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His Head Against a Stone Wall : STONE WORK by John Jerome (Viking: $17.95; 210 pp.)

June 25, 1989|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor

Read your way into the Massachusetts woods with John Jerome; out come echoes of Walden Pond and Tinker Creek and all those outdoor kindred spirits from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Edward Abbey or Edward Hoagland.

This is that fertile soil where, in Emersonian terms, the civilized creature leaves urbanity, dives into nature, thrashes among fallen leaves and finally unpacks the bags only to discover that the luggage of the other life is still important.

Leaves, weather and landfall matter. Jerome is good at recognizing them, recording them and giving them lively names on paper. He is also good at guiding without lecturing along the way. This is that rare book that befriends the reader as an equal. The author, while obviously in love with the idea of building a stone wall, "leading off in all directions, stringing these hills and fields together, organizing the world," is also a bumbler, occasional idler and quite incapable of embracing the absolutes that all true believers find so comforting.

At the beginning, he is full of the romance of his task: "Joinery, it now occurs to me, must be the foundation of all craft. You put two things together to make something else, to accomplish some purpose; the better they fit, or work together, the greater the pleasure from the making. Stone, wood, glass, metal, mud, any material, any combination, it's the fitting together that turns work into pleasure, turns tedium into trance."

And, later, trance into tedium, just like real life without romance.

Working up to illusion/disillusion, Jerome learns the basic technique of building a wall, by hand, without mortar: put one stone on top of two, then put two stones on top of one. One of the tricks a would-be wall-maker learns is to place the heavier stones at the bottom of the project--lower means less lifting--and to save flat stones for the top. Simple. Simple work and heavy work and dirty work. Getting the stones to the site of the wall is a major effort, not quite what the Incas hauled up Machu Picchu, but a hard chore for the solitary stone worker. The possibility of adding a mashed finger to the project is a major hazard.

The purity of process. Out there in the elements doing elemental tasks, a sensitive person attempts to become a participant in the landscape, humbled by the enormity of nature, yet a contributor whose wall helps lend definition and order.

As two stones pile on one, one on two, Jerome contemplates process and his own previous attempts to find the ideal endeavor: rebuilding automobile engines, competing in sports, writing books, "all of it in pursuit of some nebulous adulthood that retreats ahead of me, never getting a step closer. At some idiotic level I seem to believe there is a single act I can perform, at the end of which I'll come out with the word 'competent' stamped on my forehead. When it comes to adulthood, I am--at 54--like the erstwhile maiden on the morning after, staring in the mirror to see if the change in status has registered in her eyes."

The writer is still looking for that transcendental activity, the discipline to harness mind and body in a drive toward universal understanding. Physics fascinates him. So does language although, in a kind of epiphany among the woods, Jerome realizes that words can be a barrier against seeing clearly, a way to "hold off experience." The rhythm developed by superior athletes absorbs him, and he describes having once become a devotee of physical training to experience a natural form of exhilaration: "I started running because I heard that it would get you high." He ran, became good at running, even enjoyed running but never outran the mind and body he already carried around.

Working a wall gives a person time to recognize such limits along with accomplishments. This book, unlike nature-worship volumes that ignore cold or omit insects, does not pretend paradise. Organized by seasons, Jerome begins his work in spring, progresses to summer--"the high point of the year, before which all is glowing anticipation, after which all is tinged with regret"--churns into fall and then ends with winter snow.

By March, Jerome has fled the Massachusetts Berkshires for a vacation in the Caribbean, picnicking among the iguanas instead of moving rocks. That's one of his charms, the ability to start something, study the proper way to proceed, do enough of it to become proficient--and then stop. Without much guilt and with no regret. Jerome, like so many of us befriended readers, is an adult without certainty. During his time with the wall, he thought about the need to pay more attention to this life, the requirement for human change, the understandable yearning for faith, the fecklessness of his father, the stolidity of his stepfather, the failure of his first marriage and the understanding in his second marriage. The author is no stranger. His self-absorption--self-confessed but never self-aggrandizing--seems as real as one of his rocks, only less hard-edged.

Real-seeming, too, is his summation of trying to build a big world from a small wall: "Stone work, " Jerome concludes, "needs a certain obsessiveness, and I seem to have come out the other end of it without achieving that. I would love to have had it happen, to have become an obsessive wall-builder, laying up ever more intricate and beautiful constructs of stone--becoming a true master--but I didn't, and probably won't."

The pleasure in process, then, may be more than manual labor with the materials at hand; it means the willingness to keep an open mind alongside a functioning body, enjoying the chance to pick up, put down and go on searching.

A centenarian once told the American Medical Assn. that the secret to long life was being able to wake up every morning for 100 years. More simple process. The trick to enjoying the process, and taking it to print, is what Jerome has mastered in about half the time.

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