Earthen buildings are among the most interesting to me. There is a long history of earth being used to build, from sod huts in Europe to dwellings hollowed out of the ground, sometimes several stories deep, in China and the Middle East. I initially planned to make a cob structure, but since one of my goals has been to refine these shelters down to their simplest form, I decided instead to go with a more basic design: hollowing a shelter out of a hill.

this is the spot

this is the view from the doorway.

I chose a small hill in the woods that had a nice view over a vernal pool. I began by removing leaf litter and then started carving out a door. The first day I neglected to bring a shovel, so I was digging using a hoe and a trowel. Despite knowing that the stabilizing role of roots in the ground is what enabled the hollowing to work, I hadn’t thought of what to do with roots that were in the spot I was digging out. I resolved that the next time out I would bring a shovel and clippers.

I was amazed by the variation and beauty I found in the soil I was digging. In just the one small cavity I found 5 different types of soil, each a different color. There were large veins of pure sand, a black almost ashy soil, a red clay-like soil, a greenish silty soil, and a few veins of clay, gray-blue.

four different colors

sand vein

not so fast. five different colors!

As I dug I tried to work inwards rather than downwards, where I was concerned I might hit water, or upwards, since I wanted to keep the ceiling by the entry very thick to prevent it from weakening. As I worked my way in I found a large rock, large enough that I couldn’t budge it or even tell how large it might be under the soil. I also hit wood at the back, a very old stump perhaps, which made me wonder how this hill had formed. When I left the first day I had a hole that wasn’t quite large enough for me to curl up in.


looking up the hill.

the giant piece of wood.

The next time I brought a shovel and clippers. I was continually amazed by the density of the soil- it seemed like I’d taken far more soil out than could ever have been contained in such a small space. Once aerated, the piles looked huge.
Eventually, after much digging, I could get all the way in and continue hollowing upwards into the hill and widening the chamber.

the trowel is for scale.

As you might imagine, digging upwards meant that I was taking a serious dirt shower. It was in my eyes and mouth, falling down the back of my shirt and down my legs into my boots. The chamber became a lot more comfortable when I carved out the ceiling enough that I could sit up straight. Luckily there was a large enough space between the giant piece of wood and the big rock that I could sit comfortably, leaning back into the curve of the wall. At the end of the second work day the chamber was almost complete, I just wanted to widen the back and bit more and create a little more head room.

emptying soil from my boots

When I returned it was to a sickening sight– in the heavy rains of the last few days, the ceiling over the doorframe had collapsed a bit. I dug the new heap of soil out of the hole and inspected the damage. I could still climb in, the entryway was lower but still passable. I could still sit up straight in the back. I did some more widening but I didn’t want to disturb the ceiling any more than I had to. There wasn’t a way to fix the ceiling, all I could do was try to prevent more damage. I gently squeezed the soil, trying to pack it back together, and covered the exposed soil with a layer of dead leaves in the hope that keeping the rain from falling directly onto it would keep it from becoming sodden and heavy. We’ll see if this helps. I don’t know quite what I could have done to prevent this from happening, except to leave the ceiling even thicker, or to make sure the ground is better covered. I don’t know if the shelter will survive until my show, which saddens me.

oh no!

inside looking out.

I used soil to level off the exposed rock, making it into a shelf, and carved a few cubbies  into the walls similar to the ones in the snow shelter. All in all, the snow shelter and the earth shelter were somewhat similar. Both involved subtraction rather than building, both involved being crammed into a small space excavating compacted powder. They had different challenges as well, like removing roots while preserving structural integrity. I thought that I would have claustrophobia problems with both these structures, but I actually enjoyed being in both of them. They were cozy rather than oppressive.

someone small has a similar idea.

When night fell we went back out and lit the chamber with tea lights. The flame light was  beautiful on the rough soil walls, lighting the roots up red in the dark. I hope the pictures convey that quality of light.

stone shelf, wood shelf.



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3 responses to “Earth.

  1. Do you think you could temporarily, gently fill it with leaves and other forest litter to prevent rain caused cave-ins until your show?

    • I would like to find something I could fill it with… the problem is that it is really pretty big and would take an enormous amount of leaves to fill. I tried to use a 5 gallon bucket as a support and it didn’t reach the roof. If anyone can think of something pretty large and widely available that I could stuff it with, let me know!

  2. Em, Can you use pliable branches (perhaps plaited) to create a curved door frame? Or is mixing materials to be avoided?

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