WILLET — On a hill overlooking Cincinnatus stands over a quarter-mile of stone walls. They are not some long-ago attempt to contain cattle or distinguish boundaries.
Like brush strokes on a canvas, these walls embody the resolve of their builder, 77-year-old Ray Kneer of Piety Hill Road.
Inspiration came from watching the television program, “All Creatures Great and Small,” based on James Herriot’s book.
“I was captivated with the English countryside and wanted to duplicate that look on my property,” Kneer said. The Cincinnatus man enjoys work that allows him to interact with nature. “It’s cathartic,” he says.
When Kneer and his wife discovered their current location 20 years ago, Ray admired the unobstructed view of the village below. And then he quickly planted trees adjacent to the road to create “a green wall between himself and the world.” Much like Henry David Thoreau, Kneer describes himself as friendly, but not social.
“I don’t seek out people for company,” he says. There is an unmistakable similarity between Thoreau’s Walden Pond and the sanctuary Kneer says he unintentionally created for himself on Piety Hill.
“I’m a truth seeker,” Kneer said. “I thought building this wall would reveal a truth about myself, about nature and about things esoteric in origin. Truth is very hard to find; truth is a process. You don’t know how heavy a stone is till you pick it up. Picking it up is the truth. Looking at nature doesn’t give you answers; you have to experience nature — feel the wind and rain, and hold nature in your hand.”
Using only a wheelbarrow, and a sled when the ground is snow-covered, Kneer gathers mostly sedimentary stones from neighboring fields and bog.
As of Sept. 27, he has collected 23,560 wheelbarrow loads. His work has cost him five wheelbarrows, many tires, several mattocks to unearth the stones, and a once-straight wrecking bar. He does not accept delivery of any stones, nor does he allow anyone to help him structure his walls.
“Allowing someone to help me build my walls would be like a poet allowing someone else to add a word,” Kneer says.
Some of the stones weigh nearly 100 pounds — 27 pounds shy of Kneer’s modest frame. To maneuver these heavier stones to the top of the wall, he flips them up the rungs of his homemade ladder outfitted with a wooden backing. Apart from nursing an ailing back from time to time, Kneer gathers or lays stones daily.
He utilizes the two-on-one, one-on-two method when laying the courses. Larger, heavier stones are used for the base and are often placed a few inches below ground level to give more stability to the wall.
Flat stones are used on the top of the wall adding stability to the smaller stones in between.
“They also provide an aesthetic look and lessen the possibility of snow, ice, leaves, pine cones and pine needles from penetrating the wall,” he says.
Each wall is three rows deep with some consisting of more than 30 courses. Some sections stand 5 feet high. All of Kneer’s walls are dry-built, meaning no mortar is used.
Also on the property are three cone-shaped cairns, a pedestal and an elaborate fire pit. The idea for the cairns came from hiking in the Adirondack Mountains where cairns are used as trail markers.
The pedestal “was just for folly,” Kneer says. The fire pit evolved simply as a “need for work.”
Kneer lived in an orphanage from the time he was just a few months old.
“It wasn’t Dickensian by any means,” he says. In fact, he recalls “being too busy playing to have time for reading.”
He also remembers, though, basing the notion of normalcy by what he saw on television shows such as “Leave it to Beaver.” Kneer says it took him a long time to realize everyone has issues.
This is why he lives by these rules: Be kind; don’t hurt anyone; give of yourself; pay it forward; don’t be idle; and understand nature both physically and with your heart.
After leaving the orphanage, Kneer attended SUNY Cortland for a year for physical education. He “just wasn’t motivated,” however, so he joined the Navy.
While stationed in Hawaii, Kneer learned to love the poems of Walt Whitman — his favorite is “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” He also enjoys Emerson, Wordsworth, Keats and Yeats.
After four years in the Navy, Kneer re-enrolled in college, but again wasn’t satisfied. He worked various jobs in various states ranging from a factory worker making tennis rackets to a stock clerk in a grocery store in Montana.
Kneer eventually settled into a job at the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services in Cortlandville as a printer. However, working with the oil-based ink made him ill, so he moved into an office in adult education, where he retired 12 years ago.
When Kneer isn’t “laying up wall,” he volunteers at BOCES and invites the environmental careers students to his home to examine the stone walls.
He also chaperones a yearly canoe trip on the Tioughnioga River and accompanies the students on the Finger Lakes Trail and makes yearly treks to the mountains at Raquette Lake and the Adirondack High Peaks — Kneer has climbed 40 of the 46.
Kneer considers The Adirondacks to be his second home. He owns a cabin “well off the grid,” he says, deep in the North Country. Kneer has made 173 climbs between the Adirondacks, Colorado, New Hampshire and North Carolina.
He’s also been a long-distance runner for more 43 years and was even a national champion in his 50s. He still runs a few miles every other day and considers jogging to be “a sanctuary in motion.”
“Ray was a great runner,”said Larry Kabat of Homer, a 46er himself in the Adirondacks.
“We enlisted him on our team,” Kabat said. It was a biking/canoe/running race and Kneer did the run. The team came in second. “He was kind of middle aged at the time. We were in our 30s. He was mid-40s.”
During the winter, Kneer can be found in his shop, where the walls are adorned with his wood-burned plaques depicting trails of the Adirondacks, listening to Brahm’s 2nd Symphony while jogging on his treadmill or working on one of his many craft projects. He’s carved and painted 105 walking sticks, designed dozens of dream catchers using feathers he and friends find in nature, threaded dozens of beaded and arrowhead necklaces and even dabbled with painting.
Gesturing towards the crafts displayed on his wall, Kneer shrugs and says,“I give most of these things away.” Kneer believes that being a runner, and being a builder of stone walls has had a positive effect on him. “I am not as good a person as I should be, but I am working at it,” he says. “Just as my wall is a work in progress, so too am I.”
Photos by Thomas Neubauer/contributing photographer
Kneer also enjoys making walking sticks.
Lori Eaton of Willet is a writer.