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As physical objects, barn quilts are very simple. A barn owner or homeowner paints a large piece of wood to look like a quilt square—bold, basic geometric shapes--and then mounts it on a building, facing a road. Sometimes the painted squares are modeled after those on family heirloom quilts. Sometimes they’re new patterns or pictures. Thanks to the rise of barn quilt trails, these decorations have become one of the most surprising, and delightful, pleasures of driving through rural America.

The first official barn quilt trail stretches through Adams County, Ohio and dates to 2001, when Donna Sue Groves decided to honor her mother and attract visitors to her hometown by initiating the creation of 20 barn quilt squares, the number her mother would stitch into a typical bed quilt. In the years since, a “National Clothesline of Quilts” has sprung up in across the country, stretching into 45 states and Canada. In 2012, Groves partnered with Suzi Parron to publish Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement.

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article-imageAcorn (Photo by Manuel QC on Flickr)

“Outside the DMV I see these Mediterranean oaks or holly oaks just dumping acorns,” Joel Robinson tells me. “Dried perfectly. So, I’m in the parking lot stuffing my pockets full.”

Robinson is the director and head naturalist of Naturalist For You, based in Southern California, and he’s no stranger to acorn collecting. “It’s one of the most nutritious foods” he continues. “As they lose moisture, the nut shrinks, detaches from its shell, and kills weevils. You can shell it with a rock. The nuts are the size of an almond or bigger which you then pound into a meal and soak in clean cold water for at least a half hour to leech out the tannic acid.”

Acorn shelling with a group of friends is preferable. Robinson continues, “Community is the driving force at this point. If we can all see that we are one giant organized community, then we can all understand how the ecosystem works-- we can learn how to live in a harmonious way.”

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The Illinois Obscura Society of Atlas Obscura was created in partnership with Enjoy IllinoisSign up to find out more about the back room tours, unusual adventures, and incredible parties that Atlas Obscura will be putting on in Chicago and greater Illinois. 

Illinois Obscura Society Launch Party 2015 from Atlas Obscura on Vimeo.

Last Friday the 13th, the Illinois Obscura Society hosted an event for 450 curious onlookers at the legendary Salvage One event space. Guests were treated to acts of contortion, mind reading, high-altitude juggling, spooky stories, and a brass band to bring it all together. In conjunction with Enjoy Illinois, the Illinois Obscura Society is born!

article-imageMichael Reyes poses with a brilliant costume for the evening's entertainment.

 

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article-imageA A New England wolf tree: White oak (photograph by Ray Asselin via his "Timberturner + Bowlwood Woodturning" blog, used with permission)

Old trees resonate with us because they seem to bridge our own animal-time and the other, slower schedules of the planet. While the antiquity of the most aged bristlecone pine, even the most aged quaking-aspen root mass (all praise the Trembling Giant!), doesn’t approach the deep time of stone. Trees certainly link us to the mysterious clock of climate. While we preoccupy ourselves with the day-to-day action of the weather, they’ve staked their survival on the bigger-picture rhythms of the atmosphere. Great trees are the go-betweens from the realm of flesh-and-blood to those of sky and rock. They’re also aloof witnesses to the frantic escapades of the human race—one reason that they can be such tangible touchstones for our own personal and social histories, and why the injury or death of a familiar old one can be so unsettling.

We commonly call ancient trees persisting in a landscape that’s dramatically changed within their lifespan “legacy trees.” However there is a special name that Northeasterners have for certain legacy trees scattered in their dramatically regrown forests: “wolf trees.” In the strictest sense, wolf trees are those spared the axe during widespread Colonial-era deforestation in order to provide shade for livestock or mark a boundary. As second- and third-growth woods filled in abandoned pasture and farmland, these titans have become crowded by dense, spindly youngsters. Where those upstarts are tall and narrow, competing fiercely for canopy light, the wolf tree they surround has fat, laterally extended boughs and a comparatively squat trunk—a testament to the open, sunny country in which it once prospered.

Why “wolf?” Most suggest it stems from foresters comparing these ponderous relics to rapacious predators sapping sunlight and nutrients from the more economical (and less eccentric) timber swamping them. In Reading the Forested Landscape - which interprets New England’s countryside with historical ecology - Tom Wessels associates the name with lone wolves, outlaws in the face of civilization. (17) Regardless, the term is a good one: These trees, full of wildness, are as stirring to come upon as a fresh paw-print in the snow.

article-imageWolf maple in a red-pine plantation, Vermont (photo by David W. Haas, NPS/via Wikimedia Commons)

In his book, Wessels advocates the alternate moniker “pasture tree,” which does describe the history of many of these Northeastern wolf trees. While an 18th or 19th century farmer might completely clearcut a fertile valley to plant crops or grow hay, large tracts of the region’s rolling uplands—ridden with glacially deposited stones and boulders—were more roughly "improved" for grazing acreage. This logged-over landscape, called “bushpasture,” often featured big, solitary trees retained to shelter flocks and herds. (16) While any suitably large tree might be chosen, oaks figure prominently among New England’s wolf trees—unsurprising, given how widespread oak (and oak-chestnut) woodlands were in the stony hills and plateaus commonly converted to livestock range.

Touring upstate New York in the 1840s, the British writer Frederick Marryat marveled at the fast clip at which pioneers were felling the woods and documented the process by which future wolf trees were born (12):

"Occasionally some solitary tree is left standing, throwing its wide arms, and appearing as if in lamentation at its separation from its companions, with whom for centuries it had been in close fellowship."

In the second half of the 19th century, many farms began to be abandoned, and post-agricultural forest regrowth began across large swaths of the Northeast. As Robert Thorson writes in Stone by Stone, a history of the region’s stone walls (16):

"Trees sprouted in old pastures like whiskers left uncut, enveloping their bordering stone walls in shade. Beginning about 1870, the forest area began to double every 20 years or so." 

To illustrate: Seventy-six percent of Worcester County in Massachusetts was in cultivation or pasture in 1876; roughly a century later, such open ground occupied just thirteen percent. (8)

article-imageAn eastern white pine in Wisconsin, exhibiting the multi-trunked form shared by many of New England's old-field pines

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Inside the Park Inn Hotel (photograph by Dan Hatton)

Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings are prized, celebrated, and priceless works of architecture. While some Wright houses and buildings can be visited and toured, there are a few scattered across the United States that can also be rented. In these "Rent-A-Wrights" one can enjoy his design principles while cooking dinner, watching TV, doing laundry, or even drinking beer in a backyard created by one of the most gifted architects of the 20th century. The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy lists 14 Wright buildings that are available for overnight stays, with 12 of them having working websites with rates and other information.  While these buildings are all interesting in their own way, four of these have particularly unique stories.

 

THE DUNCAN HOUSE 
Acme, Pennsylvania

One of Wright’s pre-fabricated designs, the Duncan House was originally built in 1957 in Lisle, Illinois, but was due to be demolished for a McMansion development. A Johnstown-area construction firm along with help from the Conservancy had the house dismantled, cataloged piece by piece, and reconstructed in western Pennsylvania. This house contains many hallmarks of Wright’s Usonian style, such as a carport instead of a garage, natural lighting, and the color Cherokee Red. The house also features a basement, which is rare in a Wright house.

The house is on the grounds of Polymath Park and Resort, along with three other houses designed by two of Wright’s apprentices, Peter Berndtson and John Rattenbury. Tours visit all of these houses, and the resort is within an hour’s driving distance of Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater, and the not-to-be-overlooked Kentuck Knob.

article-imageParallel lines surround the Duncan House. (photograph by the author)

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Usonian houses had carports. (photograph by Sara Hoffman)

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