Friday, August 27, 2010

The fishpond & all the rest, the movie...

Now that the fishpond is complete I decided to make a quickie video to show it off as well as to show off the entire back area of our little City of Angels bungalow.

Divine and I are quite proud of what we’ve done with the place. When viewing the video keep in mind that what you see did not exist when we moved in back in December ’07. What is now our master bedroom back then was an outdoor utility shed completely separate from the house. It had a long sink, a small storage room and open windows all around. We filled in all the windows, converted the storage room into a small bathroom and the sink area into ceiling to floor closets.

The video starts off at the breezeway entrance to our bedroom. The reason for the curtain outside the door is to veil it off from the kitchen’s back entrance, which unfortunately directly faces the bedroom entryway. Due to this juxtaposition of doors we hung the curtain diagonally for privacy. I didn’t want to step out of the bedroom in my “all together” only to be seen by someone happening to be standing on the other side of the kitchen screen door. Not that I run around all that much in an indecent state, but I like being able to if I want to.

Notice also at the end of the breezeway the iron works gate and fence. That gate is the entrance to the equally secure covered side yard where the maid does wash and prepares food. We put in drainage, lots of clothesline, a long sink and extra power plugs. The side yard project was one of our first to get done in order to secure the back side of the house. Security is job one in this country, especially in this town.

I provide a quick look at our bedroom. Its small, but I love it that way. We have everything we need in there; plenty of closet space, a bathroom, bookshelves, a comfortable recliner, and a computer and desk workspace where I now sit.

Next is the porch, the space that provides the reason that we don’t really need a sprawling master bedroom, gigantic master bedrooms being the norm in so many houses over here. I take it for granted now, but the porch is where I live. In that wonderful space I watch TV, read, eat our meals, entertain my foreigner friends, and just generally hang out. From there I can see the entire yard, the walk-in finch cage, the entrance to the tree tower staircase; and now that it’s complete, we can also see and “hear” the fishpond waterfall.

Eddie is the reason that we have a mango tree growing up through the roof of the porch. Originally, when I first dreamed up the porch, I assumed that its dimensions would be limited by the tree; but not to someone like Eddie who immediately came up with the idea of incorporating the tree. As soon as he broached the idea I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Keep in mind that in December of 2007 the back area seen in the video encompassing what is now the tower, fishpond and porch was dark, dank and dirty. A rusty broken down double swing sat where the porch now is; and a small four foot by four foot concrete pad surrounded by mud, where the fish tank in the porch is now, is where the previous occupants used to hand rinse their laundry. Other than the two mangos and one jack fruit tree there were no plants of any kind; the three fruit trees lower branches had evidently never been pruned and huge piles of leaves filled and spilled out of the back corner where the fishpond is now. An ugly concrete block fence encompassed the entire perimeter. It was VERY unattractive to say the least.

Looking out into the grassy main yard from within the porch the grass looks green and lush. It was not like that before we worked on making it that way by building the poor soil up by spreading hundreds of buckets of rich compost that we produced ourselves. Every banana peel, tree leaf, apple core, chicken bone and grass clipping has gone into building some of the most amazing soil I’ve ever seen. Today, when I was digging into the oldest of our compost soil I saw earthworms as big as garter snakes. Those worms are “my boys.” They chew it all up, and from the back end, they spew it all out as dark rich castings. I love my worms.

Moving past the bar and mango trunk looking into the side of the finch cage I could only spot a couple of the fifteen birds that live in there. I figured out why they were all hiding once I got up into the tower and saw a storm approaching. They always head for the dry safety of their nesting baskets when they smell precipitation coming. Smart birds those finches.

Stepping out the porch and into my flip-flops I head up the stairs of the tower, now in its second year of existence. Remember the view from the ground as we climb the tower from landing to landing. Not much is visible outside the walls of our little compound. To live in most houses in the Philippines is like this, a very claustrophobic walled in experience. That’s why I love my 46 foot tower where I always feel like I’m rising into an entirely different world as I climb its fifty plus steps.

Ascending higher and higher the breeze becomes apparent in the brisk movement of the long mango leaves. Looking down provides a unique and interesting view of the yard, garden and pond. After two years the three trees have tended to envelope the tower; constant pruning is necessary to keep them at bay. A bright umbrella is seen in the front side of the yard where my nephew squats in its shade as he clips the grass.

Directly to our rear is the house of a Brit whom I have yet to meet even though he and his girlfriend have been there for months now. She told Divine that he is interested in climbing the tower; I told her to tell him to come over any time. Evidently he lives less than half the time in country; mostly he lives back where he’s from I guess.

The third landing is where the entrance to the primary catwalk begins. The sturdy walkway securely allows anyone to climb into the mango tree coming from within the porch and then zigzags down into the jackfruit tree. It feels so safe that it’s easy to forget that the height where it ends at the jackfruit is more than 15 feet up.

Arriving back at the landing I stop and make a comment about the loud music coming from a neighbor’s house, the culprit being a maid doing some outdoor chore. Typically people will open the windows and crank the stereo full blast so they can hear it outside. Maids are notorious for doing it here, but they aren’t the only ones.

Climbing the final two flights the viewer sees on the right the hugely blocky Robinson’s Department Store where we usually go to see movies; to the left of that in the far distance is Mt. Arayat, what’s left of an ancient long dead volcano. A beautiful blue sky and rainless white clouds frame the picturesque old mountain. The camera spins all the way around to the west and entirely different sky can be seen. A line of dark storm clouds is well on the way. Until getting up there I had no idea. If not for the ominous line of approaching weather the Zambales Mountains would be visible in that direction.

On the way back down we take a short stop at the second floor landing and step onto the smaller catwalk for a look at the fishpond from directly above it. Back on the ground the camera pans back to the west and notice that only a hint of the approaching weather is visible.

The grass is spare at the spot where my workers all walked, trampling my beloved grass into near oblivion. After a light sprinkling of fertilizer and compost material, that stressed out piece of yard is beginning to regain its former greenness.

The area containing the tower, garden and pond is super tiny. To disguise its miniature dimensions I broke it up with three mounds of thick lush greenery in the form of rock gardens. Walkways winding between these features further give the feeling of more space than what actually exists.

The waterfall rock wall looks amazing in the video. Using the reinforced concrete support posts as a means to display foliage and vines, in effect framing it with plants, was a stroke of visual genius, even if I do say so myself.

To the rear of the falls is the original high side walkway that once provided access to the top of the now nonexistent rock garden feature that was replaced by the pond. That walkway is still there but now it’s the rear rampart providing access behind the waterfall wall. Eddie put up some sturdy bamboo rails, and if you look closely you can see that he wrapped traditional handmade Abacá rope around all the bamboo joints. This unique rope woven from the strands of fibers of the Abacá plant, from the banana family, provides extra strength and beauty. Directly under the bamboo handrail central to the rock wall can be seen the waterworks and control valves.

I made a point of aiming the camera from directly above looking down the face of the waterfall rock wall. I must say it looks amazing. (There I go again!) Again, the view outside the immediate area within the garden and trees is occluded just enough to fool the eyes and mind into thinking the surrounding space is much larger than it is. Success! That is exactly the impression that we strove to achieve.

Divine bought seven of the floating water plants that she was told at the store are called Lotus. Now I’ve looked at images of Lotus and not one resembles this plant. It’s a very beautiful floating plant that to me looks like a cross between a rose flower and a cabbage. If anyone knows what it is PLEASE clue me in. It’s driving me nuts not being able to identify it.

So that’s our own little bit of self made heaven. If it’s not paradise then it’s the next best thing. I hope you enjoyed taking a look at it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The pond is done

Sorry about that. I went into a massive funk right in the middle of the fish pond build. As usual it came without notice or warning. Over the years I’ve learned how to function during these dark times but only just. I’ve trained myself in hiding it from people around me, but it’s not easy. My tendency is to be very quiet, sullen and to lash out for the smallest things; and since for the most part I stay away from people in “the outside world” the only ones that suffer are the people around me.

My dad was like that and I hated it because he made everyone else around him as miserable as he apparently was. When I catch myself being like that, when I hear that high pitched aggravated questioning whine in my voice, like he used to have, I go back to those ugly times when most everything we did seemingly pissed him off, which would cause him to say mean things, which irritated the hell out of teenage Phil, usually to the point of intensely quiet fury.

Ah teen boy angst; I’m glad those days are long gone. I still have a diary somewhere from 1973-75 where most of the entries concern the latest run in with my father. My God, I do NOT want to be the cause of that kind of murderous rage in someone else; although I think I might have done exactly that to my first batch of babies. Sorry guys.

Ironically though, the times I most enjoyed with my dad were when we were involved in home projects, whether it was putting in a row of fruit trees, building a fence, or digging a ditch for drainage tiles. I say it’s ironic because this post is about my own latest project—the finishing of my fishpond waterfall.

So, the fishpond waterfall is done. I have to say, it turned out better than what I imagined. It took us a few extra days to get it sealed, but a few coats of sealant and some time to let it cure did the trick.

We spent a lot of time getting the landscaping stones in place. With all the rain here, especially this time of year, I wanted at least 6 or more inches of small river stone to keep the standing water clean and give it a place to go while it seeps into the ground.

I love thinking about the origin of all these stones and rocks. Over the millennia all of them have been ejected from deep within the earth from the caldera of Mount Pinatubo. Many people here in Angeles do not realize that they live on a plain formed by thousands of pyroclastic flows. It’s why the Americans came here in 1902 to build Fort Stotsenberg until the name was changed to Clark Air Base many years later. The volcanic flows of rock and lahar built up high and flat so that flooding is never a problem for us. It’s ironic though that the very thing that brought the Americans here is what chased them away. The Pinatubo eruption of ’91 turned out to be the final straw and President Bush decided to call it quits. As for me, I’m perfectly happy that we left. While we were here it gave the academics and politicos a reason to blame their problems on the US. Even now the academic elite continue to do it—very Obamaesque.

My depressive issues really affected my worker bees, especially one particularly sensitive fellow. The poor guy, who is Divine’s nephew, is already antsy around me what with Divine always reminding them that I was a marine sergeant. THAT really impresses these folks I noticed. I went out one morning to find him already putting water back into the pond. I asked him, probably a bit too intensely as I think back on it, if he had cleaned all the concrete dust off the stones first. His muted nebulous response told me he hadn’t. I came unglued; first at him, and later with Divine. She’s used to me, but later she told me that he was so flustered by the experience that he completely lost it. He didn’t know what to do or where to go to do it. I felt bad and made sure to praise him for the next bit of good work he did. He always tries so hard too; what a JERK I am!

From that experience and others early on in the project I learned that it is best to hover over everything that is done, especially one like this one was where every rock and stone is basically a visual piece of an overall work of art. Their tendency was to throw rocks and stones into place without any regard to context, size, color or pattern. I always reminded them that nature is random. It’s rare to find stones lined up, all the same size, shape and shade. I don’t believe they ever got it. Realizing that, I personally placed every single stone and rock into place. It went like this: “Here, try this one. It’s the perfect shape for that spot, and dang, look at the color of it! Wait, turn it around; no, the other way. Okay, turn it upside down. No, no. Wait; I’ll come over and do it…”

They hid it, but I’m sure they became frustrated with my pickiness. It must have seemed that nothing they did was right. I always wanted it done a little bit different, and usually it meant only a miniscule turn of the stone. I could see the difference, but I’m not sure that they did. I’m convinced that they have a very limited sense of the aesthetic. I know this from other things they do, like when they throw their cigarettes and candy wrappers to the ground as if they magically disappear once they are tossed. They won’t do it around me as they are wary of my wrath; but as soon as “the watcher” is out of sight, I’m out of mind as well.

All that was forgotten when we had it all in place—every stone, pebble and rock—and I motioned for the on button to be pushed to activate the pump. Whoosh! The bifurcated frog fountain jetted two streams well out of the pond almost to the house. Edgar rushed over to adjust the appropriate valve to tame the frog’s out of control effusion of water. I called out what valve needed to be turned up or down and in less than a minute we had all the water sources perfectly in tune.

For a few seconds we just stood there staring at this gorgeous thing we had wrought. I looked at each of their faces and saw nothing but wide-eyed wonderment. They were almost stunned by what they were viewing. Truthfully, it looked much as I hoped it would, but rarely does something like this completely meet all expectations. This time, it definitely did.

“Boys! YOU did it. Oh my God, this thing is a work of art. Thanks guys. You did an amazing job. Wow!”

I fist bumped each and every one. For another few minutes we all continue to just stand there and look at it. Truly, it was a magical moment. I have to say, it was at that moment that my depression lifted like a veil. I could feel the peace filtering into my body. I felt totally relaxed, even sleepy, from the sound of the falling water. I sat on one of the benches that Eddie had welded together for me specifically for that site and practically collapsed. For the next hour I sat there sipping a beer and just grinned.

There is something special about this project. We’ve had many others that actually took more skill to accomplish, such as the tower, and even the porch, but none of those accomplishments competes with the beauty of the pond and its waterworks. All the boys know it. It’s been complete for several days now and still I find them coming back to enjoy that which they had a part in making. I encourage them to come back and check it out whenever they want; I can feel their intense pride in having fabricated something so special. Even though I paid for it to be built, of course they will always feel a bit of ownership and rightly so. Before letting them go I took a picture of them all standing on the rampart behind the waterfall wall. I’ll post it here.

The final pieces of the puzzle are the living pieces—the fish and the plants. Yesterday we finished that all up as well. We will eventually try some koi in the pond but for now we bought some cheap multicolored gold fish-looking carp into the water. We also threw in some river guppies from the nearby Abakan River. So far, we’ve had a few mortalities. I hope it’s not from any concrete dust residue or a reaction to the sealant chemicals. We’ll see how that works out over the coming days.

In the meantime, I continue to be captivated by the falling water streams and how it all plays off the rock and stones in the wall. There are four valves controlling four different water sources. I can make each of them gush or trickle. Even a small change in flow changes the sound and the way the water cascades off individual rocks. I’m fascinated by this and find myself constantly experimenting with the water flow volume and by moving loose stones around on the face of the water fall. I doubt if I ever stop.

It’s also a great way of putting into the spectacle some new colorful stone that I found. I have all the nephews and cousins now looking for interesting stones and rocks now. My electrician, Edgar, who is particularly taken with the whole thing, marveled that he has spent his whole life around the river and never realized how beautiful the stones could be. He shook my hand, “I’ve been around Americans since I used to work on the base and it’s amazing how you guys always seem to find a new way to amaze me!”

“Ah shucks, come on Edgar. But you know what? Flattery will get you EVERYTHNG! And just for that, how about a beer!”

We laughed.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Fishpond build after one week...

One week ago today we started work on the fishpond waterfall. I never dreamed it would become the production it now is. I’ve noticed that undertakings like this one seem to take on a life of their own as they proceed. I sit there with beer in hand as my guys busily go about their tasks and new “must haves” just seem to pop into my spinning mind. It goes like this…

“Hey Eddie, how about…”

As soon as I say the “Hey Eddie..” part, he literally drops whatever he’s doing and rushes over to see what the next ridiculous request is going to be from me. I’ve learned to make sure he isn’t doing something critical because he really will just stop doing it and practically sprint right over.

It occurred to me yesterday that I really need to hover when it comes to mortaring the final stones into place. I say this because after thinking they would naturally understand what constitutes aesthetic beauty I came to a rude awakening when I realized they don’t have a clue. To the brick and tile man a beautiful job involves level and straight, which is the antithesis of what this job needs, that being a complete random placement of the rocks just as things usually are in nature.

From the beginning I tried to impart that I wanted as much randomness as possible. “Eddie, make it look NATURAL! NO straight lines and no two adjacent rocks the same size and shape!”

The problem is that the arbitrary laying of rock and stone in a tall wall of heavy irregularly shaped stones will likely end in the collapse of that wall. To drive home that point an exceptionally heavy stone dropped from its mortared position high on the wall smashing one of the tiles below. I had to send one of the boys out to pick up another couple of replacement tiles.

So, all of the stonework is done — I think. I must confess, it really is hard to know when to stop. I finally had to just say, ‘Okay, that’s enough. No more stones!’ Of course within seconds I’d see another spot that needed a stone. “Hey Eddie…. How about a stone right there…?” Darkness finally ended”the madness,” or I might still be out there right now finding more places to mortar in more stones.

Eddie came up with what I hope is a brilliant top basin design; we won’t know until we get the chance to turn the water on. He fashioned the basin shelf completely out of concrete and rebar to include using a form to make the lip behind which the water will collect before spilling out and over it to the surface of the pond about five feet below.

Edgar showed up late in the afternoon and I set him to work drilling the holes into the drip pipe. I urged him to do this quickly as we couldn’t finish the stone work at the top of the wall until he did. By the time he completed that task and we had the final stone wired, braced and mortared into place it was too dark to take any photos. So the pics here do not show the actual state of the project.

We have been using stones and rocks from the nearby Abakan River bed, which is only a few hundred meters from here. But when it came time to finish the final stone work, none of the river stones we had left on hand would suffice; at least not as far as I was concerned. I wanted a couple of long flat ones but all the stones from the river tend to be round, smooth and bulbous. Something compelled me to take a walk around the yard; after one lap it came to me that we should just borrow the stones we needed from the rock gardens. Within moments I had THE two perfect stones in both size, shape and as a bonus, they have an interesting dark green color. Yes! I love it when a plan comes together.

Tomorrow is a “no power in the morning” day. Whenever the grid requires any work at all, the power must go off. They still haven’t learned how to work on the lines with power running through them as is done back home. I’m not complaining too much though, since we’ve come a long way since I got here in ’02. Back then, it wasn’t unusual to experience brown outs that lasted 8, 9, even 12 hours. These days we lose it for only 3 or 4 hours at a time only two or three times a month. I’m actually staying up late tonight (it’s now 4:27 AM) with the idea that I will hopefully sleep through much of the outage. Sigh…

Edgar will stop by tomorrow (he says) and will finish up the last bit of plumbing. I’d like him to drill the final drip holes in the top basin as well, but that won’t be possible if power is out.

Another great idea occurred to me when I saw the good quality and beauty of the smaller river stones, the ones about the size of a fist and smaller. Once they assured me that the supply of these stones is inexhaustible that’s when I decided to scrape up the top three or four inches of soil from the birdcage to the fishpond and around the path to the other side of the mango tree, and then replace the removed soil with a layer of small Abakan stones. That will help with rain water drainage, and landscaping wise, it will tie the pond to the house. It’s going to look great when it’s all done.

So much more to do, but loving every minute of it…