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November 27, 2013

Much to love about walls

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The Daily Star

---- — Robert Frost starts his poem “Mending Wall” with this observation: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” 

Which is true. But the forces of nature, and the occasional desecrations by humans aside, there is much to love about a wall. Walls are useful, both for practical, aesthetic, and psychological reasons. Wall building, both visible and invisible, is integral to getting through time, both as individuals and members of social groups. 

I started having these thoughts while watching “Rivers and Tides,” a documentary film about the work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy. It was one of many films shown as part of Otsego 2000’s recent Glimmerglass Film Days program, a marvelous weekend of films and related activities whose focus was our relationship with the earth and our obligations regarding its health and sustainability.

In 2011 I attended my 50th high school reunion at the Storm King School, a small private boarding school just up the road a few miles from the Storm King Art Center. Several of my classmates and I decided to skip the afternoon’s scheduled events. Instead we headed for the art center where we spent several hours wandering about swapping reminiscences while admiring the sculptures that dot its spacious grounds. It was there that I first encountered Andy Goldsworthy’s stonewall. I remember being mesmerized by its sinewy vitality, by the extent to which it expressed motion in stillness. It meanders so seemingly effortlessly up and down hills, through water, and around trees and other obstacles that it meets as if they to were part and parcel of its journey through time and space. 

There is a Greek notion, the Ekphrastic Principle, that refers to the ability of things to be still and in motion at the same time. Goldsworthy’s wall expresses that same quality. It moves and is stationary. It is animate and inanimate. It is solid and fluid – and there is nothing contradictory or ironic about that. Watching the film’s presentation of the wall transported me back to that day in 2011 when I followed its rhythmic contours, ran my hands across its textured surfaces, and let it draw me along without caring at all where it might lead me. If an artwork can do that it has achieved something very profound.

I have dabbled with some stonework up here on the hill. Quite some time ago two boys from the village helped me “harvest” stone from an old well back in the woods behind our house. We had a great time rifling through the rubble of stone looking for appropriate candidates. Eventually, we hauled out enough to build a two-tiered garden down by the barn. So far it as stood the test of time. I had read a few books by accomplished stonemasons. I took one principle to heart: one on two, two on one. It is a necessary balancing act that assures the integrity of the wall. Finding the proper balance among things is not limited to stone walls.

A few years later I started collecting stone for a seventy-foot long, curved wall at the base of the bank behind our house. I do not buy stone. Too cheap. Besides, if I did, I would have no excuse to prolong what is a very rewarding activity. Why rush completing something that provides one with so much pleasure? Next to being part of the crew that built our house, stonework is among the most spiritually uplifting things I have ever done. One run of the wall is finished. The last run is a work in progress. At present it tapers down to about a foot at its lowest level. Some friends have suggested I leave it as is. I could, but that would not synch with my original conception of the project. Over time I have collected small batches of stone, especially while walking our back hill – and when working logs for firewood. Scattered about the woods are min- cairns waiting to be collected up and transported to the wall. On occasion I will discover a nice big flat stone, tuck it up under my arm, and walk down the hill to the wall and place it in just the right spot. It is as if it were waiting up there to be found. Mostly, I end up with small piles that find there way into the wall when the spirit moves me.

The beauty of stonework is its concreteness. In a time when our lives are so often cluttered by fleeting intangibles, having something tangible to call one’s own is an existential gift. One need not be a talented artist to make stuff. Standing back and looking at something you have built, that is a monument to your effort – well, that is a beautiful thing.