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Let's Talk Tabby
Edward Crocker

When William Butler Yeats passed back into earth, he left this on his head stone:

Cast a cold Eye
On Life on Death
Horseman pass by

In his book, The Engines of Our Ingenuity, John H. Lienhard, a mechanical engineer who writes fascinating articles on the relationship of technology to society, alludes to Yeats in his "Episode 459" entitled "Tabby and Cob." He notes, referring to the epitaph, that "We forget the old walls of mud & wattles -- of tabby and cob. Yet they are the spit and clay that've formed our civilization."

I like Mr. Lienhard's passage, being an aficionado of earthen architecture and noting that tabby and cob are forms thereof. He never claims that Yeats used the word "tabby" in that assumed context but the poet did speak of going to Inisfree, an island on a stormy lake in Ireland where his headstone stands, and building a cabin of mud and wattles. He left out the inspirational word of this essay: If Yeats ever used "tabby," and if I am permitted wild, unfounded speculation, he would probably have been thinking of a partner for the dark Minnaloushe, though I find no evidence of that.

Enough of such vagaries and license. Poetry be damned, I want to talk about tabby.

If you have ever been to Beaufort, South Carolina, and particularly if you have visited the Sea Islands, you have seen tabby and probably not known about it. Unless, that is, you have strolled around St. Helena Island and seen the amazingly solid remains of a church and the vermiculated cemetery wall that have been standing there unsheltered for well over 200 years. What strikes you about both is that they are made of oyster shells.

Tabby, on the Atlantic coast of the United States, is a mixture of lime, sand and shells. And, yes, I classify it as "earthen" because the aggregate, in this case shells and sand, is held together by a naturally occurring, though modified, binder -- in this case lime. It is always the aggregate that gives a cement, mortar or plaster its strength. Based on the age and remarkable condition of the walls on St. Helena, the combination is bomber.

Lest anyone be confused, shells are not the defining ingredient of a tabby wall. The term seems to derive from the Spanish "tapia" for "mud wall" and derives from an earlier Arabic word, possibly "al tob" which, if I am reasonably well informed by the Internet, means a mud brick; an adobe. Earthen architecture in the form of sun-dried bricks does seem to have come to Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar and thence to the new world.

Tabby, however, is not fashioned into bricks but, like pisé, or rammed earth, is cast between forms. The Moroccans still use a derivation of the method, though instead of shells they use granitic stone as the aggregate.

Now, to throw a cobble into the gears, I must note that the tabby remains on the Sea Islands are not Spanish but British in origin. Our best information comes from Thomas Spalding (see E. Merton Coulter, Thomas Spalding of Sapelo. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1940), who noted, "It took 'six men, two boys and two mules (one white man superintending) two years to build the house.'" The etymology of the word still stands, I believe, because of the proximity to Spanish-speaking Florida.

I'm quite sure that "the house" was a bit more grandiose than Yeats' fantastical cabin at Inisfree, but I nevertheless doubt the poet would have been up to the task. He chose wisely to write about cats dancing under the moon instead of dabbling in mud.

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