All you need is a strong back and a weak mind.”
— A stonemasons’ saying
As Interstate 90 heads east out of Issaquah and winds up among the flanks of the ancient Issaquah Alps, plateauing just before it plunges down into the Raging River Valley, it passes the little town of Preston and offers motorists an exit there. Off to the left, on the outskirts of the town, there is what I can only call a rockyard. It’s not a quarry, but almost for as long as I can remember I have remarked the presence there of massive boulders and huge pallets of stone. This is the Marenakos Rock Center.
Back in September I spent a wonderful day at this rock yard and on that day I lifted, by my conservative calculation, a ton and a half of stone, mostly Colorado sandstone, with my bare hands. I’m about to tell you how such a thing came about, so settle in.
Ever since I wrote that post about my great-grandfather’s stonemasonry I haven’t been able to get stone walls off my mind. I reread Cormac McCarthy’s play The Stonemason, a book that has occupied a treasured spot on my shelf for years. In it the old character of the title passes down such pearls as “The keystone that locks the arch is pressed in place by the thumb of God” and “Stone ain’t so heavy as the wrath of a fool”, and “Nothing is ever finally arrived at. The journeyman becomes a master when he masters the journeyman’s trade.”
I kept thinking how stonework is so opposite to my own work as a technical writer and marketing copywriter, and how liberating it would be to be engaged in work that justifies itself, without any argument or explanation. In writing on behalf of a software company I mostly write things that we hope are true or that we wish were true or we want people to believe are true or at least to understand in a certain way. Not lies, certainly, but there is very little in what I do that has a truth unto itself, external to me or the company, and my work is riddled with the shame of the asterisk. Good stonework seems to be all about the truth, because it’s all about gravity and gravity is a hard truth. All stones in a well-built wall are always falling straight down, each falling on the ones directly beneath it, forever. The desire of each stone to fall toward the center of the earth that hatched it is what makes it possible to build stone walls. Listen to this wonderful passage from McCarthy’s play:
The reason the stonemason’s trade remains esoteric above all others is that the foundation and the hearth are the soul of human society and it is that soul that the false mason threatens.
It’s not the mortar that holds the work together. What holds the stone trues the wall as well and I’ve seen him check his fourfoot wooden level with a plumb bob and then break the level over the wall and call for a new one. Not in anger, but only to safeguard the true. To safeguard it everywhere. He says that to a man who’s never laid a stone that there’s nothing you can tell him. Even the truth would be wrong.”
One day shortly after Emilia was born when Mara needed to be outside and get some of her wiggles out, I asked her if she’d accompany me on a search for a wall I thought I’d seen up near Meridian Park. If she would indulge me long enough to sniff out the stonework I wanted to look at, then we could spend some time at the playground before heading back to the house for dinner.
I’m not sure we found the wall I remembered seeing several years ago, which I had thought faced west, but we found a south-facing house with a beautiful stone wall retaining the yard at the sidewalk. It was a mortared wall with artistically placed stones, some of them sticking out or recessed to form ledges or nooks for a gardener’s coffee cup or a candle, some even forming comfy little benches near the stairs. Some of the stones in the wall were a light pastel green. We ascended to the porch, Mara and I, and we knocked. Over the barking of what turned out to be a friendly dog, the lady who answered the door told me that yes, she knew who had built the wall. His name was Michael Knapp, he was a great guy, he was a third-generation stonemason, and he had died last year.
A bolt of disappointment shot through me. In the back of my mind, I’d been fantasizing about approaching such a person and asking them to let me hang out and help, learn something of the trade. Not in a true apprenticeship — how could I afford to do that? — but just informally, maybe on weekends sometimes. The woman said Mr. Knapp was a character, that he would sometimes come to work in a Cat-in-the-Hat hat. She said he had helpers, but she didn’t know if he had trained anyone. She was under the impression, and I didn’t disabuse her of it, that I was looking for someone to build a wall for me. She remembered that Mr. Knapp’s wife was very friendly but didn’t have their contact info any more. While we talked, Mara petted the barking dog, whose name was Rusty, and a quieter, older one who had lived most of her life with only three legs. The woman was very happy about the greenish-blue stones in the wall, which she said were an uncommon stone called fuchsite. The woman told me where in the neighborhood I could find other walls built by Mr. Knapp, and in the next week Mara and I visited several of them. Each was a little different from the last and all were beautiful.
I still hoped to find a real — and living — stonemason, not just someone slopping stones or bricks together but someone who appreciated the work for the same reasons I did, even if they were not particularly articulate about it. I wanted to learn from a master, some hardbitten and grouchy old guy who would speak little and purposefully, and teach me how to lay up stone. I did a little scratching around online trying to discover other stonemasons in this area and eventually connected with a drystone apprentice up north in Bellingham who told me that if I really wanted to meet people working in stone I should not miss Stonefest 2010. Stonefest is an annual week-long gathering of people mad about stone. Building with it, shaping it, writing in it. It is as though the dwarves of Moria come together to the Marenakos Rock Center from all around the U.S. and even across the oceans to share their knowledge about methods and tools, their ideas for projects, and their passion for rock. Every year there is a large construction project that all attendees can participate in, overseen by experts.
I was not able to take a whole week off, but it was possible to register for just a day, so I signed up and paid $150 for the privelege of joining the effort of some forty or fifty other people in constructing a traditional Irish clochán. A clochán, accent on the second syllable, is a beehive structure built without mortar in what is called the drystone or drystack method, with barely enough space inside for one person to turn around in and three or four tiny slits to admit some light, and a door as small as an igloo’s. Ascetic monks built them on isolated islands off the coast of Ireland in order to sit in them and contemplate the nature of God and subsist on berries, sips of rainwanter and the occasional lentil. The originals have stood for centuries because, as I said before, every stone is placed so that it is perpetually falling onto the stone directly below it, and if something is built of stone in this way, it will be there several thousand years later. Patrick McAfee and his son Brian, stonemasons from Ireland and authorities in ancient drystack methods, were to manage the project, which would be built onsite — by us — in the Marenakos yard.
The design for the clochán we would build was adapted for construction in five days by a mob of people who are more inclined to do stuff than to listen closely to instructions about how to do stuff, in other words, construction workers, landscapers, and stonemasons. There were one or two like me, people who were interested in stone as nonprofessionals, or who were branching out from construction or landscaping into masonry, and there were artists acquainting themselves with the engraver’s craft and sculptors learning stone sculpture. But I thnk I was the only desk pilot, the only spanking tyro, the only person from another world who knew absolutely nothing about any of these lithic arts.
Wednesday morning when I arrived with my protective eyewear and my heavy gloves, the clochán was more than waist high. I had seen it Monday when I had dashed out to Preston after work to participate in the opening day orientation and slideshow. That evening it was not even supposed to be started, but the attendees couldn’t help themselves; they had laid the first course of large granite (I think) stones in a circle, with an interruption for a doorway made of three large blocks — two on edge and one spanning their tops, like a dolmen — and now the courses of smaller, flat sandstone blocks were starting to slope inward in accordance with markings on a trammel, a central swinging wooden gauge used to make sure the structure had the correct shape and curve to it.
Pretty instantly I felt small and alone and out of place. Many of these men and women have known each other for years, it was clear. They knew stone — seemed, all, instinctively to know what to do. They scrambled purposefully around the beehive structure like the occupants of its namesake, buzzing with congenial conversation, “off-color” jokes, and periodic consultation about the next course of stones. The feelings I had were shockingly similar to those I felt on any given day of high school.
But I had been expecting those feelings. As the event approached I had begun to feel dread, like maybe I shouldn’t attend. I wouldn’t know anyone. I would be ignorant (again, so often in my life, a learner). I might get injured. I pushed through the feelings, reminding myself that this was something that I was really interested in and an opportunity I was paying for. It was immediately evident that the event was not going to be organized in a way that would ensure everyone’s inclusion. The nature of the type of person chiefly drawn to this event prohibited any such coddling social structure. I could see that if I was going to get anything out of the day, I would have to take a swan dive into the midst of the action. And this became my strategy: start doing something; if it’s wrong, someone will surely tell me, and then I will have learned a thing. And this is exactly what happened.
Every endeavor on earth that involves more than one person has what is usually referred to as a “shit-job”, pardon my Gaelic; a job no one really wants to do, a job for beginners. I am as familiar with this role as anyone under the sun, I think, because of the number of times in my life I have started from scratch. In the case of drystack wallbuilding, the job that constantly needs doing is adding “hearting” — small stones or fragments of stones — to the spaces between the inner and outer courses as the wall goes up. Without hearting, the walls would be hollow and the longer stones would be unsupported, and the wall would eventually shift and the structure would fall. The hearting is really and truly the heart of the wall, and while everyone acknowledges this, most people would rather lay the courses, choose and set the stones, than scrape around the perimeter of the jobsite like squirrels, collecting shards of rock in a bucket to be used for hearting.
I gladly started on hearting duty. It got me busy right away, it reminded me to be humble, and in fact there was something satisfying about it. The chips and chunks that fall from the stones that the mason dresses with his hammer become the hearting that fills the wall, so that there is this elegant economy and waste is avoided. Ideally, rather than having a site littered with stone fragments at the end of the job, the area around the work is spotless. The wall has made a home in its heart for its own waste products.
A big guy named Dan, who has his own construction and landscape business in Centralia, seemed to have taken charge of one section of the wall and started asking me to hand him this or that stone to try fitting, or asking me in particular if I could find one that was about four fingers thick and somewhat triangular. I left off collecting and fitting the hearting — which itself has a better way and a sloppy way of being done if you care to learn — and began hunting stones for Dan, and pretty soon he had shifted half his energy to helping the McAfees lift the window blocks into place, which left me in charge of Dan’s section of wall. I asked a gregarious fellow named Chad how to read the trammel, and he was happy to explain it to me. Then at some point, I realized I had become part of the hive mind. I knew what to do. When the next window blocks were being laid, I was there to help shim them. I could foresee what stone was going to help the course and which stone might seem to answer a certain spot but would cause trouble later. I paid attention when Patrick or Brian came around and coached about the exterior angle of the stones, and I pulled down work I had done, or that others near me had done, and did it better. I called for hearting, or fetched a bucketful and fitted it myself. I made the comment that shouldn’t there be another step here (a stone sticking out from the wall so that we could later stand on the steps and continue working on the higher parts of the structure), and darned if I wasn’t right.
I was covered with a fine orange sandstone dust. At lunch, I sat next to Dan and it happened that Patrick and Brian McAfee both joined us across the table, so I was able to benefit from their conversation. Patrick was naturally quiet, reflective, and worried that with so many people working on the clochán it was impossible to keep it going the way it should. He feared that at the rate we were going we wouldn’t finish by the time he had to fly back to Ireland on Sunday. If we finished, the quality would be low. He was okay with that, but you could tell that he had a deep love of doing things the right way.
Patrick was the kind of stonemason I would want to learn from. I gleaned what I could whenever he circled the structure to inspect and give tips, and I considered the day a personal success. I had worked right through an afternoon rainstorm that sent many scampering for their rain gear but which Dan and I and the others in our corner regarded as refreshing relief from the punishing sun that had beat on us at midday. We had raised the wall about three feet and installed four sets of windows. A few of us were still at it when someone came out from the store and said “It’s beer o’clock guys. Call it a day.”
I felt a deeply satisfying exhaustion in my bones as I went around shaking hands with and saying goodbyes to the people I’d worked with, thanking many for little tips they’d given me. I told Patrick that I would not be back the next day but that I’d enjoyed learning from him. It meant the world to me when he said in his lyrical accent, “Tanks for your efforts. You were quick on the uptake, I noticed.”
Remember in the Roop’s Mill post, when I wondered if anything I’ve ever done will outlast the collective memory? Well, there’s a beehive-shaped structure up in the Issaquah Alps that I expect will still be there a couple thousand years from now, and I had a hand in that. Two hands, in fact. My own two hands.