Friday, December 17, 2010

Truly Christmas

Last Friday, BBC news broadcast a look at the designer tree in the lobby of the Tate Gallery. This year’s conifer is ten meters tall, beautifully shaped, and devoid of ornament.

In art history, I learned that the traditional tree is a living one dug up, brought indoors, decorated, and returned to the wild after Twelfth Night. The formative nineteenth century image is of a Norwegian spruce small enough to handle conveniently, placed on the Renaissance revival table characteristic of Victorian parlors: a small, square structure, eating height, with outwardly slanting legs and a shelf about fifteen inches off the floor.

If I hadn’t had a child, I would have repeated this tree format every Christmas since learning about it, and not for lack of choice: I inherited a major collection of ornaments that I cheerfully distributed to the friends and relations who had enjoyed my mother’s tree, which took two weeks to decorate and tended to attract journalists.

The ur, off-grid tree is decorated with strings of popcorn and cranberries, paper chains, fruit, and, originally, candles. Hot glue ornament hangers to nuts for easy decoration. Kumquats, jalapeno peppers, and lunch-box sized apples work well. One year I used mini-flashlights to replicated lighting without wires.

Electricity distorts Christmas. Artificial light impoverishes natural decorations, and feeds the market for bulky sets of fragile baubles that open every holiday season with cartons of allergenic mite waste and shards of glass. Strings of lights distort Christmas Eve, since lighting candles on the tree and making sure the house itself is itself not set alight required group observation, at least part of which was sober. It may be that the quiet hopes expressed in Christmas carols were in part amplified by the suspense of watching burning wicks on conifers.

There are hidden benefits to the purist’s tree: it’s less likely to catch fire than a cut one, it should be kept in a cool room, which saves heat, and the carbon footprint may be smaller. Best of all, after Twelfth Night, it’s fun to set it back outside and watch the birds eat the decorations.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Innocent Abroad

Photo courtesy Flickr

In 1962, I visited Buck Island Underwater National Park. It had just been established thanks to the efforts of the oceanographer who had been offering tours of an exceptional local reef for several years. Our party sailed there on a typical small Caribbean working boat.

We stopped to lunch in a shallow lagoon. When the meal was over, I asked if I might venture over the side to feed the fish. The water was sapphire, the sand white, the underside of the boat a cool shadow poised overhead. The instant I opened the package, hundreds of small neon fish appeared from three dimensions to tug sandwich cookies out of my hand and wrestle into the cellophane on their own. They made off with the contents in seconds, and disappeared just as quickly as they had arrived. The feeding frenzy was over so fast I wasn’t aware that I was free diving.

As I made my way back up to the deck, I was grateful I hadn’t gone over the side with hamburger. We digested for a while, and then took a short sail to the park itself. Having been raised in and near Mt. Rainier and the Olympic mountain range, clumsily routed park graphics in earthen colors were familiar, but it was surreal to coast toward a little bay and find a painted sign that said, “Trail starts here”, with an arrow that pointed straight down.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wool of Another Kind

Photo courtesy Flickr

A simple technical change can blow away complicated chores. A house cleaner who does restoration-quality work clued me to the value of ultra-fine steel wool in maintaining glass. That’s OOOO steel wool.

Jake said steel wool is the key to removing the god-awful urban haze that occludes the exterior surface of old window glass. It’s the haze, I think, that destroys neighborhoods. In this dim, gray climate, clean windows are imperative for good morale. Get the window clean before you start working gently with the steel wool, and tiptoe until you get the feel of the task. A light hand is the key to success. As with using a paint scraper, work in one direction only.

Fine steel wool is the applicator of choice for refreshing vintage woodwork with penetrating oil, and I like to use it for the first round of polishing a fresh coat of “briewax” on a wax-finished table. Steel wool seems to be the best thing to remove gook from the painted wainscoting in the bath, it wipes away grunge in the tub, and it pulls spots off brightwork. Used with alcohol or vodka, it details the maple chopping block in the kitchen.

A light hand is the key of keys. I try steel wool on any hard surface that’s not what it might be, excepting noble metal. This product recycles or could reasonably be composted. A perforated plastic vial of steel wool will absorb the oxygen in a sealed container, protecting the contents from time. Museum conservators call this “potato chip technology” in honor of the oxygen-free packaging that has replaced preservatives. Seal a piece of furniture in plastic, including a container of steel wool, and you will kill pests in upholstery without risking toxins or changes in color and finish.

In my inventory, a single package of four-ought, weighing a few ounces and stored air tight in a zipper lock, replaced a couple of cubic feet of clumsy cleaning aids.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Worth Its Weight in Wool

Photo courtesy Flickr

Esther and John Wagner’s Gift of Rome points out the importance of sheep in republican Rome. Greek legend has Jason chasing a golden fleece, and Brooks Brothers sells it. I have no doubt that fleece truly is golden. The current revolution in wool underclothing must surely have displaced at least one tanker load of oil.

That Queen Elizabeth sits on a sack of wool when she opens Parliament each season speaks to the value of the product and to its place in history. The climate of Western Washington is like that of England. In my experience, wool is the one and only first layer that will fend off chill. With wool in place, one can ignore the weather, casually adding and subtracting tops as activities change, but constantly sheltered from that final loss of body heat.

I use a quarter of the heating oil I did the first year we lived in this low-tech 1890 house. We added storm windows and insulated a small room on the second floor, but there have been no other structural changes in the building. It’s a development property, and we’ve made our decisions year to year, keeping one eye on the neighborhood and the other on our wallets.

Living here is bliss, heating the house a contest between retarding global warming and feeling sheltered. The key to conservation has been clothing. Wool or cashmere next to the skin, a down vest, and a tightly knit furry beret from the big name English hatter cushion thermal stress and let us ignore heat as any kind of issue at all.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

Things maintain themselves whether we’re around pestering them or not. Our efforts control results, not processes.

For several days, local weather reporters have been making noises about a storm moving in from Hawaii. They call it the Pineapple Express, but I much prefer the tribes’ term, Chinook, for the same west wind Longfellow includes in his poem “Hiawatha”.

A chinook is a warm, wet front that moves in during winter. In the poncho that’s the high-tech substitute for the tribes’ cedar-bark cape, one can cheerfully tromp barefoot on a soggy December lawn during a chinook, and do the least damage to the turf in the process. The chinook is the heart of our climate, and it grieves me to hear weather readers treat it as a problem. A chinook is bounty, the future of the woods, the great design factor of the Northwest environment, and we are fools if we don’t respect it.

-30- More after the jump.