Stone by Stone

Sharon Kennedy | Shutterstock

When you’re rebuilding an old rock wall, it’s not just the backaches that endure.

By Jib Fowles

The handsome stonewall that stands in front of our old house on Wiscasset’s busy Federal Street suddenly fell over last winter. One day, it was straight and true, and the next it was a jumbled heap.

The culprits seem to have been those cute little chipmunks we had spotted from time to time. They had burrowed invisibly and extensively beneath the stone, tunneling through the wall’s dirt foundation, carving underground chambers for their frolicsome colony. Enough of this rodent excavation and the wall’s own weight had simply brought it down.

What to do? My wife and I stood in mute astonishment before our crumbled wall. Then, out of the blue, my wife turned to me and said, “Why don’t you rebuild it?” Emphasis on you. And from that simple question, a great endeavor took shape.

At first glance, I don’t appear a suitable candidate to fix this type of damage. Not only am I in my 70s, I have never done this sort of work before. Tentatively, I tried hefting one of the stones. The weight was dissuading.

But the more I pondered my wife’s question in the days that followed, the more I thought, “Why not? Why shouldn’t I rebuild it?” So over several spring weeks, I read everything I could find about building walls. I already owned most of the few simple tools I would need for the job. The one exception was a 6-foot pry bar, and once I had purchased that, I was armed and semi-dangerous.

With my tools and my book-learning in place, I suddenly felt qualified to begin speaking to my wife as if I were a master mason. “Gravity is both the creator and the destroyer of stone walls,” I intoned. She nodded. “Walls have to be level,” I said sagely. More nodding. Of course, not a bit of work had been done yet, and despite my enlightened observations, I’m sure she was beginning to wonder about my ability.

She wasn’t alone. On my first day at work, in mid-May, a man walked up and gave me his business card. He was a stonemason, he said, and he did this kind of work all the time. The next day brought another mason and another card. Word had apparently gotten out among the stonework community, and my project was clearly seen as a job in waiting.

A few days in, I was visited by still a third mason. After some chitchat, he asked, “How old are you, anyway?”

“Seventy-three,” I answered.

Huh,” he said. “Aren’t you a little old for this kind of work?

It was an offhand observation that goaded me onward.

My only hope for success, I thought, lay in pacing myself. As a result, I never worked more than an hour or two a day. But day after day, I was out there, on the job, outfitted in my steel-toed boots, leather gloves, grubby work clothes, and a few sticky layers of bug spray.

My first task was to tear down what remained of the old wall. In so doing, I uncovered many of those twisting, subversive chipmunk burrows; these I mercilessly filled in with cement. Next, I put down a thick layer of lime, thinking this would make my new wall’s foundation even less appealing to varmints. Two months went by as I dismantled, leveled, limed, and graveled. Still not a stone had been laid. Here and there, I caught my wife raising her eyebrow.

“It’s all in the preparation,” I told her, hoping to stem her doubts.

Then, slowly, at the rate of four or five stones per day, the new wall began to rise. By turns, I worked on the front face, the back face, and the rubble in between. Smaller stones I could lift into place, being careful not to twist as I did so. Mid-sized ones I tipped into a two-wheeled garden cart and wheeled them where I needed them. The largest stones, some weighing hundreds of pounds, I slid on a board that I’d greased with silicon spray. Over another two months, I made slow and steady progress.

Then, as the wall neared completion, I started getting compliments from passersby. Rubberneckers hailed me from vehicles, from bicycles, from the sidewalk on the far side of the road, shouting words of approval. Mainers seem to be quite invested in their neighbors’ stone walls, and they are not afraid to show it.

On the bright September day that I finally finished the job, I led my wife on a walk around the wall so she could inspect it from all sides. “Good work,” she finally pronounced. “Much tighter than before.” This was praise I was looking for.

At my age, it’s hard to avoid thinking from time to time about the transitory nature of human life. My rebuilt wall represents my rebuffing of such thoughts, my offer of something that will endure.

Unless, of course, the chipmunks return.


Jib Fowles, PhD, a retired college professor, lives in Wiscasset. He is the author of seven books and some 70 articles, which have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.