Letter From…Rural Ontario: Dry-stone walls
Ripe for re-invention
TEXT BY BRENDAN STEWART, OALA
Driving through the countryside of Southern Ontario, I’m reminded of the American cultural geographer J.B. Jackson’s quote that “landscape is history made visible” — that the patterns of our cultural relationships with the land are evident all around us if we train our eyes to them. An element of the rural landscape that I’ve been pondering a lot lately is the dry-stone wall.
My professional relationship with dry-stone walls started with my first project after graduating with a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture. I’d been hired by family friends to develop a plan for their rural property along the Speed River north of Guelph — to provide guidance for improvement projects they wanted to undertake themselves in phases. One of the projects was a freestanding wall of dry-laid fieldstone, collected from the property, which was to line a gravel entrance driveway adjacent to a row of existing apple trees.
Having had the opportunity to backpack around Europe, I’d been deeply impressed by the beauty and timeless quality of the ancient dry-stone terrace walls of Cinque Terre, Italy, and the stone fences lining fields in the Cotswolds of England. I’d also grown up seeing dry stone in the countryside in various states of repair: everything from loosely piled linear heaps of boulders to handsome walls of quarried and dressed stone. I understood this type of wall had rich character—that it seems to feel “at home” in the landscape of the region—but I didn’t know why that might be or, importantly for the job at hand, how they are built.
Referring to some technical articles, I drew up instructions outlining key principles of dry-stone construction, and directed my client to a good book on the subject, Building Stone Walls, by John Vivian (1976). The wall project was undertaken over a number of years, and my client cites a workshop he attended with John-Shaw Rimmington, a waller who runs the website Dry Stone Walling Across Canada, as instrumental.
In the early fall of 2017, I visited the completed wall, which (to my great satisfaction) looks as if it has always been there. While chatting, I discovered that my client knew the location of some old and new walls nearby, and knew some local wallers. We made plans for a day trip to check them out.
We set out north and arrived at our first wall near the intersection of highways 124 and 136, about midway between Erin and Orangeville. There are two portions of wall lining the road, allowing a side-by-side comparison. The first section is of loosely piled fieldstone—perhaps a poorly built wall that has failed and settled through decades of frost action, but more likely a fence piled like this to begin with. Adjacent is a more refined wall, also of fieldstone, with tight jointing, a consistent batter, and some dressing of the facing stones.
Later, consulting a free GIS dataset, Surficial Geology of Southern Ontario, I learned that these fences sit between two drumlins, on property classified as 5b Till, described as “stone-poor, sandy silt to silty sand-textured till on Paleozoic terrain.”
In Alton, we visited the town square, a recently built public space featuring a series of dry-stone walls of varying techniques and materials, both fieldstone walls and walls of quarried and dressed sandstone and limestone. The walls integrate salvaged cornerstones and lintels from demolished local buildings with engraved names and dates of construction. Also to be found is metal artwork, a fountain, and sedums planted as a coping atop the wall.
Built by volunteers in the summer of 2013, this was a site of the annual Stone Festival, run by the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada (aka Dry Stone Canada), featuring dry-stone organizations from Great Britain and the U.S., and including a two-day training course.
The visit makes us wonder about the potential to build more dry-stone structures on public land, and the unique opportunity that the technique offers to engage the community in the build process.
We also consider the dissociation of these dry-wall constructions from their historic function in the vernacular, agricultural landscape. Here, the walls bound the edge of the space, but rather than containing and rendering viable a privately owned working landscape, they enclose and enhance a publicly owned space of leisure, defining seating areas, creating comfortable microclimates, and inviting appreciation and exploration of the fine craftsmanship. Unlike its more humble antecedents, which typically sourced material from the site itself, some of the stone at the Alton project was quarried in Madoc (and provided by Upper Canada Stone), and the fieldstone was salvaged from a farm down the road.
The Alton project uses a construction technique and material palette familiar to the region, and to the casual observer the project might well appear to be quite old, but the raison d’être is different. These dry-stone constructions exist as a response to a contemporary set of cultural and economic forces: a desire to interpret and commemorate local history; to create flexible outdoor public space; and, presumably, as an economic development strategy aimed at attracting tourists from the city (and their dollars) looking for experiences of small-town charm.
Leaving Alton, we drive north to Landman Gardens & Bakery, a working farm just north of Grand Valley. We plan to pay a visit to Eric Landman, a dairy farmer who has been building with dry stone since 2004, but Eric is not there. His son tells us that we can find him building a wall at the nearby Dufferin County Museum and Archives. We explore the dry-stone Blackhouse, built on the property as part of a dry-stone festival in 2009, before continuing on our way.
At the museum, Eric, who is also the president of programs for Dry Stone Canada, is working with a colleague named John Bland, a waller from Montreal. John shows us pictures on his phone of a project on Amherst Island near Kingston—executed as part of a 2015 walling festival — which was designed to allow a beam of sunlight through an aperture (a Celtic cross) to a target (a Claddagh stone) at a predetermined time. John explains how he used Google SketchUp to work out the precise geometries before the build. Eric and I make plans to meet again the following week to see some of his work in the Caledon area.
The next week, Eric takes us to see two private residential properties in the Caledon Hills, where he and a loose guild of collaborating wallers have built some of their most ambitious projects to date — works that seem more related to the work of land artists such as Andy Goldsworthy or Harvey Fite than to the walls we’ve seen so far.
We explore a mysterious and exquisite structure of vertically laid Credit Valley sandstone, quarried on the property and built on a bedrock outcropping in a cedar forest. Designed incrementally on-site in collaboration with John Bland, Sunny Wieler and Creemore-based waller Andre Lemieux, the structure forms an equilateral triangle in plan, each side with a slight concave curve adding strength to the walls, and features a circular inner chamber that is open to the sky. It feels like a site for ancient druid rituals, but is only a year or so old.
On another part of the property, we explore a spectacular fieldstone wall that snakes through a forest of red and white pines and is reminiscent of Goldsworthy’s wall at the Storm King Art Center in the Hudson River Valley, New York State. I ask Eric to talk about why he’s drawn to dry-stone walls, and what he thinks landscape architects should know about them. He shares a few ideas.
First, he points out that the walls are environmentally sustainable, with minimal processing and transportation-related costs, especially in the rural landscape where the stone is often readily available on-site or within a few kilometres. Second, the walls are inherently beautiful. He speaks about the depth and shadow lines you get because the joints aren’t filled with mortar, and of the texture that develops as the walls weather over time, especially in shady locations where mosses can establish themselves. Third, the walls seem to emanate a peaceful quality. Maybe this is another way of getting at the idea of the timeless quality that the walls seem to have, even new ones, and the way they seem to “belong” in the landscape.
Eric shares the idea that humans are hardwired to scan their environment and to identify potential danger. When you perceive something that is inherently “structural” — something that you innately understand to be solid, sturdy, and well-built—it puts your mind at ease. Eric thinks that the very nature of dry-stack walls — the tight joints; the slight batter from wider bottom to narrower top; the legibility of how it is put together — is perceived as safe at a subconscious level, and this contributes to a sense of peacefulness.
Getting ready to leave the property, the conversation turns back to the idea of building more dry-stone constructions in the public realm. Eric says that one barrier is cost, but another is finding engineers and building inspectors who understand how dry-stone constructions work structurally, and who are comfortable with the liability. Perhaps through more collaboration with the dry wallers, landscape architects could help iron out this wrinkle.
Eric prefers working with fieldstone over quarried stone. It’s more challenging to execute (you can’t shape the stone to make it fit), but he also talks about the sentimental value. The fieldstone he uses is usually recycled from an old pile on the site he is working on, and he likes to think about the cultural associations — the idea that those same stones were once worked by pioneers clearing fields, and now they are being put to a new use. The commemorative walls at the Dufferin County Museum and Archives have this value too—some are built of stone from old building ruins elsewhere in the county, the stories shared on interpretive plaques. I like to think about that, too.
BIO/ BRENDAN STEWART, OALA, IS AN ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH. PRIOR TO JOINING THE FACULTY IN 2017, HE WAS AN ASSOCIATE AT ERA ARCHITECTS IN TORONTO, WHERE HIS PRACTICE FOCUSED ON THE INTERSECTION OF CONTEMPORARY DESIGN AND HERITAGE CONSERVATION.
For a comprehensive and accessible over- view of the post-contact evolution of the Ontario landscape, see University of Toronto geographer Thomas McIlwraith’s 1997 book Looking for Old Ontario: Two Centuries of Landscape Change. McIlwraith explains patterns of land division and privatization, and the immense and generations-long undertaking of clearing the land of trees and rock to create farms and fields. He tells the history of the types of fences that demarcated private property boundaries and internal field divisions. As resources changed, fence types evolved from the earliest forms: piled brush from tree tops; pole and log fences from trunks; rough boulder fences from glacial debris; snake-rail fences made of split cedar; and pine-stump fences pulled from the fields. Later came dry-stone walls of fieldstone and river stone, and eventually the board, post and rail, and box-wire fences that are more common today.
McIlwraith quotes a report from 1856: “A few farmers in Caledon have built a considerable quantity of stone wall, which answers admirably, forming the most durable of all fences, and at the same time ridding the land of a troublesome incumbrance.” He notes that many early fences were lost post-World War I to road widening and field consolidation, and that Southern Ontario’s most attractive stone walls tend to stand on poor land with rocky soil. The book includes an interesting map, showing the predominant fence types across Southern Ontario in the late 19th century. This map might serve as a useful reference for dry-wall enthusiasts looking to locate, explore, and document old walls.