Outside, the night has reached that state of darkness most closely approximated by the idea of heavy velvet. It is the time marked at either end by the final fading of daylight and the moon rising beyond the tops of enormous, enfolding trees. It’s a meditative stretch, in which crickets and tree frogs take a moment to tune their instruments and run a scale or two. As I sit in the dim, golden cave the lamp makes from the screened porch, I think about the house I would pass everyday on the way up to Kennesaw for my round of classes.
It’s important to note that it stands at the side of the two-laned road known informally as “the back way.” We’ve spoken about these routes before as a preferred alternative to the main thoroughfares; allow me to enlarge upon this point for a moment, using my commute to campus as an example. There are clearer and more directly navigable ways to reach Kennesaw State University, but they are far from preferable, and depending on the time of day you go, in no way are they faster. Rather, they are six lanes of tortured pavement clogged with frustrated humanity and the choking perfume of vehicle exhaust. As well, these broad corridors of baking, unshaded asphalt are studded with traffic lights that seem specifically timed to induce madness even in the most phlegmatic of drivers.
The back way–for all that it contains more turns and is largely navigated by memory and landmarks, rather than by relying on posted road signage or street designations–is often both quicker and less taxing to the human psyche. Much of it has remained unchanged since I last saw it–rural houses peppered in amongst developments that are as old as I am and no longer wear the ugly treeless coat of alien newness that many, “newer” subdivisions tend to have in their first decade.
Perhaps the most distressing development that has occurred in my absence is the sale of some land formerly owned by the Oveby family–old stock in these parts. What was once a steeply hilled pasture field dotted with clumps of trees and screened from the road by an established thicket has now been purchased for the building of yet more houses. Gone are the glossy-flanked horses, heads bent to crop the long grasses, silken tails swishing flies away in the buzzing heat of a thick summer afternoon. They’ve completely stripped the field and cut down all the trees–all–so that the earth is laid bare to bake, red and raw under the sun. The thicket, which provided cover and forage for a number of local fauna, has been entirely uprooted, displacing many small, now-hungry and unprotected animals.
Lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that local architects are in competition with one another to see who can design the biggest, ugliest houses. The winners of these contests have their houses reproduced by developers en masse, and the resulting neighborhoods look like nothing so much as a bunch of big brown rocks rolling down a hill. These flat-faced piles of unappealing angles and too many windows are tossed onto quarter-acre lots in order to maximize profits, and end up obliterating privacy along with elbow room. A $600,000 price tag is then slapped on and minimal landscaping added, thus completing your own little slice of Hell.
There is nothing attractive about these places. You put down too much money for too much house and that doesn’t have nearly enough of the things that really matter. It was not always so, but I’ll leave a more detailed exploration of how our architecture is a physical representation of cultural values for another segment. The house to which I referred earlier is one of an older extraction. It sits by the side of one of the roads taken to reach KSU, and I would greet it with gladness each time I passed it.
It isn’t that it’s particularly grand or a stellar example of work by some great artist-architect. Bits of it may be pokey and certainly out of date. But the little white clapboard house–with its deep front porch nested among giant hydrangeas, mature flower beds, and the cool shade of trees that have been fully grown longer than I’ve been alive–evinces a decided air of comfort and welcome. Seeing it is a bit like meeting a person who knows exactly who they are. It’s something you sense when you shake their hand, a comfortable certainty in their skills, an unselfconscious knowledge of ther value that seems to translate into a certain kindness to other human beings. These are people to whom I am drawn, so it only seems natural that I would love a house that called them to mind.
Being the bookworm that I am, I always had a fondness for L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books, and I think it’s a good time to bring my favourite redhead into the conversation. When we first come to know her, she builds in her mind’s eye a veritable palace crammed with “marble halls and diamond sunbursts.” But as we grow up with her, we experience her own awakening to the value of a house that knows itself. Above and beyond those childhood fantasies is the dream I share with her–the small house that beams with character, a place filled with love and the sound of laughter, the voices of beloved friends; a garden and indoor spaces that welcome sunlight, but reserve time for cool shadows as well. For a home that could be a friend–a kindred spirit–I’d sacrifice every bell and whistle on offer, because marble halls are cold, and diamond sunbursts don’t coordinate well with garden gloves or grocery lists.