Monday, June 18, 2018


Bob building a farm wall for a wealthy old timer
in Wilmington Vermont, circa 1976. The man each day 
would have his driver glide him down along the roadside
where I was laying up rock to have a look.


I was waiting on May 21st early in the morning for an appointment with a bulldozer operator to start excavating a driveway nearby I was hired to oversee. Past experiences said he wouldn’t show on time, so I walked crosslots back to the house. Three weeks earlier I had cut out the long uphill slope for the driveway; mostly hornbeam, hemlock, and a few tall poplar trees that were thrilling to fell. Poplar is the tree loggers like to call “popple,” which is okay, but for some reason every would-be woodcutter goes around saying “popple this” and “popple that” — they don’t know the tree. It sounds strange coming from them. Poplar is a hardwood and planked out makes a raw smelling lovely white wood. When we built our kitchen 1,000 feet of poplar was shiplapped for wall boards. Each year we burn three or four cord of poplar, and if properly seasoned — keep it out of the weather — it will burn good for you. Hot, but not steady like oak, and it’s best mixed with other hardwoods. It ended up that these tall poplar trees felled for the driveway were of no use to the landowner; they were mine if I hauled them away. I brought the Willys in a few evenings and loaded the logs on, stacked them back home between the apple tree and hard maple not too far from the woodshed, all cordwood length. By late fall I would cover the wood with old corrugated sheet metal I had saved from a roofing job, awful handy stuff. My neighbor Don Squires fences his pigs with the sheets, we cover cordwood. There was enough metal roofing to cover four cord every year, plus roof the duck shed when we built it. The poplar would be undercover until late winter when it was bucked for the following winter, and once the snow melted and the ground firm we moved the poplar to the woodshed by wheelbarrow. After that was done I would shift to stonework. Frost is out of the ground. The kitchen terrace was first to do. By May 21st the sun was hot by noontime, and the operator still hadn’t shown with his bulldozer. Walking out of the woodshed and looking to the northwest corner of the backyard, eight feet from the pond, I figured it was time to build the hut. I had talked to Susan about this place to build ever since we were together.


The essential tools for stonework are your two hands. After that you will need a few tall iron bars, sledgehammer, three-pound hammer, a four-foot level, and if you’re my type of stonemason, you might use a wheelbarrow. When we bought this house and land we needed a twenty-five year mortgage (contrary to gossip that ran up and down this valley swifter than the river — we weren’t rich), and I remember sitting in a bank in town talking credibility with one of the managers. Susan did most of the talking. But when he asked me how my stonemason business was equipped — something that would give him assurance the man of the family could pay those monthly mortgage dues — I nodded and said there was me and the wheelbarrow. Thirty seconds of dead air filled his office, and somehow we got the mortgage; must have been Susan’s job. Wheelbarrow. I worked up a half-mile of stone wall with just a shovel, iron bar, and wheelbarrow. The first one faithfully worked ten years lugging stone, and I found it behind a hunters’ camp, probably ditched after a weekend of pouring sonatubes. Wood-handles, iron wheel, shallow tray. It wasn’t easy to move but I quickly got the hang of it because it was all I had. Moved a lot of stone. Some huge. The big ones you tip the wheelbarrow on its side close to the stone and lift the stone over, leaning it into the wheelbarrow, then you ease the tray and the stone inside (sometimes it’s twice the size of the tray) back onto its wheel and haunches. It’s ready to move, carefully. Moving stone by hand or with a wheelbarrow allows that pace a stonemason should learn about — slow, with balance, feeling every bit of every stone. The two hands are the most important tools of the trade, they gradually learn the sensation of touch. Touching large stones that can mangle a hand, touching the smallest stones that will balance a lintel over a doorway. The mind pays attention with the hands, the hands speak. The stone-builder who builds with backhoe or payloader — delivers stone to the job site and the payloader lifts many of the stones into place and then backfills — this is stonework made by machine and it looks like a machine. Too perfect and mechanical. No rough edges for the eye to fall on and play with. The wheelbarrow builder touches every inch of the wall, inside and out. Rough edges smooth to an elegance and return to a rough and there is something human and durable about it. It’s handmade. It’s between the stone and the good senses of the hands at work making a stable art. Trust yourself.

Stone wall and gate by Bob. "Cody" is the cat.


The location of the hut was chosen. A logical spot — backed against an apron of ledge, with an eastern prospect from its front door, somewhat hidden but enough seen to be enjoyed. A stonemason gets enjoyment looking at stonework, it’s in the blood. I can stand and look at carpentry detail for long moments, as Susan and I did at Fort Ross in northern California. A fort built by the Russians in the 19th century all structured of redwood. Beautiful work, but for me nothing like stone. Especially dry stonework, the gist of balance. Having two corner stones meet on this hut with a wafer of flat stone wedged in the crack between them draws my eye to that place; the focus and simplicity many times over. It was a natural hand movement when the work was being done…two good looking face stones lifted and placed, and without thinking I was feeling in the pile of smaller stone for the right stone to fit that crack. When Susan is at the site she asks how I know a certain stone will fit — I don’t, it just happens, or my hands know more than me. It’s a rhythm of hand and mind body balance. For some reason that balance is off balance when anyone is around, thus I work alone. It’s as if I do talk completely to the stone as working companion. From looking for the stone, finding it, hauling it to the job site, throwing it down on the ground, spreading it out, see what I have, then selecting, something not fitting, dropping it back to the ground, selecting another. Back and forth. Lots of handling. Lots of what others would term “wasted time.” Each time feeling the stone and knowing the stone. After awhile it becomes a coordination of what the hand knows the same time the eyes see. It comes together when a stone is picked up and dropped into place like nothing could. It’s the same with choosing the location where to build — forget the drawings, the sun degrees, diagrams, and expensive instruments — watch the landscape through the seasons. You have worked it, cut wood over that way for many years and come to relax with the spot. It looks clear back to the house, sights over a small pond, has the company of a few tall and handsome sugar maples, and the birds seem to call from that direction early and late in the day. It should be obvious. When you walk to the site and see that expanse of ledge you are already imagining the rear wall of the hut. Brush to clear around the ledge and a small beech tree must be cut down. There is at least two feet of hillside height that will have to be shoveled away to make the floor level, and then a foundation outline for the stone side walls that will be dug four feet down. At this point all words are “down” so the hut can go up. Tomorrow I will return with tape measure, shovel, iron bar, pick, and wheelbarrow.

Bob building a dam wall for a neighbor, Susan manning
the mixer, stone aplenty, circa 1976


Two months into building the hut I was also working for a stretch of weeks helping my friend Bob Hauptman frame his dream house in West Wardsboro, Vermont. He knew nothing about building a house but had all the will any man could muster into getting it built. Two years earlier Susan and I had spent a half day with Bob on his twenty acres, all of it wooded, and I was hired by Bob to fell the big trees — maple, beech, spruce — he didn’t dare tackle. Only one of the trees, a spruce, gave me trouble. It wouldn’t fall — no matter the wedges — it was too punky inside to have any bite for saw or wedge, and being almost perfectly straight and balanced, it would defy easy felling. I talked a lot to the tree that day. Its stump size was an average dumptruck tire laid flat. Over seventy feet tall. Between both chain saws, the bowsaw, three wedges, and pounding on it with an ax, it keeled. But it started to fall when nothing was being done, in fact I was standing there catching my breath when I felt it move…it fell slowly and suddenly very tall and placed itself nicely; I couldn’t have done better if the tree were picked up and thrown there. And luckily it fell away from the proposed site — saved a few hours of cleaning up. I was hired to fell the trees, Bob would cleanup and later hire a bulldozer operator to carve a twist of driveway that flattened out where a few grand rock maples stood. These maples had stopped growing, they simply stood. That is where the house would go, amongst the maples, all 50' x 30' of it. No electricity. When house building began, Carson was a month old. The walls of the stone hut were four feet high, but at this job I was looking at a poured concrete foundation with threaded sill bolts stubbed every six feet. Bob had no idea where to start. By the end of the day we had all the sills on, including for the attached garage, and the main carrying-beam of the house was set in, pointing north and south. It felt good working again with spruce, common nails, a coworker. Within two months the house would be framed, windows boxed, sheathing raised, and the roof shingled. Bob did most of the sheathing when I was away on other jobs. In the summer evening after supper at home I went out and did work on the hut. Susan would sit on a swing, hung in a nearby apple tree, swinging with Carson in her lap. Just watching her swing set my rhythm for work. Watching Bob, who is a university librarian, set another rhythm — especially one day when we were leaving the job after a long day working. I was loading tools in the car while Bob stood by himself looking at the house. No big deal. I was sitting in the car and he was about to follow, but before he did he turned and said “goodbye” to the house. He might have even waved, but he said goodbye. I heard it. The house heard it. It wasn’t said for me to hear or to tell you, but I do. That “goodbye” was stronger than any nail we sank into the house that summer.

Bob framing a house for and with Bob Hauptman
West Wardsboro, Vermont 1985


 all photographs by Susan Arnold

Stone Hut
a builder's notebook
Bob Arnold
1988, 2013