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?
Just released! There is now a beautiful, illustrated paperback edition of Mud Mountain.
"Beautifully written and inspiring." The Owner Builder Magazine.
Want to follow my journey?