"Meditation Domes, Mayan Moons and the Adobe Mama!" Interview with Miguel Elliott from Living Earth Structures
    Event Circle interview with Miguel Elliott from Living Earth Structures, Petaluma, CA by Willi Paul

    Say I just purchased a small estate in Southern Sonoma County and the place is run over with neglect due to a long bank foreclosure. Why should I hire you? What are your strategies to create holistic spaces?

    Well, I have knack for transforming spaces into exciting earthen wonderlands. I can round out corners, arch doorways, sculpt trees on the walls, build in little niches, apply clay plasters, making the space look like something right out of the hobbit. It will make you feel wonderful inside. I can also build you a bed or a bench built out of earth which has a rocket stove pipe running through it so you can sleep on a heated surface. I can bring your backyard to life by building an earthen wood fired oven and benches around it, which can serve as an outdoor fireplace and an oven which can bake a pizza in just 2 minutes and stays hot for 12 hours for baking bread the next morning. These structures are excellent for attracting community, since everybody loves the whole experience of cooking in a wood fired oven.

    Is sustainability like a religion?

    Interesting question, I have never considered that before, but in a way, yes it is. There are certain practices which you follow because you have a belief that this is a good thing to do for the Earth. Just as religious people believe that if they read the Bible, go to Church, and pray, that they will be sent to Heaven, followers of a sustainable lifestyle believe that the Earth will be healthier if they adhere to certain principles.

    What symbols (and myths) are you incorporating into your offerings. Are you creating new ones?

    Each of my projects has a different theme to fit the setting. In the nightclub I built in Chicago, called the Butterfly Social Club, I created a Mayan themed atmosphere, with Mayan Warrior and Goddess benches, Quetzal & Serpents, Pyramids, and Mayan glyphs. I have done a lot with the Eagle and Condor theme. In Guatemala, I built a restaurant for a Mayan woman and called it "Los Abrazos" because there was an eagle and a condor connected, with ovens in their bellies, and you could sit inside of their hugs. In short, according to ancient indigenous belief, the Eagle represents civilizations which are materialistic and economically oriented, while the condor represents civilizations which are more spiritually oriented, connected to indigenous wisdom, and are more nature based. An ancient prophesy declares that these two forces of the North and South are now merging, which is saving the world from destruction. I have used this concept to shape much of my intentions for doing natural building work. Other symbols I have used a lot are spirals, suns, OM symbols, hearts, trees, and galactic butterflies, which is also a Mayan Symbol for the orientation of consciousness- the intersection of time/space/divine will and personal intent.

    Many see a dramatic near future for the planet. What is your vision for the next 2-5 years

    Well, I touched upon it earlier with the discussion of the eagle and the condor prophesy, with indigenous wisdom merging with technological realms which is creating balance on the earth. I don't believe the Earth will be destroyed in 2012. The Mayans called it the "End of Time" which implies the end to limitations and restrictions. Time is measured as form, and in a few years this structure will break down. How? I'm not sure, but I am excited to see what unfolds. We will be entering into an era where so much more is possible, where we can co-create our realities, where peace prevails, and people live much more from their hearts, and the feminine energy comes forward more and more. We have much to look forward to-more communities, more natural building, more bikes, more people growing their own food, healthier food, happier people and more fun. Bring it on! I envision much more emphasis on self/community reliance and much less on depending on the "system" to provide for us. I see a massive consciousness shift happening on the planet, where fixed paradigms fade away and creative ways blossom.

    Do you connect your design to a spiritual plane?

    Absolutely. My most common design is an oven, with 2 benches wrapped around, so you feel like you are sitting inside of a hug of Mother Earth, Pachamama, while you are being warmed by the fire. All of my designs are rounded and curvy which is pleasant to the senses. Being surrounded by the Earth element is also incredibly healing for the body and soul. There is a lot of scientific evidence and my own personal experience that knows that having your body in direct contact with the earth will ground you and make you a more balanced person.

    When your feet are barefoot on the Earth, you are receiving electrons, which balances your body's pH level, reduces inflammation, absorbs toxins, elevates the mood, calms the mind. and dose much more to make us happier, healthier and whole human beings.. When we insulate ourselves from the Earth it causes many disturbances and a disconnection from what is real. In the process of building out of cob, you and your friends dance in the mud, which can be lots of fun and you are putting your positive energy into the building material, which can then be felt on a subtle level in the structure. I have done a few ovens in the shape of a large happy Buddha, where you cook inside of Buddhas belly, which you just cant help but feel good around it. Other designs I have done have been Goddesses, the Sun, trees, and nature based themes.

    What is the difference between ecology and sustainability? Between residential and landscape design?

    I think of Ecology as being part of the macrocosm and sustainability is part of the microcosm. If we each live a lifestyle that is oriented towards making conscious choices of what will be the healthiest for the planet, then this will go towards contributing to ecological healing. Residential design attempts to bring the sense of the outdoors- inside, with sculpting trees, doing earthen plasters, and softening the edges, while my landscape design usually involves bringing the nice aspects of the indoors-outside, through sculpting benches, ovens, and garden walls.

    How are you involved with Daily Acts? How would you like to see the organization grow?

    I lead a natural building workshop this summer with Daily Acts in the backyard of its director, Trathen Heckman in Petaluma. In the 2 day workshop, we had about 15 people come and learn to build an oven and bench using earth right on site. For the backs of the benches, we used adobe bricks which I had made at an earlier workshop 2 weeks earlier. On the second day of the workshop we plastered the structure using an earthen plaster, and then we fired up the oven, which was very exciting, for it was instant gratification.

    Next year, we are planning on doing a tour of all the cob/adobe ovens in the area which I have been built, and their owners will fire up the ovens and make pizzas. Maybe we will throw in the competition element in there for whoever can make the best tasting pizza. I participated in the the national day of service which Daily Acts helped organize in which we converted over 25000 sq feet of water needy lawn into a low water landscape. It was a pretty incredible day, with over 250 volunteers. It made me proud to be an American again. It would be nice to see Daily Acts serve as a model for other budding organizations around the world who can be inspired by this work, and follow a similar format.

    Are you involved in any social justice projects?

    This summer I was working with a group of 20 Latino youth who were affiliated with gangs in Santa Rosa. I taught them some basic natural building skills, such as making adobe bricks, making small house models, and we built an oven together. They were so thrilled when they saw the pizza cook in just 2 minutes in an oven which they helped make. When I finished with the school I hired a few of the boys to work with me in some of my natural building projects. My side job is doing music at homes for the elderly, and giving them an opportunity to feel the cob and do some basic sculpting with clay.

    Tell us about the history of cob/adobe construction and how you have evolved this art?

    I was introduced to adobe construction at an early age when I visited General Vallejos adobe fortress in my hometown of Petaluma. I was always particularly fascinated with the big adobe ovens there and remember thinking how much I would like to build one someday. Now ive built over 20, and Ive got lots more to build. Adobe construction and earth building is the most common form of building material in the world- especially in Africa, India, the Middle East, and China, where the majority of people live in earthen homes. Adobe was very popular in California with the building of the Early missions which used Native American labor to make and set the bricks. Many of those early missions are still standing today after nearly 200 years . Cob construction originated in Wales over 500 years ago, and was introduced to the States in the early 90's by a Welsh builder named Ianto Evans who started the Cob Cottage Company in Oregon. Since then, thousands of people have learned cob though workshops, and there are natural building colloquiums each year where people exchange their successes and failures in their work. It is also a chance for the tribe to gather and get support from other natural builders.

    Most of the natural building work is done in rural areas where building inspectors are not an issue, with the exception of Portland Oregon, where there are many cob structures built right in the City. I have evolved the art by bringing natural building into spaces such as a nightclub, a yoga studio, restaurants, and have built benches right on sidewalks in downtown Chicago. I don't know of another builder who has done as much work in a big city as much as I have. I also go to about every festival as I can with my mobile oven I call the "Chariot of Fire" to expose the general public to the wonders of cob. My style is unique, in that I use a linseed oil as a sealer, which makes it very shiny, and I often add mica which gives it a glitter effect. I also use adobe bricks a lot in my bench structures, which allows me to get the project done very quick, opposed to doing it with cob, which can take weeks. I have had good media exposure with my work, being featured on ABC News, and various newspaper articles. I have started a business called Living Living Earth Structures which specializes in building cob/adobe ovens, benches and saunas. I have discovered that you can make a pretty good living as a natural builder, as I have been targeting high income bracket clients at winery's and other businesses. In a way I guess you could say I have merged the Eagle energy of financial orientation with the condor orientation of community building, and earth honoring practices.

    Please describe what you mean by "Earthen Wonderland." What teachers have helped you gain this view?

    When I was living in Chicago, I was able to work year round-even in the heart of the freezing winters, because I would work on transforming square, drywall conventional structures into earthy, rounded, curvy and sensual spaces which would make you feel like you were in a magical earthen wonderland, where anything felt possible. I would sculpt trees on the walls, large butterflies with lights and mosaic mirrors, cob candle holders, heated cob benches, meditation domes, cob shelves and nooks, eagle and condors sculpted over the doorways, and would put LOTS of crystals into the cob. People coming into the spaces I created in Chicago would marvel at the difference they felt upon entering the spaces I created, being surrounded by the healing Earth element -indoors in a city dominated by cement, electro-magnetic fields and pollution.

    I have yet to do interior work here in California yet, as I have only been back here for a year, but this winter I will be building a movie set down in Big Sur for a fictional movie being filmed about a Native American grandmother, and the producer wants me to create one of my magical earthen wonderlands in the space. I have had many teachers who have helped me develop my craft. My first workshop I ever did was down in Argentina, building a Waldorf kindergarden school lead by Janell Kapoor of Kleiwerks, who I will always credit with being my first cob teacher, since then I have learned about the cob ovens largely from Kiko Denzer out of Oregon. Much of my work though feels as if it is channeled though some presence much higher than me. When I finish a project I rarely have the feeling that I was the builder, as I credit Spirit as the scultor, I am merely the body the Spirit moves through. It is a very humbling sensation, which makes me appreciate being used in this way.

    Who is your favorite painter?

    Being a sculptor, I actually don't get very excited about painters, but I did have a favorite, I would have to say Salvador Dali - My college dorm room was covered with all of his wacky psychedelic paintings. I could see sculpting one of his melting horses out of cob.