Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Photo Essay: How Bellfounding Helped Build an Unfinished Utopia

I knew about the bells, but only tangentially. I'd never encountered them in person, never heard their din or ding or clatter or cacophony.

I didn't know how musical they'd be.

I've kind of got a thing for bells—church bells and liberty bells and sleigh bells, not to mention bell towers, carillons, and chime towers.

So, while I was in Phoenix for a wedding, I wanted to see how Paolo Soleri's bells were made at his Cosanti studio in Paradise Valley.

Normally, you can take a tour and see a foundry demonstration, but as it was Memorial Day, the studio was open to visitors but had suspended any other programming.

So, I looked around, took some photos, and rang some bells.

Bell design and fabrication wasn't Soleri's first love...

...but his output became so popular that the endeavor funded his true passion, architecture.

Well, not exactly architecture in the traditional sense, but a kind of earth-conscious, experimental bent on building that he called "arcology."

And while the structures at Cosanti Originals give a glimpse into that ecologically utopian built environment that Soleri dreamed of, the only way to truly experience it is to visit his "city"-in-the-making, Arcosanti.

Never one to be satisfied with just a passing encounter, I booked a tour and a room to spend the night.

Located in the Sonoran Desert about an hour north of Phoenix, Arcosanti is a world away.

Born and accredited in Italy, Soleri apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen West in Scottsdale and Talisen in Wisconsin. But then, upon his return to Arizona, he took Wright's concept of organic architecture and, with it, made a sharp left turn.

And in 1970, he began his experiments in urban planning and living—with, in true FLW style, the help of a number of apprentices and interns who were there to learn from the master.

Originally intended to house 5000 people, it hasn't gotten anywhere close to that—and the extant structures are so old (some nearly 50 years) that most of the incoming funds have to be allocated to maintenance, upkeep, and repairs.

The buildings that have cropped up on the compound are weird and wondrous, to say the least.

It makes you wonder whether they're conversation-starters for the students who've been continuing Soleri's legacy since his passing in 2013—a way to break the ice and inspire them way beyond what they'd ever learn in architecture school.

The structures look somewhat Brutalist (or even Communist), but the philosophy behind them is far kindler and gentler.

It's about maximizing city living while minimizing the impact on the environment—not necessarily to escape urbanity, per se, but do embrace it without sucking the life out of the land it's built upon or its denizens.

The first structure to be built at Arcosanti was the South Vault, at the top of the hill...

...featuring precast panels made of silt and colored in the mixture rather than being painted later.

It's now the centerpiece of a prototype of how a dense population could live together in a smallish space, walking everywhere they need to go and abandoning their driving habits.

Sunlight abounds, especially with the quarter-sphere semi-domes built for ceramics and bronze-casting.

Natural methods are used to heat and cool the residences, including harnessing the greenhouse effect and taking advantage of the late-day breezes and microclimates that occur on the property.

As daylight waned after taking the last tour of the day, it was time to retire to "Camp"—a motel-style row of a dozen rooms with concrete floors and huge picture windows looking out at the mesa.

When you spend the night at Arcosanti, you can roam about the property as you please without a guide and observe how the light and shadows change the arches and crescents and circles and spheres. In the summer, it's quiet—it could accommodate as many as 500 people, but it doesn't.

Not yet, anyway.

But the people who do share the space are convivial, sharing cafeteria-style meals in the dining hall and leaving their doors and windows open for the breeze, the view, the socializing, and of course the windbells.

I hoped to encounter one of the critters the staff had warned me about, though I shut my door tightly when I went to bed, as instructed. I heard neither scratching nor roars, only the pitiful cry of a peacock, looking for a partner, long as the night wore on.

To me, this was the opposite of futurism—a way of stepping back in time when earthen materials (mud, adobe) were all you had to choose from, and you couldn't go very far for any other supplies.

Will we ever return to those days? Sometimes it seems like we've passed the point of no return.

And we seem to have given up on any inkling of utopia, too. It's just became... passé.

Maybe we've just gotten too used to being miserable, we've given up on ourselves and the planet, and we've got to just make peace with what we've got.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Design of Living at A-Z West
Photo Essay: Under a Desert Dome
Photo Essay: Llano Del Rio Company Colony, Abandoned

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

I Dream About Sleeping

In my dreams, I sleep.

I wake up, but I'm still asleep.

And sometimes I don't know what's a dream or a dream-within-a-dream.

I sleep behind the wheel.

I sleep on benches.

I sleep at bars and in classrooms and at work.

When I wake up, it's dark. And I wonder where the time went.

It even happens during a daytime nap.

The people in my dreams let me sleep. No one tries to wake me up. And I wonder why, both during my dream and when I wake up for real.

I sleep hard in my dreams—harder than I ever actually sleep. It may be the most restful rest I ever get.

And when I wake up in my dreams, I feel the sleep hanging over me, trying to suck me back in.

I have a hard time staying awake in my dreams. I have a hard time keeping my eyes open in my dreams. I'm often falling backwards in my dreams.

Do I dream while I dream? I'm not sure. I'm not even sure I'm actually dreaming when I'm dreaming.

I harbor grudges the morning after.

I have déjà vu. I dream the future.

Sometimes I know I'm dreaming, and I can let go of the stress or the anxiety of whatever's happening, because it's very clear that I haven't actually, say, lost my purse. I'll wake up eventually.

But when I'm sleeping in my dreams, I don't know that I'm not actually sleeping.

Except I am.

I see things in my dreams. I remember things in my dreams. But sometimes they feel like other people's experiences and other people's memories.

Even when they're happening.

Sometimes, when I wake up in my bed in the middle of the night or the morning, I think I may have just spent some time living someone else's life instead of dreaming.

There's no way to know for sure.

But it makes sense—since that other person has to sleep, too.

It just so happens that they tend to sleep at the most inconvenient times and places.

And they can't hold onto me for long—because I end up getting sucked back into this so-called reality, in this supposedly "real" corporeal self.

But maybe right now, I'm just taking a break from some other person—the one who's really real. And I just don't remember it while I'm here.

Perhaps I'll never know.

I do know, however, that the answers aren't in my dreams. Every time I dream, it just complicates matters further.

I guess I shouldn't complain. Any sleep is good, no matter how I get it.

Even if it's inside of some other reality.

Related Posts:
That Which Haunts Me
Under a Sleepy Surveillance

Monday, June 4, 2018

Photo Essay: The Trash Castle Built Under Consumption

Photo: Michael and Sherry Martin (via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

When you take a tour of the Mystery Castle in Phoenix, the narrative focuses mostly on Mary Lou Gulley, the woman who lived there until her death in 2010. She was even the centerpiece of the 1948 LIFE magazine article that coined the term "Mystery Castle."

But what intrigued—and disturbed—me most about the story of this "castle" built out of reclaimed materials (though I've seen plenty of those in my travels) was the story of its builder, Mary Lou's father, Boyce Luther Gulley.

Mr. Gulley was a family man living in Seattle when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis (a.k.a "consumption"). The diagnosis, in his mind, posed an ultimatum.

He could either stay with his family, possibly infecting them, and definitely subjecting them to witness his slow demise, or he could move to and quarantine himself in Arizona without word. Of course, he hoped to recuperate, but if he didn't, at least he would spare his family the infection.

He chose the latter.

But after spending some time in Arizona (as many tubercular patients did), he felt much better (as many also did)...

...at one point hearing from his doctor that he was in full remission.

But instead of notifying his family with the good news...

...he settled down in Arizona...

...traveled to Mexico...

...bringing back various Aztec bric-a-brac and tiles that he'd collected there.

While in Arizona, Gulley scoured the local dump and factories for industrial waste to use as building materials, like slag glass and "clinker" bricks that had been overfired by the brickmaker.

The story goes that Gulley the father had promised his daughter Mary Lou when she was just five years old that one day he'd build her a castle—and so, supposedly, he was living up to his promise.

But his daughter and wife whom he'd abandoned had no clue he was alive and well 1500 miles away.

And for the 15 years that it took him to build Mary Lou's "castle" out of recycled and discarded materials, he didn't bother to tell them what he was up to.

That is, until he relapsed with a worse-than-ever bout of tuberculosis.

He ended up deeding the house to Mary Lou, who was notified after his death—and, while she and her mother at first wanted no part of it, they were sucked in by a clause that Daddy Gulley had included in the inheritance.

Mary Lou had to wait three years before she could open a trap door in the floor in a room called "Purgatory," situated between the "chapel" and the "dungeon" areas of the castle.

So, she lived there with three years with her mom and fell in love with the place.

It didn't take much convincing for her to stay and make it her own, once she'd opened the vault and found some cash and letters inside.

Besides, she'd already found coins and gold hidden in various places in the walls.

And after the notoriety she received after being profiled by LIFE, she began giving tours of the so-called "Mystery Castle" in 1948 and continued to do so until her death in 2010.

Now, thanks to a non-profit organization and volunteer docents, visitors can still see the furniture that Mr. Gulley had gotten from the "House of Joy" brothel in Jerome...

...and the cat pillows that Mary Lou had placed on top of them.

She had a cat pillow problem, in fact, compounded by her collection of "pet rocks"—also mostly painted like cats.

Did she forgive her father in the end? Or was she merely complicit in his deceit?

Perhaps she just made the most out of a bad situation, capitalizing on the little but of local celebrity status she could muster after having her heart shattered by an absentee father.

He had a choice. His family eventually found out he was still alive and wrote him letters. He never responded.

He built a playroom for his daughter in his castle, but didn't divulge its whereabouts until she was way too old to use it.

That makes it tough for me to celebrate his "artistry."

In my mind, he was just a selfish guy wit a pile of rocks.

And maybe that's why the tour doesn't focus too much on him.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Rubel's Castle, Glendora
Photo Essay: Nitt Witt Ridge, One Man's Castle

Sunday, June 3, 2018

An Elephant Gets a Bath

Photo via Pixabay (Creative Commons CC0)

If you were to give an elephant a bath, it would be quite the undertaking.

Of course, in the wild, an elephant can bathe herself, perhaps rolling around in mud and using her trunk to wash it off her back.

But on the occasion that she might submit to being given a bath—or somehow be forced into the proposition, as in captivity—she'd stand or lie there as you hosed her down, huffing and puffing over the task, wiping your brow and shaking your head at the magnitude of it all.

She'd hold steady as you patted her backside, maybe a little too aggressively, as you would with a dog or even a horse who kind of likes it rough.

An elephant, however, is a gentle and sensitive beast. Her skin may be thick and tough, but some parts are paper-thin—and no matter where you touch her, she can feel your exasperation.

She doesn't understand what you're saying, but she knows you don't enjoy the work.

Maybe she's even ashamed. This is no day at the spa for her—at best, it's a trip through the car wash.

If you were bathing an elephant, though, you wouldn't expect her to do anything but submit and obey. You would rinse her off completely, not send her off to do it herself and then, when she hadn't reached all the farthest spots sufficiently, parade her on a walk of shame to go back and do it over again.

You would understand that elephants can be quite large, and their size isn't funny. No elephant wants to be the butt of your jokes for something she can't control.

The elephant may not understand the exact origin of your humor, but she understands body language, and she knows when it's mocking her.

She may mimic you, but it's only to bond with you.

She feels deeply—both grief and rage. Perhaps she grieves her dignity... and rages at disrespect.

But you expect her to be silent all the same.

She'll live as long as you. Her brain is structured similarly to yours. And maybe one day, she'll enact her revenge.

She can learn how to solve problems, even when her problem is you.

But make no mistake—these aren't her instincts. She wasn't born knowing how to fight to survive. You've taught her this, with every bath you've given her.

Related Posts:
In Captivity
Casting My Fears Aside

A Tough Shell to Crack

When you buy mass-produced oranges, tangerines, and other citrus fruit of the ilk, they're pretty easy to peel.

But there's a reason for that: They've been bred that way.

Naturally, without human intervention, the peel and its pith are steadfast to protect the fruit and seeds inside—and thus, to ensure the survival of the species.

If it's too easy to eat in the wild, it won't have enough time to repopulate.

So its natural defenses are the strongest ones, and humankind's agricultural and bioengineering practices have weakened them, because the average human consumer is lazy and doesn't want to have to spend too much time—or waste both hands—peeling the rind away.

All we know is that the pith is bitter and annoying. We can't even be bothered to spit out the seeds.

The closest correlate in the animal kingdom is perhaps the incredible, edible egg.

Store-bought chicken eggs are incredibly easy to crack on the side of a mixing bowl or along the edge of a pan. When you soft- or hard-boil them, their shells might resist a little if you don't know where the one vulnerable spot is (that is, the one end of the egg with the air pocket).

Occasionally, the eggshell will flake off in little bits until you're able to pierce the two surprisingly strong membranes that separate the shell from the albumen (a.k.a. the egg white). And that's just a glimpse of how eggs were actually designed to protect the baby birds inside.

Of course, the eggs we eat haven't been fertilized—yet even so, when you get an egg that's been laid by some heritage breed hen who lives and roams on a real farm and not a factory farm, and who eats maggots or snails instead of grain- and soy-based poultry feed, its shell is a tough one to crack, even when you bang it on the griddle or skillet.

You might break the shell itself, but as eggs are built to survive being sat on, falling out of a nest, escaping the clutches of a predator, and an overzealous chick trying to pip out too early, you've still got to get through those protective membranes to get to the edible part of the egg.

It takes a little more effort, but it pays off with the richness (and nutritiousness) of those eggs.

And you know what else? The yolks are almost never broken in the process.

I can't crack a white chicken egg into a pan without feeling crestfallen over the slow seepage of yellow into the white part. And that means I cannot for the life of me poach an egg at home, relegating me to a life sentence of scrambled and hardboiled eggs, for which keeping the yolks intact is not even a factor.

But the eggs of snail-fed, pasture-raised ducks, for instance, resist attack with amazing resilience.

Why do I care? Well, I think I've spent too much time trying to intervene on what nature originally intended for me.

I built up walls to show how tough I was, but that just made me the toughest nut to crack of all. Then, I tore all those walls down to leave myself vulnerable and open to what life has to offer.

But there are predators out there who will take advantage of that vulnerability. And we all need something to take the force of the blow.

So, maybe the key is to stop messing with nature and let those natural protections fall into place without artificial modifications to make you more accessible or acceptable.

Because those that try to thin out your pith and peel back your zest do it just to eat you alive.

And they don't want you to do anything but submit to their pressing thumbs and yield to their voracious appetites.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Lambing Season at Apricot Lane Farms
Living With the Terror

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Deciphering the Topiaries of Edna Scissorhands

I swear, sometimes I can't believe what Southern Californians do with their yards.

And with as many home haunts, sculpture gardens, and folk art environments as I've seen so far, I continue to be surprised.

Today, I found myself drawn to the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego for Harper's Topiary Garden.

It had been one of those crazy days when I'd driven two and a half hours to see one thing and planned to just turn around and go back home to my cat.

But after stopping for lunch, I wanted to squeeze one more sight in my seeing—and lo, there was the handiwork of Edna Harper, the self-proclaimed "Edna Scissorhands" (in a nod to the Tim Burton movie featuring the gentle, shear-handed monster named Edward).

Edna has maintained a menagerie of land animals, sea creatures, and human figures right there on the hillside of her front lawn since the mid-1990s...

...much to the enjoyment of the neighborhood and tourists alike.

Part of the fun of visiting is trying to discern what exactly you're looking at...

...whether it turns out to be a serpent...

...a playful pair of lovers...

...or a beached whale.

Whatever you think they are, Edna will tell you you're right. So, go ahead and let your imagination run wild, as though lying on a picnic blanket looking up at the clouds.

Just don't climb up through them or on top of them!

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Faces of Boulder Park 
Photo Essay: The Hollywood Sculpture Garden, Hidden in the Hills
Photo Essay: The Wall of Toys at the Garden of Oz