Long before The Mud, long before earthbag houses and composting toilets, when I was teaching in the Turkish city of Antalya and spending absurd amounts on Penne all’Arrabbiatta and chocolate souffle, a friend invited me over to watch a Lars von Trier movie. I buckled up and braced myself for two hours of marginally pretentious wallow into the dark side of the human spirit. But I was in for a surprise. Not necessarily about the pretentiousness, but because the film profoundly changed the way I view creativity. OK, all well and good, but what’s all this got to do with the mountain blog and earthbag houses, and alternative living? Well, because if there’s one film you should watch before embarking on a building project, I’d say 5 Obstructions is it.
5 obstructions is a documentary starring von Trier’s mentor, filmmaker Jørgen Leth. To summarize the film very briefly, Von Trier sets Leth the task of making five short remakes of Leth’s 1967 film The Perfect Human. The snag is, each time he issues the suffering filmmaker with an obstruction. One obstruction is that Leth has to remake the film in Cuba and with a maximum shot-length of 12 frames, another is that the film should be a cartoon. It quickly emerges just how crucial the obstruction is to stimulating and guiding Leth’s creativity. When, as a punishment for failing to complete an obstruction properly, von Trier tells filmmaker Leth to redo the movie with no obstruction at all. Leth all but throws a fit, blurting something along the lines of ‘you can’t do that! That’s the cruellest thing to do to an artist, give them absolute freedom.’
In the years that followed, I pondered many an hour on Leth’s outburst. Because we so often hear the opposite, that artists need to be unfettered in order to create. I, for one, had long entertained the notion that to write, paint or make things, I required a vast open landscape devoid of
boundaries and impediments. There were to be no financial limitations, no side job to sequester large portions of my attention, ample time, endless resources, and an ever-supportive, all-positive audience. I thought those were the factors necessary for cultivating the most original ideas. Without obstructions, inspiration could float in like an exotic, vibrant-winged butterfly and then manifest on the page, or the canvas, or in The Mud. But I was wrong. That's not how it works at all. Time has shown me over and over again that it is the obstruction that pushes the creativity gas pedal, not freedom.
So, to return to The Mud. When I first moved onto my beloved 2000 metres square of land back in 2011, it looked just like the undefiled canvas I had coveted. Everything was in abundance: earth, rocks, daylight hours. The sky stretched open and blue like a cloudless door to the God of Great Ideas. The view rolled on and away from me in an unobstructed green tumble. The mountains were so ridiculously steep and bold, they seemed to laugh at the mere suggestion of limitation. I wondered whether it was unethical to lay down rules in such a happy circle of unconstraint. But I loved my spot deeply, and I wanted to protect it. So I made Mud Laws or Mud Obstructions.
The 5 Obstructions of The Mud.
1. No concrete is permitted anywhere on the land.
2. No smoking within the borders
3. No squares and straight lines.
4. No killing of animals.
5. No major expense.
I’m not going to spend time defending the whys and wherefores of each obstruction. None of them exist as moral condemnations. They are my preferences. And the beauty of owning your own land is that you’re entitled to a little caprice. What is more exciting is the creativity each obstruction has fostered. Not being able to use concrete, for example, generated a wealth of bright ideas regarding mortar, mosaic grouting and house foundations. The banning of corners, though not always successfully obeyed (I’m eons from the architect Hundertwasser) resulted in a house that makes me sing when I sit in it, and simultaneously strong enough to withstand earthquakes. My budget was instrumental in producing some of the most inspired parts of the home, as either the natural resources on my land or other people’s rubbish became my materials. Broken tiles, grass, bottles, branches, reeds, thrown-away cupboards, broken windows, cracked crockery and reject furniture all turned into an enchanting game of ‘now what can we make out of that’. Banning smoking (and in a country like Turkey an outdoor smoking ban is none too easy to implement) changed the entire dynamic of the land. It affected something beyond the physical, and my space became a place of creation or peaceful contemplation, rather than busy socialisation.
I write all this because normally, when problems and limitations arise, we are so apt to feel stymied. In fact, one of the attractions of writing over building is that ideas can remain just that; perfect bubbles of non-matter, before they are subject to the humiliating degradations of the physical world.
But Gaia (and von Trier come to mention it) have changed my perspective on the art of creation. In construction, time, money, available materials, energy and the weather are the big 5 obstructions everyone has to face. Sometimes rain calls off play. Other times it’s just too hot to lift a rock. Sometimes you simply can’t find the power to bang in another nail. It gets dark and you haven’t managed to finish the plastering. The roof beams cost three times more than you’d hoped. These are all construction classics and so often result in frustration. But I now look at those obstructions as my friends rather than my enemies. Who knows? Perhaps God stuck them onto the canvas of the Earth just to prod our otherwise lethargic imaginations. And perhaps von Trier has a right to a little pretention, as well.
I’m ready. My earth walls are thick, in fact they’re bullet-proof, which may be just as well, because whenever you approach the subject of gender, you are guaranteed plenty of disagreement. So I'll dive straight in. It might not be what people want to hear, but I say, if you’re a woman out there wanting the house of your dreams, the chances are you’re not going to get it unless you do it by yourself.
Living the life I do, I’ve run into many folk who’ve run from the conventional and galloped into the hills after their dream life. Some are couples. Some are groups. Some are single. Some are continually in transition between all three states. But when it comes to women actually taking a hammer in their hand and constructing their very own dream house, top to bottom, I’ve only ever seen it happen without a man. (Though I’d love to hear a story where that wasn’t the case, so if anyone has got one, let me know).
Now, I freely admit, I have been the fortunate beneficiary of barrel loads of assistance from both genders in the creation of my home. House-building is rarely a job for the Lone Ranger. Who builds single-handedly? But the question is, who is owning the project? When constructing something unconventional or even ground-breaking, women, for a variety of reasons, tend not to take ownership when there is a man on the scene. And when you don’t take ownership, you don’t have the final say, which means when it comes to choosing between your dream of a hand-crafted stone wall with natural mud mortar that hasn’t be en invented yet, or a quicker but less earth-friendly concrete solution, your ‘impractical’ vision is likely to hit the wayside.
All of this is not necessarily the fault of men. Over the past two years, I have been blessed by streams of benevolent testosterone cascading onto my land; men who have genuinely gunned for me and been there for me when the going has got a little bumpy. But I must add, for the sake of honesty and truth, that there have been deep ravines of misogynist contempt to negotiate, too. Once, before the earthbag adventure, when I was in the Kabak valley and trying to glean how a platform was put together, the builder turned to me and sneered, ‘you’ll never be able to do this.’ His group of cronies laughed so hard, you’d have thought I was trying to push testicles out of my groin, not understand the hardly brain-stretching logic behind what was basically a wooden gazebo light years from rocket science.
Events like the one above hurt. And it’s one (but definitely not the only) reason women stay away from construction. But in all honesty, Mr Builder was only voicing a belief that the group subconscious (both male and female) has accepted, no matter how polite a face it puts on it. Please note that I said subconscious. Consciously, many of us want to promote equality of opportunity. The trouble is, women whacking nails in, or revving a chainsaw, is not an image we have been taught to absorb or project (unless it’s via a few music videos of buttock-wobblingly dubious content). And women can excel when it comes discrimination, too. How many times have women gone through my site and referred to me as a man!
But let me get the plywood straight, before a thousand and one oestrogen propelled jigsaw blades are whirred in my direction. This isn’t about blame. I can be just as bad. What this says to me is, forget the guys, quite a few women don’t view women as being able to build. And the reason for this is that there are some deeply-rooted, widely promulgated myths floating through the ether, and
they flit in and out of our ears, time and time again. They are in women’s heads. They are in men’s heads. And they are lethal. I have, at various times in my life, believed some of them. But over the past two years, pretty much every single one has been smashed to genderless smithereens.
“Women aren’t strong enough to build alone.”
Oh yeah, the all-time classic. I’m sorry to say even the most well-intentioned are prone to voicing this. Really, shelve this belief right now. We live in the 21st century, and there is a tool for pretty much any job you can think of. And when there isn’t? Well, you’d be amazed at just what you can lift, or drag when you put your mind to it. In my experience, physical fitness, stamina, lateral thinking and sheer obstinacy are far more useful than size (which rarely equals strength anyway). But whoever you are, however big you are, the more you lift, the stronger you get. If the worst comes to the worst, you can always hire some muscle. This way you retain ownership of the project rather than having to compromise your vision.
“I have no experience. No one builds without experience.”
This is a tough nut to crack. When you have no experience, it’s hard to find someone generous enough to let you get your greenhorn mitts on their prized Black and Decker. That’s why ultimately, I think women only build alone or in groups of other women. Because it’s nigh impossible to get a foot in the door otherwise (though I am indebted to Adam Frost back in 1987 for patiently letting me grapple with his bike spanners and Swarfega, these things are not forgotten.)
“It’s much easier just to flirt a bit, and get a guy to do it.”
Yeees. It’s so very ‘convenient’ to allow the man in the group to sweat through all the ‘difficult’ jobs, right? (I raise my hand here, guilty all the way to the compost heap). Though, seriously, I’m starting to think our human bent for convenience is our worst enemy. It makes slaves of us all. We lose our independence, our muscles and our self-belief for what initially appears to be an easier life, and invariably is the road to ruin. The physically challenging jobs can often be the most rewarding ones, too. You finish the day exhausted but aglow with a feeling of self-confidence and accomplishment. Who needs a gym?
“When I mess up, I’ll be ridiculed until kingdom come because I’m a woman.”
This is not a myth. It’s absolutely true. One only has to skim through the net to see the unparalleled mockery women are subject to when they make the slightest cock-up in any area considered male. But the beauty is, the derision always seems to come from small, jealous wannabes who’ve never managed a single gutsy project in their life. So take refuge in that, I know I do. Personally, I’ve never met anyone that’s actually built an eco-home who has criticised anyone else. It’s a supportive community. It is also why I proudly display every blunder I have made, because if you haven’t
made an error, you haven’t built a damn thing. You’ve sat in front of a screen and typed instead.
“I don’t want to build. I can’t think of anything worse!”
I have no idea how much of this is self-imposed myth and how much is a genuine dislike of construction. There are presumably people of either gender who have as little desire to build, as I have to organise a dinner party. My poor, long-suffering friend Elif is one of them. No doubt traumatised by my relentless efforts to ‘give her a chance’ to build (I’ve had her plastering doors, holding up beams and carrying water tanks), last month she drew the line. When I offered her the drill, she shook her head in outright refusal. ‘Ooof! I’ve no idea what you see in all of this!’ She said. ‘Now, I’d like to cook dinner if that’s alright with you.’
And yes. It was very alright with me. The best I’ve eaten in a long while.
Ten days ago I hurt my knee. It’s a recurring injury exacerbated by car driving. The repetitive tension while pressing the gas pedal has caused inflammation of my knee tendons. Hmm. Am I the only one seeing the metaphor?
Being the obstinate sort that I am, it’s taken a while for me to accept that I might need to slow down a little. I really don’t want to. I have so many plans and ideas, and I’m itching to bring them to fruition. No chance right now. My knee has given up the ghost, temporarily at least.
So, with all this immobility, there has been time on my hands for a little reflection.
A few mornings ago, I took time to stretch my ailing leg. Stepping onto my wooden platform, I struck a few yoga poses. I inhaled the clear, late-spring air. Looking over the yellowing hill, a slope that was as verdant as a rainforest a month ago, I was reminded of how quickly things change. This plot of land, the valley, in fact our entire worlds are perpetually dynamic pictures.
As I finished my yoga session and lay in relaxation, I heard a flurry of activity from the pine tree next to my kitchen. A swirl of bee-eater birds rose like a plume of electric blue smoke. The cloud pulsed in the air. It looked like a genie, inhaling and exhaling.
Bee-eater birds migrate from Africa in late spring. As their name suggests they munch on bees. My village holds a huddle of bee-keepers, which is why these attractive and vividly-marked birds grace us with their presence. Naturally, bee-keepers and bee-eaters are not the best of friends, and the locals will routinely pull a shot gun out whenever they see a bee-eater swarm in the vicinity. Seeing as both bees and bee-eaters are dwindling in numbers I’m ambivalent about the ethics of that. But I’m not of the shooting disposition. And the bee-eaters choose my pines to overnight in.
As I lay on the platform post-yoga that morning and stared into the sky, I was mesmerised by those bee-eaters. They circled and dove directly above me, creating a living, moving display of such beauty and precision it was almost hard to believe it hadn’t been choreographed for the purpose.
My mind returned to my knee and the gas pedal, to driving at break-neck speed after goals, to all the grand plans of my life, none of which have ever turned out how I thought. This adventure, the mountain-house adventure, is an anomaly in my life. It was never planned for. It was never on my ‘to-do’ list at all. I had no great vision of building my own home because I had never considered such a thing could ever give me so much pleasure. But this space apparently didn’t need a plan. It was almost as if it grew by itself, a little like the wild grape vine next to my toilet.
Before this home, I thought I had to do yoga, to breathe and meditate, and follow a set path, in order to find peace and happiness. I was driven, hot on the trail of the elusive goal of enlightenment that so many people bang on about. But awakening is everywhere. It surfs along the sunlight that illuminates the leaves, it flirts with the movement of the air, it thrives in the plants bursting through the soil, it lives in us too.
It’s all quite peculiar really. My bank balance is fairly pathetic. I have no romantic relationship, no prestigious job, no luxury car. In fact I have none of things the powers-that-be would have us believe we need to for success or happiness. None of this matters one iota, because however it appears on the outside, on the inside I feel overwhelmingly complete, almost as though I’ve made it.
I think life is like the bee-eaters. It swirls and dances and makes us gasp in wonder. Things appear and disappear in their own time. Often when we look back over our shoulders, we haven’t a clue how it all came to be. It’s almost as if it just ‘happened’.
Even so, every now again I’ll still kid myself into believing there are things I have to do. I’ll look life in the eye and issue it a few ultimatums, things like, ‘the kitchen MUST be finished by next month.’ or ‘We’re going to get that plaster on, whatEVER it takes.’
And life looks at me, nods ironically and grins. ‘Really?’ it says. ‘You think so?’ Then it’ll give me a knee injury. Or send a deluge of rain. Or make my car break down. Because the picture of our lives can’t be forced or mapped, or even perhaps imagined. We are both creators and creations simultaneously .
I still do yoga and meditate. I still drive too fast as well. But honestly, it was participating in the creation of my home – a home that listened to the Earth – that was ultimately the most enlightening.
How does anyone go from not being able to bang a nail in, without either bending it or smacking a finger, to constructing a house, in the space of six months?
The answer lies far from building manuals, and workshops, and training. It resides a long way from the Turkish mountains too. But first, let me rewind to the beginning of my building adventure. The first month on my land. Just one woman, a tent, and a dubious stick creation that paraded under the term ‘washing-up rack’.
The month of May was gobbling up its days like they were baklava. Syrupy, sweet days they were too, with clear skies of cobalt, and mountain outlines sharp enough to cleave the unblemished blue into bite-sized triangles. The green slopes that rolled and swirled about me were on the brink of yellowing, late spring flowers itching to scatter their seeds. It was with this backdrop that I embarked on my first construction project. The toilet.
There were always plenty of questions about my lifestyle. But, it was in particular my bathroom habits that seemed to ignite people’s curiosity. Where did I crap? How did I wash? After a couple of weeks of answering nature’s many calls in various ‘off-land’ locations, I accepted that some sort of bathroom was imperative. Thus I made one . . . in a manner of speaking. And, as with every new step I took up there on my mountain, I looked to the land to show me the way first. Was there a spot that nature had divined would be my WC?
I found a small rock-strewn cove at the edge of the forest. It was surrounded by wild shrubs and trees. Thorn bushes scratched at the gaps with their thick green claws. Pushing through an olive tree, I edged into the space within. I was almost invisible to the outside world. Yet, the clearing looked out onto the pomegranate fields beyond. A loo with a view? Ha ha! It seemed my bathroom space had made itself known. But how to go about constructing it? It was then that I drew on the only building resources I had. Den building. And I had to dig quite far into my memory to pull those now indispensable life lessons out. The last time I had made a den, I'd been seven or eight years old, at most.
I don’t know if all children build dens, but I think most of the kids on my street did. There were bedsheet hideouts, shelters woven from branches, and my favourite was a moss-carpeted kitchen I made with a girl called Isabelle Dobby. We crafted it under a knotty old tree near her house using the gaps in the roots as cupboards and shelves. Yes, indeed. A moss carpet. It was state-of-the-art in the den world, even if I say so myself.
Back in Turkey, well over thirty years on, this was all coming back to me. As I examined the circle of greenery at the edge of the forest that was bidding to be my bathroom, I looked at it as a child might. I studied the shape of the rocks, the placement of grasses, the spaces. Then, I rolled up my sleeves and set about the brambly little circle. Oh what happy hours I spent that day, clearing a showering area, collecting small stones to spread on the floor to stop the ground becoming muddy, inventing a neat little canister-with-hose-shower. But, it was the bathroom ‘door’ that was my pride and joy. I found two sturdy sticks, buried them in the ground, searched out a third branch that arced beautifully and rested it over the other two sticks. And then…wait for it…I NAILED THEM TOGETHER. This may seem like rather a piffling achievement to other more experienced artisans, but for me it was the first thing I’d ever nailed in my life. And voila! A doorway appeared. I found an old curtain and pegged it over the top (den-building tactics revisited) and that was that.
It might seem that I’m over simplifying, but that bathroom ‘door’ was a turning point. It was the baby step that empowered me to move on from toilet to tool shed to wooden deck to house, all in the space of half a year. Each time it was the same process. Look at the land, look at what you have, use some logic and just try it out.
About two months later, one of my neighbour’s relatives turned up to take a look about my homemade kingdom on the hill. She tucked a grey, silken headscarf around her head and wobbled as she walked the length of the track. On arriving before the toilet, she tweaked the curtain and peered inside. Next, she looked at my tent and my kitchen, with its tree-branch hooks and random wood slats for shelving. She turned up her nose.
‘Ooh, I don’t like it at all. Its … it’s like a kid’s game or something. Why don’t you make a proper house?’
She was right. It was just like a kid’s game. And that’s exactly what made the entire adventure so much fun, and ultimately possible at all.
Now, two years on, I’m sitting in a roundhouse made of mud. My kitchen is a rubble-filled mess. There are stray stones everywhere, and my sink seems to change places every day. There are still gaps all over the walls where I need to finish the earthplaster. The window sills are not yet in, nor do I have any furniture. I sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag, like a child in a backyard. Does the chaos drive me crackers? No. Strangely, it doesn’t. Because it’s a game. A big, muddy game. And I love every single minute of it.
Atulya K Bingham
Sick of the screen?
You can now get a beautiful, illustrated paperback edition of Mud Mountain.
"Beautifully written and inspiring." The Owner Builder Magazine.
Want to follow my journey?