Could Amherst Island be any more enchanting than it is in the fall?
Overlooked by the Cyclopean presence of a wind turbine, a solitary deer raises its head and takes my measure in the diffuse golden light of an early morning. I’m apparently harmless, and it returns to its herbs and grasses.
The air is nippy. I’m unaccustomed to the wind and the proximity of the River* next to the property where I will be outside all weekend. I am fascinated by the many moods of my surroundings, as whitecaps roll under ever-changing skies, going from bluebird to gunmetal and back again.
Hawks are about, perhaps recent arrivals from the colder north, but I’m part of a different sort of migration — an annual influx of Dry Stone Wallers. Dry Stone Wallers are a somewhat peculiar subspecies of human, who still pile one rock upon another to build things without mortar.
Over three days in September, a group of volunteers comprising professional masons, landscapers, and enthusiastic newbies like me assembled in the southwest corner of Amherst Island to tear down and rebuild a sagging section of stone wall built by ancestors of the McMullen family.
We began by hand-bombing every stone into a row or a pile, depending on its shape and purpose. Next, the soil was raked, and a new foundation of large stones set in place. Next, a “cheek end” was built where the wall section ends, and we each took a section. facing each other along the wall, and placing “one stone over two, two over one,” we built up each “course” or layer until we reached the appropriate height as measured on a “batter frame.” A finishing layer of stabilizing “coping stones” was placed on top and the wall that I could not imagine being reassembled so quickly from all those parts was ready to withstand another hundred or more years of the ravages of time.
It was my fifth workshop with Dry Stone Canada. I joined out of curiosity, after seeing one of their events in the schedule for the Stewart Park Festival in Perth, some years ago. It seemed a “why not” next step to being a long-time site construction volunteer at another folk festival.
A certain degree of physical labour I expected. What surprised me was all the feelings I had about it. It’s not possible to tear apart an historic artifact without being drawn into the stories of those who built it. And by recreating this artifact with others, I became part of a new story. My story then connects to all of the stories of everyone who has ever built a stone wall with their hands, back to the dawn of the Age of Man. Suddenly history has, for me, become tangible and deeply moving.
Also stirring for me is the experience of the “social mortar” created through wall-building. I met folks from around Ontario, Quebec, New York, Vermont, and Connecticut. One young man hitch-hiked from his trail-building job in the Rockies. Another joined us from Galway, on exchange with the Dry Stone Walling Association of Ireland. Many seemed to know each other. Everyone was interested in everyone else. The walling world, it seems, is both vast and tight with bonds of friendship and respect.
To the tattoo of constant hammering, stories are currency. People are meeting for the first time, catching up, sharing interests, offering tips, and making connections. Someone gives an impromptu and highly comedic mini-workshop on the geology of the stones we’re working with and what that means for shaping them. Musicians play while we work; passersby stop to watch. A groaning board of food is prepared and served by volunteers from the Island. Most wallers are billeted with local residents. Beer is free, complements of a sponsor. More music around the fire later. And so on.
Monday comes, and we head for the ferry. We’ve created a wall that would add value to any property for a long time to come. The wall has, in turn, given us an experience of community whose value cannot be measured.
[Note: Amherst Island is in Lake Ontario, about 10 km west of Kingston, ON.]
By Dianne Wallen
Dianne Wallen is a freelance writer from Ottawa. She writes that she discovered dry stone walling in 2019 and has enjoyed these outings very much since then.
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