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Poets’ corner

25 August 2017

A dry-stone wall sets Malcolm Guite’s mind in motion

THERE is something deeply satisfying about a well-made dry-stone wall. It is a single, beautiful, functional thing, and yet every part of it is different.

I was gazing the other day at one section of a wall bordering a path up into the Lomond hills in Fife, admiring the gentle gradation from the larger stones at the base to the smaller ones at the top, all held fast and stabilised by the big coping stones running down on either side. Each stone unique, yet all beautifully holding together, clenched and fastened by their own weight, by the very forces that, differently disposed, might have pulled them apart.

Even the gaps and spaces here and there were beautiful in shape. And the whole wall was figured and variegated by the blotch and mottle of weathering, decorated with lichen of many colours and tones, from strong yellows to delicate browns and filigree patterns of white.

Through, between, and over the stones there was new green growth: the mosses and grass growing back, not to reclaim the stone, for they had never lost it, but to bed it in, secure it further, make it more at home and naturally fitting in the place it was set. It was a sight at once restful and delightful to the eye, at once soothing and stimulating.

The phrase about someone “staring at a brick wall” came into my mind, but this was no brick wall. This hand-made collage of variety and happenstance was the opposite of that machine-made uniformity.

Another phrase surfaced, this time from Pink Floyd’s The Wall: “All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.” There is something darkly ambiguous in their having used a choir of schoolchildren to sing “We don’t need no education” in that song, but there is no doubt that they were right to protest against any process of formation or education which reduces our particular, individual, mottled humanity to “just another brick”, formed in a mould and cemented into place.

The old term “edification” came also to mind, and I thought that, when it comes to being edified, being built up into something strong and worth while, a dry-stone wall might be a better metaphor for educators and pastors than a cemented brick one.

I remembered the words of St Peter, that awkward man whom Jesus fondly called a stone: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” I looked again at the beautiful wall in front of me, each stone, in its own particular shape, somehow accommodated to the whole, lifted up from its isolated place in the field, heaved and hefted, set into a new place for a new purpose, leaning on and yet supporting its neighbours.

Might I let myself be built, I wondered, and even as I walked on, I began to feel the heft and heave, the strength that lifts, but also the skilful and tender touch, of wounded hands on living stone.

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