No trails or roads to follow. Freedom to place my feet in any direction I want to go.
I notice the grasses, vetches, dandelions, yarrows, docks, clovers, cleavers, and avoid the wild roses, but today, I'm not surveying. I have a bucket in my hand, and I'm after poop.
This horse pasture is right across the street from the job site for our Plastering and Singing Together work-party late this weekend. Joseph Becker of ION Ecobuilding is lead on the project, and I'm on as plaster help. The horse in the pasture is named Shadow, and she has provided all the manure we will need for the whole house.
I've been looking forward to this all day.
I'm running the manure through a 1/2 in screen because Joseph has experienced better results when it's screened before mixing. For screening, partially dry poop is best. If the poop is too dry, it's difficult to screen. If the poop is fresh, it will smear and not pass through the screen, but the active enzymes are fantastic for the mix, so adding it with the screened stuff is great if you plan to use it right away. (I leave fresh poop alone if it has a bunch of holes in it because little beetles are still using it at that point.)
We stored one bucket of unscreened manure that's now too hard to screen. I'm going to try soaking it anyway and report back how it compares to the fresher screened stuff.
Tomorrow, I add 1 part clay slip to 1 part screened horse manure to soak together before we start using it on Sunday. Yogurt consistency. (Last month during the prep party, we ran out of soaked stuff and tried using non-soaked manure and the fibers floated around in the mix like a dry sponge.) It only needs to soak for a few days. Then, when we make the plaster, we'll add roughly 2 parts sand to 1 part clay/manure slip.
Plaster ratios of sand to clay vary considerably. If your soil is 30% clay rich (minimum), you'll need more clay mixture. If your soil is very clay-y, or if you're using spent pottery clay, then more sand is better. It's mostly about feeling - how the plaster handles and if it dries well without cracking. If you can picture a brick wall, on a microscopic level, the sand acts as the bricks, and the clay acts as the mortar. The sand is providing the structure, strength, and stability, and the clay is what keeps the whole thing sticking together. Fiber - chopped straw, old newspapers, manure - is the "rebar", giving the plaster broader and more continuous structural integrity. Test patches are necessary every time to check the recipe with soil types, drying, cracking, and figuring out pigments for colour.
General Tips for Plastering
from "The Hand-Sculpted House" by Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, and Linda Smiley
- However well you think you know a plaster recipe, try a small test patch and leave it to dry before committing to an entire wall.
- Similar materials have similar drying patterns, and are therefore less likely to crack or separate. Earthen plasters for instance can be applied immediately onto cob that is not totally dry, whereas gypsum would set rapidly into a hard inflexible plaster that would separate as the cob dried and shrank. After a wall is completely dry, there will be very little movement, so most kinds of plaster should adhere well.
- Some plasters need to dry slowly, lime, for instance, so share them from direct sun and spray them periodically with water. Some will mold if they are not dried fast, including litem a, dung-clay and single-coat straw-clay plasters. The addition of borax or hydrogen peroxide to the plaster mix retards mold growth.
- All plaster coats except the finish should be left rough-surfaced, so the next coat will stick.
- Always dampen surfaces you are about to plaster, be they a cob wall or a plaster undercoat except for an alis finish.
- Plasters are sticky and can dry hard. Cover floors and furniture carefully. Use tape along edges of glass and woodwork. Clean off any spilled plaster thoroughly while it's still wet. Check again after your clean-up job dries; pale plasters show up more after they are dry.
- Keep plaster coats thin and even in depth, to avoid cracking. Traditional plastering advice is "many thin coats," usually less than 1/2 inch (1 cm), or 1/4 of an inch for finish coats, though in very dry conditions a single thicker coat of clay-sand-straw plaster may work.
We - involved with this project and the owner-builders - think of this house a Living Prayer because of its continuous evolving design and detail, particularly because one of the owners is a master craftsman, and song leader. There are many joyful hours infused into the walls, from the straw-clay insulation out to the lime exterior, and many memories of heartfelt songs sung and the gratification found in working together to accomplish a lot. Half my time on this project I've been a volunteer, and many others have been full time volunteers, as we have worked and played together.
Culturally, the revival of these kinds of 'barn-raising' activities that bring us together is creating a network of skilled community-minded people all over the world who look for these learning, growing, and uplifting opportunities, particularly Natural Builders. I owe most of what I know of the technical aspects of the Building world to mentors Eva Edleson, Mark Lakeman, Scott Howard, Molly Murphy, and Sukita Crimmal where I worked on projects as a volunteer under their guidance, alongside projects with friends and my own experimentation. This work is inclusive (anyone can do it!), non-toxic, fun, beautiful, completely customizable, and I can keep my bare feet on the construction site.
We can easily create shelter made from materials readily available in any place on the planet, and from these materials we can create structures that are inviting and healing to be inside. We can reflect our personal relationship with the land and the cosmos and infuse the story of our lives, the story of the community, and the story of that Place, into a home that will shelter many generations to follow us. The Natural Homes website is the most thorough catalog I've come across of buildings old and new all over the world, and following their Facebook posts are an endless inspiration. People - regular, every day, "untrained" people - have been building homes for thousands of years that outlast modern homes and outperform modern homes in every bioregion. This is usually accomplished through simple, collaborative, community participation, and this 'style' - this choice - of "labor intensive" building processes is resurfacing quickly and with strength.
The skills needed to build are highly experiential, but none of it is difficult to learn. The memory of it is already deep in your bones, as your own ancestors mixed clay, sand, and straw between their toes, and smiled to each other across the building site. You know that feeling, when you felt connected to it all, the horse across the street, the grasses carrying the gentle glide in the wind.
The memory is also a Living Prayer, as real as the house will we cover in muddy manure.