Friday, August 20, 2010

Dog Days


Photo courtesy Flickr

Sometimes I find myself on the same bus as a witty, slender golden retriever. She and her master sit by the front door, and last week Doggie decided to chase her tail while lying on the floor. There wasn’t room for this virtuoso static behavior, so, grinning, she chased her upper hind foot until she got shushed.

Like the pre-schooler who tried to convince her mother that spring is the first day of the week, Dog’s wit sailed past the responsible adult, as much of my kid’s insight no doubt sailed past me. He did spend several seasons trying to convince me that L.L. Bean sold golden retrievers in its mail order catalogue.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Roof Over One's Head

Photo courtesy Flickr

An old friend became a home owner in an unusual way. She rented a basement apartment in a house in the small town where she works during the week, living frugally. After many years, the owners decided to put the house on the market, and, hating to move, our friend paid cash for the place and simply took over the upper floors.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Western Style

Photo courtesy Flickr
Photo courtesy Flickr

Such is the passage of time that I remember the unique mixture of Victorian, native American, and country furnishings that is characteristic of the early West. A particular mix of urban, country, and tribal, Western is a style that entertains, works damned hard, and enriches utilitarian quarters. This genre is an authentic way to furnish a Fifties tract ranch house.

Early television westerns are good visual guides to Western style. When Hollywood began producing horse operas, it hired experts like legendary Montana painter Charlie Russel to oversee technical accuracy. Sets communicated the achingly rigorous economy of early Western architecture, built from the straight-grain Doug fir that made West coast forests a strategic resource for the masts of sailing ships and roofed and sided with cedar split from six hundred year old trees.

Understand Western style by understanding distribution: until the mid 1970s, all national advertising contained the proviso “prices slightly higher west of the Rockies”. Abundant local wood, severe earthquakes, and that simple economic reality shaped our interiors from the beginning of Euro-american settlement.

Manufactured goods sailed from the Northeast via the tip of South America or from China and Japan; they were carted over land and over the Rockies on ox-drawn covered wagons. Later they arrived in boxcars. No matter how you figure it, getting a high-end European item of furnishing to the West was an achievement.

My mother and I used to watch television together in the early Fifties, and she kept up a running commentary on the sets, observing how true they were to the interiors of her pioneer grandparents’ generation. If this kind of style interests you, get familiar with the Sears catalogue so you’ll be able to distinguish elegance from the expedient. The Oregon Trail was lined with discarded New England antiques: when the going got tough, wagons were lightened of non-essentials, so an early piece that made it as far as Portland or Puget Sound had earned its place.

Western style is a mix of a few essential pieces of Victoriana, captain’s or country ladderback chairs like the ones sold on roadsides in Appalachia, cowhide rugs, native American blankets and artifacts, weapons, and trophy heads. The high-end convertible kerosene/electric lamp is a prize. Quilts, lace curtains, traveler’s sets of small volumes of literature, roller shades, and handmade rag and braided rugs are typical solutions to basic needs.

I love Western style, because it allows me to enjoy carefully designed 1890 quarters in unpretentious comfort. Local antiques are very rare, but Seattle has sleepers. Our fabulous wood was worked into built-in cupboards by the gifted Northern European carpenters who made our early houses, and building salvage outfits offer these works for very reasonable prices. It’s not hard to find other characteristic used or vintage pieces, and once you get the basic premise of Western style, that of working with what’s local and good value and topping it off with a few prizes, it’s easy to improvise.

An expert exclaimed over my hanging collection of Navaho rugs until I told her that they were $100 Turkish kilims I’d picked up at a special sale at a local carpet outlet. (Buy a small handbook of Oriental rugs, let the patterns seep into your memory, and be aware that the Navaho, Turkey, and Tibet are a continuum of sheep-raising, silver and turquoise-loving mountain people.) Any decent sofa can easily be reupholstered with hot-melt glue and worn wool blankets or denim. Watch a few classic Westerns and get a feel for the chairs-they turn up all the time used. Thonet bentwood and captain’s chairs are easy to come by: they’re coffee shop classics for good reason.

Blue Willow or other china printed from steel-engraved transfer designs, utilitarian thick white coffee shop china, Asian rice bowls, fiddle-handled flatware, white linens, velvet, cast iron cookware, pressed glass (a uniquely American art form), the genuine lace known as crochet, framed photographs, and the all-important huge tea kettle are period classics. Western style is mercifully free of sentimental country kitsch.

One of the things I like best about Western style is the mixture of practical and elegant, high-tech and paleolithic. There is little excess in an old Western interior, simply because excess was not available, and housekeepers had better things to do. Homes were centers of production, and labor was scarce.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Prune When You're Fresh


Photo courtesy Flickr

Working with native plants requires different judgement than working with cultivated imports. This is the third or fourth season I’ve emphasized local flora, making this garden unique in the area. I hope this little island of indigenous species will re-seed nearby: already I see a few fireweed here and there off the property, and a native rose is appearing in parts of the garden where the seeds must have been spread by birds or squirrels.

Last summer I was enchanted by the combination of grace and low maintenance that wildlings offer in a small landscape. A native yellow iris planted in the overflow area by the pond looks as if it has grown there on its own. It has developed into a forthright accent with none of the cultivation usually suggested for iris-a highly groomed look is counter-productive. I have enjoyed the view of its foliage backlighted by afternoon sun, the integrity of a clump that has been respected-never trimmed, divided, or watered, and the sculptural elegance of the seed stalks, whose pods resemble bronze when ripe.

The iris grew across the main path, making a tripping hazard for guests. Yesterday after a couple of hours of playing catch-up with this year’s maintenance, I took a whack at it with a hand scythe. The result was as charming as a self-inflicted haircut committed with dull scissors. In one second, I undid the lovely result of four seasons of careful non-maintenance and proved a garden theory that has been thirty-five years in the making. Most of the work in a garden is created by the gardener, not the plants. Wild plants are not crops, and it makes no sense to manage them as such.

A couple of minutes on my knees with pruners brought the clump a reprieve from full ugliness, but it has been compromised. The best I will be able to do is to make it look as if an elk stepped on it. It would have been wiser to make a fast pass at the iris with a sharp spade, cutting off the section that is challenging the walk and transplanting it slightly downstream in the seepage from pond overflow.

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More after the jump.