Stony weather

After searching a moment, David Reed finds the words he’s looking for: “It’s a primal thing,” he confides.

Utilizing stone — as tools, furniture or even decoration — is a concept almost as old as the material itself, yet it appears to have lost none of its considerable appeal. Reed regularly leads workshops about his craft, and they always have a waiting list. “In this high-tech age, people are looking for something that will get them outside. Working with stone is elemental. It goes back to prehistoric times — [Primitive people] used stones 25 million years ago as hammers.”

The Art and Craft of Stonescaping, Reed’s new, gorgeously photographed book, is as painstakingly crafted — and striking — as any rock wall. He spent a year compiling the work, combing landscapes from western North Carolina to the Irish coast for prime examples of the diverse kinds of walls, benches, walkways and waterfalls one can fashion from a few scraps of vision and knowledge, plus a pile of stone. True to its title, the book considers matters of art and craft in equal measure.

The book’s first few chapters instruct readers on such topics as how to acquire the proper tools for stonework, how to find materials in quarries and stone yards, and how to shape found stone.

“With stone, there are both mundane and exciting aspects,” Reed explains. “I used to be a potter, and there was always a distinction between who was in it for the art and who was in it for the craft. I was always drawn more to the utilitarian end of it. But you can do whatever you do artfully — with flair.”

That’s a fact Reed demonstrates ably in his book: Even at its most practical, Stonescaping delivers the goods in a crisp, sunny style that’s anything but utilitarian. A gentle neighborliness pervades the text. Take, for example, the coaxing tone of this excerpt from a chapter on dry-stacked retaining walls: “On many occasions, you’ll find just the right stones for particular places in a wall; they’ll almost seem to jump into place. At other times, none of the stones you select will fit, or you’ll find the right stone, attempt to trim one edge for a perfect fit, and watch the stone break into several pieces. These are the times when taking a break yourself can turn things around!”

Stonescaping, Reed’s tone implies, is to be enjoyed as much for the process as for the end product.

Reed champions the beauty and durability of dry stonescaping over mortar-sealed works. “It’s the simplicity of it,” he notes with quiet wonder. “What’s holding it together is gravity.” Successfully laying and fitting your own stone requires persistence and experimentation, Reed concedes, but it’s not an insurmountable challenge.

“Most people approach it with a degree of mystery,” he allows. “But once people [get started], they say the mystery is gone, and they understand.”

The author himself first tackled stonescaping with a Spartan zeal, personalizing both his and his partner’s projects by hand-picking each stone: “We picked stones out of creek beds, in ravines, off hillsides,” he recalls. “There’s a satisfaction in picking stones off your own land.”

But if your property doesn’t offer up a suitably craggy bounty, Reed advises buying from stone yards, in lieu of trying to liberate your neighbor’s rocks:

“The days of roaming freely, gathering stone, is past,” he observes. “These days, people are valuing stone more. They aren’t as open to [stone hunters] roaming on their property, because they are realizing stone’s inherent value to their land.”

And if your vision seems more pebble- than boulder-sized, never fear: Reed also savors the charm of small-scale stonework. In the book’s lovely last chapter, “Stone Expressions,” a photo capturing the delicate curl of a lichen medallion on a triangular piece of quartz gneiss may be followed by one depicting the magnificent sprawl of the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.

Whatever the scope of your project, there’s an archaic satisfaction that comes from working with stone, Reed proclaims. “So many things people do these days are in the abstract: crunching numbers or punching things into a computer. You don’t see anything substantial for your efforts,” he asserts. “Stone is immediate. When people come away from building a stone wall, they can feel it in their body — and in their hands.”

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