Friday, May 15, 2015

Binda Colebrook


We owe hugely to this English gardener who realized one Seventies day that Seattle was just like home or the Netherlands, where people grew vegetables all year around. Seattle’s growing season begins in October. There is plenty of time to forget mass-market advice aimed at the parts of the US that endure the continental climate’s four rigid seasons of conventional elementary education.

Colebrook’s Pragtree farm in Duvall introduced $13 a ca.1979 pound chickweed to Manhattan. I believe she also influenced the design of the demonstration garden at Wallingford’s Tilth center. 

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Climate Trumps Architecture


Three-plus decades of living in one place suggest the following: suit the building as closely and economically to its location as you are able. Suit yourself with the interior.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bring Back The Breed


Early Seventies musings on carrying capacity left me wondering about the environmental wisdom of supporting carnivorous pets. Later I read a history of the English cottage that also recognized the economics of dog food. Particulars aside, local tribes kept dogs that were valued for the wool they produced. The splendid ritual robes on display in museums were woven from canine fiber.

It’s been a long time since I vacuumed pet hair off a couch, but the task would seem less tedious if it were a harvest. One of the big name thrift stores is soliciting all textiles for its new recycling program, and pet wool seems like a natural. Pet vacuums offer point-source control for fiber management.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Notes On Conserving Water


TV weather says the county’s snowpack is zero the usual amount needed to supply water for the coming year. Since I have been planning to invite East Bay friends to bring their rubber ducks north for a bubble bath, I decided it’s time to be even stingier with the water supply.

I believe it was Susan Strasser who, in one of her benchmark volumes on the history of American domestic economy, quoted a gent as saying that “it was running water that taught women to waste it”. Gender considerations aside, I find it helpful to think of water as if I had to carry it from a source.

Simply ceasing to water the garden slashes the utility bill, reduces many kinds of maintenance, and fosters native species. Paddle handles on the kitchen sink make it fast and easy to open and close the taps. No doubt local media will broadcast the usual advisories, like shutting off the water while brushing one’s teeth. 

Off and on I have managed the family laundry with a featherweight twin-tub I can order by mail. Designed to conserve water, a twin-tub is a highly evolved washtub rather than an inferior mechanical device. A canny mother of a large Seventies Eastside family had two washing machines: the first one drained into the second. The arrangement reflected the nineteenth century Shaker commercial laundry facility that was a series of tubs. I have long thought it would make sense to have two washers, since one would always be available in case the first broke down. The tiny one-pound capacity portable automatics on the market would make such an arrangement feasible in nearly any space. Not using a dryer makes room for an additional machine.

In Seattle, saving electricity also means saving water, since our power comes from hydro. Line drying laundry saves on utilities and in ways that are not obvious. Textiles are costly to acquire in dollars, time and attention, and in transportation. Producing and marketing them burdens the environment. A reasonably co-ordinated wardrobe rests on a few key pieces. Replacing one can be a big deal. Line drying makes things last, in my experience, at least five times longer than if they were battered in a dryer.

In the powder room of this old house is a ca.1920 toilet, the kind that used to be flushed from a tank mounted high on the wall. I have not replaced the thing, because I discovered that adjusting the float ball made it possible to flush with the same minimal gallon as the state of the art throne upstairs. The flush mechanism developed a hiccup, and I grew weary of lifting off the cast iron lid to fiddle with the thingie that closes the bottom of the tank. Setting aside the lid left me free observe and manipulate the flushing mechanism. I discovered that the initial velocity of the flush is what counts in cleaning the bowl. There was a trivial learning curve as I learned how to pull the plug directly. I now can flush liquids with a roughly a quart of water. The view into the old tank is not edifying, since it’s had a hundred years to develop surface enrichment. The plan is to find a carpenter to cobble together a hinged teak or cedar lid. 

Old habits of wardrobe and table linen reflect the burden and expense of laundry. Back in the day, setting up a tub of suds meant planting the trees to cut for firewood to heat the water one had carried from a source. Read Strasser for the full horror of the details. In France, country women saved laundry to wash it all at once, in June. They used their trousseau for a lifetime. Small clothes protected outer garments from body waste. Detachable collars minimized the burden of a daily change of shirt. The collars themselves protected outer garments from the presumably clean neck of the wearer. It would make environmental sense to revive the practice of wearing a scarf under the neck of a jacket. 

Like washing the chocolate off a toddler’s hands, point source pollution control is the most effective way of challenging environmental burdens. I find that eating a healthy diet whether I want to or not and including a daily tablespoon of flax seed keeps my metabolism sweet and the clothes I wear wearable. Halve laundry by wearing things one more day. A brief soak cycle will compensate for the additional soil. Dig out great-grandmother’s napkin rings and put them into service.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Old School Walls


Wallpaper is political. I remember hearing scathing contempt for it during the heyday of Fifties’ suburban development. My childhood aesthetic sensibilities suffered in the presence of the cheap contractor’s floral of a ’58 room. I doubt I’m the only person who has listened to the wails of a tenant describing the inescapable pheasants in her dining room.

That said, sometimes wallpaper or a wallpaper equivalent suggests itself for a given interior. John Baldessari designed a wallpaper pattern for a full-page gallery ad that appeared in a recent issue of Juxtapoz, magazine of the low-brow arts. Alternating potatoes and frosted tungsten-filament light bulbs placed on a background of almost robin’s egg blue, the repeat of the motifs is simple and easy to match. It would be trivial to fabricate one’s own version of the design, even using stickers on a painted wall.

Sometime in the remote mists of the past, I had time enough to read a history of wallpaper. What struck me was that the first papers were small units, roughly 8.5 x 11, wood block printed on what must have been good stock (because the cheap stuff had not yet been invented). I disguised many a pockmarked Sixties landlady green wall with my collection of posters and pushpins. In their way, they were wallpaper as well, and a very fine antidote to the gruesome graphic design of my childhood they were. I fused the two formats when I decided to treat the downstairs powder room, formerly cold closet, as an eighteenth century print room. In that period, it was fashionable to paste engravings directly onto the walls of a reception room of privilege.

I had inherited a collection of the Mingei folk art calendars that were one of Japan’s first exports after the war. Silkscreened in several colors from hand-cut stencils, the calendars were sold in a local Japanese specialty store. I couldn’t bring myself to paste the originals to a wall, so I copied them in color and adhered the copies with bookbinder’s archival water soluble paste. 

Wallpaper is frankly a bitch to reverse. It holds damp in a room that is inclined towards damp. Small panels of paper might be a reasonable alternative. Liquid laundry starch is an easily reversible adhesive that has left no difficult residue where I’ve tried it. Test a small patch. Diana Phipp’s Affordable Elegance outlines additional strategies for making the most of an interior that is not at its best.

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