part, their bulk is concealed, securely trapped inside the construction.

An instructor’s job on a walling course is to turn an existing belief system 180 degrees by convincing students to lay each stone with its length running into the wall. The inclination to stretch each stone out across the face of the wall is completely understandable. Exposing the greatest surface of each stone should make them look larger, more substantial, and therefore stronger elements in the construction. The thinking is also that the wall will grow faster if twice as much stone shows with each piece placed. The idea that each hard-won stone placement accomplishes less than it could, is simply counter-intuitive to the inexperienced waller.

The first day of a two-day course for beginners is a case study in preconception reversal. A struggle goes on between what the participant innately believes, and what the instructor is advising them to do. For most, that transformation takes place in the overnight. The second day’s progress has more clarity and less confusion. The mind has processed new information and delivered it to the hands, or, perhaps the reverse is true. In any event, the work site atmosphere changes as satisfactions begin to outweigh frustrations.

Beliefs are held only as long as they’re useful and beneficial. One system will give way to the next as the new proves its worth. That’s the way of our world. It’s how we’ve got to where we’ve come, and pulls us toward where we’ll be, sooner or later.

My thanks to the stalwart participants of last weekend’s workshop at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland, Vermont. Josie, Geoff, Barry, Lee and Andrew leapt into the unknown with gusto. Tom, the ever-ready steward, answered every call with skill and humor. Carol brought it all together for us, and made it look easy.