Friday, July 08, 2005

Signs and Portents

See, I think there's a plan. There's a design for each and every one of us. You look at nature. Bird flies somewhere, picks up a seed, shits the seed out, plant grows. Bird's got a job, shit's got a job, seed's got a job. And you've got a job.

--Maddy, in Cold Mountain

There's a very strange feeling that arises when you approach an abandoned 18th-century Colonial log cabin deep, deep in the woods, miles -- centuries -- from the nearest Wal-Mart, Dodge dealership or strip mall.

I want to say reverence, but that's not quite it. Fear? Awe? Wonder? Yes, these enter into it.

You tend to start at every sound, every snapping twig, because these places are just suffused with ghostliness, with a presence that you dare not disturb. This feeling is not at all lessened by the appearance of a huge black vulture who has taken up residence in the attic of another nearby abandoned house, and who takes a very keen interest in your every movement. The first time we came through here, she hopped out of her attic window, perched on a nearby dead tree, and posed with her wings outspread to threaten us away.

This is not a sight that brings thoughts of blessings, comfort and joy, here deep in the woods. A less rigidly ordered mind than mine might tend to see Signs and Portents in such a thing.

We humbly beg your pardon for the intrusion, madame. We will be on our way directly.

The first homestead we found had a junction box for electricity, indicating it had been occupied well into the 20th century. The clapboard siding was a much later addition. We also found some pop-top soda cans outside the first house that implied occupation in the early 1980s.

Try and imagine that. Living in a one-room log cabin during the first Reagan Administration. Think about that when you're vacuuming the guest bedroom and thinking it's such a goddamned hassle.

This is an outbuilding for the first homestead. My companion today, my neighbor Tom Bullock, restores old houses for a living, which is why I'd invited him along on this hike. He's one of the amateur archaeologists who came to survey the old site of my cabin a couple of weeks ago. Unlike many of the mere souvenir-hunters who inhabit this little world, Tom's in it for the history and the emotional connection to the past. He was plainly thrilled to find these historically pristine, unimproved cabins that sit on land belonging to the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship.

Above is another view of that same outbuilding. About the size of a walk-in closet. Tom speculates it was a chicken coop, or perhaps a place to hang and smoke meats. There are still racks inside, and care was taken by the proprietors to make the interior inaccessible to predators.

This is the other homestead, deeper in the woods. An 1853 map of Loudoun County, the Yardley Taylor Map, marks this as belonging to the Demory family. (Another house, further out nearer the road, is also a Demory house. That's being excavated by archaeology students. The one we're looking at now hasn't been touched, except for a little desultory shoring-up work. Without preservation, this one will collapse before very much longer.)

The May 1861 Vote on Secession shows two Demorys, John W. and William, of this area, as having voted for the Rebels. Their neighbor about a quarter-mile away, John P. Derry, voted Union. No Demorys voted Union. No Derrys voted Secesh.

Besides being neighbors, the two families were intricately linked by marriage -- the mother of Rachel Derry, whom we met in my last Mobberly post enduring the beatings and depravities of John P.'s nephew Philip Derry, was Mary Demory Dowling Potts.

I can't help but gape in amazement thinking about the events these walls have seen. All that time. All that passion. All that blood.

Here's a little History of American Vernacular Architecture lesson for you. I picked this tidbit up from Christopher Fennell's Ph.D. thesis -- he studied yet another Demory house on the side of Short Hill, a few miles from here.

The construction technique on display here is Pennsylvania Dutch. On log cabins further west, you're more likely to see unhewn notched logs that are stacked such that some of the end of each log extends a few inches from the corner. Remember Lincoln Logs? Like that. Weave your fingers together at the second knuckle and look at the result from above. That's what most log cabins' corners look like. Now notice here that the ends meet exactly, without that overlap, so the house more resembles a true box. The hewn -- squared-off -- logs, whittled down with an adze and a draw-knife, give the walls a more civilized, flatter appearance. The Pennsylvania Dutch technique was adopted by the Scots-Irish who settled here in the late 18th century.

But Tom pointed out something very interesting: notice in the photo above that in the lower three logs, the older part of the house, the builder took care to cut a v-shape on the top of each log and a corresponding concavity on the lower face. This technique, no doubt time-consuming and fussy, locks the logs together. But look at the upper three tiers -- the notched-v technique was either lost or ignored when the second story was added later!

All right, Mrs Vulture. You'll be glad to know we're off, and we haven't disturbed your babies. Guard this place well for us, won't you? And thank you for letting us see it.


res publica said...

What beautiful pictures! For once, I have no snarky comment...this is just a really great post.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Blair Witch CITY, man.

Find any teeth wrapped in cloth? Hear any stones struck together?

Anonymous said...

I'm so more ways than one!

Your friend from the Big O

Art Hackler said...

This was my Granddads home
. he was most likley born thers Thanks for the post Art Hackler

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