Think of a farming landscape. Chances are there’ll be a dry-stone wall in it somewhere. But dry-stone walls are as much a product of the landscape as vice versa, because most of them have been made from the local stones. Indeed, they serve two purposes as far as farming is concerned – livestock control (keeping farm animals in and wild animals out), and a convenient way of getting rid of all those bits of rock and stone that are littering your fields and being a nuisance, without having to lug them too far. It often seems as though the latter is the most important reason! Seriously though, to use only what you see about you could almost be the definition of “sustainable”.
Fitting into the landscape.
They are called “dry” stone walls not because they are only built on nice sunny days (far from it…), but because of the absence of cement. It could indeed be argued that a dry-stone wall will last longer than a cemented-together wall, not just because stone is a far more durable material than cement, but also because a wall will settle over time, and the absence of cement allows some fluidity within the structure, so that it can move a little without falling over. Plus it will look nicer, be easier to repair or take down if necessary, be a haven for wildlife (lots of small nooks and crannies for animals to live in and plants to root in), and avoid the enormous carbon-footprint due to the use of cement.
A good dry-stone wall will not last for decades – it will last for generations if not centuries. The walls we are repairing at the moment were around long before Hotel Posada del Valle was dreamed of, and only need repairing now due to damage by minor landslides, fallen trees and construction machinery. Around the farm, and indeed the whole area, are walls that have stood there longer than anyone can remember. By seeing where they are, they help us work out the past history of the land.
The three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle
I love dry-stone walls, and enjoy building them too. They are three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles, and when you’ve finished you don’t just get a pretty picture to break up and put back in the box, you get a useful landscape feature that should still be there long after you’ve gone (the pieces are a bit heavier though…). You start with the heaviest stones as your foundations – they make a good solid base to your wall (they should be dug into the ground a little way) and they don’t need lifting into place, just rolling. Then you build up in layers of uniform depth (in an ideal world!), until you get to almost the height you want. Every now and again you include a “through-stone” to knit the two outer faces of the wall together for extra stability. To finish off, a layer of “topping” or “coping” stones are added – and this is where most of the regional diversity of walls is evident. Here in limestone Asturias it is usual to have biggish flattish rectangular stones laid across the top, but in other parts of the world it can be thin flat stones laid on top, or stood up on their ends, or other variations. The top stones bring the wall up to your desired height (enough to stop the sheep jumping over it), join the two sides of the wall together, and exert pressure to keep the rest of the wall in place. And there you have it, a dry-stone wall.
A foundation layer ready to be built upon.
A layer of topping stones to finish the wall.
Entry written by Hugh Taylor