One of the rock walls in my backyard collapsed due to the recent rains we’ve had here in this part of the Midwest. It was ten years old and probably not a great retaining wall to begin with.
My backyard was a steep weedy hill when we moved into this house in June 2004. It fell about twenty feet down from the alley above. During rains, water pooled around the base of the hill and up around the side of the house, making the side and backyards a malarial swamp.
Nothing would have happened to that hill had I not begun doctoral studies at UMKC in fall of 2004. As a respite from school and the suffering I felt at the time, I took shovel and mattock to the hill. I ordered seven tons of Kansas limestone and had it dumped in the front yard. Over the course of the next seven months, I hacked at the hill and dragged all that rock to the backyard. With it, I built three terraces with dry-stack rock retaining walls to hold the earth back.
I also kept myself sane. In graduate school, I was not the most confident of students. I entered the program with all the bravado and pride an enterprising student can muster. Soon after I started, however, that confidence faded. I felt I was inferior and not up to the tasks ahead. My normal mental instability compounded the insecurities.
I took out my frustration and self-loathing out on that hill. I shoveled and hacked, stacked stone, and made that first wide terrace. It kept me alive and working at my studies. With the rubble and rock I won from the hill—our yard was for forty years a construction and demolition landfill for the city—I built two more terraces and two more walls. All the while, I did well in school and suffered less the debilitating doubt that threatened to paralyze me at every turn. Building the wall resulted in good grades.
As I constructed, I had no idea what I was doing. I built from intuition. I didn’t put in footings but relied on a steady row of large stones to carry the load of the whole wall. A few webpages on building stone walls guided me. But the stone in the walls formed only a single, thin layer holding back the earth. I didn’t back the rock with gravel. Some of the rocks were very large, some just tiny pieces piled upright to stand against the elements and slumping soil.
I learned terms like angle of repose and dry stack. The webpages recommended certain ways of reinforcing the walls, which I did if I had the right material. I cut corners, used small rocks when I should have implemented larger stone. Heavy stones sat upon smaller, grainier rock. The walls didn’t reach as high as they should have.
Regardless of these defects, I heaved and strained. I worked through the doubt I had about building something ephemeral that would come down with the next heavy rain. The walls possessed few rows of evenly distributed rock. Instead, patchworks of stones of varying sizes held back the soil. When the walls grew crooked, I compensated with larger or smaller stones. When a wall curved from center, I brought it back the other way.
My backyard became a living space. The swamp disappeared, as did the mosquitoes and gnats that rose up in clouds after every rain. We used the terraces for evening fires around a hastily built fireplace and then a chiminea. Five years ago, my son, some neighbor kids, and I built an eight-by-eight playhouse that was less a place for kids to play and more of taxable structure, complete with a metal roof, windows, and insulation.
Shortly after I finished, part of the biggest wall collapsed after a heavy rain. But with an hour or so of re-stacking rock, the wall again rose to the level of the alley above. In the end, my dry-stack walls stood well for a decade.
And for a decade, all the water from my neighbors’ roofs and from the parking lot flowed down onto my terraces and into the soil. The rain garden absorbed the excess that ran off the terraces. Except in the heaviest rains, all the water that came into my backyard stayed there. It flowed into the ground, filling, I supposed, the water table and sprouting springs down hill.
This year, spring rains continued well into the summer. The water from several heavy storms sluiced from the parking lot in a river across my neighbor’s yard and down onto my terraces. I didn’t notice that the water began to form a rill in the ground above the biggest wall. The water from a particularly long rain, I suspect, ate out the ground behind the stones in the upper section of the wall.
I don’t know when the biggest of the walls collapsed but I have an idea. About three weeks ago, I was in the house wringing my hands over doubts about my latest effort to write a book. I heard and felt a swoosh. The dogs’ ears perked up and we all came to a stop. I walked out the front door and took a look around. Then I peered out the side door, the only outlet to the backyard, I glanced up toward the terraces but noticed nothing in particular. I wrote it off as one of the strange and unidentifiable sounds we often hear in our urban neighborhood.
Because of the peculiar layout of our yard and the multitude of trees, yard art, and other impediments to mowing, I have to take care of the grass with a weed-eater. It was only when I last mowed the backyard that I saw that the swoosh probably came from the wall collapsing suddenly in on itself.
As I looked at the wall, part of me felt a kind of despair. The terrace was a mess, the wall almost completely destroyed, the ground behind it exposed like a deep wound. Such a state of affairs entailed tremendous amounts of work to set them right again. I still didn’t know how to build a good, solid wall. I might make mistakes that would allow the same disaster to repeat itself.
Another part of me sensed joy. I had a project that demanded physical labor, and lots of it. I had been an indoor animal most of the summer, teaching classes online and writing a first draft of what may well become my third book. All the doubt I have about myself and my creative persona would disappear. I would have a place to invest my feelings of inferiority and self-loathing, and I would be redeemed from myself again.
Slowly, I began the process of rebuilding that wall. The work of the last week necessitated freeing the stones from the soil and sorting the rock according to size. I puzzled over what to do with all the dirt. But instead of thinking too hard about it, I shoveled it out of the way of my work space.
Stones that were heavy ten years ago seemed twice the size they once were. But I rejoiced at feeling my back at work again. Every day for about an hour and a half, which is about all I have in me due to the heat, I strained. My hands blistered and the blisters popped under the shovel handle. My fears disappeared during that time I labored on the wall. At night, the doubt I had about rebuilding the wall kept me awake. But every morning I spent that energy shoveling dirt, sorting rock, and now restacking all that rock into the wall.
When I’m working, I feel the doubts rise to the surface and I work harder. I remember inopportune words and actions that embarrassed me—things that probably only I noticed. I feel twinges of doubt and regret. All of them disappear into the wall. Perhaps, my insecurities held those poorly built walls together for a decade despite the forces of entropy. Given my present state, my new wall may just last a lifetime.
This time, I started at the bottom with the heaviest stones rather than whatever rock happened to be at hand. I placed the last of those big pieces of fieldstone and sidewalk panel today. Tomorrow, I graduate to medium-sized rock. The end is in sight. I feel a whole lot better than I did a week ago.
There is merit in raw, brute physical labor. I’ve known that for a long time. When that wall collapsed, I had been aching for a project into which I could spend doubt, inferiority, and self-hatred. I wanted mortification of the flesh. I thought many times of just taking a wall apart and building it back again. Maybe I could build yet another terrace in my tiny backyard, but there was no place to put it.
The rains did me a great favor. They delivered me from myself. I look forward to tomorrow, when I will get up, take my son to his summer program, have a cup of tea, and then commence my labors. What comes after that I don’t know.
Maybe, as I begin a new semester and a new writing project—this one, a public history project—I will again need to sweat my way through insecurity. After all, maybe it’s true what I feel. I am not worthy and that I am not the man everyone thinks I am. Maybe I am a fraud.
If so, it may be time to start taking apart walls again.