Swans Commentary » swans.com May 19, 2008  



Down To Earth At Home


by Carol Warner Christen





(Swans - May 19, 2008)   In a rural Oregon county twenty-five miles from Portland, we dwell in an 1894 hops barn. The barn has a balloon frame which means the frame is not the same as most houses; it is all of a piece and merely sits upon blocks underneath. If we had a crane big enough, we could just pick it up and move the whole thing. There is no basement (yet). It was converted to four apartments -- two up and two down -- during World War I and had three front doors and a central stairwell when we bought it. It is 22 feet wide and 44 feet long, including a full attic, unfinished, but I hope to make it into an artist's studio, as it has plenty of headroom in the pointed roof peak.

The upstairs windows wouldn't close and the downstairs windows wouldn't open. The foundation was rotting because the highway department put a culvert directly in line with the front door and water poured down the hill from across that road right onto a front porch built in 1977 with a concrete pad. That pad butted up against the foundation so that years of water did their duty on it. The porch supports were also rotting. The "house" was covered with asbestos siding (which we were totally unaware of as to its composition).

The place had a barn constructed in 1944, too, a shed, a chicken coop, and a very dilapidated old "garage." It sat on almost eighteen acres, crossed a creek, with a wedge of land on the other side and another wedge across the county road, which the county had deliberately cut through the property. There was a very picturesque barn on the other side of the road; that little cattle barn is also very old and useless.

Why did we buy such a place? The actual reason was because my mother began to run away from our home in Portland; she had senile dementia discovered after my brother sent her to us in 1990. For three years, she seemed normal; then, one day at 5:00 in the evening, she put on her coat and said that she was "going to find them." I talked her out of it. The next day, she was gone when we came home from work. Her picture was broadcast on television, and the police found her a few miles from our house at a pancake house. I quit my job to care for her.

We decided to buy a place in the country so that, by using binoculars, I could spot her in the landscape rather than city streets. The views in the country are much farther. We looked for a long time and found the place we are still living in thirteen years later. The porch was 44-feet long; Mom liked sitting on it in her rocker. The place came with a very old shepherd dog, two roosters, and a hen. The birds lived in the juniper tree in the front yard and the dog liked the porch, too. My mother never left that porch to wander and she liked the animal companions. I still have the binoculars.

There were two bedrooms downstairs so we put her in the larger in the back of the house next to a wonderful Sequoia tree, a poplar, and two fir trees with a view to the road and the wooded hills. One day, her doctor said she was dying and there was nothing more he could do. Hospice helped us to take away her pain for several weeks as she would tighten her muscles too much. She passed away the day after Thanksgiving the year we moved here in January, 1996.

We fixed the windows by buying low-E ones for the whole house. I hired a contractor to fix the foundation. He took off half the shingles and for a long time we lived with partially tar-paper covered walls outside. Just this year, the house became respectable. We had a contractor take the asbestos shingles off and away. Then my husband decided to cover the house in Hardy boards. Since the house is so tall, he could make little headway on his time off because he had to keep moving the scaffolding.

A friend came to the rescue with four experienced Hispanic siders. Only one spoke English. The friend supplied the ladders and the young men sided the house as if it were a stage and they were the dancers in three dimensions. I watched them transfixed at the beauty of their interplay with the house, the heights, the three long, long ladders, and the tossing of the carefully cut pieces from the one who sawed and measured on the ground. If I had the money, I would set them on stage to music for they were that graceful and elegant.

After my mother's death, we took out all the "rabbit warren" rooms from World War I. The floor had no breaks in it; all the rooms were simply constructed on top of the continuous barn floor. We changed a few minor things and enlarged a bathroom. Then, one day, I had the contractor come back and we gutted the walls downstairs to insulate and put up plasterboard rather than the old World War I stuff. My husband came home from work, saw what we did, and said, "You've gone too far!" He took a picture of me in the mess of his home. Within days, it was restored, insulated, warm and wonderful.

There had been four wood stoves, two chimneys through the roof, black seepage from the stoves on the floors. I went to the attic and took the cement block out of all the chimneys and threw them outside via the windows. The chimneys were unsafe and broken. I was worried that an earthquake could wrench them and cause serious damage to us if left in that condition. I am still piling them up for my "burn pile" area where the wind always goes straight up, which is enchanting in itself.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, we found we had a black walnut tree, an English walnut tree, three hazelnut trees, four apples trees, a purple plum tree, several crabapple trees, raspberries, blackberries (the Himalayan interlopers), hawthorn trees everywhere, a five-acre hay field that yields 400 bales every year, and a fen that sometimes floods when the creek overflows. It hasn't come closer to the barn than 40-feet, however. The only thing that worries me is the use of chemicals by farms upstream. The fen area has lots of sedge grass if I ever care to make baskets. Near the creek are some lovely sego lilies once a year. Their blue color is heavenly.

Another friend of ours in the next county raises goats. He suggested we get some for our place because they eat weeds and Himalayan blackberries, among other things. Since Mom died and I was not working, it seemed sensible enough. We bought a variety of goats. That means we bought a large milk goat, also, a Toggenberg, and some cashmere goats. The family next door had a male goat, so we promised them kids if he would mate with ours.

The mating was astonishing. They stood on their hind legs and danced to each other with lips smacking, tongues out lasciviously, every move a harem girl makes (as I've only seen on television or in movies). We have been enchanted by goats ever since. Our goats are allowed to keep their horns, which we use to control the females if we have to catch them, give shots, or milk them.

The males are sequestered in their own yard as we have two of them now. One has horns way beyond a foot long. The other is brown and his horns are rolled around his head in a ramish way. The males have tried to mate with me using suggestive lip movements; but I have discouraged them by refusing their advances. I've already had five children; I do not need to give birth to a satyr even if I could!

The goats have given lots of milk and good meat if you learn to cook it just so. Goats are related to deer and the taste of the fat is too wild. We sell the wethers live. A wether is a castrated goat that will not reproduce. They get plump. My husband and I just gave all the new nine kids their shots and castrated three this year. We have sixteen adult goats.

In the past, I milked the goats and made cheese. It was magnificent. However, it cannot be sold unless it is processed in a "legal" kitchen. I would have to build a concrete structure to do this and have it pass inspection first. We, however, can eat whatever we please as long as it stays here and isn't sold.

This year we acquired two Great Pyrenees dogs, each four years old. One, Maggie, stays with the goats and chickens and guinea fowl we also have; the other we rescued but Missy had no training as a puppy with animals and cannot be trusted in the fields. Maggie was raised with animals and instinctively watches over them and guards them from predators. Our third dog is a pure-bred collie whom the goats have intimidated badly by forcing her into the corner of the barn. Collies are bred to herd sheep; goats are too smart for them. Maggie, on the other hand, lives and lets live and the goats tolerate her nicely.

If we go back into the 114-year old "house," I would like to give you a tour of its current state. I am an artist (paint and sculpture), a mechanical design drafter, a bookkeeper, and a computer user since 1980. Be that as it may, I have decorated this house in several special ways due to its uniqueness and my visual output as an artist.

I used feng shui in the entire house. Feng shui is an oriental balancing of forces, colors, etc. One of the most interesting is the use of mirrors across from all openings in the structure. I have enough mirrors and openings, including reflections, so I can now see 480 degrees while inside. I know 360 degrees is the limit for a circle, but I can see that and much, much more in here. A friend once said that someone could also see the same from outside, which is not true because that someone is not privy to the placement of all the reflectors as I am. I also damp down the vibrations here to become somewhat "invisible," which, during the past winter, caused seven cars to run off the road through our fences. My husband said that I had gone "too far" with the cloaking of our place. I backed off and the county put up signs warning of a sharp curve, too. Was it me or was it circumstance?

Back in the house, I painted the kitchen floor using as a model a small wall hanging that mimicked my floor boards. I call it "The Great Floor Hanging." The kitchen is in the blue-green (NE) and green areas (east). We removed the two extra front doors and added a patio door to the now enlarged kitchen. The dining room is red and purple with a huge framed poster of Barbara Remington's book covers of Middle Earth and The Hobbits. I have two rugs down, but the black spot from the stove stain on the floor, I squared off with more black and red dots so that it, too, looks like a throw rug.

The front room is yellow (SW) and white (west). The "barn" is not even to the directions; it is tilted across them making each room in two direction zones. Even stranger, the idea works here. Mom's old bedroom is now part of the front room and should be grey and black. I still have to do it correctly but we have 3,000 books on shelves and, like the White Rabbit, "I'm late, I'm late...!"

The downstairs bathroom is all new, tiled, and blue from ceiling to floor. My sculptures hang in there: "Cell Block," "Blastula," "Me From Both Sides," and a photograph of a wraith rising from the water that my husband took at Breitenbush hot springs as we were bathing nude.

As we go upstairs and look at the hallway above, there is Picasso's studio as I saw it in a book. I painted it from floor to ceiling. What else can be done with a hall that has five doors and a stairwell? The floor had old linoleum, a few pieces stuck onto the floor during one of the local art shows, and several older women told me not to remove that from the floor as it was too old and valuable. I stippled the floor around it instead. Even more surprising, I used latex indoor paints and in five years not a bit of it has worn in any way!

The bathroom door was painted from the hall side as Picasso's dresser next to the floor to ceiling windows. The wall next to that I painted his "Flower Girl" from floor to ceiling. She can be seen from downstairs, too, by looking up to the second floor. The hall is small and has all the directions in its tiny space. That means that all the feng shui colors go round it.

To the west and north is the "Picasso Room." I painted the picture of his daughter Paloma playing with a toy in a fanciful garden of blooms. The original colors I put in the correct section of the room. I then painted just the background blooms around the room in the various feng shui colors until I got to the north (black) wall where I repainted Paloma. There were three more sections and the closet was included on the black north area. The ceiling is light blue as is the sky outside the windows in that room. The bed is under an area of eaves in the north, which I painted to match a night sky with stars. The room has two double beds pushed together to fit under the eave. One can see Paloma from the door or from the bed. Several other art pieces of mine are in there, too. One is a cloth collage of my family; another is a frame with the "Board of Directors" tiny big-eyed board members glued onto the frame with raffia tracing all the possible connections. During an art show, an executive felt that every board room should have one of these for clarity.

The next room is our bedroom, which is done as Native American and African art. The room faces southwest and I painted the sun's path as it zigzags across the ceiling on the proper path. My daughter gave me a tea pot and two cups with an African motif, which I painted around the ceiling areas (in the proper directional colors). The walls are covered with Native American art we bought in Vancouver, B.C., a soft sculpture of my husband watching television (his eyes will not look at the onlooker), a huge African-style wall hanging we bought in Portland's Saturday Market years ago, a fishing globe -- very large -- that we found two of along the Oregon coast, plus various rain makers, and artifacts.

The green room is to the east and is green stippling with a blue green ceiling as the sky is always that color in that area and over the blue green kitchen. My cousin did the stippling and signed the corner of the room. There are various collages of wood in that room, plus a puzzle of the Sistine Chapel with a wooden churchy frame I glued around it. It is a guest room and holds exercise equipment, too, plus a wonderful old free-standing closet plus the second fishing globe of blue glass, as is the other.

Last is my art room. It has stuff and materials and paints and crayons and tools and pencils, a sewing machine, and lots of art books. There is a sculpture of my double mastectomy on the wall so I can externalize the bad sewing job the baby surgeons did after the big shot left. There are sculptures of fish, tetrahedrons, green and blue bones found on the farm, and I could go on and on but I won't.

Oh, and one more thing: since serious changes may come in our lifestyles in the next few years, we're thinking of letting our relatives who show up build cob houses on the place, create a cooperative, dig a big pond for the center of the fen, stock it with fish, plant a forest of trees with edible fruits and nuts while using the house barn for the older amenities.

Thanks for visiting. When you come back, stand on that front porch and notice all the hanging sculptures and the music if you come when the wind is blowing. There were pieces and parts of old equipment and latches and such strewn here and there when we moved in. The hay baler uses an orange twine that is almost indestructible. I collect it in feed bags and sometimes give it to a visitor who weaves. Anyway, I used it to string up the sculptures in case my husband needed a piece or a part for something. The wind chimes are from Appalachia and tuned. I bought three Paulo Solari bells in Arizona years ago when we visited his wonderful Arcosanti in the desert. If you come with children, I have a barrel of unhung items with which I will encourage them to create a sculpture for us as we talk. We will hang it up for all to enjoy.


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Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect

America the 'beautiful'

US Elections & Democracy


About the Author

Carol Warner Christen on Swans (with bio)... Woman born 1939, twice married, five children, 7 grandchildren; own a goat farm, rural Oregon after years in Chicago area and Ohio; Associate of Arts, Chicago Art Institute (1 year); artist, editor, mechanical design drafting supervisor; owned two computer companies before anyone had a computer; activist; antiwar; human.



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This Edition's Internal Links

Changing The Middle East Course - Cartoon by Jan Baughman

Meeting Ralph Nader & Matt Gonzalez - Gilles d'Aymery

May 11, 2008: Pictures Of Our Meeting With Ralph Nader & Matt Gonzalez - Gilles d'Aymery & Jan Baughman

Judging The Candidates - Charles Marowitz

Hearts And Minds - Martin Murie

Human All Too Human - Michael Doliner

The False Twins: Art Shay And Nelson Algren - Book Review by Peter Byrne

Pictures At Another Exhibition - Isidor Saslav

Atman - Poem by Guido Monte

Blips #70 - From the Martian Desk - Gilles d'Aymery

Politics Of Fear And Politics Of Hope - Rick Rozoff (Oct. 2000)

Letters to the Editor

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/carenc36.html
Published May 19, 2008