By Carol Cowan
People have been building dry stone walls for thousands of years. Yet in all that time, the materials, design and construction have not changed.
The term dry stone walls implies just that – the walls are constructed without the use of mortar or any other wet agent that would serve to bond the rocks together. Instead, the natural forces of friction and gravity hold them in place. A well-built dry stone wall can last for centuries with little maintenance, and just the sight of one evokes a sense of permanence. Some would even argue that the aesthetically pleasing functional barriers are also works of art.
Patricia Jones certainly thinks so. The Overton County Farm Bureau member, known locally as the Rock Lady, first saw dry stone work as a child on her grandparents’ farm. She later discovered she had an affinity for rockwork, which has since become her passion.
“I’ve actually been working with rock for well over 20 years,” Jones says. “I have never used mortar to put together rocks at all. My technique is strictly the dry stone stacking. It’s just a way of placing them, and it does take a certain amount of knack and skill and an eye for the rock that you’re placing. It is this huge, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.”
Five years ago, Jones moved to Tennessee from Michigan, where the glacial rocks have round edges and don’t lend themselves to stacking. She says she was delighted to find an abundance of limestone and sandstone close to the new home she shares with husband Michael Jones in Hilham. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the best place to be!’ I’ve got the best rocks to work with.”
And work she has. So far, 59-year-old Jones has constructed roughly 900 feet of dry stone walls on the couple’s property. One wall separates their back lawn from the woods. Another runs along the road in front of their house. Other walls form raised flowerbeds and decorative borders. The walls average close to 3 feet in height and 18 to 20 inches in thickness. Jones estimates it takes about a ton of rock – one pickup load – to build a 10-foot section of wall.
“I get in my truck in the morning and drive down to a county ditch where there are natural rock falls,” Jones says, describing a typical day of “rocking.” “I called and asked TDOT (Tennessee Department of Transportation) if I could take the rock, and they said yes, as long as I only take what naturally falls over the winter due to freezing and thawing. I pick up about a ton of rock and put it in my truck bed – all with my own two hands. Some rocks are too heavy to lift; those I roll up a wooden plank propped on the tailgate and shove them into the truck. It takes about an hour and a half to load up the truck, which isn’t bad.”
All the while she is mentally cataloging sizes and shapes and planning which rocks will go where. “I just remember,” she says, “this particular rock I saw over there – it will fit over here. All the rocks I use I’ve picked up in situ, which means where nature has dropped them; I do not alter the rocks at all. The rocks just tell me where to place them, if that makes sense. The more variety of sizes I have to work with, the better it goes together for me.”
Besides recommending a variety of rock sizes and shapes, Jones has a few additional tips for successful dry stone stacking.
“Take a look at some dry stone walls,” she advises. “Looking at something that’s already been built will help spark someone’s own imagination about how walls can go together. Be careful with your back. Be patient, and don’t get discouraged. And then just enjoy the process. It’s very Zen-like. Some people like to knit or bowl or golf; I like doing my rocking. It’s a very satisfying, calming process, and I have something to show for it when I get done.”
Indeed. The beautiful walls Jones has built are sure to stand the test of time.