Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tubes and tubes! Hollows and hollows!

There are all kinds of mysteries that turn up in renovating an old house. In some cases, the mystery is “what were they thinking when they built this?” and I’ll go on about some scary examples of that in a bit. In other cases, the mystery is more basic—“what the heck is this thing?” It's the sort of question that arises when you hand a 10-year-old a floppy disk. Technology and fashion in homebuilding have changed quite a bit since 1936.

I alluded to my job of removing spider webs from the basement, and part of what I’ve been doing down there is removing this:

A wooden tube, connected to a screened window in the above-ground part of the north side of the foundation wall. When we first toured the house, we had the question, “what the heck is this thing?”… maybe some way to load firewood into the basement?

The other end of this curious structure was connected to the kitchen, as was revealed when I pulled up the hideous tile floor:

Curiouser and curiouser. Once the previous owner removed the piles and piles of stuff from the attic, we found this:

A sort of twin to what was in the basement, connecting the kitchen ceiling to a window in the attic.

So, basement and attic had similar structures, vertically aligned in the kitchen. We were looking at the remains of a cooling closet, and ingenious device common in pre-1930’s California bungalows. The odd ducts in the attic and basement were connected by a floor-to-ceiling closet with lattice shelves. The warm air in the attic would rise out, pulling in cool air from the basement. As it flowed through the closet, it would keep perishables cool (but not cold—that was what the icebox was for!).

Such a device was perhaps a little exotic for Oregon and out-of-fashion in 1936—neither our realtor nor contractor had seen one before, and our house appears to have been wired for electricity from the get-go. We found out what it really was from the daughter of one of the previous owners. A little more reading on the subject turns up this tidbit from “Under the Sky in California” by Charles Francis Saunders (McBride, Nast & Company, New York, 1913):

The kitchen is a compact little room, airy and light, and provided with various ingenious modern helps to lessen labor. Adjoining is the invariable screen-porch where are laundry-tubs, ice-box, cooling closets, et cetera, the cooling closet being a built-in cupboard with open, screened bottom and top and perforated shelves through which a vertical current of air ascends continually from under the house to roof, and, in this land of cold nights, makes the housekeeper measurably independent of ice even in summer.

(The book is an amusing artifact of my native state a hundred years ago, available free from Google books. The above excerpt is from the chapter “Residence in the Land of Sunshine—I: Life in a Bungalow”. It’s a quaint fossil of the California that was so avidly sold by Collis P. Huntington and his ilk. I wonder whether my great-grandparents, resident in San Diego and Oakland in 1913, would recognize their lives in this book. The above extract is about how wonderful life in a bungalow is for the homemaker, and is preceded by:

The servant problem, indeed, has been solved in Gordian-knot fashion by doing away with the servant; for, given a reasonable degree of strength and skill on the part of the womankind of the house-hold, a servant is not needed, and in the democratic West no lady loses caste by the fact of doing her own housework.)

Returning to the 21st century, we will of course have a ‘fridge, but there will still be a flow of air out of the kitchen. We just got the fume hood installed:

I wonder how that will look in 76 years.

Not much, how about you?

Been awfully busy here with a variety of contractor- and family-imposed deadlines, so very little in the way of posting. For now, we'll just go with today's assessment from the Real Doctor:
"It's clear that your job is to use your head to clean the underside of the house."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

...and into some serious wood

Well, you chop down all those trees, you end up with some wood. As Billy and John were busy bringing trees down, their two assistants were busy chopping them up. They had a hydraulic splitter working almost continuously for a week making big logs into smaller logs, while the Real Doctor and I (and anyone else we could find) frantically stacked the wood. At times, the struggle to keep up with the splitter made me feel sympathy for John Henry (though it could be worse). In the integral, I picked up several trees and moved them a couple of yards.

Here's the rotten sycamore from in back:

Here's the rotten locust from in front:

So, there's nine stacks there, each over six feet tall. From left to right: 1) locust, 2) locust, 3) locust and cedar, 4) cedar and fir, 5) fir, 6) fir, 7) fir and sycamore, 8) maple and sycamore, and 9) maple.

But wait! There's more--this is mostly from the giant fir, which was about 100' tall and 114 years old.
Clearing those trees was good for the house; having all that wood will be good for our energy bills. The old house has had three previous central heating systems: a wood furnace, an oil furnace, and an electric furnace. We know this because when each system was replaced, the old system had been left in the basement. We are going to march in reverse to the future, and augment the electric furnace with a modern fireplace insert:
This thing's a wonder. It's completely unlike the wood stoves I knew from years ago. It draws no air from the room; rather, it has a snorkel that goes up the chimney. It burns the wood more completely by injecting fresh air both at the top and the bottom of the combustion chamber. This is nice because it not only reduces pollution, it also squeezes much more heat energy out of the wood. A built-in fan pumps air around the stove and into the room, so radiant heat is relegated to a minor role. We've used this stove a couple of times, and it can make the entire house toasty.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Out of the woods...(updated)

When we bought it, our house had a tree problem. Mature trees are usually considered a value-enhancer in real estate; however, our house had trees that had passed maturity and were in decline. In addition to contributing a bit of a run-down air to the place, some of them were a material threat to the house. Here's a photo from earlier this year:
From left to right, we see behind the house an old maple (visibly diseased, with bracket fungi near the base of the trunk), an immense fir (whose top had been broken off and was growing ugly, and whose trunk was less than a meter from the house), a locust stump that was growing immense suckers, then (hidden behind the house) fir that was threatening a shed, a sycamore that was too close to the house, and a pair of cedars--one of which was sick--so close to each other that they were individually deformed, and then again in front, a maple that was tearing up the front walk and fence. Just out of the picture is an immense locust that had a visibly rotten core.

That's a lot of problem trees. The only ones that were really healthy and not threatening a structure were the sycamore and one of the cedars. What to do? This being the heart of timber country, we toyed with the idea of felling the giant fir for lumber; a good, straight old tree could bring a thousand dollars or more. However, there were no guarantees that the tree would be good. We got a recommendation to call John and Billy, a couple of ex-lumberjacks, to do the job.

The death of a local industry leaves distinctive human debris. There are a lot of ex-lumberjacks around here, just as there are a lot of ex-Baathist party apparatchiks in Baghdad. These are people with phenomenal, nearly irreplaceable (if highly focused) skills and knowledge, and a treasure trove of anecdotes. (Given the nature of the timber industry, many of the lumberjack stories are as gruesome as I imagine the Baathists' would be.) John and Billy fit the stereotype in most every way, from the odd missing digit to the extreme garrulousness (old lumberjacks are probably why extreme talkativeness is called logorrhea). They also know their wood, and are damned good at putting trees down exactly where they ought to go and not hitting a house.

So, with a couple of assistants and a dependable 1950's Case tractor, they set to work on our property. That diseased maple in back? It was really diseased; the Real Doctor stands in the stump, contemplating what would happen to our house in a good windstorm:
The diseased honey locust in the front was really diseased too--see how the trunk splits when it hits the ground. It was rotten from the ground up to the first fork.

If the sound is up, you can also tell from that clip that these guys enjoy their job. They're good at it too--they had a very narrow space in which to put this fir tree so it wouldn't damage the house or anything else, and they hit it spot on:

It's been a while since I've seen two guys who enjoy their jobs as much as these two. John, the man on the chainsaw, does everything but a Babe-Ruthian gesture with his chainsaw when he predicts the fall of a tree. Billy, the man in the tractor, would probably willingly pay to drive it around.

As lumberjacks, they speak an unusual dialect of English--John launched into a story about a schoolmarm with a crotch full of whiskey that broke his chains that had me utterly lost until I got it translated. A schoolmarm is a tree with a deeply forked trunk, so called because it won't roll over. This tree had been growing on an elderly couple's property, and after they died the son wanted it cleared away. Apparently the old man had a liking for whiskey that his wife disapproved of, so he'd go off to drink and hide the evidence by dropping the empty bottles down the hollow crotch of the tree. This went on for decades, with the man draining and depositing the bottles and the tree growing and encasing the evidence in wood. When John tried to cut the tree down his saw ran into a bottle and died a foot off the ground, and again two feet off the ground, and again higher and higher. When they finally got the tree down, they found an embedded column of whiskey bottles five feet tall.

John and Billy found plenty of stuff embedded in our trees--a length of pipe, a hinge, an iron post, many nails--but got them all down safely. The oldest trees, the big fir and the locust, were over a hundred years old. Now they're gone, and part of me feels like poor Dogmatix:
However, on the whole, I think it's better--for one thing, the house is no longer in imminent peril. Roseburg is one of the least windy cities in the US, but every once in a while it gets a big wind--one of these happened just last week, and would probably have taken down that maple. For another thing, it's a lot brighter inside the house, and you can see some of the scenery. Also, from the outside, you can actually see the house. A nice change. Here's before, again:
And here's after:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Flora

I haven't featured one of the Real Doctor's orchids in a while, so here's Ludisia discolor:
It's supposed to be cultivated for its striking foliage (hence the common name "jewel orchid"), but the leaves don't do that much for me. If you're really curious, you can google a picture. I gotta say that I like the flowers, though. A bit more restraint than the rest of the tribe.

grumble grumble I don't know why Blogger won't give me italics any more.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Like, wow.

Every once in a while, nature drops something in your lap so amazing and brilliant that it feels like a gift--a special present just for you from the universe. You can't even share it, because it's your own experience. The best you can do is tell others about it, describe it and the feelings it evoked as best you can, knowing that you'll always fail to convey the wonder of it all.

Still, I'll give it a try.

The Real Doctor's horse needs its hooves picked clean and rinsed to avoid abscesses, especially with the rain we've had recently. Since the Real Doctor is quite under the weather, I gallantly offered to take care of the beast, who is billeted about 10 miles out of town, where the night sky is dark enough to pick out the Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye. I usually take some time while I'm out there to look at the stars, but it was overcast, so I didn't bother. However, I did have a new cell phone which I needed to link with the car's bluetooth system. So, after finishing with the horse, I sat in the car and twiddled buttons with increasing frustration. After I exasperatedly went through yet another counterintuitive menu, I looked up...

...and saw what I thought for an instant was a low-flying jet with its landing lights on. As it moved across my view from the driver side window halfway across the front, I realized it was a spectacular bolide burning up in the atmosphere. It must have had some copper in it, since it blazed and left a trail of green. Halfway across my front window, it broke up into smaller fragments, traveling together in a cluster half the size of the moon. These burned brightly before winking out. The whole show took three or four amazing seconds. As I said, it was overcast, so this whole show was bright enough to shine through a layer of clouds, which gave it peculiar radiance.

I've seen three bolides like this in my life, and this was far and away the most spectacular. And I wonder--low to the horizon, on a cloudy night, at dinner time, in a sparsely populated area--how many people saw this wonder?