We’ve just finished the cob floor in the roundhouse, and I rediscovered my love of this most ancient material. She’s beautiful to look at and work with; She’s also patient and lenient to those who work with her.
As many world myths would have it, clay or cob is the muck the first humans were made from. Maybe, like most myths, there are many layers to this story. From the childish image of humans being formed by the Gods like little clay statues, to a complex understanding of cob as an ally in human evolution and a cornerstone of civilization. This living material, cob, embodies one of the original alchemies, like fire. Once we humans came to possess and understand this magic, we learned how to embody her. With her help we built houses, benches, beds, tables, counters, sculptures and let’s not forget bread ovens.
Cob can be made of many things. At her most simple she is made of sand and clay. These two mineral forms generally aren’t found premixed. In most places time has separated these two out into their own strata and deposits. But there are some places where the clay laid down by ancient oceans mixed with the sand from rivers, and the soil produced was perfect for cob, as is. Just add water and straw and stomp.
When the magic proportion (roughly 3-1) of sand and clay are mixed, it seems at first just like sand. No magic there. But as we add our energy, dancing the two together there comes a magical point where they merge, and something else is created. This third ‘new’ thing, this mystery, is a gift of the Gods, born through our labour.
This new being, cob, embodies the plasticity of our mind and as such, has long been a vehicle for human creativity. When the mix becomes ‘cob’ it feels alive, like living flesh it even jiggles and bounces back. As with many other alchemic transformations like cooking, bread making or wine making, there is a moment of magic where the separate parts ‘gel’ and change into a completely new and unexpected thing.
In all alchemic practices we begin by making offerings. It is these offerings the spirit can work with. Even with the secular cousin of alchemy, science, the pieces of an experiment are put out so carefully and precisely, for the unseen forces of nature to act upon. From a traditional point of view, the offerings put out may seem stingy, but science puts out very specific offerings to catch a very particular bit of wild knowledge. In many magical processes of life we carefully tend our offerings until something new comes into being from them. In the case of cob, when the new being manifests, the very same mixture that looked like sand, suddenly looks and acts like clay! Gritty cascading clumps shift into a uniform and fluid body.
Ancient cultures all over the world that built with cob were grounded to the Earth both physically and metaphysically. Using the alchemy of mixing natural elements to create the rock-like cob reflects and celebrates an indigenous way of understanding and ‘working with’ our natural place in the world. This approach to life is infused with thankfulness for being given what we need by the Earth. By contrast, modern culture’s ‘cement’ on which we are equally reliant as the ancients were on cob, reflects our modern understanding and way of working with nature – that she must be captured and transformed through “man’s genius” – that her raw or crude ‘resources’ only have value if they are extracted and transformed. Cement is made through the volcanic-like heating of limestone in production of quick lime. While cement does have a permanence that cob does not, it also is reliant on massive physical resources and social organization. While not permanent, keep in mind if maintained cob can last hundreds or even thousands of years.
The carbon footprint of making cement is huge. It requires days of high temperature firing of lime stone. Then after the ‘cement mix’ (which is about the same as cob, 3 to 1 with sand) has water added, it produces even more and continues to release carbon until it is fully dry. Our collective desire and need for big permanent infrastructure is so out of control that the very Earth, the heart of what feeds us, what gives us life and what we live for, is being threatened. This is not a new problem but it does feel as though it is reaching an ecological threshold, a tipping point of degradation for the land’s evolved systems. Over the last millennium the cost of concrete, glass, and metal, has irreparably damaged and changed ecologies and cultures all over the world. From this desire for permanence and the technology involved in achieving those desires, what was once rich forested land in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa is now arid desert. And what was temperate rainforest over much of Europe, the Americas and Australia is now grasslands or land used to grow annual crops. Ultimately, cutting forests and unsustainably mining fuels and minerals is the cost of permanence.
If our neurosis of consumption and permanence goes unchecked it is very clear that we will destroy ourselves and much of life on the Earth. So we must ask, what is this desire for permanence is all about?
Our culture measures success by permanence. But we are striving for something that is impossible to achieve. Like a work horse wants to pull, we want to strive, but we are trying to make the physical world into an ideological world. Today’s cheap mass produced goods are the carrot in front of the cart to make us pull the hulking machine of consumerism. These goods evoke the fulfillment of permanence and power, so we grasp for them. But when we get the goods they are not fulfilling. In a short time they break or somehow turn out to be hollow. We are acting like hungry ghosts, after our disappointment, our desire transfers to the next thing. The worst part of this samsaric existence is that while we are reaching for this fulfilment that we never get, we are draining the land and culture of its health. We’re killing the planet in our striving for immortality.
In our push to satisfy our craving or to look the best, we don’t think about where things are coming from or how they were made. Environmental and social integrity doesn’t even register in the decision making process. The careful treatment of the Earth, which should be the prerequisite at the top of the list, is eclipsed by our desire for wealth and comfort. The change must start by seeing that in many respects, our personal goals and the goals of our western culture are skewed backwards because they have resulted from centuries of trauma.
In a world of constant change, the desire for permanence can only be seen as a neurosis. Fear of change, and ultimately fear of death, prevents us from accepting life as it is. And to make the fear more confusing, the trauma at its core most often didn’t even come from our own lifetime.
Our neurosis is cultural. The fear that prevents us from connecting with, and embracing the power of Nature and that causes us to dominate her, has been passed down to us from our ancestors. Passed down from a time when we were traumatized by too much change, too quickly. When we’re children, these age old traumas get passed on to us and crystallized into rigid prejudices that we don’t even see within ourselves. Some of our racial and gender prejudices have come out in the last century, but our collective prejudice toward the Earth has not been exposed yet, and so most people remain unaware that they have it. These fears of nature are built into our deepest cultural stories. Stories of expulsion from Eden; of surviving the great flood; of Hell being below us and Heaven above. Even the ‘modern’ view of evolution puts us on the defensive – we evolved from little rat-like mammals fearfully hiding in the cracks for millions of years.
The sad truth is that however the trauma is passed on to us, when our fragile world is assaulted we become desensitized, as a natural defence. But long after the threat is gone we stay in this emotional state. When we are in this state, our self-centredness and greed can take over as an extension of our self-protective instinct. Then we proceed to bulldoze our way to security and comfort. But the search never ends because nothing is permanent. And the life consuming quest for padding our existence not only prevents us from experiencing life as it is, and from looking at our ancestral loss, but our hyper-focused greed ends up perpetuating the very same insensitivity and abuse that was inflicted on ourselves or those ancestral kin from whom our neurosis came.
During civilization’s movements of colonization and industrialization, this trauma has been inflicted on every culture in the world; all of us. When we are traumatized by a violent change of life, we can easily come to distrust and lose touch with the natural flow of things. We create our own structures to fill the void. This results in becoming detached to the realities of life and of death and dying. Ironically, in trying to eliminate death and decay we kill the very living matter that we are working with by locking them into a permanent form.
Not surprisingly, when concrete is measured paramagnetically it is dead; it has no charge. (paramagnetism is a subtle but measurable life giving energy that naturally emanates from rock). Even without this measurement we can observe that concrete makes all inflammatory conditions of the body worse, and if herbs are stored on concrete they turn grey and lose their life force. Even batteries will go dead when stored on concrete. Think about how many of us live in and work in these concrete tombs of eternal form.
Like stone and wood, cob is a primary building material, a kind of proto-concrete. But, as I’ve said, cob is carbon neutral, and when it breaks down instead of becoming landfill, it can be soaked and reused in another cob form with no structural loss. When cob is left to the elements, it breaks down into very fertile soil. In fact, cob is so fertile that a few days after the initial laying and levelling of the floor of our cob house, dozens of little hair-like sprouts started to grow out of our newly laid floor. Fortunately, the floor still needed barnishing and so they got troweled into the top layer. I guess when we were digging up our local sand and clay we pulled a little too much from the top layer, where the Earth’s seed bank holds thousands of dormant seeds waiting for heat and moisture to wake them up.
Like the Earth Herself, Cob is ever giving and forgiving, nurturing and protective. In our early evolution, she sheltered us from the weather and predation when we most needed it. By giving us shelter, warmth and security we gained some control of our lives and destiny. Because we could build cob huts where there was no natural caves or not enough wood, cob enabled humanity to extend our habitation range and our numbers immensely.
Being able to make and use fire, to be able to grow food and build shelter, are three alchemies that we have been given from our distant ancestors in direct oral tradition. These gifts both enable our civilization, and when mastered can also form a natural right of passage for us personally. Few people get to experience these natural rights because we sold them for the promise of convenience, comfort and safety the city offered. These rights, these initiatory steps in becoming human were enshrined in familial and guild systems, but when the knowledge was written and widely available the right became taken for granted. Now, in a world where we can get anything anytime, we have completely forgotten the gifts and rights that make us human. But in age of many instant wonders, the truth is that it is still only these ancestral gifts and traditions that sustain us in the billions.