Friday, February 19, 2010

The Internal Nomad

Photo courtesy Flickr
Today’s forecast is for sun and the high fifties. After four months in the study, the walls are closing in, and I look forward to setting up on the sunporch to thrash paper this afternoon. A laptop, WiFi, and cell phone float an office the way the Walkman originally floated personal music.

Futurist Buckminster Fuller taught that the first question one should ask about a thing was, “How much does it weigh?” Eighteenth-century furniture was designed to be portable, to take advantage of natural light. The French and Italian words for furniture translate as “movables”.

This 1890 house is perfectly sited for passive solar gain, with the long axis of the roof running east to west. I doubt that this is accidental. Originally, the place was heated with a fireplace, kitchen stove, and a couple of gas fires in the upper chambers. It’s designed so that the doors valve heat here and there as it is desired.

I learned early on to set up activities wherever was most pleasant, using available heat and natural light rather than central utilities. Field experience, living without electricity for a year, and some privileged senior housekeepers had taught me that free energy is the most congenial. A house cat is a reliable guide to microclimates.

In the nineteenth century, coal, kerosene, and cotton waste from the weaving industry produced the interior dominated by dormant furniture, huge, heavy upholstered pieces that never moved from their final position. Space will work a lot harder if most of the furnishings are light enough to move safely. The smaller the interior, the more valuable it is to choose pieces that are more brain and muscle than mass.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Traditional Garden

Photo courtesy Flickr

A graduate student in landscaping told me about a classic English garden practice: to leave the dead stalks of perennials in place over the winter. They house welcome predators and break the wind around tender new shoots in early spring.

I have grown very fond of the subtle color and gentle lines of dead yarrow, dock, and oregano stems. They meander along the front walk, and I can look at them every time I use the main door. Last summer’s blooms look like delicate metal scrap by February, and it’s nearly time to mow them flat in anticipation of green-up.

Last night I wanted some oregano and wandered into the mushy Seattle landscape in search of the flavor of a hot, dry Greek island. Oregano there was, to my surprise, tiny flat rosettes almost like mushrooms crouching tightly at the base of a miniature forest of stalks. It was easy to pinch off enough to season the gumbo, and I was grateful not to have to run to the store. I was even more grateful to have guessed right about what was growing and how it had been protected from recent freezes.

I don’t water this part of the garden: it is composed of native plants, tough herbs, and a small area of turf that grows thicker and more resilient each season. I believe not irrigating produces tough stems that weather beautifully rather than collapsing into a soggy mass after the first storm in October. This is another in a long line of examples of how acting to protect the environment, in this case by conserving water, brings unexpected benefits-attractive winter foliage and a fresh herb-and saves labor and cash.

-30- More after the jump.