Saturday, March 27, 2010
As I was driving home from a meeting with the building inspector who will review my house (he gave me the go-ahead, and then added: "Well, should be fun!" after noticing all the atypical details) I passed yet another small tree with large purple blossoms that are up-turned, opening to the sky. These trees are in bloom now and I've been noticing them everywhere, though I don't recall noticing them last year. They are especially striking when some of the blossoms have fallen and the ground below the tree is strewn with white and violet. So I pulled into the driveway of the house where I saw this latest tree planted in the front yard, and asked the owner what kind it is. He then yelled back into the house to ask his wife. "Tulip tree," he repeated. That makes sense, I thought; the blossoms are shaped like tulips.
I'm already thinking about what plantings I will have around this house after it is built, even though it is unlikely I will have money enough left over for any. This could be fine, as I imagine the landscaping will have to be built up over time. Also there is plenty of pre-existing landscaping on this lot that I plan to keep. I purposely chose a fully wooded lot so that I could practice what I have been preaching for years: Don't clear-cut the site! If you have a wooded lot, survey the trees and design the house to work with them. Then only remove the trees that are within and immediately surrounding the building footprint. A site is not a blank slate. God has already been working there. If we can see a piece of "property" as God's creation, covered with God's designs that speak of his existence and nature, then walking through it we should feel as though we are walking through God's sculpture gallery, every living thing a work of art. How can this be blindly swept away? Some trees may have to go, but only for another God-given design. The people of Israel were commanded not to be cruel to their animals, but also to sacrifice them when necessary for atonement.
Here is the survey of my property showing the trees as small dots.
I love how it looks like a star chart. Which makes sense: God laid out the stars, and he laid out these trees. His laws of gravity, weather, and botany caused the trees to grow where they did. The image to the right of this page with the series of small windows in a stone wall is a portion of my front façade. The window locations exactly match a grouping of nine trees at the center of the lot. This window grouping is then perhaps the part of the house that is most directly designed by God.
And here is the site plan showing trees to be removed, marked with an X. Notice the four trees at the center of the X's to remain. They are where the courtyard will be. I'm building the house around them.
There is a great practical benefit to keeping mature trees also: energy efficiency. In the hot climate of southeastern NC we cannot speak highly enough of SHADE. Keeping trees around a building, especially on the south side, blocks the intense summer sun from imparting its energy to the roof and walls, reducing the cost of cooling.
But under the forest I'm keeping, around the new house, I have imagined smaller plantings. A pomegranate tree perhaps, which has a long biblical history, both as food and symbol. Images of pomegranates were carved into the walls of the temple and sewn into the fabric of the priest's garments. I read recently that the pomegranate is one of a very few foods we know of that fights cancer. Something special about that fruit.
I've also imagined planting a garden in front of the house, accessible to the public, welcoming the public, perhaps with a gate with a heavy lock - to hold it open. Then I'll throw away the key. A garden I passed once had a sign that said, "Thank you for enjoying this garden from the street." Contrast this with God's Garden-City of the future: "its gates will never be closed." (Rev. 21:25) I thought of designing this garden to reflect the shape of the camp of Israel, which God designed. When I sketched the camp as described in the Bible I was struck by how much it looks like a flower, complete with an inner circle and four outer petals. What God saw when he looked down on his wandering people is a flower in the desert.
You may have noticed that all these trees and plantings and gardens seem to leave no space for a "yard." Praise God for that. I've learned that grass is not "green." A lawn is typically maintained as a monoculture - just one type of plant is allowed to grow, despite the fact that in nature many types of plants would grow along with the grass - and all would benefit because of it. Then there are whatever chemicals are used to fertilize and weed the grass, which do damage to plants and animals (and humans) elsewhere. Then there is the money and energy spent to maintain the yard. How much use do we really get out of a yard anyway? So this practice of maintaining a surface of grass around a house seems to be a case where a rather arbitrary demand for a certain appearance has caused us to ignore what is actually good for us and for God's creation.
For a while recently I thought I would have to resist a similar temptation. I googled “tulip tree” and what came up is a poplar, with yellow blossoms. That’s not what I saw. The tree that’s been pulling my eyes is actually a Japanese magnolia. As the name implies, this tree is not native to North Carolina, or North America, or the western hemisphere. I was not far off when I joked to myself before researching it, “Watch this tree be native to, like, Thailand.” The name is slightly misleading; it’s actually native to China. Close enough.
Originally I planned to restrict my plantings to native vegetation, so that they are naturally drought tolerant, disease resistant – in short, made for this area. Of course this poses a problem for my dream of a pomegranate too, since it is endemic to Yemen. But the pomegranate came up in a list of plants that thrive in southeastern NC. I think I could feel comfortable using non-native species in this case. Maybe “native” is not the key issue, but rather how well the plant can live. By all the accounts I researched the Japanese magnolia thrives in this region, and in fact in most of the U.S. By all my visual accounts they are doing quite well too. Okay, one rule loosened.