(…) For the next eleven years we lived in a quaint old place originally built as a hunting cabin back when mountain lion, bobcat, bear, and elk could be found on Mt.Tamalpais. The living room was the original structure, a plain rectangle with hand-milled redwood panels and beams and a rough tile fireplace; one bedroom, an office, the bathroom, and the kitchen had been added later. The bathroom had an enormous claw-footed tub and inside the medicine cabinet was a faded doodle of a man looking over a wall with the words “Kilroy Was Here.” Above that, “Free Huey” was scrawled in fresher ink. My brother and I liked Kilroy and Huey and persuaded mom not to paint them over as she slowly fixed the place up, put in skylights, walled in the sleeping porch to make a guest room, and eventually converted the basement into a room for herself. Much later, after my grandmother moved in, they did more remodeling, but the old cabin at the house’s nucleus never changed much. It was always our living room and we knew exactly which boards creaked underfoot, how the dust motes floated in the sun, and how the wide view of the valley would wriggle and waver when viewed through old glass windows.
The house started as a single cell that evolved and multiplied to adapt with our family. Frank Lloyd Wright said that “organic buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.” Our house looked nothing like a Frank Lloyd Wright but it certainly felt organic, especially after mom resuscitated the sprawling, terraced garden and let the cypress hedge grow high but even inside, nothing was fixed in stone. The chairs and small tables moved from room to room like lumbering animals and mom used the walls as gallery space for her latest paintings. First my brother and I shared the bedroom, then he moved into the office, then we switched, but I’d often sleep on the porch or the sofa or set up camp in the large walk-in closet or pull my sleeping bag up onto the roof or even climb up to make a nest in the cypress hedge which was overgrown with maidenhair vine that wove a soft, dense mattress high above the ground, and when I slept up there in the arms of the trees, the wind would nudge and toss me in every direction and by morning, I’d feel completely changed, estranged from earth and only tenuously human. I’d walk back into the kitchen like a fallen bird, like Italo Calvino’s Baron In the Trees, and hold the warm cup my mother gave me with both hands, its warmth as astonishing and inexplicable as soft boiled egg.
Is a person shaped by their container or do they rub off on their surroundings? Could an American (or Icelandic or Balinese) zeitgeist be propagated anywhere else? Which comes first, the person or their place? What happens if you grow up in Swahili or Gaudi or in a basement or a tent or a houseboat, under redwoods or in an orchard or at the top of a Joshua tree? What about the nomads and jet set and homeless? How do people with panoramic views differ from those who see nothing but a brick wall? What if every time you opened a window, you heard gunfire? What if the windows were nailed shut or if there were no windows at all?
What do you think?
This post is a part of a series that starts here.