Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 2, 2020

The Monolith: Los Angeles Municipal Warehouse Number One

Let’s visit a bit of historic Los Angeles architecture. It’s a spot you almost certainly will never see in person, no matter how many times you come here. It’s far from any tourist itinerary, and merely a footnote in L.A. history, although an interesting one.

I’ve written previously about the origin of the Port of Los Angeles: click this link for one story. Approximately 20% of all cargo entering the U.S. now goes through the port of Los Angeles. It’s the busiest container shipping port in the United States.

LA Port Brad Nixon 7180 400 (640x472)

At the beginning of the “contact period” in the 16th century, as Europeans came to North America, they named the port San Pedro Bay. European exploring ships had been arriving there since 1542, when Juan Cabrillo, scouting the coast for Spain, discovered the harbor. Here’s a full-sized replica of his ship, San Salvador, docked for a visit in the Port of Los Angeles. I wrote about Cabrillo’s voyage at this link.

As Los Angeles grew, the harbor became an important base for shipping and fishing. Dredging deepened the channels, and civic leaders built a breakwater to protect it from storms and waves. Here’s the 1890 breakwater, 130 years after its construction. The entrance to the harbor, on the left, is called Angels Gate.

In 1914, L.A.’s civic leaders were aware that the new Panama Canal was due to open. At port cities along the west coast of the U.S., there was anticipation of an upturn in the volume and frequency of trade from around the world.

If there’s a harbor or riverfront in any town you know, from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon; Savannah, Georgia to San Diego, you know that a core element of waterborne commerce was warehouses. Warehouses lined the banks of towns along the Mississippi, the Ohio, and every ocean bay, port or inlet across the continent. Goods came off a ship, were held in warehouses, then were trans-shipped by rail, mule or went back onto another ship.

If Los Angeles was going to compete for a large share of the expected increase in ocean traffic from the new canal, it needed a big warehouse.

They built a very big warehouse: Municipal Warehouse Number One.

Warehouse one Brad Nixon 5735 680

When it opened in 1917, Warehouse One was estimated to be the largest structure on the continent west of Chicago. 480 feet (150 M) long, 150 feet (46 M) wide, six floors, built with 27,000 cubic yards of concrete, reinforced by 1,200 tons of steel.

One construction challenge few non-engineers think about is how much a structure weighs. 27,000 cubic yards of concrete and those tons of steel represent something on the order of 56,000 tons of weight, before any freight went into the warehouse. The land it sits on is rubble fill, placed there to extend the reach of the port’s main channel. Setting that amount of weight on potentially unstable land required 3,000 pilings to be sunk into the fill to support the warehouse. As a testament to the designers’ skill, the warehouse survived the massive Long Beach earthquake that destroyed hundreds of nearby buildings in 1933.

The photographer standing left of center in the photo below gives you some sense of the immense scale of the structure.

Municipal warehouse Brad Nixon 5718 680

Freight Transportation

In 1917, large cargo load were carried primarily by ship or rail. A huge wharf occupied the edge of the main channel, about 50 meters from the warehouse (to the left of the photo above, although the wharf no longer exists).  Much of the cargo moving in and out of Warehouse One went directly to and from ships at the wharf. Other cargo came and went via rail. Locomotives could pull directly into the warehouse, through the ground-level portal on the left of the photo below. The rails are still there, although no longer used. A locomotive pulled its load straight into the warehouse to be loaded or unloaded. Freight went to the upper floors via a series of hoists and elevators inside.

Warehouse One Brad Nixon 5694 680

Details

As design, a warehouse is simply an extremely large box. The most significant external details of Warehouse One are the four cast concrete fire escapes on each facade.

Warehouse vert Brad Nixon 5739 680

The builders, however, promised the structure would have detailing that would add aesthetic appeal.

The photos above show the classic Doric pilasters, which suggest that they’re holding up the building. They are not. They’re decoration, molded into the formed concrete walls, as are the lines of the cornice, which projects about six feet above the level of the roof.

There’s one interesting bit of detail.

Warehouse gargoyles Brad Nixon 5695 680

Those figures are a page the architect stole from designers of older massive structures. Any building on that scale has to accommodate the amount of water that falls on a roof. Even in dry southern California, seasonal winter rain can fall at the rate of an inch per hour. On a roof of 70,000 square feet, an inch of rain represents 10,000 gallons of water.

If you need to project water off a large structure, add gargoyles to your building. In this case, molded lion heads:

Lion gargoyle 5696 680

Nothing Lasts Forever

Municipal Warehouse Number One is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That status makes it an extremely difficult thing to get rid of, even if it’s outlived its usefulness. You only have to spend 30 seconds looking at the sheer mass of the structure to get a sense of how very seriously one would want to do something else on that spot to start thinking about what’s required to pull it down and cart away 56,000 tons of concrete and steel.

Warehouse west facade 5710 680

That said, Warehouse One has outlived itself. As long as 50 years ago, in the 1970s, the onset of containerized freight and “intermodal” shipping started diminishing the usefulness of Warehouse One, along with countless thousands of other warehouses, from Portland to Portland, Savannah to San Diego, and everywhere in between.

Container operations Brad Nixon 2122 680

Today, enormous gantry cranes lift 40-foot containers off ships at a rate of about one every two minutes.

The containers are loaded onto specially designed trucks or railroad cars, and distributed across the continent. This is the just-in-time world: No warehouses need apply.

Warehouse One is mostly vacant, all but derelict. Below, the photographer contemplates how she’ll capture the immense pile facing her.

Warehouse vertical 5685 680

If your cruise ship enters the Port of Los Angeles, you’ll see Warehouse One, including the water tower atop the building.

MV S7435-LR LA Warehouse No.1 tower-680

That water tower’s an original feature from 1917. It supplies water pressure for the internal fire suppression system — sprinklers — a forward-thinking bit of design from more than a century ago.

Painted on it: “Welcome,” in multiple languages, including Italian, Japanese and Croatian, a nod to the thousands of Italian, Japanese and Croatian immigrants who worked in San Pedro — many of them fishermen — whose descendants still live in the harbor area.

ようこそ. Bienvenidos. Dobro Došli. Welcome to Los Angeles.

Is there an old row of waterfront warehouses in your town? Or are they all gone? Please make a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020 Water tower photo © M. Vincent, 2020, used by generous permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 25, 2020

My 2019 Book Report

I look back on the year’s accomplishments prior to setting out on the next year’s path. I’ll review a few highlights from last year’s reading. I invite your comments if you know these books. 

Here are what I consider some reading highlights of 2019. 

Writer and novelist of eminent degree, Graham Greene, separated his work into two classifications. He knew perfectly well that he intended some of his work to stand up against the strictest tests of what could be called “literature.” Others, he knew, were lightweights in the canon, and he called those, including his Travels With My Aunt, “entertainments.” An extremely useful term. In 2019, I reread one of his most serious efforts, The End of the Affair. An absolutely heart-rending depiction of a relationship. Still, I hope Mr. Greene will let me by with a reference to “entertainments.”

Entertainments

If we cannot read for “entertainment,” let us simply give up the chase and watch television.

My 2019 reading was replete with entertainments. I read two books in the prolific and irrepressible Alexander McCall Smith’s ongoing series of the “Ladies Number One Detective Agency,” and who can resist? Not I.

Unlooked-for, out of the blue, a spinoff from the inimitable P.G. Wodehouse’s memorable series of stories about Bertie Wooster and his “man,” Jeeves: Jeeves and the King of Clubs, by Ben Schott. Admirably done, and who will ever tire of having Jeeves pull Bertie out of various scrapes, legal, personal or matrimonial?

In The Tale Teller, longtime best-seller Tony Hillerman, who wrote indelibly memorable tales set in Arizona and New Mexico, has been succeeded by his daughter, Anne Hillerman, carrying the stories forward, now focused on Bernadette Manuelito, continuing her father’s introduction of the remarkable Joe Leaphorn, one of the great fiction heroes of modern popular literature. I went back and reread Mr. Hillerman’s The First Eagle, but Ms. Hillerman now has the helm and leads us on.

Not Just For Kids

Never underestimate the worth of books written for the “young adult” or “preteen” audience. Some excellent writing. Jacqueline Kelly has created Calpurnia Tate, who grows up in early 20th-century Texas. I read the first of a sequence of books about young Calpurnia, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and invite you to discover her world.

Nonfiction!

I read very little nonfiction or biography. Candace Millard got me, though, with her telling of Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition through the wilderness of Brazil in River of Doubt. Had Jack London, alive at the time, been on the trip, he’d have done no better at describing the harrowing adventures.

The indomitable writer and researcher, Barbara Tuchman, wrote a book about the onset of World War One, The Guns of August. How we got to the point of war, related decades later. Worth reading.

More Serious

Susan Orlean, who made her mark with The Orchid Thief, wrote a book called The Library Book. It’s about the devastating fire that engulfed and nearly destroyed the massive Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. It’s a piece of impressive reportage, and simply brilliant writing. Your library has it. Check it out. And thank a librarian.

A number of contemporary writers keep us on our toes. I’m on a tear, catching up with the American writer, Robert Coover, whose History of the Brunists caught me. The Scot, Ali Smith, has the next in what is obviously a year-long trilogy, Winter, and she is not to be missed.

Yes, friends, I went back, as I always will. I re-read Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Metafiction defined. The real and the unreal co-exist in Mr. Pynchon’s universe. Do not start there. If you’ve never read Pynchon’s stuff, start with The Crying of Lot 49, and decide if you’re ready for Gravity’s Rainbow. Only then should you tackle Against the Day.

Forward, into the past

The bulk of my 2019 reading was not on any best-seller list. Nor will it ever be. Much of it was a best-seller, back around 1250 or so. One of the most popular and most-copied manuscripts of the Medieval era. A series of tales by a man named Chretien des Troyes, attached to the court of Marie de France, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, were all the rage back then. He was writing in what we now call “Old French,” which bears some resemblance to what you learned in French class in high school, but not all that much.

Chretien’s tale of Percival centers around the knight’s quest for the holy grail. His encounter with the Fisher King in the grail castle is one of the central moment in western literature. Not everything goes well. Do not go looking for the grail on your own. It’s only revealed by an act of grace, and it requires a life of devotion to be granted some grace.

Later, another courtier, this time in Germany, Godfrey von Strassburg, recast Chretien’s tale, added some elements and wrote it in stunning German verses that beggar translation. Percival, Gawain and other Arthurian celebrities also show up in the Welsh Mabinogion, and that also took up some of my time.

Throughout 2019, in translations from Welsh, Middle German and Old French, as well as the original Middle English in a few cases, I followed the adventures and hijinks of Percival, Gawain and other knights as they made their way across the landscape of 13th-century Europe.  An extremely different world from ours. Sir Percival, also known as Parzival and other names, according to a variety of storytellers, had a long run as one of the stars of 12th, 13th and 14th century poetry.

His story begins, according to Chretien, in an absolutely hilarious fashion. His father was a distinguished knight who’d gone on a crusade to the Holy Land, but met with bad luck and died there. Percival’s mother, a princess of the realm, determined to keep her son from suffering the same fate, retreated to a humble cottage in the forest of Wales, and raised her son in complete ignorance of the world of knights and chivalry. Percival, though, through sheer luck, encounters a troop of armor-clad knights and follows them to Camelot, where he simply insists to King Arthur that he, this untried stripling from the forest, should be made a knight of the round table.

And then we’re off. He becomes best friends with the most noble and revered knight of all, Sir Gawain, they have endlessly harrowing adventures, and that’s 13th-century literature.

Also in 2019, I wrote a tribute to the Australian writer, poet and media critic, Clive James, who died in October. I talk about his stunningly memorable book, Cultural Amnesia.

What was your favorite book of 2019? What do you look forward to reading in 2020? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 21, 2020

Your Bungalow Court Is Available: Limited Time Only

Longtime readers know that among the Los Angeles architecture that interests me are bungalow courts, like this one.

RB Bungalows Brad Nixon 0748 660

A bungalow court is a group of small cottages — bungalows — typically rentals, most often arranged in two parallel lines along a central walkway or courtyard. For real estate developers, they offered a way to maximize revenue from a single lot.

SP bungalow 951-9 Brad Nixon 0777 660

For the thousands of people flocking to the Golden State early in the century to find wealth, fame or simply a job, the courts offered a compact, affordable toehold.

SP 1st St bungalows Brad Nixon 0910 660

Bungalow courts originated in about 1909 and enjoyed a heyday well into the 30s and beyond, primarily on the west coast, although there are examples across the U.S. I recently encountered a bungalow court complex in Tucson, Arizona: Hawthorne Manor.

Tucson bungalow Brad Nixon 5689 680

I’ve written about this once-popular and still-extant form of L.A.-originated housing a number of times, beginning with “Your Los Angeles Story Setting: Bungalow Courts,” at this link.

According to the Los Angeles Conservancy, there may be about 300 bungalow court units still extant throughout the greater Los Angeles area.

Now’s Your Chance

If you’ve thought you might like to acquire your own set of bungalow courts, there’s one on the market at this moment, in an area of Los Angeles called Beverly Glen. It’s just west of Fairfax, north of Melrose, not far from the Farmers Market, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the LaBrea Tar Pits, among other attractions. But time is short to take advantage of the opportunity.

I’m not currently shopping for real estate, or I’d be on this one in a trice — if, in fact, there are still trices.

I owe the information about this property to Los Angeles Times City Beat columnist, Nita Lelyveld, from her Jan. 18, 2020 article, “Are you a fan of old L.A.’s charm?”

I won’t recapitulate Ms. Lelyveld’s article: She did all the work. I’m simply passing the word as a public service to bungalow court and architecture fans.

A Few Minor Details

The property, Edinburgh Bungalow Court, built in 1923, has eight units in four structures and a classic Spanish colonial mission revival arched entry. I haven’t visited the property, but in a photograph it bears some resemblance to this unit in Redondo Beach.

RB Bungalow Cat 605 Brad Nixon 0818 660

Information later in this article links to the real estate listing.

The property is in need of some repair. The time to buy is short — perhaps only two months — or Edinburgh Bungalow Court will be demolished to make way for new housing of a non-bungalow nature.

And the Price?

Before we talk price, please remember two things. One: This is Los Angeles. Things are expensive here. Two: This is a historic property. Yes, the price is more than a million dollars. Okay, it’s more than two million. Ms. Lelyveld did the footwork. I’ll let her tell you, along with other interesting facts about the property and its likely fate.

Click here to read the article from the Los Angeles Times, including a link to the real estate listing: “Are you a fan of old L.A.’s charm? These historic bungalows need a savior with deep pockets.”

I sincerely hope someone buys the Edinburgh bungalows before they bite the dust. If one of you UWS readers buys them, please let me know. I look forward to coming to see them and featuring them here in a future article.

You can find more articles about bungalow courts under “Architecture” in the Categories list in the right-hand navigation bar.

My appreciation to Nita Lelyveld and the Los Angeles Times for this story.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Times article © 2020, Los Angeles Times and Nita Lelyveld.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 20, 2020

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2020

It’s a new decade.

The truth remains as it was.

MLK quote Brad Nixon (640x404)

Located in a grassy area on the south side of the Los Angeles County Superior Court building, Compton Civic Plaza, Compton, California.

Injustice persists.

A day to remember what matters.

© Brad Nixon 2020

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 1, 2020

A Year Runs Swiftly: The Old Year Passes for Sir Gawain

A large number of high school students get at least an introduction to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

If nothing else, they get to read his “Prologue.” One of the most well-known pieces of English poetry, the Prologue is an artful evocation of the advent of spring. Many of you can recite at least a few lines:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote ….

At almost the same time — around 1400 — as Chaucer was in London, writing Canterbury Tales, an unknown poet was writing a poem of singular importance somewhere to the north in England.

Long-time Under Western Skies readers are familiar with the Middle English verse romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because for most of the past ten years, I’ve written about some aspect of the poem at New Year’s, the time of year in the story.

Why have I been rereading this poem every year for more than 40 years? Because I like it. Writing about it here is my way of coming to grips with at least some of the reasons I enjoy it so much, and never seem to tire of it. I always hope to pass along some of my enthusiasm for it in a way that may interest you.

The poem tells a fascinating story and includes memorable characters (King Arthur, Queen Guenevere, Morgan La Fay, a giant green warrior, all dressed in green armor, riding a green horse and carrying a big, green axe which Sir Gawain uses to cut off the Green Knight’s head), and so forth.

It also comprises some of the most remarkable poetry in all of English. The anonymous author of the unique surviving manuscript was an accomplished storyteller, ironist, humorist (yes, there are places where I, at least, laugh) and a poet of considerable accomplishment.

This year, I’d like to say a bit about one 33-line passage. I’ll single out only a few lines of particular interest.

In those 33 lines, the poet does something similar to Chaucer’s paen to spring. But instead of introducing one season, his story requires that we flash ahead one year, from Gawain beheading the Green Knight, to the time he must go find the Knight to have his own head removed (from which he is less likely to recover than the obviously supernatural Green Knight, whose headless torso blithely picked up its own head, mounted its horse and rode away).

As the year passes in those lines, we get winter, then spring, summer, harvest (that’s autumn in 13th century language) and, once again, winter.

If you’d like an overview of the poem, and a few words about what sort of verse it is, please see my introduction at Silent Night, Green Knight.

I invite you to enjoy the poetic craftsmanship and inventiveness of the poet, and — so far as you can, the poetic sensibility of these single lines.

To start the cycle, the poet demonstrates that punning and word play are not mere amusements, but a longtime, inherent part of English. He plays on three similar-looking, similar-sounding Middle English northern dialect words that alliterate: yere (year), yernes (runs) and yerne (swiftly), plus yeldes (yields or gives):

A yere yernes ful yerne and yeldes never lyke

In J.R.R. Tolkein’s translation:*

“A year slips by swiftly, never the same returning.”

As the first winter passes, there is — in poetic terms — a battle between persistent winter and determined spring, insisting on victory.

Bot thenne the weder of the worlde with wynter hit threpes

As translated by Simon Armitage:**

“Then the world’s weather wages war on winter.”

What does spring look like? This:

Bothe groundes and the greves grene ar her wedes

My translation:

“All the ground and the groves wear green all around.”

In another token of spring, think of Chaucer’s immemorial line:

And smale foweles maken melodye

Our poet, writing at the same time, had a similar thought:

Bryddes busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen

Marie Borroff rendered it thus:***

“Birds build their nests, and blithely sing”

Our poet — who certainly never read Chaucer and likely never heard of him — is still in step with ol’ Geoff as summer begins. Here’s Chaucer:

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes …

From the Gawain Poet, this:

After, the sesoun of somer wyth the soft wyndes,

Quen Zeferus syfles hymself on sedes and erbes

As translated by Marie Borroff:

“And then the season of summer with the soft winds,

When Zephyr sighs low over seeds and shoots”

Next comes Harvest, and our poet carries the year into a time Chaucer didn’t give us:

Bot then hyes hervest, and hardenes hym sone,

Warnes hym for the wynter to wax ful rype

Here’s Simon Armitage:

“Then autumn arrives to harden the harvest,

And with it comes a warning to ripen before winter”

At the end of Harvest, near the edge of winter, all is bleak. Please note well that our poet intentionally echoes the earlier greening of the grass and the trees, and how they now appear:

And al grayes the gres that grene was ere

My translation:

“All gray the grass now that once was so green.”

Winter comes. The cycle is complete; the year has run full swiftly, and the poet pulls out a clever bit of compositional legerdemain, with another set of alliterating “ys” that echo the start of the annual cycle:

And thus yirnes the yere in yisterdayes mony

Per Tolkein:

“And so the year runs away in yesterdays many”

Our language has changed enormously in 600 years. But artistry, sound, sense, language and some irrepressible spirit are still with us. It’s up to us to keep it alive.

Happy New Year.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Middle English text from Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A.C. Cawley, editor. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1962

Text of the Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, A.C. Cawley, editor. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1958

Translations cited from these works by masters of the art:

* Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, J.R.R. Tolkein trans., Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978

**Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage trans., W.W. Norton & Co., 2007

*** Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Marie Borroff trans., W.W. Norton & Co., 1967

To learn something about these translators, and read more examples of their impressive translations from Gawain, see my blog post, Sir Gawain vs. the Poets: Translations.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 20, 2019

At This Point in Time, Someone Will Be with You Momentarily

It’s high time I addressed this issue. Apparently until now the time has been somewhat lower. I haven’t been having a particularly high time of it, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been having a low time, because there simply is no such thing.

We’re accustomed to symmetry in English: synonym/antonym; action/reaction; timely/untimely; thesis/antithesis (all right, the Greeks get credit for that one). If there’s a high time, there should be a low one. I’ve never heard anyone tell me it’s low time to do anything, although there ought to be a lot of things in that category.

At this particular moment in time, I have to ask if there is ever a moment that is NOT in time. Are there timeless moments? If you’re selling greeting cards or photographic equipment, yes. You want people to buy products that celebrate or capture those timeless moments. But if a moment is timeless, how can it even exist to be celebrated or photographed? Will a greeting card reach the recipient in time? Are the greeting card and photo people selling us a solipsism, and, while they’re sure time exists, perhaps only in their minds?

And why didn’t Einstein or Newton or Pythagoras explain that? (All right, Pythagoras may have done it, but I’ve wasted my time and not read him, because he’s — well — from a long time ago.)

Kant had a lot to say about whether time exists independently of our minds or if our minds create time as one means to structure existence. I won’t give away the surprise ending here. Besides, I don’t have time right now to go through A Critique of Pure Reason, which was before its time. That doesn’t mean it’s now after its time. Perhaps its time has not yet come at this particular moment.

And, why this particular moment? Is a moment ever not particular, or at least specific? Isn’t that  the very definition of a moment: something quite distinct and particular? Is there ever a nonspecific moment?

Momentarily, I’ll get around to saying more about moments. As the voice on the recorded message at the doctor’s office tells me, “Someone will be with you momentarily.”

Who is that person, and will they be with me timely, or will the sands of time run out?

Once they’re with me, will I only get their attention momentarily — for a single moment — and then they’ll be gone again? I need more of a doctor’s time that that, but, apparently, time’s a-wastin’. It’s bad enough to be billed hourly or by the minute. Imagine being billed by the moment. Does my insurance cover that?

Those of us on airplanes learn from the flight attendant on the loudspeaker that we’re “beginning our landing process.” Why does there have to be a landing process; can’t we simply land?

We’re further informed that “we’ll be landing momentarily.” Does that mean we’ll merely touch down for a moment, then the pilot will gun the engines and take off again? Are we to leap from the plane while it’s rolling, before we get airborne again?

During this current timeframe, I also ask for some clarification about that frame of time. Does it have specific (or perhaps particular) dimensions? Is it a two-dimensional frame or perhaps a 3-dimensional framework? Time, itself — science fiction authors never weary of telling us — is the fourth dimension, but it’s difficult for those of us without at least a grasp of differential calculus to picture a four-dimensional frame that might really BE a timeframe. How does a timeframe differ from any other “time?” Or, for that matter, some other type of “frame?”

Or, perhaps it’s integral calculus. As a liberal arts major I don’t understand the integral differential between the two in this particular timeframe.

While we’re engaged in this consideration of time, English should allow us to say that we are — in a sense — doing time, the way we might be doing exercise or doing dishes. Plus, if we’re improving our grasp of time — hence its standing in the English lexicon — we might also say that we are serving time. Both of those phrases seem too closely associated with a pejorative connotation, so we’ll leave them to those already doing time for the time being.

There, I’ve done it again at this particular time: Is there ever a time that is not being? Ah, finally, a question I can answer. Yes, time was that things were different and time will be in which all will be made clear. It seems not at this particular point in time, but it’s high time it happened.

Suddenly I’m back where I started and it’s again high time. Is this the endless wheel of time, on which all things exist simultaneously, timelessly, and we’re all just Dharma bums along for the ride? Just when do we get off that wheel and enter the correct timeframe? Momentarily? If I run backwards along that wheel, will I recapture the past?

My time’s up, but when is time ever down?

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 18, 2019

Visit to an Ancient Civilization: Mimbres Valley, New Mexico

In my previous post, I related a visit to the Western New Mexico Museum in Silver City and its collection of pottery and other artifacts from the native American Mimbres culture. (click here to read it).

The culture’s unique decorative style features dramatically rendered geometric patterns and sometimes fanciful interpretations of people, animals, fish and birds. Here is an inventively stylized rabbit.

Mimbres rabbits Brad Nixon 6364 680

Part of a larger group of tribes called the Mogollon people, the Mimbres inhabited southern New Mexico between about 800 and 1300 A.D. Over the course of those centuries, their communities evolved in ways similar to those visitors see in more commonly visited sites like Mesa Verde National Park and Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Beginning with pit houses dug into the earth and roofed by wooden beams, the Mimbres eventually built freestanding, above-ground “pueblo-style” compounds of river rock, adobe brick and timber. There were dozens or scores of small villages along the Mimbres and Gila Rivers and their tributaries. Below is a reconstruction of one Mimbres community, the Mattocks Ruin, just outside the village of Mimbres.

Mimbres site model Brad Nixon 6501 680

Approximately 200 people lived there on the flood plain of the Mimbres River. They were farmers who used relatively advanced irrigation, but also hunted and gathered naturally growing vegetables, seeds and nuts. Their remarkable pottery began as purely pragmatic wares for storing and carrying water and food. Then, the Mimbres became creative artists of impressive accomplishment, as shown in this fish decoration. 

Mimbres fish Brad Nixon 6338 680

The fish’s four legs are sometimes a symbol of the Warrior Twins, present in many creation stories of the southwestern cultures.

Most of the known Mimbres sites are on private property. Only the Mattocks site is open to the public, and only since 2014. I was delighted to finally have an opportunity to see it this summer. 

What’s Been Lost

The Mattocks site is, regrettably, one of a limited number of Mimbres sites that have been systematically excavated and studied. As I wrote more extensively at this link, a significant number of Mimbres village sites were looted for their pottery and artifacts some decades ago, sometimes with the use of heavy machinery, as in this photo from the 1970s.

mimbres excavation mimbres foundtation paul minnis

Looting made those sites virtually useless for systematic archaeological study.

You can visit the Mattocks site, about 27 miles east of Silver City, New Mexico. (See directions below.)

There’s a small museum, operated by volunteers and funded by a variety of programs and donors, located in an 1890s ranch house, known as the Gooch House, after its first residents. The property was later owned by another rancher, Bert Mattocks, hence the name of the Mimbres village there.

Mimbres Museum Brad Nixon 6502 600

Visit the museum, talk to the volunteer on duty, ask questions, and tour the small exhibit space, which includes the village reconstruction shown above.

Also on the site is an older structure, the 1880s Wood House, built by the first European settler on the property, Dr. Granville Wood, a physician.

Wood homestead Brad Nixon 6504 680

Dr. Wood planted apple, peach, cherry, pear, apricot and plum trees, grew alfalfa and vegetables and raised livestock. The house is one of the oldest surviving structures from the period of European settlement in the Mimbres valley.

A Walk Through the Village Site

Walk north from the museum, following a paved path, which will lead you into a broad flood plain of the Mimbres River. In the photo below, you look north, toward the distant Gila Mountains.

Mattocks Site Brad Nixon 6495 680

No. It is not the Pyramids, Stonehenge or the Forum Romanum. The site was extensively excavated in the early decades of the 20th century, and those excavations have provided a significant percentage of what’s known of Mimbres culture from in situ study.

Archaeologists found walls, pottery, tools, weapons and waste fields (middens) — mapping and charting as they went — permitting the reconstructions I picture here. When the field work was complete, the archaeologists followed common practice, covering the ruins to protect them. The standard wisdom is that later studies, benefitting from more advanced technology or informed by adjacent work, will make it possible to derive further information by digging again.

Instead of seeing ruins at Mattocks, you’re going to use your imagination, with some assistance from the Mimbres Culture Heritage organization. Follow the path.

Below, you’re looking east. The trees at the foot of the brown hills mark the course of the Mimbres River, immediately beside the village site.

Mattocks site Brad Nixon 6472 680

The community farmed a considerable portion of the flood plain, and hunters ranged far up those hills and the rugged territory beyond, some of which is now the federally protected Gila Wilderness.

Throughout the site, there are display boards describing the portions of the village near you, like this one.

Mattocks diagram Brad Nixon 6478 680

There are also individual reconstructions of  living structures that are now beneath the soil.

Mimbres model Brad Nixon 6494 680

Seeing a Place That Is No Longer “There”

Even without visible structures, you can imagine the life of an ancient community.

The Mimbres possessed only stone tools — no metal — advanced pottery-making skills, a knowledge of farming, hunting, food-gathering and making clothes. What would it be like to sustain a community with those capabilities and limitations?

What was daily life like? What was it like in winter? How much work did it require to gather and prepare food, collect firewood, build and maintain housing, raise children? Who had the nearly endless task of carrying pots to the river, filling them with water, carrying them back, then repeating the trip?

The Mimbres, like contemporaneous southwestern Puebloan societies, possessed no known form of writing. We have only artifacts, pottery and an understanding of their farming and hunting practices. Although we’ve learned a reasonable amount about their culture, much has been lost through the looting and destruction of many sites.

We can only stand under the western sky, ask and wonder.

Mattocks Site Brad Nixon 6500 680

Visiting the Mattocks Ruin

The Mattocks Ruin is located on the edge of the village of Mimbres at mile marker 4 on Route 35. From Silver City, take Rt. 180 east, then Route 152, turn left on Rt. 35. The site is on the right, marked by a road sign.

Mimbres Map Google

The routes are all paved, progressively narrower and slower as you travel from Silver City to Mimbres, through lovely high desert country.

Tucson is about 3-1/2 hours west. Las Cruces is about two hours southeast.

For more information visit the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site website at this link.

A informative and attractive book for learning more about the Mimbres, with many excellent photographs, is Mimbres Pottery, Ancient Art of the American Southwest, Brody et al, Hudson Hills Press, New York, 1983.

Appreciation to the volunteers and docents of the Mimbres Heritage Culture Site who provided valuable information, answered many questions, and deserve credit for their work in preserving the Mattocks Ruin.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Pottery photographed in the collection of the Western New Mexico University Museum, and may not be used for commercial purposes. Excavation photograph by Paul Minnis © The Mimbres Foundation, and may not be used for any commercial purpose. Map © Google.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 8, 2019

To New Mexico and the Mimbres Culture; Voices That Are Lost

If you wake up early in Silver City, New Mexico on a summer morning, wander over to downtown. Looking north along Bullard Street, it might appear like this:

Bulllard St Brad Nixon 6236680

No, there’s not a lot of vehicular traffic at 5:45 a.m. in downtown Silver on a July morning. Nor was there any traffic on that spot in the year 1100.

But, within a few miles of what’s now Silver City, the nearby Mimbres River valley was home to a remarkable culture. Everyone was awake, hard at work. Southwestern New Mexico was the center of a thriving population.

The 12th century had larger centers of population. Baghdad may have had a million people. Kaifeng, in China, certainly had 400,000 residents.  A city that no longer exists, Merv, in Turkmenistan, central Asia, probably had half a million residents.

In 12th century Europe, Constantinople had 300,000 people; Paris, 50,000; London, perhaps 25,000.

In North America, 1,200 miles east of the Mimbres River, the Cahokia complex, east of present-day St. Louis, was one of the world’s largest cities, with as many as 40,000 people.

Back in New Mexico, it wasn’t about large numbers of humans. Along the Gila and Mimbres Rivers and their tributaries, small communities of 100 to 200 people built pueblo-style compounds of mud brick and timber, farming corn (maize), beans and squash with the help of relatively sophisticated irrigation, as well as hunting deer and rabbits.

Like the Cahokia and other native cultures of that era, the Mimbres Culture had no metal tools, only stone and wood. (“Mimbres” is the plural of the Spanish word for “willow,” and the river valley is home to native willows.) They did not have the wheel, nor did they use draft animals. Horses, sheep and domesticated cattle would only be introduced several hundred years later by European invaders, long after the Mimbres had moved on.

Before that, they did something remarkable. To see what they did, let’s go back to Bullard Street in present-day Silver City.

Drive north, turn left on College Avenue and work your way uphill to the campus of Western New Mexico University (WNMU). At the top of the hill, you’ll find Fleming Hall and the WNMU Museum.

WNMU Fleming Hall Brad Nixon 6420 680

Built in 1917, the main floor of Fleming Hall was the school’s gymnasium.

Today, it’s been converted into the WNMU Museum, which holds the world’s largest publicly available collection of the remarkable works of pottery craft created by the Mimbres culture, primarily between 900 and 1200 A.D.

WNMU Fleming Hall Brad Nixon 6418 680

Pottery vessels were of primary importance to native American cultures. They held water and food, served as cooking vessels, and also — it’s believed — had important ceremonial roles. Here is a man carrying a basket on his head in the distance, surrounded by butterflies in the foreground. Is this a story? A parable? A fable? 

Mimbres butterflies Brad Nixon 6350 680

The pottery is unlike anything ever seen before or since. The “classic” Mimbres period, from about 900 – 1150, incorporates astonishingly inventive figures, like this snake emerging from the body of a bird that may be a turkey.

Mimbres snake Brad Nixon 6274 680

The artisans who created those ceramic vessels were, almost certainly, women. Men had the tasks of building and maintaining structures and hunting, while farming was likely a collaborative effort. Contemporary southwestern native potters today are, primarily, female, and it’s likely that prehistoric pottery was also the work of women, like this black-tailed jackrabbit, instantly recognizable to any resident of today’s southwestern desert.

Mimbres rabbit Brad Nixon 6340 680

In a hard land, where work began at the break of every day and continued past dark, with starvation always a threat, a few thousand humans found the means to express something ineffable in how they’d decorate a bowl, with artfully designed figures that reflected the world they lived in: lizards, rabbits, snakes, turtles …

Mimbres turtle Brad Nixon 6267 680

A year of drought would put the community at risk. Two years? There’d be no water for crops, game would become scarce, requiring weeks instead of days of hunting. Still, some essential urge of the human spirit inspired the artisans of a threatened world to express something about what they saw, what they knew about the world around them.

Mimbres bees Brad Nixon 6281 680

What do these figures represent? Are they merely records of the nature the Mimbres encountered? They’re carefully observed and — to a great degree — accurately represented. Did they have totemic, symbolic significance, or were they mere decoration?

At least one legend from that day has come down to us: Kokopelli, the flute-playing fertility symbol. A trickster god, the hunch-backed Kokopelli is a familiar figure throughout the American southwest, endlessly repeated in local crafts in the form of pendants and decorations. A thousand years ago, he played many roles in cultures from the Hohokam in southern Arizona to the Mississippian cultures far to the east, and it’s impossible to define just what he meant to the Mimbres. Yes, he was there.

Mimbres Kokopelli Brad Nixon 6317 680

We can’t say what those images signified. The Mimbres — like most prehistoric native cultures in North America — possessed no writing. Theirs was an oral culture, passed from person to person across generations. Now, their culture is lost to us, except for these artifacts.

The artistry of the pottery was passed along in the same way: person to person, mother to daughter. In the the WMNU collection is a remarkable piece. A scholar has suggested that the execution of the artwork indicates it was done by a child of 5 or 6 years old. An almost heartbreakingly beautiful moment in the life of what it might mean to be a child, learning to paint pottery in the year 1100.

Mimbres mountain lion Brad Nixon 6252 680

Mountain lions. Rarely seen, even then. What would Grandmother say? Did you get it right? Keep working.

There, in one glimpse into another world, is a moment that resonates with our time. A mother or grandmother, teaching a child how to decorate her pot. “Make your brush like this. Dip it into your paint. Paint like this.”

If you spend a couple of hours in the WMNU museum, as I did, you’ll encounter a stack of pull-out drawers in one of the basement rooms. In them are artifacts retrieved from Mimbres sites. Among them are axe- and spearheads, arrow points, awls and tools made of bone. There are preserved fragments of fabric, and sandals, intricately woven of yucca fiber more than a thousand years ago. And this, a sandal made of soft deerskin, once worn by a tiny child, with my finger as an indication of the scale.

Mimbres sandal Brad Nixon 6394 680

Only a few inches long, it once held the foot of a child, perhaps a year old. The world turns on, long after the Mimbres left.

A world immeasurably distant from ours. And, yet, the same world we inhabit today. They left to us to carry on. What do we see? What will we leave?

Finally, this. One of many pieces in the collection labeled “provenience unknown,” unlabeled. As a kid who grew up in the American Midwest, if that is not an owl, then I can only say that I have nothing in common with the people who walked across the land I grew up on on. But I think they knew an owl when they saw one, and captured it there, painted into enduring pottery, a thousand years before I was born.

Whooo?

Mimbres owl Brad Nixon 6382 680

Western New Mexico University Museum

Silver City is in southwestern New Mexico. The museum is in Fleming Hall on the university campus. While the address of the university is 1000 West College Ave., you can drive to the museum from 10th Street, parallel to College, one block north. College becomes Louisiana St., and the entrance to the museum parking lot is on the right.

The museum is open 7 days a week, but hours vary. Entrance is free, but donations are suggested to support this impressive collection. More details at museum.wnmu.edu.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Items pictured are in the collection of the University of Western New Mexico, photographed in July 2019.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 3, 2019

We Will Control the Horizontal …

In 1961, a science fiction TV series titled “The Outer Limits” debuted in the U.S.

The program was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the groundbreaking “The Twilight Zone,” including an atmospheric graphics-and-music introduction (which you can see on YouTube: click here). It begins:

Male Voice-Over: somewhat ominous, nascent with implied threat, under graphics [“GFX”]:

[GFX: White electronic oscilloscope waves on black]

“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”

[GFX: Single white dot glows on black screen]

“Do not attempt to adjust the picture.

We are controlling transmission.

We will control the horizontal.”

[GFX: dot expands to horizontal white line on black screen].

“We will control the vertical.”

[GFX: dot expands to vertical white line on black screen]…

In 1961, controlling horizontal and vertical meant a variety of things in technical terms, because the state of broadcast technology was primitive. Simply getting a picture into a cathode ray tube in living rooms could be problematic.

Television pictures were horizontal: wider than they were tall. If you still own a TV set, that’s the case today.

However, there are some tens or hundreds of millions of people walking around with devices perfectly capable of recording vertical-format video. They’re called “phones.”

As a result, despite several generations of orientation to the fact that video is shown in horizontal format, the airwaves, the Internet, your email, social media and everywhere else is replete with video shot in vertical format, which looks — to use a technical term — doinky when shown on a TV screen that’s 1.77 times wider than it is tall.

Has everyone forgotten that?

No. Please don’t leave a comment. I get it. A majority of people access their electronic worlds on those hand-held vertical screens now.

I don’t. I have a horizontal television and the computer on my desk has a horizontal monitor screen.

Often, it doesn’t matter so much what format the video’s in. But, is it so difficult for someone to look at the scene they’re recording — like a group picture or perhaps a wide landscape — and simply turn the device so the screen format matches the shape of the scene?

Tall building? Yep, that’s vertical. One or two people posed in front of a statue? Maybe vertical. Your cousin’s too-cute-for-words kids running across the yard? No.

Turn your phone sideways. If for no other reason, do it so I won’t have to keep harping on it. And do not expect me to go to the theater to see a movie shot in vertical orientation. I’ll stay home.

SW_Testbild_auf_Philips_TD1410U 680

© Brad Nixon 2019. “The Outer Limits” introduction is almost certainly copyrighted material, quoted here as editorial “fair use,” and should not be used for commercial purposes. 1952 television set with test pattern by Eckhard Etzold – Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4230239. Retrieved December 2, 2019.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 29, 2019

Ave Atque Vale, Clive James

In the U.S., we’ve just observed the annual Thanksgiving holiday.

On the day before Thanksgiving came the news that writer, critic, poet and raconteur, Clive James, had succumbed to the terminal leukemia and emphysema with which he’d been diagnosed nearly ten years earlier.

Only 80 at his death, he worked on until nearly the end.

Born in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, he moved to the UK in 1962 after completing a psychology degree from the University of Sydney and working a short stint at The Sydney Morning Herald. He lived in the UK for the rest of his life.

He earned a degree from Pembroke College, Cambridge. By every account, including his own, he invested little time on course material. Instead, he pursued his own autodidactic bent, while tirelessly producing poetry, criticism, essays and journalism.

Always, ceaselessly, there was reading. James taught himself to read several languages and developed a daunting command of the canon of western literature. His curiosity seems never to have failed him. He once wrote, “A cafe table stacked with books has been my university now for 40 years.”

Widely published as literary critic throughout his career, James became a television critic in 1972, a role he filled for 10 years at The Observer. His scathing wit and willingness to investigate every sort of televised programming was as relentless as he was with everything he essayed. He became a fixture on British television, himself, beginning in 1982 with “Clive James on Television,” then, in 1989, a travel program, “Clive James’ Postcard From,” and an 8-part documentary for BBC, “Fame in the 20th Century.”

Although he’s remembered by many viewers in the UK as an unfailingly captivating and perceptive television personality, there was a lot more to Clive James.

He was a songwriter and producer of six musical albums in the 1970s. He wrote four novels and, over the span of several decades, a 5-part autobiography. He never ceased writing poetry, essays and literary criticism.

Unfailingly, there was reading, and he read voraciously.

He was a stern critic of his own work, as well as that of others. Although he has been declared by some the greatest Australian poet of his day, his own assessment was that he wrote some good lines, surrounded by many bad lines, and his only goal was to reduce the number of bad lines. That was James being James, sparing no one, including himself.

I have not read nearly enough of Mr. James’ seemingly endless range of work, which reflects an impressive intellect coupled with a fierce dedication to clear and compelling writing.

He was merciless in his condemnation of superficial thinking or slipshod writing. He once rejected an editor’s suggested revisions to a piece by saying, “If I wrote like that, I’d be you.”

Cultural Amnesia

Nothing, in my opinion, will give you a clearer understanding of his far-reaching intellect than Cultural Amnesia, from 2007. In it he examines the work of more than a hundred 20th century artists, musicians, filmmakers and intellectuals, but, primarily, writers and poets.

Cultural Amnesia Brad Nixon 7013 680

If you’re familiar with the work of all the individuals Mr. James included in the book, I salute you. Many of the writers were entirely unknown to me, while others were merely names about whom I had a vague or general understanding, and had never read them. Many I thought I knew, but James shed new light on their work.

Once you’ve read the Introduction and the “Overture,” approach the book in any way you prefer. It’s organized alphabetically, so you may start with Anna Akhmatova and read through to Stefan Zweig. Alternatively, scan the table of contents for names you recognize — or names you do not — and start there.

James’ focus is the challenge of preserving culture — our shared humanism of artistic expression. To him, the history of the 20th century was one of wars, racism, pogroms and prejudice, directed to suppress the individual thinker. Many of his profiles describe lives of dire poverty pursued by artists outside whatever was the mainstream of their time or culture, often leaving behind only a few pieces of work.

If they are lost, goes his argument — if we fail to explore them — we suffer from a dire critical amnesia that will cost us dearly.

In a lifetime of determined searching through libraries, bookstalls or wherever he could find them, James tracked down the works of these writers and countless others, often long out of print, and often only available in German, Russian or French editions decades old. He read them, wrote notes in the ones he owned (a practice he heartily endorsed) and not only remembered what he read, but synthesized a great deal of it into Cultural Amnesia.

Throughout, he makes the case that there is more to be found in literature, art and music than we can ever grasp, but he sets a towering example of how far one might reach toward an understanding of it.

The book made a terrific impact on me. It’s inspired me to track down the work of some number of the writers he portrays, although I’ll never exhaust the list of what I’ve yet to read.

In the book, James said, “A painter can leave you with nothing to say. A writer leaves you with everything to say.”

I invite you not to mourn but — here at this time of giving thanks — celebrate what Mr. James left us, by reading what he wrote.

He once said, “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”

Hail and farewell, Mr. James.

Have you read some of Clive James? What say you? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2019

I collected the biographical details and quotations from obituaries and appreciations published on bbc.com and the New York Times. All were published November 27, 2019 and retrieved November 28, 2019 from the following links:

BBC ObituaryBBC Announcement/Appreciation; BBC, “Clive James in His Own Words“; New York Times Obituary; New York Times: “Clive James, a Tireless Polymath Who Led with His Wit,” by Dwight Garner

Cover of Cultural Amnesia © Mcmillan Publishers Ltd., 2007. Photograph by Brad Nixon, 2019

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