Rock of Ages
Dry stone wall artisan Dan Morales-Walsh keeps an ancient craft alive.
Rural New England is famously crisscrossed with stone walls, most of them erected between the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century as land was cleared for farming. Whether they were casually assembled of stones piled up as they were unearthed or more purposefully built, these walls are dry stone construction—held together without mortar. A great many of New England’s old stone walls are now in disrepair, which dry stone waller Dan Morales-Walsh says reflects a several-generation knowledge gap between the Old World and the New. Dan is among the 229 certified members of the Dry Stone Walling Association (DSWA), head-quartered in Great Britain, where the craft has been practiced for thousands of years. The proprietor of South Portland–based Maine Stone Scapes, “Dan the Stone Man” brings both creativity and skill to this ancient practical art.
On a hilltop building site in Cumberland, Dan and a helper are painstakingly assembling a dry stone wall in an unusual herringbone pattern. Nearby, a variety of similarly sized rocks are laid out on the ground; the men shape them with hammers and chisels to fit them into place in the wall, which when finished will be four feet high and border a patio. Dan explains that the stones are glacial till—deposited by receding glaciers—and that they come from about eight miles down the road. “I always try to use local stone,” he says. The wall also features several large boulders that add interest and anchor it to the ground, as well as rectangular pieces of reclaimed granite curbing that extend the wall’s width and help hold it together. “We are looking to have as many points of contact and as few voids between the stones as there can be,” says Dan. “A well-laid stone makes a bad day into a good day.”
Dan specializes in distinctive pieces, and his Cumberland client has given him wide artistic latitude for the project. The client discovered him on Instagram, where Maine Stone Scapes’s feed shows off residential and commercial work, along with stone arches and other sculptures Dan created at Fort Williams Ship Cove Beach in 2013 to show-case his artistry. “I’ve always liked rocks and puzzles,” says Dan, who began working with stone in his father’s landscaping business before launching his own enterprise in 2016. Two years later he spent five winter weeks in England and Scotland, immersed in dry stone walling with master craftsmen and crafts-women whose families have been doing this work for generations. In May 2018 he took the test to become DSWA level-two certified. “I’m finding my place in building walls and putting my mark on the landscape,” Dan says. “I’m always looking for ways to add creativity to my projects, because my work is going to last a long time.”