Friday, March 30, 2012

Roofs - March 30, 2012

All my childhood, my room had a window overlooking a tin roof (made of sealed together sheets of thin tin sheeting... not the corrugated tin roof you'd find on a shed, or a tropical home). So my memory of rain is associated with the tip-tapping of drops on metal. I'm very fond of the sound. I hope one day to live in a house with a standing-seam roof.

Having grown up in a modern home, I'm used to thinking of roofs as solid, impermeable protection against the elements, but it's only a couple hundred years since the typical home needed to include a place for the smoke from the open central fire to rise up and out. Not that space is necessarily a hole: the "blackhouses" of the Scottish highlands and islands depended on smoke leaking up through the heavy thatching to provide additional waterproofing.

My friend Gary has a tipi, which he has regularly brought out to the Renaissance Festival I've danced at off and on for 20+ years now. I've slept in it a few times, and it was rain that presented the worst problems... not from roof leakage, as there is a rain flap that protects the interior, but from trickles in on the ground.

I seem to be flailing a bit here. What strikes me about most roofs is that while there is a huge variety in form and material, there is one basic principle: slope for drainage. It's so obvious it hardly seems to bear notice, but all our tools for keeping the rain off share this basic principle: water falls, and when provided with a slope, it falls while moving horizontally in the direction.

I wonder how far back the first tool was made that took advantage of this? Although sheltering under trees (which drain under a similar priniciple) has been around as long as animals have wanted to avoid a drenching...

Friday, March 23, 2012

Indian garb - March 23, 2012

It's absolutely gorgeous weather here: spring breezes, dappled sun and cloud, highs around 70°F. Anya does not want to go inside once she's been out, and who can blame her. And it's a pleasure to walk her.

I've gotten a bit deeper into the book I mentioned in the previous post, Native American Clothing. here's what I'm finding:

1. Not directly related to the questions of weatherproofing I bring to the subject: a sense of dynamic shifting of cultures up to and through the European contact. Because there is such a persistent sense of "eternal" constancy before Europeans came, this is a really useful antidote: there was a civilizational shift in the 600-700 years before contact that was just as instability-inducing, if much less destructive: the introduction of corn agriculture and of Mississippian town-based social structure. The author in particular notes the spread of Mississippian villages in the river valleys up into the Plains in this time, creating a network of trade, which radically changed what had been a pretty bleak and isolated pattern of smaller nomadic groups who followed the buffalo year-round.

2. Also not directly related, but something I had never really gotten before: the Iroquois invasion of the southern Great Lakes in the late 17th century. This pushed not just the Huron (I knew about those) but a number of tribes, out of Michigan and the lands around Lakes Erie and Huron, leaving essentially empty land. The refugees piled in with existing groups in Wisconsin and Illinois, creating another major cultural shift: the Indians who fought Pontiac's War and later Tecumseh's war, were the product of a bunch of previously separated (and even competing) tribes, pushed together and forced to make peace among each other. The Calumet peace pipe ceremony originated here (well, it came from similar needs during the contact discussed in (1), actually).

3. As I said yesterday, one of the big surprises is, even in the north, Indians by and large wore a lot less clothing, and a lot looser clothing. The old pictures and movies, though they lie in many many ways, are spot on here: bare or barely-covered torsos were the norm. A robe in winter, maybe, but clothing was put on for need, and for decoration.

This is the thing that has thrown me with this book: I'm looking for practical information on clothing as durable tool, necessary protector from the elements. And what I'm getting instead is essentially a history of fashion: when this kind of decoration became popular, or that embroidery technique came upriver from some other culture. And so I have to ask myself: how much of this outside-weather-protection thing we Euro-Americans have brought with us, is really necessary to survive?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Nudity as a solution to dampness - March 22, 2012

mixed light shower and humid all day. Decent ground moistening weather (which we badly need), and prefectly OK most of the day to walk about in. Walked Anya around the block this morning... things are greening up and she really likes to sniff things.

I got a book from the library on Native American clothing. In fact that's what it's called, Native American Clothing: an Illustrated History. Lovely pictures, but it's such a massive subject it really can't go into as much detail as I would like.

I did spend a little while looking at the Northwest Coast section a bit, still intrigued by the question: what did the locals do right that Lewis, Clark et al. did wrong?

One answer is pretty straightforward: there was a lot more nudity before European traders began to dominate the economy. Nudity with capes and hats. That could work. Well, some of the year it could work. It doesn't really answer the question of how you survive (hunting and fishing) in January on Vancouver Island or by the mouth of the Columbia River.

Alas, the author is very interested in clothing as status marker, and indeed much of the reall interesting "ethnographic" material we have is from formal, ceremonial life, not everyday working gear. Oh well, I'll have a further read through relevant sections.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Boring rain - March 21, 2012

On Monday, we were going to get a used mattress from our friends Trenne and Dave, at the pub sing. Then it began to rain, and we realized we couldn't actually fit the mattress into our car and then fit the three of us in with it. So we had to make other plans.

It rained pretty hard, and blew away the bags of leaves that had been insulating the foundation at the southwest corner of our house. And we paid it very little mind. Probably I would have minded more if I had actually had to be outside in the downpour, but if there is one thing our urban construct is good at, it's keeping us dry most of the time.

It's been springlike, and now that the lilacs are leafing out and bulbs are popping up here and there, I think we can say it isn't just springlike. It's spring. Today's the equinox, so it's official, and I need to get back in the saddle writing this daily.

April showers, or March showers, are unpleasant more or less in proportion to the air temperature, and how waterproof your clothing is. It's been warm here: t-shirt weather mostly since we got back from out East on Friday. Even the fronts that brought the rain over the last couple days, though they brought snow to Montana, have only moderated what was frankly hot weather over the weekend. Now it's just unseasonably warm.

For all but a very few specialized jobs, winter stops "productive" outdoor activity: lumbering is one big exception. But the rains of spring time, though they can cause "mud season," also are directly productive... we gardeners are happy to see it, especially given the dryness of the winter.

Rain just isn't a big deal, certainly compared to snow. Flash floods in places, and some really exciting driving when a real gully-washer comes through. And the other aspects of summer storms, especially wind, can be downright terrifying. But rain itself is rarely actually dangerous, just uncomfortable.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fort Clatsop - March 14, 2012

Our big adventure today was a visit to a wonderful sculpture garden in Trenton. It's been a beautiiful couple of days here in New Jersey, and apparently it's been similar in Minnesota. Tomorrrow promises more of the same.We've noticed that it's been more humid here than in Minnsota. It generally is. Not that Minnsota doesn't get muggy—it does—but New Jersey summers are worse. Not as bad as Washington DC, or the almost-swimmable humidity of summer in the Deep South.

In regards to wetness (and humidity) I've been thinking of the Lewis and Clark expedition's winter at Fort Clatsop in what is now Oregon. It was a long, miserable inter, not because of cold, but because of the incessant damp. Out of the 106 days they spent at the fort, it rained 94. They could not perserve meat in the ways they knew how. Clothes rotted off their bodies, and bedding off their beds.

At Christmas, "We would have Spent this day the nativity of Christ in feasting had we any thing either to raise our Sperits or even gratify our appetites. Our Diner concisted of pore [lean] Elk, So much Spoiled that we eate it thro' mear necessity. Some Spoiled pounded fish and a fiew roots."

So what were they doing the local native tribes weren't, and vice versa? Is this another of those cases, like Shackleton's refusal to wear parkas and other "native" clohing, of blind cultural obstinacy?

Johnstown - Marrch 13, 2012

Another beautiful day in New Jersey, strolling around Princeton. Geocoaching with Daniel... not much budding out on the trees, but high temps in the 60'sF. And Anya is happily at home with Betsy and Ramon who are housesitting.

I read through David McCullough's The Johnstown Flood. What I said in an earlier post about survivability still holds: people build for an everyday life with a "usual" regular crisis in mind... the people of Johnstown knew the river would flood in the spring, most likely. It usually did. They were used to the houses nearest the river getting water in the basements. And there had been talk forever about the dam upstream, and how it was unstable and "likely to go at any time." But then it kept not breaking, and people got used to that.

And then there was a storm of the century. And the dam overtopped, and more than 2000 people died, and several towns were effectively wiped from the map.

One of the most terrifying things about any disaster is the randomness of survival. Some entire families (99 according to McCullough) died outright. Many more lost members, and McCullough goes into harrowing detail about how families were split up: one young girl huddled in the third floor of her house, and watched while two other household members literally feet away fell through the floor and were drowned. She floated away on a mattress and survived.

Some disasters simply swallow everything and everyone in sight: volcanoes and firestorms for example. Some mudslides. Some bombs. And it feels as though floods ought to be the same way, especially wall-of-water floods like Johnstown. I've always pictures tsunamis as like that: a literal wall of water slamming into the shore. But water doesn't really work like that: it wants to spread out and seek its lowest point. And so, if you watch films of the recent tsunamis in Japan and Sumatra, you see a surge of water not as a cresting wave but as a sudden rise in the normal rushing flow. The net effect in terms of what gets submerged is the same: areas that were dry are suddenly underwater. And it doesn't really matter that it's a rapidly rising flow and not a "wall of water" that hits structures and pushes them around: water is heavy and rushing water contains a lot of force.

I think this is the thing that seems counterintuitive about flooding to landlubbers like me: we forget just how strong flowing water is. It doesn't take a cresting wave to knock you down. Waist-high water with less-than perfect footing will do just fine.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

floods - March 11, 2012

We walked around Washington today for the third day in a row. Our dog finished her overnight camp experience at the dog boarding place and got picked up by the house sitters, apparently OK. We met lots of dogs and it was in no way, shape or form winter. Maybe I just need to stop pretending, and start writing the spring section of this project. Keeping the cold out is a big project, but people also mostly want to be dry, in part because wee lose body heat faster when we are wet. Of hypothermia cases, the majority involve people falling into cold water, not getting overexposed on land. Witness that tale of the chechaquo from earlier this blog: He died of cold, but it was the wet foot that really did him in. So keeping water out. It has a lot of forms: we wrap ourselves in waterproofing, or our legs and feet at any rate; we put a roof over our head and drains around our house to move rain and meltwater; we use umbrellas, sou'westers, ponchos, oilskins, and so on to let us walk out in the rain without getting soaked. And then there's flooding. From Noah and Gilgamesh, the story of surviving the flood is one of just getting out of the way. Whether the flood is from a tsunami, a broken dam or melted ice dam, a sudden downpour, or a rapid snowmelt, floods are metaphors for unstoppability, washing everything before them. Like other big weather, but unlike snowfall, a flood is only to be danced around and avoided, not tamed. Well, no. I'm curious about the line between the "tameable flood"— and there are a multitude of flood-control systems out there—dams, levees, diversion canals—and the monsters you can only get up to higher ground and watch.