A year or so before she died my mother, having already read some 40 of these columns asked, desperately, when I would run out material. Never, I told her. Fortunately, I can add that my response had nothing to do with her demise, but it was clear that I was sending her a little over the edge by relating theretofore untold, and some mildly embarrassing, family history cleverly disguised as adobe anecdote. Like the cactus growing out of our earthen roof. She asked what was coming up next and I, in turn, asked if she had any recollections of mud from her early years in Kansas. No, she replied, no mud in Kansas. But wait, she continued, I do remember something about the communists wanting to build with silage.
Okaaay. . . .
One of the reasons I won't run out of material is that such recondite gems eventually find a way of getting polished.
A charming couple from Cornwall, England, were recently here to research earthen finishes for a book they are writing. They presented me with a copy of their earlier publication entitled "Building with Cob: A Step-by-Step Guide." There was no ah-hah moment, not even in all likelihood a subconscious one, telling me that this might relate in any way to the conversation with my mother. But the book is beautiful and informative and prompted me to further research. And guess what popped up: communists.
Cob, despite the name, has nothing to do with silage; it is mud mixed into a dough-like consistency and then placed into walls. I have seen thousands of these buildings, often with thatched roofs and lime-washed exteriors, in Cornwall and Devon. They, like adobe structures, have walls up to two feet thick. No forms are used so the builder can create any shape desired. Cob has been described as house sculpting. You might immediately think of the Architecture of Sedona, but really, it is not.
Cob may have been developed by the Phoenicians who may have passed it on to the Carthaginians who may have taught it to the Romans. The Romans, of course learned to mix volcanic ash, called pozzolan, with lime to make concrete. Pozzolan, named after a place in Italy, was later replaced by Portland, named after a place in England; both were used in varieties of concrete that are found in cob walls dating to the Sixteenth Century.
From Rome cob seems to have gone to Spain, thence to England. But there, as far as my knowledge took me, it stopped. But no, cob actually found its way to the New World and some still survives. St. Thomas Anglican Church in Shanty Bay, Ontario, for example, was built with cob in 1839.
And astonishingly, as people like my parents had a way of doing, something from the Great Depression relating vaguely to cobs and building, stuck in their minds. As it turns out, during the depression, cob was promoted by the Roosevelt administration as a low-cost but labor intensive building material that might shorten the unemployment lines. Powerful lumber barons smeared it as Bolshevik inspired and cob became a casualty of the cold war.
Nevertheless, Mom, you got it right again and kept the grist, but not the silage, in the mill.