COB-ADOBE-MUD: Early Humanity at Work
We are making an octagonal, reciprocal frame-roof structure overlooking the river. It will be a hangout space with a table, chairs and a cooking hearth. The walls are being made of cob.
Cob, or adobe, is a natural building material used since antiquity around the world. It’s combination of clay and sand, with a little water and straw. It makes a malleable mix for shaping and creating. It’s labour-intensive process: in four days, eight of us mixed about fifty cubic feet and built just over half the wall.
The sand – some sieved from river gravel – is coarse, granular and crunchy. It runs through your fingers. The clay – dug from the blood-soaked banks of the Menai Strait – is sticky, squishy, heavy and fine.
The task is to blend them into a moist, soft, firm, pliable ball that holds together and can be moulded. To achieve this the raw ingredients – one bucket of clay clods and three buckets of sand – are placed on a small tarpaulin. Two people each take hold of two corners of the tarp and, lifting each edge alternately, step from side to side, rolling the mixture over and over. This is the first cob making dance.
When the lumps of clay are coated in sand the tarp is opened and the two cobbers repeatedly step and stamp on the mix with their bare feet, using their heels to further break up the clay. This is the second cob making dance.
After a good squishing the cobbers hold up corners of the tarp once more and do the rock and roll dance again. This happens many times until it’s ready for water, which is sprinkled in. More treading and rolling. Eventually a handful of straw is shaken and trodden into the blend. This process is repeated until there is an evenly-mixed, flat, sand-clay-straw pancake which is then rolled into a giant sausage.
Next there is a sitting down dance where chunks of mix are pressed, squashed and rolled into round cob loaves. Then the loaves they are tossed along a line, chain gang style, to the place of work. This is the cob tossing dance.
Now it’s time to work on the wall. The cob loaf is broken into two or three parts. One part is pressed between hands, squeezing and rolling it till it’s the size of a cricket ball, except soft and mobile, like a divine breast. Keep working the mix, now squeezing from the sides until it begins to lengthen, growing into a salami or, if you like, a divine phallus. There is an erotic sensuality to this work – if you want to see it that way!
This is the one time in all eternity where this piece of Universe is held and shaped by human hands. You are giving your vitality to this matter, impressing it with your spirit. You’re like the gods and goddesses shaping the first people. For a few moments you are breathing life into this handful of cosmic dust. Soon it will be part of your sheltering wall. Charged and transformed.
Take the cob salami and press it into the wall, squashing, smearing, blending it into all that went before. Use your palms and fingers. Put your weight into it. This is the fifth cob making dance. You mixed it with your bare feet. Now you are sculpting it with your bare hands. Layer by layer the mud-adobe-cob wall grows.
You could be building a palace in ancient Sumeria; or a Dogon minaret in Mali; or a Navajo hogan in New Mexico. This is an ancient, timeless art.
Wet cob is like a human body, supple, soft, smooth and textured. You press, squeeze, stroke and smear like you touch your lover’s body. Likewise, lovingly you create a shape. There are no hammers or saws or drills. Your tools are your hands and feet. You measure in handbreadths, knee highs and feet longs. The baker’s oven is the Sun. This is primal, primitive, prime… Early humanity at work.
I was taught cob building by the incomparable Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley, authors of ‘The Hand-Sculpted House’. They helped us design and build the Cob Cottage at Cae Mabon.