Friday, March 3, 2017

Stairway, a Repost

As I work on my new Artist & Builder website, I revisited the building of Rex's steps. It still chokes me up, and reminds me of the power of material things, and writing, and images, and the working with one's hands to give meaning to the ordinary.

Could a dying man's last wish be a new set of steps? In his slow decay is it trying or comforting to see rotten and skewed rebuilt upright? Is time best spent fixing the things that can be fixed? Our answer was yes, so Betsy and I spent the last ten days or so in Minnesota rebuilding the porch legs and constructing a new staircase with Rex's blessing. He and his aide sat porch side, observing, while we took to our work.

The porch was sinking in the northeast corner, evident at the junction of house and porch where a gap had formed over the years. It wasn't until we removed the porch steps and it's stock standard, 45 degree, three step stringer that we could begin to see the whole of the problem. The house architectural drawings indicated below the frost-line 12 inch concrete piers and 4x4 treated posts. The problem was that these posts were to some degree covered at the base with wet clay soil, not at all elevated above the moisture-holding concrete, and not at all anchored in any way to the concrete piers.  They simply rotted and moved from their original position allowing the porch to slowly pull downward. Although our intention was only to replace the staircase, and as is so often the case, when you look into it you realize the full extent of the work before you.

First, remove the old staircase, the lattice work under deck, then the fascia boards.

Old, rotten-bottom posts removed as we jack up the porch with a very old school jack. 

New treated posts installed with steel post-header ties (the old were toe-nailed).

Not choice, but available: plastic post bottoms to separate the new post from the concrete pier. Each is said to be good for five thousand pounds.

We also compromised on the anchor -galvanized steel angles at the back of each post, then each post backfilled with course gravel.

I found this blue-spotted salamander, Ambystoma laterale, under the plastic near one of the posts. Trying to get it out, it only climbed in deeper, so I let it be. I wonder how it keeps dirt out of those bulging black eyes.

After the posts were set and anchored we set about doing the staircase. The main complaint about the old steps was their steep incline and rickety railings (they had rotten) so we stretched the run to five feet from the porch. This changed the configuration from four, eleven-inch treads with eight-inch risers to six, twelve-inch treads with five and three quarter-inch risers.  The longer run had the structure landing on the concrete pad, adding concern about frost heave (which every one else was less concerned with). We compromised by designing the railings so that they are integral to the staircase structure but do not attach at all to the posts holding up the porch roof. This allowed us to remove the chance that frost heave pressure would be applied to the porch posts.

I reused as much of the original cedar risers as I could, but this also meant that I was limited by their length. We had wanted to overshoot the stringer sides by an inch or so but the old boards wouldn't allow it. We compromised by bringing the riser board to the top of the tread instead of behind it, and extended the tread board just a half inch on either side.

The treads were notched around the posts.

I fitted the post notch with a small piece of cedar to fill.

The different shades of cedar on a cloudy day.

While it was a marathon effort for him, Rex made the journey out to see the finished staircase. The following afternoon, I found him sitting on them.  I don't think I will get as much joy out of doing these projects without him there to appreciate it. Things need to be done, to be sure, but his glowing appraisal makes it worth the extra effort. As I had to leave to get back to work in NYC, not two days after I wrapped up the work on the staircase, I knew I could be seeing him for the last time. He said to me "you have value, remember that." Seems like such a simple thing, but it chokes me up. Rex was motivated to get the staircase rebuilt because his elderly friends were having trouble climbing the old set when they came to visit. I suppose, then, that a staircase could be a last wish. It's a way to extend oneself beyond the boundaries of life and death, a courtesy to those friends who will thank me for the effort and good work, at his house, soon enough.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Spring Ahead

February thaw is in play. We will be 30-40 degrees above the average temperatures today. I read the arctic is as well. Our ice is becoming water. Our solid ground is becoming mud. Meanwhile, I've ordered and received a plethora of native seeds from PrairieMoon that will be cold stratified and then planted in cell trays this April. Native plants require a use of the mind not at all like domesticated species. Each has very specific challenges to successful germination and growth. My success with six varieties of milkweed last year has given me the confidence to try a range of species.

We are almost done with the barn studio and quite a building feat for me. My primary use will be as a wood shop in the main space and north side storage shed for potatoes and garlic. I have started a business limited liability company under the name Artist & Builder. I will be building yard and garden structures such as custom planter boxes, raised planter boxes for institutions that serve handicapped, elderly, or children, small bridges, the basic arbors, pergolas, and furniture for the garden. I may do planting, I may not. When I have my website up and running, I will link to it here.

I bartered with my sheep farming neighbor to continue growing garlic in his field. Despite the insane warm up, the garlic is likely to remain under the soil through the week. I will offer some for sale late this summer at Hudson Clove.

Spring is advancing early, as you can see in the Phenology Network maps. There is a danger that trees will bud or leaf out and then be hit be a hard freeze. Here in Minnesota, the hard freeze can happen anytime into May.

Meanwhile, I am continuing my art practice with photography and have several exhibits up or coming this year. You can see my regular postings on my Instagram account with a caveat that the photos are of limited quality on such a site. I do make Epson Ultrachrome prints on archival matte paper for sale, so feel comfortable inquiring through my art website. I've also been making more digital movies (hard to say films when no film is involved) of the land around me. You can see those on my Vimeo channel or Youtube channel. You can subscribe to any to get updates.

Finally, I have been busy with many things and have taken to blogging quite a bit less. I hope this changes, but that remains to be seen. With over 2000 posts over 8 years, there is plenty to read here about my landscape, garden, farm, and other adventures. Stay tuned: as the business gets up and running, there will be more to say, and of course, spring is around the corner.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The View as Enclosure

In the autumn of 2001 I had an experience at the Mattituck Museum, in Waterbury, Connecticut. The exhibit, Images of Contentment: John Frederick Kensett and the Connecticut Shore was on display upstairs. His Hudson River School style is typically described as Luminism, its hallmark a tranquil scene with evanescent light, and in Kensett’s case -more often than not an image of the conjunction of water and land. The impact of each work is an experience of restfulness and calm, a bath of even, transcendental light in the reassuring, supportive bosom of nature. 

On the first floor was Mattituck's permanent exhibit titled Brass City –a brutal display of miserable working and living conditions in Waterbury, one of Connecticut’s several industrialized river cities through the 19th  and early 20th century. 

In this contradiction I recognize how the Hudson River School paintings were a looking or turning away.

The history of the Hudson Valley is one of industrial and commercial enterprise, of resource extraction, where the hills, especially those closest to the river, were cleared of timber for use in iron production, charcoal production, tanning, building, and of course, cleared for farming. The valley was home to quarrying for road making, building, brick making, and of course, cement production. Rail and steam terminals, dikes and dredging, and other riverside alterations were commonplace thanks to the opening of the Eerie Canal in 1825. One hundred or so brilliant white ice houses, many hundreds of feet long, were built along the river to store ice cut from the frozen river to ship to NYC. Yet it is the rarest of paintings from the time period that represents any of this. The image below was made by one of the "lesser" artists of the time -it depicts industry on the shores of the city of Hudson, NY.

Samuel Coleman, 1866

I expect people to desire the dream, but what never occurred to me is that anyone would confuse Hudson River School pictorialization with truth. The painters of the time, like any artist, did not stay true to the world before them. No, they were creating visages of a dream and they were as well aware of it as we are today. 

The Viewshed

A view shed has been defined as:

"the geographical area that is visible from a location. It includes all surrounding points that are in line-of-sight with that location and excludes points that are beyond the horizon or obstructed by terrain and other features."

This singular point of view sounds awfully like perspective, a system that prioritizes the view of a single eye, a single individual, or in the case outlined below, a single institution. This singular point of view is an expression of the utmost power, not the benign locus of landscape appreciation.

I've always found the term view shed indigestible, primarily because it shifts meaning from laws of fluids and gravity to laws of man. So how does eyesight flow, how is it "shed?" That single viewpoint radiates outward from a point somewhere on a 3.5 mm retinal disc. The shedding is done by the human brain, and what flows from it is not out there, a part of nature, but something within the mind of the shedder. Optics prevent us from seeing around obstructions creating what amounts to blind spots, but what of the "view shed" in the age of technological prosthetics like drones or remote cameras?  

Nowhere has the application of this idea been more apparent than in the Hudson Valley, where the view shed has been legitimated by the apparent "truth" of Hudson River School paintings. While there are many grand views in the Hudson Valley, the most often cited, preeminent view is that from Olana, the home and landscaped acres of the Hudson River School's Frederic Church. While there is plenty of evidence, if one aims to find it, of quite a different landscape in his day, it appears that plaintiffs commonly utilize the "historic" view as the basis for legal argument against any industrial activity that may alter it. 

“This discussion, while it addresses the prospect of a nuclear power plant, is not about nuclear energy,” commented Sara Griffen, President of The Olana Partnership. “It is the story of how the importance of the Olana Viewshed factored into the siting of a plant, and how this mattered on a national and regional level.” “Olana is famous for its breath-taking panoramic views that draw thousands of visitors to this magnificent historic site every year,” said Kimberly Flook, Site Manager of Olana Historic Site. “It was Frederic Church’s vision that actively shaped his landscape to frame the Hudson Valley’s unique natural beauty."

"The resulting Environmental Impact Statement caused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff to recommended denial of a construction license for the proposed nuclear power plant (just south of Catskill). This was the first and only time that such a recommendation had been made on any grounds—let alone environmental or aesthetic." 

The image below is an "artist" rendering of the view of the proposed power plant, looking south from Olana. The rendering isn't terribly offensive, except that the image of a parabolic cooling tower has become an architecture of anxiety.

Again and again the "historic view" is used as justification to halt or alter proposed industrial projects in the Hudson River Valley. One of the more recent and controversial was the case of the proposed St. Lawrence Cement plant in the town of Greenport, NY, just upriver from the now hip town of Hudson. The National Trust for Historic Preservation cited the St. Lawrence Cement Plant as an imminent threat to the area, declaring the Hudson River Valley one of America’s eleven most endangered historic places, as its scenic areas and historic landmarks are constantly threatened by sprawl and industrialization. 

Mark Brobowski's study, "Scenic Landscape Protection Under the Police Power," shows us that the Supreme Court decision in 1954, Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26, helped pave the way for future landscape preservation efforts based primarily on aesthetic values." Further, he states "The increasing value of tourism to local economies has prompted local governments, under their police powers, to move towards legitimizing aesthetic regulation, and landscape protection based on aesthetic values has evolved from a secondary purpose to a constant theme in environmental protection (Brobowski 1995, 700-702).

The view shed is not so much something to protect as it is an enclosure of a kind, a way to exact a great, limiting influence over many square miles of land and the human activity within it. At who's expense is the view kept a dream? We all dream of a land unspoiled by industry, but we have to engage it to deal with it. A quote from the brilliant Paul Shepard:

"My point is that their origin is inextricably associated with a surplus agriculture, that cities tend to grow beyond what the local agriculture will support, and that there is an urban attitude toward nature which is insular, cultivated, ignorant, dilettante, and sophisticated. At the same time, by virtue of the very polarity in the landscape that cities create, they contain and educate and produce men who retreat to nature, who seek its solitude and solace, who study it scientifically, and who are sensitive to its beauty. The very idea of a sense of place is an abstraction, a sort of intellectual creation like sex or climate or fashion, which is impossible except in a world of ideas whose survival depends on the city. The dilemma is that those who yearn for the warm garment of landscape security are already deflowered. They can only go back so far. They can regain the hunter's, pastoralist's, farmer's nonverbal responses, limited to an extent by their self-consciousness; but the yearning is thrust upon them in any case, for they were all children once and they had wild ancestors and they dream and to some degree all have premonitions of special places."