Cobbing my cottage

Monday, 28 July 2014

Icing on the Cake


I landed in Finland on Tuesday night, during a heat-wave. This beautiful Northern landscape which enjoys long daylight hours in any case, is now a hot, sunny haven. Well, not a haven for everyone (are we ever totally happy about the weather?) but I personally would choose hot sun over cold rain any day. And apart from a pretty dry and barren green roof, my little cottage seemed to enjoy the sun as much as I do.




My cottage hadn't been touched for almost a year. I did what I could in the three weeks I was there a year before, with a newborn in tow, but had to admit my defeat when it came to dreams about finishing the cottage.

This year I am truly and finally hoping to make my dream come true. I have about six weeks. Yes, I also have surplus dreams about building other natural dwellings, including composting toilet, sauna, large cob oven/bench and natural swimming pool but I think it's safe to say this time around my biggest dream is to be able to spend even just one night inside my cottage, before I have to leave Finland again in the end of August.

Not a lot to ask, one may say and it is definitely doable but I have a lot to do. I am obviously prioritising the internal work and leaving the external work for a later time. My baby daughter is now just over 1 year old and she toddles about, fairly content in the company of my parents, although often wants my cuddles, even when my clothes are covered in clay. But, in many ways it is a good introduction to her about what mummy does and loves doing, with her Hands and Heart in mud.






I bought English fine china clay i.e. kaolin from a ceramic store here in Finland. 50 kilos of it. It is just a number as I have no idea how much clay I will need. I have all the walls to plaster and a floor to pour. I am using plaster made with kaolin as it's very smooth, plastic and white. I mean there is nothing wrong with its Finnish common cousin, the grey lumpy stuff I have dug from the backyard and used for everything in the building so far - but to be honest, even a simple forest girl like me, does appreciate some finesse in things at times....

I also ordered fine sand, 3m3 of it. Again, it is just an abstract number, as I have no idea of the amount needed. Plus the truck that delivered it, could only hold three cubic metres. And then I boiled some wheat paste, some random amount, to add into the mix. So there, I have my ingredients for the perfect coat of plaster. Just in time to remind myself there is no perfection. Only perception (as one of my friends puts it).


Every day I have plastered a bit of the walls, occasionally with the help of my son. Once even my brother showed up for an hour. Mostly I am on my own though, mixing the plaster putty with my fingers, in my own little elven hut. I can only say that it is one of the most pleasurable things, mixing that putty. Feeling the lumps of sand dissolve into the clay slurry, the creaminess of the mix coating my fingers, getting slightly stuck on my palms. Then taking a lump and smearing it onto the rough wall. I could keep on doing this forever I think, if only my skin didn't fall off at the contact of numerous little stones in the wall. My palms are somewhat sore to touch after five days of barehand plastering but my heart is full and I love the work. I LOVE it.



I feel totally connected to my humanness while working on this cottage, with these basic materials, in this natural way - it is my own personal meditation. I find it amusing that I am smearing very fine English clay over the very rough Finnish one. It almost feels like I am making a full circle with this cottage, including the materials I am using, about who I am, my identity as a Finnish person, who is no longer just Finnish but has some English layers. I am icing the Finnish forest cake with English cream. Maybe these are all layers of myself emerging inside and outside this cottage.

I bought three different kinds of trowels for this job, but I do not want to use them, even if I could (the walls are way too uneven and sculptural, ha!), because I would miss out on the feeling and touching and smearing and smelling and pulling and pushing - and loving. I suppose I am a bit nuts about the white stuff but it will definitely help me to finish this job.

After five days I have done most of it. I will have to keep re-misting the plastered walls so I can eventually burnish them smoother when I am ready. My plan is to make a coloured kaolin paint and paint the walls in more natural tone after the burnishing. And then I am hoping to apply linseed oil to the finished surface. And only then I can start thinking about the floor....at the moment my head is definitely in the walls, most certainly also the clouds :)

I leave you with few progress photos and hope to write again soon. It is hard to find the time and concentration to do this but I know it's good for me to try to share the journey in smaller bits.



Oh, in the mean time, please remember to dream - because dreams do have the tendency to come true.



Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Almost Eternal Journey



I thought I was going to write about my cottage building journey while in Finland, but life had other plans. Being a mother to a newborn baby and trying to finish my cottage was harder than I thought. Despite of my loving son and my parents helping out whenever they could, despite of the weather yet again being very favourable, despite of all my best intentions, it wasn't going to happen. So many loving arms around my baby girl was a blessing, yet I found it very difficult to replace the required energy withdrawn during the frequent feedings and sleepless nights. At times of despair, when one is completely sleep-ridden and frustrated, it is easy to see oneself only as a breast, not even as a mother, let alone an artist or a creator. I had some of those moments initially but strangely enough, I could still see through the fog eventually, when I relaxed into the environment and situation I was in. Which basically meant that I gave up.

I gave up trying to finish the cottage. I gave up silly plans. I gave up stressing about it.

There were many things on my to-do list, way too many for three week stay. So I had to think practically, an activity I sometimes excel in and sometimes am awful at. But really I had to prioritise the work ahead. On the exterior, I knew I needed to do lime-rendering of the strawbale part of the walls, as that was still lacking and another cold Finnish Winter was looming ahead. I also needed to cover up the remaining exposed strawbales with earthen plaster inside the cottage, which I hadn't had time to do last Summer. And I desperately wanted to release the roof from its excess plastic overhangs, which I had left on to protect the cottage better from the harsh elements. Trimming the plastic off the eaves was my very first job, which felt so good, it was like giving the cottage's roof its much needed hair-cut, even though its hair (vegetation) was sadly thin, dry and lifeless. I climbed on the roof and set my toes in what felt like a soft, brown desert. This green roof was dying of thirst, after such a hot, dry Summer! Here I am trying to salvage it, while offering some of the cold refreshment to my son (underneath) as well. :)


The cottage is situated in such an all-day sunny spot that many plants don't thrive on its roof, particularly in dry conditions. On top of that, we hadn't had time to add enough soil on the roof the previous Autumn, which meant that any seeds planted wouldn't really have enough depth to establish roots or thrive. We added some more compost on the roof and my father did several trips to the forest to pick up different types of mosses and grasses, in order to add to the wig of this cottage. Even some of my mother's flowers and over-grown lettuce somehow found their way onto the roof...





 




What a difference a bit of green love makes! My cottage immediately looked soooo happy! As did I!

My cottage with a happy green wig.


Next up was the lime rendering, which needs a fair weather to apply and since that is what we were having, I thought to set to work. Lime also needs time to set properly, and since it's sensitive to frost, I needed to apply it in apt time before the first night frosts arrived. Mixed with sieved sand (a job irregularly done by my 10-year old son Eemil, in exchange for some Lego and few Euros), chopped straw and experimental quantities of red iron oxide pigment, I started applying this on the back wall, which would be most sensitive to the Finnish Winter of frost and snow.
 
Here I am mixing lime-plaster in a bucket.
My son Eemil working.

My son Eemil not working.

On each clear, bright day I mixed and applied a bit more lime render to the wall, every batch being of slightly different quality, consistency and colour. Nothing like making a patchwork cottage. :) Eventually, I reached the baby dragon on the other side, at which point I stopped, as this is also where the strawbale wall finished. The rest of the cottage still needs to be rendered of course, but that is a story for another time and another Summer.

Wet lime-render at the back of the cottage.

Making a bloody (pink) mess :)



Job done... for now.

I then had to replace all the stones I had taken off from around the stemwall of the cottage before lime-rendering. It was an annoying job of almost eternal 'stone rolling' but beneficial in that it hid most of the awful, pink limey mess I had made around the cottage...

While I was working outside, I had also started touching up the inside of the cottage. The first and most boring job was to cover up the exposed strawbales with an earthen plaster, which was basically quite thick and pretty clayey cob mix. And who best to do the mix than my wonderful mama! With all the stomping experience of last Summer, she eagerly (...I hope...) set to work and watching her do this Summer's first cob dance, it made us both fondly think about last Summer's weird and wonderful experiences.

My mum makes me the first batch of cob.

Of course before this I had to 'dive' into the frog pond, aka clay pit, which strangely enough was full of water (despite of the Summer being so dry!). My son happily followed in my muddy footsteps, even if only to catch the numerous frogs and toads that had made the pit their home/swimming pool. With freezing cold, gray water up to my thighs and my son splashing next to me, I dug up wonderfully gooey clay gloop from the bottom of the pool and thought about Beez, one of my wonderful volunteers, who spent so many mornings and afternoons in this pit last Summer...


Never mind working mummy, can you help me look for the frogs?

Eemil's double catch


Mr. Big - a huge toad involuntarily discovered.
After too many frog discoveries and two wheelbarrows full of clay, I had had enough (of course only for the day). Next job, applying the mix to the wall. Can't tell you how happy I was to get my hands dirty again. Really! Happy!


First layer of plaster being applied - both on the top row of strawbales as well as few bottom parts of the wall, where some earthbags were still exposed. My knees and thighs really felt the job of bending down and stretching up the following day(s).

Plastering over the earthbags in the stem wall - such an awkward, knee and back breaking job!
Plastering over the strawbales near the ceiling.
 While I was plastering, we started talking with my father about the sleeping platform which I wanted to build inside, to maximise the usable space and to take advantage of the high ceiling in this cottage. My father had cut down a maple tree as well as some younger fir trees and peeled them for me in the Spring. The fir tree logs were really meant for the outdoor toilet I was hoping to build this Summer, but since I had no time for it this time around, we ended up using some of the logs for the sleeping platform instead. Here we are trying out the possible size of the sleeping platform with these logs. The central upright is a part of a maple tree, with some branches left on (not sure if I will keep these or not).

Planning the sleeping platform/loft with my father.
Our friendly neighbour Jani came to help again for few days, which was great because I didn't really know much about building the platform. While I was entertaining some visiting relatives, Jani and my dad built the framework for the platform with the logs, ready for some planking later.


  
Platform main frame completed. You'll have to take my word for it :)
When the platform frame was built and the boys were out of my way I could start thinking about a second earthen plaster coat on the walls. Again all the walls need doing, but I knew I wouldn't have time, so I made a decision to apply it to the strawbale walls, since these are the ones that need more protection from vermins and elements. (Talking about vermins, while I was plastering the walls, a mouse ran out of the cottage from underneath the step of the front-door. I didn't shriek but hoped it would find another home and filled the gaps under the step. I am sure it had had a nice time wintering under one of the earthbags in the wall but I would rather not have a mouse family live inside my cottage with me. In any case, I never saw it again.)

I made a more runny plaster with coarse sand, runny clay and sandy soil (which I have mainly been using for the cob mix). Our stack of coarse sand was dangerously low but I managed to make it last for the duration of my stay. Next year, I will have to purchase some more, as the sand-pit I originally got it from has now been filled and there is no access to it, which is a great shame in many ways. But it warms my heart to know that part of the landscape (sand-pit) in which I used to play as a child, and which is no more, is now part and inside of my walls...

Reading a bit of advice on the second plaster coat, I decided to work with two types of plaster, a runnier one for general surface cover and another one, much more sticky and thicker, for sculpting. I had always wanted to sculpt a female form into the wall but didn't quite know how to go about it. I didn't just want to 'stick it on', it would have to form naturally. But the only things that naturally came to my mind were the spirals of a magical, fractal tree, which adorned the cottage already outside and which I thought should somehow connect to the inside also. After all, the cottage is called Tree of Life.

In the evening, left on my own, I mixed a bit of natural blue pigment with water and started 'sketching' on the walls. It is so incredible how in the middle of all building, any kind of artistic activity feels so refreshing and outright magical. Once in a while I would sit down in a chair and look at the freehand swirls I had produced; did I need more here, some there? Was there a natural flow to it all? And where had the idea of a woman disappeared, as all I was left with were swirling branches of a tree? Never mind, let's forget about the woman and make the tree, I thought - and went to bed.

Drawing on walls - with permission!

The next day I started working on the design. Adding a layer of runny plaster on the wall (which had been hosed down several times in the previous days to create a moist surface to which the next layer would bond - not as easily done as I initially thought), I then worked with the thicker, sculpting cob to add the design and 3-dimensionality on the wall. I just LOVE this part of making, working with cob. Burying my hands deep into a bucket of cob, feeling the grit, the straw, the mud, the earth, the love, the creativity flowing out of brain, through the materials, from my fingers, onto the wall. It's like making love with nature! Pure bliss.




And soon I was making more tree branches and swirls and strands.... of hair. And then out of nowhere, she started emerging. Not as a whole body as I had thought, but as a huge head....


my Mother Nature, with tree branches as locks of her hair.... she kept coming out of the wall, into the wall, forming intuitively along the bumps and curves and textures. It's almost as if I let her arrive, ever so gently calling her through my mind and shaping her with my loving fingers....


She had emerged and kept growing. I sculpted a little bit more of her every day, staring at the full moon once in a while and then continuing... ;)


Eventually she had spread her hair over half the cottage wall, all the way from the back of it to the front-door entrance. She had taken over.... it was my homage to Mother Nature, the landscape, my childhood, and the natural materials that had found their way into this cottage and also made all this work possible. 


 
 

Strangely enough, my remaining cob mix finished exactly at the moment my sculpture reached the front-door and its final destination (for now). It really was as if it was meant to be. Next Summer I will continue the theme on the rest of the walls (I think), unless another idea comes along and grabs me instead.

Afterwards, I painted with some ochre pigment on the sculpture, just to see what it may look like with colour. The next plaster coat will be smoother and finer and have pigments added, although I am not decided on the colours, if any, as of yet.

What still remains then, is the making of a floor, which I have some ideas for. I will most likely make an earthen floor with some wood slices set into a spiral design. All the walls need another coat of plastering. Externally the lime rendering needs to be extended to the remaining cob walls. And the platform needs to be built inside the cottage for us to be able to sleep inside together as a family. I am sure I can finally finish this place next year, at least in a way, which enables me to finally spend some time there, and move onto the next natural project....

Still unfinished but getting there. At least she is blushing now.

I have sooo many ideas, so many dreams. I am so in love with mud. I never thought I could be so much in love with it. Having said that, my initial reaction to seeing photos of houses made with mud (cob) was to burst into tears, so maybe that said a lot - of how much this material touched my heart, my creative fires, my understanding of life - what I appreciate about our human existence. To creatively use materials from nature - nature that enabled us to be here and that gives us everything we need every single day - is a blessing. I almost cry when I write this. Thank you universe for showing me how amazing mud can be! Even dreaming about it is (almost) amazing enough.


Those three weeks I spent in Finland flew by. I was blessed with good weather and I was happy to see my family and for them to see my baby daughter Pinja. During the time in Finland, I buried her placenta next to the forest and planted an alpine pine tree over it. She will therefore always have roots in the place, along with me and of course, we will be spending many good times there in the future, hopefully building together as a family and appreciating the nature around us. I was also interviewed to a Finnish magazine 'Meidan Mokki' and the article comes out within a year, I will post more details of when. In the mean time, I keep bringing up my children in England and dreaming of more natural projects in the future. I have many ideas, very many. I hope to make at least some of them, because working with cob and natural materials equals love for me. And what is better than being in love?

All my loves - and a small pine tree for Pinja.

Until next time, we shall meet in dreams, preferably those of the mud kind. The ones I like best. But what ever you dream about, the main thing is that you do.
Thank you for reading.
x


Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Through All Seasons, The Trees Still Stand.

A half a year has passed and seasons have changed. Truly. Majestically. At the moment it feels like a half of life-time has been squeezed into these short months of my life and what has emerged reminds very little of what was there before. In April we packed up our flat, left London and moved up to West Yorkshire with my son, settled as an expanded family in a small arty Northern town and started a new life here, surrounded by hills and forests of green. I can already breathe better, even though my heart is still adjusting to all the changes, as is my son's.

My baby daughter, Pinja (Finnish for pine tree), was born three weeks ago - she emerged finally - after spending eight extra days in my womb - happily, still inside her watery home, into another one, that of the birthing pool and then - my loving arms. Pinja, the pine tree of my soul, was here with us.



I kept her placenta and part of the sac she entered this world in, to be taken to Finland next month. Just like when my son was born, I took his placenta to Finland, dug it into the ground at my parents house and planted a cherry tree there. So now I want to do the same with my daughter's membrane. But this placenta will go next to my cottage and a little pine seedling will be planted there, on the top of the membrane, which connected her to me, me to her and both of us to the great cycle of life. Feeding, nurturing, protecting. Just like Mother Nature does to us and has done to me, while I was building my cottage.

I saw my cottage in real life in February when I visited Finland for a short time. The house was frozen but beautiful, it hadn't suffered that much from the Winter winds, but of course it was hard to tell how gently the Spring thaw would treat the little elven house. This is what I was most worried about; possible frost heaving, cracking, bending. Luckily, there has been very little damage to the cottage so far and at least from the photos that my parents have taken, my Elaman Puu looks as lovable as when I left it in last September. I am so very happy about this, because it confirms my belief that work made with love is strong and durable and also that our relationship with nature is of the utmost importance; if I appreciate it and work with it, it will make all the difference. Seasons will come and go but hopefully my little cottage will stand the test of time and remain part of my life and the landscape it so easily blends into and was born from. If it bends, breaks, or survives, then it will do all these alongside the nature that surrounds it.

Here is a photo sequence of my cottage in all Finnish seasons:

Autumn 2012


Winter 2013


Spring 2013

Summer 2013


After my daughter's passport gets ordered and organised, I am hoping that in about a month's time, I will be standing there, looking at the view in the last photo and listening to the fluttering of the birch leaves (and my heart) near-by. Three weeks is all I have but I am hoping to achieve a lot in this time. Lime-plastering of external walls, earthen plastering and sculpting of internal walls, making an earthen floor, building a sleeping platform, trimming and finalising the green roof, filling in cracks, setting up a solar panel for electricity, firing the pizza oven. And - starting on a composting toilet behind the cottage with the left-over strawbales and some roundwood that my father has yet again kindly cut down from the forest and left to dry for me in the Spring time. It does sound like a lot to do, particularly with a 2-month old baby who grants me very little time and sleep, but then again, time is only a concept - and also, time constraints only exists through one's mindset, and my decision with this cottage is to work with love and natural time. That is the lesson I learnt from last Summer: you can't rush nature as it does what it pleases - and once you surrender to your work, it will take the time it needs to take. If necessary I will continue the work next year, and the next, and the next. This project, like my life, is an evolving one... :)

If you want, I will be happy to take you on another part of this journey with me next month, when I get my hands stuck in the mud (and maybe my baby's hands too). I will be there and you will be here, but hopefully as a little glimpse of inspiration, I can share a part of my love for the Nature and natural building through these pages and photos. Until then,

let the Summer winds carry you...... x