Stone Work

The late Bob Herne is best known as producer of the legendary “outsider” 1960s rock band The Shaggs. It’s less well known that he was a legendary stonemason in his home town of York, Maine. He felt that music and stonework were parallel art forms, that the elements of composition are the same: harmony, balance, and proportion. I met him in 1990, when I realized I had to build a fence. My house sits right next to a pond. Kendyll was starting to walk, and was proving to be bold and venturesome. I had stood in the yard and studied the steep slope running down to the pond. Then I suddenly had a vision of a fieldstone retaining wall running along the top of the slope. Above the wall would be a fence, enclosing my trimmed, child-safe yard. Below the wall would be the edge of the natural world, with its impenetrable thickets of barb-thorned bittersweet vines and the murky fringes of the pond.

I started scrounging rocks from all over town. A guy I knew cleared a road on his property, and let me take tons of fieldstone. There was an abandoned quarry nearby, and I made a deal with the owner. An old-timer let me pick from the foundation of a fallen barn. I rented a trailer, put small rocks in plastic buckets and tipped big ones up a ramp with a crowbar, and I hauled them home and dumped them in my yard.

When I had filled my yard with rocks, I called Bob Herne. He was a flinty, sage-like figure in town. I asked if I could come watch him work. He didn’t sound too thrilled.

“Why?”

“I want to build a wall.”

“Where?”

“At my house.”

“Where’s that?”

“It’s the old Log Cabin Gift Shop.”

“Oh,” said Bob softly. “You’re the guy with the baby. How is that baby?”

“She’s walking,” I said.

Bob gave a sigh of resignation.

“All right,” he said. “I’m starting a wall Monday. Ridge Road, after the farm stand.”

The next morning, I heard a knock on my front door and there was Bob. We walked the site and I told him my plan. He was still active in music, but his artistic nature had clearly found its fullest expression in his wall building. With a gleam in his eye, he crouched down and began grabbing and stacking rocks.

“One on two and two on one, see? Put the biggest ones in perpendicular for strength. Chip them up to get the front right. Then build in from behind.”

He stood and lit a cigarette, staring at the willow trees across the pond. I stared dumbfounded at the artfully stacked rocks, realizing I didn’t know the first thing about building a wall. Bob turned and saw my doubtful expression.

“Look,” he said. “We both play music. It’s just fitting things together. A rock either goes somewhere or it doesn’t.”

He gave me an encouraging grin.

“Patience, my friend,” he said, looking around at the tons of rocks strewn around the yard. “And a whole lot of rocks. You need a lot more chips and wedges, by the way. Get what seems like a lot, then get another five times as much.”

In the heat of August, after digging and leveling, I pounded in stone dust for the foundation. In December, I took off my gloves to measure anti-freeze into mortar. I clucked and fussed over my guide strings and adjusted my line levels. I got the wall and fence done by spring, but I didn’t stop there. Over the next few years, little by little, my small retaining wall grew into several interconnecting walls nestled on the bank flowing down to the pond. Over that time, I took the tons of rubble scattered on the ground, and gave it form, one rock at a time. And, as I did so, I took in hand the rubble of my old life, and put it back together into a new life for Kendyll and me.

Click to enlarge

Stone Work

Stone Work

Stone Work

Stone Work

Stone Work

Stone Work

Stone Work

Stone Work

Stone Work

Stone Work

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