Friday, August 31, 2012


Photo courtesy Flickr

The growing season in Western Washington begins with the first rains of autumn. Once the soil is damp, plant alliums and corn salad for easy eating until next fall. Set transplants and forget about them until they green up in February, or earlier. Seed a lawn that will grow itself. Check out the delicate blossoms of Japanese anemone, that look like April. Admire next season’s rhododendron buds.

The secret to relaxed and happy life in Western Washington is to accept, often with difficulty, that life is much easier here than in the brutal continental climate to the East, where four distinct seasons rule and extremes of temperature are the norm.

Early Euro-american settlers on Puget Sound said, “When the tide is out, the table is set.” My inner hunter-gatherer likes to live as close to old way as is realistic.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Gift of Rome

Photo courtesy Flickr

Esther and John Wagner published a historical novel of that title around 1961. It’s a rare book now, apparently. The Seattle Public Library no longer circulates it, but it’s a valuable read that examines law and the cultural and ethical responsibilities of women. Some of the comments in the book grate on a contemporary ear, but the insights remain valuable nonetheless.

Esther received an unusually early and privileged feminist education. Even in great age and infirmity, she was as physically brave a woman as any I have known, including the army nurse who landed in the second wave at Normandy. Gender issues are tedious, though. I prefer to consider questions of personhood. 

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Home Health Care

Passive solar at its most fundamental. Photo courtesy Flickr

Last week an old friend stopped by to ask for some thoughts about a move she’s contemplating. We used to camp out under the dining table on second grade sleepovers, so the visit was design at its most fundamental.

My friend’s current life could hardly be more different from this one on the Hill, although she started out a couple of doors down the street. Her choices have left her with exurban waterfront property, until recently a huge SUV, and sixty feet of motor yacht that requires a quarter’s tuition to fill. I opted to be close to art supply stores.

She is very patient with me.

In the spirit of location, location, location, we batted around ideas about looking for country property. In this economy and on this crowded planet, these are not problems: they’re privileges. I made noises about finding a few acres within realistic walking or powered wheelchair distance of public transportation, medical services, and a grocery store. Margaret said land like that is expensive now, a green development that warms my heart.

It’s crazy to choose anything not disability friendly from the get-go. Even mild illness taxes household systems that are usually running with the needle close to red anyway. Adding the disruption of a medically-generated move taxes domestic support systems beyond the point of elasticity. Pestering the orchard the other day, I remembered one of the fundamentals of American pre-revolutionary housekeeping: to have a sick room on the main floor just off the kitchen. Twentieth century medical systems made such a room obsolete, but now that even the National Institute of Health is having problems with resistant bacteria, home nursing looks as good as it must have back in the day. Check out turn of the twentieth century housekeeping manuals to learn the true meaning of the word clean. Penicillin sabotaged housekeeping.

I’d make location a priority. It might be fruitful to pencil out the cost per mile of cruising, because letting the boat go might generate welcome capital. The idea is to reduce daily operating expenses, make a private vehicle an option rather than a necessity, and forestall the arrival of nursing home expense. A carefully chosen site, perhaps not far from a rural bus line, would make it easy for a local  dayworker or caregiver to show up.

Disability design comes second. The community of the disabled uses the term temporarily able-bodied, since pregnancy and seniority bring impaired performance. I owe the convenience of living without a personal vehicle to the disability lobby: curb cuts and transit lifts allow me to wheel substantial amounts of freight around town on my own muscle power. Barrier-free internal design and entry ramps ease housekeeping burdens as well as medical ones. Every calorie of effort counts, and those simple curb cuts put thousands of dollars a year into my pocket.

I’d make off-grid utilities a third priority, choosing less house, more water salvage and solar, and I’d throw in a solid, well-secured food storage area for good measure. The global warming people predict more intense storms as a given for the foreseeable future, and I’d consider building a free-standing traditional Japanese kura, fireproof storage building, and using it to store furnishings not in active use and as a storm shelter. The kura is the flipside of the traditional paper house, the one that enables such featherweight construction.

A small, simply furnished house is fast and easy to keep. I have watched and listened to too many friends with bad hips describe the soul-breaking pain and labor of keeping decently clean a house cluttered with the status symbols of a lifetime, or just as often, numerous lifetimes. Every trophy, be it rug, vase, or table, must be maintained. It is not decent to demand that a housekeeper squander her vitality on heavy labor when she could be enriching the future of the family with her grace and experience. 

My friend appreciates tiny homes as much as I, and is considering some sophisticated modern pre-fab shed units. That’s cool and sensible, I think, and well-suited to her current situation. With good fencing and security, small free-standing units are adaptable and convenient. In this seismically active area, it’s good to remember that houses with additions often fail at the join.

In this climate, it’s rarely necessary to huddle indoors, even in the pits of winter. Any adequately clothed person in motion need not worry about the cold, and the sick room could be designed to require little artificial heat. I’d look to native architecture for models of orientation and structure. On the Peninsula, I’d study the nearest reservation for ideas and insight about locating housing. In the Fifties, Seattle architects were known for their sophisticated adaptations of indigenous design, characterized by a wall that can be opened to the south and capped by a simple slanted roof over short north walls. A roof like that says water salvage like nothing else. I lived for a few months close to a “longhouse” cabin designed by William Bain. With no insulation and a wall of single pane windows, it devoured solar gain even in December. The floor was a slab of cement that stored heat, and the structure was utterly simple. Salvaged water stored under such a floor might yield a heat storage advantage, as perhaps would a heat pump, but that’s for the new experts to decide.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Shake It

Photos courtesy Flickr

Bellevue’s arts museum is showing two excellent collections of work. Actually, to describe the Shaker display as an excellent collection of work is to belittle its record of a brilliant culture.

When I entered the gallery, it was like being greeted by old friends. I had seen a major showing at the Renwick Gallery in 1973. The Bellevue collection includes many examples of the fittings of daily life that were not included in the DC presentation, but it does not show the backs of the furniture, one of the most interesting parts. A guard at the Renwick allowed me to get down on my hands and knees to look at the underside and then at the back of a double desk. The parts that didn’t show looked like orange crates.

The Shakers were a celibate communal religious sect that harbored poor people and supported themselves with farming and small industries. They were famous for healthy living quarters, well ventilated and immaculate. A Shaker room is a snap to clean. Faith and Edward Deming Andrews’ catalogue is an illuminating tour through the culture.

Shakers were known as shaking Quakers because they worshipped through music and dance. Bellevue shows a collection of Shaker-grown silk kerchiefs that are a revelation. I knew Shaker culture from the black and white photographs in the Andrews book, the natural finishes and textures of the furniture, and the vivid earth colors of their oval storage boxes. Silk is a translucent fiber, and the kerchiefs still hold vivid dye that expresses the transparent color palette of the film screen. The patterns are powerful, nearly hallucinatory, and a gorgeous balance of restraint and sensuality.

One of the classic tree of life drawings is displayed nearby, and it was charming to realize that the painted leaves are embellished with irregular little flat cubes of something that scatter ambient light.

Many examples of Shaker hand-lettering are on display, and as a lifelong student of letters who doesn’t travel often, I can say that I have not seen better writing anywhere, ever. The signage that looks like railroad crossing warnings is brush written in a perfect balance of skill, simplicity, and a straightforward effort to communicate. A hand-carved printing block for seed packets is equally well-rendered, and the two are the most purely American letter work I can think of.

The show includes wooden patterns for cast iron stoves that look like extra-refined Japanese folk carving bordering on African art.

One floor up is a collection of African American quilts. The display on a two-story wall is music held in an eternal moment, each quilt a virtuoso exercise in relaxed improvisation. One looks as if it could have been designed by so-called outsider artist Mose Tolliver.

In the mid-Fifties, I read an autobiography of a woman who had married a British colonial administrator and followed him to Africa. I don’t recall which country, but she was living in a village of round huts. Wanting curtains for her cottage, she bought some handwoven local cloth and tried to make it hang straight. Her effort were futile, and a neighbor came by with a story. She said the reason baboons are so ugly is that the first mother baboon was not happy with her baby’s face and fiddled with it endlessly until she produced...a baboon.

Both shows carry the aura of the confident, unsophisticated hand. Artist Norman Laliberte brought the same feeling to training manuals he published in the late Sixties. Ritchie Kiehl’s One Hundred Things to Do with an Alligator is the basic cookbook, Koberg and Bagnall’s Universal Traveler, Seventies edition, a rich resource, Fred Griffin’s on-line design curriculum, and Austin Kleon’s new Steal Like an Artist will help you achieve lift-off, should either exhibit leave you with the urge to get to work.

After the quilts, I had to go home and sober up.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Sleeping Beauty

Photo courtesy Flickr

The garden is fully dormant. Much of it is beige and fairly crisp. Last winter’s experiment using downspout extensions to irrigate the orchard was more than successful: the dwarf trees doubled in size. Next winter I’ll manage them more like bonsai, limiting resources to limit growth.

Detailing a dormant landscape is like cleaning the room of a child who’s away at camp. Complete creative control and an eye to consequences generate intelligent, productive decisions, if I may say so myself.

As always, the native plants are romping on their own. It is more true than ever that the landscape changes literally from day to day, dormant or not. How to weed a garden composed mainly of plants usually seen as weeds themselves gives pause. I just consider texture and edit to establish patches of consistent combinations.

A fireweed is growing in the front sward, and I’ll manage it like a seven foot specimen I saw at Butchart Gardens in 1977. It had been pinched and nourished into a splendid column that shimmered with bees and blossoms. Fireweed shoots are edible, so a new column here will be like a standing salad.

At the moment, the most bothersome weeds are also the easiest to lift. A few major dandelions are fattening the finches, and presumably the countless violet and corn salad seeds have given a pair of rock doves gorgeous glossy feathers. Those birds are the best argument for good nutrition I know: against a native landscape they’re graceful and elegant. In a fast food parking lot down on Broadway they look like greasy sky rats.

The neighborhood is changing rapidly, and as I lopped the orchard’s overgrowth Saturday, I had to consider why I was working so hard. I planted the dwarf trees to support the agricultural research that had produced specialized local cultivars and as a vote for the future of the area, a gamble that has paid off well. I also had in mind the several small orchards that had adjoined lovely nineteenth century houses that fell to development. I wanted to establish visual continuity with those genteel lots.

Genteel has returned, apparently, and with so much construction chaos in the surrounding blocks, I am moved to shape up the apple trees. It seems to be inescapable that under my management, their ornamental value and barbeque wood are their best assets. As I thrashed with the pruners, I realized that not all the birds are pecking delicious fruit: some of them may be going after a high-protein treat wiggling inside the flawed skin of the crop. 

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