This Ruined House

They say it is in the struggle that the deepest parts of our soul are unearthed. This has definitely been true during the renovation – and not always for the better. I had forgotten about my shadows, the dark spots that lurk in the corner, trying to hide from sight. But it is in the shadow that we remember how vivid and striking the light can be. The contrast gives us definition. Purpose.

Jungian analyst Robert Johnson points this out in his book, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche:

The message is unmistakable; our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call… light and dark. It is not that the light element alone does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise.

Beauty and Decay

And similarly, it is in the contrast of beauty and decay that Joyce Kornblatt has recently inspired me through her essay, This Ruined House: A Meditation on Beauty, from the winter 2010 issue of Parabola. At first she angered me. I felt condemned and guilty when I read her words. She “just didn’t understand” about the beauty of old things. But then I realized that she very much understood them. She embraced them. Their wear, their cracks, and their awkward existence in a world that wants them to be new. She writes about this contrast:

Foundation - White Plains
A foundation of the old barns at White Plains
Sunsets transfix us, seem to soothe us with their undeniable evening truth: finished, over, changing into something else. These fadings can’t be doctored, and this “defeat” awakens us to the inherent beauty of what cannot be fixed in time. So what might happen if we stepped more fully beyond the bounds of conventional aesthetics? We would see the loveliness of a cracked china teapot, a pile of rusty keys, a rocking chair—like the one I have—whose broken rocker resists the glue with which I keep trying to repair it.

What if we left the flowers to shrivel in the vase, allowed the peeling paint of a front door to reveal its layers of color, right down to bare wood? What if we looked in the mirror and appreciated the scar, the asymmetry, the wrinkles and gray hair, the age spots and the sagging skin? What if we lived with a wilderness mind, in which change is the only constant, and the process of decay is recognized as beautiful? . . . It is this turning toward, rather than away from, impermanence that relieves us of the burden of our futile attachments and makes a humbled love possible. We become available to the beauty of the moment as it is, and available to one another as we are.

I’m not sure that I can claim arrival at embracing impermanence. Although I find loveliness in the cracks, rust, and broken pieces, I always want to fix them – to make them whole again. And it isn’t always possible. It is defeat. But in this defeat, there is another path. Joyce shares a poem by Izumi Shikibu, written more than a thousand years ago:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roofplanks
of this ruined house.

In those evocative lines, the conventional distinctions between ruin and beauty blur. One can read the poem as metaphor for how to find consolation in the world of devastation, but looking again, one finds a more challenging suggestion: it is because of the house’s disrepair that the moonlight can enter.

… Most of us have grown up in a culture devoted to the habits that blind us. We resist, replace, disguise, crave, acquire, hoard, defend against, and throw away. We lionize the new and discard the outmoded. We believe that “more is better,” whatever the cost. We yield our obsession with novelty only when we turn what ages and decays into a status-conferring commodity—antique furniture, heirloom clothes, vintage cars, historical preservation districts—but it is not a yielding that brings us peace. We collect and remodel, via carpentry and surgery, in order to prop up the illusory sense of a separate and enduring ego. Yet all around us, the evidence of the Buddha’s teaching asserts itself: nothing lasts, life brings suffering, there is no solid, separate self. We flee these truths in terror, but a life of meditation and inquiry can transform our denial into freedom.

It is because of the house’s disrepair that the moonlight can enter. It is this acceptance of the shadow and comfort in the impermanence that we find freedom. And so it is at White Plains, the cracks in the plaster, the chipped masonry, and the decaying wood are all opportunities to see beauty and to be as we are.

Trim - White Plains
Reclaimed wood trim from White Plains

A Date with Dendrochronology

We had something really cool happen at White Plains this summer. We found out the house’s construction date through Dendrochronology. Ever heard of it? I hadn’t either until our friends at the Fairfield Foundation and Camille Wells shared this fascinating process with us.

Since we moved to the house at White Plains, there have been so many possible dates offered to define its construction history: Legend places the house’s build date in the 1720s; the Thornley family bible talks about family members born there in 1750; architectural historians have placed it closer to 1815; and yet tax records place it at 1795! In an effort to definitively narrow down its build date, we requested that dendrochronologists William Callahan and Dr. Edward Cook perform a tree-ring analysis of selected structural timbers.

Did I need to know? No. But as someone who likes to know things based on fact, it’s a great feeling. And somehow it allows you to better understand the house within a specific cultural setting, time period, and life cycle in relation to the people who lived here.

Timbers - White Plains
Attic timbers, White Plains

Callahan and Cook describe the process’ history:

Dendrochronology is the science of analyzing and dating annual growth rings in trees.  Its first significant application was in the dating of ancient Indian pueblos of the southwestern United States. Andrew E. Douglass is considered the “father” of dendrochronology, and his numerous early publications concentrated on the application of tree-ring data to archaeological dating.  Douglass established the connection between annual ring width variability and annual climate variability which allows for the precise dating of wood material. The dendrochronological methods first developed by Douglass have evolved and been employed throughout North America, Europe, and much of the temperate forest zones of the globe.

Bill arrived at White Plains in early August for two days of sample collecting to complete the dendrochronological analysis of the timbers. He brought an elaborate, and very well-organized, tool collection that included several bores, all handmade by a famous dendrochronologist in Sweden. 13 samples, all oak, were collected from both the basement and attic timbers using the bores, heavy drills, and lots of patience.

Bill Callahan - Dendrochronology
Bill showing the huge handmade wood bores

The wood samples collected were processed in the Tree-Ring Laboratory, part of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University by Dr. Edward Cook following well-established dendrochronological methods. As described in the final report, “the core samples were carefully glued onto grooved mounts and all were sanded to a high polish to reveal the annual tree rings clearly. The rings widths were measured under a microscope to a precision of ±0.001 mm….A total of 13 oak samples were analyzed in the laboratory, with all 13 samples providing firm dendrochronological dates.”

Bill Callahan - Dendrochronology
Bill drilling a primary beam timber in the basement

The final analysis and report by Callahan and Cook dates the timber cutting and likely construction within a very specific time frame:

Selected timbers of the house strongly indicates a major construction (or renovation) phase for the building beginning in very late 1785 or early 1786. Cutting of the bark-edged timbers occurred … during approximately November to February of 1785 and 1786 respectively. Usage of the materials took place shortly thereafter, for close in situ inspection of the oak timbers indicated that most if not all of the materials were utilized soon after cutting, in keeping with historical woodworking and carpentry techniques. Thus, the specific year of this construction activity is most likely during 1786, perhaps eventually continuing into 1787. The consistency of the datings between elemental locations within the house is noteworthy.

White Plains House
White Plains, 1786

Although the current structure can be dated to 1786, there is no evidence to disprove the theory of an earlier building on the same site. Thornley family stories and writings describe old Aaron Thornley as being born at White Plains in 1750, but it was likely in a different house elsewhere on the property or in an earlier house on the same site, assuming that the family folklore is even accurate. But THIS house can be undeniably dated to 1786, just three years after Aaron Thornley laid out the site plans for Port Conway, VA, making the house at White Plains one of the rare 18th-century buildings in King George County still retaining both its original footprint and historical integrity.


And now we know. I’m so glad that we took this opportunity while we had the chance. Bill was fantastic to work with and we, perhaps regrettably, gave him the unique cultural experience that is Horne’s restaurant. Oh, Bill… next time we promise to take you somewhere with more than one beer option!

Although too many to list, here are some of other regional dendrochronological projects that you may know, also completed by Callahan and Cook:

Gadsby’s Tavern, Alexandria, VA
Hanover Tavern, Hanover Courthouse, VA
Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA
Marmion, King George County, VA
Menokin, Richmond County, VA
Sabine Hall, Richmond County, VA
Shirley, Charles County, VA
Wilton, Westmoreland County, VA

Duck, Duck, Guinea

Four weeks ago today, I arrived home with a poorly taped cardboard lawnmower box carrying 15 guineas and 4 Muscovy ducks from Gardienne Wings near Sumerduck, Virginia. Val was fantastic walking me through the research and purchase, but it was one of those moments similar to grocery shopping while hungry – you’re susceptible to every visual opportunity. And holding just one of them, in all its cuteness, completely disintegrates any ability you may have had to make rational decisions.

Muscovy Ducks
Clarence the Duck at one week old.

The guineas were in the plan all along as a last-ditch effort to rid the place of so many ticks. Having gone through the nightmare of lyme disease last year, I knew that something had to be done. Spraying the property wasn’t a solution that we were comfortable with – partly due to the bees and partly due to our close proximity to the wetlands and feeder streams of the Rappahannock River. Old wives tales tell stories of guineas eating their weight in ticks, relentlessly foraging in packs across several acres. The trick is homing them to their new location and putting up with their constant squawking!

And since the guineas would be the work animals, the ducks would come home as pets. So far, they are keeping the guineas in line and being the cute companions that I had hoped for. It won’t be too much longer before the double in size and really rule the roost!

Guineas & Ducks
Guineas at 8 weeks and Ducks at 5 weeks on their first days outside in the new run.