When I was a boy in Rochelle my father built a stone retaining wall along the west side of the driveway to keep the upper yard from sliding down. The wall was neither very tall nor very long, but it continued to grow slowly after its basic purpose, holding the yard out of the driveway, had been attained — I think Dad added a stone or two during the last year they lived in that house. He gathered rocks from numerous places. Most came from farms around Ogle and Lee Counties — “field stones” that farmers encountered while plowing, then deposited on the other side of the fence. Some others were added because they meant something special to him. He sometimes brought rocks home from trips and built them into the wall. And in 1970 I gave him a fragment taken from the north wall of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field that was being torn down to make room for the new Regenstein Library. In the 1920s Dad had competed on that track as a high school student in the annual Stagg Relays; the fragment was concrete, not a real rock, but it was special anyway.

In Austin Lisa and I built a small dry stone wall, two or three very thin stones high, at the front of our yard to prevent the two asymetrical garden areas that flank the walk to the house from sliding too rapidly into the street. Some of these rocks we found in our back yard. The rest we gathered on drives around the Hill Country west of town. Our children thought we had lost our minds.

Now we live in Clarksburg, on the south slope of a large hill, having moved from the level ground of Austin. Two retaining walls are already present in the back yard, below the house, to permit some measure of level ground for yard and paths. Together they divide the yard into three segments. The lower wall is cinderblock, three blocks high, with a concrete top. It protects a stone walkway along the property line on the west side of our lot. The upper wall is part cinderblock, part rock and concrete rubble held in place by metal pipes, dirt, vines, and gravity. It separates the upper area, where the house stands, from the garden areas below.

There are more walls all about. Each of the two houses across Milford from us has a retaining wall that keeps its front yard from falling into the street. These walls are quite old, built of stone mortared solidly together. From the street they are impressive, giving an air of ancient solidity to those two yards. Both walls lean a bit outward, toward the street.

It has been a wet year in Clarksburg. The ground seems to stay wet between rains, the rains seem to be frequent and heavy.

About a month ago I looked out the window and noticed that a large section had toppled out of one of the walls across the street, and another larger section remained standing only because of the utility pole that it is now leaning against.

So now I go and look at our walls every day or so. The rubble wall seems perfectly sturdy, even though we have removed most of its ivy. We will be encouraging other plants, native when possible, to help hold it in place. Some of the blocks in the cinderblock wall have lost pieces, and fragments litter the walkway, but the wall itself shows no signs of weakness. But I’ll keep checking anyway.


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