Mark Velez: Putting Up Walls
To say Mark Velez works hard is like saying the sun is hot. Mark may not be a well-known figure in town, but his dedication to rebuilding stonewalls at the Rettich Preserve along River Road is a remarkable feat of human ingenuity and effort.
Mark and his wife Roberta haven’t lived in town long, moving here just before the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have certainly resided like longtime residents with their volunteer project. Mark is a Madison Land and Conservation Trust (MLCT) member and took on the project under the organization’s auspices in 2018.
Heat, poison ivy, and 800-pound rocks are no match for Mark and his work ethic. Mark says the project began as just something to do, just “a hobby.”
Mark says his love for preservation and habitat protection began when he lived down the shore and helped the town of Lyme in its efforts to protect a parcel.
“When I was living in Lyme, there was a conservation group that had a lot of preserved land near where we lived. There was a big parcel that was going to go under contract to developers, and my wife and I, at the last second, were able to get that land away from the builders and into the hands of the nature conservancy there,” says Mark.
That effort in Lyme included rebuilding stone walls at that site and initiated Mark’s stone and conservancy skills. When Mark and his wife moved to Madison across from the Rettich Preserve, the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning.
Mark was one of the many shoreline residents who needed to ensure his safety due to immunity issues and needed a project to enhance his health, and the Rettich walls became his passion.
Mark says the preserve site is more difficult than others he has worked on because the available stone and rock are not ideal for wall making. According to Mark, stone wall building is just as much art as engineering.
“It’s just something I take pleasure in. Not so much on this stone wall,” Mark laughs. “There are really some horrible rocks to work with. They are all wacky-shaped; they’re weird, and there doesn’t seem to be enough of them. In Lyme, I had access to quarry stone and had some decent stone to work with. I could build beautiful trapezoidal walls. It really is a bit of art and science. You have to look at each rock that you have. I basically take sections apart and then see what I have to fix. I have a little chisel and a five-pound sledgehammer, and that allows me to fit them a little bit. I just take a whack at some of the stones, but many are just too big, and you would really need a heavy-duty drill with a diamond bit. I don’t have that, but I do what I can. I whack a little chunk off and try and get pieces so I can get stones to lay flat.”
Mark says this project has presented some unique challenges, but the work makes him feel connected to the community and allows him to focus on something other than his illness.
“I simply don’t have the ideal stones for this one. I’m a bit ashamed to put my name on this wall in some respects. But it really is like a puzzle. A puzzle that you don’t have the picture of, absolutely. I never know what it’s going to end up looking like. I just try to make it somewhat level without big gaps in it. I bank it first, and then I go back afterward and see if I can crack up some rocks to fill little voids,” says Mark.
Mark is far too critical of himself, as anyone who sees his work can instantly recognize the hard work and dedication that emanates from his efforts. Mark is honing a time-honored but long-lost skill in this wall work.
He said he read a book about stonewall building and learned the rest of his skills simply by experience and trial and error.
“I did read a book about it, but I think I had probably figured out most of it already,” Mark laughs.
Though his wife Roberta occasionally has to help out by holding a crowbar or lever, and they had to call in equipment for one particularly large section of rocks, Mark mostly does the work by himself.
“As long as someone isn’t helping me, I really enjoy doing it,” he jokes. “It takes a while. You really have to take the time to look at stuff, and you don’t want anyone breathing down your neck. I don’t have those beautiful stones that I call ‘monkey stones’ — the ones that are so perfect that any monkey could build with them. So that’s the challenge — finding the right stone out of a supply that isn’t ideal, but that’s why I like it. It’s a hobby, I guess. It just calms me, but the awful heat we’ve had lately and especially the humidity. I just can’t work in that humidity.”
According to the MLCT, the Rettich Preserve was donated to the land trust by Fred and Rosa Rettich in 2014. Fred’s parents, Frank and Anna Rettich, purchased the land in 1906 after emigrating from Germany, and for more than 100 years, the property was a single-family working farm.
The MLCT describes the site as land that “gently rolls along near the Hammonasset River, a former farmland which includes hay fields, second growth woodlands, barns, sheds, fruit trees, grape vines, and farm implements scattered throughout.”
Despite the medical problems that occasionally keep him from working every day and the recent heat that beats down any worker toiling outside, Mark has steadily fixed and maintained the walls and grounds around the preserve parking area. Mark says there are still several years of work ahead to complete the project.
“Ultimately, what I want to do is the entire front, at least the section on River Road, at least to where the cars park. There is a fairly decent section of wall there that just needs some finagling to make it look really good, but in between, it’s really a mish-mash of different things. If I owned a Bobcat, life would be very easy!” Mark says with a laugh.
Mark and his wife have also made plans for a large monetary donation to the preserve. He partnered with the MLCT to tackle the project with the land trust’s consent and hopes that the gift will ensure funding for many years.