12 April 2010

Building with Mud

Is incredible. A meditative experience sculpting walls with mud-caked hands, walls that will keep out all draft, that will warm and cool as necessary, all smoothed and layered from materials that we gathered within 1 kilometer of our house, a miracle melding of earth and water and pine needles. A harmonizing with some forgotten instinct, how not-so-long-ago when everyone knew how to build a house, or at least had a grandfather who did. Mud between hands, mixing underfoot, building up walls and shelter, holds an ancient history in the collective human consciousness and for the non-human as well. Relative to their size, termites build the largest structures on the planet using only mud and their own excrement, and many species of birds use mud to bind their nests.

For our project, insulating the workshop, we lessened the wall weight and economized our mud-hauling schedule by filling as much of the walls as possible with residue-free, plastic trash saved up over the past year. Bags of post-consumer waste, which we felt personally responsible for accruing, were finally laid to rest, entombed in old plastic bottles and tetra-pak boxes, and then covered in mud, becoming light-weight insulation within the workshop walls. Shampoo bottles and pasta bags, candle wrappers and discarded tapeā€¦ plastic packaging and containers of every shape and size! What a relief to have finally found a permanent home for the residual evidence of our continued consumption, plastered in walls and working to keep our workshop snug. Plus, from an anthropological point of view, a perfect time capsule of the era for future archaeologists. Better that our trash should work to insulate on stormy nights and chill, misty mornings than rot in a landfill with many other daily metric tones of plastic, whose scale of consumption concentrated in a single space only bleeds toxic leachate and emits flammable quantities of gas. Packed between clumps of mud and pine needles, our post-consumer waste is absorbed into our surroundings on a manageable scale using the most fundamental of technologies: human hands and imagination.

Once on an archaeological dig in Israel, we came upon a wall from Ancient Greek times that still clearly held the imprints of the human hands that had smoothed its surface. I was mesmerized by that wall and stood silently before it many times, connecting to that other time, human hands sculpting space across ages. Perhaps those hands worked in earnest, willful ritual, perhaps they worked in forced labor, I do not know for certain their stories. But stories they had and imaginative hands which left their prints and centuries later inspired a small girl who had wandered there by chance from across the ocean. Hands building a wall, something harmonized, in the witnessing of a truly human act with an ancient history almost forgotten, but still present, and I promised to remember.

Thirteen years later I am leaving my own hand-prints on a modest set of walls, whose longevity I hope will last at least my lifetime. And I sense a communion fulfilled. The rites of mud-building-shelter continue.