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Red Willow Spirit: Mudding Season

Bricks Cropped and Rotated

Our most recent monsoonal thunderstorm just passed through. It was not nearly as violent as last week’s tornadic version — nor nearly as quiet as the hard steady rain of last night. It was genuine storm, one of relatively short duration, but heavy enough to have left water pooled on the surface of the earth outside.

And to have turned the soil, once again, to mud.

Now, of course, the sun is out again, and the air will turn hot and humid before the day is out . . . and before the next one arrives this evening. Such is the weather in this season and place, weather made all the more extreme by the vagaries of climate change.

In a place such as Red Willow, a place constructed of the very earth itself, such elemental powers bear hard upon its surfaces.

Here at Red Willow, mud has a place and function. It’s mudding season.

Not just any mud, of course; it has to be mad with a specific type of earth, the sort that the people of this place have been using to build the bricks their homes comprise for a thousand years and more.

Of course, when your home is a millennium old, it’s natural to expect some wear and tear even in the best of times.

An Ancient Geometry - House View REsized

Temperatures in June approach the century mark; in the dead of winter, it’s been known to hit forty below zero overnight. Spring and fall feature wild temperature swings, differentials of fifty degrees, in the course of an ordinary day. Add to that a blistering sun, dry arid high-desert air, torrential rains marked by hail, deep snows and heavy ice, and the weather here . . . well, weathers here.

All those wonderful old postcard shots of North House? They don’t show the details. And this particular type of architecture, so spectacularly well-suited to this climate and its weather, is also equally subject to its harsh embrace. Rooflines and parapets are particularly vulnerable to the elements, as the image above, taken about a dozen years ago, makes clear. They are even more thoroughly exposed than are the walls, hammered by precipitation from all angles.

But a close-up of the same grouping of exterior walls, taken on the same day, shows the damage that, over time, occurs to flat surfaces, as well.

An Ancient Geometry - Multi-Level View Resized

Indeed, in a building whose basic structure has stood a thousand years and more, cracks would only be expected, whatever the material. For homes made of clay, of mud, of nothing more than earth and straw and water? The fact that the walls still stand, much less that they are fully inhabited, is testament to the quality of the masonry and the genius of the people’s architectural and engineering skills.

Ingress Egress Cropped

Also vulnerable are doors and windows, most of them relatively new openings compared to the multi-story dwellings themselves. Originally, ingress and egress occurred through an opening in the roof, by way of traditional ladders that could be pulled inside for security. Over the last century and a bit more, the people began to adapt styles brought to the area from the outside world, including entrances set into the walls that could be covered with wooden doors that opened and shit (and locked).

An Ancient Geometry - Lone Door Resized

Of course, adding openings for doorways puts stress on the adjacent walls of the superstructure, and while the walls have long since been shored up accordingly, it provides a new point of exposure for weather. The same holds true for windows. As with the wooden door above, many of the windows remain spare and purely functional, sometimes covered with glass or plexiglas, sometimes with sliding panels of wood that can be moved (or removed entirely) to permit air flow or a view of the outside.

Mud and Vigas Cropped

I have always loved this shot, really no more than a glimpse, a small piece of the wall excised by Wings’s camera lens and brought into sharp focus. The angle of it appeals to me, providing as it does for a wide view of the vigas arrayed at the top; so, too, does its black and white color scheme, warm earthy mud turned cool charcoal gray and aged wood burnished silver in the light. But it’s more than mere aesthetics. It’s also the way it captures, up close, the patchwork, the trowel work, the mudding in of repeated layers of adobe over the course of centuries to keep the elements out and a habitable home in. Every crack, every crevice, every score and wrinkle appears, the black and white film throwing them all into sharp relief, like the lines on an elder’s face: the mapping of experience, of existence, of the knowledge and wisdom that come with having seen the years, the centuries, come and go and to be still standing after so much else has crumbled to dust and less.

Mudding and resurfacing are an annual task, event, obligation, even. Not every building, not every home, gets resurfaced every year, but every year, at least some of them are patched, some rebuilt or otherwise structurally repaired, some given a whole new surface coat. Families are responsible for their individual homes, but some elders who need it will receive assistance in the resurfacing. The idea is to ensure that, in a series of conjoined homes, structural risks are minimized, and so are the risks associated here with weather and climate.

Stories Cropped

In an ideal year, by the time winter rolls around, the facades look something like the image above: still solid, still able to keep out the snow and the cold. Of course, as is clear from the upper-level wall in the foreground, sometimes the amount or type of straw used leads to spiderweb cracks, particularly once the weather transforms from expansive heat to the contracture of bitter cold, but as long as it holds through the cold season, it can always be repaired when warmer winds return.

And it’s not just the homes themselves. The perimeter wall sometimes needs repair, as do other walls and structures. And then there are the ovens.

Sustenance Cropped

Traditional hornos are still used for baking as a matter of course. They are pressed into service at feast days and ceremonial and other events, of course, but many people still bake bread, cookies, prune pies, and other goods in them as a part of day-to-day life. They are sturdy, and like the homes, they provide excellent insulation (and therefore, baking power), but they, too, are subject to the vagaries of wind and weather. It’s not at all unusual, this time of year, to see some families rebuilding and.or resurfacing their hornos. It’s also not unusual, once the snow flies, to see Pueblo dogs curled up next to them for their warmth.

There is, however, one building that gets resurfaced every year: the church.

San Geronimo Church

Each year, certain men are detailed to the care and upkeep of the church, which includes the interior, the exterior, and the courtyard and its walls. Some years, the wooden balcony and portal need repair and/or repainting, or the bell towers need work. But every year, without fail, the church’s exterior is repaired, all cracks mudded in and patched and then resurfaced in the Pueblo’s traditional red-gold earthy clay.

In some years, the entire church and its courtyard walls are entirely earth-colored. In other years, the entire wall and its entry may be whitewashed. In still others, as from the year depicted here, it is a mix: main church in earth tones with whitewashed portals and inner bell towers, and courtyard wall and entrance alternating between plain red earth and whitewashed panels.

Threshold Cropped

The walls and entry gate require other work, too. The low parapets at the corners of the wall must be sculpted and smoothed as they are patched and resurfaced. The same is true of the stairstepped edges of the entry, meticulous work that requires skilled masons.

At this time, the people will be doing the preliminary work, patching , troweling, mudding in as weather and time permit. In September, once the monsoons have eased, the detail work will begin, with the surface coats applied, floated on and then smoothed carefully into a velvety finish.

And by the time the Feast of San Geronimo rolls around at the end of that month, much of the village will be newly restored, walls smooth and fresh and bright.

Emergence Cropped

They will be the iconic red earth of the Pueblo itself, and they will glow like golden fire in the September sunlight.

~ Aji







All content, including photos and text, are copyright Wings and Aji, 2017; all rights reserved. Nothing herein may used or reproduced in any form without the express written permission of the owners.

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