STEVEN Allen does not philosophize about stone walls. Plenty of other people do, but not Allen. He is generally a quiet person -- a result, perhaps, of spending much of his time alone, in the countryside, sorting through piles of rock. About the closest he'll come to proffering large thoughts is to say something vaguely Zenlike, such as "A stone is a stone." As with many of the things Allen says, more can be read into this than is at first evident.
The majority of wall builders will tell you that a stone, professionally speaking, is not always a stone. Wallers tend to specialize in a single kind of rock, typically the one found in their home county. Slate might be a stone, and limestone might be a stone, but granite represents little more than a series of frustrations. Allen, however, is a Cumbrian waller. People who are familiar with wall building in Great Britain know that Cumbria, a rural county in northwestern England, is something of a melting pot rockwise. "There's slate where I live," Allen says. "Two miles that way is limestone. Ten miles this way it's all sandstone, and ten miles the other way it's nothing but granite. I don't differentiate. They all make fine walls."
Allen is thirty-nine years old. His hair is brown and curly and responsive to neither comb nor brush. He has a squarish jaw, thickly callused hands, and forearms apt to make an observer wonder whether Allen's diet consists chiefly of spinach. He is six feet three inches tall. He has never had so much as a day of formal training, and he can't recall a time when he did not know how to build a wall. As a child, growing up on his family's sheep farm, Allen spent much of his playtime piling stones: "My father used to say to me, 'Put a few boulders on a wall if you want to do something useful.'" Allen attended school until age sixteen and then became a farmhand, working on his family's land and at larger operations. Wall repair was a never-finished task -- one that most workers loathed but that he found strangely satisfying. He decided to specialize.