I rebuilt a retaining wall last summer. But it certainly wasn’t a project that I had decided to undertake after holding my finger to the winds and deciphering that 2020 was a suitable year to undertake such an endeavor. I don’t know what type of activities I would have planned for myself if someone had given me an accurate forecast of the past nine months, but I doubt that demolishing and rebuilding the northwestern boundary of our little property would have been my first choice. Still, after a year of cancelations and disappointments, it was nice to finally cross a sizable item off my To Do list.
Of course, as these things have a way of doing, a modest home improvement project bore with it a greater scope of labor and time than I had “counted” (Luke 14:28). One hundred and five hours doesn’t seem daunting when compared to our daily bread-winning labor. After all, it’s little more than two white-collar work weeks. But taken incrementally, three weekday hours after a shift at the office, then six Saturday hours when the weather agreed, stretched out over four and a half months, it began to harken closer comparisons to the Gantt Chart of King Solomon than that of Chip Gaines. It also, rather unexpectedly, served as a conduit for a great many reflections on labor and legacy.
Embarrassingly, rebuilding the retaining wall had been on my To Do list for almost 13 years. When we moved into our narrow little colonial as starry-eyed newlyweds, we aspired to a multitude of modest domestic improvements and threw our energies into fulfilling them nearly every day in which a red Netflix envelope didn’t arrive in the mail. The short wall retaining our uphill neighbors’ front yard was cracked and bulging like a bullfrog’s throat—even back then. Its stucco was spalling and our curb appeal was literally crumbling with each freeze/thaw cycle. But ceiling fans ascended with the rising mercury to the top of the To Do list that first summer of 2007. Then the clapboard siding on the southern and western exterior faces of the house began undressing itself with the decorum and tidiness of a toddler, and I struggled to keep it covered over the course of eleven years. Four children, two hot water heaters, five vehicles, eleven pieces of living room furniture, and four lawn mowers came into our lives during our first baker’s dozen on Broad Street–and some of these even still exhibit enough resiliency to answer “Present” during morning roll calls.
Four children, two hot water heaters, five vehicles, eleven pieces of living room furniture, and four lawn mowers came into our lives during our first baker’s dozen on Broad Street–and some of these even still exhibit enough resiliency to answer “Present” during morning roll calls.
My decision to finally lay sledgehammer to stucco was made in mid-April, just days after we received our first (!) stimulus check from that impertinent federal government. The two events were unrelated, but that didn’t stop me from joking that now I was going to “build a wall with Trump’s money.” It was an ill-informed joke in poor taste, but you must remember that times were different then. People in early 2020 often made boorish, sensational comments about political issues for fleeting personal motivations—not like it is now.
It was an ill-informed joke in poor taste, but you must remember that times were different then. People in early 2020 often made boorish, sensational comments about political issues for fleeting personal motivations—not like it is now.
It was a sunless Saturday morning when I started demolition, and I remember the distinct sensation of hesitancy as I hovered next to the old retaining wall with a sledgehammer. The feeling returns to mind even now because it was so unexpected. Granted, I didn’t really know what I would find behind the wall’s spalling façade, and I my plans for the rebuild weren’t any more crystalline or detailed than a conceptual mind’s eye rendering. But I recall almost talking to myself and avowing that I would have to be fully committed to this new project from the exact moment I finally struck the bulging old wall. I couldn’t just partially demolish it and then change my mind. I couldn’t leave it half-demolished and half-failing. So I reared back and I swung my sledge. I dimpled the stucco and my project was underway.
Perhaps I had reason to hesitate. Projects involving late 19th century homes rarely progress as succinctly and smoothly as a Bob Villa episode. And by the time I had struck the stucco with enough frequency to have shed all but the last clinging crumbs and then felt rising within my forearms enough fatigue to suppress any aspirations of earning a nickname like “John Henry,” I discovered the underlying composition of my wall. The structural components of my wall were neither concrete nor masonry block. My wall, it turned out, did not consist of any engineered or man-made material beneath its cap and surficial skin. My wall was essentially a vertical rubble pile.
I surmise now that when the stone-and-mortar cellar walls of our little house were being constructed from a stockpiled assortment of culled field stones, the unused remnant was just roughly stacked and then shellacked with cement when the house was done. And as I unpacked the menagerie of reprobate rubble from the darkness of its purgatory to the daylight of our front lawn, I began to marvel that my soon-to-be-former retaining wall had stood and retained anything at all. Nothing about the arrangement of the glacial migrants inspired any notion that they had been placed with care, planning, or purpose. Subrounded boulders were balancing on platy cobbles—every shape and size in every which place, position, and orientation. Some voids were filled with weak mortar, and others with soils that had migrated from the uphill lawn. The wall that I had weedwacked along and worked alongside for so many years seemed to have been one pry bar poke away from collapse the whole time. That it remained upright is a testament to coefficients of internal friction and Sloth’s companion, Inertia.
The wall that I had weedwacked along and worked alongside for so many years seemed to have been one pry bar poke away from collapse the whole time. That it remained upright is a testament to coefficients of internal friction and Sloth’s companion, Inertia.
As I became more and more aware of the disorder that I had unknowingly tolerated, I gained confidence in my design and rebuilding efforts by inverse proportion. Any lingering concern that I had about my own inadequacies to undertake such a project dissolved when I considered the apparently random rubble that had held total collapse at arm’s length for decades. By mere default I was guaranteed to possess a wall more stable and sure than the heap that had stood before. Mine, after all, would be intentionally designed and carefully built.
The motif Chaos to Order was one that resonated with me in those early weeks of the project. Even as my old Dodge was endlessly oscillating to and from our property with loads of refuse, and even as the removal of the old wall was leaving a gaping, linear crater along our front lawn, the feelings of improvement and renewal were inescapable. With my own two hands and my old gray mare, I was making the world a better place—well, my 0.09 acre of the world, at least (the county dump certainly wasn’t getting any smaller from my repeated patronage).
Demolition took three Saturday mornings and half a dozen evenings after work. With some sporadic help from my four kids (who were very interested in the destruction I was “allowed” to carry out in broad daylight), I had smashed the stucco, pried loose the boulders, sifted through the cobbles, and unearthed the random rubble of a generation long past. Despite my efforts to salvage and stockpile any materials from the old wall that I thought could be re-usable, I still had to haul away (by hand and pickup truck) over four tons of material just to prepare my site for construction. After a month’s time, and already more effort than I had anticipated, I was ready to build. I had demolished the old wall down to underlying virgin soils. The only direction to go from here was Up.
The only direction to go from here was Up.
In the months that followed, our little front lawn was a hub of activity nearly every Saturday morning and weekday evening with clear skies. When I wasn’t installing drainage tile, I was pinning fabric and hanging string lines. If I wasn’t unloading or sorting stone, I was stacking stone, setting stones, or shimming and leveling stones. Foundation stone, show stone, gap stone, and drainage stone. So many stones.
And the stones were quite meaningful to me because of their quarry and their quarry master. Between May and August I brought back—roughly 1,500 pounds at a time—five loads of Pennsylvania bluestone (shale) from my wife’s family farm in Susquehanna County. Even though it cost me five summertime hours per trip and put untold strain on my rickety old Ram, it was important for me to build with materials from my in-laws’ physical heritage. I felt like Nebuchadnezzar, harvesting the very stone beneath my queen’s hallowed homeland in order to construct our own local wonder and remind her of the family farm’s rugged terrain. I made five trips to the farm, which means my father-in-law made 15 trips up and down Mount Roszel to select and stockpile them for me. His help as curator and beast of burden was invaluable. Without him, the dream of using farm stone would never have materialized into a reality.
I felt like Nebuchadnezzar, harvesting the very stone beneath my queen’s hallowed homeland in order to construct our own local wonder and remind her of the family farm’s rugged terrain
Then the project developed a different facet of sentiment when my grandfather died in July. He was received into the glory of his Savior one month shy of his 92nd birthday, departing in spirit from the very house that he had designed and built some sixty years prior. He was survived by a wife of nearly seven decades and a progeny of over 100 persons. Both in the weeks of decline that preceded his death and upon returning home after celebrating his life, I spent many an hour along the wall reflecting on the impact of his life. After all, the legacy that he left in his wake was marked best by those things that he had, as God blessed him, built. His enduring temporal projects, his ever-burgeoning family, and his faith and eternal hope rose before me as guideposts and aims as my wall inched higher and higher toward its crest. After all, how does a man come to harvest such rich rewards in his latter days? How is a reputation or a life of wealth, honor, or accomplishment ever built—how else, except one day, one decision, one stone at a time?
How is a reputation or a life of wealth, honor, or accomplishment ever built—how else, except one day, one decision, one stone at a time?
And so the tangible, physical project that would come to define my summer inevitably began to evolve and develop into a metaphysical memorial of sorts. It became, as it were, an immovable, interminable expression of my existential imprint. Before too long, they were not just stones that I was scanning and sorting and stacking and shimming—each selection and placement bore with it the weight of Legacy and the gravity of Permanence. The wall became a metaphor for my life’s work. For the first time in my life, I sensed that I was creating something that would outlive me.
For the first time in my life, I sensed that I was creating something would outlive me
It can hardly but sober a man to consider how he will be remembered after he at last shuffles off this mortal coil. Will he, in that dim light of dusk on Jordan’s bank, depart in the assurance that he done all, lived all, loved all that he could? Will he, when his works become manifest on that Day and are tested by fire, have anything to show for that which he toiled under the sun? Did he, as Moses prayed, number his days aright?
I have carried that sharpened sense of sobriety with me since completing the wall project at the end of August. Each task and each project since—even this blog—is marked with a renewed intentionality, a newfound focus on working to build that which will endure and appreciate.
My retaining wall project of 2020 was a long, deep drink for an ever-thirsty soul. It was an elixir of life, and each stone set in place was like another thimble of sweet remedy—an antivenom against the inane and madding crowd. The handling and arranging and sorting and stacking of 12,000 pounds of rough-quarried stone was a primitive cure for the ailments and oppressions of a modern world.
Thoreau, famously, went to the woods to live deliberately, to confront only “the essential facts of life.” My own modest campaign was much more domestic in setting, but no less existential in nature. He forsook society to secure a confidence that he, upon his death, had truly lived. I built a wall in my front yard and found the assurance that I would indeed leave something behind.
I distinctly remember the year when my parents first switched to an artificial Christmas tree. We were living in a small farmhouse at the time, and the only display space afforded our preeminent yuletide decoration was in a room that also contained a wood stove. Despite my father’s dogged determination to beat back the pervasive climes of Old Man Winter and simultaneously maintain the hydration of our felled fir, the former feat was almost only ever accomplished at the expense of the latter. The dry, crackling heat from the old iron stove maintained even the peripheral recesses of our home at a balmy sweater-and-slippers temperature while, alas, our living room floor near the tree began to more and more resemble the prickly forest floor with every passing day of December. We just couldn’t water any Christmas tree enough.
After valiant efforts over several years, my parents finally acquiesced to the way of things and made alternate arrangements. We three children were notified of the decision late one November. In somber tones and with more than one hand being held, we were told that there would be no “real” Christmas tree this year. We didn’t understand what that meant, but it sounded unpleasant. It seemed out of place for a modifier like “real” to suddenly be placed before a term where it had never stood before. They continued the parent-child conference. The benefits of the artificial tree were presented with the winsomeness of a Home Shopping Network pitch and expounded with the reasoned sobriety of a Presbyterian sermon. The practicality was certainly appealing but the modernity of it all sounded like something that the prophet Schulz had warned us against. I remained forlorn at the ease and apparent eagerness with which the future was being given a foothold in our home–and with something as sacred as Christmas!
But the artificial Christmas tree arrived and crossed our threshold in that least romantic (yet also endearingly unmodern) of all packaging–a long cardboard box. Whether it was ordered from a JC Penny catalog or brought home from the main street hardware store in town, I don’t remember. But the sales team at the tree factory was apparently at least as dubious about the contents of the box as I was. They had plastered “Holiday Tree” on all exterior sides of the box in an effort to convince the skeptics and/or proselytize the agnostics—good thing, because there was a mixed company of five such unbelievers in the manse that morning. With a box cutter in my father’s hand and a deep breath braced in our collective lungs, my family and I came face to face with the marvel of our new Christmas tree.
If first impressions are indeed lasting and the most important, then it is a wonder that we ever even granted our new tree a second season. The disparity between the display images on the outside of the box and the condition of its contents (as shipped) could not have been greater. The prospects and possibility of a family’s Christmas joy could not have been in more peril. The outside of the box had promised symmetry, lush color, and (the deal clincher) needle-free cheer. The inside of the box, however, contained what appeared to be the seven tiers of anti-Christmas with a sturdy plastic base and a green aluminum pole. The branches, so called, were either collapsed like paper fans or mangled like a nose tackle’s pinky fingers. The polyester needles were abhorrently artificial and crinkled and wrinkled with every slight movement. It was a downgrade from a real fir tree in every imaginable aspect.
I think we had all expected the tree to emerge from its cardboard cocoon resembling a near-finished product. I don’t think my dad expected anything close to the amount of Assembly Required that now stood between him a happy Norman Rockwell scene. But he dug through the box and produced the instructions (“Christmas tree assembly instructions, can you believe it!” he laughed). We discovered which end of the pole was North and which end fixed into the base. We deciphered the scheme of the branch arrangements and their corresponding color tags. We sorted them into piles and began attaching the branches to the would-be trunk. We followed Dad’s lead and put a bold face on it.
If you have never arranged the branches of an artificial Christmas tree, then perhaps you cannot adequately appreciate the mighty learning curve that faced our young family of five that morning. Still, with the enthusiasm of the season and the unbridled energy of the unlearned, we set to work bending and shaping each branch. We straightened each knuckled twig and smoothed each wrinkled needle as if aspiring to the approval of Kris Kringle himself. Each of us grabbed branch after branch. We arranged each wire-and-polyester twig with fervor and care, branch after branch. Arrange, Attach, Repeat. Arrange, Attach, Repeat.
Long before we reached what should have been the final steps of Admire and Adorn, we realized that we were horribly off course. With a mere two or three rings of branches completed, each of us could now see that our new tree looked worse than just artificial—it looked abominable. Why didn’t our branches look like branches? Why did this product which was designed to look like a proud douglas fir more closely resemble a skewered sea urchin? Instead of full and bristling, our tree looked sparse and lifeless–like a Joe Biden rally. It was if some unseen forces were sabotaging our efforts. Perhaps the tree had been absorbing our doubts and disbelief and manifesting them as poorly-shaped twigs. Perhaps our hearts were each two sizes too small. Whatever the reason, we were off to a bad start. We were obviously going about things the wrong way.
But what happened next was the moment that historians in the ensuing decades have come to describe as Ronald E. Pearce’s own tour de force in The Battle for Christmas—the moment that quickened an inanimate heap of wire and polyester strips into a new life as a respectable Christmas tree faster (and with more believability) than the Peanuts gang. My father, at the moment of our critical need, in the hour of our greatest despondency, enacted an unrehearsed and unplanned tactical maneuver that was surpassed in its oddness and unexpectedness by only its bold simplicity.
My dad went outside. He left us and left the room. He left the unfinished tree, he left the house, and he went outside with a hat and a pair of pruning shears. No instructions, no farewell, no explanation that I can recall. Through the front windows we watched him walk down along our gravel driveway. Where did Dad go? Why did he take those big scissors with him? What’s he going to do? Then all my father did for the next few minutes was stand next to one of the big douglas firs that lined our front drive. He scanned the grand branches of its evergreen glory, searching and studying. He stood in a painter’s posture, noting form and frame, design and detail. He stood there before a real, live tree—finally, at last—after his freelance attempt to assemble the artificial had failed. Then, just as we kids were losing interest in his mysterious mission, he snipped. My dad lopped off about an arm’s length of the end of one of the tree’s lower branches and brought it inside.
He was a new man upon re-entry—invigorated and inspired. With rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes, he revealed at last what genius stroke had struck and sent him outside. He pulled off his hat and gloves and laid aside the shears. He held out the branch of the fir tree for our own inspection. “This is what we need our branches to look like—here’s the real thing!” It was a marvelous moment. It was simple. And it was obvious! We had been following instructions, yes, but we hadn’t been following a template. We had diagrams and color codes on a page of instructions, but we didn’t have a model. We didn’t have the real thing. Yet all the while, ironically, a living, photosynthesizing template was growing not twenty yards outside of our house.
My father’s enthusiasm was infectious, and, before the red had dissipated from his rosy cheeks, we were all as enraptured with the fresh-cut specimen as he was. “Here’s where I think we were going wrong,” he said. “See how these twigs near the trunk actually stick straight up? They don’t point out at all…And do you notice how the tips of these outer twigs all bend up toward the sunlight at the very end? Isn’t that neat?” He led us through a study of each twig’s shape and relative arrangement as if marveling at a peacock’s fanned tail feathers or at a jeweled necklace in a museum. My dad brought us into his sense of wonder and we all examined the evergreen extract with excitement.
We re-tackled the tree with tenacity and renewed purpose. We who once were hopelessly lost and floundering were suddenly filled with purpose and passion. We started by standing the back twigs straight up—just like the real branch. We curved up the tips of the outer twigs as if to prepare them to receive the very beams of heaven. We busied ourselves with the bending and arranging of each twig on every branch until—wonder of wonders, and Maker be praised—we had assembled an artificial Christmas tree of which even Lucille Van Pelt would be proud. Christmas was saved—we would have a respectable Christmas tree after all.
Looking back on the drama of that day these many Christmas seasons later, I see clearly that my father’s great triumph wasn’t associated with inventing or innovating. He didn’t download an app or consult an expert to help with the tree. And he neither gave it up for impossible, nor did he pretend that there wasn’t a problem. He remained steadfast in his pursuit of excellence and achieved it when he had at last drawn himself and his family into the presence of that which was truly excellent. My father won the day and put us on a path to ultimate success by pointing us to the details of the natural world. He shifted our focus from our synthetic problem to its natural solution in God’s created order. Our project didn’t falter because we lacked an infallible guide—we floundered because we weren’t consulting it.
If my father has left any legacy in my life, it is a confidence in simple orthodoxy. He has instilled in me an assurance that there is Truth (“true truth” he would say, quoting Schaeffer), and that it can be known. There is “a way [we] should go” as children so that when we are old we do not depart from it. With the author of Hebrews, my father taught us that “at sundry times and in divers manners,” the living God has made himself known to the children of men—sometimes through prophets (Luke 16:29), sometimes through creation (Psalm 19:1), sometimes through creatures (Proverbs 6:6). In his love for us, my dad trained our ears and eyes to discern each story, scene, or sunrise as a song of our Savior. Every story whispers His name, as it were, and everything that has breath praises the Lord.
Our father’s instruction and principles have never been elaborate, and they are always simply stated. But they are firmly believed and persistently proved. They are lived out in the ordinary moments of ordinary days—even the day we set up an artificial Christmas tree in the shadowlands. Now when I set up my own tree with my own children, I am wont every November to remember my father and his pursuit of excellence. I stand every back twig straight up, and I bend each outer twig up ever so slightly—just like the branch he snipped off the douglas fir along the driveway at the manse. It’s a ritual rife with sentiment and it never fails to bring to mind that memorable Christmas years ago. Just the act of setting up an artificial tree draws me further up in my appreciation for my Father and further in to the wonders of His creation—just like the real thing.