Kąciki is not an easy place to find. The word translates to “corners”, but corners to what? It pops up on google maps as a red tear drop in the middle of unbound green fields. No roadsign points to it and the road that eventually leads you there literally crosses over to the “wrong side of the tracks”. Taking a final turn onto twin ruts suited an army jeep, summer stalks of grass sweep underneath your car, the first sign of clumsy transition from city (and all its implied conditioning) to nature. The second? The sight of great tipi poles jutting their fingers out to an empty sky. Welcome to the corners! Refuge of frolicsome and serious dogs alike, future home of the Kannon Zen Center.
The purpose of this visit was to take part in the clay workshop from July 18-25. The workshop formed the bulk of a samu-intensive final week of summer ango, in which the sangha constructed its third onsite dwelling, this time based on the old Slovakian technology of straw and clay. The building’s purpose is yet to be determined: guesthouse, meeting room, stable (horses anyone?). But its real end was to gain experience in its construction and decide if we would practice the same hands-on method on a larger scale when it comes time to build the main center.
The workshop was led by friend of sangha Jarema, whose leadership was cheerfully unfazed. There are numerous steps involved in building from straw and clay, and given that most the participants were amateur hands (we likened ourselves to galley slaves), the task of providing instruction, delegating work, and keeping the building upright could have been overwhelming. However, Jarema proved to be as malleable as the clay.
The steps? Well, we can begin with the sacks of sand and gravel that formed the first layers of foundation for the walls. I arrived after most had been poured, lifted, positioned and flattened into shape. The next step was stacking the prickly straw bales atop them and compressing them into tight rows. Stakes, fashioned from birch branches, were driven into the bales, connecting layer upon layer. To fasten the corners of the rising walls, Jarema taught us how to work with “needle and thread”, tying and knotting each row of grassy cornerstones. Any noticeable gaps were stuffed with straw by hand.
What do to about the walls’ inevitable tilting? Perhaps this is why Jarema never appeared worried: straw and clay is unfixed by nail and screw. Leaning walls were simply hammered straight through tall boards while each wall was compressed downward through a roping technique manned by our more experienced builders: Jacob, Tomek, and Wojtek (another friend of the sangha). Once the walls were up, we were able to rest our sore backs and cut-up hands. We were not terribly dirty from the work. But that would soon change.
Neighboring the eastern wall of the house was the work area’s main draw: the clay pit. Once enough dirt was shoveled into the little pool, the slow work of mashing it underfoot began. The pit fit about six to seven people at once but sometimes just one person would be seen there, recuperating his or her wounds in a solitary and standing bath. The clay pit asked you to work with your feet. The process of mashing was similar to making wine. Collect enough berries under foot, in this case, clumps of dirt, and mash with your heel and spreading toes. We waded through the mud in circling processions, and if we chose to be quiet, it was not unlike a round of kin-hin. However, we did not often choose to be quiet!
Once the clay was clay, we transported it by buckets into plastic tubs stationed to each side of the building. From there, we began the process of “plastering” the clay to the straw. At this point, our bodies were not merely cut and burnt. The dried mud formed castings on our feet, so that our labor uniform was accessorized with brown calf-length socks. Once acclimated to the clay, however, it became a joy to form it like yogurt in our webbed hands.
How to apply it to the walls? I had the idea that we would use trowels, as in applying plaster. But I saw no trowels. The only thing we had for a tool was the plastic bucket. From there, the application was all in the hands. The first step was to cup the runny clay in our palms and provide a thin initial coating. This task toughened up the palms’ delicate skin, puncturing spots here and there with the rough edges of the straw. We then mixed the straw and clay into little “baguettes” and stuffed them into the walls’ many creases. I worked single-mindedly on this step for a half day. When it was time for supper, I had a difficult time holding my spoon. When it was time for evening zazen, my mudra served as a lesson in distinguishing pain from woe.
Two other memorable clay techniques could be labeled jointly as “tits and target practice”. In the first, small stakes were hammered into each straw bale, leaving about a 10cm tip projected. These were then rounded with large straw and clay pies, forming a cone around each “nipple”. The end result was an adobe wall in its drafting stage, covered with a series of “tits” (the other analogy would be plague-like “bubs”, but you see why we chose the former). Once the tits were in place, it was time for target practice. This task called for each person to stand about three meters back from the hut, form tightly packed pies and then hurl them at the flat sections of the wall. The work was often complimented by a heaving groan or sigh and the splatter the pie made against the wall…if the mud held!
Each job within the larger job of construction taxed a specific part of the body. Mixing straw and clay caused the wrists to swell. Plastering broke down the hands. Throwing led to soreness in the shoulder. All the while our sweaty bodies made ample targets for the summer flies and mosquitoes. During morning and evening zazen, our bodies therefore buzzed and burned according to their work. The practice had extra emphasis: to address the aches and to let them go. One lesson learned from this type of practice? Body pain has an advantage over mind pain—it can be more easily identified! And it does go away.
There are other aspects of the workshop I wish to address. Our tenzo and shuso, Danka Golec, did not treat us as galley slaves. She worked in a converted workshop, surrounded by hanging saws and shovels, and still managed to prepare hearty soups, spicy stews and fruit-filled naleśniki. She also made for a welcome mid-afternoon sight, greeting us at the work area in her apron while carrying trays of fresh cherries and watermelon, pancakes with sugar, and jagodzianka. Meals were served under tent and not observed in the typical orioki fashion. Rather, the commune. We sat shoulder to shoulder and relished the sustenance of the food and also the company. I could not follow all the playful digressions, but laughter is warming in any language.
We were also lucky to be joined by the daughters of Jarema and Wojtek, Alice and Tara. While their fathers were busy all day stacking hay, these brunette and blonde sprites reminded us that this was also summer vacation. They played in the sand piles, sold fake ice cream, and entertained us with their doleful expressions at breakfast. One afternoon, Jarema appeared before his workers with clay smeared across his face and it was clear that Alice had attempted to dress her father in war paint. When the girls were out of sight, their presence was felt in the habitual birdcall of “tata? tata?” No matter how involved in their work, Jarema and Wojtek, always answered “idę”. The two fathers tended to their girls and their labor with an easy undivided attention. They were like shirtless daruma dolls in the sun, impossible to push off balance.
For the final night of Jarema’s stay, we bid our generous leader farewell with a kielbasa party. Inside the tipi, another building harking back to simpler times, we cooked sausage by flashlight and passed around cool bottles of Perla and Zywiec. Tara sat in her father’s lap as he cut a sausage into bites for her. She ate quietly, then looked up at him to show that she was happy. Do you want another? She nodded. The last sausage was lifted from the grill. Wojtek skillfully cut it. Then he placed his miner’s headlamp on her little forehead and pointed the light down to her plate. Tara was clumsy at first, but figured out how to coordinate the light with each delicious bite. She filled up her bulging tummy. The party soon disbanded. Outside there was a stunning full moon. It shined over this cornerless lot of birch and pine, forest and trail, straw and clay, man and woman, parent and child, with an even inward light.