“I am compelled by stone. I like its permanence; its athleticism—it challenges my strength. It makes me more mindful, or I crush my fingers. I’d love to be really good at using traditional tools, without heavy equipment.”
This spring, Melanie contacted us about becoming certified as a Dry Stone Waller. Had the pandemic not interfered, she surely would have achieved DSWA-GB Level 1 certification at our May Certification Test Day and spent the summer prepping to pass the Level 2 certification test in September. COVID-19 is slowing down her certification process, but Melanie’s experience with and passion for (a much over-used descriptor, but apt in Melanie’s case) dry stone masonry assures her successful passage along the path to mastery.
Melanie discovered herself as a builder when as a diminutive suburban teenager she joined a conservation crew. She embraced the power inherent in wielding a hammer and didn’t look back. During her college years she headed a college crew maintaining trails for the Green Mountain Club. Since then, Melanie has sought training in dry stone wall construction across the U. S. In the early 2000’s, she joined a stone arched bridge project in Oakland, California led by wallers from Dry Stone Walling Across Canada. Later, she attended one of Alan Ash’s weekend workshops in Eugene, Oregon. In 2006, Melanie participated in a multiday workshop guided by Dan Snow, rebuilding the old pound.
Melanie has continued to build trails and work as a mason on and off for the last couple of decades. She says, “In the last three years, working with three wonderful masons in Chittenden County [Vermont], I have increased my repertoire from staircases, walls and retaining walls to include flatwork and fireplaces.” Now she is focused on building her own clientele.
“I am trying to land on my own personal style and feel comfortable executing my own art.”
Like many contracting professionals, Melanie picks up masonry projects in the summer. In the off season, she teaches and directs a nonprofit, the Living Tree Alliance. Through the Living Tree Alliance, Melanie teaches public school groups techniques for creating community-based projects involving food production, sustainability, homesteading, masonry, and forestry. She focuses on projects that bring people together, for example building benches to create a gathering space.
Melanie sees stone as a metaphor for teaching valuable life lessons about life. She notes, “We don’t need each other as much as we used to, but heavy things necessitate team work. It takes a few people to roll a big rock. I like to teach a group how to move a rock with a rock bar.” As time goes on, she intends to inspire teens to integrate stone into the natural landscape by participating in trail crews. “Stairs,” she says, “are functional, and you design them to fit into the landscape. On a trail crew you create a natural, chaotic, beautiful order that is durable, built to last.” Melanie also anticipates organizing a girls’ rock crew, thinking back several decades to her high school experience on the conservation crew. That first experience swinging a hammer engendered a feeling of confidence that changed the path of Melanie’s life. “Now” she says, “it feels good to be a woman who can empower.”
With stone I want to build to last,
to fit into the landscape,
to build community,
and to demonstrate craft.
As a matter of course, Melanie teaches when she builds with stone. At present, she and a client work together as she teaches him the craft they are embodying in his freestanding, double-faced wall. Recently, she donated a day of masonry to a silent auction to benefit a local nonprofit. She loved working with the 65-year-old woman who purchased the day. Together they realized the wall and also began to build a relationship. Melanie said, “She was so thankful for the knowledge, so thankful at being able to build a gift for her sister.”