Chapter 12. Thar’s Joy in Them Thar Hills

When the big stumps, soil and tumbled rock had been removed to make a “notch” in the hillside—a shelf for our cabin-to-be—the bedrock underneath was exposed. At the south end of this, down below, was our small excavation. If I took out more rock there, we’d gain valuable space under that end of the cabin. It would make a good basement for storage, perhaps a heating room or woodshed, or just extra flat space.

But what would I do with all that excess stone? I couldn’t leave it lying in heaps, filling up our all-too-scarce level places. We definitely needed a couple of new building projects.

We could always use more flat space near the shelter. A stone wharf out from the seawall beside our landing bay could accommodate huge chunks of rock that were too heavy for me to move anywhere but downhill. If the “shelf level” on the hill were extended to the north, we’d have a patio outside the future cabin’s kitchen. To build up the front edge of such a patio, a high retaining wall would have to be built up from the base of the slope behind our existing shelter. Any medium-sized stones that I could carry could be worked into that retaining wall.

I was ready to start taking that rockface apart. I began to spend every possible hour up there pounding my heavy chisels, cracking, splitting and hauling out rock. Some stones had to go uphill, while others had to go down. I rolled them end over end with a peavey. I slid them along on rollers. In their original sizes and shapes big blocks were often quite useless. They had to be reshaped.

It was heavy work, hard work. Even though I was careful with my hammering and wore leather gloves, many of my fingernails came to display unusual patches of black and blue polish. Some nights I could hardly get to sleep because of the aching in my hands, wrists and forearms, to say nothing of the small of my back. Yet the next day I’d be out there again at the rockface, pounding, heaving and lifting. That summer three pairs of old trousers wore out, and five old shirts.

I remembered the magnificent stonework that had been done by the ancient Egyptians, also the monumental masonry of Greece and Rome. Everybody praises the architects, but it was the quarry workers, stonecutters and mechanics of those ancient empires who gained my lively respect. Until I myself undertook my small projects, building with stone, I had not really understood how amazing were the feats the ancients had performed. Their works outlived by centuries both those who conceived the projects and those who worked with the stones.

Trying to do a very difficult job is good for anyone’s soul. At least you learn to appreciate the skills and successes of others. Few people realize how really hard it is to run a long distance, to swim a fast butterfly stroke, to pirouette and leap on figure skates, or to float smoothly through the air in ballet. We scorn mediocre performances and mistakes by professionals, but most of us couldn’t do anything even approaching that level. To learn respect and sympathy for the slaves and craftspeople of bygone empires, try doing some stonework.

While I was taking apart that hillside, I sometimes had to deal with real challenges. I found that the major crack planes in the rockface left removable blocks in neat valleys of Vs. When I had taken the loosened rocks out of the valleys inside the Vs, I was left with the great uncrackable lumps standing up between the Vs. Within these massive “gables,” the tough crystals were so intertwined in every direction that a slab of that rock would sometimes bend like a spring rather than break.

Those big nodes were tough! I had to deal with three of them. They were the aristocrats of the quarry and they just sat there and defied me to do my worst. My heaviest sledgehammer merely bounced off them. I succeeded in cracking one of them by heating it. We burned junk wood around it for days and when it was all hot, we doused it down with lots of cold water. That treatment opened cracks for my chisels. Winter rains and freezing weather opened some cracks in a second one. I was able to split up those two and dispose of them. But the granddaddy of them all still remained up there, stolid, silent and impregnable.

Eventually I was able to isolate him by removing the rock piece by piece all around him. Theoretically, with a big enough force, he could be removed by rolling him downhill. Unfortunately that haughty old monolith sat above and behind one of Kay’s favorite trees. If I dislodged him, he’d be sure to wipe out “Momma’s little alder” and land plop in the middle of our nice sandy boatlanding bay. Or he might swerve and take out a promising young fir tree that was growing beside the shelter. That way he might come to rest blocking our kitchen doorway. So that grayhead colossus just sat there mocking me, daring me to try something. Until he was out of there, my quarry work was practically stalled.

One day I was throwing junk rock into the hollow between the three rising outside walls of the wharf. I observed that the project now looked like a square cup.

“Cup!” I exclaimed. “A golf cup!”

At last I knew what to do with that haughty rock up behind me. By now its corners were so rounded and its surface so pitted by my futile sledgehammer smashing that it definitely resembled a giant golf ball. I decided to try a trick shot.

Behind Kay’s picturesque alder, I put up a massive buffer-barrier of heavy rocks. I hoped it was set at the proper angle to make up for my mistake if I miscalculated. When everything had been cleared from my fairway, I undermined the big ball in front as far as I dared. I was sure I could move it. Then I went to lunch.

At the table I announced that today I was going to play “Giant Golf.” They all knew how that obstinate old rock had been frustrating me. After lunch, with everyone watching, I dramatically played it as my great scene. From a ledge above the node rock I heaved up a long, thick cedar pry for everyone to observe. Then I inserted it behind the big stone and tentatively pulled back and down on the pry. I could feel it give a little. I had the advantage of him at last! So I pulled on the pry with all my weight, and the old rock slowly tipped and went into a roll. It bounded down the rockface and the ground shook. The big ball deflected off my buffer pile according to plan. It rumbled neatly down through between the two trembling trees, out across the back landing area and right down into the waiting “cup.”

Cheers rang out, and applause from all present—but not from me. When my old enemy took off, the big pry went with it and I followed them, slithering down the edge of the rockface to sprawl in the dirt down below. It was from that humiliating position that I observed my success. But what’s a skinned elbow if you’ve just made your first hole-in-one?

I climbed to my feet, made sure I was still in one piece, and brushed off my clothes. Conscious of my admiring spectators, I modestly breathed upon my black-and-blue fingernails, polishing them on an imaginary lapel as I advanced to shake extended hands. And promptly fell over the pry.

That stone wharf won’t be traveling very far in the foreseeable future. It’s confined to its bed with a big golf stone which no surgeon will ever remove.

All that work?

People pass by our place in their boats and exclaim about the stone walls, and the work it must have taken to build them. From the shore we can hear their remarks over the water quite clearly.

People often ask my wife why I work so hard on my “holidays.” When they see me pounding away on my chisels and lugging such big stones around, they just shake their heads. Stone breaking, they say, is for chain gangs at prisons. I must have rocks in my head!

Well, I do have a “hole” in my head. The empty space that I’m excavating may one day hold a furnace, or oil tanks, or dry wood, or stored things. That “hole in the hill” is part of my dream for our cabin-to-be.

I know in my heart, however, that I really enjoy that heavy rough work, whether or not a cabin ever gets built.

Unless people do something more energetic than sit at a desk all day, they lose their muscle tone and degenerate into flab. (I don’t recommend writing a book.) Some ride stationary bicycles in their rec rooms, but they don’t get very far. Some go jogging around city blocks or big parks. They always end up right back where they started. Some women acquire all sorts of costly household devices to do most of the hard physical work in their homes. Then they spend three mornings a week exercising at fitness facilities, doing their sweat-work away from home on other expensive machines. Such double expenditure isn’t exactly economical.

As for me, when I finish my hard work, I have useful walls and flat terraces, room to move around in and a building site. All this and muscles like iron as well. I justify the slow pace of my building program at Sechelt by the plea that work is my medicine. It’s not a good practice to gulp the whole bottle of tonic at once. The longer the hard work lasts, the longer I keep my health and strength.

Some sociological savants, on seeing me hard at my stonework, would no doubt nod knowingly to their students and point me out as another tragic example of “the Protestant work ethic”—a classic workaholic. I gather they believe that all the people who built up the modern, bustling, pushy technical world were zealous Protestants who took success in their work as proof that God had favored them with salvation. Such unfortunate souls were so anxious to “make their calling and election sure” that they were driven to work and work and work. Yet these Protestants were the same people who so scrupulously abstained from work on the Sabbath. They were people who protested that “Romanists” were quite wrong to believe they’d be saved by their works!

In the old days both Protestants and Catholics believed in hard work. And today even nonreligious rational humanists work hard, as do Marxists and sociology professors who hope for a promotion. People who push hard for an open Sunday so as to get extra work need not be either Protestants or Catholics. All that is necessary to account for many people’s drive to work hard is a prideful desire to “keep up with the Joneses,” or a sheer greed for the power and distinction of wealth. Others must work hard to “keep the wolf from the door.” For some, however, work seems to be a positive way of occupying hours that would otherwise be boring and empty, or perhaps filled by duties and relationships that would be even more unpleasant than working. Some people feel that they have little distinctiveness or identity other than what they gain from their job.

Most human beings thrive on hard physical work, within the limits prescribed by flesh and blood. Our bodies were constructed with muscles. Muscles were designed to do work. Since physical forces can be measured only in terms of the amount of work they perform, work is essentially involved in the concepts of physical science. Muscles are as basic to the human body as work is to the physical world. I conclude, therefore, that physical work is part of my proper human destiny. My body was built for work. The world around me matches my muscles. So I work and I love it. “Protestant work ethic”? Phooey!

Nevertheless my entire reason for working is not that working is good for me. Physical fitness does feel great, and far be it from me to knock it. But just knowing that exercise is good for them won’t pry many people away from their TV and beer, moving them into sweatshirts and runners. Something stronger than a desire for physique must obviously be moving in me, for I actually get out there and tote those rocks and build those walls, even though it takes a week or more to recover from stiff muscles, sore ankles, bruised shins and skinned knuckles.

If anyone in psychology were interested in accounting for my drive to work hard, it might be suggested that the walls I am constructing are only a socially acceptable justification for the “real” game that I’m playing. Perhaps my parents brought me up to be careful with their property. They always kept at me, nagging me not to do this and not to do that in case I might scratch or break something. By thus curbing my natural energies, they turned me out like a trained tiger, nicely obedient in all public acts, but seething inside with hostility, full of growling, destructive forces. The psychologists might add that, since I am always working with people, my regular occupation continually adds to my store of frustrations, contributing more and more pressure to my reservoir of pent-up, inner anger. A stubborn stone hillside thus offers me a wonderful but relatively harmless vent for my hostility. What an opportunity to get rid of my pent-up frustrations by attacking the rocks with everything I’ve got! Hammering. Pounding. Breaking asunder. Tearing down. Demolishing what stands in my way. Roar-r-r!

Now is that really my game? Is my wall-building only a cover-up for my vandalistic pressures? Do I really get a kick out of smashing things? Am I actually punishing myself for harboring hateful, unconscious inner impulses by “accidentally” dropping rocks on my fingernails and deliberately making my arms ache day after day?

All that malarkey may impress someone who chooses to believe it, but it just isn’t me. As a boy I could roam freely over the whole countryside and I can’t remember smashing up anything. I never even wanted to, for that matter. Why would my personality suddenly change at Sechelt? And why should I keep on bashing those rocks year after year? Surely I’d have gotten all that out of my system by now!

I actually like cracking rocks and building them up into walls. Despite all appearances to the contrary, I don’t really go at this work like a man possessed. I’m cool. I’m calculating. I’m canny—and I’m positively enthusiastic!

If psychologizers accuse me of taking out my hostility toward the world by splitting up a few rocks, what do they have to say about physicists who delight in splitting the atom and, then, dividing its core? What about biologists who dissect living creatures? Are they taking out their childish hostility on defenseless mice and rats? Are they like frustrated lovers who pull petals off daisies and bite their fingernails?

Scientists who cut things to pieces and reduce them almost to dust can explain with sober dignity what they are doing and why. They are using “the analytic method.” The analytic scientist believes that, in order to explain a phenomenon, one must pry into what is going on in its tiniest parts or particles. Then we understand that my rocks are as tough as they are because their ingredient crystals have interwoven flat plates and fibers in such a way that none are able to budge. These crystals, in turn, gain their coherence from the particular arrangements of the atomic forces within their molecules.

The analytic method consists of disorganizing some tissue or material, so as to isolate something, say, a cell or molecule, from its associated environment. Its response to certain controlled influences may then be measured.

The disorganizing and isolating phase of analysis must be achieved by some form of radical division and separation—just like what I do with my chisel when I crack and remove a portion of rock. Unfortunately, if you take a living animal or plant to pieces it will probably die! Then of itself it rapidly disintegrates into even tinier parts. Death is a speedy divider and disorganizer. When analytic division takes place, something important is always lost, left out or destroyed. This is a very serious problem in science.

But does anybody accuse the analytic scientists of having a “psychological problem”

If you ask why an analytic scientist pries into the secrets of the physical world, you will learn that it’s mostly curiosity—simply wanting to find out how things work. It is hoped that the knowledge gained will be applied to solve human problems and meet people’s needs—and maybe make some money.

I understand such scientific motivation. A major factor accounting for my work on the rocks is that I too am curious. I enjoy finding out how that hillside is put together and how I can take it apart. I just love looking for seams and cracks in the rockface and guessing what way they will probably run deep inside. At which of those crack lines should I start to remove material? What at first appears to be a solid rock shoulder will sometimes come apart like a deck of cards if I can find the edge of the deck. Sometimes a promising crack gets me nowhere. It soon turns away and runs in under some big immovable block. But often I can spot a real keystone. When I’ve taken that one out, a whole run of other stones may be loosened.

As I learned the ways of the rocks, I became a connoisseur of cracks—an uncommon, but I’m sure honorable, distinction. That portion of the earth’s crust in which my excavation lies gives up its secrets only grudgingly to my hammer and chisel and pry-bars. My journey into the hillside is the hardest journey I have ever undertaken, as well as the shortest and slowest. But from the standpoint of satisfying my geological curiosity, somehow I do find it rewarding. No rock I extract has ever been seen by any other human eyes. (Think of that when you’re shelling peanuts.)

Purpose and power

Building a dry wall, however, yields me a quite different kind of satisfaction. I’m putting together a huge, heavy, three-dimensional puzzle whose pieces have never been fitted together this way before. Any particular piece of stone might fit into dozens of places in this wall or into dozens of other walls. I have to find the right stone, however, right now for each particular place in this particular wall. The sense of “just-rightness” when a stone fits properly is very satisfying.

I freely admit that part of my joy in quarrying rock comes from the sense of power it gives me. Knowledge is power, they say. There’s delight in discovering how to move the “impossible” weight and how to manage overwhelming forces, avoiding the dangers. I exploit every trick of mechanical advantage: levers, wedges, rollers, block and tackle, high-line conveyor systems, chutes, tipping buckets and all sorts of tools. I’ve developed a great repertoire of methods for moving rocks and earth.

From political history I learned an old maxim: Divide and conquer. If you want to gain control of a country, discover two factions pulling in opposite directions, or create them. You can then control the balance of power by interfering on one side or the other. If necessary you can crush those separate factions one at a time. I know that if I can reduce an awkwardly shaped big rock to rubble and chips, it will run obediently down a chute, or be handled quite simply by shovels.

The analytic method in science is also a kind of dividing and conquering. If you can’t understand some big thing, split it up. Maybe you’ll be able to handle something smaller. It’s a good enough principle for quarrymen and scientists, as long as they realize they’ll run into the Humpty-Dumpty lament: they couldn’t put Humpty together again.

I consider that my work with hammer and chisel is a kind of physical prayer. It certainly tells of my soul’s sincere desire, and of my willingness to do what has to be done to make that prayer come true.

    And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and be planted in the sea”; and it would obey you.1

    If you have faith . . . if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and cast into the sea,” it shall happen. And everything you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.2

    If you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you.3

    Ask and it shall be given to you:; seek and you shall find; and to him who knocks it shall be opened.4

These words were spoken by a carpenter, a man of great practical experience. They are heartening words to a quarryman with a hammer and chisel. They indicate that the universe can respond to human hopes—to my hopes.

Natural scientists and empirical philosophers tend to emphasize how things out there in the world imprint themselves on my mind through the gateways of my sense organs. While building with stone I found that the opposite is also true. Plans and schemes that arise in my mind can be imprinted in an enduring way upon the situation out there in the world. Every potter and painter and wall-builder knows how to change something of the world. The rocks, the trees and the sea certainly contributed new knowledge to me. But I also had an effect on them by my presence, my desires and my efforts.

Because of my purposes, many stones are no longer mere raw hunks of rock. They now participate in completely new organized forms. The stones in my steps, once strewn randomly along the shore, had formerly been little but hazards to boating or travel by foot. As part of our waterfront construction and our family’s story, those stones have taken on new value. The<y have ceased to be mere liabilities and have become real assets with a significant destiny.

The future of those stones would have been quite different had I not walked into their locale and laid hands on them. Had those rocks not been there when I came, my own future also would have become quite different. Who would have dreamed that a waterworn rabble of rubble would play a part in writing a section of this book?

The world is malleable, unfinished and open to change. I can therefore reshape our Sechelt place a little closer to my heart’s desire. In my stonework I enter a kind of physical communion. I not only impart something to those stones, but something comes to me from them that becomes part of me. Deep into my work, I experience both a physical exaltation and a spiritual exultation.

In concert

How can I explain to you the delights of that rough, heavy stonework? Have you experienced moments of joy dancing with someone? You make your move and your partner instantly responds with the right move that corresponds to it. Maybe you have played a musical instrument in some ensemble, band or orchestra. With one eye on your music and the other on the conductor, you keep your ears open for what the other instruments are playing. Musicians thrill to harmonious cooperation. People who are into team sports know the delight of watching a beautiful play shape up as everyone works together. Participants in these kinds of plural arrangement are doing with others things that cannot be done in solitariness. While forwarding their own purposes they are also forwarding those of others. In these mutual social endeavors, joys are generated that loners can also> experience to a certain degree in working with inanimate things.

A casual observer who came by and saw me at work there on the rockface would often have called me a solitary workman. Nobody else there. Myself, the rock, hammers and chisels. But I know the rocks and my tools so well that I look upon them as my partners. Each one has its own peculiarities that I must respect. Rock crystals tend to split apart better in some directions than others. A hammer must be brought down on a chisel at the proper angle or it will glance off dangerously and ineffectively. The repertoire of my tools’ activities, habits and preferences is not very large, but I must be thoroughly acquainted with every one of them.

Every time tools and materials are involved in my activities, I must remember what I know about them. I must listen to their silent suggestions and I must conform. If I, as it were, say the right things to them in the right nonverbal, physical language, they will respond to my efforts in most cooperative ways. But if I order them to do something inappropriate, either nothing useful will happen or I’ll have a bad accident. Anyone who forces inconsiderate, impossible demands upon tools and materials is only asking for trouble. When I respect the nature of my materials and tools, they work very nicely with me.

Though the world is much bigger than I, insofar as I accept its terms of service it will collaborate with me. It will concur with my plans, open up its resources to me and lend me its forces and powers. I say: “This I intend to do, God and all things concurring.” When the world responds to my dreams and the “almost impossible” is being achieved, for me that experience is utterly awesome and uncannily thrilling.

When my skills and knowledge of the world form a good fit with reality, we can make sweet music together. Every time my mind and hands successfully shape something significant, unspeakable feelings of beautiful harmony arise from a well that the heart alone knows. The delight I derive from my heavy stonework arises, not from a sense of ego-puffing power but, on the contrary, from losing my little individualistic competitive ego in a wonderful sense of “we.”

Somewhere close to these technological thoughts lies the deepest source of that mysterious drive which urges onward the great human enterprises of engineering, art and science. The search for this kind of joy is by far the most honorable motive that impels the human race ever onward in technical achievement.


1. Luke 17:6.
2. Matthew 21:21,22.
3. Matthew 17:20.
4. Matthew 7:7.