Aside from my sons diaper following the kung pao chicken incident, the heaviest thing I have ever lifted was a 12-foot-long, creosote-smelling, insect-ravaged railroad tie that, along with its ragtag brothers, retained about a foot of earth in my front yard. It had exerted a kung-fu death grip on the fossilized soil, and extracting it about killed me. As I lay on the driveway resting afterward, (covered in sweat and those little trilobites that live under heavy, earthbound things like railroad ties), I decided to forego re-using a railroad tie system, and to use a dry-stack stone wall instead to retain my precious dirt.
By DAN MAGINN
Special to The Star
Making the decision to go with a stone retaining wall was the easy part. Truth be told, schlepping the 60-pound stones from the stoneyard to my house and then muscling them into place also about killed me, but it was a different kind of near-death. When it was all finished, my little stone wall filled me with primal man-joy. This was five years ago, and I still admire it as I enter my driveway every evening.
My well-intentioned yet clumsy forays into stonework taught me to better appreciate the work of actual masons. There is something about well-crafted stonework that simultaneously communicates both the beauty of natural materials and the skill of the craftsman who labored to put them into place. This is true because the colors, textures and geometric patterns of the stone are visually appealing, but also because we can sense just how mind-numbingly hard it was to puzzle all the pieces together. Great stonework takes our breath away. It communicates a message to us: someone took the time and effort to make me beautiful, and it was very, very hard to do so. Take a minute to recollect your top 10 favorite human-made places youve ever visited and Id wager that at least half of them featured distinctive stonework.
Because it takes a lot of time and effort (and money the love child of their holy union) to extract stone from the earth and then erect it, building a stone house is probably off the table for most of us. Using it for landscape purposes, however is within reach, especially if you use natural retaining wallstone and dry-stack it yourself, like I did on my wall. Typically 8 inches wide and between 2 and 3 feet long, retaining wallstone is relatively affordable, and after a little practice, it pieces together logically, albeit slowly.
But theres no getting around the fact that making even a short dry-stack wall is labor intensive. If the thought of sweatily schlumping toolbox-sized stones into place one at a time isnt your cup of Gatorade, an increasingly popular option amongst landscape contractors is to use modular retaining wall blocks. Usually comprised of cement and a natural stone aggregate, they look like stone (sort of) and snap together in a jiffy, which is exactly why I personally tend to shy away from them. They communicate, for eternity: I am not-quite-stone, but I snapped together in a jiffy. So, if you dont mind this message representing your legacy on planet earth, youre all set: Lego up and get to work. But for me, Im OK grinding it out old-school smashed fingers and all.
There are quite a few websites that outline how to go about planning for and ultimately constructing a dry-stack wall. In addition, Id recommend spending some time at your local retail stoneyard, talking to the salespeople about the pros and cons of different stone varieties. Buy a few samples and leave them in your yard for a few weeks, to help you decide which kind looks best for your yard. Then map out your project preferably a small one to start and get cracking.
Even if you decided to keep your hands clean (and your back straight) and hire a mason to do the heavy lifting, thats OK the end product will still look decidedly hard-won. And thats exactly the point.
Reach architect Dan Maginn, principal at El Dorado Inc. in Kansas City, at Eldo.us.