• Karen

Between Stone and Sky: Memoirs of a Waller

Updated: Mar 14

Whitney Brown

On my Fantasy Job List, dry-stone waller is in the top ten. This will come as hilarious news to anyone who ever knew me as Tyrannosaurus Rex Girl, on account of my then legendary lack of upper body strength, now mercifully improved thanks to a more active lifestyle. My interest in this intensely physical job first grew as we spent more time walking on the Isle of Purbeck, a windswept landscape criss-crossed by a network of geometric stone walls. As someone who once had an unhealthy addiction to Tetris, I find it fascinating to look at a wall and see how the stones interlock like a 3D jigsaw puzzle to create a self-supporting, solid structure without the use of mortar.

When my brother-in-law gave me Whitney Brown’s Between Stone and Sky for Christmas 2019, I thought I must have told him at some point about my fascination with dry-stone walls. But the book is not a ‘how to’ guide and it turned out to have a greater influence on me than I could have anticipated when I first unwrapped it and read the blurb on the dust jacket.

The book recounts how, at the age of 26, Whitney Brown was midway through her Masters thesis and heading for a good career at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. An A-star student from small-town South Carolina, she was born into a hard-working family and had always played by the rules: university, postgraduate degree, on the conveyor belt to a ‘good’ job and the comfortable, white-collar life that would have been out of reach to her family not very many generations before.

However, after a chance meeting with Jack, a Welsh dry-stone waller, at the Smithsonian Folk Festival, Whitney’s predestined narrative was changed in just a few short weeks. Soon she was out with him on a hillside in Wales, and learning the language of dry-stone walling. Far away from the pressures of her old life, she found deep satisfaction in working with her hands, in the age and heft of the stones, and the ring of the hammer. Sure enough, dry-stone walling turned out to be a relentlessly tough job requiring considerable physical strength to move the tons of stone, which took an inevitable wear and tear on her body and hands. But Whitney fell in love with the Welsh countryside in which she worked and immersed herself every day, in all weathers, often wet. On one level, the book is a celebration of that rugged beauty, of the landscape and a life spent outdoors, and her description of cold water swimming is one of the best I have read:

[it] strips you to the barest essentials of your existence: breath, movement, sight, sound. It clarifies. It distils. Time almost ceases to exist.

The book is also a love letter to the beauty and importance of traditional crafts, and to the people Whitney meets, including Jack, with whom she develops a deeper relationship beyond that of mentor, and also the women in the local area, whose friendship becomes a vital lifeline.

For me, the book’s strongest message is about being prepared to rewrite the script that life has given you. Whitney’s recounting of her parents’ anxieties about her change of direction, in turning away from a safe career path, were very familiar. We are so often spun the line that if we work hard, do well at school, go to university and get a degree, we will find a good job, build a comfortable, secure life and discover the secret to everlasting happiness. On reaching middle age, I have finally admitted to myself that this is not necessarily true. However, knowing this is one thing but summoning the courage to step off the conventional career ladder and do something more creative but precarious is quite another. To a risk-averse person such as myself, Whitney’s story, told with a refreshing and touching honesty, was an inspiration, and has been there in the background while we’ve been growing FOLDE from pipe dream to reality.

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