Today Amie and I had planned to go on the first leg of the Energy Exodus march, but a nasty and (f0r me) unusual allergy attack had me up till 4 am, when I caved and finally took that Benadryl. I never take those because they knock me out completely. I woke up late, still drowsy, and told Amie we wouldn’t be going. She was disappointed. She really wanted to march and say her piece. We had made a great sign for her to hold:


The Exodus is a five-day walk, though, so we’ll try to hop on in the middle, or meet them at the end.

In between sniffles, relishing the cleansing sweat in the hot sun, I watered the thirsty garden (by hand; the irrigating tote has been empty for a while now). I also put the two poor pullets back into their little coop. The poor things were exhausted from hiding in dear and being pecked on, and then when one broke an egg they were so hungry – the hens hadn’t allowed them to eat much – they went for it. Not a good thing! Maybe I set them back to square one by pulling them out, but perhaps they just need to put on a little more weight. We’ll see.

Back inside Amie and I turned to her old school backpack. It’s the one she used the year before last year, a hand-me-down that is still in very good shape. Amie wanted “something new,” though, so we decided to decorate it. She made the designs and we applied our considerable sewing skills (ahem) to it. At first she wanted to keep the brand name visible, but when we talked about how it is now really her backpack, she asked to cover it up. Voila, debranded!


She is so proud of it. As she sewed, she kept chattering about how her friends will be SO AMAZED. They’d better be!



On this rainy day, reading Thompson’s Growth and Form (“Nature works true to scale, and everything has its proper size accordingly”) while  listening to Beethoven’s Seventh, second movement (Allegretto) over and over again and sipping sumptuous kombucha tea (I’m getting the hang of it). All three are sumptuous, of course, but one is cerebral, the other mournful, and the other playful.


Back to patterns! Having a plan for the slope has re-opened my mind for the immediate front: the balcony, the level stretch of garden up top, the top of the driveway. This is what it looks like right now:



I already analyzed one of the more general  problems: the negativity of this space. There are some more specific patterns that can be applied, or rather, actualized here to address that. Let’s start with the patterns that apply to approaching, entering, arriving and leaving. Alexander write: “The process of arriving in a house, and leaving it, is fundamental to our daily lives” (p.554). The first pattern is this:

 110. Main Entrance: Place the main entrance of the building at a point where it can be seen immediately from the main avenues of approach and give it a bold, visible shape which stands out in front of the building.

At our place the problem is not so much the lack of an obvious entrance, but a confusion between two entrances. At the moment there is only one way to approach our house, which is the driveway, and upon that approach you see the mudroom door and the “official” front door on the “balcony”.


As the “official” front door leads straight into the living room, we prefer to use the mudroom door when it is cold, rains or snows. The mudroom has room for boots, umbrellas and coats and acts like a sluice, keeping the cold out. But when it’s warm we usually leave the front door open, with a screened door that allows light into the dark corner of the living room. Needless to say, in all but the situation when there is uncleared snow on the path and the balcony steps (as in the picture), visitors are confused: which door to use? Idea:  make it so that in summer and fair weather the “official” front door seems the way to go, and that in all other situations the visitor is directed to the mudroom.

But first, what to do with each of these entrances?  I’d like to apply to them the following three patterns:


112. Entrance Transition: Make a transition space between the street and the front door. Bring the path which connects street and entrance through this transition space, and mark it with a change of light, of sound, of direction, a change of surface, of level, perhaps by gateways which make a change of enclosure, and above all with a change of view.  

130. Entrance Room: Arriving in a building, or leaving it, you need a room to pass through, both inside the building and outside it. This is the entrance room.

160. Building Edge: A building is most often thought of as something which turns inward- towards its rooms. People do not often think of a building as something which must also be oriented toward the outside. But unless the building is oriented towards the outside, which surrounds it, as carefully and positively as towards its inside, the space around the building will be socially isolated, because you have to cross a no-man’s land to get to it. Make sure that you treat the edge of the building as a “thing”, a “place”, a zone with volume to it, not a line or interface which has no thickness. Crenelate the edge of buildings with places that invite people to stop. Make places that have depth and a covering, places to site, lean, and walk, especially at those points along the perimeter which look onto interesting outdoor life.

The mudroom fully embodies the Entrance Room pattern: it is inside the house but also feel like outside, as it is unheated and full of outdoorsy things. The visitor can’t see this, however, from the outside. In order to draw him with the promise of a Transition to the inside, we could place a trellis above the door and grow a vine on it. This would also nail Building Edge, change that transition from a mere line into a place.

The front door satisfies none of these patterns.  You walk  through and you abruptly find yourself in  the living room. This is the case in many ranches, and I don’t understand why any architect or homeowner thinks this is appropriate. It’s disconcerting for everyone!  The line between inside and outside here is filter thin, not a place at all. The tiny balcony and the roof above it are not deep enough to create volume.

This is an area that has fantastic potential!

First let’s deepen the balcony. Alexander points out that any balcony that is less than six feet deep will not be used (Pattern 167. Six-foot balcony), and here we have an example if that. It is a mere 2 1/2 feet deep and no one ever wants to sit there. Let’s knock away the surrounding brick wall and add another five feet to the surface. Depending on what material we use, we can make it straight or rounded (think adobe!). We can forego a wall altogether and make it accessible by a step or two, all around.

But this place would be too hot in the Summer, as it’s south. So let’s make it into an Outdoor Room.

patt163163. Outdoor Room. Build a place outdoors which has so much enclosure round it, that it takes on the feeling of a room, even though it is open to the sky. To do this, define it at the corners with columns, perhaps roof it partially with trellis or a sliding canvas roof, create “walls” around it, with fences, sitting walls, screens, hedges, or the exterior walls of the building itself.

Let’s add a wooden pillar and beam structure around and over it, on which we grow grapes and other deciduous vines. The bare vines will allow the much needed sunlight to enter the living room in winter but the leafy canopy will shade the balcony in summer. And they grow food too (permaculture: stack functions)! The rest of the enclosure will be done with potted figs and other plants, benches, a hammock. Let’s fill this new space with all manner of places to sit, sleep, work and play in the sun, in the shade.

This will also bring to life Pattern 168, which to me is one of the most important patterns:

168. Connection to the Earth. A house feels isolated from the nature around it, unless its floors are interleaved directly with the earth that is around the house. Connect the building to the earth around it by building a series of paths and terraces and steps around the edge. Place them deliberately to make the boundary ambiguous.


This will draw us outside, to the blueberry patch, the espaliered pear tree, the path to the vegetable garden and the apiary to the right. To the left it will draw us to the pond and the dwarf orchard. To the front it will draw us to the slope with its berry bushes and trees. This is really only possible if we get that slope planted: there can be glimpses of conviviality from the street, but there must also be privacy. And even in winter it will draw us out by the eye. When standing in front of the big living room picture window, we won’t be stopped short. One more bonus: that continuation on the same level outside it will make the living room seem bigger and, depending on the material we use, it will absorb the light and heat of the sun in winter and reflect that into the living room.



Back to our original question: how to decide the visitor’s question which door to choose? When we’re done both will stand out and look inviting? I don’t have an answer yet. Maybe it will come when we look through the  patterns at the next area: the driveway and the car place.


I got Christopher Alexander(’s A Pattern Language from the library a few days back and am just blown away by it. This man had such humble, democratic insights into the task of the architect and a real feel for natural, beautiful,  human and humane living spaces. His book first proposes patterns for building cities, towns, neighborhoods. About the latter, we writes:

14. People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to.

You can see that I devoured this because there is so much there for the Transition worker. Then it continues on to groups of buildings, houses and gardens, rooms (indoor and outdoor), alcoves, seats… smaller and smaller. Here’s one of my favorite patterns, one that, now that I have tended the fire for over three year, makes me nod and smile:

181. The Fire: There is no substitute for fire.

Alexander stresses the communal aspect of fire as he does for all his patterns. The patterns are always in service of people-living-together, whether in towns, neighborhoods, houses, room and gardens. It is about people of all ages, communing, playing, celebrating, working and learning together, letting each other into their lives and homes, and about the privacy and solitude that a social human being also craves. Another favorite,

94. Sleeping in public: It is a mark of success in a park, public lobby or a porch, when people can come there and fall asleep.


(A friend remarked that this is what gets you arrested these days, “for breathing while homeless,” then asked if he should get off his soap box. I said: “If your soap box isn’t comfortable enough to sleep on/in…”)

It’s no wonder that this Pattern Language is used in Permaculture design: it is all about niches for humans in society, built environments and nature, with a minimum of competition and a maximum of cooperation and joy. Published in 1977, the book is at times old-fashioned when it deals with materials and technologies, but it is for the most part timeless. And as an object it feels good: heavy in a handy way, 1171 thin, crackling pages, like a Bible, or the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, and of course I got it for my library. This website has all the patterns in their sequence if you want to explore.


What I am most interested in at this point is invitations.  How do you make a place inviting to potential visitors and even to the people who live there? That someone owns a place or works in one, that he walks in and out every day, doesn’t automatically mean they were invited in. The majority of buildings we live and work in are dead to some degree that no rugs or framed prints can make them alive. What to do with these buildings that already exist?

Alexander’s architecture is democratic: he wants the average person to be able to build, and rebuild.  His solutions are small ones, though they are not to be confused with easy ones, like the facile throw of a rug or the hanging whatever print is trendy – for those, consult Cosmopolitan or Martha Stewart. Alexander’s solution do require work, that is, thought and labor.  Raising pillars, creating ceiling vaults (with burlap!) and building bed nooks require tools (hammers, nails, hands), resources and some handiness. And often times it is clear that he takes it for granted that one person can’t do this: to reclaim our buildings from cheap functionality or cold self-aggrandizing, it takes a village…

There are some good things about our 1200 sq.f. 1950s ranch: it’s small and compact and by some lucky stroke it faces mostly south and the chimney runs down the middle of the house. But it’s so boxy and straight! I marvel at the lack of organic fluidity – no wonder I love my pudgy wood stove with its rounded corners. Slowly I will start working on this, rounding my house. But first, I want to make it more inviting.


105. South Facing Outdoors: People use open space if it is sunny, and do not use it if it isn’t, in all but desert climates.

This is perhaps the most important single fact about a building. If the building is placed right, the building and its garden will be happy places full of activity and laughter. If it is done wrong, then all the attention in the world, and the most beautiful details, will not prevent it from being a silent gloomy place. [...] Always place buildings to the north of the outdoor spaces that go with them, and keep the outdoor spaces to the south. Never leave a deep band of shade between the building and the sunny part of the outdoors.


We do well by this pattern. Our house faces more or less south and it has a large stretch of land in front of it. We have a large stretch in the back as well and that is sunny too, since we have only a one story house which doesn’t cast much shade.


Nevertheless my observation over the last four years is that we hang out almost exclusively in the back. In the back is the screened-in porch (where we sometimes eat dinner), the paved  patio (more meals under the umbrella, grilling, and summer carpentry work), the small lawn (ripped up by too much badminton) and beyond that, at the edge of the trees, Amie’s play house. To the right is the shed and the kiwi trellis, which invites you to the chicken coop and the wood piles in the east. To the left, in the welcome shade and between the rampant hostas, are the rain barrels, and then, around the corner of the house  lies the vegetable garden to the west. All around the edge of all this activity is a rim of towering, mature oak and pine. Beyond our property line in the north there is a narrow wooded stretch of conservation land and then it goes down the wooded hill. We spot the lights of our neighbors down there only in winter when the trees are leafless.

All our outdoor activity then, all our play, work and food, happens in back.  None of it up front. When we come up from the street, either walking or driving up the driveway, we head inside or around back immediately. Most plants grown up front get watered last or are downright neglected. The two rain barrels I had up front are used last. I’ve written about the challenge of this area before.


view south-west from our living room window

When it’s warm we keep the “official” front door from our balcony straight into our living room open, but that and this view out the window is about all the interaction we have with that huge stretch of property south of us. Why is that?  It has to do, in part, with pattern 106.


106. Outdoor spaces which are merely “left over” between buildings will, in general, not be used.

There are two fundamentally different kinds of outdoor space: negative space and positive space. Outdoor space is negative when it is shapeless, the residue left behind when buildings – which are generally viewed as positive – are placed on the land. An outdoor space is positive when it has a distinct and definite shape, as definite as the shape of a room, and when its shape is as important as the shapes of the buildings which surround it.  [...] Negative spaces are so poorly defined that you cannot really tell where their boundaries are, and to the extent that you can tell, the shapes are nonconvex. [...] Make all the outdoor spaces which surround and lie between buildings positive. Give each some degree of enclosure; surround each space with wings of buildings, trees hedges, arcades and trellised walks, until it becomes an entity with a positive quality and does not spill out indefinitely around corners.


All the positive space on our property is behind the house, where one has a feeling of safe and well-defined enclosure by shed, planters and trellis, treeline and fence lined by berry bushes. The space in the front of the house on the contrary is ill-defined.


Upon approach up the driveway a large asphalt circle opens up with to the left the bisection of the property by the long, straight length of the house. Turn west and in front of the house is an open space hardly dissected by an amorphous medicinal flower bed, a weedy slope downward with toward more weeds, some trees along side. The only things that draw your eye when you’re up near the front are the three beehive boxes to the west.


When you look up at our house on the hill from the street the negative aspect of this space is even more evident:


It looks better in Spring, like this:


Still, this picture is a case in point, as the only time we actually get to enjoy this view is when we walk down there to take a picture. The solution, then, is to turn all this wasted space into positive space by giving it more definition, by dividing it up and enclosing it with soft edges punctured with inviting gateways and entrances. How we’ll do that involves some more patterns.

Last session Amie also took classes with my fabulous pottery teacher, Lisa Dolliver. These are some of the pieces she made:

The unicorn is a piggy bank. At the moment it has a clay blue heart sitting in its slot. Aren’t they lovely?

That, by the way, is a Go board: DH and Amie are learning the game together. Amie has quite the knack for it, and loves it. The read the book and play at least two games every night.

These are my pots.

I was very productive: three small plates, three medium ones, one vase, two soup bowls, one tumbler (pic below), and two large bowls, the largest pieces I’ve ever thrown, but I needed help from Lisa to do it. As you can see if you compare with previous sessions, I’ve found a pattern in the glazing. The idea is to make a dinner set. Also to take the pressure off me when glazing – I don’t like glazing much.

They stack up!

Change of plans! This poem will not be our friend’s birthday poem after all.

So it is going out to someone else, with the following ink and water color painting by Pinka Das, from Kolkata, India.

The inkling

Some things just must be said

Some things just say themselves

If only for a mouth

I just need to sit here and watch the fire

And know it

That it works and has worked for all time

That it is showing itself

And I would be an oracle for it

Is that what we are

The ones who can say it poetically

And once we have said it

Are we done here?

Yesterday I went to my teacher, Lisa Dolliver’s annual show. After wowing all the pottery on display and making a small purchase I picked up the small, heavy box with my name on it. It contained the pots I made during the last session. The session before that had been cancelled so these pots were made after a long hiatus, but that didn’t slow me down.

I made an astonishing fourteen pieces (incl the two lids). I remember bringing home the pots from my first session, all seven of them. Two are missing – didn’t make it into the kiln on time.

Here they are, group picture:

These three and their lids were thrown off the hump, wherein you stick a large amount of clay to the wheel and only center, then throw the upper part into a pot. Then you cut it off and work at the next layer. It’s a large and fast production technique of throwing.

I don’t much like this “vase”. The foot came out too clunky, but it was interesting to carve out.

Poem 2 in the 350 poem project was sent on its way on 5 June and must have arrived at its destination (or I wouldn’t post it here!). I’ve not received any poems back as yet, but it’s early days yet.

This poem too was sent on its way on the back of a stunning art work by Pinaki Das, a Calcutta artist.

And I am here

and the everflowing Now

is in me

wishing I would

let go of it

but I want to continue

the even keel

on the free rudder

stay with me

we’re going somewhere