Arc

Noah pesters me daily for more on the wedding and the Village of Jasper. I tear my eyes from Cheyenne’s deft hands, weaving pine needles and dried grasses into the shape of a new basket, and return to task.

Not that I mind. There’s so much to tell! I haven’t enjoyed a celebration so much in years. It was one of those absolutely serendipitous weeks when everything clicks into place as though it had been designed that way.

But again, where to begin? The customs in Jasper are not so very different from ours.

As in Ordinary, young people in Jasper frequently choose to live in a communal apartment building in their early years together. Balboa and Packer had lived for nearly five years in the semi-privacy of Jasper’s small complex.

There, nine private apartments consisting of a living room, sleeping loft, efficiency kitchen, and bathroom form the upper semi-circle of a compact and ingeniously layered structure.

Unlike most of the buildings of Jasper, which are of log or wood frame construction, the communal apartments are built of soil cement. As an apprentice architect in her early Jasper years, Balboa designed this complex and introduced the concept of building with soil.

The buildings and grounds are constructed in concentric arcs that fit the natural contours of the hill, which slopes toward the great Jasper Lake, so-called, like the village, for the veins of jasper found in the region. Each apartment has a generous view of the lake and the cascading vegetation before it. The large, south-facing windows take advantage of every bit of sunlight that hits them in winter, when the honeysuckle vines–trained up trellises to arbors shading each window and doorway–die back.

Terraced plantings step from the apartments in a gorgeous array of verdant shrubberies and luscious blooms. Packer says you can find something blooming somewhere on the terraces every month of the year. Even in winter, he says, if you know where to look, you will find snow bells raising their heads through the icy snow.

The second arc houses the communal rooms–music, art, reading, play, a small theater. Where the apartments are tall, with high ceilings, deep windows, and a sleeping loft, the communal rooms are single story, tucked into the hillside so they seem almost a protrusion of the rock itself.

Arbor-covered walkways link the buildings, their lush growth in summer shading the walls from the hot western sun. Sloping downward, like the hill, from the apartment arc to the communal arc, the arbors extend the vision of a terraced hillside, blending the earthen structure with its surroundings so you almost imagine you are in the woods as nature made it.

At the heart of the complex is a courtyard. Flowering fruit trees, small maples, shrubberies and flower borders delight the senses. Chipmunks jabber and scurry along the ground and in the branches overhead, where birds chirp and twitter, dragonflies dart and snick, and butterflies and colorful moths flit and float. Tucked among the shrubberies I found one surprise after another, every time I strolled the garden: Over the years, residents had added whimsical, decorative and clever settees, tables, sculptures, and other artwork, piece by piece, always with care and thought to the overall  pattern of the place.

Balboa says that because this is one of the first soil-cement buildings in the region, people come from villages for hundreds of miles to see the structure and learn how to build from the earth.

She and her building crew regularly teach classes on building with soil cement, cob, and adobe. She shared portfolio after portfolio of beautiful designs. Most of them so simple and elegant that her students can go home after a week of classes and build their own.

“We love living in the arcs, Ma,” Balboa said, as we toured the art and music rooms. “I will miss hearing Charlie’s guitar or Laurie’s dulcimer when I step outside the door. I’ll miss taking my morning coffee to the table under the honeysuckle and having a quiet chat with the other early risers who like to watch the sun up with me.

“But Packer is not as social as I. He grew up in the forest, where the loudest sounds were the roar of the wind in a storm, or the thunder of a herd of elk across the meadow. He needs a home at the edge of the village, where he can hear the trees breathe.”

Balboa smiled at the thought of Packer listening to the trees. I noticed the few faint lines creeping near the edge of her black eyes, how her wide, deep smile comes as readily and mischievously as ever. My darling daughter! So wise, so full of ambition, love and life.

“But I want a home now, too, Ma,” she said. “I love how we build homes in Ordinary from mud and straw, and that is what I wanted here. I miss that cozy womb-like feeling. I need to burrow!”

Log or wood frame is the custom in Jasper because trees are so plentiful in the forests there. Before Balboa brought her soil-building skills, the people of Jasper had not thought about building cob or soil-cement homes.

“And I want the climate control that thick walls and domed ceilings provide. These wood houses are hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter!”

“Ah,” I said, winking artlessly. “So you miss the moderate weather of our southern clime?”

“Do I ever!” Balboa laughed. “Though I am much more acclimated to the heat and cold than I was. The cold is easy, really, because you just bundle up more. I love the snow and skiing! But you cannot escape the summer heat.

“I’ve been teaching the builders how to incorporate passive heating and cooling into their homes so they do not have to waste so much time and energy creating a comfortable environment.”

For two hours that day, Balboa showed me her ingenious designs, many of them taken from ancient architecture around the world.

Indeed, I had enjoyed the marvelous cooling properties of the house she designed for Beryl and Ronnie. The temperature was an unseasonable 95 degrees while we were there, but inside, though there was plenty of light and fresh air, the house was always cool.

“Your buildings are your sculptures, like Cheyenne’s baskets are hers, or Janine’s tapestries hers,” I said, “but you work on a larger scale.”

“It’s true, Ma. I often think of the buildings, especially the ones made of cob or soil cement, as sculptures. I’m so grateful for all that Merilee taught me growing up, about the properties of clay, and how to coax a beautiful shape from an inert blob. Most of the time, I’m just a big kid playing in the mud!”

She grew silent a bit, while we pored over her drawings.

“Packer and I are going to start a family right away, Ma,” she said, smiling shyly. “By this time next year, you and Cheyenne may be grandmothers.”

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