Stone by stone, inch by inch, Charley MacMartin is building a wall. It’s a surprisingly simple undertaking. Occasionally he wields a small chisel or hammer, tools crafted in Barre that are almost as local as the stones that MacMartin employs. But more often than not, he forgoes the tools altogether, working by hand to stack the rocks that will cumulatively create a tidy boundary wall at a picturesque Charlotte home.
MacMartin is just one of many skilled masons in Vermont keeping alive the tradition that gave rise to the old stone walls and hand-built foundations that still pepper the state: dry stone masonry. Other forms of masonry rely on mortar to bind together stones or bricks. The stability of dry-laid walls and structures comes from the interplay of friction and gravity, and the careful placement of stones upon each other.
“It’s almost weaving stone,” says MacMartin, pausing in his work next to the wall.
The method produces a wall that MacMartin says is “built to move” — to withstand rain and snow, freezing and thawing. The history of this craft is written on the Vermont landscape. Early farmers clearing and tilling Vermont’s fields unearthed stones left behind by retreating glaciers and put them to use in walls, foundations and culverts. Built well and tended with occasional maintenance, these structures can last hundreds of years — and many have.
“It’s part of our agricultural history,” says Jared Flynn, president of the nonprofit Stone Trust in Dummerston. The trust was established in 2010 to preserve and advance the craft of stone walling, and it runs workshops and certification exams to educate novices and expert masons alike.
“That’s why we do it,” Flynn goes on, speaking of the Vermont landscape. “The material is available. We were blessed with this glacial deposit.”
In Charlotte, MacMartin kneels beside the wall, sifting through the stones scattered on the ground around him. This is Monkton quartzite, he explains. “What you’re looking at are pieces of Mt. Philo” — scraped from the mountain, carried west by a retreating glacier and scattered in the Champlain Valley. “This is beautiful, beautiful stone,” he says.
It didn’t travel far to get here: The homeowner unearthed many of these rocks while excavating a swimming hole on his property. Other stones came from piles stacked in the woods around the home — remnants of farmers past.
MacMartin took a roundabout route to masonry. He studied economics at the University of Vermont and worked during college on a local farm, where he discovered a love for gardening and landscaping. He started his own landscaping company — initially in Maryland, then in Vermont — and eventually developed a specialty in masonry. Today he runs Queen City Stone & Soil from Hinesburg; he specializes in creating and improving garden beds, setting up composting systems and, of course, dry-built stone projects.
Vermont is blessed with several master masons, MacMartin says, singling out Dan Snow and Michael Weitzner. He honed his craft under their tutelage.
Most days MacMartin works alongside an apprentice — a new one every year — but on this particular afternoon he’s alone. The wall is about two thirds of its anticipated three-foot height. As the wall grows upward, MacMartin chooses smaller and smaller stones. The previous day, when he and the homeowner sought a source of stones for today’s work, the image they had in mind was “Gérard’s bread.” They collected stones roughly the same size and shape as the locally celebrated pain au levain churned out by Vermont baker Gérard Rubaud.
The wall, like all dry-laid masonry, is “battered,” which means it tapers gently inward as it rises from a thicker base to a narrower edge. Viewed from their ends, most stone walls have a slight “A” shape in profile. MacMartin uses two wooden frames at either end of the wall, with two strings running between them, to help guide batter and height.
Between the two hefty faces of the double-sided stone wall, he pins “hearting” — small chips of stone and rubble that form the core of the structure. Each stone is placed by hand — from the capstones along the wall’s top to the wall’s face to the hearting that is hidden as the wall grows.
If it seems relatively straightforward, that’s because it is: “Dry stone walling is not rocket science,” Flynn says. The craft, he continues, boils down to some simple rules that dictate, essentially, the order in which one stacks rocks. “If you can count to three, and identify large, medium and small in a rock pile, then you can build a structural wall,” he suggests. “It’s that simple.”
MacMartin agrees. Each winter, during his off-season, he leads workshops for novices interested in learning to build a stone wall — and he boasts that he can teach anyone. With materials, design and labor, a stone wall can be an expensive proposition. With his workshops, MacMartin says, he wants to offer homeowners an affordable route to building their own.
The workshops invariably fill up. Charlotte landscape designer Ashley Robinson, who collaborates with MacMartin from time to time on garden projects, attributes their popularity to the satisfaction homeowners take in learning a DIY approach to a storied, historical practice.
“There is something fundamental in human nature about putting to work your hands in the site,” Robinson says. “With stone walls, that goes beyond just tilling earth. It’s actually building. As a species, we want to be part of that. We crave the process.”
Part of what MacMartin loves about the craft, he says, is working with “native stone” — gathered from a landowner’s own property or from a nearby farmer’s fields. It’s an affinity that squares nicely with a trend MacMartin has noticed among his clients: Increasingly, he says, homeowners ask him about local and green approaches to gardening and landscape design. Employing stone that comes from the site itself, or at least from nearby, cuts down on both costs and fossil-fuel expenditures.
MacMartin is also particularly fond of projects that help create what he calls “productive” gardens and landscapes. He’s well known for his stone herb spirals, vertical gardens that resemble a spiraling ramp. The design both maximizes space and gives water a path from one level to the next, creating microclimates suited for different plants. Even gardeners who are building a traditional raised bed, MacMartin says, will find stone a beneficial material: It retains heat and maintains more consistent soil temperatures.
Stone walls continue to find use on working farms, even though most of Vermont’s modern farmers choose electric fencing over the traditional stone rows once used to confine livestock. At the Family Cow Farmstand in Hinesburg, farmer Lindsay Harris raves about the little corral that MacMartin built for calves at her raw-milk dairy. It’s sturdy enough that the wall has withstood the antics of a few weighty heifers, Harris says. She’s glad that, in addition to being beautiful, the traditional livestock fence allows visitors to her farm — particularly children — to approach the curious calves safely.
“The kids can kind of belly right up to the fence, but still have a foot and a half of big rocks between them [and the calves],” Harris says. They don’t run the risk of getting zapped by a traditional electric fence or kicked through a less sturdy enclosure.
However useful stone walls may be, there’s no denying that a huge part of their appeal lies in the aesthetics and other intangible factors. Ask stone-wall aficionados to explain that appeal and they pause — it’s a hard quality to sum up.
“To me, it’s mostly mystery. The walls tell stories,” says Flynn. “Somebody spent the time to do it, and each rock was handled by a person at some point. Who was that person, and why did they do it?”
MacMartin will be one of those mystery builders someday. If all goes according to plan, his stone walls will long outlive him.
Piecing together the stone wall in Charlotte, a project that will take three to four days, MacMartin muses about the meditative quality of the work. There’s precision in it, he says, but also a sense that every rule was made to be broken occasionally. And, unlike man-made materials, stones have a way of doing as they please. On some days, the stone just “isn’t talking to you.”
But mostly it’s satisfying, if repetitive, labor — with a mentally stimulating component.
“It’s a little like Tetris, or chess,” MacMartin says, testing various pieces on the wall before reaching for new stones. “To know where you’re going is helpful.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Good Walls Make Good Neighbors."