Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Spiritual Side of Mud

Some folks say a man is made out of mud.1  Some would disagree. But no one who lives in this part of North America would deny that sometimes a man is covered in mud.  Dog feet are sometimes covered in mud too, leaving prints all over the kitchen floor on otherwise-wonderful days when the sun is out, temperatures rise well above freezing and the snow melts in the yard.  Mud sometimes covers shoes and then turns hard as rock, relegating them to the pile of old-shoes-for-bad-weather-days.  Mud makes field work no fun what-so-ever.

To left, Clay covered in mud after a mountain bike race in southeast Wyoming, USA.

Where I live, people both despise mud and fear it.  The mud that develops on Cretaceous shales in the plains, basins and foothills is annoying at minimum and terrifying at its worst.  It is sticky and slippery at the same time, and dirt roads through badlands and breaks can send vehicles sliding down slopes on a rainy day.  If you’re lucky, you only get stuck.
Cretaceous mud in South Dakota.
“The thing about gumbo is that you really can't describe to people what it's like, unless they've been stuck in it.  You tell them it gets muddy, and they say they've seen mud.  When you tell them they haven't seen mud like this, they just don't believe you” (Jack Horner, paleontologist, eastern Montana).
Stuck ... ca 1940; no source given.

What gives mud its evil powers?  That would be clay, the smallest of the soil separates (particles).  Soil with large amounts of clay absorbs water easily, and is sticky and slippery when wet.  Most soils turn into mud when water is added, but clay-rich soils produce the most memorable mud. Table courtesy US Department of Agriculture.

Being so small, a clay particle has a large surface area compared with its volume.  Most clays are flattened or flaky, making surface tension attraction especially strong.  And yet clay particles also slide past each other easily with the right amount of moisture, giving clay its characteristic plasticity and slipperiness.  Scanning electron micrograph of clay on left.

Clay-rich soils are not all bad.  Clay holds nutrients as well as water, and shallow-rooted plants, especially grasses, thrive on these soils.  But when the vegetation is removed, the evil mud appears.
Grassland on fine soils (redbeds); shrubland on limestone hogback beyond; east margin Laramie Basin in southeast Wyoming.
And yet mud in the proper context can be beautiful, awe-inspiring, spiritual.  Consider adobe.  Even the name is appealing.  “Mud” is a single blunt syllable but “adobe” flows from one soft sound to the next.  Made of simple sounds, the word is lovely in a straightforward way, like a mission church made of simple adobe walls.
Misión La Purísima Concepción de María Santísima, near Lompoc, California.
San Francisco de Asis church in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico.

I am always moved by the impressive silence inside thick adobe walls.  On one occasion I was the only visitor in the San Francisco de Asis mission church.  As I sat amidst the colorful and mystical decor -- the Virgin, her Child, and a mulititude of saints -- there were no sounds other than my breath.  In such stillness it might indeed be possible to escape the world outside, to contemplate other realities.

Adobe has long been used for construction.  Being mud, it becomes rock-hard when it dries, the clay particles adhering tightly to each other.  The correct mix of particle sizes is critical.  Too much clay and the adobe will shrink and crack with drying; clay must be less than 30% of the mix. Traditionally, organic matter such as straw or manure has been added.  Some consider it critical and analogous to rebar, but it is not structurally necessary and can lead to insect damage or rot, weakening the adobe.  Sand is preferred.

Even the best adobe will succumb to moisture, eventually disappearing altogether in the absence of protection.  An impervious roof is required.
Tejas at Misión La Purísima.

The undulating earthy-red mission roofs that shed rain so effectively were mud-based as well.  Tejas (roof tiles) were shaped by molding clay over logs, and then were baked. Often there was no good source of clay nearby, and instead it had to be extracted from mud in settling ponds.

Mud can be used to coat the exterior of straw bale buildings.  If it contains the right amount of clay, it can be pressed and smeared to make a smooth or textured surface that hardens without cracking.  A finish, such as stucco or whitewash, protects against moisture.  To left, Danny has good mud on his property, with the right amount of clay

Below, the “church” under construction -- a straw bale observatory where seekers, with the aid of telescopes, will look beyond this world to the heavens.
Mud on straw -- what could be more organic? even feels a bit spiritual!
 Danny is seized by the Power of Mud.
 Western Sky Planetarium, serving western Colorado and southern Utah.


1 Sixteen Tons, written and first recorded by Merle Travis, 1947 (Folk Songs of the Hills):

Now some people say a man’s made out of mud
But a poor man’s made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood, skin and bone
A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong ...

The Cooperative Soil Survey (Missouri)

Soil texture; from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A Virtual Tour of the California Missions:  Mission Materials

from New Mexico State University:  ABCs of Making Adobe Bricks


  1. I read your expose' on mud...well done! Most entertaining and informative! "Written In Stone...seen through my lens."

  2. Hello, my name is Courtney McKoy. I am designing an interpretive panel about alternative construction and I saw your picture of the mud and straw building you were working on. I was wondering if I could be granted permission to use your photo for the enhancement of my project! I will of course give you photo credit on the finished product. I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you.

    1. You are certainly welcome to use photos. It would be best to credit my blog, In the Company of Plants and Rocks, with a link.