You've heard me waffle on about listening to your land. No doubt you’re sick of it. People write to tell me they’re planning to build a natural home off grid, and ask me for advice. Merrily I tap into the email: You need to listen to your land. But what am I talking about when I say that? And how does that relate to you?
You can read all about my personal experience of listening to my land in the first and second Mud Mountain blog posts I ever wrote. I was starry eyed and fresh from the system when I first set up camp here with little more than a tent, pick, spade and a wheelbarrow. This enchanting rectangle of the Earth wriggled under my skin and set me alight. It changed me. And I changed it.
Here’s another more recent example of how communicating with your land can powerfully impact building decisions. This time the off-gridder is Ayşe, hiking star of my biographical novel Ayşe’s Trail. We bought our plots the same year and in the same area.
Last May, after a foray into adult education in Istanbul, Ayşe finally moved onto her virgin space. Like me she took little more than a tent (though there are tents and then there are tents. Let’s just say hers wasn’t a 50 dollar Carrefour cheapie.) Like me, she staked herself on the earth throughout the summer and developed a loving relationship with her domain. She cleared spaces, built walls, set up an outside kitchen and shower area, hammered together a composting toilet. Like me, she had no power and no running water. Initially, she planned to procure a government connection, but for legal reasons was unable to.
It was July when I visited her. The sun was cutting incandescent paths through the forest above and scorching the ground it hit. We sat on a rug she’d laid under a pine. Pouring me a mug of tea, she sighed. She was demoralised.
‘I’ve made a decision Kerry. I just can’t do this without water. It’s too difficult. Either I find a wellspring on this land, or I’m giving up.’
I nodded understandingly. My two years of life without running water were challenging to say the least. It’s the one and only thing you really do need.
‘What do you feel the land has to say?’ I asked.
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I love it here, I just love it. But I can’t make it without water. If this place wants me, I guess it will give it to me. If not, I’m going.’
‘Have you any ideas where water might be?’ I sipped my tea and gazed over her plot. It was buzzing with life. West facing, the slope was crammed full of ancient olive trees and towering pines. Some had collapsed from old age, their twisted carcasses providing her with ample firewood and building materials. To me, it felt congenial and welcoming.
‘Well there are some blackberries over there.’ She said.
I looked up. Just above us was a small gulch filled with brambles. It was the kind of detail you had to be living on the land a while to notice. Had she simply paid a digger to flatten the site at the outset, they would have been lost. In mid-July, it was unthinkable that blackberries could be surviving without water. I’d made three attempts at growing blackberries, only to watch them die of thirst every summer no matter how much I tried to water them. This looked hopeful at any rate.
Digging for a wellspring is a nail-biting endeavour. Every metre you mine is costing you, and there’s no guarantee you will find your liquid gold. People have been known to dig 100 metres and remain empty handed. Underground water is frustratingly elusive, with streams changing course at the drop of a hat. So when the day came and the digger rolled onto the bottom corner of Ayşe’s land, she was tense. It was make or break.
The machine took a couple of swipes at the earth, then a couple more. It was no more than two metres down before water began not just dribbling but gushing out. This is the stuff of off-grid fantasy, I can tell you. A concrete ring was installed, and a small pump attached. Ayşe was back in business.
That wasn’t all, however. Once the water issue was resolved, Ayşe also wanted to build a mud home. Being of pioneer spirit herself, she wanted to forge something new; an alternative technique for natural adobe. She had a feeling about where she wanted her house. Then she asked my opinion.
‘Ah Ayşe, if you feel it should be over in that little secluded corner, then follow your gut,’ I said. I don’t really like giving advice on other people’s land because there are few rules, and logic so often just doesn’t come up with the goods.
‘Yes, but I’m asking for your idea because you’ve some experience.’
‘Well,’ I said. ‘Logically speaking, if you think about where the sun is rising and setting, and where it rises and sets in winter, that spot you’ve pointed to could be dark and cold.’
Ayşe furrowed her brow. Then I pointed to another corner. We both agreed this space saw plenty of sun in winter, but received ample afternoon shade in summer. Still, I was uncomfortable. ‘But hey, maybe there’s a reason you warmed to that other spot that we don’t know about yet. May be the land was urging you there. Who knows?’ I said.
Who knows indeed? Unfortunately, Ayşe listened to me and logic, and placed her home in the lower east side of the land. She hammered together a wooden frame for her mud home from repurposed palettes, and began the slow process of filling it with an adobe concoction. She worked with one other person for a month, before deciding to complete the house single-handedly. Then something happened. A family who owned the neighbouring land, and who hadn’t been seen for over two years, abruptly returned. They moved into a small bungalow directly below Ayşe’s new mud house. It irritated Ayşe, who like me was looking for solitude. Then the rains came early. It slowed Ayşe’s progress to a halt. By late October her walls were only a third complete. She wasn’t going to make it before winter.
In the end, Ayşe had to commission the building of a small wooden bungalow to shelter her through the winter. And guess where that hut was built? On the original spot she had liked from the outset. How happy she was as she trotted up and down the wooden steps hidden by the bristling pines from all and sundry.
So the moral of the story is don’t listen to me, or your neighbour, or the architect, or any amalgam of logical ideas. Listen to your land. Because it’s between you and her. Who knows what secrets she’s storing? Ultimately only she can show you the way.
Atulya K Bingham
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