For the past five weeks my life has been through a kind of smelter. And if one thing has been reinforced over the course of the adventure, it’s that I am wholly uncohabitable*. Solitude is my fresh air. Silence is my true love. Take them from me, and I soon begin to wonder why I’m alive. Yet would I change things if I knew what I know now? Would I have done it differently? I doubt it.
Summer was long and generous this year, stretching over to the far side of September like a basking reptile. And this was fortunate, because we had a roof to put on. Roofs are never easy. The only ones I like dealing with are living roofs, because they’re nice and flat and earthy. This angular tiling lark, where you’re hanging on a sloping frame engaged in a battle of wills with tejas curvas? Nah. Not for me. Not for my knees either.
So like a bandsaw-wielding knight, my neighbour Brian took up the gauntlet. He drove over the hills at some ungodly hour one morning with his sidekick Julia, and unloaded an improbable array of machinery. Suddenly my land was filled with scaffolding, tubes, saws, drills, bricks, a cement mixer (for limecrete, I hastily add), and the largest collection of angle-grinders the world of construction has ever seen. Not to mention dogs and horses (which were the best bit by far).
My mornings, nay days, were not to be the same for a good five weeks. But sometimes you just have to suck it up, because a roof is going on, and time is of the essence. It was chaos. It was exhausting. But today I’m staring at that self-same roof, and admiring its subtle beauty. Yes, I am lucky and I know it.
Good fortune can be a funny thing though, twisting this way and that like a greasy two-faced serpent, threatening to bite you at some indeterminate point. Hmm. More on that further down. Because although I was lucky, someone else wasn’t.
It was a couple of weeks ago now that Gertie’s loss became apparent. And never have I felt so sorry for a bird. For over three weeks my least favourite hen sat on her nest, determined to hatch her chicks. But fate conspired against her, and the eggs didn’t open. It could have been the short cold snap in early September. Perhaps they were unfertilised. We’ll never know. But when after four weeks of waiting, one exploded in a stomach curdling mess, plastering the inside of the coop a sickening yellow, it became clear it wasn’t going to happen.
Like most us when things go tits-up, Gertie the hen started her grief journey in denial. She sat and sat on her eggless nest, presumably waiting for a chick to rise from the ashes. Two days turned to three and four, and then early last week I spotted her leaving the coop, and making her way into the world again. She’s a different hen now though. Smaller. Quieter. And oddly, far more trusting of me than before.
On one of our many hot, sun-drenched days, as Julia and I carried a few hundred foraged old roof tiles up the crag of my land, I spied Gertie the hen scurrying back to the coop, perhaps checking one more time if her eggs had manifested out of the straw. Stacking the curved terracotta scales on the rocks, I wondered why nature had been so cruel to her.
Do we deserve our luck?
As September inched forward, my roof grew and grew. A backbone appeared along the ridge. Then came the ribs, as joist after joist was hand-cut and bird-mouthed, creating a bone structure elegant enough to rival Grace Jones. Two skylights gave this new creature eyes. Ancient wood and new beams worked hand in hand. Brian slogged and slogged – I believe he hand-sawed for a week. Meanwhile I stomped cob and sculpted it into a circle, feeling marginally guilty.
Soon the roof developed a taut layer of flesh as roofing boards slid over its skeleton. As the last board blocked out the sky, I entered my old barn and stared. It was then it rose from the deep, that greasy serpent of ‘good fortune’. Suddenly it all felt too much for a little mud hobbit woman. Did this antisocial, lonesome witch on a hill really deserve such magnificence? And how had it happened anyway? The whole thing was almost like magic, as though I’d drunk one of those potions that change you into the woman of your dreams, but with a series of disturbing side effects. I felt sick. I felt terror. Because surely I hadn't earned this roof. It was too good for me.
That night I didn’t sleep, convinced something terrible was about to befall me.
The cob coop
Building the cob chicken coop felt like a kind of penance, a balance between giving and receiving. While my roof progressed, in turn I also slogged and slogged in the mud bath for my hens. I sawed door frames and engineered little portals. I poured a limecrete floor. Added bottle windows, roof beams, and finally cut the boards for the living roof. The chickens moved into their new home at the same time my barn roof grew a skin of terracotta scales. Were they enthusiastic? Hardly.
As darkness stole up the rocky slopes that first evening, I had to pick my birds up one by one, and literally stuff them into their new highland abode. How out of sorts they were, huddling in confusion on the nesting balcony. They no longer knew who should go where, or which was the best spot. Nervously they peered this way and that, seemingly uncertain that this new chicken palace was an upgrade from their former wooden shack down the hill (and this despite the fact they now have split-level flooring, thick warm mud walls, and a chicken run big enough to actually run in).
For the following three evenings they’d loiter lost by their downtown slum, seemingly unable to adapt to their new residence, until finally they began to accept that reality had changed. I studied their wrinkled pink faces but saw no trace of gratitude, nor guilt. They had no issue ‘deserving’ their new mud palace, because there is no concept of ‘deserving’ in Gaia’s kingdom. It’s a human invention, there to keep us little people in our place, while the CEOs and priests and dukes do what they like, and always find some justification for it.
At the same time my own roof journey came to a conclusion. True to form, as the last tile was laid, I peered over the front gable to see dark clouds charging over the hilltops. The wind began to blow, bending the hazels this way and that. And then came the rain. It was a distillation of a dream coming true mixed with long-term fatigue, sensory overload, discombobulation, and the giddy terror that enters you when on the verge of success.
No matter how “lucky” you are, you can and probably will suffer vertigo. When you’re stretching a long way out of your comfort zone, or trying to upgrade your life, you inevitably tread the slippery line where a dream can morph into a disappointment or a disaster. This is why people aim low. This is why we often don’t go for our dreams. Most of us are scared of heights, and like the hens, subconsciously believe we’ll be less happy with an adjustment, even if it’s an obvious upgrade.
Resistance to change is fairly normal. Change is tiring. It requires adaptation and effort. But there’s more at play for us humans than that. Unlike the hens and Robin Redbreast and the Ash Tree, we have another cattle prod on our backs. It’s called morality, and with it comes the idea that we have to ‘deserve’ our luck.
The word ‘deserve’ is as insidious as most of our other moral indictments. The English word deserve threads right back to the Latin deservire, meaning to be entitled to something because of good service. Those old Romans were maestros of enslavement devices, and thus like good little serfs we still subconsciously believe we have to serve and debase ourselves in order to have anything nice. Luck is a dubious gift in such a world.
Thus history repeats itself on and on. We little people judge and blame each other, envy each other’s luck, and envisage the saddest, meanest, least inspiring realities where everyone loses. Meanwhile the string-pullers above laugh and laugh and laugh as they roll the dice with our futures.
A Turkish Legacy
Living in Turkey for 20 years broke down so many of my all-too British ideas of what I deserved, and how much pleasure I was allowed. When I first arrived in Antalya in 1997 I thought I had to work a horrible job all my life to get by, because that's what people did. I thought I had to live with someone too. I thought I needed a house with running water and power to survive. Earth plaster and chickens weren't even on my radar.
The biggest chunk of our battles really is breaking out of the cages of our beliefs, most of which we're unaware of until something happens and discomfort is felt. I see how my mental scaffold is still there, albeit a lot more sparse than it used to be. And every time I remove a bit of it, along comes the vertigo.
So today as I stare at my evolving barn, I choose (yet again) to throw this ‘deserving’ crap off the rafters, and raise the roof of my beliefs. We all deserve happiness and beauty and peace and joy and safety from aggression. We are humans. We were not made to be kept in boxes with some pseudo-digital reality pumped into our senses, nor were we born to graft 60 hours a week for some planet-devouring, inhumane multinational. We are a lot more valuable than that. But as with everything, ultimately it’s our story. It’s down to what we feel we deserve, what we believe we can have, and whether we are going to remain cowed little ‘good’ people hoping for a few crumbs to be thrown at us, or sovereign beings making our own worlds with like-minded people.
May we all raise the roofs of our visions. May we all have beautiful, secure lives.
*According to the Cambridge Dictionary and countless others, this is not a word. But it should be.
Much gratitude goes to my neighbour Brian for working his butt off for this roof all September, and going beyond the call of duty to make it original and special. I also want to thank Julia for her support and positive energy throughout. And last but definitely not leas, thank you to my dear Dad who lent me the money to get this done before winter. It was never going to happen otherwise.
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Atulya K Bingham
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