Walls, they hold the windows that let in light!

Humans have been either looking for walls, as in cave and cliff dwellings, or building them, for as long as we’ve had the need to define a space. Our primary reasons for walls are to feel safe, to secure people or property, and for protection from the elements, animals and other people. From small stone walls in gardens, to the walls of our dwellings, or the walls around towns and castles, walls define human life on the planet, and  most out-live the people who built them. There are famous and infamous walls.  The myriad reasons we build walls represent the complexities of human life.  We are not, however, the only ones who build them. Beavers, paper wasps, cathedral ants, and weaver birds are but a few of the other species who build walls, for many of the same reasons we do.

Though walls are an intricate part of our ability to live here on planet earth, should you look up the word wall on the Internet, many references imply walls are barriers to be overcome, they confine and imprison people and are negative barriers to our spiritual, emotional and social growth.  You will see quotes, from the likes of Socrates to Joseph Campbell referring to the “breaking down of walls”.  These metaphorical uses of the word give it a bad rap, as does the recent political rhetoric and reasons concerning the border wall.  Perhaps there needs to be more than one word for ‘wall’.

My musing about walls is due to recent consideration of the walls of our house. This week we’ve begun to paint the inside of our house. When you clear a space of all the clutter of living in it, what is left are the walls and ceilings.  Standing in our almost empty living room, though it is tiny, it’s slight echo gives me thought!

My parents emptied house, walls filled with 42 years of stories. I remember this moment, peaceful, serene (they had an extraordinary view of mountains and water) and eerie.

When you move from a dwelling you pretty much take everything except the walls – walls you adorned with pictures, maybe painted several times, walls that held you, your songs, your tears, your shouts, your music, your loved ones….your stories. Walls you stared at when life left you numb or overwhelmed. Walls that kept your secrets. They are both intimately connected to your life, yet they define, thus belong to the house, not you. I have not moved in four decades. My walls know me well!

The fresh paint was long overdue. Though I fantasized color palate possibilities, even wall murals, in our tiny cabin-house in the northwest woods white is always the choice. The walls that get painted are few because my passion for wood, and need to have few chemicals in my life, have inspired us to use wood instead of the ubiquitous sheet rock on new walls.

The cedar wall. Painting by Liz Reutlinger

1977, tearing out & redoing, windows & walls

It began with a cedar wall. I thought it was a wonderful, ‘natural’ way to cover the existing old boards on a wall.  My house, bought and moved to it’s current location, came full of stories.  Walls, when torn out, revealed studs that were pieces of salvaged 2x4s, some with cutouts in them, nailed and overlayed to get the length needed.  There was a juice glass in one wall, and bits of this and that in others.  After tearing out many walls, replacing studs, and putting up sheet rock, the idea of using cedar instead of drywall on one long wall seemed a quick solution to a need I had to finish the wall. The cedar boards came from an acquaintance who had a small milling operation, the cedar logs from a friend who salvaged downed cedar logs on near-by Forest Service land. A carpenter friend installed the wall, artfully making the herringbone sections I wanted to break the monotony of vertical boards. Over the years the wall darkened as the wood aged. The boards gather dust, cleanable, but not something that gets done often. A unique wall, it takes me back to another time in my life. Though lately there are times I wish I had not installed the cedar wall, there it is, a silent witness and connection to my past.

Pine board wall with stenciled border in meditation building

Since the cedar wall, there have been many pine board walls. Pine, yellowish-white initially, ages to a deep golden color, some boards the color of honey. The walls of our “out buildings” – an office, studio and meditation building, are all pine. We have built many pine “boxes”!

Maple and cherry wood cabinets fill the kitchen wall, designed by me, built by a friend. When late day summer sun shines into the kitchen the aged maple wood, now the color of “light” maple syrup, nearly glistens!

bead board

Our latest wood wall is fir wood bead board, installed last year around a bay window replacement. Much consideration went into the possibilities, the pros and cons of dry wall vs wood, and if wood, which wood. We gambled on introducing yet another wood and are happy with the results. It fits our ‘cottage’ living room.

Though wood, once cut and milled is considered “dead”, there is still a living energy to it. With a little help from microbes, moisture, or fire, wood can return to the earth, become part of the soil, and nurture new trees. We are only borrowing them.

The “paintable” walls, freshly painted, are a clean slate, a fresh new beginning. Old scars, holes, soot from the wood stove, the ‘dirt’ of living, all washed away and covered over. Are the stories and secrets washed away too? Only the walls know!

Walls are not just “barriers”, built to keep out ‘the other’.  They hold in warmth on a cold day, or coolness on a hot day.  They give us a space to create as we wish, to make cozy.  Yes, they shield and protect us when we need it……and they hold the windows that let in the light.

What stories do your walls hold?

Rhododendron rainbows – it’s a family thing!

This bright yellow rhody is in our back yard, actually it IS our backyard! So bright, it seems to glow even at night.

Here in maritime Northwest rhododendrons are ubiquitous this time of year. The tiniest little ramshackle house, hidden behind a huge plain green bush eleven months of the year, barely noticed, suddenly is eye-poppingly beautiful when covered with huge bright red or pink blooms.  I didn’t intend to be a “Rhody” person.  A fan of pollinators, I find rhododendrons are not that useful to most pollinators – hummingbirds and butterflies have no interest in them and bees seem picky, liking some varieties but not others.  Highly hybridized, most plants have one big showy spring bloom then sit quietly in their evergreen garb the rest of the year, blending into the landscape.  But over the years I’ve grown to appreciate their abundance of color and have loved individual plants as though they were pets.  It must be a family trait, both my parents loved rhododendrons, and one of my brothers has planted many here on family property, late-blooming varieties and ones known for their unique foliage.

A new & current favorite, this variegated peach colored rhody is in a pot where we lost to drought a 20+ year old, hot pink rhody.  I still miss it, a favorite, it consumed our front steps,  greeting us coming and going.

This year, a more typical northwest spring than we’ve had for several years, has made apparent one primary value of rhododendrons – in spite of cold, gray, wet weather, front yards and public parks everywhere are lit with the bright hues of rhodies. People make their annual pilgrimages to the many public rhododendron gardens to enjoy this rhododendron festival of color.

A small rhododendron, grows only about 18″ tall.

That’s how we (Mike is especially enamored by their colors) became rhody people. Living 15 minutes from Whitney Gardens, a second generation family rhododendron garden and nursery, we go to soak up the color of the giant, tree size blooming bushes. Caught up in the color bonanza, we buy one, or maybe two, with little thought as to where we will plant them. Alone I can resist, but Mike is powerless when surrounded by all those shades of purple, lavender, salmon, pinks, red, oranges, yellows – a rainbow of rhodies. And if they are a scented variety, he swoons. Ok, I swoon too. (note: we have not made that pilgrimage this year, and if we do, we’ll have more self control as we just planted 5 small Pacific Rhododendron starts, Washington’s state flower.)

Pacific Rhododendron, Washington State flower, less abundant but still found in many wild places.

Rhododendrons were first “discovered” by Europeans in the Himalayan Mountains and other mountainous regions of Southeast Asia , where hundreds of varieties are native. They are the national flower of Nepal, where they grow abundantly.  Archibald Menzies “discovered” the Pacific rhododendron in 1792, though they were certainly already known to native people. (An interesting paper on the history of the Pacific Rhododendron is found here.)  Rhododendron leaves are highly toxic (though I had a Jersey cow, Daisy, who ate some and seemed unaffected, but I wouldn’t recommend it). In traditional cultures wherever they grow wild, rhododendron leaves have been used as poultices for arthritis pain and headaches.

in spite of thick leathery leaves, occasionally some bug finds one that is tasty.

Rhododendrons have been hybridized to have many colors, scents, leaf color and shape variations, to grow to different heights, and bloom at different times, from the winter blooming Christmas Rhody to ones that bloom in June.  The ones we grow bloom early to mid-spring. Except for a rare bug nibble, the primary pest problem we’ve had are mountain beavers who chew off branches and carry them to their dens, where we find piles of branches. This has done serious damage some years, one young bush completely ‘harvested’ to the ground.  Larger bushes are “pruned”, not at all aesthetically, destroying many buds. We’ve also lost a few bushes to drought. But in our woodsy environment most thrive and have long lives. Shallow rooted, though we give them big planting holes with lots of “good” soil, as long as they get some leaf mulch, they seem to tolerate our clay soil.

This is our Christmas rhody, the first to bloom, though not at Christmas where we live.

Rhododendrons come in all sizes, some can be pot grown, some like more sun, others more shade, many different bloom “styles” appeal to people’s personal sense of what makes a pretty flower, and you can probably find one in your favorite color.  I highly recommend, if your climate is right, growing rhodies for the pure benefit of color therapy, especially wonderful on a gray spring day.

Mom and I, squinting in the sun in front of a huge rhododendron at her house in Seattle. Happy Mother’s Day Mom, you live on in spirit in the many flowers we both love!

The rest of the year rhododendron’s shiny forever-green leaves remind us of eternal life.   I’m quite sure whatever corner of heaven my parents are hanging out in, they have planted rhododendrons!