Building Community

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PHOTO: LAURA LEIBEN
However short-lived it may have been, the hands that helped build a cob wall were also building community.

When I went down to a place known as Murray Valley in Newton County, Arkansas, to work on a natural building project, my friends teased me about going off to the woods to build a mud hut. I laughed with them, but I was annoyed that people who spend their days working in offices pushing papers — real estate deals, legal contracts, financial transactions — that even they admit are trivial in the grand scheme of things, will at the same time flippantly ridicule anybody who has the gumption to have any ideals about how one spends one’s days. Somehow, laboring to create a handmade earthen hermitage, breathing in the mist rolling out of the thriving riverbeds of the Ozarks, and learning about the lives of the people I met there set me to wondering pretty hard about what it means to have ideals, what it means to live by them, and how those two things contribute to building community.

Many of the residents of Murray Valley moved to the Ozarks — where the roads are crooked and steep, limestone hollows hide deep caves and large stands of hardwoods, and power lines are few and far from each other — to leave behind a set of materialistic values they found empty or, perhaps, just to get away. A community of like-minded people has formed here to put into practice many of the ideals of natural and simple living that MOTHER EARTH NEWS began advocating at about the same time.

There was a lot of talk of this thing called community at the natural building workshop, as if it were something we could easily sculpt out of clay and sand like the cob hermitage we were creating. But I’m not sure it is as simple as all that. Many residents of Murray Valley came together to build the hermitage for Ann  Lasater, who owns the property on which it stands as well as the product of her community’s labor. It is fair to say that everyone who attended the workshop, whether from Arkansas or somewhere else, shares the irrefutable ideals of cob construction: accessibility, respect for the environment, simple beauty. Inevitably, however, when more than 20 people who worked on the building came together, our ideals ­— about alternative building methods, better ways of life, more inclusive language choices — became so lofty that we wanted to impose them on one another. We then found ourselves struggling against the same rigid thinking, though now couched in “alternative living,” that we had fled to the Ozarks to escape.

Is it possible to embrace an ideal without also embracing intolerance? Am I the one being flippant now? When we build something, inevitably our egos get involved, and often that’s a hard thing to reconcile with the idea of community. The ideals of cob construction survive untarnished by our struggle to live up to them. We have created something simple and beautiful, and cob has provided a means for us to act on what we believe. It may not be as easy to live by our ideals as it is merely to have them. Henry David Thoreau, near the shore of Walden Pond, lived by these very same ideals of simple natural living, and of community, that, if not flourishing, are certainly staying admirably alive by the Little Buffalo River in this Ozark Valley. In the pursuit of such ideals, he put forth this appropriate challenge for us: “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails.”

I hope you find cob construction as thought provoking as I do.