The question of the blue gum trees
IT was a long drought. But while it was so dry, and the leaves so skitterish, I decided to sweep the dry loose leaves from the driveway, and from the walk to our front door. So I fetched the broom and began at the front door. The broom and I swept and swept, up and down, back and forth, hither and thither, and while this was going on some of the people associated with that particular broom came to mind.
Sannie Johnson had told me to buy it. Sannie told people to do things, and once she told you what to do, then, of course, you knew exactly what to do, and you did just that, and soon, too. Sannie had been my two-days-a-week housekeeper at the time Mr. Pahl designed a house-for-one for me. It was a fine little place, but with two enormous blue gums on either side.
The experience of working with the Bauhaus-trained Mr. Pahl was an education in the history of art, and my reverence for that dear man, and the gratitude for what he had taught me, forbade my insisting on the removal of the blue gums. The trees framed the composition, I was told, and this was true, of course, but these trees were also very tall, and lay right in the path of storm-strength southeasterly winds which twisted and bent their pale limbs and sent a hail of tiny seed pods raining down onto the roof, and into the gutters, and into the little kitchen yard.
It was part of Sannie's duty to sweep the kitchen yard. Soon she began to tell me about the seed pods. I replied that Mr. Pahl really did not want us to cut down the offending trees, and that they were part of the composition of the landscape. Yes, this she understood.
One should realize that Mr. Pahl admired Sannie. ``She is a lady,'' he told me once; ``she is a woman of dignity,'' he emphasized. And of all the qualities a building had to have, it had to have dignity.
Mr. Pahl was happy with the little house-for-one, so much so that he often brought prospective clients around. I enjoyed these visits, because he would share new little asides that I had not heard before. ``Aah, yes,'' he would remember, when the visitors exclaimed with delight at some small element of the design, ``Mies used to say that God is in the details.''
My recollection of that moment is as clear as of the time when the two of us stood looking at a house that had recently been built on the coast. It had been placed on a lovely site, with the South Atlantic rolling heavily against the rocks below. But after a while, with his gray hair windblown and a fine clean ocean scent to the air around our heads, Mr. Pahl turned sadly aside. ``Lieblos,'' he said softly, ``Lieblos,'' and walked back to the car. The architecture showed that it had been done without love, and that was always a terrible thing.
Mrs. Iris Reinecke had been my landlady for a year while I was a student. It was from her that I heard of Mr. Pahl for the first time. The Reineckes had commissioned him some years earlier to design a homestead for their farm. He had inquired as to their needs, and they had given him the details, the number of rooms, bathrooms, and so forth. Mrs. Reinecke, however, had ideas about the color scheme as well. ``I took him on an imaginary tour of the house, and I said I wanted the walls pink here and blue there, and so on,'' she told me years later. ``He just listened to me quietly until I had finished, and then he said, `Yes, yes, Mrs. Reinecke, it will be white.' '' And so it was.
Mr. Pahl was always perfectly honest about his task as the architect. The client had chosen him to do the architecture, and he was honor-bound to ensure that the client's money was well spent. And it had been my experience that, when he lost the battle as to which furnishings or color, it was actually the client who was the loser.
One day Mr. Pahl arrived at my house with a visitor, to find Sannie busily sweeping the kitchen yard. I was away at work, so I do not know what she told him about those blue gums towering over the house, showering the place with seed pods, and threatening to fall on the roof when the next black southeaster blew.
But, whatever it was, he had the grace to telephone me at the office, and suggest that it was perhaps time to remove the trees.
Dignity, grace, and love. With such thoughts as those I swept, and soon the yard was done, and then it began to rain.