Thursday 26 January 2017

Wattle and daub

These days, you spend your life paying off a house, and even building a shed or animal shelter can be expensive, as timber, brick or any other modern building material requires a heavy investment of money, time and skilled labour. For thousands of years, though, people used a simpler technique that used nothing but natural, local materials.

“Wattle and daub,” as it’s called, takes its name from its two components; a “wattle” was a wicker fence or wall made of a pliable wood like willow or hazel, woven around upright posts like a horizontal basket. Farmers sometimes surrounded their fields with wattle fences, which could be made in modular, lightweight pieces a metre or two high and a metre or two across – hurdles -- and then uprooted, carried to a new location, and stamped into the ground where needed.

The farmer usually created a wattle by putting the upright posts (sometimes called zales or sails on these islands) into a wooden frame (sometimes called a gallows) to hold them in place. Then withies – slim cuttings of willow or hazel – were wound back and forth around the uprights. At the end of the hurdle the withy would be twisted for greater flexibility, wound around the last zale, and woven back in the other direction. Usually a gap would be left in the middle of the hurdle, called a twilly hole, which allowed a shepherd or farmer to carry a few hurdles as a time on his back.

According to author Una McGovern, hurdle fences were vital to medieval agriculture; by keeping sheep confined without the need for permanent infrastructure, they allowed tenant farmers to graze sheep on a patch of land, letting them manure the fields one by one and deposit the fertilisers necessary for cereal crops.

The same technique could form the walls of a building, once a log or timber frame was built and the wattle filled in with a “daub” plaster for insulation and privacy. The daub often contained clay, human or animal hair and cow dung, and hardened around the wattle like concrete around rebar. The technique proved popular throughout the ancient world, among Sumerians, Chinese and Mayans alike. If kept dry the walls would last for centuries, and even now restoring or demolishing old buildings in Europe sometimes reveals wattle inside the walls.

Not all ancient builders loved it; the Roman architect Vetruvius, in the first century BC, moaned about its hazards in his Ten Books on Architecture:

“As for ‘wattle and daub’ I could wish that it had never been invented,” Vetruvius wrote testily. “…But since some are obliged to use it either to save time or money, or for partitions on an unsupported span, the proper method of construction is as follows. Give it a high foundation so that it may nowhere come in contact with the broken stone-work composing the floor; for if it is sunk in this, it rots in course of time, then settles and sags forward, and so breaks through the surface of the stucco covering.”

Vetruvius’ disdain notwithstanding, however, clearly many of his contemporaries loved it, and it’s easy to see why; it allowed people to build a structure cheaply and easily. The main disadvantage, as the Roman mentioned, is that it cannot get damp; like cob, straw bales or other natural building methods, it works best when you build the foundation and walls of rock for the first metre or so.

The technique is similar to building in cob, that mixture of sand, straw and clay, mixed with water and squeezed together – usually by humans walking on it.  Handfuls of the mixture – the word “cob” comes from an Old English word for “lump” – are stacked them on top of each other in a row, stomped solid by people’s feet, and then another layer of cob added, until people have a wall.

The straw binds the clay and sand together; instead of a wall’s mass hanging on a few large structures like girders or beams, it hangs on the many tiny structures of the straw. Once the cob dries it can be almost as durable as stone. Daub needs to be thinner than cob, like stucco or plaster – to be spread across the wattle rather than creating a self-supporting wall – but is can be made from quite similar materials.  

Of course, wattle and daub is probably not suitable for modern homeowners unaccustomed to mud walls. That doesn’t mean, however, that it has no relevance to today’s homesteader; animals don’t tend to mind such all-natural surroundings, as long as the interior remains warm and dry, and neither do garden tools.

Building techniques like cob or wattle-and-daub fell out of favour in the modern era because they are more labour-intensive than our modern building techniques that rely on fossil fuels. We should not let such skills disappear entirely, however, for these methods still have advantages. They are completely ecological, requiring no machines, and generating no pollution. They can last for centuries, as evidenced by homes built this way in Europe – and might still stand when our reinforced concrete has collapsed to ruin. And when a wattle-and-daub home is finally torn down, it merely adds fertiliser to the soil, rather than toxic waste – and another one can be built, literally dirt cheap.

Una McGovern, Lost Crafts, published by Chambers, 2009.
Vetruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, Chapter 8, Section 20.
Photo: Cottage in Heimbach, Germany.

Wednesday 18 January 2017

Taking part

Not many of my readers here will be able to see it, but I'll be on Irish television Friday to talk about the state of US politics. If you're in Ireland, feel free to look me up around 4 pm Dublin time.


Every morning I journey to the nearest village and wait for the bus to bring me to work in Dublin– usually in rainy darkness this time of year – and chat with my neighbours doing the same. A flimsy shelter of two plastic walls and an awning provides the only protection from blasts of wind and cold rain; when the county took it down for a few months of road repair, we felt its absence each morning.  
Unfortunately, teenagers with too little supervision and too few manners have etched words in the plastic that I used to shield from my daughter, before she became a jaded teen herself. Also, a single Irish winter can coat anything with layers of grime and algae – by spring most road signs are illegible.  So I was pleased to come out of Mass the other day and find some neighbours I knew busy scrubbing the shelter clean.

“That’s good of you, Bridget,” I said – she works at the village shop and is grandmother to two of my daughter’s school-mates, so we know each other well. I hadn’t realised, though, that she spent her weekends cleaning up the town.  

“Ah, we’re only after doing this once in a while,” Bridget said, as cars moved down the road in one direction and horses clopped down the other. “Youngsters can scratch it up faster than we can fix it. Other days we walk the roads picking up rubbish.”

I told them people dump rubbish on the side of the road along the canal where we live, and my daughter and I go pick it up sometimes. I gather that many rural Irish used to throw their rubbish away in hedgerows, which was fine when it was broken stones or cinders – but once the age of plastic arrived, the rubbish never disappeared.

“Sure you’re very good,” she said, sounding pleased. She handed me one of those hand-held devices that allow you to pick up trash without stooping over. “Here – take this,” she said. “You’re part of the clean-up crew now.”

I feel like I’ve been deputised, I said.  

“Well, if you’re going to do it anyway, you might as well be part of something,” she said. I couldn’t argue.

Monday 2 January 2017

A difficult year, part 2

This probably should have been Part 1.

Many of my acquaintances declare this to be “the worst year ever,” which seems a bit melodramatic to me – I might have picked, I don’t know, 1940 or 1666 or 1348 or any number of other possibilities. Nonetheless, I understand that a lot of friends of mine in the USA, UK and Ireland have all seen particularly contentious political debates, Europe continues to see a flood of refugees from the Middle East, and the Middle East … their tragedies dwarf anything we have seen in generations.

Interestingly, though, few people I know mention Syria, or the shrinking Arctic ice, or the increasingly dubious quality of tap water in US towns, or all the other things that affect their lives. What they usually name are celebrities – singers and actors – who died this year, from Prince to Alan Rickman to Carrie Fisher. And they don’t just feel disappointed, they feel betrayed.

With no disrespect to their genuine grief, I keep in mind that these celebrities were not people who spent their lives feeding Third-World orphans or facing down authoritarian death squads. They were show-business performers who made it big – at best, nice people who used their fame and wealth generously. I know no one who knew them personally, yet I know many people who mourned them as though they were family.

 A few reasons for this stand out. Most modern people have their first crushes and obsessions for celebrities who were famous when they were teenagers, say, 10 to 20. Since most of those teen idols will be a decade or two older than their fans, and many actors and singers have a decade or so at their peak, modern people go through life idolising people two to three decades older than themselves.

 People who were famous outside that generational window don't bother us when they die. Most people my age were hit hard by the death of Carrie Fisher or George Michael, but not by Maureen O'Hara or Stan Freberg last year, as people my age were not likely to know or care who those people were. Likewise, most of my daughter’s teenaged peers wouldn't know who Carrie Fisher or George Michael are, so those deaths wouldn't affect them.

In other words, I told people my age, we're getting to the middle-aged window when celebrity deaths tend to hit us. It’s a normal part of a cycle, and not an unprecedented catastrophe – but most of my peers had never experienced this, as they’ve never been this age before.

Another factor in our common grief is that these days, popular singers and actors fill our media screens, talk to us out of our televisions and phones, and we hear their songs and words on grocery-store loudspeakers. A modern Westerner might hear George Michael several times a day, but their grandmother a few times a year. Thus, celebrities become far more familiar than cousins or neighbours, and we feel their loss.

Celebrity deaths seems like a minor issue compared to so many others in the world, but I think it helps illuminate why other world events caused people such grief this year. Take the US election; whatever you think of Mr. Trump, we’ve had far worse elections than this, just outside of the tiny window of pop-culture memory. Yet most of my peers have never experienced a more contentious election, so this one seems like The Worst in Human History.

In the same way, our modern media spends an inordinate amount of time talking about one office (president) in one branch (executive) of one level of government (federal) in one country (USA). So many news stories focus on the individual in that one office that we see them more often than we see our neighbours, and our hopes and fears cling to that individual’s persona.

Either way, 2017 is likely to be the new Worst Year Ever, as all the trends of 2016 are likely to keep happening. I have, however, noted one group that were not devastated by the events of 2016 – those people who didn’t follow most pop culture at all.

Those people – some elderly neighbours of mine, some homesteading friends in the USA or Europe -- lived in a world with real consequences and victories, and their life was moored to people they knew. They wouldn’t feel grief at the loss of someone on a screen, but the loss of a neighbour or friend. I’ve learned a lot from my neighbours, and will feel genuine grief when they are gone – and with luck, someone like them will miss me someday.