A muddy area where the first wall went

A muddy area where the first wall went

A lesson in the do-it-yourself ethic

Eons ago before I could remember when or why, my parents built a house on Fox Island with an associated retaining wall of basalt about five feet tall and thirty feet long. I played on it, over it, ignored it, generally, except as an impediment between the front and side yards.  Mom’s creeping phlox poured over it, ferns sprouted forth from its crevices.

The wall lasted for 30 years until the day last January when my father called me at my home in sunny Pasadena to tell me that the house was ‘flooded’. From where? From the outside, of course.

But Dad, it’s on an island, and a small dry one at that with no rivers to be had. Wetlands, granted, and lots of them, but none near his house.

He insisted that the water currently cascading down the basement steps was real, and that he had gone so far as to take his personal excavator and dig up much of the front yard next to the house to find the source. His hydrologic exploration was unsuccessful, but he was able to locate the electrical trunk line feeding the house although not before he dug. I put my head in my hands and said a silent prayer for my mother’s once beautiful garden. My preview of it in February proved the site to be nearly as bad as I had thought. The wall had been decimated, a chunk was missing from the brick trim on the house, the yard pavers had been cracked, and the place was knee deep in mud. There was no sign of grass or flowers, or any of the place’s former grandeur.

By May, I had quit my job moved in for good. Hence, the beginning of my story. The front yard became my proof of point for developing a landscaping portfolio and I was going nowhere with it until that wall went back up.

It was black and white thinking at its best. My first challenge, and I never saw it coming. My tendency to fix things back the way that they were so that I could sleep easy overwhelmed any thinking that may have occurred outside of the box. In two weeks, I proceeded through all of the stages of the self-created problem: acknowledgement, choosing a course of action, instant frustration at how long it is taking, seeking alternatives to achieve the goal despite cost, personal trauma (in my case physical), and feelings of hopelessness.

By the first week, I had reopened an old shoulder injury and could no longer sleep for the pain. I had stood and watched my father run the excavator above and below the wall attempting to create the 2:1 grade that I had assigned him and struggling against physical exhaustion, mental fraility, and diabetes to work the giant machine for more than an hour at a time. The rocks that went into the original wall exceeding two hundred pounds in some instances and were impossible to lift into place without mechanical leverage. Rocks were placed, removed, dirt shifted about and compacted. I wept for the cedar tree whose roots reached out under the wall and were being torn up by the tracks.

Seven days later, I was willing to call a truce. A hydraulic line had broken spilling a pool over the cedar roots. I hired a kid to move rock, but he proved less than up to the task, so I rented a bobcat. Finally, at 3 am the night before the delivery of said bobcat, I sat up in bed with pain shooting through the inflamed nerves of my hands and concluded that I was missing a critical point in all of this.


Why must we use large machinery to move mountain when the very winds and waters around us can move more than we humans can ever dream to move, one grain at a time.

Well, that’s the point – time. And time is money, as I was constantly reminded during my wage-earning life. But this is just time, and time that I have set aside for doing the different thing. So I may not get it done this week or even this month. This season will do.  So I go out every evening and I stare at it. Soon, I have imagined it into two courses of rock, reducing the need for the structural integrity that might demand larger rocks and more demanding techniques. Still, I persist in the use of the excavator and spend a morning in a light mist with my father setting rock until his patience runs thin with yelling at me to quit moving them myself. He wants the bobcat; this is taking too long. I am losing patience with his losing patience, but more than that, I don’t want this to be dependent upon outside forces like machines with nuts, bolts, fluids that leak, tanks to be filled, and tracks that compact the earth until it is hard and barren as cement.

A few cedar branches drift over where the excavator sits as I stare down at the wall. This is not about a wall, an end point. It is about the way in which I approach it. I consider my mother, who rolled rocks as large as these by herself using leverage. My father was amazed, but when you have nothing but your two hands, you find a way. The Egyptians and the Aztecs both lacked excavators. They made up for it with sheer numbers and brains. On this scale, I could possibly shun the sheer numbers but I had to use my head. This is about learning patience, and working within my own bounds. If noisy machinery and my father’s impatience took the fun out of it, then I had to find my own way to reclaim the process as my own.

I’d climb down to the bottom and begin twisting and rolling a rock that exceeded  my own weight at least one time over. When I considered the rock’s pivot point, and moved it around that, it was suddenly not so difficult to move it ten feet to the wall and shift it into place. A rock a day. I can do that.

So each evening, I began slipping out after my father had gone to bed early and worked in the northern twilight literally under his second story bedroom window to set rock. I preferred to do it clandestinely to avoid argument. I considered each two-man chunk of basalt, viewing its flat sides and rounded points upon which it might pivot. I would prop them up, placing a smaller rock beneath to hold it steady until I could angle it the way that I wanted it and roll it back over. One by one, the larger stones were set. The first morning, my father commented on bringing the excavator back over to start work but I demurred. The next day, the excavator already sat in position under the tree where he’d apparently moved it while I was away. I moved three large rocks that evening, under his window. I wondered when he would notice, what he would say. After begging shamelessly for him to help me, my sudden change of direction might seem odd. That was, after all, a common complaint from my various ex partners. Internally, it made sense to me even if the rest of the world refused to acknowledge it. It didn’t matter anyway so long as I honored my own needs and let my father know honestly why I preferred to do it this way.

The Wall

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