Stone wall revival

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(Host) Dry stone walling is the art of building out of stone – without mortar or cement. It’s a skill New England’s early settlers knew well. The region is crisscrossed with old dry stone walls crumbling from neglect.

But interest in the craft is reviving, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Hammering sounds)
(Keese) On a green hill in the state’s southeast corner, Dan Snow is chipping stone for a fire pit. For nearly 30 years, Snow has worked as a dry stone waller. He’s built hundreds of walls, and foundations for outbuildings. And today he’s working on a more artistic project.

(Snow) “This is a far more delicate process than most of the wall things I do.”

(Keese) The fire pit he’s just finishing is a deep bowl. The stones radiate up and out from the center to form a curved edge where people can sit and watch the flames. He’s working on the top layer now. He chips away at each stone as he fits it in, to create a uniform sitting surface.

(Snow) “I find a stone that’s a little bigger than what I need and then I can mark it and trim it.”

(Keese) Snow has worked for this property owner before. His neat walls trace the contours of the hill, leveling out slopes into terraced gardens. There are also stones steps, little grottoes, and a monolithic man-made waterfall. Snow says most clients start with something useful, like a retaining wall.

(Snow) “And then they go, ‘Gosh I like stone.’ And maybe the next project isn’t so much a practical use but for the beauty of stone, as an enhancement.”

(Keese) Snow’s a Brattleboro native. He studied industrial design at a New York City art school. As a stone worker, he’s mostly self-taught. He says he learned a lot from the remnants of walls left behind by Vermont’s early settlers. Those walls were built to clear the fields and protect crops from livestock. Many also show a lot of skill. To Snow, a well-built wall is always beautiful.

(Snow) “It’s possible to see what was done right, even though you may only be seeing two or three courses that are left. Below those visible courses quite often there’s two or three more courses that have sunk.”

(Keese) Snow noticed that in the best walls, the stones were staggered to avoid long vertical openings in the face. He noticed that the walls that last are wider at the bottom than the top. He learned the art of packing a wall’s interior, or heart, with smaller stones so it won’t slump in the center.

He also learned that for stability, the longest part of a stone should run through the wall. That’s a hard one for most folks, he says.

(Snow) “They look at stone and they think, ‘Oh! Look at that big beautiful face and they try and use the largest area exposed. And that immediately runs them into trouble because they’re sacrificing the strength that you find by placing most of the stone into the wall for the appearance of a large stone.”

(Keese) Snow didn’t realize he was practicing the four principles of dry stone walling until he traveled to Britain in the 1980s. That was when he discovered the Dry Stone Walling Association, the organization dedicated to upholding those principals.

In the UK, stone walls are still important for protecting cropland. The Dry Stone Walling Association has a testing process to assure that people who maintain the walls have mastered the best techniques. They also hold walling workshops and competitions. Two years ago Snow was certified by the Association as a master craftsman. Earlier this year, he founded a chapter of the Dry Stone Walling Association in Vermont. The group has about a dozen members.

Snow has also written a book, “In the Company of Stone,” illustrated by photographer Peter Mauss. The response he’s received has made him realize that all kinds of people are interested in working with stone.

(Snow) “It’s the most basic crafts there is. It’s probably the oldest one, because there’s always been stone, but it’s also demanding of one’s patience. It takes time with the material to recognize how it could work for you.”

(Keese) Snow envisions the Brattleboro area as a center where wallers and would-be wallers from all over the country could practice and be tested. He has his eyes on an island in the middle of the Connecticut River – a former park that’s been doing service as a bridge abutment – as a place where that might happen.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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