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Little Rocks Make the Big Rocks Work

June 1, 2011

June 1, 2011

By Maggie Dwyer

Several years ago I decided to take a proactive approach to the speeders who laid rubber on the curve around the front of my house – youthful (and not so youthful – I saw you, with your middle-aged lead-feet!) drivers habitually charged past my house, testing the G’s on my curve, on their way out of the village. And there is the “T” intersection out front – a side street that intersects and lines up directly with the front bedroom on the southeast side. If someone doesn’t stop, or hits a patch of ice, they could easily end up not only in my yard, but in my house. And I didn’t want my sleeping son to be mashed by a reckless car. So I started building The Lump.

It isn’t pretty, but it was put there to do a job – keep automobiles from charging across the lawn to hit or penetrate my house. I started building this with earth-filled tires (I picked up trash tires dumped in the woods across the road) and covered those with dirt, compost, and mulch.

My kids and I took the wheelbarrow to the woods across the road during the winter months, when we could see the tires dumped in years past. I have probably 6 or 8 tubeless tires, packed tight with earth, anchoring the heart of the berm. As I gardened I dropped my compost and occasional bags of dirt and mulch on top to slowly build it up.

Neighbors would occasionally ask me what I was doing with that lump, and once I explained, they understood. They’d seen deep tire marks gouged into other neighbors’ lawns, especially those on curves. They probably winced inwardly at the idea of this lump of mine out in the front yard, but they understood. They may not quite visualize the intended final results, but I had a plan.

I have a lot of spare pieces of quarried limestone extant in the yard, from a demolished planter structure that once sat near the front porch. It was torn down years before I bought the property. My house has a rock front, limestone, and this large and probably very ugly planter had once commingled with the wrought iron gate that I found around the back when I moved in*.

The limestone pieces were dumped at the back of the yard, down near the gate to the creek. Once I cleared out the brush, and found the gate, and started clearing, I realized I had tons of beautiful limestone rocks. I began to use them to make informal walls around my side door and my driveway vegetable garden, and I even built a keyhole garden with a bunch of it. But the main use of this rock, as I always intended, was a wall in front of the berm. All I was missing was the dirt that would fill in between the wall and the berm. I could buy $50 worth a half mile from the house, but they wouldn’t load it in a pickup with a camper shell. It wasn’t worth it to me to 1) remove the shell or 2) pay double the price of the dirt to have it delivered. So my berm/wall waited. Last month my next door neighbors had a new footer dug for an enlarged patio, and there was a lot of extra dirt. So I grabbed it, and this was the missing link in my wall building. No more procrastination – I had what I visualized needing, so I finally built the wall.

I’ve worked out in the open, wearing my hat and bandana in the bright sun, and my extra long over-size t-shirts to avoid getting a burn on the small of my back that appears when regular sized shirts pull up and expose the skin. People passing rarely stopped to ask about my project, they continued past silently. But they did notice. I spoke with a woman in the next block, she’s about my age–on her own, with the same interest and the drive (and no extra money)–to take on this kind of challenge at her house.  “I’ve been watching your wall. It’s beautiful!” she said recently. “I’ve had to build it in stages, as I had time,” I answered. “Of course!” – she responded, understanding perfectly. We do these projects as our employment allows.

This photo appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after Dylan provided music at a UTA Library faculty reception.
In April 2010 my son Dylan played classical guitar in the UTA Central Library atrium as a faculty reception was getting underway.
This charming young man sleeps in the front bedroom in my house.

Today I put the last few little rocks on the top layer – and I must pay brief homage to those little rocks that made this all possible. The big ones are charismatic, they are the ones people will notice as their headlights illuminate this limestone wall, but it was the little rocks that helped it all fit together. The ones I scrambled to find as the work progressed. And the last few I stuck onto the top of the wall before layering on a coat of mortar. I finished that wall with its coat of mortar on top with a cheap Dollar Store whisk broom that has been my constant companion. Cleaning off the rock surfaces each time I resumed work, and then at the end, providing the lovely scored surface to the mortar I smeared on top.

This wall has grown slowly, and the end result isn’t much more than two feet tall, but the goal is to stop a vehicle in its tracks if it slides into my yard. My goal is to save the life if the sleeper in the front bedroom.

Thoughts range widely if you work without a radio or phone in your ear. Thoughts about what lived here before the house was built, and about the life in the yard itself. I like to attract wildlife with my organic gardening and plant choices. There is a domestic shorthair feline buried nearby, next to the Italian Stone Pine in front of the wall. This is Clementine’s wall. I’ll plant flowers to make the whole area shimmer with color, so  who will care about a wall when it has bright zinnias or chartreuse sweet potato sprawled over it? A ghostly calico cat might lounge there watching people pass by, only we will notice.

I am an organic gardener so it always pains me to dig up a bed in the spring or fall and find displaced lizards, snakes, spiders, etc. With this wall, I have added habitat. A gorgeous large tarantula moved in as I was finishing the mortar cap of the wall.

As I placed the last stones and swept the mortar across the top of my wall this evening I saw a large tarantula climbing the stone support on the right-hand side. I couldn’t pull off my gloves fast enough to get the phone camera button pressed to capture the beauty of this velvet spider with it’s black thorax and russet patterned abdomen as it moved into a cavity in the new wall. I sent a message via my phone, and Dean Crabtree responded “Tenant already? Very nice job, I would say!” Of course! Not only is this a protection for my house, but I have created a new habitat area in the yard.

The stone matches that on the house. Most people probably won’t notice it after a while. The little wall is a passive sentinel, standing in place to protect the inhabitants of the house, and provide shelter for native wildlife. Not a bad assignment!

*There is a family story about an ugly planter, that takes place in Connecticut. My great aunt Josephine lived across the street from the Ansonia Public Library. There was a very modernist pink or beige granite-looking horse trough and fountain at the front of the library property. It turns out that the land was donated by the family of Anna Sewell, the author of the Black Beauty stories. And legend goes that if the trough and fountain are removed, the land reverts back to the family. So the library groundskeepers filled the trough with dirt and planted flowers.

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