Duck Soup: Everybody Must Get Stones

I was working in the garden yesterday, building a stone wall. Our garden is on a hillside and in order to retain enough soil to sustain herbs and flowers we have constructed terraced beds. At first we used logs or slabs from a sawmill, but over the past twelve years we have slowly replaced the rotting wood with stone. Stone has this advantage over wood: it turns itself into dirt at a more gradual pace. Stone comes with a disadvantage too. It is very dense and most of the loose ones I have found are way downhill from the garden. Carrying lots of heavy objects uphill is the sort of project that can give you pause for thought. It does me, anyway. And yesterday it turned my thoughts to permanence. How long is long? How long is long enough?In this garden, wood has proven itself too volatile for my purpose. Among the native trees hereabouts, locust is the least prone to decay, but after a decade half buried in damp soil even locust is rotting. The oak, maple and poplar have long since turned to humus.Stone then. But what manner of stone wall will serve? The quick and dirty way to build a bed is to set large flat rocks vertically into the ground, like the decorations along the spine of a stegosaurus. I know from personal experiment that such a border built with flagstones about three feet long, with half their length buried, will last six or eight years before gravity and erosion tip them far enough that they need straightening. Then soil must be dug from behind, the flags tipped back, and dirt tamped in front. Setting the stones in concrete can slow, but not stop the tumbling process.A little more stable border can be built by leveling the ground and stacking the rock in courses. Overlapped joints, and a little care in choice of shapes will make the wall more or less durable. A deeper and more precisely level initial excavation will result in a more permanent wall. A layer of gravel beneath the first course will provide drainage and protect against frost heaves for decades, perhaps a century or more. And yet, this is only a garden, with hundreds of feet of stone wall already built and hundreds more to come. How long is long enough?The density of stone lets us imagine permanence. We set headstones on graves that the dead will not be forgotten, and are admonished to remember commandments carved in stone. We marvel at statues on Easter Island or the pillars of Stonehenge because they were hauled so very far from their quarries with primitive tools and manual labor. Stones, particularly big ones, do not go gently. Gibraltar speaks an eternal tongue. Alcatraz means a long time gone. Rock of Ages, rock my soul.In England, in 120 A.D., the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a stone wall meant to last pretty much forever. My Scottish ancestors had proved unruly and unwilling to join the empire, so Hadrian decided to simply divide the island of Britain in two. Nothing like a little slave labor to cut a big job down to size, and Hadrian's Wall outlasted the Roman Empire four times over. Parts of it still stand, though much of the stone has been borrowed for newer buildings. The Egyptian pyramids were stripped in a like manner, and doubtless the Great Wall in China will one day meet a similar fate. One man's monument is another man's quarry.But I am not building monuments here, just a garden. I excavate only to a shovel's depth. It is a convenient measure, and seems sufficient. It would be nice to think this wall will last as long as I desire to sow here and reap, that it won't want rebuilding when I am eighty if I and it still share this space. When one day the sour cherry is fallen, the irises and roses gone to weeds and the weeds to trees, the house rotted and the tin roof turned to rust, this place may be another person's quarry.Perhaps the hands that touch these stones then will wonder who set them so, long, long ago. And perhaps that mind will consider again what is long, and what is long enough.

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