House & home

Falling Water

Falling Water

I went on a trip to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic Fallingwater house, which is located in a forested state park area in the southwestern region of the state where I live, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is a large state, and in all the years I have lived here I’ve never managed to get to Falling Water; so I was excited. The day we arrived, the weather was perfect, the water was high, and we toured two Wright houses–this one and Kentuck Knob, one of Wright’s last residential design commissions.

Millions of people tour Fallingwater, so the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy folks (who have stewardship of the property) have their hands full maintaining the place, training docents and volunteers, and just keeping crowd control working. Kudos, by the way. They do a good job. Send them donations.

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At the café (there’s always a museum café), my partner pointed out a letter reproduced on the informational wall–a note from Mrs. Kaufmann, owner of the house. She wrote that initially the home intimidated her a bit, as Wright’s designs tend to force the homeowner to live the way the house dictates, rather than the other way around. Curtains, a typical decor requirement for a 1930s residence in town, were anathema to Wright. In the middle of Bear Run forest, did Mrs. Kaufmann need curtains? No, she eventually decided–the trees provided color and changing light and privacy and were far more interesting than curtains. What initially seemed too austere for her tastes grew on her; she learned to do with less “stuff” and found that the simplicity made the things she did add to the house seem all the more valuable and aesthetically pleasing. The Kaufmanns must really have been special people to embrace the challenges of living comfortably in one of Wright’s homes, indeed, in his most unique residential design.

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My husband and I designed our current home 17 years ago and have some idea of the compromises owners have to make, most commonly for financial reasons (that was not an issue for the Kaufmanns, who were department-store magnates). As we toured Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, one thing that hit us is that building codes have changed the way Americans build; you couldn’t get a Wright home design past most local zoning commissions in Pennsylvania nowadays.

For example, 19″ hallways? Nope. 6′ ceilings? I don’t think so. Some of the tight interior stair turns would be disallowed. And, let’s face it, the whole cantilevered balcony situation would set off a hundred bureaucratic red flags.

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house 2009

My house in snow, 2009.

My own house had to agree with the local building code. There was also a budget we really could not exceed. Over the years, we have added to the deck, improved the porch railing, completed building interior doors ourselves, worked extensively on landscaping (first adding to it, then pruning back, then…well, there’s been a bit of mostly benign neglect recently). But we have generally lived comfortably in the house and adapted it to fit our needs, the way most people live in a home. As our living situation changes, with children growing into adulthood and moving away, with fewer pets and no more chickens, with less need for a large vegetable garden, we’re thinking of ways to alter the house. Or even to move out of it, and let some other family have a go at its joys and responsibilities.

Its sensibility leans toward a meadow-type or agricultural feel. That suits the region in which we have settled. Which may be the only way our house parallels Fallingwater: it suits the environment and the region in which it is situated. To me, that is one of the main purposes of good architecture, and the rule most frequently ignored by homebuilders.

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Our home can boast an improvement over Wright’s houses: it doesn’t leak (I lived in one in Grand Rapids Michigan in the 1970s, and can attest to the leaking factor).  :)

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For a 3-D computer-animated “flyby” of Falling Water and a half-hour documentary on its history, see this page (Mental Floss). Pretty interesting!

Buddhism, philosophy, consciousness (poetry)

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Sometimes, a startling morning.

A few minutes that feel time-free, when the phrase “Be here now” inheres in the body, the air, the mind, the moment.

Free to recognize consciousness as a grounding, not as an end-in-itself. Part of the world, part of the cosmos.

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Reflecting, I realize another thing: poetry does that for me, hands me a moment. When I listen to or read a poem, it moves me into a moment suspended in “now-ness.” I am with Seamus Heaney’s father, digging; I watch the horses in Maxine Kumin’s field. The poems that move me do so by allowing me, the reader, to enter that moment or that consciousness, that perspective, which I may or may not relate to, and may or may not layer through perspectives of my own. Yet there I am, in a real way.

~excerpt from “Digging” (see this link for the whole poem, and audio)~

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

 

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

 

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

 

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

objects, stories

contemplation

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Sometimes the momentary sense of time-free, liberated unity occurs on its own, smacks me by surprise. Or it may arise from mediation, contemplation, or during “mindless” work–such as digging.

Philosophy and criticism tend not to evoke that sort of free consciousness. They require the brain to operate in a different way, a distancing from one-ness; but I like that sort of brain-work because the intelligent and inquisitive people who write, or write about, philosophy, neurology, psychology, and criticism of all kinds offer insights I would not likely find on my own. They ask the interesting questions (it doesn’t matter to me if they do not have the answers).

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So there’s a balance, right?

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Poets also ask the interesting questions. Through reading a good poem, I am there in the poet’s moment, curious and uncertain. It is a kind of contemplative practice to read, with an open mind and an open heart, poetry.

(The criticism and the analysis come later. Let them wait!)

 

Back to the garden

June brought much-needed rain, a little late for the peas, which were sparse and small this year, but in time to nourish the later-bearing vegetables. Zucchini and beans abound. It is still too early for the zinnias, sunflowers, and cosmos to bloom; but the butterflies have arrived to check out the buddleia. I recognize that buddleia has become an aggressive invader and is overused in US landscaping–and may not even be a good host for certain varieties of lepidoptera–yet I confess I love the huge purple blooms that draw so many winged creatures to sport where I can watch them from my kitchen window.

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Speaking of winged garden creatures, I have encountered a new one. New to me, that is. While sitting on my porch, I watched with fascination as a large wasp, carrying a blade of straw in its legs, poked at a hole in the wooden post. The wasp pushed the straw into the hole, then crawled in after it, stayed a few seconds, then flew out. Some minutes later, it returned with a piece of grass and proceeded to repeat the process.

nest of the wasp

nest of the wasp

Isodontia, apparently: the appropriately-named grass-carrying wasp. I imagine this insect will eventually crawl its way into a future poem.

Here’s a video of grass-carrying wasps at work from Dick Walton’s Natural History Services site (a terrific resource, by the way). And thank you, Google. It’s this sort of thing that I can celebrate about the internet…my library for all things weird and natural, paradoxical as that sometimes seems.

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My walkway garden

My walkway garden

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Meanwhile, my perennial beds flourish (with a few too many weeds, ferns, and hostas–but oh well!!). I plan to make pilgrimages to a few gardens further afield later in July. We shall see if the planets align.

And a nod to Joni Mitchell; when I hear the words “back to the garden,” I can’t help but think of her song “Woodstock.”

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Learning the form(s)

I’m extremely pleased that five of my poems appear in the latest edition of Mezzo Cammin, a web journal devoted to formal poetry by women, edited by Kim Bridgford and beautifully designed by Anna M. Evans, both of whom are excellent poets–of formal verse–themselves.

My poetry often varies as to style; I am not a dedicated formalist, but I feel that writers learn a great deal from experimenting with many styles. Learning to write a sonnet, for example, requires considerable effort and ideally results in the production of many lousy sonnets. Many, many lousy sonnets. Until, one day, the motivation, language, imagery, and form coalesce into a good sonnet. The challenge derives in part from the frame and form the sonnet uses; other challenges arise with sestinas, rondelets, villanelles, haiku, sapphics, and (yes) free verse. Practice does not always make perfect in the case of poetry, but practice helps. One learns the form and its specifics, reads zillions of examples by the best poets, endeavors to write to suit the form, and finds that the resulting effort…fails. Miserably. And then one tries again.

The practice can be meditative, or it can be a kind of discipline. It’s certainly liable to be frustrating at times. I am reminded of my tai chi class, in which I am also tasked with learning a form and practicing its specifics until, after long study, I am not absolutely terrible at the movements. I learn a few more moves, integrate them into the series I have memorized for a couple of years now, and try to get my balance and position down and some grace and flow going. I might add–these are not personal strengths of mine. So it’s difficult.

In addition, my tai chi master teaches us qigong movements, and suggests that we experiment on our own time to invent sequences that work for us. But this is not the same as getting all jazzy and experimental with tai chi; no–in class, and when practicing the form, we students are expected to follow the moves as taught and as closely as we are physically able to do.

Does this mean that when writing in form, I maintain a strict formalist approach to poems?

Um, no–as can be seen in the five “nonce form” pieces in this issue of Mezzo Cammin. Sometimes I start with a standard and jazz it up. This is true for many poets writing today and in the past, because sometimes what we want to express carries an unconventional edge to it, and sometimes the ideas or emotions we want to convey (often mixed emotions or ambiguous ideas that require the reader’s engagement to decide) cannot be shoehorned into the strictest details of the formal framework.

The first of the poems in this issue of the journal is perhaps the most unusual for me–I was definitely experimenting. The allusion is biblical (the parallel verses Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15) and the experience is second-hand, and I find the situation deeply sorrowful. Loss of a child–it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed with compassion and unable to know what to do for the mother. In this case, I felt I’d try to convey the ancient sadness in a contemporary setting, a retail shop, probably in some suburban mall. So I am mashing together the old with the new; an experimental set up for the poem just seemed necessary.

I would not do that in tai chi class.

Learning forms for poems–new forms, ancient forms, classic forms, forms from other languages and cultures–keeps a writer freshly informed with the world and engaged with the process of expression through words, rhythm, sound, and imagery. It helps a writer see the perspective of art, the framework, and to see beyond those things as well. Forays into styles, genres, and arts that one has not tried one’s hand at previously present vivid and useful learning experiences. Even if the result is a hundred lousy sonnets or some mediocre watercolors or the worst short story ever written. We learn from mistakes; they are our most relevant teachers.

coffee spoonsHere, a collage attempt–a collaboration between my then-teenaged daughter and me. Call it an effort to practice a different form (visual art). What is in the frame? The presentation of a line from a famous poem. Let’s see if you can figure it out. [Hint: those oblong dark spots are actually coffee beans.]

 

Second brood

This morning, I noticed catbirds engaged in nest building activities. Then I saw mourning doves mating near the garden–must be time for the second brood.

I do not know a great deal about bird behavior; but many of the smaller birds in my region raise two broods, one in spring and one in early summer. My not-very-scientific observation tells me that the second brood is often less successful–that fewer eggs are laid (or hatch). I could be wrong about that generality, but it seems to have held true in my yard for the past ten or 12 years. A little research would inform me, I suppose. For now, though, I am happy to rely on observation.

Sometimes I am eager to track down information (such as facts on songbird reproduction cycles). This week, though, I prefer to spend my time on looking about and writing. I’m working on a kind of “second brood” of new poems, and that is exciting.

I have also taken walks on two urban above-street-level parks, one in New York City (the Highline) and one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Hoover-Mason Trestle Park at Steel Stacks. The former park is pretty well-known; the latter just opened to the public and ought to be better known than it is.

Here’s some information on the site itself from the Landezine website that highlights the work of SWA group on the Sands Casino/Bethlehem City project and some of the challenges:

One of the most prominent examples of redirecting the environmental legacy of a post-industrial landscape can be traced to the south banks of the Lehigh Canal, in the city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Comprising 1,800 acres (20 of which belong to this project) and 20 percent of Bethlehem’s total land mass is the former headquarters of Bethlehem Steel Corporation (BSC). Founded in 1904, the company continued to operate until 1998, when US manufacturing divestment, foreign competition, and short-term profit goals finally led to its demise. After almost a century of operation, the effects of Bethlehem Steel’s [1995] closure on the city were heartbreaking, as thousands of jobs disappeared instantly, along with 20 percent of the city’s total tax base. All that remained was an impending bankruptcy claim and the largest brownfield site in the country.

You read that correctly–the largest brownfield site in the USA. The EPA defines a brownfield as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” Acres and acres of said brownfield were left by Bethlehem Steel, and about 20 acres are being redeveloped at present. The park around the steel mill, which follows the elevated trestle around the enormous works, offers a fascinating view at what remains of the United States’ industrial heyday and highlights how significant these mills were. Nice bit of history, nice walk.

I’m not sure these urban parks really move us toward sustainability, but they are at least creative “repurposing” that may help make people more aware of the things that have brought us to where we are today (for good or ill). Perhaps another form of second brood?

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Diversity. Not.

I must admit, it is challenging to read Elizabeth Kolbert‘s book The Sixth Extinction without feeling a bit of dread.

Nonetheless, the book is informative and fascinating–even funny at times–and well worth reading if you are the type who can get beyond your anthropocentric leanings and attempt to view the long-range picture from a scientific, if not exactly neutral, viewpoint. Her main argument is that we are, indeed, in the midst of a 6th mass extinction era and that human beings are “the weed” that most likely is the cause of these numerous extinctions–and not just since the industrial revolution, but eons before that. Humans travel more effectively than almost any life form, and that leads gradually to a loss of diversity. Read the book to find out how that works.

I find interesting parallels with socio-cultural trends in the ecological struggle for and against diversity. Niche-dwelling creatures or societies adapt to some challenging environment and develop or evolve ways to deal with adversity–cold temperatures, constant rain, saline soils, whatever. Nomadism, for example, is a way to adapt to seasonal weather challenges.

When an ‘alien’ enters a niche area, it usually dies off; but if it can adapt, there is hybridism or conquering. Tolerance, it turns out–living peacefully in tandem using the same resources–is not a common evolutionary strategy, though there are examples of symbiotic ecological relationships and, of course, parasitism of the sort that does not quickly kill off the host. Conquering generally means lost diversity.

When a niche organism ventures, accidentally or otherwise (forcibly, sometimes) into a new region as ‘alien,’ the special characteristics of the creature cause it to die or, in some cases, to have to adapt to a different set of circumstances…and diversity gets lost pretty quickly that way. In my region, for example, wetlands have experienced overruns of phragmites.

Does this sound like emigration? War? Forced removal of peoples? Indigenous populations killed off by measles or smallpox? Young people leaving remote areas to try to find work in cities? I see a metaphor here!

While human beings may try to celebrate diversity (which is better than using diversity to identify and exclude or punish “the other”), we probably cannot keep ourselves from becoming, over the centuries, less and less various. A homogeneous world seems, to me, to be a place impoverished through lack of niches and creative adaptation–but that’s what happens when mass extinctions take place: a depletion of kinds in the fossil record.

You might want to read Robert Sullivan’s New York Magazine article for even more recent scientific evidence if you’re not up to reading a whole book, though Kolbert is an engaging writer and I found her book to be a quick read. And below, some graphic illustrations from LiveScience. Fascinating stuff.

Here in the USA, alas, we seem to be helping the extinction of our own kind along by viewing diversity among people as dangerous. Compound this with a society that permits the ownership, hoarding, and use of deadly weapons on others and which cultivates a cultural tone of fear, anxiety, and entitlement, and there is strong evidence that the human weed will continue the slow but decided progress of the Holocene extinction.

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Chart of extinction events that wiped out most life on Earth.

Source:LiveScience