Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Pink Button

This old ranch house - not quite John-Deere green

This old ranch house got painted.  For a long time, the south and west exterior walls - the storm sides - had as much gray wood exposed as grimy white paint.  Some of the paint tested as lead, so the job got complicated.  We decided to move out of the house for a few days during the lead paint removal.  For 3 months, the family's bags and the pet crates were packed and unpacked as we waited for a few dry, windless days so the contractor could construct a temporary visqueen bubble, scrape off the remaining lead flakes, and cart them away.  Finally, in the middle of the rainy season, four projected dry days held and suddenly the job was done.

The contractor asked what color paint I preferred.  Well, the same colors, of course - white with dark green trim.  You can't change the colors of an old ranch house.

The squirrel thermometer smiles even when covered with grit on a 99-degree day.

To prepare for the painting, I took down decades of miscellaneous embellishments that had been tacked onto the walls and eaves.  The garage had a half-door contraption nailed to its exterior which at one time swung over the bottom half of the side entry.  Someone suggested it might have been used to keep chickens in the garage.  I pulled off its sagging green boards and corroded hinges, as well as two thermometers, an eagle-topped flagpole rusted and blown flat against the roof, and pulleys for some type of hanging screen long since rotted away from the porch.  Each week I worked out my annoyance over the rain delays by walking around the buildings with pry bar in hand and pulling off more random boards, nails and hooks all the while wondering who put them there and why.

Three rose bushes had tree-size trunks next to the garage.

A few years ago, a messy jungle and piles of debris surrounded the farm buildings from come-and-go tenant neglect.  We've been gradually cleaning it up.  To allow access for the painters, we needed to tackle more of the straggly plants.  I dug up and got rid of a rangy shrub next to the house to meet the defensible space requirements (clearing flammable vegetation near rural structures to reduce the potential for damage in the event of a wildfire), but I hesitated when taking my loppers after the pink rambling rose on the garage and decided to just trim it back instead.  As I pulled the tangled and decrepit vines from the wall, I discovered the live brambles were sprouting from woody stumps over a foot in diameter.  These modest-looking rose vines are actually very old plants.  I found myself trying to picture who planted them. Could I restore them to their former glory and still follow modern-day recommendations to reduce wildfire risk?

Gigantic mass of amaryllis bulbs and roots crowding the busy backdoor.

Next to the kitchen door was an amaryllis plant - the showy Hippeastrum type which are often sold as large bulbs in foil-covered pots.  Hybrids of South American origin, they are usually forced to provide colorful indoor blooms in the midst of dreary winter. At the Dipper door, this plant gets its pink trumpet blossoms in the summer, although its weather-beaten leaves never seemed to acclimate to this corner of the house.  When reaching for the hose or scrub brushes, I frequently worried I might rouse a snake hiding in its messy leaves.  I decided to transplant the amaryllis to get it out of the way of the painting and away from my backdoor cleaning center.  When I went to dig it out, I uncovered such a massive clump of roots and bulbs, I couldn't lift it out of the ground without first sawing it into smaller pieces.  Obviously, this plant had had a long residence next to the kitchen door and I wondered if I was crudely chopping into the legacy of a long ago birthday, anniversary or Easter present.  I found a sheltered spot for the amaryllis transplants in the front yard between two other old-time landscape plants, red-hot poker plants and a bed of narcissus.

The kitchen-door amaryllis bulbs sprouting at their new spot in the old yard.

Incidentally, there is another plant known as amaryllis and also pink-flowering that joins the old-fashioned landscaping at the Dipper Ranch.  A wide band of Amaryllis belladona covers the long bank between the front yard and the orchard. This African plant is commonly called Naked Ladies because months after its straplike leaves die back in the summer, bare stalks rise up like long lipstick tubes and explode with pink flowers.  I never liked the common name of this plant and used to consider it  gaudy.  I grudgingly appreciate that it is deer- and gopher-proof, and keeps out the thistles on the hardest part of the slope to mow.  One day while rereading the oral interviews with Paul and Lola Ortega, the original ranch caretakers that lived in this house, I noticed they mentioned pretty pink plants in their yard and bragged about collecting them from the former location of a hotel and stage coach stop on Page Mill Road, the stage coach road that used to cross the Dipper Ranch.  Now, I'm starting to like the Pink Ladies, as I prefer to call them, since they are the legendary booty of a stage coach heist, recycled and very practical in these rough surroundings.

Thick bed of Pink Ladies with their skirts protecting the edge of the orchard

I've heard talk about historical landscapes or historical landscaping.  Places that were planted around buildings long ago and became part of the historical culture. Some people think it is important to save and cultivate these historical landscapes along with the historical buildings to preserve the entire sense of place.  I don't pretend that the Dipper Ranch buildings have much historical significance, still I feel some responsibility to learn about and maintain the ranch's history where it is feasible and consistent with the new purpose of the ranch as an open space preserve. It is my version of thinking historically and acting locally.

The National Park Service defines historic vernacular landscape as " a landscape that evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped it . . . the landscape reflects the physical, biological, and cultural character of everyday lives."  Estates of wealthy individuals and institutions may have fancy gardens and lawns, but the humble folk tend to create functional plantings to support their family such as orchards or vegetable gardens, or simple plantings that record a moment in their lives.

I recently found an interesting article by an architecture professor at the University of Colorado - Denver.  In Preserving Ranches: Not Only Possible, but Imperative, Ekaterini Vlahos ( I admit it, I found this an unusual name for someone researching history of the western US), talks about how "Traditional ranches are places where struggle and adaptation have etched themselves into the ground, weaving together culture, land, buildings, homes and lives."  She describes western ranches as places where people have needed to adapt to the oftentimes harsh environmental conditions, conserving their man-made and environmental resources, and often depending on the surrounding community and a local ranching economy to make it more than one generation.  In current times, as advocacy groups, recreation-based governmental agencies, and private buyers acquire traditional ranches, these new forms of ownerships often separate the ranch buildings from the land and the ranching culture.  Although I did not personally witness the transition, this discussion makes my head spin when I think about how much rural San Mateo County and its ranching history have changed over the past 60 years as the suburbs of San Francisco and Silicon Valley have expanded.

I spend most of my professional day as an ecologist trying to erase the destructive hand of man on the land - taking out erosion-prone logging roads, eliminating invasive species, and planting oaks and native grasses.  Living amongst the ghosts of the Dipper Ranch, I now sometimes get confused.  Furthermore, I think we have a tendency to wonder and make up tales about the people who lived on the land before us and we like to make legends out of them, sometimes quite exaggerated.  I am not sure why we do that.  And when and how do the new legends get started?  These are thoughts that followed me as I prepared for the ranch house painting, indeed, every time I repair, remove or alter the Dipper Ranch ground.

A Pink Button . . . to be continued

The Roessler-Rients farmstead.  In rural Minnesota, this farm has gradually changed in three generations.  I spent most summers of my childhood on this farm with my thrifty grandparents.


  1. When I worked for the Owatonna Canning Co, a lot of the company farms were around abandoned farmsites. I loved walking around the sites. You could figure out the layout of the farm by the plants. There was usually some old apple trees, rhubarb plants, tulips and sometimes daffodils.

  2. Great articles and pictures, thanks for sharing.


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