Until now I haven’t done much to publicise The Mud site. I've let it grow organically, and it has wriggled its way upwards in gentle anfractuous pulses, a bit like the wild grape vine outside my bathroom. This is the same grapevine that was dismissed by both Dudu and Celal as being a waste of space, because it was wild and would never bear fruit. Today that same vine is bulging with sweet, globules of purple. Well it would. It’s next to my composting toilet.
Back to The Mud. This spring, I decided it was make or break time for www.themudhome.com. The site has germinated, it has pushed its virtual head through the soil, grown leaves and branches, and a fairly stout trunk. But it’s time for it to bear a little fruit too. Lord knows, I've watered it enough. So I took inspiration from the grapevine. Last month I decided to throw a little manure on. Flippin’ ‘eck! As we say back home.
The Mud website has burgeoned. And naturally, all sorts of other life is attracted. I’m blessed with flocks of happy emails, the buzzings of would-be natural builders and freedom seekers all greeting me from far and near. It’s a good feeling to see the fruit you planted enjoyed by others, to hear people say they had never considered building without cement until they saw your house, to have your books and posts devoured like succulent grapes, to connect with like-minded souls. I had no idea there were so many!
Quite naturally too, those in the vicinity would like to visit, to see The Mud in the flesh. And it pains me to turn Mud searchers down, it really does. I have been delving into nooks of my mind this month, trying to feel out just why I can’t have visitors. I then something happened. And I got it. I really got it.
I was clearing out my shed a few weeks ago when I came across a box full of books. I pulled apart the floppy cardboard flaps, and there on the top was the well-known children’s story, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Pulling it out, I read the first page, and couldn't put it down.
Just in case you haven’t read it, The Secret Garden concerns a contrary little girl (horrid even) called Mary Lennox who has been orphaned in India. Mary is shipped back to Yorkshire to live in a dark manor with a hunchback uncle, his sick child called Colin, and a locked secret garden. What more could she want, eh? To cut a long story short, Mary sniffs out the key to the secret garden and breaks in. She begins tending the crocuses and messing about in the earth which is full of Magic. Yet the garden remains a secret (shh!). Eventually she tells Dickon, a local boy who has a way with animals and is a bit Magic himself. The two children attempt to bring the garden back to life, and the therapeutic effect of the endeavour renders Mary much less horrid than she was. Eventually, she also lets sick Colin into the secret. Both of them are healed by The Secret Garden. Colin even begins walking.
Naturally, I was enthralled by the tale because it mirrored so closely my own experience here on the land; the healing properties of tending the Earth, the connection with animals, the Magic. Yet most significant of all, the story highlighted a point I’d unwittingly passed over in my own experience. The importance of the secret element in the garden. How primal it must be for each of us to have a space of our own, a place outside eyes can’t pierce, a corner of the earth we can be explore our souls, and damn it, do what the hell we like!
This need is incredibly universal. Even my dog doesn’t want to share her kennel, and sniffs at me irritably when I try to get in it. (Now, you may rightly ask why I was trying to get in my dog’s kennel in the first place. Honestly, I just wondered what she’d do.) Children make dens, husbands construct man caves, authors hide away in purpose-built writing rooms, Celal had his wooden hut, my granddad had a garden shed in which he’d sit upon an upturned bucket.
We all harbour this yearning for privacy, because society is officious, judgemental and staid. It’s like a nagging parent, or a bossy warden, incessantly restricting the expression our true selves. We all need a secret garden where we can play without the outside world interfering. For some it might be about the freedom to chuck motorbike parts all over the carpet, for others it could be about not having to make cup of tea for anyone, or not having to wax your legs, for others it might be about making love unabashed in the forest on a whim, or watering the plants naked, for others it could be a space where the phone never rings, or the boss can’t bother you, perhaps it’s a child's cubby hole in which you create a magic world, a safe place where the adult world can’t ridicule your imagination.
The Mud is no different. While I have willingly published a virtual window into my world, The Mud reality must remain in the dark, because this is my own private playground. And I get it. It’s the secrecy which allows my creativity to roam. It’s the intimacy of the place which brings me and it alive. If the Mud became public, it would kill it. I would run a mile, pull down my site, and probably never write another thing.
So Mud friends enjoy the fruits my secret garden pushes forth. Take what you want of them. I’m pretty generous with my free information, I think. But sorry, the garden will remain locked. Concealed. Unseen. It must. Or it will die.
Sometimes I wonder whether I make it all up. Does my land really communicate with me? Is there anything outside myself with which to engage in exchange? A little scepticism is always healthy. Back in the 18th century, the ultimate sceptic David Hume argued “Objects have no discoverable connexion together; nor is it from any other principle but custom operating upon the imagination, that we can draw any inference from the appearance of the one to the existence of the other.”
Hume pointed out something crucial. Just because we see two things occur in sequence again and again, doesn't necessarily mean one caused the other. In one paragraph all hope is dashed. I’m making it all up.
And then, out of the blue, something untoward happens between me and my land; a coincidence so peculiar or outrageous, I struggle to remain sceptical in the face of it. So I shall relate my latest Mud tale and let you decide. Did my land communicate with me? Or am I just imagining a causal relationship?
Winter was long this year, and it dug cold, wet trenches into spring. Spring became water-logged and thus waded through the months in pursuit of warmer climes. Even in June nights slid down to a chilly 15 degrees rendering sleeping outside unpleasant. As a result, just like the reptiles, I was slow leaving my nest. The outside remained out. The wilderness seemed to retreat from me. I’ve been sensing it retreat further and further every year.
Initially, I mourned the loss of my Eden; the first grazes of the wild, the first breaking apart of my ‘civilised’ shell, and those early conversations with my land. This year a cooler wave of acceptance began to slosh over me. Change is inevitable, I sighed. Perhaps the loss of the intimacy I first experienced here was to be replaced by growth and experience.
And then again perhaps not.
It couldn’t have been more than a month ago. The sun finally struck a decent ray over my hill. A pair of agama lizards raised their dragon heads on my rock garden, and I could hear tortoises rustling in leaves. Summer was timorously making her move. So I stepped out of my mud home. For the umpteenth time I ignored the heap of rubble that is still my back step, and walked toward Grandmother Olive. Rotty the Dog lazily poked her head out of her kennel eyeing my direction. I was holding a tablet and headphones in one hand and a cushion in the other. For the first time this season I had decided to indulge in a bit of hammock swinging.
My hammock is tethered to Orandmother Olive. This is where I recline, usually at dusk, with the express intention of listening to my land. It was only 11 am, and the area was still draped in a leaf-dappled shade. I said I was clutching headphones. Now, I listen to music in my house. I’ll listen to it in my gazebo too. But I never listen to music in that hammock. Ever. That area has always been special for me; a magical point of exchange between me and nature.
As I said, the wilderness was receding. Things were changing. I was changing. I slung the cushion onto the web of rope. Then I slid on my headphones and lowered myself into the mesh cocoon. Fiddling with the settings of the tablet, I glanced up at Grandmother Olive. The thought loomed in my mind. I never do this. This is my place to listen to my land. I wonder if this is OK? Batting the question from my mind, I gamely pressed the play button.
I was a little over a minute into the first song. Just one minute. One minute into the first time I had ever brought technology onto that hammock. One minute since posing the question. I had just shut out my home and the wildlife around it and was lost in another electronic world, when Rotty began barking wildly. I turned to face her, irritated that she was disrupting my reverie. What now? I fumed. My vexation turned to perturbation. Rotty was barking at me. And it was the type of barking she reserved for wild boar, cats and rather irrationally tall, blonde females.
I yanked off my headphones and stared at my hysterical dog, hackles raised on her shoulders like a row of furry spikes. “Rotty, what the hell is up with you?” I shouted. And then I noticed she wasn’t actually barking at me, but a little below me, just under my hammock. I turned and looked down, half-expecting to see a Swedish long jumper.
It was my turn to feel my hackles rise.
There curled into the crux of Grandmother Olive’s trunk, fangs glistening, head raised and ready to lunge was a one-and-a-half metre long, five-centimetre-thick black snake. It was squiggled up about 70 centimetres from the back of where my neck had been. We were now facing each other off with nowt but the hammock strings between us.
I’m used to snakes. Once upon a time I was terrified of them, but through familiarity my fear has evaporated. Snakes look disconcerting, but are basically shy harmless creatures that will slope away at the first opportunity. I’ve seen plenty of them, and they are always moving in the opposite direction, as fast as they can muster. I have never in all my 18 years of living in Turkey seen a snake raise itself up ready to lunge. I had never until that moment seen a snake’s fangs close up. I’ve never before felt the visceral and powerful life force they represent as they coil up like springs, open their huge mouths and hiss.
Did I mention it was about 70 centimetres from the back of my neck?
Adrenalin is amazing stuff. I vaulted out of that hammock and found myself at least three metres from it. Then I dragged back my heroic Rotty, who was waging an impressively loyal ‘one for all’ barking attack upon Snake. Snake, seeing a window of escape, slid out from Grandmother Olive’s trunk. The last I saw of it was a thick, black cable burning a trail to Dudu’s land.
Heart pounding, I ran to the house. I opened the door and hurled the tablet onto my sofa. The close up image of Snake rearing, fangs bared, ready to kill, seared an impression on my mind like a psychic branding iron. It was terrifying, and it took me a good half an hour to calm down.
But calm down I did. Soon, I stepped out of the house again, and tentatively made my way over to Grandmother Olive. Shuddering, I looked up and down her thick sinewy trunk. Her strong sculpted arms bore the magnificent designs of mature bark. Grandmother Olive must be at least 60, but she’s in great shape. She stood there like empress of the whole damn world. She bristled. I lowered my head guiltily.
“Ok Ok I get the message!’ I muttered.
A light breeze picked up. She rustled her leaves.
I won’t be listening to music in that hammock again. I’ll be listening to Grandmother Olive. Hume could be right of course*. Perhaps it was simply one event following another, and me perceiving causality between the two. But these things happen so often, it beggars belief. At some point you have to be sceptical about scepticism.
I’m sceptical. Very sceptical.
Following Grandmother Olive’s clip round the ear, I have made a concerted effort to reconnect with the outside this summer. I completed my gazebo and sleep once more within an Aladdin’s Cave of stars. I’ve recreated my outside bathroom, so I now shower upon an open-air rock feeling like Eve in the Garden again. My forest reading room has been refurbished with the pines, oaks and crickets weaving it into a hive of creative thought. The spirits of the wild are creeping out once more. And they’re whispering new secrets I want to hear.
(If you want to see the pictures of my outside spaces, look here.)
*NB. Hume, one of my favourite philosophers, was a true sceptic (as opposed to the posses of pseudo sceptics about today who pick and choose when to be sceptical). He argued that just because you've seen B follow A a thousand times, doesn't prove that B will follow A on the 1001st occasion. He would have made the same claim of gravity, and indeed his philosophy basically created a dead-end in purist empirical theory. The point of his philosophy was to show that we don't actually know anything, and all claim to knowing is little more than belief. "When I am convinced of any principle, 'tis only an idea, which strikes more strongly upon me. When I give preference to one set of arguments above another, I do nothing but decide from my feeling concerning the superiority of their influence."
“I’ve no idea how you do it; build a house, manage a garden, write books, keep a blog going? Where do you find the time?”
You know what? I’ve no idea how it happens either. It’s utterly incomprehensible now I look at it.
As I sit here (it’s 11 am) supping my filter coffee, listening to the crickets whirring deliriously and watching the olives sway in the breeze, the light skipping blithely from leaf to leaf, it gives me great pause to think. Time is a mercurial variable. Effort likewise. And neither appear to have anything to do with productivity. How peculiar!
I suppose from the outside it must look as though I’m some sort of maniac; all these creations popping up here, there and everywhere like oily, pink tourists in summer. And there’s just this one woman on a hill, with a hammer in one hand and a computer mouse in the other. It evokes the image either of some weather-beaten, crazed old hag running herself into the ground, or an achievement-obsessed superwoman. But I didn’t come here to achieve. That was what I was running from. I came here to live. To hear myself think. To stretch the hands of my soul into the deepest pockets of my being and ponder on what comes out.
As far as things ‘happening’ is concerned, from the inside it all seems to move incredibly slowly. Sometimes I’m rather impatient with the pace. Yet when I stop and tally it up, I receive a different impression, one I'm thankfully reminded of by the outside world when it asks “how do you do all that?” In the past month, in ways I really don’t grasp, Mud Ball has been published, a free earthbag building PDF has been written, my blog has been updated, the gazebo back rests have been hammered in place, the kitchen floor has been dug ready for tiles, a new wooden kitchen table has been made, the garden has been weeded (again and again), the beans and the tomatoes have been strung up, a succulent garden created, the summer bathroom has been cleared, the summer composting toilet emptied and ready for use, the hammocks hung up. . . Honestly, I have no idea how these things happened. How? How?
The only thing that hasn’t happened is the back step. It’s still a mess. Its time hasn’t come.
Now if I told you that I spend a good half of my day mooching about just thinking, that during the summer I drive to the beach most afternoons and swim before reclining in a café to read a book, that I meditate at least an hour a day and swing in my hammock each evening engaging in nothing more strenuous than a good mulling on life, love and the universe, that I never really feel busy (except in the month of April when the garden can turn a little beserk), what will you say? What will I say, come to that?
I tell you, I am not busy. It’s not really possible to be busy in Turkey. Neither the earth nor the culture allow it. Even a trip to buy a mosquito net can have you supping tea for an hour. Alright, I’m not lazy either. I don’t spend entire weekends prostrate in front of the television, the only visible movement of my body being the twitching of my arm as my hand forages for crisps. I’m active. I’m alive. But workwise, I probably spend about an hour a day writing, and about two hours in the garden. So that’s an extremely undemanding three-hour day I’m ‘grafting’.
That’s it. I generally just do what I feel like, when I feel like it. And perhaps that’s the key. We Westerners have been drip-fed a terrible lie that busyness is productive, that by running around like headless chickens we’re somehow being useful, that the faster we drive the more we achieve, that forcing issues resolves them more quickly. Yet, as I stare out into the wilderness beyond, I notice creativity blooms in the gaps. It is nurtured in the silences. We’ve got it the wrong way round. We think we will do do do, and then stop for a break and admire our workmanship, when in fact the break is apparently required before we act, because it’s the non-doing that begets the doing not vice-versa. Yes, I see. Butterflies don’t flap their rainbow wings before they’ve enjoyed a good slothful stint in a chrysalis, trees don’t push new branches into the sky before they’ve snoozed nice and peacefully for a winter, shoots don’t even entertain the notion of sprouting until they’ve sat resolutely still in a seed pod for months. Snakes and mice spend half their life sleeping. I'm watching nature. She takes plenty of time out. And few are more creative than her.
I ran from the system to avoid busyness. It was a flee from stress, from the never-ending chase after a few meaningless rungs on a status ladder that so obviously count for nothing. So I’ve pitted myself against the rush. I refuse to participate in it. If anything is supposed to get done, it will. If it’s not, it won’t. And yet, as you see, it happens. Books get written, blogs get updated, gardens are dug, flowers burgeon. It just happens. And now I look at it, though I understand not how, there seems to be a lot of it happening too.
It was exactly four years ago. May 2011, I moved on to this modest square of Turkish mountainside. I staggered down the sun-flogged track lugging a tent, a sleeping bag and a pick-axe. Hacking a square out of the thistles, I set up camp. There was no power and no running water. I didn’t have much of plan, not that that’s anything new. I was about to hit 40, and I’d woken up one day to find rather disconcertingly that I’d lost the will to teach. I had $6000 left in my account, a twenty-year-old car and my plot of land. That was it.
Little did I know on that early summer day, in eight months I’d be building a house. I couldn’t even bang a nail in straight at the time. But it happened. And in the process we all had a ball; a big, round face-splattering mud ball. I can’t really say my mud home is finished. I doubt it will ever be. The back step still languishes in state of ankle-wrecking incompletion. I have mosaics to craft into the walls, the kitchen to overhaul. But the little roundhouse is a circle of sweet mud happiness, and it is from there that I finally finished the story. So if you have followed my earthbag adventure and wonder what exactly went on in those frantic 6 weeks at the end of 2011 while I raced against time and money to create a shelter, here it is: Mud Ball.
‘Kerry! I keep telling you, but you just won’t listen. You need to build a house now! Winter is coming. A storm’s coming. It says so on the telly.’ My neighbour Dudu had appeared at my fence only the day before, wisps of hair darting out of her headscarf. ‘And don’t forget. You can always stay on my sofa...oh but you won’t. I know!’ She was wringing her hands. ‘You’re so stubborn. It’s English stubbornness, that’s what it is. God knows it’ll be the death of you!’ She huffed and puffed, popped her false teeth in and out, and shook her fist at me.
From the other side of the fence I looked down at her, not due to superciliousness but because she only reached my shoulder.
‘I’ll be fine, Dudu. The tent is raised off the ground now. Anyway I’m into storms, they’re exciting.’
Dudu screwed up her eyes and turned away in disgust. But she wasn’t the only one to fret over my houseless predicament. Celal, my wiry garden help, wandered up to the fence. He leaned on a large pickaxe and looked me up and down quizzically, his face a brown web of wrinkles.
‘Aye, you wanna be building yourself a hut to park your bum in before winter, look at mine – didn’t cost me a ha’penny but it does the job, eh?’
Celal always spoke using little or no punctuation and I was left squinting as I tried to work out what he said. Once the meaning dawned on me, I swallowed a reply. Well, I could see quite clearly his house hadn’t cost a half-penny. It was something of a wonder that shack was still standing. My tent appeared by far the safer option.
‘That weather’s a comin’ in, yer know and it’s not all sunshine and cherries after that. Your arse’ll be in the mud and you’ll be swimmin’ in it I tell yer, it’ll be a swampahogshit that’s what it’ll be.
‘A swamp of what?’
I remembered that conversation now, and I slid deeper into my sleeping bag. Celal’s warning echoed through the sleepless vale of my mind as I listened to sheets of rain break over my tent. I couldn’t see it, but knew there was indeed a swampahogshit occurring on the other side of my canvas. As soon as I put a foot out of the tent, I’d step into it.
Every morning when I step out of my mud home, Rotty the dog hustling about my lower legs, my eyes fall to the back step. This is often because I have just tripped and wrung my ankle. It might also be because there is a swamp the other side of my door and I’m going to need wellington boots to wade through it. You see it isn’t a back step. It’s a clutter of rocks strewn at the edge of a strip of hardened earth that is supposed to be my back step. I just haven’t got round to finishing it yet. It has been languishing in this state of incompletion for about three years now.
It must have been two months ago I gave myself a bit of a talking to. Enough! Said the dictatorial quadrant of my personality to the indolent dreamer. I’m sick of looking at this damn wreck of a step. Just do it for God’s sake! So I hauled myself up by the wellie tops, averted my eyes from the 1001 other jobs itching to yank me away from the task in hand, and conjured up an idea of how that back step could be. Pulling a rusty, old oil tin from the shed, I began collecting rocks.
Two pails were filled. I deposited the stones at the edges of where my up and coming step. I now felt hungry. Grabbing a large repurposed yoghurt pot, I strode up the slope on my quest for wild greens. In the time it took me to collect a meal’s worth, the sky had thickened with clouds. They bubbled and boiled about the hill, a cabal of meteorological grumpiness. I returned to my kitchen. The greens hadn’t even made it into the pan before the sky collapsed into an onslaught of rain. It lasted about five days. That was the last time I tried to complete the back step. Now I trip over the rocks I collected instead.
The step is one of many examples of incompletion littering the bumpy terrain of The Mud. There’s the kitchen floor, which one day I’ll cover in slabs so that I can wash up without rocky lumps sticking into my boots. There’s the mayhem of broken tiles heaped about the wooden table under the olive tree. They are waiting to become a wonderful mosaic. They’ve been waiting at least two years. There’s the summer gazebo with three back rests out of five completed. Even the vegetable terrace extends just as far as the string beans, after which the rocky wall peters out mid curve.
Sometimes I wonder why I don’t simply plough on to the end of one job before taking on another. I have my reasons. If I dig a little deeper into the mud of my psyche and excavate a few fears and desires, I find a terror of completion. Because to reach a Mud Conclusion would be like death. I don’t want my creation to end. I love it. Thus I leave loose ends flapping all over the place. Untied. Unresolved.
But what am I afraid of? The weather and the seasons roll on regardless of my unease. As I sit here watching spring pull winter apart at the seams, scattering my land with clover and vetch, and the sky with clouds of swallows, it’s obvious. The revolution of the planet drags us breathlessly from old to new, and will do so until it stops turning. It’s relentless. Completion isn’t coming. There is no end. There are only pauses and movement, lulls and change. And none of it is ever what we expect.
Yet sometimes, when I sit quiet, legs crossed, eyes closed, and move from outside to inside, I find Another Place. It’s silent and deep and vast. From there it looks different. The human striving for a finished product is based on the idea that the future is somehow more complete than the present, that there is a state nearer to perfection ahead. But from the eye of the cyclone, the ever-evolving dynamic of life seems perfectly in completion right now. It’s not a static object. It’s an all-encompassing land. A place where every stage of growth and decay has its rightful place in the whole. Occasionally, on good days, I get it. This is Completion. And I’m in it.
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.
For the first time in three years, I left the Mud for a longer while and travelled to that well known Indonesian paradise, Bali. Before I left, one of my friends said of the place, “I thought Sri Lanka was the most beautiful place on the planet, and then I saw Bali.”
It was beautiful, with its thin snakes of broken tarmac writhing through the green, valleys contoured with rice paddies, bamboo architecture, flower-filled offering boxes littering the paths. As with everywhere nowadays, a traveller has to scavenge for hideouts from the oily, red belly of mass tourism. But it was still beautiful. Beautiful to feel the heat on my skin in February, to dive with manta rays, beautiful to eat tofu, beautiful to smell difference, to be transported from a life of familiars to the wilderness of the hitherto unknown. Slowly, I shed my earthy layers until I was almost Mudless.
I love travelling for many reasons. One of them is that it rips The Self out its context and plants it somewhere new. It offers the opportunity to glance over your shoulder at your world back home and view it from ten steps removed. Without our houses, our jobs, our friends and our dogs, which can at any time be taken from us, who and what are we? Who was I without The Mud?
There was a time when I loved my land so intensely, I actually thought I couldn’t live without it. It was my best friend, and I felt a visceral need to be connected to it. Perhaps this is the same with all love affairs. In the beginning we lose ourselves in the union, which allows it to transform us and thus we evolve. But over time – unless we become addicted to the rush which tends to bring about a more cataclysmic end to the relationship – the bond relaxes. We find we can enjoy our time to ourselves as much as our time with our lovers. We appreciate them through togetherness and separation in equal measure.
In Bali, I enjoyed simply sitting with my soul and hearing it speak, hearing the whispers and callings that were beyond The Mud, feeling my imagination roam in new directions and allowing the fingers of Another Place to leave her prints on me. Soon The Mud receded almost out of view. Then it was time to return.
Returns can often be difficult; the soul is still in the old, while the senses have arrived in the new. The first impression of home is informative because of this. It is a virgin wall uncoloured by the ideas, emotions and memories we will soon tack over it. It takes a couple of days to ‘settle in’, for the soul to return and plaster the walls of now with its associations. In this small temporal gap, we have the chance to see our homes momentarily devoid of ourselves.
The day I returned, I walked down my path, already overgrown after just less than a month. My dog stopped maddeningly often to smell this rock and that stick, trying to catch up on what she’d missed. The slope was covered in a lush green down. My leeks and onions were lost in a mesh of burgeoning grass. But it was the mountains that forced me to pause. Their massive grey heads formed a circle around me. They held an exquisite view in their forested arms, and then let it slide between them into the sea. The sky seemed to go on forever, the blue rising higher and higher. The hairs on my arms bristled. I was transfixed.
Next, I walked over to my little house of Mud. I smiled and dropped my backpack on a kitchen chair. Sliding my key in the lock, I pushed the door. It opened onto a rustic, nobbled world of Turkish carpets, bookshelves and mud sculptures. There were little alcoves and pretty mosaics, painted stones and glass beads set in plaster. I gasped at the sight of it. Oh my God! I said to myself. What a lovely little house! Who could have made it?’ It was strange. I saw nothing of the cracks that needed filling, nor the boards needing a new coat of oil, nor the dust collecting in the corners. All the ‘faults’ that I normally bothered myself with, had mysteriously vanished.
I kicked off my boots and stepped inside. The smell of the juniper floor was dizzying. The air cool and fresh. As I ran my eyes over the bumpy walls, they oozed with spirit and warmth. Jumping onto a kilim cushion, I let my Mud home hold me as I stared out at view.
I shook my head. I was just as besotted as ever.
Sorry Bali, this is beautiful, I thought. Yup. There ain’t no place like home.
Mist rises like the smoke of inspiration, genies’ clouds climbing the rock-speckled banks. The pomegranate trees are bare now. Winter has pulled off both their fruit and their leaves. Yet the olives and pines care little about winter’s bullying. They are greener than ever. January’s downpours have satiated their tough old roots. It’s eleven am, third day of a continual deluge of rain that hasn’t even let up long enough for me to visit the bathroom. When the need arises I have to don wellies, rain trousers and Macintosh. Even then, I’m soaked when I return. No one is moving. Not even the shepherds. The land is a silent sponge absorbing any wisp of ambition or haste. So I have sat in my mud home for three days doing absolutely nothing constructive other than inhale the fresh aroma of my liberty.
It wasn’t always like this. I’ve worked in the system just like most people, and the memory sits cold on my diaphragm, congealing. The sickening sound of the alarm. The bolted breakfasts. The dragging yourself to work when you are under par. The tedium and frustration of following a routine designed for someone with a very different sleep pattern, digestive system and work tempo than yours. The interminable boredom. And I know I’m not alone. If you watch the popularity of the more sensible online blogs, a surprising amount chews the dream-filled cud of escaping the daily grind. There’s little doubt, the driving aim of my Mud world was to eradicate the need for money and render the drudge of work obsolete. And this reminds me of something that happened two and a half years ago.
It was a full moon, September 2013. I’d just returned from a six month stint in Taiwan, the proceeds of which were supposed to keep me afloat for another year. And then I went and burned out the engine of my car (oh the metaphorical beauty of that). It wasn’t really surprising as I’d filled the poor beast to the brim with roofing felt, timber, a few bags of lime, and then driven it full pelt up a mountain in mid-summer. Ahem. Now, lest you’re anywhere as reckless as I am, let me tell you, burning your engine out is a very expensive business, even when your car is a twenty year old Turkish Fiat. If I’d been in the U.K. it would have been scrapped. It doesn’t work like that in Turkey. To cut a long story short, the burned engine devastated my finances. I remember sitting with the late Celal under my grandmother olive tree and bawling. The thought of going back to that; to work, to punch-in-clocks, to doing a job I’d long fallen out of love with, well, it felt like I was on death row.
‘You know what?’ I said to Celal. He was sitting on a stool in the shade and staring out at the view and chewing on a twig.
‘I think I might rob a bank. I mean let’s face it, if I get caught the worst that will happen is I’ll get three years in jail. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t even have to cook. What a bonus! I could just sit and write all day.’
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘There ain’t never been no point in doing an honest day’s work. Look at the rich, they’re all robbers anyway.’
But I was only half listening, because I was suddenly imagining doing a stint in a Turkish jail. Here in the Republic of 21st century, we are no longer in the era of Midnight Express. Turkish jails, particularly women’s jails, aren’t that bad. I came to the conclusion the food would be OK, because the Turks never serve junk food wherever you are. And who’d be in there with me? Badass Turkish women who’d murdered their abusive husbands, and left-wing political dissidents. The more I thought about it, the more attractive jail time was looking. Heating paid for. Warm showers. How bad could it be? Certainly not as bad as being chewed up by the teeth of The Machine’s cogs for another year.
I exhaled a very long slow yogic breath. Now seriously, what state have we reached when an educated quadra-lingual forty-year-old woman considers jail time preferable to a job? The longer I thought about it, the more unreasonable it all seemed. And I swear, the only reason I didn’t undertake a robbery was a sense of ethics and the vague threat of bad karma. I know not everyone hates their job, and good for those that are happy. Yet for the millions throughout the world that work in factories, fill supermarket shelves, populate the tight rectangles of cubicle land, are bullied by their work peers or, like me, whose hearts cry out to do something they love, The Job is prison.
It was the loathing of The Job that drove me to sell my car, to begin building using scraps, to start learning to survive on next to nothing. It became something of a game. How long can I keep this up? I wondered. Initially I worried about things like; What happens when I get sick? I don’t have health insurance. But I was hardly ever ill. When you live according to nature’s rhythms, if you sleep when you’re tired and get up when you’re awake, when you eat properly and rest properly and feel blessed to be alive, illness flees from you like an energy corporation from an environmental lobby. As one of my friends in the valley put it, 'It's nuts, people are stressed out working to pay their health insurance which makes them sick. Why not cut out the middle man?'
Yes, it's scary to leave a salary behind and not know where the next buck is coming from, but the wide space that opens up in place of The Job allows hefty gusts of creative power to enter. We are so much more resourceful than we have been taught to think. And life can be so much more benevolent too.
Two and a half years on and I've never been back to work again. Oh thank The Mud and the rain for that! I'm no longer a slave but a free woman. And let me say this, now I've tasted the sweet nectar of liberty, there's no going back to the grind. Yes The Job really is prison, and no you don't have to remain in it.
Want to read more about this topic?
Here's my post on why living without money is so much fun.
And here's some of the things I built for next to nothing.
Should everyone do what I’ve done, jack in their job, run from the city to the hills and build an off-the-grid mud empire for themselves? Would it be more or less sustainable? Could humanity survive without cities? Where, after all, would we squash these ever mushrooming plagues of people?
It is widely promulgated that without cities there simply wouldn’t be enough land space for us all. Out of curiosity, I began to research a little on how much usable surface area of the planet there was for each individual. It's not easy to uncover a straight answer to that, and it depends whether the research includes the entire Earth's surface, forests, deserts or cities themselves. According to this study back in 2005 we all had a little over 5 acres of earth surface each. Huntington Funds puts the figure closer to just over 1.5 acres per head. WorldWatch calculates it as only 0.5 acres per capita. Feeling claustrophobic yet?
There is much debate about how much land each human needs to survive. Somewhere between 5 – 10 acres is a figure that sprouts up fairly regularly, thought let's be honest, far too many of these theoreticians are hypothesizing from a swivel chair in a city of a suburb. I am not self-sufficient (is such a thing possible?) but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t starve if push came to shove, and I haven’t even touched ¾ of my 2 acre plot. The issue isn’t so much land space as what we’re doing with it. Ask me to choose between 100 hectares of desert and an acre of fertile soil with a wellspring, there’s no debate. I’d go for the latter. Far more crucial than metres squared, is clean water, healthy soil and healthy bio-systems, hence my ambivalence vis-à-vis cities.
When you live with your arse in the dirt, when your meals sprout primarily from your garden, when your life is dictated by the seasons and the sun rather than a Rolex, a different type of awareness evolves. The impact of everything you do to your land is obvious, and you reap what you sow very quickly. The trouble with the urban sprawl is that while it might not take up as much physical space per capita, its population is divorced from the consequences of its actions. If city folk pollute a river it doesn’t impact them directly, because they can still throw a bottle of Evian in their supermarket trolley. If they waste insane amounts of energy why care as long as there is the cash to foot the bill? Why ever bother with a composting toilet? The crap is flushed away somewhere else. And therein lies the problem. A city’s mess doesn’t end at its asphalt fringes. If we take stock of the bigger picture, the waste, energy and water consumed by cities decimate large swathes of resources.
And yet . . . Am I saying we should all live off-the-grid?
From the outside it looks as though the soundest option would be permaculture-based sustainable communities with food stuff, materials and resources shared, but . . . but . . . I’m still hesitant. There is a tendency, when folk escape from ‘civilisation’, to turn pristine nature into exactly that which they were running away from. Rural off-the-grid life and the world of the city are two vastly different realities, and some never adapt. Houses are generally built too big, nature’s gifts are bulldozed out of existence before they are even noticed, the quiet unpeopled hours weigh heavily on those of naturally social bent, the lack of distraction bores others. City dwellers moving to the country for the first time are like refugees finding themselves in a foreign land with a language they don’t speak. It takes time to adjust, and some never do. And perhaps they were never meant to.
But isn’t the aim of this blog to convince everyone to join my club and be like me, build a whopping great muddy community? Isn’t that what we should do?
The idea that we 'should' be doing something, is all too human. Wild cyclamen and buzzards know nothing of what they should do. They do whatever they like, can, or have to, at any given moment. So why do I write this blog? Why spend a day each month banging the keys of my laptop and spouting my earthy crap? Let it be known; I have no interest in convincing anyone to do anything, converting people is the territory of religions and dogma. Actual living is the art of the soul, and everyone does it differently.
To accept yourself, to love and believe in your talents, to follow only that which brings you joy is nature’s way. Contented, self-fulfilled people generally consume less than their miserable or desensitised counterparts left with little else to do but stuff the holes inside them with noise and instant gratification. The more complete you are, the more you realise the outside simply can’t bring you what you most desire. It’s inner peace and happiness we need more of, not off-the-grid homes or communities, because both pollution and ecology start in the mind and the heart, and just like everything else in the natural world, they grow naturally out from there.
Would I say this if I were starving, or without a stump of wood to throw at the fire? Probably not. But In that case, I wouldn't be throwing out half a refrigerator of food every week, nor buying palm oil products nor draining the national grid. I'd be on my knees kissing the dirt like it was the Goddess of Nourishment instead.
As autumn sinks into winter, the nights on the Mediterranean turn from cool to cold. This week I watched the crooked, brown limbs of stove pipes poke out from windows, and smelt the first wafts of smoke floating out of them. It was like the mist of another world. The world of winter. Winds howl. Doors are closed. Fires are lit.
It is at this time of year that I give thanks for my cosy earthbag home. For its strength and warmth and shelter. And as I sit, stove chugging, in T shirt and leggings, I muse on those fat earth walls of mine.
Before I began natural building, I think, like most folk, I assumed the function of a wall was to protect. This isn’t all that surprising. I’m issue from an education that separates the world into illusory isolated parts and has them battle it out for survival. This way of looking at the world is so pervasive, we forget it is a creation of ours derived from subjective and partial information. Separation is the window from which we Westerners observe everything; including our homes. They become our castles. The wall is a barrier to keep enemies at bay. There is an outside and an inside, and never the twain shall meet.
Yet, as I began constructing this home, I started to investigate a little more carefully into walls, and what the devil they’re for. Mainstream building, unsurprisingly, follows the prevailing attitude that walls are to protect. They are built nice and strong, stuffed with insulation to keep the cold out, coated in chemicals to keep bugs and mould out. It’s all about keeping stuff out.
Natural building, however, draws on nature for inspiration. What are walls for in nature? Are they all about protection, or do they serve other functions? The most obvious walls in the natural world are either the cell membranes of plants and organisms, or the skin of larger animals. Hmm, skin. How about regarding a wall as skin? I began to compare my mudbag walls to a thick earthbeast’s hide.
Granted, my earthbag walls do act as a protective barrier, and a very efficient one at that. At near on half a metre thick, they can defend the interior of my house from hurricanes, rain, wild boar, bullets and fire. But it’s not all about that, because life isn’t all about that. Despite how we’ve been taught to view it, life isn’t simply a power struggle, nor is it only brute strength that prevails. If it were, then this planet ought to be dominated by an Herculean iron-skinned monster with ten foot long teeth and claws, and no sense of ethics. If it is all about strength and domination then where do daisies and butterflies and Vivaldi fit in? And obviously they do fit in, because they thrive just as well as their more brutish counterparts. Sometimes they thrive far better. Tyrannosaurus rex didn’t make the cut, yet field mouse did.
Back to walls and skin. One of the most important functions of skin is sensation. Sensitivity equals an ability to respond and adapt, to transmit information from outside to inside. Sensation is the intelligence of life in its most basic form. So where does this tessellate with earthbag walls? Now, even I’ll stop short at suggesting my earthbag walls experience sensation. But what they can do is communicate information from the outside in a way a concrete wall coated in chemical paint can’t. Earth, earthplaster and lime are all breathable. They allow the outside to be drawn in and the inside to flow out, yet incredibly, just like skin, they manage this feat without losing heat. So, in an earthbag house there is no mould or damp, no stagnant air. It always smells fresh and healthy, even when I’ve been away for two weeks. In fact, I’m always eager to inhale that first breath of Mud Home. If you add concrete anywhere in the building process, you lose this freshness. Concrete holds water. It’s not permeable. It’s all about protection and nothing about communication or connection.
So as winter pushes me within my ring of earth, as the doors are closed and the stove lit, I gape out of the window at the rash of stars spreading over the skin of night. Their luminescence travels light-years across galaxies until it penetrates my window pane and hits my retina. It is an information-clad communication that makes me shiver. Some piece of them, albeit a reflection, has touched me. And I wonder. Really, are the stars out there at all? Or are they in here? Because we are for a moment connected. But it doesn't end there, does it. For if my mind can soar out of these earth walls and into the heavens to wonder all this, where, if anywhere, am I?
6 things earth walls and skin have in common.
Atulya K Bingham
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