A few weeks ago, I was watching Sunday Morning on CBS and they did a piece on Dan Snow who builds a variety of practical and artistic things with stone. He builds stone walls without using mortar or other binding material. They call that ancient method “dry-stone” and it seems to be becoming popular again.

Half a dozen years ago, I built a twenty foot stone wall along my own driveway. It has little in common with Snow’s work. I bought my stones; there were six sizes of these unnatural stones; I secured them with an adhesive cement. Still, the weeks I spent digging out the bed for the wall, creating a base and arranging and rearranging the stones for balance, aesthetics and strength were incredibly enjoyable.

It was the kind of process that some people might describe as a “zen” experience. I have spent some time studying Zen practice, and I don’t really like it when people attach the word to other practices (whether it’s with a lowercase or capital z.

But I know why people attach zen to certain experiences. It means that they find some mindful, insightful, at the edge of spiritual connection to the practice. So, you get the zen of tennis, writing, gardening etc. I even understand the uses at the edge, like Comedy Central’s The Daily Show’s “Moment of Zen” video clips. Sunday Morning does a concluding ambient sound video minute that’s zen-like.

And I definitely understand why building a stone wall might be considered a zen experience to some.

I bought two of Dan Snow’s books. In the Company of Stone is full of photos of his landscape projects. Many have an “ancient” look, and if you passed by the scene you might think it had been there for a century or more.

The term “Star Shrine” recognizes that people in the past sometimes made places for the worship of celestial objects that had fallen to Earth.

“Star Shrine” People in the past sometimes made places for the worship of celestial objects that had fallen to Earth. Snow dedicates this shrine to the memory of lost things.

I like phrases like “heaving and hewing” stone and “gravity as glue.”

Snow is an artist whose medium is stone. He also builds structures that are more sculpture than anything else.g but gravity as their glue.

I think there is antidote appeal in our too-fast age for the patience, quiet, nature, hands-on and sweaty satisfaction of building with stone.

My friend, Hugh, has a cabin in Maine on a pond (in NJ it would be a lake) that he bought decades ago. I remember the first time we visited the place he showed me a winding stone wall he was working on that led from the cabin down the slope to the water. He had been working on it for several years and it was still far from done. He told me he worked on it every summer while they were there – collecting stones in the woods and from the pond and river. I didn’t understand why he was making so little progress. I understand now. I doubt that Hugh ever wants to finish that wall.

Dan Snow is a good writer too. He writes about the natural world and our relationship to it well. His prose is sometimes compared to John McPhee and Annie Dillard. I like both those authors and they are worth posts of their own. (Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is still in the top five on my non-fiction list.) But there is one title by Dillard that immediately comes to mind.

That is her book Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read it more than 20 years ago and I found the meditation there both enlightening and frustrating. It contains essays written about  the arctic, the jungle, the Galapagos, and, one of my favorites, about  a cabin in the woods.

For me, Annie Dillard’s writing is all about close and mindful observation. Take this excerpt:

“The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head and blade shone lightness and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th century tinted photograph from which the tints have faded… The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver.”

Writing is like building with stone as you set the words one against the other trying to create the strongest structure and still have some beauty. I find writing poetry to be much closer to that mindful  building than writing an essay or a blog post. (Still, I hope my essays and post occasionally enter that place.) Revising is like sculpture where you subtract and carve away at to reveal the form.

Dan Snow likens his process to alchemy. I find his second book,  Listening to Stone, more poetic and thoughtful. His work goes far beyond walls – stand-alone sculpture, fences, pillars, staircases, arches, grottoes, pavilions and causeways. He also combines stone, wood and metal into many of the sculptures.

Snow started back in 1972 working on an Italian castle restoration, and his stone wall career began four years later. In 1986 and 1994, he apprenticed (a sadly lost word and practice) with Master craftsmen wallers in the British Isles. (After thirteen years in the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain’s Craftsman Certification Scheme, Snow achieved his Master Craftsman certificate in 2000.)

Perhaps, I need to have some formal study. I definitely need to listen more often to the stones.


Dan Snow’s In the Company of Stone blog

Annie Dillard’s quirky official site