FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Becky Bee

I grew up in Honduras, Central America, where dirt houses were no big deal, just a kind of house. And I never really thought much about it, except that in my mind, I realized that dirt is a kind of house, where most people don't have that reality, that it's a kind of a house that works.

And then I went to Africa, and I just happened to be at a bus stop where this guy was building a cob house. And he did it while I was waiting for the bus! And the women had already brought all the blobs of cob, and they were all lined up in a circle, circled up. And he threw it together in, like, a hour or two! And it was a thin dome, big enough for a person. All the cob was ready, and he just -- slap, slap, slap, slap -- wove this cob into a dome.

And I was 22 at the time, and I remember, he just -- you know how sometimes you have images that just are burned into you, like there's a movie in there, and you can see it? Well that happened! And I don't remember thinking much about it, other than just this visual of the beauty of this man building this dome of dirt.

I'd always been building, I love to build, from when I was a kid, I was building tree-forts, you know, hammering things together. And then I started building fences and doing construction of all different kinds. But it was wearing out my body, especially my right arm, and especially my elbow and my wrist. Hammering, and sawing, and all the noise and toxic wood and stuff, it was just, I was getting fed up with that part.

So then when I saw that you could build without having that right-arm-ness and that poison and noise -- you know, it really excludes other people, you don't go up to somebody who's sawing a board, and say, Hi, what are you doing? But this whole idea of the cob was so inclusive of people, and so much easier on my body, on my nose and on my lungs and everything.

I don't know, I think it slowly soaked in, the power of what I was seeing. But at the time, it was just an interesting little thing.

We drove up to Ianto [Evans]'s, that very first house that he built, the Heart House. And I think it was his very first official workshop that I went to. Anyway, I went to his place, and I was enchanted. Sold. I spent my last dollar on going to the cob workshop. I was just impassioned, just from seeing the house, and from meeting Ianto, who of course is a brilliant speaker, a brilliant thinker. That really excited me.

So, off we go to learn cob. It was May, and it was in Ashland [Oregon]. So all you had to do was just dig it out, make your landscaping, mix it on... We didn't do tarps then! We didn't do tarps! You didn't know about that? Oh, talk about work! Okay, so we mixed the cob with pitchforks! We stirred it with pitchforks. It wasn't until later that the tarp came into being, I'll tell you that story, too.

So we worked and we mixed it. Well, my friend Chris went home the first day, she couldn't stand it. But I was just insanely in love. I remember wearing out my thumbnails. We didn't know about cobber's thumbs, either, we just used our thumbs. I remember my thumbnails just being off, gone, rubbed off. I was just wounded with my passion of doing the cob, it was just crazy!

And we made the walls really, really thick then, way overkill. And we put eggshells and banana peels into the wall, it all went in the wall. And it was so fun, and so inspiring. I just was -- you know how you get those times, when you can't sleep? You're so excited, and yet you don't need to sleep, because life is just filling you up? It was like that, 5 days of just crazy cobbing.

Anyway, obviously, I was inspired, because I went off careening into the cob world, obsessively cobbing everything and everywhere. I joined up with Ianto and quickly became, well, a liason between the people and Ianto and cob. We just cobbed madly, and Ianto and I just had a blast, you know, bouncing our brains off each other.

And the last thing I did with Ianto was a project in New Zealand, and that's where the tarp got invented. Because I was there in New Zealand, visiting some friends of mine, and I was so excited, of course, I was just like, Cob! Cob! You know, an evangelist. And they were like, Well, we want to see how to do it! So I said, Okay, we'll just make a little model. "Well, don't wreck the lawn!" So I laid out a little piece of canvas, to mix the cob on, so that it wouldn't wreck this woman's lawn. And thus the tarp was invented! Hallelujah! How many backs have we saved!

Anyway, that was the very first year that I was into it, which was 1995. So off I went with my little cob workshops.

And of course, the wonderful people that it attracts just expanded my life, and my experience of learning to get along with people, and gathering, which I think is really the only hope for the world, is learning to get along, and gathering, working together. And so it ended up being this much bigger thing than I pictured in the first place, which was just, Oh, this is so beautiful! This is so cool! I want everybody to do it! And then slowly, it just became that I don't even care that much about the cob itself, it's the process of the people getting together, sharing, realizing that they can do what they dream, or they can be freer of the expectations that have been put on them. And cob kind of tells people that in a real cellular way.

And you can watch how it affects the people. How at first they're kind of skeptical, and asking technical questions, and frowning. And then, by about day three, they're just laughing, and they're covered in dirt, and they're having conversations, deep conversations about what they, maybe, could do in their life, or about their mothers, and personal healing.

It seems to be a standard thing, that evolution process that humans go through when they're cobbing and working together, and giving up that, Okay, we have to look good and clean, and I'm doing what I'm doing, and you're doing what you're doing. Where you just eat together, and you work together and create together and make decisions together.

And I try to be -- yes, I'm the Queen Bee, but I also like to stand back and let people come up with their own creations, because really, that's how they learn, and how they feel their own power. And cob is so forgiving. It really lets people try whatever they want, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't hurt anybody or anything, you just recycle it, and try something else.

And all these things that cob shows you have correlations in real life, of how one can live their own lives. Like, for example, just try it! If it doesn't work, pick it up! It didn't break you! Pick it up, try something else!

Like in Ecuador. Okay, first day, they're all there with their notebooks, sitting properly. As properly as they could with no chairs. [Sits up awkwardly straight]. And they're waiting for me to explain to them how to do cob. And of course, I'm like, well here's the tarp, I imported this plastic tarp from America because it's my most precious tool! And they're like, Oh, tarps, oh, wow! And they see a roof, you know? And here I'm taking this precious roof and throwing dirt on it, smashing it up...

Next thing you know, the notebooks are lost. It took a couple days, they're really indoctrinated to, This is what learning is [Sits up straight, stares attentively, jots in notebook]. And after a few days, they were just freed of that, this-is-how-you-learn thing. And they were just mixing it...

And they were like, How do you want this wall? Okay, we want it like that. Well, you can do a little decoration. By the end of the week, they figured out that you could decorate, and they could make their own little thing. Well, this poor house just had sculptures all over it! I'm like, STOP! Stop, PLEASE! This is too wild. You know, one witch running into another gargoyle, into a creature, into columns. It was really ugly, but the people were having so much fun! I couldn't stop them.

And that was what really mattered, that these people were going into another understanding of what learning is, and what working with each other is. And what teaching is, they ended up teaching all the new people that came in. And it was so thrilling. Anyway, I hope they're still cobbing.

Cob, what can we say about cob. It attracts interesting people, you know, the people that have a vision, a little ability to see outside the box. So you're attracting, or you're inviting, an interesting crowd to get together. And then the cob catalyzes those interesting people, and it also brings out the best in one. It's just such a quiet, simple, calming work, and it seems to bring out the best in people. So you're got a great bunch of people, at their best. That's what cobbing's all about.

You know, we're talking about how wonderful it is, and how it inspires people, and stuff. But on a really real level, for me, it's a very selfish thing. I do it because I like to do it. And I do it because it's fun! And I do it because it's good for me! And I do it because it interests me, and it keeps me alive, in a way. It's just selfish. I don't do it because I want to save the world, you know? I do it because I want to save myself.

Okay, so the hot tub. You HAVE to make one. So what I suggest to people, when they're going to build their cob house, is that they make a hot tub first. So that they get to test their soil, and they get to have a hot tub to relax in while they're cobbing. And there's something about those hot tubs that just really brings all the elements together. It encourages you to be outside bathing, which is very expansive for the mind, and the design process. And you really get to know the wind where you are, because you've got the smoke going up. So you're learning, it a great first step on site. It attracts you to the site, it helps you go there when it's cold and wet, when you need to go there and see what it's like, to help you design it, and makes you happy and contented when it's cold and wet.

And then, the other good thing about it is, you can start cobbing earlier, because you have hot water to make your mix with. You have hot water to stick your hands and feet in and / or you at least have a bath, if you're camping. It makes it easier to stay longer, work earlier, and then work later into the season. So it's a great, wonderful, magical, multi-faceted thing to have, one of these hot tubs. And it really isn't a cob tub, it's a metal tub with a cob firebox and a chimney, which can be cob or metal or whatever.

And the way it got invented was, in these protest camps that I used to do in New Zealand, when I was young and wild -- now I'm old and wild! -- anyway, we'd have a tub that somebody'd donate, and then we'd build a fire under it, and you'd just get smoked out, and the smoke would be terrible, and you'd sit in the tub, and you'd just be like, God, I need a long snorkel! You know? It was wonderful to have the hot water, but it was so smokey.

So that was the first seed of, Gee, it's be nice to have one of these, out in nature, somewhere, without having to get so smoked out. And then, when I left the tropics, when I started learning about fires and heating places and stuff, and then I had that workshop on cob stoves. So I got it that you can use cob to create stoves, and that that makes it more efficient, so you're not wasting wood. You're not wasting as much of your wood, by focusing the heat underneath the tub, instead of just spewing it out everywhere.

And then the other problem with the original tub was you'd burn yourself on the edges! So all these things conspired to help me in the eventual need, where I was cobbing up at Lost Valley, [Oregon]. So we were working on that, and I was staying there for a couple of months, and they didn't have any baths. And, of course, we were covered in mud, and they didn't really want all our mud in their plumbing system. And so then it left us a cold hose to rinse off with. You know? And we were camping out, and we just needed the luxury of a bath.

So we thought, Well, let's put up a tub. They had all this junk laying around, you know. So we got the tub, and just kind of made it so the smoke wouldn't come out, wouldn't get in us, and wouldn't burn us on the edges. And it was just a practical thing. And yet once we had it done, we got it, that it was just this revolution! I mean, if everyone had a cob tub, in this country, it would be a different world. Truly! It is such a powerful thing! It's such a simple, kind of weird, thing. And yet, it is so right.

And I've had cob building, tub building workshops and parties. I mean, everybody gives up their fear of being naked, at least in the night, and takes turns in the water, and the candles are going, and the conversations are just so expansive and beautiful. Anyway, we had this tub, and we obviously had a lot of fun. And it just had to be a book. It had to be shared with other people.