My outlook is informed by sense of place, and you're looking at my place. Narrow country road, two-laned, bordered by hills on the right, a broad beautiful valley on the left. Here we're looking toward the north, maybe half a mile north of here, at something I'll never see again: a white barn silhouetted against a file of sycamore trees, adding focus to the valley.
I love vernacular architecture. This particular barn stood here for at least the last sixty years. It was made of redwood, very likely first-growth redwood from across the river: vertical siding painted white; and it was tall, twenty-five or thirty feet tall I imagine. I don't know its original purpose, but before this valley was vineyards it was prune orchards, and before that it was hopfields. The barn may have been built to protect hop-poles, but that's just conjecture.
Last Thursday the barn burned to the ground. It had been an unusually hot day here, nearly 100°. The fire broke out toward evening; there was no one in attendance. By the time the firemen got there the situation was hopeless. (You can read the local newspaper's account of the fire here; for once, the comments are worth reading as well.)
Photo: Greg Witmer
I stopped on Saturday to look at the site. Two men were standing under the blackened sycamore sadly looking at the ruins. They looked at me curiously and I explained that I was there to tell them how sorry I was for them on losing such a magnificent barn.
It was a beautiful barn, I said. It, and Hopkins's stand of poplars to the south, had always supplied a focus to the valley for me, it somehow completed the beauty of the area. I stopped, feeling a little awkward. I was talking philosophy and aesthetics; they were factory-farm workers.
I suppose some might say I have a romantic view of landscape and agriculture — a view formed by other values than mere productivity and profit. An important part of life, to me — my life, I mean — is finding and acknowledging and experiencing, as fully as possible, its place: origin, source, presence.
Always recognizing its presence is a matter of moment, transitional and fugitive.
The barn was a fine metaphor of what I'm talking about, and to me that metaphor was enhanced by its geometrical quality. There was something about its position, by the road, under the sycamores, at the edge of the valley, its straight edges (like those of the road and the rows of grapevines) expressing its man-made contribution to the soft fertility of the valley floor, the sinuous river beyond the low trees to the west, the soft hills beyond, where the redwoods grow.
To my great pleasure the two men knew exactly what I meant. You could tell that by their response, yes, it was a beautiful barn, and beautifully made; and very old, older than either of them. But you could also tell by their demeanor. It's no exaggeration to say that they were mourning, like me.
Over the years I've photographed the barn from time to time, and I hope others have as well. I suppose it can never be rebuilt as it was, but I hope its replacement is not a matter-of-fact industrial steel shed. Perhaps the owners are well-insured, and the policy will allow them to rebuild appropriately. Shape and color are important, as valuable, I think, as function.
Of course it would have been better had the original structure been made of stone — there are a few fine old stone buildings hereabouts, but redwood was cheap in those days, easily milled and easily nailed together. Today's steel, today's version of timber in this regard, can have durability similar to stone. I'm not asking for faux-history; all I want — perhaps already too much — is an equivalent to what was there.
Since this post is in the nature of nostalgia, here's another photo — a farmstead in Piemonte, out northwest of Cuneo somewhere as I recall, cropped and zoomed from an inadequate image shot quickly as we drove past, at least a dozen years ago. It has been part of my fixed mental landscape ever since — like the beautiful white barn on Eastside Road.