THE NEW MYTHS OF DRY STONE WALLING
“Dry stone walling:
This slogan-like sentence features prominently on the invitation issued by the Lithos society to round-table talks to be held at the 10th Cultural Heritage Show (1). It is worth noting that Lithos, which is based in the “Maison de la pierre sèche” (Home for dry stone construction) at Le Beaucet in the Vaucluse department, defines itself as a “network of societies, local authorities and professional institutions” that “manages the rehabilitation of all dry stone-related activities.”
The three assertions contained in this remarkably concise sentence deserve pondering: are they self-evident truths that are beyond question or newly-created myths that accompany the current vogue of dry stone masonry? To this author, who for the last three decades has been striving to publicize the craft and its productions, it is obvious that a new mythology is being established by a handful of people so they can lay their hands on dry stone-related economic activities.
The myth of “dry stone walling” as founding a territory’s identity
To any student of the economic history of the French countryside, this assertion is pure nonsense.
Prior to the incentives to land clearing offered by the Monarchy in the 2nd half of the 18th century and the division of common land in the first third of the 19th century, dry stone structures were unknown in many a territory, and forest prevailed in uncultivated margins (with the notable exceptions of the Quercy limestone plateaux and the suburban “garrigues” of the Gard department where dry stone structures are known to have been extant before the 18th century).
Knowing that the emergence, life and desertion of dry stone structures cover an unsignificant and recent portion – approximately a century – of a rural history that spans several, how can one claim that these structures are more representative of a so-called local identity than the forest (albeit degraded) they once replaced or the waste land – gradually evolving into forest – that has succeeded them?
In the Cévennes region, mountain slopes that were brought under cultivation in the late 18th century, have today regained their original forest cover. Does that mean that they have forfeited their Cevenol identity as a result?
The myth of “dry stone walling” as a subregional heritage
In the rural society that bore them, dry stone agricultural structures were considered as nothing more than production tools, the word “heritage” and its underlying notion being reserved for the family-owned plot of land that harboured such structures. Once a plot had been deserted for lack of profitability, its dry stone fixtures stopped being maintained as they had reached the end of their useful life. This explains why today so many areas with dry stone vestiges can be seen falling into disuse and being overrun by vegetation, with their rightful owners refusing to lift a finger.
Even though all these vestiges were to be considered as part of our cultural heritage, there is no reason why they should be labelled “de pays” (ie of the subregion) since the movement of land clearing and cultivation that gave birth to them, had a nationwide expansion as a result of the political, economic and demographical vicissitudes France went through between the end of the Monarchy and the end of the Second Empire. The expression “patrimoine du pays” (the nation’s heritage) would be more appropriate than “patrimoine de pays’ (subregional heritage).
The myth of a dry stone walling field of activity and its rehabilitation
Using words that befit industrial or economic activity in regard to dry stone walling is simply talking a lot of hot air.
No study so far has shown the existence of a distinct field of activity even at the peak of the historic movement of field and terrace construction. One would be hard put to find traces of a dry stone walling school that awarded degrees or of dry stone masons turned out by training centres. Of course, there used to be “dry stone masons”, “builders of retaining walls”, “builders of fields”, yet there was no outfit to supervise them. Speaking of the “rehabilitation” of a professional activity that never existed is stretching words more than a little.
To drive the point home, there is every reason to believe that the revival of dry stone masonry, far from being achieved by the creation of a specific professional institution entrusted with training masons, will result from the diffusion of the rather simple art of building in dry stone by means of training workshops arranged by local societies, how-to guides made available in bookshops, articles published in magazines for the general public, as has been the case for ages now. Being a material- and time-consuming activity, dry stone masonry can hardly be anything else than the favourite craft of enthusiastic amateurs for whom time and labour are unimportant. Which does not mean that resorting to professionals – be they called “muraillers” or another name – is ruled out, in particular for restoration work to be carried out in public land.
For that matter, it would be wise to ensure that the institution of a professional domain of activity is not accompanied by the adoption of restrictive technical standards and administrative obligations (such as being compelled to build only dry stone or faux dry stone walls in some areas under the excuse of having to abide by a so-called “traditional local style”).
Dry stone reverie
As far as I know, France boasts two “maisons de la pierre sèche” (homes for dry stone construction), one at Daglan, Dordogne, the other at Le Beaucet, Vaucluse. Not a lot as compared with the many areas with dry stone walls and huts where such institutions would deserve to exist. This brings to mind the following idea: why couldn’t such “maisons” (homes) be established in clusters of dry stone huts, making up as it were “cabanes de la pierre sèche” (huts for dry stone construction)? Al least, this would bring some life back to a few of those edifices that are pining away in disused land.
Next, one could even envision “villages de la pierre sèche” (villages for dry stone construction), i.e. groupings of several “huts for dry stone construction”, while at the same time connecting “huts” and “villages” with one another via “routes de la pierre sèche” (highways of dry stone construction) (not to mention “autoroutes”) (motorways) that all converged towards Le Beaucet (the “European pole of dry stone construction” as its humble proponents are so fond of calling it), elevated to the rank of a mecca where every self-esteemed adept of dry stone walling would go on a pilgrimage at least once in his life. Such a moving picture!
(1) If one considers oneself an “actor in the field of heritage” – to use a popular buzzword –, it would be all the more ungracious of one not to participate in the forum as it is to take place, of all venues, at the “studio théâtre de la Comédie Française” at the Louvre Carrousel in Paris on November 4th, 2004 at 14.00 h.
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© Christian Lassure
February 8th, 2004
To be referenced as :
The new myths of dry stone walling
February 8th, 2004