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A Different Kind of Wall

Some walls are built to keep something out. Others are built to keep something in. But there’s another kind of wall, a wall that defines the boundaries of a place in order to make that place more beautiful, and to demonstrate a kind of affection. (I wrote about it a few years ago in a post called “You Shall Be My Pumpkins.”)

I started building a dry stack stone wall about three weeks ago on a chilly day in January. As is usually the case, I had no idea what I was doing. When I started keeping bees, I got my dad’s bee supplies leftover from his short stint as a beekeeper, ordered a queen, and asked questions later. This is, I realize, in flagrant opposition to Jesus’s parable about counting the cost, but it’s a weakness I can’t seem to shake. Planning bores the tar out of me. When the mood strikes to build something or write something or draw something, I dive right in because who has time to do homework when there’s something cool to be done? This kind of behavior drives some people crazy (my long-suffering and wonderful manager, Christie, for example), but even though I get myself into pickles sometimes I happen to think the pickle is part of the fun.

Back to the wall. I love stone walls. I love them in Tennessee, I love them in the British Isles, and I love them in New England when ex-convicts played by Morgan Freeman discover secret notes from Andy Dufresne hidden in them. We have an old wall here at the Warren that was built before the Civil War, and every time I walk beside it my imagination is dancing with images of the people who made it. I wonder why it was put there in the first place. You have to mean to build a stone wall, you know? Someone on Facebook, on seeing a photo of my progress, said that they had a revelation about the existence of God when they spotted a dry stack wall while driving through the countryside. The wall couldn’t have happened on accident; it was put there with a great deal of work and consideration. When I researched the cost of building one I was deflated by the fact that a four-foot wall costs, on average, about $100 a foot, so I never got around to starting one. But then.

Then, the Peterson family was given a mighty gift. Julie Witmer, who has a bona fide English Gardener’s certificate, emailed one day from her home in Pennsylvania and offered to come to the Warren with her family for a weekend and help us map out a master plan for our property. We live on five acres, about half of which is wooded. The other half is pasture, more or less, and while it’s pretty to look at, that much space makes landscaping difficult. Eric Peters, on the other hand, lives with his family in East Nashville in a lovely little house with a fenced backyard and a front porch and a sidewalk. His flowerbeds are gorgeous and diligently weeded. His backyard has little nooks and crannies that are lovingly landscaped. Whenever we visit the Peters house I’m always a little envious because he has a defined space to work with—a frame for the picture, so to speak. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining—just saying that a few acres of pasture makes landscaping tricky.

There was no getting around it. It was time to build that wall. I went out one day with my boys, a few shovels, and some string, took a deep breath, and started digging. That was a few weeks ago. Andrew Peterson

All that to say, when the Witmers offered their kind assistance, we jumped at the chance. A few months after their visit, during which Julie took lots of pictures and measurements and sketches, she sent us what she called the Thirty Year Plan. It’s beautiful. You can see our house from a bird’s eye view, and all around it are splashes of color where amsonia and hydrangea and yarrow are placed among walking paths and raised vegetable garden beds and raspberry arbors. In a column on the right is a list of all the plants she recommends and how many of each we’ll need. We framed her plan and hung it on the wall, a practical piece of art. When I study the plan, I can almost smell the flowers as I move around inside her dream. Then I tear my eyes away and look out the window at a bare yard, and I’m struck by the tension between the hope and the reality, the future and the present, as if the expectation of the thing haunts the property.

To my delight, the plan included a stone wall that borders an English garden in our front yard. Like I said, it’s the Thirty Year Plan. There’s no way on earth we could find the money or the time to do it all at once, but we can do a little each year, so I decided on a whim to start on the front yard. But how to begin? I ordered a few of the plants this winter, to be shipped at planting time in early spring. I knew I’d need to mulch the yard to kill the grass, but it wouldn’t make sense to do that unless there was some definition to the area. There was no getting around it. It was time to build that wall. I went out one day with my boys, a few shovels, and some string, took a deep breath, and started digging. That was a few weeks ago.

I had no idea how many thousands of pounds of rock I’d need to lift, how many pairs of work gloves I would wear through (two so far, and I’m about to need a third), or how much I would obsess every waking minute over rocks, rocks, rocks. On every drive I’m scanning the sides of the roads for the right kinds of stone, every time I walk our property I come back to the front yard hefting a stone from the woods, every morning when I wake up the first order of business is opening the blinds to evaluate yesterday’s work. It’s been a deeply satisfying process—a few hours each day of either driving to get more rocks from the roadside, dumping them in the yard, sifting through them for the right rock, tapping little shims into the spaces with a hammer to make sure they fit tightly, running out of stones and in exasperation driving out to find more. Slowly but surely the wall came to be. I’d get mentally fatigued and head in to the house for a drink of water, wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into, and then I’d see the Witmer garden plan on the wall. After a few minutes of studying the Thirty Year Plan I’d nod resolutely and walk out into a physical version of it—under construction to be sure, but the manifestation of Julie’s imagination no less—and I’d find a fresh wind to carry me through the next layer of stone.

Saturday I built the falsework for a stone archway. The archway wasn’t in her plan, but our family agreed that there just had to be one. We’d seen so many of them still standing in the ruins of abbeys and castles in Britain and Ireland that the thought of having one in our front yard was too good to pass up. Yes, I’m following the Witmer plan, but just like writing a book, it’s good to leave room for surprises. When I told my brother Pete I was going to build an old school arch he scoffed (that’s what big brothers do). “How are you going to do that?” he scoffed. I counter-scoffed with a shrug and told him, “The glory of the interweb.” It turns out I’m not the only oddball out there interested in stone arches. People have been doing this for thousands of years, I figured, so it wasn’t a question of “Is it possible?” but a question of “Am I crazy enough to try it?” First I built up the wall on the sides of the gap to reinforce the outward pressure of the arch.

Then I built what’s called “falsework,” a wooden support in the shape of the arch. The falsework is held up by  four 2×6 legs, screwed in so that once the arch is complete I can just unscrew them (verrrrry carefully) and let gravity do the rest. I stood the frame in the gap and right about then Pete came over to scoff some more. “That thing’s gonna fall, you know.” “You’re probably right. But I’m going to try.” “Well, call me when you’re ready. I’ll have the car warmed up to take you to the hospital.” I know my big brother well enough to know that his scoffery is meant as encouragement, because he knows that if there’s one thing that can motivate a little brother it’s the desire to gloat over his big brother’s unjust scoffing.

I placed the rocks on the falsework slowly, heaving them up from my pickup bed one at a time and then shimming them into place.

The keystone went on last, followed by several more shims, just to make sure the whole thing was tight as a drum. I called Pete and shouted for my family to come watch. To make a long story short, it worked.

Pete was congratulatory. I wasn’t too gloaty, I don’t think. The gravity of the earth tugs constantly, unwaveringly down, and that half-circle of ancient stones wedged against one another just hang in the air as if they were always meant to do that very thing. (Pete, by the way, gloated on Facebook that he was the first to walk under it.)

Here’s the deal. I’ve had plenty of time, as you can imagine, to think while I’m out there laying stone. In the mornings I’ve even prayed quite a bit that this wall-building process would be a kind of worship, and that God would show me something. And he did. For weeks now, working with stones lifted from their graves in the Old Earth to give them new and beautiful purpose, I haven’t stopped thinking about the New Earth. The New Creation. That map on the wall was born of someone else’s imagination and expertise. From a far country Julie cast a vision for our lives. We hung that vision on our wall as a picture not of what is, but of what will be. When we look at it, our minds can’t help but wander to the day when, thirty years hence, we’ll move around inside the real thing. When I get tired, discouraged, forgetful of what on earth I’m doing out there in the yard, I look at the map and remember: there’s a world that is coming—a world I could never have imagined on my own, a world born out of a gardener’s mind. I have been invited into the building of that world. It’s not just theory. It’s not just pie-in-the-sky. It’s stone and sweat and work and wonder, all to make our little corner of Tennessee look a bit more like the Kingdom of God.

This archway is not meant to keep anyone or anything out or in. When we’re standing in our garden, the gate will beckon us out into the wild pasture. When we’re in the pasture, the archway will beckon us into the order and fragrance of the garden. The wall is the frame of the picture, which makes not just the painting more beautiful, but also the very room it inhabits. And the arch? The arch is neither a way in or out, but a way through, a passage that honors the going and the coming, just as the mouth is for breath and for song, both of which are necessary for survival.

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