Summer has come to the island, and the sun beats down from on high on the dry grass. Pollinators buzz their way through a sea of blackberry flowers, and the fir forests grow fragrant with the scent of warm sap. I have been digging in the earth, three, four, five feet deep, looking for clay. I found the clay: dense, gray, and sticky, a marvelous substance that can be molded to any form, liquefied in water, or baked to brick in the sun.
I had seen ovens made of earth, and I wanted to make one. A year ago in Alaska, I helped Jimmy Riordan, Michael Gerace, Jesus Landin-Torres III and Sara Frary, and many others build an earthen egg, a chamber of contemplation, on a rocky beach. That experience kindled a flame inside me, a great curiosity about this way that you could build things out of dirt. I have often wondered about my acrylic paints, how they’re made and where they come from… what if I could just make art out of the earth beneath my feet?
I decided to build an oven, because I love bread, and pies, and pizzas, and everything else that comes out of ovens. Fortunately for me, Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field have written an excellent book that shows how anyone can do this. Build Your Own Earth Oven is an indispensable guide, ancient knowledge brought back from the brink of forgetting, and woven together with new knowledge and innovation. I have known these two since I was a boy, and finally reading their book was second only to enjoying their company in person.
So I dug up clay, and I shoveled gravel, I cut wild grasses and scrounged old bottles. I pried big beautiful stones out of the ground for the foundation, glacial gems of granite and limestone. I trod the mud with my feet, then poked and prodded it into lumpy forms approximating my vision. I shoveled horse and cow dung out of fields, mixed it with clay, and smeared the fragrant gray-green frosting into fanciful patterns to please the eye. Who knew that grazing animals manufacture a durable and versatile plaster? People living in mud houses all over the world have known this for thousands of years…
At last the oven is finished, somehow just in time to bake bread and feed friends on the longest day of the year.