Farmland Cathedrals

For the better part of six years, a good portion my life consisted of sitting in large, dark lecture halls where I attempted to simultaneously take notes while also looking at slides being projected onto a large screen.  While degrees in history and urban planning were eventually conferred upon me, only my transcripts gave any indication as to how close I was to almost becoming an academic vampire.  You see, while I did take many a class required for these two degrees, most of the rest of my time was spent in the dark rooms.  There I was supposed to suck as much life blood out of the subjects presented to me, and I was expected to do it as quickly as possible.  Yes, I confess, I was a student of art and architectural history.

Spanning the history of western Europe from the time of the Roman empire through the Age of Enlightenment, I probably viewed a projected slide of every significant building or piece of art created during this time, or at least it seemed that way after most classes.  It was, however, truly addictive because everything seemed larger than life projected on the lecture hall screen.  I could hardly wait to see these masterpieces in person, especially those magnificent medieval cathedrals.  Dominating their landscapes, and visible from afar, these architectural marvels often served as focal points in their communities.  Moreover, they were also physical testaments to their communities’ histories.  Tour any medieval cathedral and it is almost impossible not to touch upon the history of the region and its people.  Each brick and wall in the buildings, as well as the grounds they occupied were literally steeped in the blood, sweat and tears of the ages.  It’s history come alive.

America, too, has its own amazing architectural history, but we are a much younger nation than most European countries.  And while a visit to New York, Boston, or Washington D.C. can easily keep an architectural historian busy for many a year to come, it is important to remember that much of America’s population was rural until World War II.  As such, travelling between America’s big cities often meant travelling through a vast number of rural farming communities.

Now, I will grant you that schools, community churches, and later on, railroad stations, often became landmark structures in many of America’s farming communities, but, I truly suspect that the first landmark structures dotting America’s rural landscape were barns, if for no other reason than sheer necessity.  Without barns, farming would have been near impossible.

Over time, America became more urbanized, and barns, while still an essential part of a daily farming operations, started to acquire a new role as icons of a rapidly disappearing way of life.  As such, barns, not unlike Europe’s cathedrals, over time became physical testaments to the glory of days past, real or perceived.  And, again like the cathedrals, albeit to a lesser degree, they continued to dominate their landscapes, and often remained the first buildings visible from afar.  It is hard to drive through farm country and not notice barns off in the distance.  OK, perhaps this last statement is a bit of a personal confession rather than a statement, but I do find it hard to head out of Seattle via the back roads without wanting to stop and photograph some of the region’s more distinguished barns, like the two below.

Barn, Skagit Valley, 2010

Barn, Skagit Valley, 2010

Barn, Orcas Island, 2010

Barn, Orcas Island, 2010

The red barn above is located in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle, and when the sun is low in the sky, like in this photo, it’s just a photographer dream come true.  I pass by this barn often when I am wandering through the valley, but I do not recollect any lighting as dramatic and as golden as in this photo.  But, hope springs eternal, and I always pass by this barn when I am in the area in hopes of catching some more golden light.

The silvery gray barn below is located on Orcas Island, in the San Juan Islands.  It’s a wonderful place to visit, but, if you go searching for this barn, I suggest that bring your best detective skills with you.  The image that you see was shot in 2010.  And, when I visited the island again in 2012, I searched for this barn with the hope that I would be able to photograph it again, hopefully with some golden sunlight.  My beloved and I drove, and drove, and drove, until we had been all throughout the island, at least twice.  The barn was nowhere to be found.

Frustrated, we stopped and chatted with a local merchant who knew the island quite well.  I showed him the photo, and he immediately recognized the barn.  He then gave us directions and sent us on our way.  We followed his directions quite carefully and stopped at the edge of the farm where the barn was supposed to be.  We were a bit puzzled, as we could not see this old weathered beauty anywhere.  But, we looked a bit closer and realized that the barn that was there, a bright shiny new barn with fresh wood shingles, was it.  It appears that the owners completely rebuilt the barn.  They maintained its original shape, but all of the materials were brand new.  I figure if I am extremely lucky, I might be able to recreate my original photo in about 50 years if the barn weathers quickly!  Perhaps I should reconsider that long sought trip to Europe in the meantime?  I found some old notes that seem to indicate there are a number of magnificent of old buildings which dominate their landscapes.  But then again, these notes do look to be hastily written by a some poor soul confined to dark rooms for extended periods of time.

–Ken

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