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Walling Facts

An American perspective: A Las Vegas resident in the Yorkshire Dales...

American Intervention

Kathleen B. Boyette is one of Tracey's oldest and closest friends. Despite leading a radically different lifestyle on the other side of the globe, she was able to appreciate the trade of dry stone walling with a fresh and intrigued perspective when visiting one of ATA's field walls in 2010. This article was originally published on her blog. To read more of Kathleen's thoughtful poetic prose, click here to visit her website.

"It's July in Yorkshire, UK and I'm up from London for thirty-six hours to visit Tracey, my dear friend of twenty-five years - a numerical detail of our friendship (and age) that eludes me until months later. I am in shorts. After all, it is July and I live in the desert. I expect July to be at least warm. But this is Yorkshire and I have arrived uncharacteristically unprepared. I should be in jeans and a sweater and a hat. I've had to borrow a fleece from Tracey and overlay it with my own thin windbreaker designed more for style than warmth.

Oh, well. Last week was warm and sunny.

We've driven out to Tracey's worksite. A lovely trip down narrow roads winding through green fields dotted with rocks and sheep and cows. Bumping along the last bit through a cow pasture rutted with the tracks of countless similar trips, Tracey offhandedly warns, "mind the cow shit".

Okay.

Stepping cautiously I plant myself safely and gaze about. From my vantage point in the middle of hectares of land, I see - sketching lines around and through the fields - dry stone walls disappearing into the distance. Miles of stacked stone without mortar - most constructed hundreds of years ago - describe the ownership of these lands.

Dry stone walls are everywhere in the Yorkshire Dales - a place name I adore. Tracey and I have seen them all morning on our travels, all along our route to this site. But these walls at this spot are special. Much of what I can see has been carefully taken down and painstakingly reconstructed by Tracey and her walling partner Andy and will very likely stand, nearly unaltered, two hundred years from now.

It's Tracey's legacy. Her business. And her passion.

Bovine Audience: The young cattle in the surrounding fields watch the wallers with interest.
She swerved from professional gardening into walling over a decade ago and is in the process of completing her Master Craftsman qualifications. I'm exceptionally proud of and in awe of her. I follow her progress via photographs, phone calls and email explanations. We rarely have the opportunity to visit face to face.

On this blustery Saturday, amidst the mud, cow plops and scattered stones of a nearly completed section of wall: geometric, un-mortared perfection on my left, organized chaos on my right - Tracey and I wander.

Positioned about the work area are stones of every possible size and shape. Very large slabs are links between one side of the wall and the other, assorted sizes and shapes build the wall and small pebbles fill the interior crevices and voids and add stability and security to the overall structure.

There is no mortar.

Available stones are matched to the spaces being filled, sometimes chiseled into shape, and always placed precisely with only gravity and adjacent stone as glue. It's a science.

As I'm trying to understand the mechanics of this art, this science, trying to comprehend how my friend creates this perfection from such seeming randomness she asks, "Hey, shouldn't you set a stone while you're here? I think so."

My first thought is an image: I delicately place one of the smallish twenty-pound rocks upon this wall which is at least a football field in length before it reaches the nearest intersection with another stretch of wall that flows out of sight in both directions. As I settle the stone into place and step back, the entire wall - domino fashion and in very slow motion - ruptures into granite anarchy. I watch, in shock, as years of Tracey's meticulous work disintegrates into miles of meaningless rubble as far as I can see.

The Yorkshire Dales: a fine place for dry stone wallers to ply their trade.

I reject the offer.

Tracey insists and sets about choosing a stone for me and unceremoniously places it in my hands. I turn it over and rub a bit of mud and what is probably cow manure off of it. It's nearly black but with greenish tinges at one end and is somewhat hunchbacked on its top. Or bottom. It's shaped angularly like a large-ish loaf of slightly moldy pumpernickel bread.

Tracey stands back and considers what is now my stone then the existing wall and sorts the perfect spot. She points and together we place my pumpernickel loaf.

But its hunched underside causes it to rock to and fro - completely unacceptable behavior for a rock on a dry stone wall. Pebbles to the rescue. After trying and discarding a few choices while I stand frozen with both hands still on my stone - still unwilling to place the entire weight of said stone upon this wall - Tracey locates what could be a slice off my pumpernickel: a small flat black rock that fits perfectly under the loaf's hunched underside and presto, no more rocking.

It's done.

I smile, finally let go of my rock. And stand back silent to remember this moment, imprint this image in my head.

Some months later, Tracey and Andy finish that section of wall and send me a photograph, entitled American Intervention. "Can you spot your stone in the attached image?" Tracey writes. "All things being equal it should be there in situ right where you placed it for at least another 150 years."

Of course, I did nothing but hold this rock.

Still.

When I choose to think that Tracey and I may have in some small way memorialized an unexpected friendship that has thrived despite an ocean of separation, I am happy."

- Kathleen B. Boyette, 2010

The pumpernickel rock: Burt carefully places her contribution to the history of this small slice of Yorkshire.