Rock on

There are lots of outdoor skills with a very steep learning curve. When it’s come to making sea salt, splitting wood, or starting an outboard motor, I’ve gotten up to speed pretty quickly. Shellfishing’s fairly straightforward, and I went from being a rank novice to a published authority in no time. Even the chickens aren’t that hard.

This is not to say I’ve become a master of any of these things. I’ve simply become competent, more or less.

So many skills have a Sisyphean learning curve

Other skills don’t come so easily. Fishing, for example. Dominic, the Zen Master of Trout, trolls by our back door most mornings from April to November. He’s caught more fish in our lake than anyone ever has or will. He routinely hooks twenty or thirty in a day, and his record is over fifty. And, get this – he doesn’t even like trout! He releases them all to be caught again another day.

Dominic knows exactly what lure, at what depth, using what technique is the right thing for the time of year, the water temperature, and the cloud cover. He knows this because he’s been fishing this lake for thirty years, and keeps meticulous records.

Hunting, I suspect, will be a lot like fishing, and I expect to suck at it for a long time. Gardening, too, is very tough to master. And brewing fermented beverages is much harder than it looks. So many skills have a Sisyphean learning curve – you struggle up the long slope and, just as you think you’re really learning something, you’re sent tumbling back to the bottom by a wily trout, a fast-moving pheasant, or the late blight.

The presence of actual, genuine stones should have been my first clue that stonework is a skill of the Sisyphean variety.

When I first tackled the stone walls that will form the pedestal of our wood-fired oven, it’s not that I thought it would be easy. It’s not that I’d thought I’d build a thing of beauty, like a Lew French fireplace. It’s that I honestly figured that fitting stones together wouldn’t be so difficult that, if I devoted time and effort to it, I couldn’t turn out a decent product.

It turns out that building a decent product is damn near impossible.

I blame the stones. While they have many fine qualities – attractiveness and durability come to mind –flexibility isn’t their long suit. A stone is secure in its identity, and its self-esteem is such that, if it doesn’t want to play nice with the other stones, no amount of cajoling will change its mind.

Trying to jostle, chisel, and hammer two pallets of independent-minded rocks into a unified whole has proven to be one of the most difficult undertakings I’ve undertaken since we began the Starving project over a year ago. I’ve already disassembled it once and, with help and a few boulders from our friend Rick, built it back up again. It’s marginally better than it was the first time, but the emphasis is on marginally.

I know it’s putting the Sisy is Sisyphus to refuse to tear it down yet again and build it a third time, but that’s what I’m going to do. Partly, this is because I don’t have any confidence that the third attempt will be any better than the second, but it’s also because we want to actually bake pizza some time before hell freezes over.

So, as spring wears on, I will continue to jostle, chisel, and hammer to the best of my emphatically meager abilities. As soon as I’m done, though, I’m going shellfishing.

11 people are having a conversation about “Rock on

  1. I would absolutely, definitely have given up by now – it’s a failing and I’m not proud of it, but there is no way (had I even started such a project which in itself is doubtful) that I would have made the second attempt, let alone a third!!

    I applaud your determination, Tamar.

  2. I don’t blame you for wanting to leave it as is; rock is heavy, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly had enough mashed fingers to last a lifetime by laying rock. Did it once, and probably won’t ever do it again.

  3. You realize, of course, that by persisting with this project you’re flouting the Haspel motto:
    “If it doesn’t come easy, f*** it.”

  4. Try to let the stones tell you where they should be…I know, I know…kind of silly, but I just rebuilt my retaining wall in my small plot in our community garden and I can validate everything you’re feeling. One full week of building and tearing out and rebuilding. I finally realized that, much as I wanted that nice flat bluestone piece to be the cornerstone, it had other ideas. All the stones had other ideas. Once I relaxed and stopped trying to make it a thing of beauty, (and bend stone to my will, dammit!), the work went easier. Be the stone, Tamar…BE the stone! : )

  5. Fiona — Declining to start projects that are difficult, time-consuming, and which you’re unlikely to do well is emphatically not a failing. I’d call it an exercise of good sense.

    Paula — No serious injuries yet, but a few close calls. Perhaps that’s what’s necessary to put me off this.

    Mom — And I thought the Haspel motto was: “It’s probably good enough.” But I must admit it adds a nice quaint note to the blog when my mother comes on and swears in asterisks.

    Susan — I laughed out loud — in the library — when I read that comment. I’m so glad you know what I mean about the stones. I have been trying to let them speak to me, but I’m beginning to think I don’t speak stone. But every now and then, I spot one that’s just begging to be in one particular place, and it fits beautifully. Every now and then. That’s what keeps me coming back. And now I have a mantra: Be the stone.

  6. Are you kidding?!? My ultimate goal is “basically competent, more or less”. That will be the pinnacle of success for me, my rock at the top of the hill staying put.

    Here in England stonemasons have their own guild. I think if something has a “guild” – stonemasons, thatchers, blacksmiths – it’s a fair bet that you’re never going to get very proficient without dedicating your working life to it. There’s no guild of chicken keepers (that I know of) or squash growers or compost makers. You don’t have to apprentice yourself then become a journeyman in order to make compost or grow a pumpkin. I’m aiming for those non-guild skills.

    I don’t know if there’s a guild specifically for outdoor pizza oven builders, but there should be. Or at least Pizza oven-mongers. “Mongering” seems quite professional too. Fishmonger, Ironmonger…

    I’m not sure where this comment is going…

  7. Thanks, Tamar. It’s fun to make a witty person laugh. And, just want to say that I think you’re on the right track with attempt #2. It looks like it grew there and that’s pretty much what you want, I think. It’s trying to make it look like a wall that will bring on the crazies.

  8. My lovely bride,
    As you are well aware, I have been rocked, I have been stoned and I have worked my fingers to the bone… however I have rarely been so impressed with someone so obsessed with figuring the exact right space between a rock and a hard place…
    Good job, Rock on!
    Kevin F.

  9. Jen — I love your criteria. If it’s a guild, or requires a monger, I ought to just forget about it. But I find I can’t resist, and I keep trying things that are way above my pay grade. Stonework has probably been the most difficult, but I find something strangely compelling about trying to build something out of rocks. Even as I struggle with the oven, I’m thinking about the stone patio. Why is that? It’s the draw of the craft — a pernicious force, to be sure.

    Susan — I’m glad you’ve got something encouraging to say about my second attempt. It’s definitely a little weird, but I actually find the play between the big and small stones appealing. But that could be just because the alternative is too demoralizing to contemplate.

    Kevin — Husband mine, your encouragement means the world.

  10. Tamar – You ARE Sysiphus. But I believe everyone needs a compulsive behaviour to rid oneself of pent up anxieties. I think you’ve found yours. When I’m sat spinning my wool and with it my little worries, I will think of you placing rocks, taking them off, reshaping them, and finding their right places.

    I agree with your DH – Rock on. Oh, and save me a piece of pizza.

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