Sunday, May 18, 2008


Yesterday I was down at the General Store with Laura in tow while the EGE was falling trees for a neighbor ("neighbor" in this case means 12 miles away... so strange, yet neighborly) and the three big girls were at Gramma and Grampa's riding horses and swimming and in general having a way better weekend than me.

While I was drinking my third cup of coffee, which is by the way free for locals with good gossip in case you are tracking my spending, a complete stranger walked off with my four-month-old baby. I was okay with that.

The General Store has a 150-year-old worn wooden floor, a classic trading post front porch and a monstrous homemade woodstove next to which is the all-important locals' table. If you were just on a drive through our neck of the vineyards and you stopped for a sandwich you might think the General Store was a very well-done replica of the 1890s created just for your day trip pleasure. But in reality it is just like that even on a Tuesday when no tourists stop in for a pastrami sandwich. It has been just like that for a dozen decades, and anyone who wants to change it to a sports bar and pizza joint will have the wrath of God on their heads. Just a friendly reminder.

Anyhow Laura and I were enjoying our cup of coffee and a chat with Alice and Bob at the aforementioned locals' table. Lorena, the owner and cook, was pressing me with over-easy free-range eggs and homemade sourdough toasted bread. This is the exact reason I don't post our actual town location on my blog.

Alice is an old-timer, and by this I mean absolutely no disrespect. She is 70-plus and shakes hands stronger than most men (the EGE excepted, of course). She is fourth generation here and two more generations after her are still bucking hay. So Alice was explaining to me how to "sex a chicken," which only means gender identification in case you read this in NYC. The procedure involves blowing on the baby chick's, um, nether regions, and seeing whether it puckers into a circle or oval. I KID YOU NOT.

Alice is evidently very good at this. I invited her to come up and check out my chicks for me after breakfast. Bob, a non-related other local, took our conversation in stride as he poured his coffee into his saucer to cool it. Did you ever have a grampa who did this? It brings tears to my eyes. It's probably even a candidate for a joy rush moment.

While our conversation meandered around chickens, deer repellent and the (freakishly high) price of hay, the tourists ate and exclaimed at the view, Lorena cussed at the grill, and BJ walked in. Now BJ is a local too, but completely new to me. You have to remember, we've only been here two years, which is basically moving in this morning. I am grateful to be spoken to and accepted at the hallowed locals' table, no less. It has something to do with being willing to listen, I'm pretty sure. Contrary to my wordiness blogwise, I can listen pretty well.

Now BJ's been in the area 20 years, and she is ubercool, rurally speaking. After Alice's introduction, I guess I was overdramatic to say that BJ was a complete stranger. But it was attention-grabbing that way... hey, I handed my infant to a stranger. If you saw BJ, you'd have let her hold your baby too. "Earth Mother" would be a perfect description and I hope that wouldn't hurt her feelings, because I sincerely wish to grow up that awesome.

So I got to eat my egg and toast and drink my coffee while BJ walked Laura around and put her to sleep (heavenly to watch my baby fall asleep content) with her story of ... wait for it... THE UNDERGROUND HOUSE.

The underground house is exactly what it sounds like. It is, like most things here, across the road from my house. We actually have a full view of it through our den windows. Back in 1970, a local pastor wanted to build something earth-friendly and exotic, so he dug a ginormous hole and poured a concrete house in it. I think a lot of chicken wire and spitwads held it together. The locals laughed at him then, I understand, and we're not sure who's laughing now.

Just a couple of years ago, right when we were buying into this country club, the house was repossessed by the VA and subsequently sold to a super guy who builds castles. This is really what he does. He's a master stonemason and contractor and he goes all over the world building, well, castles. So he bought the underground moldy lump as a fun project to work on with his kids.

To get it cleaned up was no small task. It had sweltered away under Oregon dirt for 30-odd years without adequate waterproofing or ventilation. This necessitated our neighbor/castle builder doing a lot of excavation work. What had been a daisy-covered hobbit hill with windows and skylights poking through became an ugly behomoth. A 2200-square-foot lump of concrete with tarps and sticky black waterproofing oozing around like icing on a bad cake. Worse yet, the acre surrounding the house is now destroyed by the process. The trees have all been accidentally hit with big equipment and the dirt is scraped down to barren clay and rock. Nothing grows there, and that's saying a lot in our amazing climate.

Of course the neighbors hate it. The talk isn't even hushed anymore. It's ugly and they want. something. done. My EGE and I feel pretty live-and-let-live about it, but others are not so tolerant. Possibly we are more comfortable because we've seen first-hand what this man and his crew can do with stones. We've seen his artist's rendering, and it looks amazing. I am willing to watch a bit more ugliness if it ends up half as pretty as the picture.

But right now it doesn't look so pretty, and that has me thinking on the process of change. The house really needed to be imploded, but our neighbor has a vision for doing it justice, which takes time and money and dedication and hard work. In the beginning it was picturesque and hippie-awesome, but today it is a literal scar on our community's landscape. It is very difficult to see where we're going from here, and even the tolerant, seen-it-all old-timers may be losing sight of the goal to restore that little lot with the hobbit house to something not just pretty, but livable.

So I don't want to freak you out with this, but my insides are moldy and have seen 30-odd years of neglect and abuse. The excavation process, should the royal we choose to embark upon it, isn't pretty. But deeper than pretty landscaping is where I want to end up. I want that artist's rendering firmly fixed on my fridge. I want to fearlessly push dirt around with my tractor and endure the ugly in-betweens, even if and when it takes a lot longer and is more expensive than I intended or guessed. I want to get past the cover up and end up with something pretty and livable. I really hope it's not too painful for my neighbors, but I guess it'll take more than a lousy couple of years.

I (along with more than half of our village's population) hope the underground house is underground again soon. I hope the daisies bloom all summer long and I hope the skylights don't leak. I want to sit around the locals' table with Alice and Bob and BJ in 20 years (when I'll still be a newbie here but maybe BJ will be an old-timer). I want BJ to tell Laura when she's home from college all about how the house was held together with chicken wire and spitwads, but this neighbor cleaned it up, and the whole village cried foul when one outsider complained to the county planner, and now it's Beatrix Potter land over there. I want Laura to marvel that there was ever a drama about that.

In short, it may be corny, but I want us to look to the inside, to the eternal, and not to the berms of clay that result from moving a little dirt around in the cleanup process. I want my girls to be able to trust their neighbors and sit at the locals' table while the tourists exclaim that it's like stepping back in time to drive into this town.

(And then I want Alice to keep sexing my chickens for me, cuz that's just gross. Or else I could just wait to see which ones crow and which lay eggs.)


Toni said...

Super object lesson! Man, someone's been moving mold and dirt around inside of me for a long time. I'm hoping something beautiful will be made out of me some day.

Also, would love to see some before and after shots of the lot, if possible.

Farm Chick said...

I am sobbing like a child. I can't say anymore.....

farm suite said...

Okay, friends, don't freak out. I'm not that deep. Really. Tomorrow I'm gonna write about rabbit poop.

Mokihana said...

Just found the link to your blog from So... The Thing Is.. blog. I know where Lorane is! Territorial Seeds! My favorite catalog! I've been through Lorane and just love it.

I'm a transplant from Hawai'i (born and raised there), and though I frequently get homesick, I LOVE Oregon.

I really look forward to reading your blog.

Chickie Momma said...

I just LOVE reading your words... it's like a trip through town and this time it really was. I heard about that underground home many years ago (probably oh... 20 years or so when I used to stomp around the place) GOOD LORD, that makes ME feel like an old timer! Anyway, cool story. Can't wait to hear about rabbit poop. AH THE SUSPENSE!

Misty said...

so I am a day late reading this, but really i LOVED your metaphor... This really challenged me, a lot... you are truly fantastic!

Becca said...

Ah, my long lost parenthical sister!!!!!