In 1968 and 1969 I was twenty-four twenty-five commuting daily from Stone and High Falls New York north on State Route 209 (The Old Mine Road) to a turn off for Saugerties further north where I worked as a scheduler for the manufacturing corporation Ferroxcube.
Before I leaving Stone Ridge I’d pass a house on the north side on the hamlet just west of the road. Modern red brick picked out with colonial trim, half-moon driveway in from 209, nicely landscaped nice house. But where the professionally installed lawn met the road it was a bit ragged.
One summer I passed a young man 18-19? obviously a son of the people in house landscaping that fifty foot stretch between the driveway entrance and exit. He worked on it all summer long building a very neat dry laid stone wall with stone gathered from the woods about two feet (maybe a little more) high and then filling in with soil behind it so that it matched the height of the flat lawn. He worked on it I guess for a couple of hours first thing in the morning and I followed his progress avidly. He had a mason’s string stretched so that the wall would be straight and exactly level and he fuss, fuss and fuss over getting exactly the right rock in exactly the right place tapping them into place with the back handle of a cement trowel. And the result was a little landscaping jewel.
Flash forward over forty years. I’m back in Stone Ridge and occasionally driving the same route. One day I see a for sale sign of the house and it was sad even though I never knew those people.
Then a couple of weeks later I’m passing the house again and have to stop in front because there a tangle of cars and pick-ups lining up to enter the drive. Out front is a huge sign saying Estate Sale obviously it had been sold and now the contents were being auctioned off. Doubly sad I guess but what drew my attention was a heavy set man in a suit, a few years younger than I standing frozen at one end of the drive staring at the stone wall in front. Or what had been the stone wall because it had tumbled to the point where there was barely one rock sitting straight on another.
And I knew. That man was the boy building the wall in the nineteen sixties and he was lost in the memory of that summer. Now his parents were gone, the house he grew up in was gone, the furniture and things he grew up among were going and the one imprint he should have left behind, that wall, was only a memory now too.
I know a lot about stone walls, all learned since that summer I watched him and I’ve put up a couple of spectacular ones myself. Foundation it well say in tamped down wet item number four stone, two over one that is don’t let the joint between two dry laid rocks continue more than one course, big ones on bottom small ones on top, batten the wall i.e.; make it slight narrower the higher it is – not much, not enough that your eye can see but enough than gravity knows it’s there and most important of all use capstones of good weight to hold the stone down and shed the rainwater. That’s the big trick, no water inside and the thing will stay there for centuries if undisturbed.
But that long ago boy had never capped his wall. Maybe he didn’t know anybody who could tell him how important it was. Maybe he doesn’t understand to this day why his wall fell. Because when water gets in between stones and freezes it pushes with tremendous force, up, down and out and slowly as year follows year your pretty wall will fall to the ground.
There’s a life lesson there.