“…it is important to bear in mind that nature bats last and owns the stadium.”
Hawken, Lovins, Lovins, Natural Capitalism
1996 – Out on the plains to the east, the horizon stretches forever. In the valley between the foothills and the mesas, the sky is bright long before the sun’s first rays strike the valley. The mesa side of the valley stays dark in its own shade, while the steep face of the foothills reflects the descending brightness of the rising sun.
In the afternoon, the higher foothills and the higher-yet mountains beyond throw their shadow first in the valley, then across to the eastern horizon, invisible behind the mesas. A cut in the foothills also separates the mesas. Back east it would be called a stream, here it is a river, but we call it a creek. It creates the valley between the higher ground to the north and south, defined on the west and east by the foothills and the mesas.
It makes for a pretty view from nearly any angle. From my house you look north, the valley rolling upwards to meet the base of the steep foothills on the left, the base of a mesa on the right. Depending on the time of day, one face or the other is cut with shadow from its own irregularities, creating a constantly changing scene.
Except where urbanized, the valley is mostly grass covered, and usually stays yellow for most of the year. The town has been here since the mid-1800’s; indeed, it was one of the early Colorado settlements, rivaling Denver for the territorial capitol. Steep slopes, cautious growth, and older land use patterns have, until recently, kept the valley pretty.
If you look north, as I do from my house, the face of the foothills is a steep, smooth, grass-covered wall rising a thousand feet above the valley. The breaks in the face, where drainages careen abruptly down the hillsides, are indistinct. Looking the other way, the irregularities become pronounced due to the vegetation that crowds the north faces. Shade on the north face keeps the snow from melting as quickly, the snow keeps the soils moist, giving the trees and shrubs a tenuous foothold. The vegetation then catches the snow and moisture, creating its own microclimate favorable to growth.
A few years ago we decided to get rid of the old lean-to kitchen, and remodeled our house. We wanted to capture the view, so the new kitchen is walled with windows on three sides. Through old trees we have a rewarding glimpse of the valley to the north, one of the mesas, and the foothills.
Not long after our construction finished, they started cutting the hillsides. The steep slope is not conducive to easy construction, so lots of dirt work was required to make a place for the subdivision. Even now, the backs of the houses facing us are three stories tall, broken only by plate glass and a second-story, tacked-on wooden deck. The result is rows of flat, white walls, jutting above the brown slash of disturbed soil. In time, I’m sure these people will plant some vegetation that will soften the view, but for now it remains a swath of ugly.
I drove up there the other day, and up close from the front, the houses don’t look too horrible. I don’t favor the jammed together nature of new houses, the blank faces of two-car garages, or the California-style architecture. But, if that’s the kind of house you’re going to have, these were okay. The contrast between the front and back was remarkable. Some pains had been taken by the architect to make the fronts passable, even attractive. But the backs, with the awesome views across the valley, catching the foothills to the south and the mesas to the east, were completely utilitarian and ugly. Clearly, the design was to maximize the view from the house, not of the house. At night, the once dark and soft hillside is cut by glaring spotlights and, seemingly, acres of lighted glass.
It reminds me where we walked one summer on the beach at night, the waves crashing to one side and the row of houses stretched over what used to be a dune. Some of those people were clearly fearful of darkness and tried to eradicate any vestige of it with spotlights casting their glare into the ocean. The house next to the one we stayed in had an after-thought tack-on deck that jutted above the beach, defended from the darkness by multiple spotlights so bright that we had to close the curtains in our house to avoid being blinded.
This place is on the Oregon coast and has some of the most phenomenal scenery in the world. Kodak heaven. Seastacks, giant haystack-shaped rocks, loom up out of the ocean, surrounded by cliffs and a breathtaking beach. The homes sit on a rise about ten feet above the beach, dunes stabilized over time by dense vegetation. Many of the houses, particularly the older ones, are weathered and seem to blend into the pattern of woods, windswept trees and sand.
One day at low tide we walked to the base of the sea stacks to inspect the tide pools. Up and down the beach the flat sand is framed by steep hills behind the town and cliffs at each end. A ridgeline several miles away is marred by a clearcut. The giant rocks are home to an assortment of seabirds that seem always to be in flight around and around their sanctuary. Where the cliffs meet the beach, a tumble of boulders and rocks reached into the surf, providing some scale, however gigantic, to the beach.
Among these boulders, people had stacked cairns of smaller rocks in varying degrees of complexity. Some were just a few handy stones practically situated so as not to fall over in the wind. Others were intricate works of art, clearly having taken intense effort over some period of time, blending shape, color, size and texture. It seemed a garden of stone, lacking a single creator, but being a creation of community. Each cairn seemed to say for its creator, “I exist; see me, I was here.”
Similarly, we traced the ruins of myriad sand castles that littered the beach. Knowing that such creations are made of sand for a universal reason, most people built them below the tide line, to do battle with the twice-daily surge of ocean. Others placed theirs above the tide, thinking perhaps that the nature of sand and sea could be circumvented. Where the once-proud walls of the tidal castles were faintly evident as depressions in the sand or as the remaining litter of shells, sticks and feathers, the high and dry castles slowly succumbed to dryness and gravity. Wind shaped the angle of repose until these once recognizable structures became mere lumps and holes of sand. It was hard not to think of the same ultimate fate for the houses that perched above the beach, for what regard has nature for the time of man?
Coming from the cairns, anomalous constructions of rock in a land ruled by sand, wind and wave, the impermanence of the sand castles seemed ephemeral, brief. Where a toppled cairn left remains of stone worthy of any amateur archaeologist, the sand castles washed away into faint depressions and lumps twice daily, or blew away in desiccated grains of sand indistinguishable from their uncountable brethren.
And, above the beach stood the houses, planted in the sand. The oldest ones, the ones that had survived the years, blended. They were cushioned by the land and trees, showing no sharp edges to catch the wind’s force. They nestled into the topography and were sometimes hard to see clearly, offering only tantalizing suggestions of what lay inside. Houses built to survive a long time here; they had.
These long time survivors were the minority, superseded by houses built after World War Two. The newer era-homes were patterned after old seaside homes on the east coast, made of shingle, looking old and worn even when new. For the most part, these houses defined the character of the community, defined the look. Certainly sturdy, having survived thirty to fifty years of the rain and wind, but also seeming to fit into their place. The established vegetation softens their edges; their texture and colors blend with their neighbors, and their shape is not unpleasing to the eye. Where the older houses were built to sit alone, to weather the ravages of time on their own, these later generation houses survive as a community. Each compliments its neighbor, each contributes to the feeling of a whole.
But, clearly, those with more money than taste could not stay away. New houses, built to capture as much of the view as they can, jostle with their neighbors like an impatient crowd at a concession stand. The design of these houses didn’t grow locally, it was imported from ski resorts, mountain communities, and overrun beaches elsewhere. The houses were made to cater to their owners’ whims, to the good life that was their due. The house would look the same regardless of the view it was built to capture. Soaring peaks encompassing yards of plate glass, redwood decks jutting out to the beach, competing with the neighbors for the maximum view. These houses stood out, not for their beauty or creative design, but because they didn’t belong. No amount of time will soften their look, and based on the few examples, these places will tend to wear poorly; going from gaudy spectacle to decrepit eyesore in twenty years. Meanwhile, they mar the view; having been built to capture a view, not fit into one.
This they share with that scar of development visible from my kitchen windows. The time necessary for them to grow into their place is longer than their expected survival. So, in my lifetime they will exist as a blot in my vision; an aberration I’ll have to get used to or learn to ignore. And being human, I’m sure I will.
The mesa stands as a natural cairn, more fantastic than any human could envision with its sacrifices to gravity gathered along its sides. The natural and human earthwork of the last century has been shaped to fit the view, wearing well its coverings of grass and vegetation. The sun still reflects off the foothills, the yellow grass still frames the valley, and the mesas still stand, dwarfing our attempts to say, “I exist; see me; I was here.”