Where We Live
Last week, a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers landed in the dogwood tree outside my shop, and the effortless way they seemed to belong there got me to thinking about environment. Surroundings.
My son, when he was half grown, defined himself – and quite proudly, I might add – by the mess he lived in; being “laid back” and “cool” required piles of dirty clothes on the floor and mysterious green things growing under his bed. Most of us, though, have a certain degree of cleanliness as part of our definition of ourselves. Beyond that, however, how we create our environment ranges from Spartan to Baroque. We usually think of “environment” in terms of pure water, rain forests, and breathable air, but we really spend most of our time in our homes and our offices (or in my case, in my dusty shop) – and these walls, and their contents, create our daily environment.
And our environment is what makes us feel comfortable, even if we aren’t consciously aware of that. Our concept of space is part of this, as is the way we respond to colors, the degree of clutter we want or don’t want, and the sort of furniture we like. My mother had impeccable taste in furniture (I know because I made most of it), but she was quite content to surround herself with stacks and piles of this and that, books and magazines, junk mail and catalogs, things to be mended, things to be given away, and things to be considered later.
But perhaps growing up in that sort of environment made tight places tolerable for me. I spent some time in the submarine services, and, years later, when I took my wife to tour a sub, she fled in claustrophobic terror. I like miniature things; she likes large-scale things – seven-foot wardrobes, massive beds, and me – a large-scale cabinetmaker.
Does looking at a picture of a Victorian parlor, decked out in heavy, carved furniture, swagged with fringed throws, with every surface covered by plants and pictures and gee-gaws, give you the heebie-jeebies? Then you’d like something between what the antique dealers call “country” and the smooth lines of Queen Anne. Does the vision of a Shaker room, with one plain table in the center of the room, six simple chairs hung on the wall, and a small black stove in the corner, make you feel lost and unanchored? Then you need the coziness of a warm rug and pieces with a bit of personality around the room to secure your space.
We all know colors affect our moods, even if we aren’t aware of it: blue is serene, red is stimulating, and pale green is the ubiquitous non-threatening color so common that we assume we are in an institution when we see it. The Fifties were beige, the Sixties were off-white or psychedelic, the Seventies were pastel and earthy, the Eighties were experimental accent colors, the Nineties were retro blue denim, and the first decade of this millennium swung madly between hot reds and shades of turquoise. How do you pick the colors you live with? Decorating magazines? Colors that don’t show the kids’ finger smudges? My wife says she’s always wanted a wildly red bedroom, but she’s never had nerve enough to paint one red. “It might make one read the wrong books,” she says. I have, um, refrained from comment.
What is it that goes into the psyche of an antique lover? An anchoring, perhaps, to the past, to the belief that in our fast-flowing world something, at least, can be stable and permanent. Rock walls have that same effect in a garden. Practically speaking, antiques and handmade furniture survive both floods and children – children being the more exacting test – with panache and patina, given a little love and care. Most folk who collect antiques fear neither floods nor children, so their attachment must be love rather than practicality. People who collect antiques, or art furniture, or order custom furniture, know their personal environment needs very well.
I am writing this from my workbench, an uneven surface for writing, and the light coming over my shoulder is seriously dimmed by dust covering the window panes. I could be writing in the house, at a mahogany desk. Perhaps I don’t have this personal environment thing figured out after all.