Monday, May 2, 2011

Building Wall

Writing a long book, especially a work of history, which I have done and am doing again, is like building a New England stone wall. It’s a lot of hard labor capped off with a little bit of art. First, you dig up all the stones. Then you lug the stones to the side of lot or field. Then you arrange them in a seemly fashion, or at least so they don’t fall down.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost in another great poem of his, “Mending Wall,” which ends with the punch-line, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Then again, Bob, there must be something equally powerful, or more so, that moves us to build walls in the first place, not just so that we can till the land or build a house, but so that we can live in a world of harmonies. Otherwise, we New Englanders might all just have piles of stone in the corners of our house lots today.

I am no anthropologist, but I’m willing to bet that wall building is a universal human trait, a certainty we all share, as surely as we share a religious sense. I have admired walls wherever I have found them, but none more so than on the Aran Islands west of Ireland, where the lots cleared are tiny, and the walls are built of seeming slivers of rock jammed together vertically, not laid on one another like Frost’s loaves-of-bread simile.

This morning I must go back to work writing history, and after gardening all weekend, my back is aching. Building a real stone wall would be beyond my strength this morning. Fortunately, I am building a metaphorical one, doing the research (digging up the stones) and writing drafts that link the facts (lugging the stones to the side in lines), before finally editing to suit my sense of art (building the wall). It is a work that is pleasing—to me, for some innate sense of art which I cannot explain, and to Him, or so I pray.

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