Paving the way: One pebble at a time

In the Italianate terrace at Powerscourt Estate in Ireland’s County Wicklow, a journey of 1,000 pebbles (many times over) began in 1843 with the very first stone, placed by a kid aged seven. Look at the finish date above – more than three decades later. And it all happened one pebble at a time.

It makes me think of Anne Lamott’s story about her brother. He was another kid, overwhelmed by a school project on birds he’d procrastinated on. How would he get started, let alone finish? It was due the next day. His dad’s answer, Bird by Birdbecame the title for Lamott’s book on writing.

One of many pebbled paving patterns at Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon.

Lamott wr0te, among other things, about conquering perfectionism. [Ed: Ha. I’ll leave in that typo on “wrote” for irony’s sake.] Looking at these perfect creations you might think that perfectionism has a point.

Vancouver’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden first sent me head-over-heels for the intricate paving of classical Chinese gardens – like those I saw later in Portland and Montreal. Each outdoor room in these gardens seems to try to outdo the others for pebbled patterns and texture.

But here I’m not looking at the big pictures, as beautiful as they are. Instead, I’m looking at all the itty bitty pieces used to make them. One pebble at a time. Each pebble mattered.

My point is this: No matter how daunting it can feel before you begin it, any “journey of 1,000 miles” starts with just one step. Just one. You get to choose how big it is. And one and one and one and one and many more ones add up to something bigger. (Try cursoring over smaller images to see the caption, or click any picture to view the slide show.)

Google the phrase “one pebble at a time” and you’ll discover some interesting stories.

One is the story of a postman who constructed a fanciful Palace of Dreams, pebble by pebble, over a span of 33 years. Do have a look. It’s wild and wonderful. Another is about a Hamilton, Ontario, woman who makes people smile (and sometimes cry, in a good way) by giving, to perfect strangers, pebbles she has hand-painted with cheerful sayings.

And a third is about a young medical student from Michigan who’s working to solve women’s health issues in the developing world. He says, “When you’re trying to make a change, you’re building a mountain one pebble at a time…”

There’s no right way or wrong way to design paving with pebbles. I used my collection of round stones when replacing my last bit of lawn with the little patio in my front garden – quite random compared with the neat confections in the first few photos.

The pictures above and below – in gardens in Dallas (at left) and in Toronto’s Lawrence Park (right) – have their own kind of order or ordered disorder.

The pattern might start with just one pebble, but together all those pebbles fill the gaps, stand shoulder to shoulder to complete a line, and help fulfill the grand design.


[UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to include Toronto’s own pebble mosaic – Kathleen Doody’s willow tree on Ward’s Island. We give links to the story on our recent post about the Toronto Islands. Here’s a preview of what you’ll see.]

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