If you have gone down East Irvin Avenue at any time over the past few months, you probably noticed the rather large pile of stones occupying the driveway at 618 E. Irvin and wondered what was up. If you passed by often, you saw that pile gradually be transformed into a beautiful new retaining wall by homeowner Mike Joseph. “Hearts in the Highlands” is delighted to share Mike’s thoughts on the project.
by Mike Joseph
The winter freeze and the coming spring thaw may help determine how long the dry stone wall we put up this year will stand. We built the retaining wall without mortar in hopes that friction and gravity alone would keep the stones in place.
The idea is that the arrangement of stones so that they support one another will make the wall flexible and durable in a way that relying on the strength of fragile and rigid mortar may not. With a lot of stones all packed tightly together, the idea goes, movement among them is possible but ever so slight.
The stones themselves, in an earlier life, formed the sandstone foundation of a barn. So the stones already had been tested in holding up a big building full of livestock, farm equipment, and other materials before we recycled them into a structure to hold back an embankment along an East Irvin Avenue property line.
Building the wall took much longer than we’d expected. After we bought the stones from a Howard landscaper, and after the landscaper unloaded them onto our driveway in April, it took us until October to say that the long wall was pretty much done.
We spent most of that time using a pick and shovel to dig a 70-foot-long foundation trench. We dug it by hand to reduce expenses and to make sure we avoided a newly installed natural gas pipe that runs parallel to the wall and only inches away.
That excavation cut through the topsoil and into the clay subsoil for a base whose heavy density we hope will reduce the impact of freeze-thaw settling on the stacked stones above. In a few places in the foundation trench, we came across limestone boulders so massive that we had to leave them be and work around them. We anxiously await what we’ll see come Spring.
Before we got our hands on the stones, most of the hardest work on them had already been done by what surely must have been a big community of stone masons who shaped each individual piece.
When we first came across the stones in a big pile in Howard, we were struck by their heft and by the hammer and chisel work from long ago that hand-carved the front of each stone. The heft would help keep them in place, and the rock face would make them look good. The sculpting left by the hammer and chisel heightens the natural beauty of the stones. Sunlight plays on these distinct tooth marks of the rock face, and rain makes them glisten.
The Stone Trust in Dummerstown, Vermont, has an excellent website that sets forth five basic rules of dry stone walling: Set face stones into the wall lengthwise, as you would stack firewood; pack unseen stones, or hearting, tightly behind the face stones; make sure each face stone crosses the joint where two stones below it meet; keep each stone level; and keep the overall face of the wall straight.
We found that following these rules to a tittle was easier said than done. We tried to compensate for our lack of experience by making sure that, when we did have to break a rule, we did so with stones that had comparatively little load depending on them.
In addition to pick, shovel, hammer and chisel, the most useful tools were a six-foot steel pry bar and a sturdy hand truck. Both had been fairly idle in our garage for years, but their capacity for leveraging a lot of weight finally came in handy.
We spent long days with the hand truck, pry bar and elbow grease to set our biggest stones, some probably 800 pounds or more. A note of caution is in order here. We learned the hard way that when using a hand truck to move such loads, leverage can work in two ways. At one point, the hand truck freighted with a stone three times our weight catapulted us headlong, luckily onto a cushion of soil rather than a pile of stones inches away. We got to our feet feeling ever so fortunate and thinking that a bicycle helmet and a little patience also would have come in handy.
We did work alone throughout the spring, summer and fall, but not for lack of offered assistance. The wall rises right next to the public sidewalk, and neighbors passing by generously and very kindly asked to help. And they actually did help in a way they may not have realized. Their interest and encouragement — and their very good questions — gave us greater incentive to try to turn what was a weedy and formless embankment into a better look.
And so we now wait for Spring to plant Irish moss or succulent sedum or both in the wall, into soil packed in the joints between the stones. But more important, springtime will tell us how well the structure has withstood its first winter test.
From one of the many video documentaries we studied, we remember the image of a small group of wallers in Slovenia, standing atop their finished work and consecrating it with a bottle of wine and a small but leafy branch from tree.
The little drama seems to pay respect to the ultimate say of nature in human undertakings. As one of the wallers splashes wine three times onto the wall, another wields the tree branch like a switch. He swings it into each splash of wine as if to drive it into the very veins of the stone. And as he does so, he calls out (in translation) an earnest appeal:
“May it stand!” he says. “May it hold! And may it last.”
Mike Joseph is a Vietnam War veteran, a retired newspaper man, and a former adjunct professor at Penn State. He and his spouse, Wenyi, have lived on East Irvin Avenue for 17 years.