You know it’s a good site when children appear and start playing a full day before the event is due to start.
A boy and a girl out walking with their Grandmother eyed up our giant mountains of dirt. They ran up and down it, their feet sinking into soft dirt with the squashy texture of cake crumbs.
“BURY MY HEAD” cried the older one, going facedown into a hole.
“OKAY!” I replied, and threw a shovelful of dirt over the girl’s head until she looked like an ostrich.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I heard an adult ask.
“Is it going up your nose?” asked the younger brother. At my feet, the girl sneezed and a cloud of black dirt rose. Her brother shifted his stance, looking doubtful.
“You okay in there?” I asked. The head nodded, and more dirt fell into her ears. I patted the soil down carefully, saying that I was “planting” her. After a few minutes she burst up from the dirt, grinning and shaking it from her hair, her eyelashes, and squirreling it out of her ears with pinkie fingers.
“Yeah, good!” she said. The boy gave it a try as well, and afterwards I asked if it was fun in there.
“Mmmm,” they said, grinning. It seemed to me then that the thing itself – the part of play that adults see – had been less important than the chance to try it out.
We then went, Rusty and Alex and me, to the hardware store to pick up the last few bits and pieces. I found that a bit of pipe created a very strange optical illusion, and used it to chase the others around the store. That’s Alex in the background (if you’re reading, hi!).
And then the day itself, oh boy!
The fire department came, and even let me wield the hose – and thus realize a long-held childhood dream.
The first people to arrive looked nervous. There were many parents, pristine in their summer clothes, pushing their equally pristine children out in front of them.
“Go on,” said the mothers and fathers. “Doesn’t it look good? Get in there!” they’d say to their sons and daughters who formed the Mud Avant Guard.
Unsurprisingly, these children smelled hypocrisy and hung back, waiting for the mud-brave and dirt-bold to announce themselves. Once the first few got covered, the seal was broken and the place was mobbed.
The dirt itself was perfect. Smooth and slick, with a high clay content that offered fast sliding. There was the first, hungry phase of the day when people threw fistfuls of dirt and gobs of wet mud at one another, flicked it across clean shirts and poured it from buckets over shocked and gasping faces.
Then came a slower, contemplative period. People found that they could float in the mud lake.
“Why is that?” a child behind me asked, as we bobbed beside on another.
“Maybe it’s all the dirt,” said another. “It’s like… kind of a solid.”
“It’s like the dead sea! I went there once on vacation.”
In the kitchen, children made mud cupcakes and pies. By the lake, we sculpted mud mohawks and straw dreadlocks. Take a look at the whole gallery – it’s all brown, but very inspiring! He took every photo here, and if I hung out with him more this blog would be far better illustrated.
By the end of it, Rusty and I hung back and watched the children, the parents, the new playworkers all sharing a space of freedom, and joy, and good clean filth.
Please note: After my last post on Ithaca, Rusty pointed out that “it’s not really Portlandia, because we’re not hip that way”. And it’s true! Everyone I met was warm and unpretentious, always ready for some genuine and non-ironic fun. Apologies to Ithaca!