Ever since contemporary society had its recent head-on collision with biology, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of the public realm, something that Charles Moore often wrote about, starting with his landmark 1965 essay “You Have to Pay for the Public Life.” I think about the enormous sacrifices we are all rendering together, now that the entirety of our public realm has gone into suspended animation. I recall when I once had to have general anesthesia, how everything went utterly blank and black. But upon awakening from the propanol, how astonishing it was that reality blinked back into focus so sharply, so instantaneously, as though my consciousness crystallized from total void to pure clarity, just with the flick of a switch.
I hope something like that happens for our society and economy soon. But I gather the transition will be more gradual, even grudging and frustrating.
When I was suddenly confronted with continuing the Foundation’s work within this stasis, I started by making a giant graphic map of all the candidate projects that could keep me busy, alongside the daily tasks to foster the little community of designers and artists who also inhabit this place. A long list of projects rapidly coalesced, which I rated according to cascading criteria. What projects would require no income or expense, since my payroll would also be inert for who-knows-how-long? What ones would require materials and tools already on hand, so that I could avoid the temptation of venturing out unnecessarily to the hardware store? What pursuits would be most worthy of the precious time with which I’ve been suddenly endowed? And perhaps above all, what projects could sustain me psychologically — preserve my state of mind — and keep me from obsessing over The New York Times breaking news and maps of red dots menacing our geographies?
Three projects rose to the top.
Given how I’m to be cooped up here, what better project could there be than to catalog Charles Moore’s massive Folk Art & Toy collection, a project I’ve long wanted to do, but whose sheer magnitude always seemed too daunting. I dove right in by developing an efficient work flow, not unlike a Henry Ford production line.
Moving wall-to-wall, shelf-to-shelf, I carry the folk art to a work table outside. There I use an exquisitely engineered German Festool dust collector to carefully clean each piece, being careful not to vacuum off any ears or finials. Next I photograph the object in a light tent, making sure to document all sides in sharp focus. After congregating fraternal pieces into family groups, I enter each piece into a relational database. When I return the objects to a shelf, but often in a new location, it surprises me how simple changes in arrangement and juxtaposition can allow one to see art in entirely new ways. Finally, I post pieces I am unable to identify on Instagram (@charlesmoorecollection) so friends, colleagues, and even helpful strangers can offer clues about their origins.
Time, quiet, and solitude are a writer’s necessities and privileges. (I’ve always identified with Thomas Merton, who felt isolation in a rural Kentucky monastery was not quite enough to work on his books; he further retreated, for years on end, to his own individual hermitage deeper in the encompassing forest.) This quarantine has provided valuable time to work on a book I’ve long nudged closer to a reality, one about Charles Moore’s very first house he designed for himself in 1962. Known as Orinda House (Orinda is the sunny little California town over the hill from Berkeley), the house is published in just about every history of American architecture, never mind how small and insignificant it appears at first glance, only 320 inches on each side, and how little it cost to build, roughly $5,000.
Coming on the heels of Moore’s time with Louis Kahn at Princeton, the house is at once monumental but fundamentally sheltering, rigorous but casual, a poetic statement about dwelling, struck with changing light that seeps in through a monitor at the top to slide down interior canopies held aloft by clusters of timber columns rescued from an abandoned San Francisco pasta factory. It is an astonishing house, really the first project where Charles Moore condensed and brought into focus many of his fecund ideas. I think this book is important to write, not just because many people seem to misunderstand Moore’s work, but the house no longer exists. After he left California for Connecticut in 1965, subsequent owners started changing and expanding the house. Today it is unrecognizable.
My third project is our landscape. Fortunately, just before our new reality of sheltering-in-place was cast upon us, we had just completed our biggest set of architectural preservation projects, including the replacement of the entire, wanderingly complex roof, which required many workers to be coming and going. Paying attention to the grounds now seems perfect since I would only need simple tools and no workers; not to mention there has been plenty of fine, cool weather.
Many have watched with dismay how our climate has shifted for the past 25 years, with longer, hotter, and drier summers altering our landscapes. Throughout our neighborhood, we lost many Post Oaks and Shumard Oaks to stress and fungal disease brought on by irregular weather patterns and drought. Previous owners of our site planted a virtual mono-culture of Post Oaks, a species the superb arborist Don Gardner explained to me are not suited for Austin, situated as we are beyond the western fringe of the tree’s natural domain. Over the past several years, having watched many of our Post Oaks succumb to disease, I have diversified the site across genera and species, in the hope that this new generation of trees might not be so vulnerable to sudden extirpation by a single pathogen.
Through experimentation, I settled on a palette of Live Oak, Burr Oak, Chinquapin Oak, Cedar Elm, and American Elm, a variety of trees that seem most content here. I also replaced fruit trees in the orchard with a grid of 20 olive trees. They shrug off the blazing sun and heat, plus abide our occasional freeze. The arrival of the coronavirus coincided with spring, the perfect time to thoroughly prune all of the trees, to encourage and shape new growth.
I’ve also long labored to transform what had been an acre of thirsty St. Augustine lawn into a meadow. But making a meadow, I’ve learned, is easier written than done! What could be a less capital intensive project that simply weeding? Obligingly moist soil has finally allowed me to clear abundant, stubborn swaths of wild carrot and bedstraw before they flower and produce next season’s seeds, clearing the way for autumn when I will sow native grasses and wildflowers.
Our greatest foe, however, is the noxious invasive weed Cat’s Claw, Dolichandra unguis-cati. The botanist Alwyn Gentry described this plant scientifically in 1973 during an expedition to South American neo-tropical jungles. (Tragically, he perished on a subsequent trip when he crashed his small aircraft into a cloud-cloaked, Ecuadorian mountainside.) How this plant got to Austin is anyone’s guess, but I rue its introduction. The plant spreads as a dense ground cover, reproducing itself effortlessly through snaking rhizomes across wide areas. Thick tuber-like roots provide starchy energy storage, so if the top part of the plant is merely lopped off, it defiantly sprouts again. Whenever the plant somehow senses a vertical scaffolding upon which it may climb, it transforms into a rope-like vine with trios of claws that are the botanical equivalents of grappling hooks. Vines swiftly shoot up walls and fences, but worst of all, girdle and ascend into trees toward the sunlight, which when reached triggers yellow trumpet flowers to disseminate countless airborne seeds. I’ve seen fully mature trees fatally engulfed.
I spend many hours digging out these tubers, one by one, yanking the twisting vines from oaks and elms (I’d like to imagine they are grateful), and even carefully administering small doses of herbicide to roots that cannot be reasonably excavated. Beating back this invasive weed, which spreads so clandestinely and mercilessly and unhaltingly, somehow feels right and satisfying these days.