Archive for June, 2009

Cedar Rock

June 26, 2009

  Walter 10

  Of the ten structures in Iowa designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the one nearest my home is in between Dubuque and Waterloo, just south of Highway 20 near Quasqueton.  The original owner, Lowell Walter named it Cedar Rock for the limestone formation on the site at the shore of the Wapsipinicon River. 

  It is one of Wright’s designs for which he coined the term “Usonian” – short for United States of North American.  His intent with this departure from the more well known Prairie Style was to make innovation and good design affordable and available to Middle America*.

Walter 3

  The site is of a spectacular beauty that would surprise those many not familiar with Iowa away from Interstate 80.  It is secluded, heavily wooded, and perched above a wide and swift Wapsipinicon river.  Local lore has it that a Native American tragedy akin to Romeo and Juliet played out nearby.

Walter 8

  The design is called tadpole in plan with the ‘head’ being the all important open square “Garden Room” and ‘tail’ the rectangular living spaces articulated forty-five degrees off the southeast corner.  Wright wrote Walter “there will be no basement or attic” which tone pervades every square foot.

  He designed each space, selected every object, and arranged it all with incredibly great painstaking care.  Upon a return visit, he would scold and say “you can use that pitcher, but it must be returned to its original position precisely so”.  The Walters wanted a queen sized bed, but Wright would not have it.  He insisted upon two doubles like a curator establishing symmetry in a gallery.

  It is a wonderful sculptural object well rooted, plinthless, in its site like an earth toned dolman laid flat.  But it wouldn’t be a great place in which to live.  Once shorn of initial zeal, it’d stale one’s concept of heaven.  Who’d want to live in a monastery? 

  It must though be said that compared with the contemporaneous Farnsworth House (Mies van der Rohe) and the Glass House (Philip Johnson) Wright’s ‘Organic’ approach makes the Walter’s Garden Room more down to earth.  

  There is an antiphonal relationship between the greenery inside and out made possible by the abundant glass and light surrounded by the solitude of the site.   It should come as no surprise that Wright was familiar with Japanese gardens and the “capturing with window” technique. ***

   Also, there were several elements of the original design that would today evince environmental concern including in floor heating and related elements of passive climate control as well as a thick concrete roof intended to be covered with fertile soil and vegetation.

  There is one bit of neat whimsy.  Wright’s Prairie Style homes often have stained glass windows which would be too expensive for the Usonian concept.  Here, Wright arranged brilliant blobs of colored glass in small niches in a wall by way of allusion. 

Walter 7

  The boat house is down a path about fifty yards away and is serene.  It sits above the river with wide views up and downstream.  There, one could indeed quietly revel in the sound of water and muse about our place in the universe.

*The Walters were not middle class having built a fortune and retired in their forties.  Original project budget was $20,000, but ended up at $150,000.  And that was in 1950. Today that’d be more than a $1 million.  Walter wrote Wright of his frustration with delays and overruns to which FLW responded: “We were brave men to try to set up the last work in heaven way off in the mid-western prairie-miles from anywhere?”

**See post of November 7, 2008

*** The Walters left a $2 million trust to provide for the well being of their cherished country home.  The trust is now bust and it will be interesting to see what the Iowa DNR will do with the place especially in these turbulent times. 

Walter 12

**** Do visit.  It is part of the state park system and the staff are fervent, knowledgeble, and enthusiastic.

*****The top photo is of the entrance at the articulation point between Garden Room and living spaces.  Garden Room to the left.  Second photo is from the Garden Room looking through a glass corner.  Third photo is same place outside looking in.  Fourth photo is looking downstream from the boathouse.  Last photo is perhaps extreme, but not undemonstrative.


June 19, 2009


  That’s New Zealand’s “All Black” rugby team doing the “Ka Mate Ka Mate” Haka.  Haka is a Maori term which traditionally was a general term referring to any sort of native dance.  Purposes range from a variety of ceremonies such as funerals, to entertainment, to an organized expression of hatred for another tribe, to war mongering.

  In traditional Maori culture women performed both supporting and lead roles in Haka.  In fact the old legend Tinirau and Kae involves only women and tells a tale of the first Maori tribe.  Tinirau loaned his pet whale to a neighboring chief, Kae, to ferry him home.  Instead of sending the whale back to Tinirau, Kae killed and ate it. 

  Tinirau then gathered his best female dancers and sent them to Kae’s village.  They did not know what he looked like, but were told that there was a gap in his teeth.  They performed with such skill that Kae laughed, was thus recognized, and a spell cast upon him.  There is a moving rendition of this Haka in the wonderful movie “Whale Rider”.

  Today, the term brings to mind in most a vigorous performance by men – often with apparent bellicosity.  Western awareness of Haka most frequently relates to the All Blacks.  New Zealand’s national team has long been at or near the top of world rugby.  In fact, the national consciousness troughs with a championship loss much like Brazil does with soccer.

  All Black was originally a derogatory epithet applied to the team’s first European tour in 1905 because it included several dark skinned Maoris.  They thereafter played with vigor and adopted the black uniforms they sport to this day.

  The team performs a Haka before each game to “adrenalize” and is most frequently the “Ka Mate Ka Mate” Haka as above.  This Haka is of the legend of warrior chief Te Rauparaha.  A series of skirmishes leaves him hidden, crouching in a pit alone, protected from opponents spell casting by neutralizing effects emanating by his wife sitting above.

  Empowered, he appears and does the “Ka Mate Ka Mate” moves which are associated with the following words: 

Aha ha!  I die, I die
I live, I live
I die, I die
I live I live!
For this is the hairy man
who has fetched the sun
and caused it to shine again!
One last step up
Then step forth
Into the sun
The sun that shines! 

  Would adrenalize me.  And have the opposite effect if I watched perform it in preparation for kick off. 

  Interesting cultural side note.  The name of a prominent regional team is “The Crusaders”.  Games begin not with Haka, but with knights on horseback.  Imagine if a US football team adopted that name?  It’d be all over Al Jazeerah in a heartbeat. 

  While now on the subject of cultural insularity I’m reminded of a TV schedule insert I saw recently in a French magazine.  Through the course of a week were notices for a series called Les Peoples du Soleil about the ancient indigenous peoples of Latin America.  Problem was that there was a photo of a Mayan pyramid with the note about the Inca segment and one of Machu Pichu alongside the bit about the Maya.

  I’ll bet that they have enough history to study in Europe that those decimated by their emissaries (Cortez Pizarro et al) get short shrift.  Most American kids would notice the mistake, let alone a succession of proofreaders.  Is it a stretch to infer there from anything about the attitude of the European majority towards minorities?

Hawk One Up

June 12, 2009

  Hawking up

  Ever watch a hawk cough up a pellet?  It’s kind of gross, but interesting nonetheless. 

  The other day just as I walked out of my garage a goshawk swooped in to snatch a chipmunk feeding just below a birdfeeder.  Happened so quickly that I would not have been able to sort it out had not the bird flown high up into and upon a branch of a nearby tree.

  Mercifully, the poor little critter (Sammy) was dead by the time I got binoculars and approached. Goshawks are of the type that dispatch their quarry by ‘footing’.  Repeated rapid application of talons.   Ouch.  Yep, that’d work.

  I was careful at first not wanting to spoil the hard earned meal.  I read somewhere that raptors’ energy requirements are so high that a significant percentage of their attacks (“stoops”) must succeed or they starve.

  Apparently the bird felt secure enough in its position that it paid me no heed whatsoever.  It tore through the small carcass ravenously.  Watching through the binoculars I realized why the editors of natural history films cut quickly away from, say, lions tearing through a zebra. 

  It is too easy to anthropomorphize and imagine one’s self subject of some cruel twist of fate.  Wrong place wrong time. Disrespected the gods – like Prometheus.  Or something. (Just read an article in the New Yorker about the new infestation of Florida by released pets.  Matter of time until a kid ends up lengthwise inside a big snake it said.)

  Anyway, half through the macabre repast the hawk began to choke.  Its beak was opened way obtuse and head jerked quite vigorously up and down.  I thought uh oh, what’ll I do if it passes out and falls to the ground?  If I tried to help, it might turn my hands into mince meat.

  Slowly it dawned on me.  I’ve found and examined owl pellets before, but seen none in production.  Birds of prey have no teeth and thus must  rip their prey apart and swallow by the chunk. 

  Some species definitely engage in torture: they catch and hold, don’t foot, start the meal at the rear of their victim and work forward.  Lying in your bed have you ever thought you heard a baby screaming in the woods?  Likely it’s the scream of a rabbit being devoured by an owl.  Falconers sometimes slit the throat of the unlucky in related situations.  Eases the conscience as well as attenuating the sound effect.

  Their digestive systems slowly separate the stuff, turn the meat into energy and the bones etc into a mass which they regurgitate.  It’d scratch coming out the other end I guess…  These pellets can be picked apart and some pieces identified as feather, hair, bone etc.

owl pellet

  Relieved, my goshawk returned to its meal.  Once done, it took wing and knocked what was left to the ground.  To call what fell picked clean would be an understatement.  To a naïf it would clearly be evidence of some sort of natural horror – actual provenance completely indeterminable.

  Clean plate club.  Parent would be proud. 

*Don’t know if this is more or less gross, but it also did not dawn on me until then where the phrase “hawk up a loogie” originated


June 5, 2009

  Of all sorts of contractors, bridge builders are those most in tune with nature.  Homebuilders, general contractors, and road builders take steps to hew to unremitting schedules of which their predecessors would never have dreamed.  In the winter, they thaw the ground.  Once the framing is up, they enclose with polyethylene sheeting and plumb and electrify.  Once there is a lid on a project there is not much that will slow them down.

  Bridge projects however are often remote and astride a force of nature that won’t be ignored.  Thus the crews are more independent, flexible, and solemn than other types.  They know they can’t bullshit mother nature.  River comes up, they move to higher ground and wait for the sun to return.

  Something humane in that sort of pace.  Primal maybe.  I was thinking about it this morning, first when running along the river.  Ran under a bridge and saw a few carp swirling about thinking of spawning.  It’s really turbulent when they all get the idea.  Ducks and geese with their rafts of ducklings and goslings.  Felt sorry for one duck and drake pair whose progeny had dwindled to just two.

  Driving to work I noticed the fluff of the cottonwood trees along the river.  Jeesh it gets thick.  Every year the algorithm in my mind takes me first to dandelions and then “oh ya, there’s too much too high, it’s the cottonwoods’ turn”.

  For one sitting in an office remembering a nasty recession at the beginning of a career while sweating a new one, the throes of Mother Nature’s rhythms hold allure. 

  Freud wasn’t exactly thinking about the economy or weather when he wrote Civilization and Its Discontents, but, well, it’d sure be great to have a sailboat and shove off.  Leave the razor’s edge behind.

  At sea the choices are clear and Mother Nature won’t be trifled with.  There’s work, relaxation, and terror.  One emerges from this last either stronger and respectful or, uh, quite wet.

  “Confronting a storm is like fighting God.  All the powers seem to be against you and, in an extraordinary way, your irrelevance is at the same time both humbling and exalting.”  Francoise Legrand.

  “For the truth is that I already know as much about my fate as I need to know.  The day will come when I will die.  So the only matter of consequence before me is what I will do with my allotted time.  I can remain on shore, paralyzed with fear, or I can raise my sails and dip and soar in the breeze.”  Richard Bode.

Seagull Sunset

 March 29, 2007