Learning from the Great Ice Storm of 2008

A fallen limb from the old silver maple next to our house. Photo by Howard Mansfield

When an ice storm hit New England and Upstate New York on December 11, 2008 more than 1.25 million customers lost power, some for as long as two weeks. For New Hampshire, where we live, it was the worst natural disaster in the state’s history.

I learned many lessons in the Ice Storm, practical lessons about disasters and lasting lessons about ordinary days.

Huge tree limbs smashed down around our house, some slamming the roof, waking us in the night. Telephone poles snapped, roads (more…)

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An American Dilemma: Your Clutter or Your Life

They have become a defining characteristic of the roadside, wedged in among the malls and fast food franchises, barracks-like rows of buildings with small garage doors, surrounded by a fence. A gated enclave for excess stuff.

There are 2.3 billion square feet of “self-storage” space in America, or more than 7 square feet for every, man, woman and child in the country. Texas, Florida and California lead the country with the most storage space. It’s now “physically possible that every American could stand—all at the same time—under the total canopy of self-storage roofing,” boasts the Self Storage Association. There are about 51,000 (more…)

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Learning to Love the Humble Shed

A young pig and an old barn. Photo of Christopher Hogwood by Howard Mansfield. (For more about Chris see The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery.

Consider the average, newer American house. It takes up 2400 square feet – twice that of 50 years ago – and it is stuffed with papers, toys, computers, shiny stainless steel appliances, and on and on. The house is so full of things and noise that people can scarcely find room to breathe. Two solutions are usually offered: throw out stuff (good advice any time) or expand your empire. But I’d like (more…)

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What Realtors Don’t Know About the House They Are Selling

“Charming Contemporary-Colonial-Victorian. Must See! Many Extras! Walk to Interstate 95!”

The real estate agents’ book of architectural history is a short one – about the length of a warning on a pack of cigarettes. A sound-bite is an in-depth report when compared to what most real estate agents know about the architectural styles of the houses they are selling.

There was the Colonial period, running roughly from the pioneers’ days to today.  (“Contemp. Colonial,” as they say, or “Charm Contemp.”) To this add the Victorian period, running roughly from sometime in that century when people traveled by train to sometime awhile back.  And, (more…)

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Dwelling with Smoke and Fire – How Our Homes Lost the Hearth

In the fall we want to return to the fireside, but we are looking for more than warmth. We are drawn to the ancient idea of the hearth. For centuries the hearth brought families together. But a fire is no longer the heart of a home and its loss has dispersed the family. We can trace the retreat of the hearth.

We once lived with smoke and fire. When we moved indoors, we moved the campfire indoors. In the Medieval manor, an open fire burned near the center of a large hall. The smoke was left to rise up to the second (more…)

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The House Flipping World of HGTV

We are stuffed full of home makeover shows. By my quick count there are about 75 different shows on one cable channel, HGTV, that are largely devoted to disguising houses, and a dozen more on other channels. There are design-in-a-whirlwind shows, gut-the-house shows, paint-each-wall-a-different-color shows, bloat-this-house shows (in which 3000 square feet metastasize to 7000 square feet), shows to envy dream houses and shows to pity “desperate houses.”

Most of the shows, no matter the premise, are the same: hope lies in quick fixes, in bold paint schemes, mirrors, cutesy photo displays, contrived twists of fabric. You know the drill: the opening (more…)

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What I Learned from Hurricane Katrina

A few rescued pieces from a house in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Photo by Howard Mansfield.

 

Along Beach Boulevard all that remains are steps, pillars, and cement slabs. There are no houses. They weren’t leveled by big wrecking cranes and carted off. They were just here and gone, washed away by towering waves in the hurricane.

I was in Pascagoula, Mississippi, visiting a friend who was doing relief work a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina had devastated this small city on the Gulf.  Katrina, which hit in 2005, has now been joined by other record storms. The destruction of (more…)

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