Over the past decade at Winterhouse, we have art directed the building of 600 feet of stone walls. There is something monumental about doing this kind of work, since these walls will last hundreds of years, eventually shifting into ruins. We are not starting from scratch: Ezra Winter built hundreds of feet of walls in the 1930s to define the terrain, to rope in shifts in elevation, to define gardens. So we've extended a 1931 landscape plan to create a series of platforms around our home, then to define larger spaces, and finally to define parking and functional areas. One wall is beyond imagination: nine feet high and 40 feet long, it took one year of work by a singularly-focused stone mason. Only in the past few years have we begin to work in the natural landscape, most recently building a 40-foot circular stone plaza around an existing well-head in the woods, creating a fire pit within view, across a stream, from our home. But these efforts at home-improvement are just that: two people building on the work of previous owners, building onto a culture at least eight decades in the making. In the history of stone, this represents the briefest of histories.
So I speak with some experience when I say that I love New England stone walls and paths. More accurately, I love seeing them built. This act of watching is an expression of respect — over time — for both labor and land. I love the stone masons who have worked for and with us. I love the idea that everyday, a few stones got placed that are likely to remain there for hundreds of years; that they were intentionally placed, chipped, moved, replaced, shaved, moved again, and then finally set into a resting place, a space that exists next to the stones before them, and the stones that come after.
It is with this perspective that I discovered the work of Jon Piasecki.
Jon came to be a stone mason after being a forester and a landscape architect. He hates all these names and classifications: he'd rather talk about the acre of gardens he's cultivated that sustain his family. But he spends his days as a mason, building spaces within nature, embraced by a wider, deeper history — farm piles of rock from 200-years ago, for example — that in his hands become something new, something extraordinary and magical.
The following is Jon Piasecki speaking in his own words about stone construction, cast through the lens of a grant proposal. I think it places his recent Stone River project in an historical perspective. In addition to his essay, we are happy to share a slideshow and a video of this amazing project.
Jon Piasecki: "At the boundary wall, culture distinguished itself from nature."
"Stone construction is one of the most enduring traces of human activity. Stone is hard and heavy. Any effort to quarry, cut and stack it is one that requires a powerful incentive, extensive planning and specialized skill. This work has often been done in the service of empire to advertise power. The masons of a particular culture shape and arrange stone and in so doing express cultural attitudes toward the land. This expression takes place on a range of scales, from a single shaped stone all the way up to a landscape fully occupied by people.
I believe that Inca stonework embodies a relationship with the land that is a clear departure from the European model that is more widely known. Instead of separating nature from culture, like the boundary walls of Roman and Greek towns, I see the Inca people explicitly binding culture to nature with their stonework.
The ancient walls and boundary stones of Rome are arguably the best-studied examples of historical stonework. These stone remnants betray an attitude toward the land that continues to be important to this day. These walls were the places where culture met the raw matrix of what we consider the natural and the ancients saw as a supernatural world. Around the Mediterranean, physical boundaries of stone were also ritual boundaries. According to Varro, Cicero, Plutarch and Pliny, these walls were made sacred by complex and ancient rites. At the boundary wall, culture distinguished itself from nature. Passage was strictly regulated through the city gates. Climbing over the wall was taboo and punishable by death. On the Servian Wall in Rome, or on the various cyclopean city walls around the Mediterranean Sea, power was expressed by the degree of separation afforded between the safety inside the wall and the danger outside.
The impact of Roman and Greek culture on our own ideas is well known. Equally rich, though less studied, attitudes towards the land and techniques of stone masonry exist around the world. The most awe inspiring for any student of masonry are the architectural remains of the Inca in Peru. The Inca practiced the most advanced stone shaping and joinery techniques yet known to mankind. I want to study this work closely so I can improve my own stonework: well-worked stone consistently amazes people. I would use it to lead them into nature.
Building on Cesar Paternosto’s artistic analysis in The Stone and The Thread, and with reference to Jean Pierre Protzen’s architectural thinking in Inca Architecture and Construction at Ollantaytambo, I would like to explore the idea that the Inca used concepts from their advanced fiber technologies as a model for their landscape architecture and stone masonry.
The Inca, who used twisted cord and knots in their Quipu notation system, the closest analogue to our writing, may well have expressed the interweaving of culture and nature in the stone masterworks they built. Their system of sacred organizational lines, called ceques, combined genealogy with religion and literally tied culture to the land. The Inca people tended and cared for the huaca, or sacred places, along those lines. In my opinion these activities created an intimate geography where nature and culture were fused.
I think that this sense of weaving and fusion provided the impetus for the exquisite stone joinery of Inca walls, where the tightness of the seams between stones is legendary. Masons, in service to the Inca, applied great effort to leave no space between the stones. In Art of the Andes, Rebecca Stone-Miller writes, 'The Inca felt a special interchangeability with stones, believing them to be alive and able to transform into people and vice versa.' From a Western perspective, power, as related to stone in the Andes, may well have been expressed by the degree that culture and nature could be bound together. The implications of this fusion to our modern relations with nature are profound. They stand in stark contrast to our primal conception of power expressed by the separation of culture from nature. Instead of amassing power by holding the forces of nature at bay as the king of Mycenae or early Rome might, the Inca ruler shaped mountains in an organic aesthetic and stone by stone, became a force of nature in his own right.
As a mason I join stone. As a landscape architect I use my skills to help join people to the land."
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