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Snow In The Early Morning

We had snow yesterday at daybreak. The light was so faint, and tinged with blue, that the whole scene outside the door seems under water. I took a picture to try to catch the light:

Pine, Oak, Maple, Holly, and a few others mixed in. There are geese and ducks in the water just past the first row of trees. This is the kind of snow we get here in the southcoast; not enough to plow, generally, but enough to soften the barren look of winter a bit.

It’s funny to consider that, according to statistics, what you’re looking at is farmland “lost” to development. This was all a pasture meadow, for ruminant animals 75 years ago, when sturdier folks still tried to cadge a living farming in New England. The old surveying documents use what few trees were here previously as markers, and they were chosen because they were conspicuous for their lonesomeness. The soil is acid and there isn’t much topsoil over the sandy subsoil. You could mow it flat and plant cranberries, but there’s such a glut of cranberries that the government pays farmers not to grow them now, after attracting them to the industry by guaranteeing their prices previously.

My deed actually still allows me to drive my livestock across the road onto my neighbor’s property to water my herds if I need to; but the cats just drink out of the little dishes under the potted plants, so there is no need to take them up on it.

The land we own covers five acres. About three quarters of one acre is lawn, house, driveway, and plantings. The rest is wild, and will remain so. It’s surrounded by thousands of acres of river, fen, swamp, bog, forest, more swamp, brambles, poison ivy, nettles, ticks, and mosquitoes big enough to make you put lead diving shoes on your toddlers outside, lest they be carried off.

Farmland “lost” to development; I think not. Looks like “reforestation” to me. And last time I checked at the supermarket also built on “farmland lost to development,” the shelves are filled with the flesh of the creatures that formerly grazed in what rapidly turned into our little pine jungle. They must have found some of that lost land somewhere else, I expect. Or used less land to generate more food is more likely.

Are the cows any sadder, unable to drink my swampwater? I don’t know. But the ospreys like it here now. So do we.

More Comfort

Good day-

Where were we? Oh yes — comfort.

I put “A Pattern Language” thumbnail on the last post. Trust me when I tell you that it’s worth every penny it costs. It’s almost 1200 pages, but it’s printed on the very fine paper that hymnals used to use, so it fits in your hand instead of taking up a whole shelf. It’s a pleasure just to thumb the pages. If you’re expecting big photographs, or egads, color photographs, you’ re barking up the wrong tree. The print is small, the photos are generally thumbnail sized, and their are little ink sketches to outline the building process as the six authors see it. The exceptions are the title pages for the 253 different “patterns” — the elements of an architectural, environmental, or organizational problem the authors have identified and devised a rule of thumb for; these pictures demonstrate an archetype of the original dilemma, or more usually, an existing solution for the topic. Almost every single photo makes you point and call someone over and say: Look at this! This is what I’m talking about! This is wonderful! I want this!

That approach alone is unusual today. Books about any manual art consist of big pictures with a little supporting text nowadays. Design books and Architectural Magazines are essentially all pictures now. As a manual for doing anything, most modern books boil down to: “this is what you do when you do this.” That’s fine and all, but it’s in the oral tradition really. And surprisingly, although the “Pattern Language” authors believe very heavily in the oral tradition, the book is a massive slab of text. I guess an overarching scheme for the whole of humanity’s housing needs requires a lot of words; it won’t suffice to have a few pictures accompanied by “Put tenon A into mortise B, repeat until the surface of the world is covered with dwellings. “

To begin each Pattern, there is a picture of an archetype for the problem at hand. Then, an introductory paragraph which puts the photo in context. Then a headline, which states the essence of the problem. Then comes the empirical information so you can see how they worked their way through the problem. Then in bold print, is their solution to the problem, stated in the form of instruction, so you can DO it. Then a little diagram, drawn as we used to draw in architecture school, showing in diagrammatic form the the components of the solution; these can be as simple as labeled bubbles.

Let’s have an example. I’m going to use #128, because it’s one of the most important, fundamental, and overlooked aspects of housing:


[There’s a beautiful, luminous b/w phot of a room with tall ceilings, and one wall with casements above casements above casements. The room is very old. There is a round table on a deal plank floor, with a mixture of sizes, styles, and types of chairs and cushions. The ceiling is 15 feet high, at least; the room is very large, but the sunlight gets to the deepest recesses of it, and paints ever changing patterns of tracery on the floor and furnishings. There are twenty four windows ganged together, of three different styles, three rows of eight. The effect is sublime. ]

Our authors do not pussyfoot, to get the wiggle room of the vague; they state it plainly:

If the right rooms are facing south, a house is bright and sunny and cheerful; if the wrong rooms are facing south, the house is dark and gloomy.

In case you missed their point, and wanted to quibble, the next paragraph begins:

Everyone knows this.

Amen, brother. But as they say right after, they get ” confused by other considerations.”

Now I’ve been in your houses. (figuratively) Many of us are fighting this uphill battle constantly because the house was oriented without regard to sunlight and climate, and you keep trying to fight the power. How are you going to fight something as fundamental as that? And why sled uphill if you don’t have to?

The authors take into account thermal considerations by climate, and help you to orient your domicile properly in any clime from Minneapolis to the equator. It’s not always dead south. This is one you must get right, or if you can’t choose how the house is oriented, work towards ameliorating the effects of poor orientation.

There’s plenty of information to “show their work,” and they sum it up thus:

“Place the most important rooms along the south edge of the building, and spread the building out along the east -west axis.
Fine tune the arrangement so that the proper roooms are exposed to the southeast and the southwest sun… For most climates, this means the shape of the building is elongated east-west.”
Well, I did just that in the house I live in now, and I’ve seen the effects of this salubrious orientation for over a decade, and it’s spot on. They go one to tie it in with other aspects of building patterns they cover elsewhere in the book, and show you with a sketch how to do it. Fantastic.

(To Be Continued)


Hi all.

This time of year always weighs heavily on me. The sun sets ten minutes after it rises, or so it seems. The cold gets in my bones and makes me yearn for a fire. The concrete shop floor seems to draw the life right out of me, right through the soles of my feet. The snow’s never pretty here; it’s either a nuisance or a calamity.

Winter always brings on these blues, it seems. No boat. No garden.

I’m depressed. I recall reading that Churchill got depressed from time to time; he called it his “Black Dog.” He’d dash off to the south of France and paint. I go to Googleimages, and type in “comfort.”

Google is a mill, and a mine, and a sewer, and a depot, and a library; today it cured my Black Dog.

There was a lot of odd juxtapositions under “comfort.” Sports bras, recumbent bicycles, lots of ceramic angels and hotel rooms, disturbing reminders of women kidnapped for the Japanese Army during WW II, and then an old friend appeared, though he does not know me:

I went to Architecture School in the seventies. And it was Le Corbusier, the great Swiss architect/socialist, morning, noon and night. I never quite saw the attraction, and my discomfiture with brutalism made me persona non-grata with my teachers. I was just too damn square.

Well, I was right and they were wrong. So there. When you see horrible housing projects and barren, lifeless open spaces ringed by concrete bunkers masquerading as monumental buildings, you’ll see the fruits of the education they were dishing out to such as me when Carter was president. I fled.

I went my own way, and brewed an awful stew of mindless tradition mixed with insane iconoclasm. Thank the stars that I never had any money to indulge my architectural fantasies back then; I was limited to painting my apartments tastelessly and arranging the flotsam amd jetsam I owned over and over again.

But I worked and I paid attention, and saw how a lot of different households — rich and poor, staid and bohemian — inhabited their houses. And while I worked on constructing other people’s homes based on still other people’s plans, I stole with my eyes and edited the foolishness in my head into something approaching a mindset for house design.

And after all that, I discovered Christopher Alexander. He wrote a series of books along with some other lovely people, and I’ve read many of them; but autodidacts like me don’t go for fiction or philosophy much, and I really didn’t need much more than A Pattern Language, his kind of architectural cookbook.

As it turns out, this was available when I was in school, but it wasn’t weird and anti-human enough for the curriculum back then I guess. Now Mr Alexander was a man for the sixties, no doubt, and the book reeks of patchouli, no question, but it doesn’t suffer for it much, and I read it with a kind of wonder, thinking: why on god’s earth did I have to do the mental gymnastics I’ve done to find out all this stuff on my own, when it was written down for me all along? The man knows comfort.

Comfort is not the thermostat. It is not a bankbook. It is not magic fingers on your recliner. Comfort is a state of mind affected mightily by your surroundings, and dependent on myriad subtle things that you only seem to notice when they’re missing, like good manners. And it’s the only thing in this world you should strive for in the design of your home, and the hardest thing to get. It’s the driving force behind my furniture, one little link in the comfort chain, the one you can get right even after you’ve gotten everything else wrong, or had it gotten wrong for you at great expense.

Look at the picture. 9 out of 10 houses built today spent more on their light fixtures than that whole room cost. What did it buy them? I want to sit at the table, and eat bread from that oven, and smell the flowers outside the window, and feel the air wafting in, caught by the casements and fanned on your face, and feel the gentle scrape of the simple chair on the tumbled stone floor, while I consider the pattern of the sunlight tiptoeing across it, and reaching for something — with everything needed close at hand — but not cluttered.

Was that a hummingbird at the sugar bowl?

(more comfort tomorrow)


Happy New Year to everyone. My friends over at have my latest humorous screed posted for your viewing pleasure. It’s under my alias: Old School. Don’t tell anybody.

It’s the cure for everyone else’s Year End Predictions and New Year’s resolutions lists:


Well, it’s that time of year again. Unsatisfied with being wrong in a desultory and small way a little bit all year, people generally decide this time of year to go the whole megillah and publish lists of predictions for the future that are spectacularly, titanically, and mindnumbingly stupid and wrong. And dumb and so forth.
Now, in general, I find media people’s predictions for the future iffy on a good day, never mind during eggnog season — they seem to have no idea what’s already happened, never mind the future. And in general, let’s face it, the spectacularly wrong stuff is more fun and sells more papers than the timid stuff the meek folks predict. If you’re at the dog track, the people who don’t want to go out on a limb say: “I bet the rabbit comes in first.” That’s true, I guess — but trite, dumb, and useless is no way to go through life, son.

You can read the rest of it here.

Month: January 2006

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