In a struggle to be happy and free

Drystone Wall

Category: school

So tired…

I’m in the home stretch. This week is my last week of classes for the term. When I leave Friday, I won’t be back until January 7, when I start the second term.

When I left school today, I came home, ate, and promptly slept for an hour. I wouldn’t say the day was hugely demanding, but still I slept. Yesterday I slept for two hours. The only explanation I have is that I sometimes push against going to sleep but I haven’t been entirely unreasonable about that. Reassuringly enough, some of my classmates and even a few in their second year brought up how they’re feeling the same way, entirely without prompting from me. None of us seem to have any explanation for it.

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The Willowbank upper campus was a picture-perfect winter wonderland today.

Perhaps learning and physical activity is just demanding. At least I hope that’s it because I have no other explanation!

As much as I want a shorter Christmas break, I will certainly take the time to rest and make sure I’m ready to attack the second term next month.


Two weeks ago we had our first glass class. Most of the morning was a lecture about the history of glass right up to the current day. So interesting! Especially how glass was/is manufactured.

Then we went to the glass shop and started an exercise. You know the yin/yang symbol? With the two lobes rotating around a common centre? Our exercise was to draw a three-lobe version of the same thing. Then we were to cut the lobes out of glass. So check out this mess:

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You can see the three middle pieces form an extremely rough circle with three lobes. The two extra pieces are even more rough so I re-did them. Well, even my best was poor and I left class that day incredibly frustrated.

Today was our second glass class. I tried not to think too much about how I felt at the end of our first class. We were told to have a small stained glass design in mind. I had a rough idea, and you can bet that it did not have nearly as many curves!

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There’s my plan drawn on paper, surrounded by the pieces of glass I selected. You can see the circular centre … it was originally a square on a 45º angle but I suggested to my instructor that I could use a circle. He readily agreed. I thought I should be able to manage it, even though it meant cutting a complete circle, and four matching quarter-circles.

I got started and today was very much a different day, as compared to two weeks ago. I still don’t have the curve-cutting skills some of my classmates demonstrated, but I did a decent job. I made some mistakes of course, and it’s certainly not at a level one should aspire too, but I am very pleased with how it’s going. This is how I left it at the end of the afternoon:

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Progress! Note the lead between the in-place pieces.

It’s not as far along as it looks. Note the square yellow glass, with a quarter of the circle cut out of it. At the point where the yellow, the blue, and the circle meet, you can see the yellow glass has a larger gap than the lead covers. I am going to need to discard that yellow square and cut another, with a better curve.

Note also that the pieces that look black or dark-brown are actually a dark red. It only appears black because it’s a dark colour and no light is going through it. The other colours are much lighter.

I am so pleased. I can’t begin to describe how crestfallen I felt after the first class. I certainly don’t expect to walk into a class for the first time and produce expert results, but I do expect to understand why I broke piece after piece where they should not have broken. After some suggestions, and a completely different design, I think I’m on the right track.

I’m going to stay late some night and replace that yellow piece before the next class.


This past week was the most intense I’ve had at any school. We spent the week assembling a drystone wall. It is about 30 feet long and 40 inches high. That might not seem like a lot, but limestone is heavy, and we had no idea what we were doing.

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The excavation is nearly complete.

Our instructors for the week, Dean McLellan and Andre Lemieux, certainly remedied that situation! We started with a pile of stoned and the spray painted outline of where the wall was to go. Our first instruction was about the batter frame and how we use it to level the courses and have them narrow toward the top to strengthen the wall.

Once the batter frames were placed, we started with the foundation, digging to packed soil, and laid the first course. We quickly learned how to position the stones and how to fill the area between with smaller stones, a procedure called ‘hearting.’

I cannot stress how much of a physical labour shifting all this stone is. I was flabbergasted when Dean told me that he and Andre could have put up the wall in one day … a job that took the six of us nearly four days. But they’re the professionals! Even beyond their obvious skill, they have the physical conditioning that we do not. I have never been so wracked with muscle and back pain by any activity as this. Yes, I’m older, but my classmates (half of whom are in their twenties) echoed my complaints about stiff muscles, especially upon waking.

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Work progresses. Note the wood batter frame on the left with the string to indicate the level of the top course.

Slowly but surely, our efforts at sizing the stones with a hammer became more and more accurate, our placement of those stones more creative and tight, and the courses more regular and level. Of course we made mistakes, some of which came back to complicate things later, but we learned and improved. We’re no where near pro calibre, but we learned the basics, and that was the whole point.

Over the first two days, the wall slowly took form. Slowly being the key word. Working with heavy stones so near the ground is hard work. As its height increased, our work seemed to speed up. By the end of the third day, we were pleased with what we saw. We had a wall!

The forth day, we laid the last course and the cope stones. Those are the heavy stones placed vertically to anchor the top course with their mass. With the wall being so short, we needed no through-stones to tie both sides together.

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The completed wall. Our instructors stand in front of the wall, my classmates behind.

What surprised me is that such a simple structure can be so strong and so ridiculously resilient. If the ground heaves and settles through freeze and thaw, the stones will move against each other as necessary, maintaining their relative positions. No cracks form because drystone construction not locked into place. It is far more plastic than masonry. Well-constructed drystone walls, if left alone, will stand for centuries. More often than not, maintenance is required because of poor construction or damage.

I am absolutely in love with how these walls look. I’d love to get the first level of drystone building certification and work on them for pay. But I know myself … I just learned how and am still excited by the experience. I’ll give it some time and see if I’m still so enthusiastic.

If I am, I know a couple of guys in the field I can contact for information. 

The quinquagenarian goes back to school!

Holy cow, shit got real. I feel like a different person. A very busy person, among other things. You may know that I started school two weeks ago. I’m now a student at The Willowbank School of Restoration Arts. At least I think that’s the name, but no one ever uses it. It’s just Willowbank. Technically it’s a private career college, but there’s only one program offered. After three years, I’ll get a diploma in Heritage Conservation.

Basically, I’m starting the process of learning how to repair and conserve heritage structures. At the two week mark, the only hands-on we’ve had is with glass, but coming is an array of hands on learning. I’m particularly looking forward to stone carving and blacksmithing.

Willowbank upper campus. This is where I go to school!

I’m not a rich person so I have to keep my part time job, and with full time classes, it’s a challenge. School is 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and two consecutive days this coming week I’ll also be working from 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm. I can have dinner in the 30 minute span that I can spend at home before I have to leave for work. I’m certain that people have far busier lives, but this is busy for me! The last day off I had with no school and no work was September 4. I don’t see that changing for a while and I have no complaints.

Things were pretty sedate before school but it seems I have less time for everything else now. It just means that I go to bed earlier and feel more tired, more often. But the advantage is that I’m doing something that I really enjoy and it may continue after I graduate. I’m not sure I’ve ever in my life thought, “I’m looking forward to Monday. Why? Because I get to go to school!” With this school, how they teach, and what they teach, I am looking forward to Monday.

This week we’re building a drystone (mortar-free stone) wall!

A classmate in Bright Parlour, a lecture space in the upper campus.

Class sizes are small. My year has six students, myself included, so we’ve already started to form into a cohesive group. And there’s no sign from the other students that they’re somehow better or superior because they’ve been around longer. We’re all just students at various levels of experience. Everyone’s been so terrific, including the instructors. They’re all people in the field who agree to come and teach us for a number of days, either once or a number of times. Some are Willowbank graduates so they know us because they have been us.

With the upper campus being so gorgeous, I park there in the morning, get out of the car and take a moment to myself. I breathe the fresh air, listen to the sounds of the insects and the trees, take in the beauty of the grounds through the thick morning air, and be glad because I have the good fortune to be able to attend such an amazing school.

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