Windows: A Biography | Philip Arnold

13 mins read

“It’s not always easy to tell the difference between thinking and looking out the window.”

—Wallace Stevens, Letters (1966)

* * *

“Where do you want the window?” Everett asks, standing on the unframed first floor of my house we are building in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

“Right about here,” I say as I widen my arms to suggest the span of the window. I stand several feet from the edge of the 28’ x 28’ subfloor, facing a maple tree. Through spring’s early leaves, I can see the ridge line in the west where the sun will set in the evening. “This is the view.”

So much of the construction of my house is a deliberation in real-time. Building without a blueprint is an act of visualization—adjoining complementary angles of imagination and improvisation. The house is rising in theoretical stages, and progresses in incremental acts of spatial exploration. Every new interior space feels like a moving piece—one organic connection to the next. 

The location of the west-facing window is predicated on the location of my dining table. I imagine margins of movement around the table, the location of corner cabinets, and where a light might hang from a ceiling that is still weeks away from being built—and make an open-air calculation that the window will go “here.” 

The day before, in the evening when I was alone at the house site, I arranged books on the table, and a notepad and pen. I slid my hand over its oak grain. I sat at the table and stared through the window into the branches of maple trees, and beyond, my eyes trailed down the slope of the ridge following a flank of rhododendron. 

There was, of course, no dining room or table, no walls present in which windows were framed. Yet all the work to date preambles this moment, where I could occupy a house half-constructed and half-imagined. 

Everett marks the floor: two X’s signify an opening to the world beyond the house—what will become the hush of wind against a windowpane in winter, the drift of air over bare skin in summer.   

* * *

Painters favor a north light in which to work. Northern light seeps into my house through a window in the guest room and one in the second-floor bathroom. The light’s presence is ambient and balanced. More symptom than cause, it offers a breathing space—feather-soft and inert. Resurgent in late summer afternoons when the sun reflects off the mossy slope and trees behind the house, its illumination within the house is discreet and ancillary. 

A window in the guest room, and another in the basement, open to the east. A flawed light, it is winnowed by trees, a lesser ghost of the sun’s illumination. A low light, it catches a crystal ornament that hangs in the guest room window, whose prism pries apart colors that splay against the wall. Matinal, it is the light that opens the yard’s day lilies, and can be found—blooming briefly—in bowers beyond. The light of reconciliation, it proposes symmetrical moods. 

Southern light narrates in the first-person. It is critical and interrogative. On the main level, two 4’ x 7’ glass windows flank a French door to harness the house’s southern exposure—a midday, metabolizing light that burns through surfaces and textures, leaving forms stark and full of contrast. The clear-cut outline of the windows’ frames, with their rigid lines, angle across the floor in pools of scorching light. It is cat-happy light, and salt-in-the-wound-specific.

Coming from the west, this last light angles through the dining room and kitchen windows. A summoner of fairytales and myth, it is a performative light, whose luminosity is iconographic. Between late afternoon and night, its illumination shimmers through a host of maple leaves. Of note are the winter shadows the window offers—a skeleton of branches that crawl across the floor to escape a darkness that will consume it. Of consequence, it is the light of aggrandizement and deep time.

* * *

A window is the And or Yet or So in the structural lexicon of a house, its conjunction between interior and exterior space. Although a form of transparency, it mediates a realm of separation between public and private space. Does a window comprise a reality separate from the wall in which it exists? 

What the wall negates, the window permits. Through an open window, the house inhales and exhales: a breeze can change a presumption of stillness in a room. Silence accretes within spaces with closed windows. Half open, a window is an emblem of forgotten nostalgia. 

 To the question of whether a window is its own reality, separate from the wall—Yes.  

* * *

On the wall above my living room couch are two tiny paintings which I inherited from my grandparents, who acquired them during a trip to Ireland on their honeymoon. The scenes are bucolic—thatched-roofed cottages and meadows golden in low light amid a green world of trees and fields of wild grass. The illumination within these paintings is cast in the light of another sun: south-facing windows posit an effusive midday glare onto the wall on which they hang.  

* * *

In an account of expenses for the material to build his hut at Walden Pond, Thoreau writes that he spent $2.43 for “Two second-hand windows with glass.” The large windows flanked his lodging, facing east and west. “I would observe, by the way, that it costs me nothing for curtains, for I have no gazers to shut out but the sun and moon, and I am willing that they should look in,” he later adds.

In North Carolina lore, happiness will come if you see the new moon through a window when it is raised. Conversely, it is considered bad luck to look at the new moon through a closed window.

* * *

On the end table next to my couch, which looks out a window in the direction of Grandfather Mountain, the highest peak on the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge, rests Wendell Berry’s Window Poems

A poem imprints on what it touches, like the wind. In his cabin along the Kentucky River, Berry wrote the poems of this collection in a large yellow legal pad. He typed out pages using Corrasable Bond on a Royal typewriter. The hardback book in my possession is bound within a green cover, now stained with wine. Inside is an inscription from my oldest friend, who presented the book as a gift. 

The view of Grandfather comes first. It is an act of conditioning the mind to the language of Berry’s poetry. It is a moment to reframe the frame of the window, to orient myself to the mountains beyond it. The view recovers its depth, and my memories of it. Then comes a poem, which I lift off the page with my voice.

* * *

Green gathers into excess. Through the main living space of my house, the color hangs, drapes, canopies, spreads out and rises up. There are fragments of green that wallow in their own tone, and continuities of green that trail along window and door frames, green clusters atop hutches, and textures of green in nooks and corners. To exist within this abundance of green, or to simply walk through it, provides an unsettling comfort. 

Plants proliferate. Philodendron and golden pothos are epicenters of extension: leafy runners flow like tributaries into streams of green, embellishing horizontal surfaces and cascading down cabinets and shelves. A Norfolk pine stands eye-level and broad-shouldered. A ficus tree overcompensates between a rocking chair and corner hutch: crickets often live in it, and I have been pulled from my bed in the middle of night to investigate the whereabouts of their chirping. Peace lilies ground the green. A resolute jade plant keeps growing up and out without any structural sense, teetering on the brink of fracture. 

In The Poetics of Space, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes: “There exists sunny houses in which, at all seasons, it is summer, houses that are all windows.” A greenhouse effect ensues within my house from an expanse of southern-exposed, floor-to-ceiling windows and direct sunlight—a photosynthetic boon of insurgent and calming green. 

Later in his book on the immensity of intimate spaces, Bachelard states: “Outside and inside form a dialectic of division.” But doesn’t the sun’s abundant amplification of interior space, at least as I experience it in my house, blur the distinction of inside and outside? And if it doesn’t, I would argue the abundance of plants, living and growing, suggests a porous duality. In mid-winter, the interior space of the house skews the seasons’ sequence: it is always summer. Autumnal and winter greenness suggests seasonal stasis, perhaps—an idyll of lotus eaters feasting on perennial green. 

The green scales up (this is what it is supposed to do). The organic consumes interstitial space—what little elbow room there is left between pieces of furniture. I don’t prune when I should: disproportion ensues. Perhaps I let the unruliness of green mask a deep-seeded disinterest in the inanimate—or perhaps the botanical atmospherics fill my lonely hours. Without it, though, disquiet. So the green goes on, season-to-season beyond the seasons, while the windows, in their voices of light, whisper More, More!

Philip Arnold’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Blackbird, Gulf Stream, Tahoma Literary Review, and apt, with work selected as notable in Best American Essays. His poems have appeared in Arts & Letters, Iowa Review, Rattle, Southern Poetry Review, and in his collection, The Natural History of a Blade (Dos Madres Press, 2019)