Monday, May 05, 2014

Barns, and a personal note

EastsideBarn.jpgPERSONAL NOTE first: I named this blog in a hurry, as one often names things, but with little or no subsequent regret. I live on Eastside Road, and the blog reflects my own view on a number of things. It's true I live on the west side of the country, a fifth-generation northern Californian, born in Berkeley with a mentality to match; but when I'm not looking out over the Pacific — and I'm not, as a general rule — my view is extended toward the east: over the USA, across the Atlantic, toward the European linguistic and cultural history that's so much a part of the American heritage.

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.)

Calplans barn, Eastside Road
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.


1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...

This tragedy is part of the continuing elegy of America's rapid growth paradigm.

I remember pulling up surveyor's stakes and moving them with a family friend on the east side of the Napa Valley in the mid-1950's. Even then, our parents railed against the mindless, rapacious development which was encroaching everywhere in the West during the post-War boom. And that trend continues today, unabated.

Settlement can be a very good thing. New prosperity often seems that way. But not every growth is an "improvement". Cancer spreads rapidly through the body, ultimately killing it. Much the same thing happens to communities, once rural, or agricultural, eventually falling prey to the developer's shovel.

Barns can be wonderful spaces. Cool in Summer, high ceilings, interesting smells, uncluttered or not, but they're falling fast. Corporate agriculture doesn't need them. New owners don't want them.

I remember, three years ago, up in the Big Hole River valley in Montana, stopping at one of my favorite access points. A young blonde woman and her friend drove up in a white convertible. "My daddy's going to fence off the river right here, to keep fishermen and other people out," she bragged to her companion. Her parents had just purchased the farm which bordered the river for a mile along that stretch.

As a sportsman, I've seen this kind of thing happen all over the country, fencing off and closing down access to land and water and recreation. Some day, every square inch will be patrolled and guarded.

As a photographer, I've often been confronted by land owners and gatekeepers of all description. "What the tarnation you think you're doing here, buster!?" "Just taking pictures, that's all." "Well, this is private property, you just pack up and move on."