Did you ever take those vocational aptitude tests back when you were in high school? You know, the ones that would ask questions like, “Would you rather go out on a date with a beautiful girl or rebuild the carburetor on a 1966 Mustang?” I think they recommended me to either be the Vice President of the United States, or the Tilt-A-Whirl operator in a traveling carnival. In retrospect, I wish they would have suggested that I be a stone mason, and that I would have considered it.
There is a danger of me over-glamorizing this strenuous occupation. It’s usually outdoors, and while we always imagine outdoor work as seventy-two degrees, sunny with a light breeze, the reality is, you work whether it is a sultry hundred and five, or down in the chilly forties. If it rains, or gets too cold, you may not work at all. There’s constant lifting, and a lifetime of it takes a toll, no matter how careful, muscular, or big you are. Your fingers, hands and arms are always in the vicinity of things that have hard sharp edges, things that are routinely hit with a hammer, and heavy things that are dropped into place. Cuts and bruises go with the trade.
So, given the downsides, why my attraction? Because all of us have – to varying degrees – the urge to create, but how many of us harbor a realistic hope that our creations will survive? By tomorrow, this article will either be in the recycle bin or catching bird droppings in the cage underneath the macaw, but something built of stone? It will still be here tomorrow, and next year, and probably next century.
America doesn’t think much about making things last; we are so obscenely rich in raw materials that we find it cheaper and easier to consume and dispose, rather than build and maintain. I once asked a friend of mine from England why houses there tended to be built of brick or stone, instead of the cheaper and faster wood frame houses common is the US. He said – very sincerely – that with the constant moisture in the air, wood structures just didn’t last very long in England, and after a hundred, or a hundred and fifty years, a wood frame house would just have to be replaced. I juxtapose that against the real estate agent telling my daughter and son in law that in today’s market, they really shouldn’t consider any properties more than ten years old.
You appreciate the longevity and functionality of stone in Europe, where two thousand year old Roman bridges and aqueducts survive, and fourteenth century cathedrals and government buildings are still in use. Walk the Great Wall in China, and feel the centuries that soldiers have stood guard, watching to the west. If you hike the Appalachian Trail in New England, you will repeatedly come across stone walls running off into the forest, faithfully delineating the property boundaries of long-forgotten farms. Travel on any two lane highway in Georgia, and you will likely drive past a lonely stone chimney thrusting into the sky, the skeletal remains of a house that once was.
I am also fascinated by the jigsaw puzzle nature of stacking and mortaring odd- shaped river rocks together in a way that forms a perfectly level wall, or porch, or foundation. Bricks and quarried blocks avoid this complication, but in so doing, lose an appealing visual aesthetic.
It’s not surprising that I didn’t think about these things when I was considering occupations in my youth. The only job requirement then – and rightfully so – was whether or not I could make enough money to support a wife and children. Only later, after the possibility of starvation was no longer the primary concern, did I begin contemplating things like whether or not I liked my work. And, of course, to get to concepts like wanting your work to have permanence, you have to be past the half century mark, when the certainty of your own mortality starts sinking in.
But it’s okay; recognizing that there are far more interesting things to do in life than there is time available to do them is what gives every day a pleasant sense of urgency.