A dry stone wall is built without mortar. It settles and gives with the weather and the seasons, and may stand for centuries, long after bricks and cement have crumbled. This art of walling is ancient - the Lion Gate of Mycenae is dry stone and there are remains of dry stone walls 4,000 years old in Ireland- and you can see its products all over Europe and New England. There aren't many full-stone dry wallers left, but Steven Allen, a Yorkshireman, is determined to keep the art alive. He's been fitting stones together since his teens, often seven days a week, and holds the title of the world's champion dry stone waller.
Michale Finkel watched him compete with other dry stone wallers on the Yorkshire moors, and in a wonderful article for The Atlantic ("Someone there is who loves a wall", May, 2000) Finkel noted what seemed to give Allen the edge over the competition. While others got themselves into a lather of sweat, willing themselves to win, Allen seemed to work with a sense of emerging pattern.
He'd stand stock-still for a moment and stare at his wall with a calculating look on his face. Then he would swiftly turn around and bend down and select a stone. He'd twist it and jiggle it and flip it over and back, as if fiddling with prayer beads. Then he'd pick up his hammer, hold the stone to his thigh, and chip off pieces with a few sharp taps.
A quality that set Allen apart from wallers, Finkel noticed, was "his feel for the hidden seems snaking along the rock." When he hammered a rock, "it invariably fractured along a plane as smooth as a sail." When he picked a stone to fill the gap between others, the chosen rock "would literally click into place, wedged between its neighbors as tightly and neatly as if Allen were building with Lego bricks."
In Crossing the Unknown Sea David Whyte seizes on this, correctly and elegantly, as an exemplary case of how good work gets done. The key is “a felt perception of the larger pattern” combined with “a restful yet attentive presence in the midst of our work” and the ability to draw on “some source of energy other than our constant applications of effort and will.” “If we attempt to engage the will continually, it exhausts us and prevents us from creating something with a pattern that endures.”
I've been working in this mode, day and night, since I returned from teaching on Cortes Island in a seven-stage journey on Labor Day (September 6th). Fitting together drafts for my new book, on Active Dreaming for conscious living and community, I've felt like a dry stone waller judging the shape and heft of the next rock, seeking the right smaller stone to plug a gap, feeling out the hidden seam that will cause a rock to split exactly right under the fall of the hammer, deciding where to leave a small hole - which my Scots ancestors called a smoot - to let sheep pass. I've been at this literally all the time, around quick naps (never more than 2 hours) that I have come to call industrial sleeps. I had promised my editor to deliver the new book today, and though the deadline was fierce, I never felt rushed or pressured. I hit the SEND button at 7AM today, East Coast time.