While excavating the foundation for an addition to my home, the contractor encountered buried sandstone ledges and giant boulders. The backhoe and dozer broke loose the soft rock, but I was left with tons of the stuff.

Several of the larger pieces became landscape features. Three sandstone boulders, shaped like biscuits the size of couches, became seating for a firepit. Other rocks of assorted size were used to make borders for flower beds, sidewalks and the garden.

What I am most excited about are the flat sections of sandstone 6 inches to 1 foot thick, and in circumference larger than garbage can lids. These I can imagine set in a flagstone patio for the new addition.

My fiancé was surprised to find me on the first above-freezing day of January wrestling with rocks. Dressed in jeans with knee pads, wearing leather gloves and wielding my old rock hammer. I was happily sorting sandstone, arranging it by color and striation, splitting the rock along sedimentary planes into uniform thicknesses.

“What are you doing?” she asked with concern. She had never seen anyone turning rock into works of art.

“I still got it!” was my proud reply, showing her how to tap a seam of sandstone and have it break into two slabs, then two more, and so forth. There is something wonderfully addictive about doing this by hand with a sharp-edged rock hammer.

I come from a long line of Appalachian rock masons. They labored on both sides of my family. Cross-fertilization occurred between generations of cousins, uncles and in-laws. My brother and I were two of the last after our father retired.

In the 1990s we tried to revive the business. We constructed flagstone and dry-stacked fireplaces, hearths, chimneys, sidewalks, patios, fountains, retaining walls, terraces, stairways – even mausoleums. The customer base grew; we made profits. But the curse of small businesses everywhere loomed: finding competent, trustworthy employees. Rock masonry is a skill that requires back-breaking labor and an artistic flair.

Great masons incorporate structural principles and architectural creativity. Holding a piece of stone in your hands, feeling the texture and weight and seeing in your mind’s eye how it will fit the puzzle of a fireplace or archway is a gift from God.

Working with natural stone means you can’t rely on regularity or exact measurement. A flagstone pathway, for example, won’t be smooth like tile or regular as brick. Nature’s diversity is the rule rather than the exception. Embracing it to produce a structure that is sturdy, pleasing to the eye, but obviously not far removed from the material’s natural state – that’s the goal but also why it’s so difficult to find workers.

Messing around in the mud of my backyard, stacking chunks of rock and shearing off layers of sandstone that time and ocean currents laid down millions of years ago, I was happy as a prehistoric clam (which is a common fossil revealed when separating planes of soft stone).

My fiancé is still learning my foibles and flaws. She shook her head as I hefted 60-lb. hunks of stone, whacked them with sledge and rock hammers and sweated in wild abandon while scrabbling on my hands and knees in the dirt. 

It was glorious, restorative experience – up to a point. Reminisces and reminders of youth aside, I truly enjoy working with stone and mortar, trowel and plumb bob. But splitting the rock has always been “my thing.” I could have been the happiest prisoner on a chain gang.

Until the next morning.

I am glad my fiancé was not in the house when I tried to get out of bed. The ululation of pain would have frightened her away from marriage or any association with me. When she visited later in the day, it was to care for a crippled man who could barely limp to the bathroom.

How many tendons and joints can be inflamed in a creaky body well into six decades? I could count every point of soreness and throbbing, naming the muscle groups and connective tissues. This included the pain from a pulled groin and smashed thumb. I was a wreck.

“Do I need to take you to the emergency room?” she wondered.

“Let me die in my own bed,” was the solemn reply.

I am better now. I can walk without a cane and almost bend over to tie my shoe laces.

“Hope you learned your lesson,” my beloved said, patting my arm fondly.

Obviously, she had not noticed me staring out the kitchen window at the pile of sandstone awaiting the touch of the Old Mason.

I can see the flagstone surface spreading out before me, visualize the slight slope needed for drainage, imagine how the flat pieces of stone will become three-dimensional patterns, flowing one into the other… all the while calculating how much ibuprofen and lineament will be needed to complete the project.