|Carl Larsson, Stugen (The Cottage) 1899|
Back when I was teaching art and design history to animation, multimedia, and graphic design students, I spent a good deal of time trying to find them historical sources of inspiration for their work. Beyond The Usual Suspects (the dead European white guy canon), I spent more time than most of my ilk on prehistoric and non-Western cultures. But I also looked more broadly into the Western tradition, looking for the origins of modern design: especially into the Arts and Crafts movement as expressed both in Europe and North America. But in addition to William Morris in England and the Greene brothers in the US, I also introduced them to Carl Larsson and the Scandinavian branch of the movement.
I know, I know. Larsson is in some ways the poster boy for dead white guy-ness. A Swede, no less. But just as I had found his work compelling for a number of reasons, my students were attracted to his depictions of domestic intimacy and his admirable hand skills. Like many of the great Scandinavian illustrators (Kay Nielsen, Gustaf Tenggren) Larsson plumbed mythic connections to the past, but depicted everyday life as well--as interpreted by him and his wife, Karin Bergöö. In the '70s, while working at a co-op book store in Philadelphia, I had come across his book about their home, Ett Hem (A Home) which in the real world is every bit as charming as in his paintings. I'm not sure why I didn't snap it up at the time, but years later I found a couple of nicely illustrated explorations of the Larssons' home life. I especially liked the depictions of their garden, which looks much more like ours than one might find in today's house-porn mags.
What interested me most about Larsson's work was the fact that he treated his home as a Gesamtkunstwerk: a total work of art. The concept was originally applied by Richard Wagner to his operatic integration of music and drama (especially in his Ring cycle), but has since been applied to works of art and architecture conceived as an aesthetic whole. In the most valuable course I ever took at UT Dallas ("Vienna 1900," taught by Charles Bambach), I began to explore the idea as it could be applied to something as seemingly mundane as one's own home--just as Larsson had done, and I began to see the integration of house and garden as part of a long-term domestic artistic process.
I doubt that anyone who sees our place is going to be struck by its artfulness. At the moment, thanks to the heat, the front garden is a mass of dying annuals amidst the better-chosen, drought-tolerant perennials. I keep better care of the food plants and herbs on the back quarter-acre, but what once looked like overgrown rainforest in the spring now droops pathetically, and leaves are beginning to yellow and fall, as if it were already autumn. And it's not quite yet August. But learning what will grow, under what conditions, and how to keep things thriving under problematic circumstances, is part of the process.
However, as I mentioned in my June 18 post ("It's Not Easy Being Green"), living here is not just about us, or even just about us and Molly and Nylah and their predecessors. It's also about creating a home for the critters that are finding it more and more difficult to survive in this area. As a result of local habitat destruction, we've tried to make this little half acre habitable for as wide a variety of wildlife as we can. And our efforts seem to have been rewarded.
Last March, I discovered in Woody's Garden (an herb- and pollinator-focused memorial to one of our previous dogs) a hole that had been softened with what looked like feathers--but which later I discovered to be fur (top photo). I had used the spot to shelter an injured Carolina wren fledgling. I finally figured out that it had harbored rabbits. More recently, in our raised bed for growing fennel, catmint, and oregano, I discovered what was clearly a rabbit nest (evidence of a warren beneath?). I've often seen a bunny near the spot, so now I know why. These are not stupid rabbits, by any means, though. They've figured out when the dog and cat are likely to be afoot, and make themselves scarce during those outings.
I could go back into my archives and find an almost identical photo to the one below from each of the last five or so years. It's a Neon Skimmer, and for some reason they like to use our back yard as a mating arena. This year I had removed the rebar pole from next to the repurposed copper firepit we use as a bird bath. When I realized that this fellow seemed to be looking for a perch, I replaced it. Almost immediately, it was occupied. When they don't land here, they'll rest on the rusty hog wire cylinder we use as a fennel support.
Some years ago we brought back from California an old metate that a Paiute woman from Owens Valley had given my grandmother. Nowadays it serves as a toad pond, as does the blue pot with handy brick ladder inserted for Mr. Toad's convenience.
When the weather's better, it's nice to be able to inhabit the hammock next to Porco's parking spot, and watch hummingbirds sip from the trumpet vine. There are four hanging feeders around, but the hummers seem to like a more authentic experience just as well. When I'm not out there reading Margaret Renkl essays, though, one of the local anoles will often explore the space, which is unfortunately too warm now for either woman or beast. Maybe in the fall.
Despite the heat, Molly and I are still spending an hour or so in the garden each morning; later in the day we spend less time, even though the entire yard is shady by then. For as long as we can stay comfortable, we both enjoy watching the squirrels splooting at the bases of the trees to keep cool. Squirrels are endlessly fascinating to Molly anyway, but she also seems to enjoy imitating them, with her belly plastered against the cool grass.
At some as-yet unforeseeable point, the 100F+ days will have faded into the past. And I fully realize that along with the intemperate summer we'll no doubt "enjoy" its polar (ahem) opposite come winter. But knowing that these animals can find shelter, shade, habitat, water, and some comfort here with us gives me some hope that we'll all make it together.
For all of us here, it is--in one form or another--a home.
Image credits: Carl Larsson, Stugen (from Ett Hem), 1899, via Wikimedia Commons.