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Homing In

by Julia Sneden

Its a fine thing to live in a walker-friendly neighborhood.  Every morning I choose my route for the day, and no matter which direction I turn, I know I will find a pleasant path. Within a three-mile radius, there are curving streets with no sidewalks; straight, level square blocks with good sidewalks; slight hills; steep hills; alleyways and cut-throughs, all in a neighborhood filled with huge old trees.  The houses are a fine mix of architecture, some from the 20s, most from the 30s, late 40s (remember the post-WWII building boom?) and 50s, with here and there some brand-new in-fill homes squeezed between older houses.
     Brick is the building material of choice in this part of America, for many reasons. In the first place, the soil around here is red clay, and virtually all a brick maker needs to do is dig it up, shape it, and pop it in the oven. Then, too, brick is excellent insulation against the humid heat of a southern summer, and protection from the plethora of insects that chew anything chewable. But there are plenty of other building materials that are popular, too, everything from stucco to shingles to aluminum siding. My neighborhood also boasts a wonderful variety of architectural styles.
     What sets my teeth on edge is venturing out from the city into some of the new subdivisions where the houses all look the same. I dont mean sprawling suburbs of cheap little cookie-cutter houses like the developments that were built to accommodate all those returning soldiers in the 40s. Weve all gotten used to those. At least they werent pretentious and expensive. But in this part of the world, the developers of the 90s are building huge, tall, narrow brick houses, crammed on small lots, studded with every style of window and door and trim, all mixed together. Badly proportioned Palladian windows and Victorian gingerbread appear on the same facade;  Georgian,  Edwardian, Mediterranean villa styles and periods seem to be scrambled randomly, and used with no thought to proportion, unity, setting, etc. And dear heaven, the prices they ask for these monstrosities!
      My wonderful old neighborhood seems to survive despite the occasional 'in-fill' new house, which towers over its neighbors and  is crammed onto too small a lot. The older homes soften the rawness (some might say gaucherie) of the new.
      Lately I have noticed that Feng Shui, the Chinese principle of harmony and balance which has long been popular among decorators in other parts of the country, has found its way into the South. On my walk yesterday, I counted no fewer than 14 newly-red front doors. Red is supposed to be a color of welcome and good fortune. There were all shades of red: brick red, Chinese lacquer red, maroon, Pompeiian red, deep pink, light rust, crimson, scarlet, burnt orangebut definitely all relatives of red. Walkways, too, have begun to show the Feng Shui influence, rerouted from the straight-to-the-door, efficient walks of a few years back to gently curved and carefully landscaped paths with perhaps a dry lake of stones, a small lantern, or plantings of evergreen shrubbery. 
      Im a Californian, so Oriental landscape principles arent new to me, but even I am surprised by how well they adapt to southern America. Those red doors look terrific, even on brick houses, and what yard wouldnt look better turned into a garden with water and bridges and interesting plants?
      I am reminded of a brilliant Nisei landscaper named Ken, who worked with my stepmother years ago to create a garden centered around a huge boulder that he and a team of helpers had trucked about ninety miles, and dragged into her backyard. After a large variety of plants and mosses and shrubs were carefully placed, we thought the garden was finished. The helpers left, but Ken stood silently, shaking his head. Every day for a week, he came back and stood wordlessly, looking at the garden.  Then he disappeared for a couple of days.  When he came back again, he was carrying a small rock, about the size of a basketball. He set it near the boulder.  It was obvious that he had made another 90-mile trek, because the stone matched perfectly.
      Thats better, he said. The big rock was lonely.
     The houses in my neighborhood have benefited from the Feng Shui principles, but Im enough of a chauvinist to feel that there is a certain kind of American Feng Shui which needs no help, and old Southern houses (not mansions, just houses) abound in it. Wide porches; shady settings; big windows; double chimneys; an abundance of shrubs like crape myrtle and azaleas and rhododendrons; large yards and deep set-backs from the streets; basements and attics and wonderful closets; all these and more seem pretty harmonious to me.
     The most desirable home in our neighborhood, however, has nothing to do with Feng Shui or any other human principle. It isnt even a house. Its a large, hollow tulip poplar tree, which stands down the hill about 10 feet from our living room. Our bay window is at eye-level with a hole in the trunk. Its approximately 4 inches in diameter and about 15 feet above the ground.
     In the last few years, we have observed that the tree has been home to several varieties of birds and squirrels, and one season there was honey dripping down the trunk because a swarm of bees decided to use it as a hive. The following year when the squirrels moved back, I wondered how they cleaned up the wax and honey which must have clung to the inside walls of the nest. Perhaps they had a great feast on moving day.
      Last year, a little screech owl took up residence. We could watch it at the end of the day, sitting in the hole and planning its evening adventures. Wed stare at it and it would stare at us for awhile and then swoop out and away. We never saw any babies. We didnt even know whether the owl was male or female, or if perhaps there were two of them whom we saw at separate times.
      The latest tenants are also birds. I havent seen them, but I know theyre there because the other day while I was watering the impatiens, I heard a great racket coming from the tree.  Looking up, I saw a large blue jay clinging to the entrance, making threatening lunges toward the hole. There was a terrible racket coming from inside, squawks, screeches, cries of avian alarm. I tossed a dirt clod at the jay, and he flew off. 
      I havent seen any activity since, but I hope the new family is still there. If they moved away to avoid more incidents with the blue jay, Im sure it wont be long before some other creature moves in to enjoy the tree. It doesnt seem to need a little red door.



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