From Liz Johndrow, WASI 4-Month Apprenticeship, Design-Build Instructor
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I arrived here at Highland Lake Cove about three weeks ago to prepare for a 4-month gathering of women apprentices. These women are so excited to learn how to build with natural materials and techniques, and eventually pass this knowledge onto others. The stage was set so the women arriving would be able to land feet first in the mud. The beautiful thing about working with mud is that sharing happens immediately. There isn’t the need to become an expert because one already has a relationship to the earth and its possibilities. Mud is such a fantastic medium in which to try and fail and feel little loss and so much gain of knowledge, creativity, and collaboration. It lends so beautifully to working in silence, laughter, music, and dance. Mud allows you to work alone and with others, of all ages and abilities, and allows for something unique, alive, and inspiring to arise. Can you tell that I am in love with this discovery and unfolding?
For me, as the design-build instructor, I am in a special position to create a space for this magic to take place. Already in week one it is so apparent to me that letting go, stepping back, breathing deep, and stepping in only for moments of direction and a little bit of ‘why’, is a fine recipe for deep joy and satisfaction. All those negative ions releasing in the clay just seem to cause so much levity and giddiness. Of course, everyone comes up against who they are, as well as how they are in a group. These processes always manage to mirror for us some pieces of who we are and who we want to be. Cob is no exception, though unique in its yielding and joining abilities. It’s a gentle and soft mirror. I’m tempted to say muddy, and while that often has a negative connotation, I believe it sounds appropriate here. It’s always willing to take a bit more straw or a bit more sand to find some perfect mix.
Have you ever done that exercise where you hold up your hand to another’s and you take turns leading and mirroring the hand movements until you no longer know who is leading and who is following, and likely both are happening simultaneously? That is what it can be with sculpting and shaping cob. We had an idea, loosely, for one oven design, and what you see in these photos is something that arose from the work of many hands and ideas about different elements. Meanwhile, as we build, there is already the excitement of the wood-fired pizzas that will come out of this oven. I love how this oven, this process, and this first week have already begun to nourish us, before a pizza dough even begins to rise.
To counterbalance the joys of playing in the beautiful NC clay soil, we are preparing the site for the timber frame and straw clay retreat cottage: a large part of our learning here. The process, unlike the yielding and playful dance of cob, involves concrete, to satisfy the county. The precision required in pouring the piers for the foundation is a feat to be tackled. So while the women have had plenty of time to bond, squishing cob between their toes, they have also been learning some of the steps and realities of prepping a site with attempts to meet certain requirements, all the while using minimal concrete and working with a small budget. These factors encourage us to pull materials out of the landfill stream, become resourceful in salvage and reuse, and learn techniques that have a wisdom and common sense that sometimes an overkill of safety in codes may overlook. Here we move from softness and flexibility to inflexible and sometimes stringent codes.
So this week, the apprentices learned how to make and use a water level. They learned about foundations, and how to dig a trench. Some learned all the necessary steps to mixing concrete, getting it settled and smooth, and how to avoid using it in your project, at least minimally. They also learned to set up tents, create a kitchen, cook new foods, and communicate on new levels with women from different regions and backgrounds. As one apprentice put it, “It’s so apropos that we are learning all about foundations while creating the foundation for the next four months.” I will add that I am happy we threw some cob into the experience this first week, so that the somewhat arduous and attentive work of building foundation is mixed with transformative and intuitive mud magic.