I met Julie Witmer at Hutchmoot several years ago. She’s from Pennsylvania. She has an English gardener’s certificate, and called one day to ask if she could give our family a gift.
She and her family came down to stay with us one weekend, and she and her husband James spent hours walking the property, taking measurements, scribbling notes in a little journal. About three months later we received a tubular package in the mail. We opened it and were awestruck as we spread out on our kitchen table a hand-drawn schematic of the Warren. Julie called it a thirty-year garden plan. All around the drawing of our house were colorful splotches representing alchemilla, coneflowers, clematis, yarrow, lavender, foxgloves, and all manner of trees and shrubs, all divided by walkways and places for firepits and benches. On the right of the drawing was a list of the plants and how many of each we would need. One of the difficulties of landscaping a few acres is that it’s too much space to know what to do with. On the other hand, while designing a small front garden isn’t easy, at least you know the boundaries. We had a big pasture that took me four hours to mow. So Julie hemmed things in by telling us where to build fences and stone walls immediately around the house, with paths that led to the broader sections. She gave us a picture frame so we would know where to paint.
What a gift.
I framed the drawing and hung it on the wall by the front door, in a place where I’d see it every time I left the house. I spent hours staring at it, looking up from the drawing to the yard, then back at the drawing again, dreaming of the day when I could walk around in what she had imagined. After a year or so of putting it off, I decided it was time to start with the front garden. Julie had drawn a stone wall enclosing a rectangular space right out front. The space was divided into quadrants by a T-shaped pea gravel walkway with a stone feature at the intersection. But how do you build a wall? I had seen enough of them in England (and New England) to know that a stone wall is a beautiful thing (whatever Robert Frost might have thought), and I wanted one. But I didn’t have a clue how to go about it. So I dug around on the Internet and learned that if you hire a professional a dry stack stone wall costs about $100 per foot. This wall was at least 100 feet long, and while I’m no math genius I knew that would be about $10,000. No way on earth I could afford that. The garden plan, however, only worked if it was enclosed. It had to be done, and if this plan was going to take thirty years I needed to get started, stat. I could have cheated and just built a fence, true, but my inner perfectionist wasn’t having it.
One day I passed a pile of throw-away rocks on the side of the road, so I pulled over and loaded them into my pickup. The next day I saw another pile, then another, and loaded them both. You wouldn’t believe how much unwanted stone is just lying around in Tennessee. The next time I walked around our woods I noticed a ton (literally) of rocks scattered about the property, so I loaded them into a wheelbarrow and heaved them up to the front yard. The kids had a list of daily chores anyway, so I added the assignment of walking the woods each morning and bringing two rocks each day to the pile. Then, satisfied that I had enough to get started, I watched hours of YouTube videos about dry stack walls.
During a warm snap in January I walked outside with a shovel and dug the first footer for the foundation. I figured we had enough rocks piled up to make some real progress, but after fussing with it for a few chilly hours I had gone through all our rocks and had completed about six feet of two-foot-high wall. Just 94 feet to go. I thought about Roy Scheider in Jaws and said to myself, “We’re gonna need more rocks.” My obsessive nature kicked in, and I spent weeks scouring the Nashville area for more stones. I pilfered construction sites, walked the woods around our house for hours, searched the shoulders of highways—and discovered treasure troves of discarded stones, which I surreptitiously hauled away in my old truck. Years later, I still can’t help but notice orphaned stones beside the road, and my kids still make fun of me.
Slowly but surely, the wall took shape. My arms did, too, to Jamie’s delight. At some point I got it into my head that the wall needed an archway—as in, a bona fide Roman Arch, suspended by nothing but a keystone and this thing called gravity. Once again, YouTube provided all I really needed to know. I built up the sides of an opening, then measured and built a wooden frame with a round top. By now my older brother decided he needed to come over and inform me in classic older brother fashion that it would never work—which of course was all the motivation I needed to carry through. I stacked the stones on top of the frame, set the keystone, and used a hammer to tighten it all with little shims of flinder. When all was ready, with the whole family watching, I nervously removed the legs from the frame. The round wooden support fell away, and—lo, and behold!—the thing held. My brother grunted something congratulatory and went home as I high fived Jamie and the kids.
It took another few weeks to complete the other arm of the wall, and before long the footpaths were dug, some plants were in the ground, and we had an actual enclosed cottage garden, complete with a stone archway, right here at the Warren.
It’s no exaggeration to say that it was a spiritual experience. I couldn’t stop thinking about songwriting, about creativity, and especially about the new creation. Julie dreamed up a better world for us; we had been commissioned, so to speak, to look at the world we occupied in a new way, and to incarnate that vision; whenever I looked out my window I saw the same old field, but one quick glance at the framed plan on the wall reminded me where we were going and whispered encouragement to get busy; I had been invited into a better story, and the only way to tell it was to get my hands dirty (and to appropriate some rocks); and even though Julie designed the thing without a stone arch, she encouraged me to bring my own imagination to bear on the project, to make the changes I saw fit, and to let the garden become what it wanted to become.
I finished the wall that spring around Easter, and one morning I woke at dawn, just as the sun broke over the hill and shot a ray of new light across the property. Because the earth had been slowly tilting its way toward summer, that light landed in a new place, illuminating the stone arch. I peeked through the blinds and gasped, because the arch, suspended by gravity (a delightfully poetic thought) looked like the mouth of the empty tomb. Those rocks, repurposed and reborn, were crying out praise.
from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson