Sunday, May 29, 2011


People and their Environments

When I go to places that are different from my regular environment, I tend to take in the little details. Details that have a very local translation, that make sense perhaps only in the locale where I find them. When I see such a detail, I ask myself "why does this exist?" I'm the curious sort who likes to know.

I pay great attention to culture and language. The things I see may indeed make up a culture, they may inform local customs, but I'm not thinking on that level when I notice them. These details often describe canny local responses to the physical environment. Local wisdom can have many sources, going back through time, even to different locations from the past, with migrating people bringing their wisdom with them. I'm quite fascinated by the way a physical environment bends and shapes a direct human response, in small and practical ways.

I remember the first time I picked up a glass salt shaker in a place with a humid climate. I was taken aback at what I at first thought were maggots trapped within it. But these were just grains of uncooked rice, placed in the shaker along with the salt to absorb extra moisture. A funny thing was, some of the local people I talked to didn't know why the rice was there. "We've always done that..." was the answer. Anyway, even though it may be familiar to many, I'd never seen rice in a salt shaker. This simple trick for absorbing moisture impressed me. It was right, on so many fronts. Cheap. Clean. Edible, yet helpfully too big to pour through the salt shaker's holes, and seems to really work to keep the salt from clumping in a humid climate.

If forces that shape a particular response are infrequent, and not often in the minds of the local populace, these forces can fail to exert a lasting or logical response from locals. Maybe by this I mean "hundred year" events. These fade from consciousness in spite of the stories that older people in a community may have told. We often hear about a periodically recurring force, arriving to wreak havoc on an inexplicably surprised community. Volcanoes, tsunamis, landslides, things like these. Recently in Japan these stories were lifesavers for communities that knew to seek high ground right after an earthquake. (I'm afraid people in Japan may be feeling forgotten by now. World news churns through stories if events were only stories.)

Part of me (the part that forgets I am not immune to similar behavior) is somehow incredulous that any community could fail to honor those forces with due respect, as evidenced by poor choices in cooperating with those powerful forces. But human nature seems to have a short memory. The exigencies of daily living and survival, or perhaps a certain hubris from thinking one knows well enough, seem to over-ride lasting ability to learn from history.

I remember being in a beach house on the northern coast of California during an earthquake strong enough to wake our sleeping group of vacationers. I was surprised by the group's indifference to my suggestion to take our imminent bike ride in the nearby foothills, rather than along the coast.

My suggestion had nothing to do with irrational fear, and everything to do with not being ignorant of the risk. It's true I may have been the only one present who had personally seen a place that had suffered a significant tsunami. As students of history have seen, a certain healthy fatalism is at play in the best of communities. Carrying on in spite of risk, can be a factor in identifying a thriving community. It was dismaying however, to be faced with friends who light-heartedly discounted the broadcast radio warnings. Only luck in the form of seismic vagaries, an event that equaled a "miss" that day, kept our path free of trouble.

A different detail involved rows of older houses in a North American town that dated to sometime around or just before the turn of the recent century. After being around these neighborhoods, it dawned on me that these single family houses were almost universally equipped with two grand front doorways. One at sidewalk level, almost always appearing disused. The second one, seemingly the only one that saw use, a half-story above the first. These somewhat grand houses stand out because of their attractive and prominent staircases that lead from the upper doorway, straight down to the sidewalk.

Before I knew the reason for this architectural oddity, I wondered if a party of talented staircase builders had come to town, offering their services to susceptible homeowners some time after the original construction had taken place. Although attractive, the staircases and their upper entrances seemed superfluous to what I was sure had been their original designs.

The answer comes from knowing that this is a river town. A large river runs through the downtown, rising and falling to nature's beat. At yearly intervals, it overflows its banks to varying degrees, sometimes overtaking the works of man, even some designed to keep it at bay. Early native populations seemed to know and respect this, and their occupancy was largely seasonal, lacking any vulnerable structural permanence. They were said to have warned the newcomers to the area, questioning their plans to build grand structures within reach of a large and capricious river. But their advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears. It's true that hordes of of newcomers came swiftly to this river town, encumbered by visions of eastern towns and architecture. In the Gold Rush fever of the time, rapid ascension from rags to riches likely lent an extra fervor to remaking their new environment in the image of the one they'd left behind. Verbatim. Without first learning the local 'vernacular.' The way I understand it, following at least one inundation, the original entrances were abandoned, and new doorways and staircases elevated these already-built homes above the flood line.

Going from the new western world to the old world of Europe, I've noticed details in architecture that are not the stuff of brochures. In both old and more recent domestic buildings, you can find details that are interesting once you really see them. Have you ever noticed the superior and robust shutters over both old and new habitations in Europe?

I've always admired these well made covers over windows in hotels and private homes. On short acquaintance I never got the impression that crime was rampant everywhere I saw these awesome shutters. I couldn't easily assign coastal weather forces to the inland farm houses of the Veneto. I would have to investigate local wisdom for the answer to this extraordinary shutter craftsmanship. (There is, of course, the Mistral for wind in France, and the Scirocco in Italy.) Over a variety of styles, there I observed a high quality level, such as cleverly machined latches, thick wood or metal surfaces, and serious techniques of installation. It would take a lot to get past these shutters. They aren't permanently attached beside the windows in the absurd way you sometimes see in the new world, with the ridiculous trick of tacking up pairs of shutters that wouldn't be wide enough to cover the accompanying window if they were swung shut. Most all European shutters I've seen, open and close with some precision and show signs that they regularly do so. There is a large adoption of shutters like this, for houses both humble and grand.

My line of thought reached the conclusion that these shutters bear witness to the harshness of war. War not long removed from local consciousness. Sure, they'd protect against a winter storm, a vagrant or thief. But their hefty presence seemed to speak of more than that. In the end, though, I admire the craftsmanship, and the architectural honesty they bring.

After an especially destructive weather pattern in our midwestern states this spring, it occurs to me that even such robust shutters would be defenseless against something like a mile-wide tornado. As I wrap up this entry about locations, and the details of local response, I can't help but think that one compelling response, would be to locate elsewhere. Surely easier said than done. Time will tell if that does become an eventual response. But as our environment throws curves at us in places around the globe, where to go becomes interesting. I think that story's been told before.

At least in the case of soggy salt, the remedy is easy enough. Just add rice.

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