I was wakened by a screech so violent, I thought the earth had split in two. As I dragged my fingers across my bleary eyes, I realised it wasn’t an explosion, but the crashing of a massive rock. The ground was shuddering. The house was vibrating. Fear filed out of its network of submerged tunnels and formed a solid army of dread.
There was another crash, and a terrible crack. Beyond that I could hear the gruff roar of an engine. And I knew in that instant it was over.
In fact, I’d known this was coming. Dudu had informed me of the plan a couple of weeks earlier. But I hadn’t expected it to be like this.
“Oof the pomegranates are such a pain. Need too much water, they do, and we don’t have enough rain,” Dudu had said when I popped round for some lemons one day. “So they’ve decided to split the land up into three.” She was talking about her children.
“And...?” I had moved my stool a little closer to her, wondering what was in store.
“My daughter’s gonna take the part by your land. They’re sticking a cabin on it, and making an olive grove. Digger’s coming in a couple of weeks to clear it.”
I’d heaved a sigh of relief that day. Because since I’ve been here, there has been talk of a road being carved between me and Dudu. This new plan would put pay to the road forever. And an olive grove is about as good as it gets. Olives can be grown organically, need little water and create beautiful evergreen orchards. Even the building concept possessed angles of optimism. A small log cabin perched on the far corner of the land.
Yet two weeks later, I was standing at the fence between mine and Dudu’s land, tears rolling down my cheeks, knowing it was over.
Whenever I hear the grinding tread of an excavator, or the teeth-jarring scrape of its bucket on rock, my skin turns to glass. Because mass destruction is occurring. Habitats are being wrecked. Ecosystems are being wiped out. In seconds, ancient trees are ripped asunder (and unless you are dead yourself, you hear the life torn viscerally out of them). It doesn’t sound much different to a bomb going off in a shopping mall. And if you’re a hedgehog, or a snail, or a sleeping dormouse, no doubt it isn’t any different at all.
Not that I’m in any position to preach a sermon. I also had my land bulldozed ten years ago, before I changed. Before the land changed me. I’m not even completely against dozers. Like everything, if they are used sparingly and thoughtfully, they can be excellent tools, for digging a pool say, or creating a flat space for a house. It’s the loveless, uninspired, destroy-everything-within-the-fence-without-even-getting-to-know-what’s-there approach that sends my hair darting out on end.
It took three days for the excavator to complete its dirty deed next door. In truth, as land mauls go, this was gentle. They left the majority of the mature trees standing; the olives, almond trees and a carob. But as that mechanical claw beat the branches from pines and turned the land inside out, it sank in. This was no longer my private world. No longer my secret garden. Someone was moving in next door. I realised the wisdom carob had spoken a premonitory truth back in November. It was time to let go. I could feel the hand of life on my shoulder, gently pushing me on.
This year was the turning point for my valley. Since February a grand total of four plots have been bulldozed in my area alone. None of them are visible, but all of them are within a kilometre of my land. People are coming. It’s getting busier. Though this may not necessarily be the bleak cliché it appears. We’re not talking multi-storey concrete monstrosities. Dudu’s children, for example, are building with a dream in their hearts. To escape the city. To grow their own food. To live more peacefully. This may be the feathery tip of a new wing beating out a more minimalist path across Turkey’s socio-cultural sky. And I’m all for it.
But on a personal level the dozers woke me up. I love, nay need, my privacy. There are times when I don’t want to see a human face for a week or more. I yearn to lose myself in the forest and hear her quiet message. Hear her twitterings, her scamperings, the whisper of her trees. And through them hear myself.
I grieved for three days after the bulldozing. I wondered if I’d get used to the change, whether I should accept it and adapt to it. Perhaps in time I’d warm to it? One day may be I’d be grateful for the company? Eventually however, my mind, forced as it was out of its comfort zone, dared to face the alternative.
Not once in the five years I’ve been here have I ever considered letting this space go. I have imagined growing old here. Dying here. This land and I have grown together after all. It’s both my child and my mother. But when I finally allowed myself to wander the alien territory beyond my home, my eyes opened wide. Wading across the boundary of my rigid future plans and possessive clingings, I stepped into a field of possibility. And as I roamed a little more extensively within it, I realised it wasn’t just a field, but a vast and rambling continent, a wilderness of new adventures waiting to be explored.
The longer I spent in my imagined terra incognita, the more alive I felt. Ideas sprang forth. Visions burst into being. And soon, I realised, new life was flowing. In my veins. In my land’s veins. And in the veins of the world.
To be continued...
(Many thanks for following me on this journey, which isn’t coming to an end, but is drastically changing course. That road is still being charted in my heart and mind, so hang in there with me. I’ve no idea what the next instalment is, but I can say wholeheartedly while sadness is there, it is outshone by the anticipation of new adventure, new creations and new beginnings).
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 The Five Obstructions is it.
The Five 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.
Someone interviewed me the other day. ‘What was the biggest obstacle you faced?’ She asked. We were sitting on a rug under the shade of an olive tree surveying my mud house, which will presumably never actually be finished.
Obstacle? By and large, I haven’t really suffered too many major obstacles. There were small annoyances, like running out of money, or the weather not following my timetable, but these were challenges rather than great iron doors slamming in my face. They often forced me to dig down and find skills I never knew I possessed, or slowed me up and stopped me from making any number of mistakes. No, money, weather and time are not insurmountable obstacles. They are the crucial limitations of the physical world that shape any creative project.
But, there was an obstacle, a slobbering, great beast of a hindrance. As I sat, my dog gnawing relentlessly on a stick by my right leg, it welled up inside me in a bubbling wave of frustration. It’s a hurdle I seem unable to get over. And it is still driving me crazy to this day. The biggest obstacle I faced, still face, and that anyone who dares to create anything faces, is the seemingly endless deluge of naysayers, hell-bent on darkening your day.
‘It won’t work.’
‘You can’t do that, such and such will happen.’
‘Olmaz!’ (Turkish for all the above)
The chorus resounds, on and on. Where does this incredible onslaught of negativity come from? And what is behind it? Why, when someone has never even thought about trying to do what you are already doing, when not even a single letter has been typed into Google, does he or she find the audacity to say ‘it won’t work’? I’m dumbfounded by it to be honest.
I’d say, for pretty much every single thing I’ve done on this piece of land, there has been a squad of head-shaking, sighs of disapproval, or snickers behind my back. And if I had a pound for every time I’d heard the word, ‘can’t’, I’d be starting a Mud empire by now. First, I was told I couldn’t live alone on a mountain in a tent because I’d be murdered or raped, or snakes would bite me, or heaven only knows what else (I camped for eight months and I loved it), next I was told I’d never survive up here without water (I managed for two years thank you very much). As far as earthbag building goes, my house has apparently been falling down ever since I laid the first bag. I was told, including by architects, that under no circumstances could I build a house without concrete foundations (the house has survived a 6.1 quake in perfect condition), people said the walls were going to melt in the rain, that it would never be strong enough, some ‘friends’ turned up and even tried to push the walls down just to see (I believe they bruised their arms).
I realise I may be on the verge of ranting here, but I’m starting to feel like Joan of Arc hacking her way through droves of invading skepticism. My right eye is beginning to twitch at the mere mention of the word ‘can’t’. And I can quite see myself pulling the next unsuspecting naysayer up by the lapels and roaring, ‘Have you actually TRIED this?’
The reason my voice is now rising an octave and I’m exhibiting a few traits of persecution complex, is that words have power. When someone is in the process of creating something new, a positive mind-set is crucial, and this ‘can’t, won’t, you’re mad’ type doomsday mentality can scupper a project before it even gets off the ground. Yes, telling someone they can’t do something is just about the worst thing you can do for them, no matter what your intention (and I’m dubious about that, too). Because you are actively helping them fail. It stops them in their tracks. It makes them feel at worst incompetent, and at best marginally unhinged for daring to step out of the herd. They waste precious time and energy doubting themselves (Can I really live in a tent? Can I build a house? Perhaps I can’t. Probably I can’t. I’ve never done it before. Perhaps I’d better give up.) Everyone has more than enough hesitancy of their own, they hardly need some other clever dick to pop his head over the flimsy parapet of faith, and add fuel to the fires of self-doubt. Which brings me to what I assume
is behind this bird-brained ‘can’t’ attitude; the insatiable need for people to cut down anything created by another in a subconscious effort to boost their own flagging self-esteem.
Let’s say your project didn’t work out how you planned. Perhaps your earthplaster crumbled, or the windows fell out, or the whole construction was sucked down a sinkhole. So what? Would it have been really so much smarter never to have tried, to huddle within your comfort zone and play it safe? I say those who shy from the edge wind up bored and dissatisfied, hence why they have nothing better to do than tell you, ‘No, you can’t.’ And when things do go wrong, as they do from time to time, then you’ll see the truth in the smirks lurking behind the naysayer’s veil of concern. They actually WANT you to fail, simply so that they can be right. And that, quite frankly, is just not cricket, if you ask me.
So, that is my greatest obstacle. And if anyone else is daring to build from the earth, that will probably be your greatest obstacle too (unless you chance to live in North America, where folks say ‘awesome!’ and ‘hey, that’s great!’ instead). Forget about the rain, and the roof rafters, the weight of the bags, or your lack of experience. What you need, throughout, is confidence. And sometimes it’s hard to find. There is really only one thing to do about it, spend less time with the wet blankets, and more with those who believe in you. And your solace may well be online communities of people who are actually doing things, instead of just flapping their tongues.
The latest in the firing line of ‘No, you can’t’ is my organic garden. Apparently, you can’t grow plants using broken down manure from your composting toilet because a) they won’t grow, b) you’ll contract bacillary dysentery from your compost, c) you have to be a goat to make decent fertilizer(?).
To see how the above is all patently nonsense, please look at my organic garden to find out the easy, clean, and healthy way to grow vegetables.
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.
The Mud Home is expensive to maintain and a full time to job to run. If you are inspired by it or finding it useful do consider becoming a patron so that it can continue.
If I can build a house, anyone can. Here's how I did it.
Be sure to catch the next installment by joining The Mud Circle.