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Building the Bones of the Garden

Throughout my yard, rock walls define the contours of all the spaces. Borders between beds, retaining walls, terraces, path edgings — I built the whole infrastructure out of native granite stones lovingly collected and carefully fitted together.

In cold, clear weather I loved working up a sweat lugging around the rocks. Feeling my strength, feeling the stretch and effort of muscles, even a bit of ache at the end of the day from using them to capacity: a sensuous satisfaction.

My eye reveled in poring over the shapes and colors, the shape and grain and energy of each piece. A triangular stone might suggest the gravity of a seated Buddha, or the thrust of an arrow. I spent hours puzzling out the fit, so they snuggled together as though they had grown there. So the line extended itself in one sinuous rhythm, not chopped up, but flowing, leading the eye along.

For structural strength, I learned to cover a break between stones in one layer — or course — with a solid length of stone in the next, as in traditional brick placement. To use larger stones in the first course and bury part of them. And in a retaining wall, also to tip it slightly back toward the bank it was shoring up, transferring stress back into the earth.

If both the grain of each stone, and the line of each course is level, I found, the wall gives a feeling of stability; otherwise it looks jangled or tippy. But I could place a rare piece oddly, to draw the eye to its particular beauty — for example, quartz crystals in the granite. I worked hard to make the tops of all my walls stable enough that I could walk on them safely for garden maintenance — as well as the neighborhood kids who’d be tempted to walk along the wall that defined the edge of the yard.

Before I started building rock walls, our front yard was a nondescript hummock: rising from the street to the house, falling downhill from the left to the right. As I was starting the walls that sculpted this into an orderly series of terraces, a friend asked me if I really wanted all that rock in the landscape; wasn’t it going to be overwhelming?

But I laughed. I love every rock I put in, but they’re just the bones of the garden. The plants took over rapidly, sprawling and draping and creeping between.

Photo by C.H. Clark - Plants start to creep over the terrace walls. Above that, in front of the foundation, Pachysandra covers a one-rock-tall retaining wall.

Text © Copyright 2004 and photo ©2003, Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 15 October 2004

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