Thank you to students Jason Tonna and Kaylee Tattrie from Pacific Horticulture College for writing this blog post. Watch our blog for monthly student posts during the year!

Christopher Barclay came to the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific to teach a 2 day introductory course on dry stone walling. After he left, we realized that not only had we learned about constructing beautiful stone structures without the use of mortar or concrete, but also several underlying lessons on how to better live our lives.

We will be the first to admit that when we saw that we had an upcoming guest speaker regarding dry stone walling, we thought that the topic may be a little, dry (pun definitely intended). Christopher introduced himself and began detailing what had brought him into this trade. He, like many of us, started work in an office. Very quickly though, he realized the error of his ways. At 23, he left the office job and began calling around to find masons who needed labourers. The rest as they say, is history.

Christopher then detailed travelling the world, working on various stone projects with brilliant and artistic minds. He talked of simple building methods and techniques that created striking monuments to human ingenuity. They were structurally sound, simple and ageless. We were mostly surprised to learn that these techniques had been around for thousands of years. Before computers, the internet and modern day technologies. Dry stone walling was suddenly more than just, building a wall. It was an art form, a legacy, a philosophical vehicle.

After the introduction, the class convened where the wall was to be built. An existing half-wall already stood. It was small, unfinished and misshapen. Then, together as a class, we were shown how to deconstruct the wall and sort the stones in the process. It was an exercise in efficiency and organization. Big stones were placed close by for the base of the wall. Medium stones moved out of the way for the upper levels later, and smaller stones (“hearting”) were placed just behind us. Our goal for day 1 was to clear the way for a solid foundation. We talked, asked questions and sorted stones together. Some of us also took shovels and began to remove loose gravel. We completed the day with a blank canvass, ready to start the building.

When our class returned for the second day, Christopher had already finished digging out the foundation. He leveled the ground so that the wall could have a strong base to start with. He did this by creating 3 different levels in the clay for the length of the wall. They were like the steps in a stair case. At each end of the foundation, wooden structures called “Batter boards” were put up on either side. They consisted of simple wood forms tapering in a ½” every foot up. These structures were to help secure the base rocks of the wall as we built it up. We also used string lines, to keep the base stones even. The strings ran from one batter board to the other and were adjusted vertically as the structure grew taller. Now that the foundation and guide lines were in place, we could begin to build the wall!

The first course of rocks went in. We selected the closest, biggest rocks to start. They formed the base. We were careful to make sure the top slopes of the stones were facing inwards toward the centre of wall. This was for structural support. Christopher reiterated that this was one area where a common mistakes in building dry stone walls happened. It would cause huge problems because the rocks would slide off, and then you would lose your wall. Once the big rocks were in place, we were instructed to find pin stones (flat stones, “door stoppers”) to pin underneath the big base stones so that they did not move and were firmly secured. Finally, came the hearting (smaller rocks that fill in all the gaps and spaces that the base rocks leave behind). After that, it was onto the second course of our wall. The process simply repeats until you get to your desired height!

Several things Christopher said over the course of those 2 days resonated with us. They not only had to do with building a simple yet elegant wall, but spoke to broader, deeper themes.

“Think with your hands”. Christopher explained that we should make ourselves pick up ugly problem stones and try to discover the advantage that their unusual shape may have. This message highlighted how to search for the potential in anything, and everybody for that matter. We were encouraged to try and fit stones in areas we thought they would “fit” and if they did not, we were then asked to try the stone in another location along the wall. This served as a practical lesson in doing anything that is physically demanding: you would find yourself picking up any one stone fewer times, which would save you a lot of energy on a project of any size.

“Think together”. Christopher stressed the value of working together and with a partner, across both sides of the wall and as much as possible. We were told to work as a team, filling in the wholes and gaps under the stones opposite as you go. A direct quote from the materials Christopher provided said, “There are places under your partner’s stones that they can’t see from their side”. The same was obvious to them regarding our side. The message was about working together, taking care to ensure that your teammates were supported and knowing that if the wall was built solidly on both sides, it would benefit everyone. We realized that we could rely on our partner and teammates to support our shortcomings. This is something we can all see the relevance of, especially in our personal lives and our community.

“Think positive. Don’t get frustrated.” Christopher taught us how the lower sections of the wall are more than likely going to be the slowest and most challenging. However, it would get easier. He talked about how as the wall progresses, we would find ourselves in the “zone” and when we do, to stay in it. He also stressed not interrupting the flow of creativity that can overcome you. This point struck us as a poignant reminder of how in life, things do seem slow at first and of course they may be hard. But if you stick with it and face the challenge, it does, and will, get easier.

The final point that stood out to us was, “Think slow”. Christopher spoke about how there was a strange tendency to want to build dry stone walls fast. “It is completely unnecessary to rush and it is detrimental to the integrity of a wall”. “It is worth slowing down. It is an opportunity to tune in the quiet expanse of time that these rocks elude to”. This statement was true not only for building the wall with integrity and strength, but for our everyday busy lives. Christopher may not have even known he was saying it, be he spoke to the class truths we sometimes ignore, or forget, in the busy world we call our lives.