What Picking Wild Raspberries Can Teach Us About How We Work

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One of many wonderful things about living at the Center of the Universe, Burbank, OH, is the fact that many wild edible plants also live here. This year, the early warm weather caused the wild black raspberries to ripen in mid-June instead of early July, when they normally do. For whatever reason, this year also produced a bumper crop, so I’ve enjoyed spending quite a bit of time picking through the patches for the small, sweet fruit.

I like to approach everything I do in a similar fashion. To me, it doesn't make much sense to put any less effort into doing a good job of gathering berries than carefully assessing the existing conditions of an historic structure. So I wasn’t really surprised, rather somewhat delighted, when my extra time in the berry patches helped me understand something that I had never spent much time thinking about before.

For me, one of the curiosities of gathering berries is that when I have finished collecting all of the ones that are ready to harvest and then realize the basket isn't quite as full as I had hoped, going back to where I started picking quickly reveals that there are more ripe berries to pick. I’m quite sure the berries didn’t ripen in the short time since I had been in that spot, but lo and behold, there are more waiting to be picked. In reality, the berries that are waiting to be picked were there all along. I had just overlooked them the first time through.

More than once I have found myself in the same situation in my work. I really enjoy walking into historic buildings and playing detective, something that has given me many opportunities to lead historic barn tours for Friends of Ohio Barns, Barn Again! and even the National Trust for Historic Preservation. People enjoy walking along with me hearing my perspective on what I am looking at and asking me questions about why I think the builder fashioned a joint this way or put a mark in the shape of a Roman numeral exactly in that spot.

Invariably, in the course of helping people see historic buildings from the boots of the builder, I find myself realizing that going back and looking at something I answered a question about earlier gives me a different understanding of what I am looking at after I have taken the time to walk through the rest of the building. My nature is to be self critical and tell myself I didn’t do a good job of interpretation the first time, but, like picking wild black raspberries, the truth is, the second time I looked was with a different perspective.

In reality, I’ve come to realize it’s impossible to go back and look at anything without seeing it from a different perspective. Maybe I’m not standing in exactly the same spot. Maybe the lighting has changed ever so slightly. Maybe something else is in my field of vision, or maybe I just have more information to help me see it more clearly. For whatever reason, going back and looking at it a second time help a lot, and I wonder if, in fact, it isn’t the only truly valid way to see something.

I’ve written before about my friend Ken Follett and his son David. Part of their work, unlike rock stars who put holes in walls and then have to pay to have them fixed, they actually get paid to put holes in walls (and floors and ceilings), which are referred to as probes, and get paid to fix them! I like to think of what they do as enabling observation: creating perspective by moving something that is obscuring a view of something else and then putting it back where it was. I guess maybe they are rock stars when they work on stone structures, but I can't help but wonder how many of their clients arrange to have them leave the holes open for a day so they can come back and look into them again.

I’m convinced that part of the value my clients see in hiring me is that I can look at exactly the same thing they are seeing and see something they can’t. The difference is that I have a different perspective based on experience. I find that stewards of historic property often have trouble knowing what they want done to their property because they really can’t see the problem. Rather, they see the results caused by the problem when, for example, paint no longer adheres to rotted wood or stone walls begin to crumble when the bedding has washed away and they are no longer stable.

Once I help them understand what is causing the problem, they can look at it differently and realize it really isn’t the paint that has failed. It’s the flashing over the window casing that is letting rainwater in and causing the wooden trim to rot, or it's the missing gutter that is allowing rain to run off the roof and saturate the barn bank, causing the bedding in the bank wall to wash away. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job well, the next time they see a problem they will realize they need to look at it again with the understanding that what they are really looking for is what is causing the problem.

One of my favorite personal experiences of seeing things from a different perspective happened when we were raising the timber-frame roof system on our home. It’s an 1815 church, which we tagged, deconstructed and had shipped from Binghamton, NY, to the Center of the Universe here in Ohio. The hand-hewn rafters are tapered, an attribute not uncommon in 18th- and early 19th-century timber frames. The understanding of the reason they were tapered has always been elusive; it's a topic commonly discussed among my colleagues and members of the Traditional Timberframe Research and Advisory Group.

Many possible explanations have been bandied about, like the idea that they were larger at the bottom so they could handle the accumulated snow load at the eaves, an idea that of course assumed they were actually engineered. Another popular notion is that the trees the rafters were hewn from were tapered; hence, so were the rafters, an almost plausible notion, except that the rafters are typically tapered more than any tree stem I have seen. But when it came time to pick up the rafters with a sling we attached to a rope run through a pulley that was attached to the principal purlin (the timber that supports the rafters at mid span) in our adaptively reused church frame, the answer to why they were tapered revealed itself as if by magic.

Tapering the rafters moves the center of gravity towards the heel of the rafter and well away from the joinery at the purlin, where the rafter rests. If the rafters were straight, the center of gravity would be in the middle, and the sling to lift them would have been in the way when it got into position to be set. I looked down and realized I was clearly wearing the boots of the builder at that point and that I had looked at tapered rafters for many years, but now I could see them for what they were: a very elegant solution to a problem that was part of the process of putting timber- framed roof systems together, and nothing any more complicated than that.

So for me, it’s more important than ever to take advantage of the opportunities we have to learn from, no matter how simple and basic the activity is we are involved in. It makes me think that when Little Village wrote the song "Take Another Look," which is on the group's 1992 album, "Little Village," the band had just been out picking wild black raspberries. There's probably no easy way to find out, so I'll just assume they were.