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Monday Photo Meditation: Earth, Mud, Clay

Cornerstone Cropped

I said last week that this was the growing season, and it is.

It is also the mudding season — and the muddy season.

Earth, mud, clay: It’s all the same here, and yet very different, in feel and in function. And in this time of the monsoonal cycle, we have all three, but the emphasis is decidedly on the second now.

We had reason to be reminded of this again today; this morning, we interred Ice’s body, although his spirit had already begun racing along the Sky Roads to meet Cree, who preceded him there in September. We laid him to rest next to her, under a bank of wild sunflowers, already blooming a month early. He will have his own sunflowers, too. But the land beneath the tractor’s broad tires was mere earth no longer, not formed enough for clay — like the rest of the land here, it was, in a word, mud.

That’s in no way a bad thing. Inconvenient, yes. Tires sink, and so do boots; it burrows into the treads of both and refuses to take its leave. But the mud here is a rich, loamy, clay-heavy, glorious thing, an earth so rich that it defies any plant, any seed, to refuse to grow.

And, indeed, the earth here thrives.

But mud season is also mudding season, convenient as to timing and yet requiring timing and strategy. In this place, “mudding” refers to something very specific: It is the word for traditional adobe patchwork and repair. When the facades on the old homes crack and chip, an inevitable result of exposure to elements as harsh and extreme and unforgiving as ours, the application of traditional mortar to fill in the cracks is called “mudding in,” or, more generally, “mudding.” The clay mixture used to fill in cracks and crevices and patch over other openings and imperfections differs in quality and composition from the subsequent coats. Patchwork comes first, then a thin rough base coat known as a scratch coat, then what’s called a “float,” when the clay is troweled on more heavily and spread in such a way as to create the proper underlying texture. Only after all of these steps have been completed is the final, smoother color coat applied.

And as the people count down the days to their most sacred season, their time of pilgrimage, and to the feast day that lies a month hence, those who are able to take advantage of the dry and sunny hours are busy at such repairs where needed. It’s not a task that can be definitively scheduled for any given day right now; the rains are capricious, coming when they will, and they are moodier and more unstable than ever in this time of accelerating climate change. Still, it is possible to cadge a few hours here, a day there, and already the preparatory work is under way.

After the pilgrimage period is over,  the masonry work will commence in earnest, with whole teams of men detailed to resurface the village’s church and its courtyard walls so that it will be ready for the end-of-September feast. Others will be hard at work on family homes or other buildings in need of repair. But it’s too great a task for one month, and the early work has already begun.

It’s a highly variable process, one that creates a patchwork of of colors and finishes before it’s done. But those patches tell their own stories, and possess their own special beauty. The flange above has always been one of my favorites among Wings’s Pueblo images — it was one of the entries in his one-man show three years ago. It always looked to me more like a painting than a photograph, despite the fact that it has not been digitally manipulated at all: a work simultaneously two- and three-dimensional in appearance, with all the mottled light and shadowy texture of a late Impressionist painting. And, indeed, it is the soil of this place in all its stages: earth at the base, mud on the light patch at the left side, clay on the finished flange and wall.

It fits well with the month’s themes; it seems, in fact, an extension of last week’s. For what are earth, mud, clay, but the same spirit as it journeys through stages of growth, of adaptation, of transformation? And in so doing, it encourages the growth of other spirits: Just like our mud here, it defies the plants not to dance . . . and so they do, a dance of form and shadow, earth and light.

~ Aji






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