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Adobe, a link to the land

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Moisture, usually caused by stagnant groundwater, is a constant threat to adobe buildings. It causes the adobe to crack and eventually melt or crumble. After a rain shower last December, a large chunk of adobe, roughly 2 by 3 feet and 6 inches deep, broke off from the front facade near the main entrance of Casa de Estudillo. The gaping hole had to be carefully chiseled to square it, and then the bricks sawed to size and set in mud mortar.

Mixing and applying mud plaster to the adobe brick is more than a skill; it's a tangible reconnection to the land. The worker becomes one with the elements. I know the ritual well, arching my back as I flatten the hard clay into dust with a shovel or bending over a wheelbarrow to mix the water, clay, sand, and fibers of dried donkey dung into a mudlike paste. The extra sand prevents the plaster from cracking as it dries.

The air is rife with smells. Mud seeps into my pores. My body works in tandem with nature, speeding up, slowing down, glistening with sweat. Everything is recycled, moving from the earth to the building and back to the earth.

Applying layers of mud plaster, no thicker than a half inch each, is an art comparable with sculpture. The tools include a square metal tray with a handle, called a hawk, to carry the mud; a long wood trowel called a float; brushes; a sponge; and plenty of water.

Each worker has a different technique. After soaking the area with a sponge, I slap the plaster on the wall by hand and then brush it into the adobe with a paintbrush, starting at the top and working down. I rewet the surface and then move a wet float up, down, and across the wall to give the finish an even, textured look.

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