Today, while waiting to launch our boats on the Skykomish River, Tom asked me why I haven’t been paddling recently. I explained with my well rehearsed Saga of the Cob Sauna, complete with full orchestration and five part harmony. Tom then asked me an unusual question. He said, “What is most challenging about cob building?” Damn good question.
Somewhat to my surprise, I watched my mind skip over the obvious challenges: the physical labor; the basic engineering necessary to pull off this type of construction; the project management skills; the plumbing; the electrical; the insulation…
Then, to my greater surprise, I answered, “The greatest challenge to cob building is that I cannot do it alone.”
In the course of my life, I have had to learn how to do many things by myself. And, I expect myself to get many things done. Alone.
Think of traditional stick-built construction with dimensional lumber. One person can cut and put together pieces of lumber all day, every day. The progress may be slow but one person can make steady progress.
I have tried desperately to find a way to mix cob by myself (with our current equipment). There are mechanical mixing methods using a Bobcat type machine but we don’t have a Bobcat and our tractor is not up to that task. We did buy a second-hand cement mixer to try and meet this need. A cement mixer will indeed mix clay, sand and water. However, the gains in mechanical mixing are offset by losing touch with the material. You can’t feel the mixture. You can’t use your sense of touch or hearing to evaluate the cob. “Do we need more sand?” Is that enough water?” Mixing good cob is a constant evaluation and negotiation by the mixing team.
So, we have resumed the manual tarp-method of cob mixing. This is our method of mixing cob on a tarp: first spread a small (8ft x 6 ft) tarp on the ground. Then dump one full five gallon bucket of construction sand on the tarp. Pay attention to the relative dryness or wetness of the sand. Bring over one full bucket of prepared clay (prepare the clay by soaking one full five gallon bucket of clay in water at least over night. Drain off as much water as possible. Then we use a ½ inch chuck, 7 amp power drill with a paint mixing paddle to homogenize the clay as much as possible). Scoop out one-half bucket of the clay with your hand onto the sand. Now, four people, each holding one corner of the tarp, take turns stomping the clay and sand together. They stomp on the outside of the tarp to mix the materials on the inside of the tarp. Add water as necessary. When the cob is feeling, sounding and looking correct then add straw. Take more turns stomping the cob. When the mixture reaches the consistency of a “baby seal” (that’s what we were taught), move it off of the mixing tarp and start a new batch.
But, I digress. The point is there is no practical way that I can mix cob by myself. I must have the help of other people; loves, friends or my community to mix cob. I must have the help of others to build this sauna.
As I talked to Tom about this, I experienced a small epiphany. To use the words of Mr. Natural: “’Twas always thus.”
In August of 2007, Woosi and I moved to CopperMoon with 18 llamas. We were faced with the task of fencing about three acres of pasture RIGHT NOW, on our weekends. Woosi said, “Let’s see who wants to help us build fence!” I was skeptical. But we put the word out. And people showed up. Emily, Richard, Mike, David, Chris, Jeff, Sherry plus many others. And they KEPT showing up.
CopperMoon was born in that amalgamation of effort by many people.
There is poetic justice to finding myself in the middle of building a cob sauna. The sauna will be built and it will be built, decorated and brought to life by a whole community. Friday night will be sauna night. When we are taking sauna, the thermometer will only show us the physical warmth inside. I will look around and feel the warmth of everyone who added a little work, a little art or a little love to the building.