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.