Saturday, March 13, 2010

Our Good Citizen

Yesterday while I was waiting for Prof to arrive for our early morning meeting, I stood at the railing of the 4th floor triangle in the College of Design and watched as people and vehicles maneuvered the walkways and streets to get to where they needed to be. It reminded me of a slowed-down version of time-lapse fotography that captures that herky-jerky motion of stop and start. The bus schedules, along with the framework of class schedules, pretty much guarantee an approximate time; not the hour so much as the minutes before or after the hour. This view from the top of the COD captures the choreography of our everyday lives here on campus.

I noticed a man walking along briskly as he crossed the street. He was dressed in khakis and what appeared to be a nice winter dress coat. At about the same time, a campus garbage truck caught my eye as it rounded the corner and headed east down Osbourne. Mid-way thru the turn, the truck's rear cavity faced into the wind and a single sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 paper swirled out into the air and landed in the intersection. The man jogged over, picked it up, and stashed it in one of those ubiquitous plastic bags we all carry home from the market. I thought it strange that he would dash into the busy traffic to snatch this refuse, so I watched as he continued on his way east. Within a second, he leaned over and retrieved another piece of litter revealing itself in a pile of dirty snow. He made 2 or 3 more swoops, gathering bits and pieces of trash, then cut across the street. He made his way along the south walk, bobbing here and there to reach for a scrap to stuff in his bag.

He obviously was not on staff here at the university to pick up litter; his briefcase and dress would indicate otherwise. Without knowing his story, I could only guess that he had taken it upon himself to clean up his world, one piece of trash at a time. Nothing odd about that. It got me to thinking that we should all be such good citizens.

Several mornings a week, Tess will drop me at the COD at 7:30 on her way to school. It gives me time to read or work on things in the quietude of the 5th floor grad studio. As I enter the building, the janitorial staff is cranking away cleaning and vacuuming before the day's onslaught. I have noticed over the last few months that the task of keeping the campus clean is overwhelming for these folks in light of the budget cuts. Their numbers were the first to take the hit when cost-cutting measures were enacted. The trash is oftentimes overflowing from outdoor receptacles, cigarette butts pile up in hidden outdoor corners of the buildings, and litter in general is everywhere. I know the end of winter is always abit shabby, and especially so this end of winter, but our campus has been carrying a scrubby look of unkemptness for awhile now.

Just that morning I picked up a sandwich wrapper blowing across my path. As I opened the doors to the COD, I noticed the sand, grit, and dried mud embedded in the brittle door mat and was now creeping into the building. With Spring Break commencing at 5 that afternoon, I entertained a silent thought of a 'gorilla vacuuming' stunt with my industrial-strength shop vac. I would target the front entry directly inside and out of the COD. A cleaning up of a space, kind of like Iowa's Roadside Clean-up Program where a service organization or club "adopt" a portion of the roadway to keep clean. Later, when I saw this man cleaning up his walk into work, I knew I wasn't so off in my guerrilla-stunt thinking.

This all really speaks to the issue of how we live on this landscape. A much simpler approach for all of us to take would be to think about how we move thru our everyday lives leaving behind that litter trail for others to clean up. If everyone of us carried and used that plastic bag as we criss-crossed campus, we could make a huge impact on the care and keeping of our landscape.

Some basic rules of occupation of a space....first and foremost, don't litter! Replace that plastic bag with a re-usable tote. Pick up after yourself. Pick up one piece of litter today. Two pieces tomorrow. Maybe 3 or 4 or more the next day. 20,000 students and a whole regimen of faculty and staff would constitute an entire army of litter-picker-uppers. We could all be good citizens.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Come Crashin' Down

This morning I headed out to campus, taking the westerly route through our old neighborhood. As I rounded the corner onto Country Club Blvd, I heard an explosive sound. It sounded like tearing and screeching,so I thought a car had run the stop sign up ahead and hit another car. Mind you, this all happened within a nanosecond. When I looked up, I caught sight of the origin of all that noise. I just hollered out, "Holy Crap!" I could not believe my eyes.

All winter long, as the snow has been piling up on everyone's roof, the ice dam on this house has taken the prize. The weight of the buildup of ice was bending the rain gutter across the front of the porch roof and every time we drove by, one of us would comment on its crushing weight. Well today it all came crashing down. When I looked up, I caught the front left corner falling down into the shrubbery.
The weight of the ice was too heavy for this overhang to carry any longer.

An older couple has lived in the house for as long as I can remember. When we lived on Storm Street around the corner, I always thought this was the most beautiful property in the area. It turns out that this was the home place of the man who put the Landscape Architecture program at Iowa State University on the map nationally. Philip Homer Elwood.

Before I started the program in the Fall of 2007, I spent one summer day up on the 4th floor of Parks Library in Special Collections. I had read his name somewhere and wanted to read more about him and the history of the department. P.H. Elwood was born and raised in upstate New York, but came to Iowa from a prestigious New York City firm to leave his stamp on the Midwest. He wrote a column in the local paper and he had a weekly radio program on WOI-Radio broadcast from ISC campus. He served on numerous campus committees and offered short courses in farmstead design and home garden layout through the Extension Service. He worked for the federal government, the State of Iowa, and consulted for the city of Ames. Saturday I found a beautifully ornate master plan for the Ames Arboretum which he designed. I believe his training was in engineering and when he was in Europe during the war, he designed a military cemetery in France at Argonne.

My favorite stories about this man were those where he would lead his students from the Landscape Architecture building (the old horse barn up until remodeling in the late 30's made it into our program's first stand-alone building) out into the 4th Ward to do field work. His plant walks brought these young people to our neighborhood. They conducted tree inventories for the city and he held sketching class along the tree-lined streets of Lynn, Donald, Knapp, and Ash Avenue, the street where he lived. I came across an article in Horizons, a journal published seasonally by the LA students, describing the annual Sunday afternoon tea hosted by Professor and Mrs. Elwood. One student wrote about the lovely arrangement of the rooms in the house pictured above. They commented on the fine furniture and luxurious rugs upon the floors.

Elwood loved to travel and made regular journeys to the Far East with students in tow to study Asian architecture and landscapes. Several weeks ago I walked over to the intramural field which sits south of the former Elwood home and stood looking over the fence into this garden. PH Elwood's garden after all these 60 or 70 years still reflects this Asian influence.

He also would depart Ames early summer after the end of the term with a carload or two of students and head west. They traveled through the national parks and eventually ended up in California to visit several land arch firms on the west coast. They camped along the way and some of the photos showed tents, camping gear, and all the rag-tag stuff that goes along on these road trips.

Today our program is unique in that it offers the Savanna Studio for 2nd year students. They take off for 3 weeks in September and head north to the Boundary Waters, or north and west to Yellowstone. They return to Ames long enough to do laundry and stock up for another 3 weeks. This time they head south along the Mississippi River, all the way to Texas, Louisiana, and into Mexico. The tradition of Savanna Studio puts these new students out into the landscape sketching, grading, painting, and experiencing landforms with the bottom of their boots. They bond whether they want to or not; fifteen-passenger vans carry these young adults, dirty feet and all, 24/7 for 21 days. They canoe, portage, and camp under the stars, rain, and even snow. It is a life-changing experience and a great beginning into this program of the architecture of landscape.

Too bad about his house.