‘I’m a little bit good at making houses of mud for fairies,’ said my six-year-old grandson in Bariloche, ‘but I think the men will destroy them.’ Yes, I’ve arrived in Argentina where my son and his wife are building an eco-house of mud and straw in a clearing in the middle of a forest.
Their aim is to move in soon(ish) and lead their lives thereafter in perpetual peace and tranquility. They work on the house whenever they can, mostly at weekends and sundry workmen tip up during the week – hence my grandson’s fears that they’d galumph about like the BFG and trample on the fairy houses. The things is that my grandson and his sister (aged 11) don’t find the project quite as exciting as their parents – well, it is taking rather a long time and they’ve already completed their own building project there – a teepee-shaped shelter made with canes (which grow among the fir trees), a sawdust floor and a black plastic sheet for a roof. But now that it has been finished, grandson is keen to find other things to do while his parents continue painstakingly building the walls of their new house.
When I arrived last Thursday, my son had suggested that after a 24-hour journey to get here, I might not be that up for construction work on Saturday but could sit about contemplating the sun slanting through the trees (it’s summer here), listening to the breeze whispering through the branches and making him mugs of tea. But I was raring to go with the proviso not to overdo it and end up in whatever the equivalent of A&E is over here.
At first glance the house looked like a tangled mass of wooden beams – like the giant climbing frame in the adventure playground at Center parcs but with a tilted green roof. My daughter-in-law gave me a tour inside and we picked our way over on the earth floor around piles of planks and bales of straw destined for the walls. A lop-sided ladder led up to my granddaughter’s bedroom where she’ll be able to look out of her window onto a roof of grass and wild flowers.’It acts as insulation, mum,’ my son told me. ‘And this is your room,’ said his wife, pointing to an area piled high with straw bales – wow, my own room! Hm, though, it needed a bit of imagination, like those people looking for a project in A Place in the Sun.
My son started loosening straw from a bale and putting it in a trough made of an old oil barrel sawn in half lengthways. Then he scooped up a bucket of liquid mud out of a sort of bath formed from a black plastic sheet draped over a circle of black rubber tyres. It had the look of a down-market version of a skin treatment bath I guess they offer at Champney’s and I thought about diving in to emerge sometime later with smooth wrinkle-free skin but, I reckoned, I’m too far gone already. ‘It’s actually clay, mum,’ said my son, plunging his hands into the goo to pick out the stones. Then he poured it over the straw in the trough and I joined in up to my elbows more or less and we set about mixing it together, slish slosh, slish slosh, like people in BBC2 documentaries. Some rhythmic music to mix mud and straw by would’ve been good – suggestions on a postcard please. Then, copying my son, I picked up a handful of the mixture and pressed it down between two planks pinned on the wall frame which would be taken off when the mixture had dried a bit. Bloody nora, I was thinking, it takes time to build a wall – maybe my grandchildren have a point.
Meanwhile, a metallic buzz was echoing through the trees. ‘We’re tired of going into the forest with a spade,’ said my daughter-in-law, brandishing an electric drill, ‘so I’m making a soil toilet to put in the shed.’ TBH, these days I do find squatting behind a tree tricky and getting up even more of a challenge, even with a trusty spade to lean on. She drilled holes in three large black tyres and screwed them in place on top of each other and fixed a white plastic toilet seat on top. Then she swapped the drill for a tin opener and tried to cut off one end of a small oil barrel. ‘This goes inside the tyres to catch the stuff,’ she explained, ‘and then we throw sawdust on it.’ Aha. The tin opener gave up the ghost, but a hammer and chisel finished the job. Next, she filled a sack with sawdust and made a shovel out of a plastic milk carton with a stanley knife – gosh. Well, I needed to go a bit later and I have to report that the toilet sinks down voluptuously as you sit on it like a posh sofa at the Ritz does probably – I’d think about bringing along a book to read next time, but there aren’t any windows in the shed so it very dark in there.
Later, my granddaughter called us from a rope swing her dad had hung from a tree: ‘I know,’ she cried, ‘let’s look for a place to build another shelter.’ So off she, her brother and me tramped to look for suitable sites for shelter construction like Christopher Robin, Pooh and Piglet in the Hundred Acre Wood in search of a heffalump.
‘The plan is, mum,’ said my son, ‘to move in sometime soon, or at least by February when the kids start their new school.’ So hopefully by February the workmen will have left but the family, ie two adults and two children, three large dogs, two cats, a cockerel that optimistically welcomes each new dawn and two chickens, one of whom is sitting on some eggs about to hatch into chicks (ie more chickens/cockerels), will take up residence in the forest. And it’s also as well to remember that by then the plot is likely to have become a metropolis of shelters and houses of mud for fairies and a life of peace and tranquility might be a little difficult to achieve.
*Granny on the frontline is Jill Garner, grandmother of six.