5. What I Did on My COVID Vacation, Part 2: Building Like an Animal

So before I could build a refuge for chickens on that piece of ground, I’d have to block the squirrel tunnels. Some friends of ours said squirrels had killed their chickens, apparently not to eat them but to eliminate the competition for their food. True? How would I know? Squirrels will for sure eat eggs—the eggs which will be rightfully ours, as chicken host and provider, if all goes according to plan.  So I had to do it: remove about six inches of dirt, lay down a carpet of chicken wire, and then put the dirt back. The total area of the coop and run would be no less than 90 square feet. But I’d been collecting chicken wire from alleys for years, and had countless rolls of it, in different widths, some with the wire all rusted and others still pewter-colored, some crumpled and rewound, others in a new-looking roll. Some of it had already come in handy for wrapping gardens to keep cats out. Now maybe I’d use up the rest of it.

The digging and chicken wire carpet-laying wasn’t fun, and it took a few days—it was the middle of April so my workday was shrinking and moving toward evening, due to the increasing heat during the day. Soon enough, daytime temperatures began to hit the triple digits, with occasional highs nearing 110 degrees. (That’s what I get for living in the Sonoran desert.) But I was in no hurry, since this project had no deadline. And I was a woman of free time, having reached financial independence at age 50. 

Not that I was rich. Oh, far from it. I’d just learned how to live on very little. So I was free to spend my days doing whatever I felt like doing. (I’m hoping to publish a piece about that called Financial Independence Through Camping.)

My reward for finishing the squirrel-guard floor was that I got to move on to something more fun—setting up a dry run of the walls by stacking old cooler pads and enjoying the delicious shade they cast. (These days, our most abundant building resources are discards and castoffs. That’s why it made sense—and seemed most convenient—to use cooler pads for my chicken coop.) I only needed two walls because the nearby tool shed would provide the north wall, and the south end would be open to the run. Now I could see I didn’t have enough pads for the project. But what I did have was a tall window, five feet by two feet. This window had started out as a clever double-paned affair with a sweet little miniblind inside that you could operate with an external handle. I got it cheap at a used building supply store, not knowing how I’d use it, but keen to install it against the sun somewhere and begin to open-shut-open-shut it for instant light or shade. Sadly, it got dropped (not sayin’ who did it) and one of the panes broke into a shower of thousands of tiny Safety-glass bits. The miniblind dangled free and flopped around like a fish in a boat, so the whole thing was garbage now. Well, not quite. I could still give the chickens a nice, single-paned “picture window” to look out of. It would make up about half the west wall, and then I’d have enough cooler pads for the rest. Perfect.

If it seems like I had a casual, ad hoc relationship to building—it’s true. I watched my dad a lot as a kid. He had a workshop where he used to do things like grind the edges off a two-by-two to make a closet rod. Or make new soap out of slivers collected from local gyms. Or cut brick-sized rectangles out of sheetrock and glue them on a concrete wall, then paint it to look like brick. 

Also, I had some friends who introduced me to cob—that is, mud with straw added for strength. Freeform adobe, if you prefer. Same thing. I got my hands in it a few times and experienced its agreeable sculptability. Lots of things, including walls, could be sculpted. It was a freeing thing to learn, and made me think I could build a little house. So I did. (More on that later.)

I don’t enjoy conventional building. Everything has to be level and square. You need to know plumbing and electrical wiring. (The newest complication being obnoxiously pushed on us is to spend lots of money on computerized, net-connected housing. Which, of course, can be hacked and used for surveillance. The “internet of things” is not for our benefit!) With this freer, more enjoyable kind of building, I felt more like an animal making a nest—a chicken nest, this time. So many animals build impressive, precision homes without levels, plumb lines, measuring tapes, or lasers. Just on my property I’ve found numerous examples. Recently, I’ve been impressed mostly by hymenoptera homes—those of bees, wasps, and ants.

Leafcutter bees cut out nearly perfect circles in leaves—they don’t need a compass, they use their bodies. Then they fly off carrying the leaf circles to some kind of channel-shaped place (like the groove of a drawer-piece I was storing in my shed, left) and then overlap the circles to make a line of nest cells.

I found these sections of hot-pink tubes while raking, so I don’t know what kind of tunnel they were in—it has fallen away. Was this bee attracted to the bright colors of these bougainvillea bracts (leaves colored like petals) instead of the usual green leaf circles? Was this a bold new step in interior decorating for leafcutter bees?

Mud wasp apartment complex.  Is it for the view that humans like to build their homes high on hills? Or is it to feel superior to other humans? Maybe the mud wasp who built this home on top of a spray can (grout sealer from a yard sale) was thinking along those same lines—it found a mountaintop. I like how it adapted its usual natural material (sticky mud) to a foreign substance, plastic, with obvious skill and confidence. 

The human-built apartments in Ait benhaddou, Morocco, were made of the same sticky mud, centuries ago, without modern equipment. Are they so very different from the wasp homes?

Ant nests. Around my place we get rough little ant mounds as well as beautifully ridged, often larger ones. Out walking I see more varieties—with different sized grains of sand, or different organic treasures—flower petals and mysterious seed hulls—brought home. But these aren’t homes, just portals. Most of their “building” is underground; perhaps they don’t do interior decorating. It would just make their lives more stressful.

Working outside, sometimes with picnic snacks on a plate, I’ve learned one thing: If ants swarm over some food you really wanted to eat yourself, don’t throw it away. Just move it and wait. They’ll all go looking for their pheromone trails. Without these trails, ants are nothing.

The paper wasp. What’s most interesting to me about paper wasps is that three of the paper wasp species have lost the ability to build their own nests. As a result, they depend on other wasps to house (and feed) their offspring.  Human parents, as a rule, do take care of their own offspring—but most wouldn’t know how to build a house for them.

I wonder what effect it has on us—that we have to depend on experts for the necessity of shelter. Builders. Bankers and lenders. Real estate agents. Whereas shelter is something some of the tiniest of animals can make for themselves—the parasitic ones (plentiful enough among life forms) excepted.

Have we lost some of our self-confidence in the bargain? I wonder which wasps get more stressed out: the ones who have to make their own homes, or the ones who have to go out and find a good situation for their kids to grow up in?

I didn’t know anything about potter wasps when I found one of their homes in my backyard, attached to a piece of wood—an unbelievably tiny, perfect earthen “pot.” I was familiar, though, with the bigger ollas (OH-yas) and baskets of this shape, traditionally made by many native peoples of the Southwest. The pots take a lot of time to make, and are therefore generally expensive, so I was excited to find the white pot, above, in a thrift store. This one was wonderfully unique. According to the inscription on the bottom, it was made by “Tina” in Acoma, New Mexico, an indigenous pottery center. But it was strangely frozen in its early coiled stage—fired clay-white and hard, unfinished. I think I love this hand-coiled art piece more than I could love a smooth, precisely painted, finished piece. Even though it’s probably “worth” less.

Many smaller ollas called “seed pots” have openings as proportionally tiny, as this miniature version by the potter wasp. 

When I first came across the miniscule pot, I was dumbfounded, enchanted, mystified, and almost brought to tears. What was this little thing that reminded me of my mother’s childhood tea set? It had to be an insect that made it—the earthy material, the tiny passageway coming out of—or leading into—the dark, enclosed space. Searching “pot made by insect” on the internet, I found other pictures, other versions, of what I’d stumbled on, and learned about the potter wasp (family Eumenidae). I also learned about a mystery that I doubt will ever be solved: Did indigenous potters see one of these nests, and decide it had a nice shape for a larger, useful pot? Or did the olla shape arise independently from its natural advantages—a hole that was easily plugged or capped, and would lose only a bit of its contents if accidentally tipped over? If a jar of this shape were filled to the top it would also hold a relatively large volume of whatever, while exposing a limited surface to air.

I liked the mystery; it didn’t matter to me whether wasp or human invented the shape; I was happy to be connected to both the insect’s craft and the human skill. Both used mud to build, as I planned to myself. And in the silliest way, really. To cover these modern blocks of paper—copying the paper wasp, too! And without having to worry about a “situation” for my family.

Just a few chickens.

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