Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Houses We Build

In places like this, the houses we build are few and far between. You tend to notice them, and pay great attention to them, as there is precious little else of detail to observe. So there are houses of breathtaking beauty sited amid astonishing landscapes; and for each of these, there are handfuls of squalid homes scattered in landscapes of soul-crushing despair.

Yet one thing all these houses have in common is that they make no accommodation for this wide open and unconstrained country. They are the exact same style of houses that were built back east a hundred-and-fifty or ten years ago. They are built upon the earth and jut their story or two straight up to the sky, gables and cornices and rooflines just as they were made wherever their builders hailed from. Yet there are no sheltering woods and forests to stall the brutal winds and biting cold here, little to slow the blowing snows and summer storms. These houses, splendid and squalid both, are built fully exposed to the elements on all four sides and offer little to blunt the elemental forces that abound.

I heat with wood, mostly. I know how much wood it takes to heat my house, and my house was built with the elements and frugality in mind. On a cold day with bright sun, wood will keep it warm; on a mild grey day, wood may fall short. And my house, nestled in the earth and sheltered by trees, never feels the brunt of the elements such as they are in Virginia.

I can pick up a stone, throw it in any direction, and hit a tree that I need felled. With a day's work, I could cut enough good firewood to heat my house for a month or so, weather depending. Yet in these places, I couldn't find enough standing wood within a day's walk to warm my frugal house; what does a poor man do here to heat their home, standing in the gale like a rude-carved toy on the ocean?

I see these isolated little places, and cannot imagine what winter must bring...what balance of time spent, money squandered, shivering misery or absolute knife-edged suffering. I noted one shack in passing with a small woodpile which appeared to be old telephone poles, cut and stacked.

Some of the natives built earth-sheltered lodges to thwart the winters, yet few examples of such design are apparent on the grasslands today, native or otherwise. And the hillocks pose their own issues. Build in the valleys, and accept the cold air pooling about you, the sun rising late and disappearing early, and the risk of floods—or build on the ridges where the warm sun shines and the warm breezes are found, along with the blizzards and the lightning?

Maybe we haven't occupied this land long enough for the old habits to die and the new lesson to be learned? Or maybe it just doesn't matter as much to those who have chosen to call this place home?

I don't know.

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