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Petaluma Profile: Globe-hopping mud master plays dirty

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Sometimes, you have to travel the world to remember how great home is.

Or, if you’re Miguel Elliot, to really ponder what home is. After many years of travel, Elliot rekindled his love for Sonoma County while mastering the art of building beautiful homes here out of … well, here.

Elliot’ remarkable earth structures are made from the landscape beneath and around them.

Born in Petaluma, Elliot works out of his childhood home on Sunnyslope, where his parents, who just celebrated 50 years together, still live. One of four kids, he recalls how his love of earth building began — with the standard 4th-grade field trip to Vallejo’s Old Adobe fortress.

“I remember being fascinated by the concept of natural air conditioning — how much cooler it was inside the adobe structure,” says Elliot, sitting in his backyard on a bench he constructed by hand from clay.

By “bench” what is meant is an undulating Gaudi-esque sculpture with a bird’s head, a pizza oven, and a cozy, curved, intimate sitting area.

“I asked our teacher if there were any other indigenous forms of building in the area,” Elliot recalls. “And we went to the underground kiva at Miwok village.”

He started trying to build his own kiva in the schoolyard, digging for days with his friends. But rain came and all his efforts collapsed into a huge mud puddle. Still, the kiva and Old Adobe lodged as a tiny seed in the back of his mind.

Elliot attended Cardinal Newman and St. Vincent’s High School, helping his dad with the family tile-setting business on weekends. In school, he was a runner, with a passion for classical guitar and photography. He also played football at St. Vincent’s.

“But I was never a jock,” he says, quickly clarifying. “I was always sort of an outcast. I stood out as someone who didn’t quite fit with everyone else.”

While camping with his dad one weekend, he discovered a fairy-tale town in the heart of the Redwoods near the ocean — Arcata, California. When he found out Humboldt State was located there, he applied immediately. It was the only college to receive an application from the young Elliot. There, he studied music and psychology, initially imagining a future career in music therapy.

After college, he worked with AmeriCorps teaching environmental education to kids in Arcata. While at AmeriCorps, his friend showed him a book called “Building with the Earth.” He immediately remembered good old Vallejo’s fortress, and promptly began studying earth building. When a two-week trip to Thailand with his brother ended up lasting two years, Elliot found himself living in a monastery, working as a counselor with inner city Thai boys with addiction issues. He also taught English and yoga.

And on the side they made adobe bricks.

“I was looking for a project for them to feel good about,” he recalls. “And we needed a bench — a seating area.”

The communal feeling and sense of accomplishment the boys got from building it was powerful. Elliot left Thailand and eventually moved to Chicago where his sister lived. For a while, he taught music at a Waldorf school for kids with developmental disabilities. When the weather was nice, he would take the students out in the garden to sing, and also to work with adobe to build things.

“I saw how well the autistic kids responded to the earth building,” Elliot says. “I was finding they were responding better to the earth building than the music. They found it very satisfying to do a project and have something to show for their work. The hands-on tactile experience and working with a group to create something — it really clicked for the kids.”

Elliot started thinking about earth building not just as a form of construction but as a form of therapy. “I realized that earth therapy is a very effective means for personal growth — not only for disabled kids, but for people who are depressed or just looking for a sense of purpose,” he says. “It has so many healing effects.”

Ever since his love affair with earth building began, Elliot has studied most of its forms — from rammed earth to straw bale to adobe to cob. And he’s studied his craft everywhere from North Carolina at Kleiworks to Argentina, where he worked on a project for 10 months, eventually making a documentary about the experience called “Constructing a Dream.”

More travel — back to Thailand after the tsunami to help rebuild, back to Chicago where he built a public bench out of clay and an organic nightclub, and then on to Guatemala where he took on more earth building projects — eventually led him right back to Petaluma.

“I knew I belonged in California,” Elliot says.

After 20 years on the road, he missed his family who had all stayed close to home. He spent 3 years at Isis Oasis retreat center in Sonoma building structures and “lots of other things.” It was there that he was officially knighted as “Sir Cobalot.”

“I said my vows and dedicated my life to natural building,” says Elliot.

And he has.

“It’s fun and I love it,” says Elliot. “It’s not always easy because it’s art, and doing art communally is not always easy.”

It might not be easy, but a tour of his family’s Petaluma compound is like a trip to Hobbiton. Elliot loves building domes, and there are several compact (but clearly thought-out) earthen structures to see. And when you walk inside them, you really do feel good.

After 20 years of natural building, Elliot clearly knows what he’s doing.

“I love to work and build things and create and beautify, and I love to introduce others to natural building,” he says. “Seeing people stomp in the mud and get their feet dirty for the first time, it always lifts me up. It has a very healing effect on people.”

(You can contact Arline at Arline@Aklatte.com)