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So I left Mud Mountain one day, and fell into an earthbag workshop the next. Just like that. One day I was in my mud home, the next I was camping in a field, the dirt foundations of a roundhouse leering at me. And as usual I was nursing the hunch that I didn’t know what I was doing.
I’d been worrying about this workshop for months. Far more than I was worrying about moving off my land, or selling my house. Because attempting to build a house in seven days during an earthbag workshop is of course ridiculous.
“Baykal, I really don’t know if we can do this, you know.” I held the tip of a green hose and measured the circle of the roundhouse-to-be. We had just breached the month of September, but the sun didn’t seem to have caught on. It was a sky borne iron branding the top of my head.
Baykal pushed the brim of his straw hat up. “Ah come on Kerry, iss twelve people. We gonna do it. I got back up. No worries maan.” He patted my shoulder.
Back up. Those famous last words. I bit my lip and completed the circle. Baykal smiled peacefully, as is his way.
I’ve known Baykal and Feryal (the hosts of the workshop) for 15 years now. That’s a long time. That’s the only reason I agreed to such a preposterous project. I trust them both. They make things happen. But a 5 metre diameter round house (that ended up being 5.5 by the time we laid the bags) with a bathroom added? From foundations to roof? With a team of people who had never built before? Even for a maverick like me it looked fairly undoable. And there was so much that could go wrong. What if it rained? What if the windows buckled again? Would the participants be up to the task?
“What if they just run off to the beach and never come back?” Asked one friend.
So two weeks later, by the time the first earthbaggers began filtering in, with their tents and their camping mats and their absurdly incongruous dietary requirements, my nails had been bitten so far back, even the dirt couldn’t skulk under them. And it was hot. Far hotter than I had predicted. Too hot for September. I huddled on Feryal and Baykal’s terrace with the first three arrivals, squeezing myself into a rectangle of shade.
“I saw a youtube on building an earthbag earthship underground. Do you know how to do that?” Taylan sat sucking a cigarette around the breakfast table. Every now and again he’d remove it to gulp from a plastic bottle swirling with Cola and Nescafe. Taylan worked for a bank. God knows which one. But whichever it was, they obviously didn’t give him enough to do, because he’d devoured every video on earthbag building Youtube had ever published.
I allowed the question to scud breezily over my head, because A: I’m more of an ‘Erm...let’s see if this’ll work,’ kind of builder,’ and B: I had but the haziest of ideas how to make an underground earthship. I pushed some bread in Taylan’s direction.
“No no no...No carbs for me. No way. Just protein and fat,” he said smearing an egg with butter. He was tall, and I could tell from the way he sat, he’d spent far too long in an office. “Our intestines weren’t made for grains. They give you cancer,” he grinned broadly exhaling a dark miasma of smoke.
“I’m not sure I agree with that.” Emma, my vegan yogi friend tucked into her chia muesli. “I’m going to have an issue with the smoking too, aren’t I?” She said, her British accent leaping out at me in familiarity. I nodded. A lot of smoking goes on in Turkey. It’s par for the course.
“Try this Emma. It will change your world.” Taylan handed her his caffeine adulteration and grinned. It slurped ominously in the bottle. Emma shuddered slightly. She was elegant and slim. I wondered briefly if she’d know what to do with a spade.
It was then a third voice piped up from the other end of the table. Followed by a muscular arm stretching toward the cheese. “Hey, can I have some of that muesli? I’m going to need some different kinds of energy for this. I’m going to need a lot of energy. A lot of food.” Domi was from Hungary. And no I didn’t make that up. He stood and stretched. He didn’t look like he’d been sitting too long in an office. He looked like he’d just hiked down from Matterhorn.
I must admit, that first morning before the course began, every aversion I harbour of working with people was awakened; the aggravation of pulling a team of conflicting personalities together, the precarious juggling of individual needs. The sheer eccentricity of us all. We were like random pieces of a jigsaw puzzle made of razor blades. I inhaled slowly and exhaled slowly. Many times.
The day opened and closed like a camera lens. The sun marked its movement in fiery steps. Despite the suncream and the hats, I could see Domi, Emma and Taylan reddening before my eyes. It was hot. Far too hot for building.
By evening most of the group had assembled. Tents popped up all over the garden. By chance or design each was a different colour creating a rainbow hobbit’s ville of canvas. Just three participants were missing; one young woman was coming the next day. But we were still expecting two Turkish guys from a seaside town up the road.
I sat on the house terrace with Feryal. We waited. It grew colder. The stars plucked at the darkness forming irregular patterns, their angles sharp and brisk. We waited longer.
It was 11 pm when Baykal’s car pulled up to the house. The headlights flicked off, and I blinked as my retinas readjusted to the pitch. Doors creaked open, and two men staggered out. I noticed they were carrying disconcertingly small rucksacks.
“We have a problem,” Baykal threw his keys onto the table and grinned at me. They forgot their tent.” The men giggled sheepishly. “And their sleeping bags.”
“No no we found one. Someone gave us one!” said the taller of the two men. This was Kemal. He was foreboding in height and expression, and he lumbered up the terrace steps slowly. Bear-like. And flopped onto the hammock tied between the terrace supports.
Collapsing on my cushion, I guffawed. Well, what else could I do?
All too soon it was morning. The sky was a cool metal alloy. 11 glove-clad earthbaggers gathered in the foundation brandishing picks and spades. To me, used as I am to a maximum team size of four, it looked like a mud army. The dark mountain of Kemal shuffled about sniffing. His smaller friend blinked and yawned beside him. The pair had slept on the balcony and were now both sleep-deprived and cold.
“Right, we need to clear the foundation so that it’s a proper trench. The rocks come on the inside of the circle, the dirt on the outside. We’ll use it in the bags.” Eleven pairs of eyes scrutinised me. Each person would clear about a metre or so of foundation. This was the moment of truth. Would they be able to dig? I looked up to see Emma, spade over shoulder. Taylan, who was still smoking, leaned on a pick. Domi was limbering up.
And then it happened.
I don’t know what it is about building mud homes, but it does something to people. Something odd. Something beautiful. As soon as human hands touch the earth, miracles are unleashed. The dirt circle casts its spell.
Within minutes people shifted into teams. Of their own accord. Some dislodged rocks and hard earth with the picks, some pulled the rocks from the ring and others shovelled the dirt out. The foundations became a circle of colourful movement. I could see Domi’s muscles flexing in the dirt. Taylan turned, a whirlwind of energy and motivation. He ran around the circle sweating, smoking and making everyone laugh in equal measure.
“Eh, look at ‘er. Like an American soldier,” said my camera man. He was filming Emma, who clearly had held a spade before, because she was shovelling that dirt like a pro. She would shovel like that for days, striding over the earth in her Doc Martins, auburn hair pulled back. She was indefatigable.
The foundation was cleared in an hour that morning. And it was filled with rocks and rubble by mid-afternoon. I marvelled as I beheld this miscellaneous team of mud Gods and Goddesses. 5 men, 5 women, 5 international, 5 from Turkey, all finding their place. Their skills. Their strengths and their weaknesses.
By day’s end I began to see, each idiosyncrasy was a blessing, not a curse. Each individual was so valuable. I needed the muscle and the laughter, the precision and the vision, the sensitive and the tough, the emotional support, the spiritual connection, the DJ, the stamina. I even needed those damn youtube videos.
To anyone hoping to build out there, this is the key: Each team member is a dirt angel in disguise. And each has come for a reason. Mark my words, at some point in the build, no matter how unlikely it may seem, you will need each and every one. If you think you only can use a bunch of power houses, you are way off the mark. So far off the mark your walls are going to topple. Probably because you have no one to check if they’re straight. Your team will die of hunger. Or there’ll be no humour. No beauty. For magic, you need the alchemy of it all.
We had that alchemy. From day one. And it created an energy of will and manifestation that far surpassed the feasible.
“It won’t work.” Taylan sat on a cushion inhaling yet more from his bottle of brown horror. It was mid-afternoon and the group was assembled for a theory session on the terrace. “We can’t finish the house in a week.”
Murmurs rippled through the team. Everyone was squatting on cushions supping drinks and fanning themselves.
“Are you telling me it’s impossible?” I looked him in the eye raising a defiant eyebrow.
“Yes. It’s impossible. I mean, look at it logically Atulya. We have no experience. We just filled in the foundation.” He was shaking his head, brow furrowed.
It was that very moment I realised how much I need a rational sceptic. I love them. They are to me what liquid hydrogen is to a rocket engine. Feeling the power of the challenge surging into my upper body, I grinned at Taylan. I’d liked him since the moment he’d called to book for the course and told me he was going to make an earthbag animal shelter. Despite his strange paleo-caffeine diet and his lung-obliterating smoking habit, he was golden hearted and truly invested in the project.
“Ah nothing is impossible. So we’ll see, my friend. We’ll see.” I chortled, knowing from the depths of my soul that anything could happen. Anything. Because this was mud. And magic was afoot.
The first day closed with 10 earthbaggers slurping and stomping in a huge pit of earth plaster. We were preparing a batch a week ahead, so it could percolate. There was mud everywhere. In feet. In hair. All over faces. Taylan, cigarette firmly glued between his lips, chortled heartily as he opened the spigot to spray water into the mud pit. Emma helped me bolster the sides of the tarp with big rocks. It was one happy, dirty mess.
As darkness pushed us off the land, I noted happily that we were on schedule. The foundations and plaster were complete. The stem wall was Tuesday’s job, after which we would push on up on the earthbag wall. I dared believe it. Was it possible? A house in seven days?
But just as a shoot of hope began to flourish, something happened. As usual. It hovered over the seedling of optimism like a large, ill-placed foot.
“Kerry, we may be have a problem.” Baykal loitered next to me, one eye on the mud party, the other on his phone. He pushed the square of tech under my nose. It glowed in the fading light.
“Oh no,” I murmured, grabbing the phone and staring at it closer. The weather app showed a storm on the horizon followed by two days of rain. And the storm was arriving tomorrow. We had 10 people in tents – including myself – only two of which were waterproof.
“It can’t be. It’s so hot!” I blurted.
“Ah may be it doesn’t come. May be the app is wrong. Sometimes it’s raining. Sometimes nothing. No worries man. May be no rain.”
Baykal and I looked at each other and then giggled. It was the laughter of the desperate. Because if it rained we were foiled. And we had absolutely no control over it.
Of course Tuesday arrived. And so did the storm. And the rain. Tents were washed out. Some blew away. Not to mention the water being cut off.
But that is next week’s story.
STARS OF THIS EPISODE (in order of appearance).
Atulya K Bingham
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