What are Walls for?
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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