The house sat facing the street, on a gentle grassy slope punctuated by liriope and ivy. The curving stone wall which graced the front boundary and each side of the driving entrance had been built over several months by Paul, a master stonemason and artist who had grown up in the Blue Ridge Mountains; Paul knew instinctively how to take this puzzle of cut rock mounds, discern the subtle variations of greens, blues, greys and pinks, and create a palette so breathtakingly beautiful that God’s hand was evident.
As one stood at the road looking at the front of the house, the wall met the entrance first as a straight line, head on, and then as a retaining wall, which seemed to turn, curtsy, curl outward and turn around as the drive to the house opened wide for parking. About every six feet or so the wall stepped up to accommodate the rising hill from the road, and at each of those sections was a pillar of sorts topped with a roughly hewn square stone cap.
The wall was not high: The dogs could easily jump up and walk the length of each side. But it was substantial, creating a sense of grandness and permanence. The inside of the left curve was dominated by an ancient oak tree and populated with hostas, acorns doing their best to become baby oaks, two dogwoods that never received adequate sun and several struggling mahonia plants. The opposite curve was home to a great number of barberry shrubs, liriope and a young cousa dogwood recently planted to replace a fallen oak but still large enough to produce fruit and create shade.
Once completed, the wall quickly lost its newness and became all at once an old soul and living art, moss growing on the north facing side. It took on the responsibility of protecting the garden creatures it housed—beetles and earwigs, field mice and chipmunks, and winged creatures en route to dense hedges or a higher perch—and it provided a temporary respite. Every morning brought evidence of a feast: empty acorn shells, leftover holly or nandina berries, bits of fruit stolen from the kitchen garden and bird droppings.
When I moved away from North Carolina last year, the memory of the wall made me weep. It was something visceral, unexplainable in simple language. When friends asked what I missed most, how could I, as a sensible woman of a certain age, say that it was a cold pile of rock that was the hardest to leave behind? But I had witnessed its birth, seen its evolution from construction material to place-specific art: the Spiral Jetty of Saint Mary’s Street. I had watched Paul turn those stones in his own hands—his own hands! He had stood for hours, staring, re-arranging, cutting, placing. Despite my upbringing, I understood the artistic process and valued it deeply. I understood that as he was creating his art, he was building a foundation for our lives, a work that bound us to this land, this place—a wordless prayer, a silent thank you, now left to the stewardship of others.
Of course it wasn’t really the wall itself that I missed most, but more the life it represented: a beloved life, multi-layered and rich and familiar, a defined place in the community. Not a pillar exactly, but a place of honor nonetheless.
Ainslie Jones Uhl is a freelance writer/editor and photographer. A native North Carolinian and former New Yorker, she holds a B.A. in English from Sweet Briar College and a Master of International Business from the University of South Carolina. She recently relocated to San Diego, Calif., with her husband of 26 years and their four children.