Friday, January 4, 2013

The House as an Island

  The House as an Island - 1, 2012
(Click on images to see larger) 

I’ve always been fascinated by houses that tell us by their appearance that their occupants have no interest in the landscape around them.
I don’t think it’s a sign of moral deficiency to not have a lovingly landscaped yard. I get it that maintaining a yard can be laborious and that the investment required to do so can rank far down the list of many people’s priorities.
Still, I come from people who, when they had a chance to acquire their own little suburban patches, were quick to announce their arrival in the lower middle class with a decent stand of turf grass and a few azaleas. If any two of my Bonney ancestors were together their conversation would at some point include at least some talk about fertilizer and the proper time to prune hydrangeas. I know that when the first Bonney man acquired a riding mower he was thought to be putting on airs and only later quietly envied.
In the big scheme of things residential lawns and gardens are, like domestic dogs and cats, a relatively modern concept. In historic times land and livestock had working roles. A turf grass lawn was showy, a sign that the homeowner was well enough off to be able to afford to plant, irrigate and maintain a stretch of lawn or floral garden for no other purpose that to be looked at.
Growing affluence following the great wars and programs like the VA and FHA mortgages gave more people a crack at the suburban single-family home dream. (Only in very recent times has the assumption that home ownership is the best path to civic and financial stability been questioned.)
By and large, homeowners tend to be very proud of their homes. They personalize their abodes and dot their lawns with trees and shrubs. Most people say they’d like to live in neighborhoods with tree-lined streets. Even the cheapest of developers have traditionally thrown in a few foundation shrubs to soften the borders between street, lawn and house. In many places, it’s actually required before a mortgage will be issued.
It always surprises me, though, to come upon a residence completely surrounded by vegetation no taller than a blade of grass. I see it more in rural rather than suburban areas. There’s a old nondescript clapboard house along Rt. 13 on the Eastern Shore of Virginia that I’ve longed to photograph because it looks no more acclimated to its site right beside the busy highway than if a tornado had just now plopped it down there.
The House as an Island - 2, 2012

I’ve been thinking about doing a photo series of the kinds of houses I’m talking about.  The house shown above was noticed along the road south of Tappahannock, Virginia. By rural standards it’s a pretty substantial structure. These pictures don’t do justice to the way the house sits all by itself on a slight rise above the highway. Still, you can see by the almost total lack of attention to its physical surroundings that its residents see this house as a purely indoor refuge, an island by itself.    


  1. I agree, I am always surprised too. I guess the reasons can be varied, or complicated ( or very simple!) . I think we see it less in suburban areas, because whether the homeowner likes it or not, it's part of the "package"... of Expectation. Curb appeal, the Jones, what will the neighbors think, laws that don't allow your grass to get more than a certain height, etc. Out in the country on a buncha acres by a busy highway? who cares! I always guess that these people lead very utilitarian lives. Bleak even. At least in my head. Most of us crave some Green. Having been a landscaper for over 10 years, I've met LOTS of people, in McMansions plopped in naked fields, who want Instant lush yards. They have no idea how to go about it, that's what we were for! They were usually very greatful and humble about their own lack of knowledge, but fierce in their desire to have it all, fast. Not thinking too far ahead to the upkeep, some even brought back dead shrubs in a few months saying, oh, I had to WATER this? But what must it be like for the folks in the above house, to drive back up the driveway every day and get the first glimpse of their stoic naked box.. think Home Sweet Home?

  2. maybe its just the season? My garden is mainly bare earth at the minute, but in the spring snowdrops blossom, followed by bluebells, ferns grow and tall yellow flowers. There are some roses that make an appearance, and other pink flowers, I don't know what most of them are, I just let them grow, then in the autumn I cut everything back so it can grow again next year without getting too unruly. And it looks like this house is surrounded by countryside, surely if they want to get out and enjoy their surroundings they can go for a walk in the woods?

  3. Here, deep in Lyme territory, I am always impressed with people, like my parents with their Cape Cod summer cottage), who leave the lawn as a tick condo...