Tuesday, 22 September 2015

This Mud's for You

I troweled a big wad of trulla, chocolate brown and bristling with straw, onto the flat steel float. I laid the edge of the float alongside the lower edge of the adobe wall, squashed the mud flat against the vertical, and dragged the steel upward. The primitive plaster spread itself flat and true over the surface.

Six architects, a sociologist, a chemist, and a master adobero all stood silent, watching. My trowel made wide arcs over the wall, smooth as cocoa. I tucked the edges neatly in, and handed the tools over to the next student. "It's like decorating a cake," I said.

"Bien hecho!" the old adobe-man said.
"No fair!" said the architect with the fabulous hair. "You've done this before!"

They both were right to say so. I am really pretty good with mud plaster -- I've plastered many meters of adobe walls in the last few years, and I have my technique pretty well nailed-down. No one expects that from a foreigner. I stood up straight and smiled with delight. The teacher likes me! I did good!

I love plastering, and patching, and filling wide gaps with mortar made from quicklime and dirt and sand. I love sifting the dirt and mixing in the sand or mortar, gravel or chopped-up straw, turning it over with a shovel, adding water til it starts to bind, starts to bend and rise and almost inhale -- it is much like kneading bread, this earth. You even have to leave it then, overnight or over several months, depending on what kind of surface you're going to cover -- indoors or outdoors? Weight-bearing or decorative? Horizontal, vertical, smooth or rough, in a heated room or an animal shed?

Each option has its own proportion of ingredients, its own rising time, its own set of tools.
I love them. I want to learn everything about them. I want to be a master adobera, myself, and build beautiful little huts and donkey barns, chapels and bodegas, all of native dirt, straw, water, and sand. I want to put my hand against the wall and know my handprints are all inside there, know that color painted on is the color I chose, that smooth, glossy coat of wax is what I laid on last.
Adoberas. That's me on the left.

I'm taking a three-day master-class in Surface Rendering at SmartLocal Tierra, a natural building/architecture collective in rural Valladolid. Last September I spent three days there learning to repair and maintain old walls of adobe and rammed earth. Today I started Part 2. We spent the morning in a dingy classroom in the city hall at Cuenca de Campos, going over the chemistry and physics of cohesion, compression, plasticity, filosilicates and ionic bonds. We learned the science of the local dirt, and why it's so apt for building things. We learned about laying on three layers of vertical, and why some builders prefer barley straw over wheat, and why often the walls of old buildings are peppered with broken tiles, river rocks, animal bones and grapevines.
And then we hiked up to a building that 800 years ago was the Church of St. Peter. It was a house after that, and then a cattle shed, and finally a roofless ruin. Smart Tierra bought a couple of years ago for a demonstration site, put up a new roof and spectacular beams, and is now, over many teaching sessions, is building back the walls using old-school methods and highly-trained but mostly unskilled labor. This is an odd sort of hobby. I may be the only 50-something woman I know who is passionate about smearing mud onto walls, or tying sticks together to make a roof over a stack of straw bales. These skills have little practical application. Nobody builds any more with adobe -- manufactured bricks are much cheaper and durable and easy to work with, and way less labor-intensive and frustrating. Why make trullo and trowel it on when you can buy great sheets of plasterboard that's perfectly flat and smooth? I admit that "the Three Little Pigs" was my favorite childhood fairy tale. Maybe I should've become an architect. Paddy says 22 years as a newspaper journo seems like perfect training for a mud-slinger. But all mud aside, I know why I enjoyed this day so deeply. The last two weeks have been harrowing here on the Camino Frances. Spanish police finally located the body of an American pilgrim who went missing in April, and they arrested a man near Astorga who's admitted to killing her. I did not participate overly in the anguish that went on all summer while we waited for news. But now that we know, I am surprisingly sad. My illusion of a safe, sweet Camino haven where women can fearlessly walk has been busted to bits. I am helping on a memorial committee, with all the accompanying to-and-fro, egos and frictions. San Anton is still going on, up to the end of the month. There's a big wave of pilgrims moving through, and the albergues are packed-out. The Moratinos Cultural Association is in abeyance after a rather heated planning meeting. Paddy's having health issues. People keep wanting to come here. I am increasingly unable to say "yes" with a big smile on my face. I have been doing and doing for months, mostly for other people. The mud I do for me. Three days of smearing trullo on walls is not useful, or interesting, or helpful to others. It is not going to make any money. I do it because I like it. I do it just for me. Just because.


Christine Adams said...

It's good to have an activity where you can lose yourself and your worries for a while. Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating as always. Enjoy playing in the mud. Much love

CaroleH said...

Yes Reb, it's very therapeutic.And you may use it more than you realise just now. I'm envious.

Our neighbours have built a magnificent home using straw bales with something plastered over the top. It's a wonderful large home.

With all this adobe skill you can take on any of the many deserted homes around Spain.... in your spare time!

EileenHamer said...

Reb, kid, you're a maker, and making things is what you do. All the other stuff--the committees, the schmoozing, the planning and talking and working stuff out--that's valuable, but what you really are is a Maker. Makers take a handful of grass or straw or sheep's wool and make something useful and beautiful from it. And when the Makers have given too much and are weary, God rewards them in their own special way. For them, making is healing.

Adriaan Kreupeling said...

Our over 150 years old adobe house is still in good shape. I worked on adobe and bahareque museum projects years ago: threading the mud mixture in rubber boots is called "bailar salsa" here. Adobe is now forbidden according to new earthquake related rules. Felicitaciones!

Amanda Schaffer said...

Rebekah, sounds like a wonderful class -- perfect therapy for rejuvenating and healing, especially after the difficult past few weeks. How cool that you're helping to keep going the old tradition of adobe building -- it's truly an art form and important to pass along for sure. My dad and I so enjoyed seeing your bodega and the Michigan "M" again when we stopped in June -- what a gift for the students to experience getting their hands in mud!

Sending hugs to you and Paddy, Amanda and dad Coach Al