As a research assistant for LongHouse, I wasn’t sure how building a rock wall would prepare me for a future in food media, but, transplanted in a DIY community of writers, artists, cooks, and builders, I knew that breaking stone and building a stone wall would help me get closer to the subjects I would interview and write about.
I noticed the rock walls in Rensselaerville right away on my first day. The stacks of bluestone enclose gardens and demark property lines. Laid flat, they are the sidewalk that lines the leafy Main street and as I ambled this sidewalk, I saw more rock: the slate-blue windowsill here, the blue-stone faced porch there, and over there, the stacked foundation of an 18th century house. Of all the ways the local stones appear, the rock wall is the most dramatic and, I found, also the most demanding. Which explains why I wanted to learn to build one. Doing things the hard way – unearthing stones to build sidewalks and walls – builds character and bolsters spirit, and, as several centuries of local citizenry must have discovered before me, building rock walls does both these things. Gale Della Rocco, who grew up on the farm across the road from LongHouse, certainly had.
“Sure,” she said when Molly suggested an antidote for the mass of weeds and floundering herbs adjacent to the terrace where we planned to locate a pizza oven, “we could build two raised beds out of flat rock, layer in better soil and transplant them all.”
Like me, Gayle had only recently finished her undergraduate degree. While I spent childhood summers collecting pebbles and lake-weathered glass on the shores of Lake Michigan, she and her sister combed the hilly forest around Rensselaerville for flat bluestone to build walls around her mother’s kitchen garden. She is an aspiring print-maker, I am an aspiring blogger. We discovered common ground building two flat rock raised beds. We found that we are both optimists. She, however, had better local connections.
“Bob Bolte has a quarry. We can just go over there,” she said. One day many years ago, she said, Bob went up the hill behind his home and, with hopes of finding layers of rock beneath, started digging. Today, his limestone, turtlestone, and bluestone are found throughout town. He recently built a stone memorial to honor fallen soldiers of the Vietnam War. Bob builds community. We jumped into the truck and headed up to his quarry.
Getting out of the car, I snapped photos of the flat, grey pieces of limestone spilling over the crest of the hill. Bob, camera-shy, met us there, mallet in hand. “I’ll just break apart some of these big ones and you can take away all the pieces you want.”
His mallet crashed down on a table-top sized piece, breaking the top few inches of rock layer into a mosaic of triangles. He tossed them towards us like frisbees. I picked them up, one by one, with the kind of hesitancy one takes when handling shards of broken glass. Gayle carried them like stacks of books. I put on the gloves that she offered and copied her style.
“Every rock has its place,” Gayle said as he unloaded the rock back at the farm. The largest, flattest pieces form the base of the wall. After leveling the dirt, we packed them into place. The first layer fit together almost as perfectly as the triangles of rock shattered by Bob’s mallet.
We slid smaller rocks into the empty spaces. Once we had a solid base, we laid the next layer. This time, we used the stones to bridge gaps between the stones beneath.
“I need… a large rectangular piece over here.”
“A square there, and a thin triangle here to wedge in-between these uneven ones.”
We worked on opposite ends. This is what it sounds like when two people are building a stone wall.
“It’s like fitting together pieces of a puzzle, but there’s lots of ways to solve it,” said Gale. To me, it was like finding the right chords on the piano. The keyboard has a few dozen notes to choose from, but only a handful of them sound good together when stacked into a chord. It takes some plunking around to get just the right progression. These are the things you start to think about when you’re building stone walls.
You take a lot of breaks. It is hard work. On one break, I sat looking across the street at its venerable rock walls. Many of them were built in the 1830s, just after the turnpike was built through Rennselaervile. Back then, the little town was bustling, the best markeplace for all the farms of Albany County. Then the railroad by-passed the place and it froze. Architectural development, for the most part, stopped.
Today, the town’s original Greek Revival and Colonial Gothic and Federalist homes represent the largest intact collection of such homes in the United States. It is listed on the National Historic Registry. I wondered, as the sun set on our new walls, if we’d built them strong enough to stand proudly against the snow and rain. The walls we were building were testimony to hard-scrabble-pride, a totem to a new friendship. I hoped we were building them strong enough to get a historical marker of their own.
Building a rock wall requires close interaction with your world in the same way that writing about food requires you to get up close and personal with your subject. At LongHouse, I learned that a powerful food story is one told from the heart and the gut – the kind of story telling I rarely accessed in the cerebral, academic world of food writing and research that I come from. As food writers, bloggers, and photographers emphasized at LongHouse, good food stories come from the stomach’s growl, the gut’s instinct to add some more flour here and a splash of water there, and the hand and the heart’s sense of what makes a good tortilla. The recipe for building a stone wall is the same recipe for cooking a good meal or writing a good food story: take hold of your materials and transform them using intuition, sensation, imagination, and desire into a local specialty. Hands in the dirt, packing it down, you pick up the first stone and begin.