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_ I thought that I’d post a few preliminary sketches for phase one of my ‘Last Chance to See’ project (see Hitchhikers Guide).
My plan is to craft a Māori-style Hue Puruhau.
I plan to throw the vessel on the wheel, then burnish and alter a bit to break up the symmetry and evoke the gestalt of a proper gourd.
_ In terms of the design, it would be easy to emphasize the bumbling daffiness of the animal.
There’s something almost Holy about the visibly innocent, however. The Kakapo, both through its essential character and through its history of near-extinction, evokes this quality in spades.
As one example, consider the cover photo from ‘Rescued from the Brink of Extinction’. I'm reminded of a thousand different photos of war children and refugees- the moral accounting weighed out in a simple gaze.
Douglas Adams comments on this quality in ‘Last Chance to See’. In the following scene, a tireless Kakapo conservationist/tracker named ‘Arab’ has just located one of the birds. (‘Boss’ is Arab’s dog…)
_ It took me a moment or two to work out what it was that the scene so closely resembled, and when I realised, I stopped for a moment and then approached more circumspectly. It was like a Madonna and Child.
Arab was sitting cross-legged on the mossy bank, his long wet grizzled beard flowing into his lap. And cradled in his arms, nuzzling gently into his beard, was a large, fat, bedraggled green parrot. Standing by them in quiet attendance, looking at them intently with his head cocked on one side, was Boss, still tightly muzzled. Duly hushed, we went up to them. Mark was making quiet groaning noises in the back of his throat.
The bird was very quiet and quite still. It didn't appear to be alarmed, but then neither did it appear to be particularly aware of what was happening. The gaze of its large black expressionless eye was fixed somewhere in the middle distance. It was holding, lightly but firmly in its bill, the forefinger of Arab's right hand, down which a trickle of blood was flowing, and this seemed to have a calming effect on the bird. Gently, Arab tried to remove it, but the kakapo liked it, and eventually Arab let it stay there. A little more blood flowed down Arab's hand, mingling with the rainwater with which everything was sodden.
It’s this quality of vulnerability that I’d like to capture- the quality that’s relegated Kakapos to a shred of rocky island miles from the New Zealand coast. I can imagine them in exile, endlessly gazing back over the waves at the main shore of the South Island.
I’ve been dabbling in some preliminary sketches.
_ However, I think that this image, and something built from it, is probably what I’ll utilize in the end. I like the way that the bird seems to be challenging the viewer.
_Once I get the basic Hue Puruhau shape thrown, I’ll need to start mulling glaze textures and colors… but that’s a topic for another day.
I'm also faced with some intriguing stylistic decisions. While kakapo have some striking features that could lend themselves to the sort of impressionism that I like, I may go a slightly more representational route (see the sketch at the top of this entry).
_At the moment, Moscow, Idaho is knee-deep in snow and bluster, so it may be a few days (or weeks) before I get back on the wheel (my studio has clapboard walls and lacks a heater, and greenware tend to crack and shiver in the cold).
_ On a tangential but related note, I’m starting to imagine what my Malagasy end of the project may look like. I’ll be making a Valiha (traditional zither) with motifs based on the Aye-Aye. I spent a little time this morning listening to some recordings of this instrument… and I have to say I’m more than a bit daunted. It’s a gorgeous instrument with a deep tradition, and I’d better do it justice. Just listen to this clip… or check out this short account about Rakotozafy, a deified master of the art…
I’m feeling in need of a slightly more structured ceramic project. Anyhow, I think I’ve found a way forward. The idea was sparked by re-reading one of my favorite books, ‘Last Chance to See’ by Douglas Adams’. Douglas Adams is- of course- legendary for writing the 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. Let's all contemplate the profundity of the number '42' for a minute.
Mind you- I was never able to hang with 'Hitchhikers' across the whole series. Relentless snarkiness is fine... but without a certain narrative weight I tend to snooze. Terry Pratchett has the same effect on me.
Last Chance to See, however, is a beast of a different stripe.
Last Chance to See marks a venture into non-fiction for Adams. He teams up with a working zoologist (Mark Cawardine) and they globetrot with the goal of encountering a series of wild creatures that are 'on the brink'.
The book is written in a weird, gonzo journalist voice, but there's an deep moral outrage and empathy beneath the zaniness. Apparently, it's hard to maintain a cynical edge when faced with one of the last Mountain Gorillas, guarded ceaselessly by AK-47 toting Congolese, or when imagining the life of a blind Yangtze River dolphin trying to navigate one of the most noisome, polluted waterways on earth… using sonar.
The most effective crusaders for conservation leaven the pathos with black comedy (think of Carl Hiassen or Edward Abbey) and Adams is one of the best. Want to learn how to use Chinese condoms to study the critically endangered (now extinct) Baiji? Look no further. Interested in viewing a Mauritian kestrel's unseemly love affair with a rubber hat? Come on in.
Anyhow, my plan is to dedicate a series of wheel thrown objects to the beasts in this book. Each object will be derived from a traditional musical instrument indigenous to the human neighbors who share space with each creature. Thus- in sequence- I’ll be crafting objects dedicated to:
_ The first project I'll tackle will relate to Strigops habroptila, the Kakapo.
Kakapos are terrestrial parrots from New Zealand, described as resembling ‘Victorian Gentleman in sideburns’. As with most of the endemic birds and reptiles from Kiwi land, they're remarkably gentle creature, evolving in the absence of any significant pressure from predators or scavengers.
As a consequence, the Kakapo displays a number of endearing but counter-adaptive traits, like building ground nests on ridgelines out in the open, with large, juicy eggs that an invasive rat can spot from miles away. Their mating and courtship rites are indiscrete and clamorous, a beacon for every feral pig, cat, rat, or dog on the islands. As a consequence, the few remaining Kakapo were airlifted to Codfish Island, where a merciless war against rats and all other interlopers has created one of the few Kakapo-safe zones on Earth. There are 131 in the wild as of 2011, and every single one is named.
_ As an aside, a Codfish Island Kakapo named Sirocco was filmed attempting to hump Mark Cawardine’s head in 2009. As a consequence of the viral popularity of this tape, Sirocco is now the official ‘spokesbird’ for New Zealand wildlife conservation.
(Somehow, I think that the social climate in the U.S. could be improved if we had a randy parrot as our mascot. Heck- I don't even care what group it represents...)
_ I’ll be working a Kakapo design into the surface of a vessel shaped like a Māori Hue Puruhau. These were originally made from gourds, with the neck severed to create a mouth hole. The instrument was played like a flute, producing a deep, basal tone. The flanks were etched with traditional designs.
Traditionally, the gourd used to construct these devices was called a ‘Hue’ and was associated with an entity named ‘Hine Pū te Hue’, the daughter of the god of forests and birds. She was a calming spirit… the instruments would facilitate the calming of storms.
I’ll post updates as I finalized my designs, and as I throw, fire, and carve the vessel.
_ I spun this planter out on the wheel earlier this year. The design is a representation of an Asian carp, detailed in several copper-based glazes. 22 inches in height, white crackle background. Moderate reduction during the firing process.
Carp? Eh what? Ewwww!!!
_ Most of my friends have a squirmy, crawling aversion to carp, and it’s a deeply entrenched thing. Nasty, slimy, pucker-mouthed, muck-swilling, rotting-on-the-embankment, cook’m-on-a-cedar-shake-and-eat-the-shake, bloated fish (or so the story goes).
Even the name is loaded. Apart from terms like 'carping', there's a natural tendency to swap the 'r' and the 'a'.
The odd thing here is how socially constructed these reactions are.
_ For me, some of my earliest memories of carp date back to family walks along the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities. Carp were the bane of fishermen in that watershed- I guess there was nothing more frustrating than thinking you had a channel cat or sturgeon on the line and pulling in a blubbery, bovine-looking monster.
In fact, I believe there was a DNR regulation against returning carp to the river. All too often, your walk would be punctuated with the sound of some cursing Captain Ahab slamming his unwanted catch repeatedly against the rocks. Needless to say, all of these dead carp lent a distinct sachet to the morning.
_ Near my house, a protected wetland meandered near an urban lake. I was walking the trail through this wetland one day, and caught movement in a nearby shallows where the spring flood had inundated a ditch.
A huge carp was grubbing in a blanket of watercress. My first reaction was a deep, tow-curdling disgust… but then I paused to watch the creature. Its stubby fins flared and quivered in an oddly playful fashion as it rooted in the mud, pirouetting like one of the hippo ballerinas from Fantasia.
_ I’d always thought of fish eyes as being flat, depthless things, the ‘dolls eyes’ from Quint’s monologue in Jaws. Not so with this particular carp- its gaze evoked nothing less than someone’s goofy Labrador rummaging in a trash bin About that time, a late ray of sunlight skimmed over the water, striking all sorts of vermillion and golden tints from the carp’s flank.
I walked away carrying two weirdly incompatible platonic ideals of ‘carpness’ in my head- and a lot more ambivalence towards carp overall.
_ I’ve been thinking about carp a lot recently because of my work as a conservation biologist. For all of the rooting and mucking and ecosystem engineering that Asian carp have done throughout the Mississippi River basin, it’s nothing compared to he impact of Silver Carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) and related species in the Illinois River and its tributaries. Silver carp are massive, aggressive, voracious, and plow through river mud like four-wheelers mud-bogging in some fragile alpine meadow.
As of 2012, non-native carp knocked out a series of commercial fisheries along the Illinois and Missouri Rivers, and they now account for a majority of the visible biomass in these waterways. They’re a trophic-web time bomb.
__ More ominously, they’re lurking like the proverbial barbarian horde at the very gates of the Great Lakes. Surveyors found a one-meter bighead carp in Calumet Lake near Chicago. This is ABOVE a massive electric barrier across a system of man-made canals that leads into Lake Michigan- a barrier that’s supposed to fricassee anything with a pulse. The idea of carp in Lake Michigan (and beyond) is inciting the type of political hysteria usually reserved for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mad cow disease, and wardrobe malfunctions at Wayne Newton concerts.
_ So yeah… non-native carp are a menace. Is is a character flaw that I’m starting to root for them on some bizarre level.
For one thing… Silver Carp fly.
There must be some noisy, gargantuan predator in their native range. In any case, the sound of a boat motor sends silver carp airborne. Honestly, the first time a saw a photo of leaping silver carp, I thought it manufactured. It’s not. They really do that. Imagine some yahoo riding his beloved crotch-rocket jet ski down some Illinois River backwater at 30 mph, and face-planting into a 40 pound, smooch-mouthed leaping leviathan.
_ I also feel a sort of weird affection for any invasive species- at least insofar as they confound our perceptions of control and remind us that Mother Nature owns the last laugh.
It’s also remarkable how the public attitude towards carp changes in other parts of the world.
On May 5 (Kodomo no Hi- Children’s Day), the Japanese fly windsocks painted like carp to symbolize family. The Chinese and Japanese believed that carp were symbols of boldness and perseverance, of courage in the face of adversity. Remarkably, the Chinese even believed that a carp that fought upstream against a current would morph into a dragon.
Our North American attitudes towards carp as food are socially constructed as well. Carp is viewed as a delicacy and a sport fish in Asia, and the old world in general.
I don’t know how many people have read a wonderful children’s book called ‘The carp in the bathtub”, but it had a big impact on me as a kid. The title almost says it all…
_ Another kid’s book that reveled in carpiness was ‘The Story of Ping’. I don’t know if anyone remembers this one other than me, but it involved a wayward duck and Chinese rivermen who fished for carp using tame cormorants.
(I desperately wanted one of those fishing cormorants... mind you- who wouldn't?)
_ Aside from sportfishing and Gefilte Fish, there’s the fanatical breeding and selling of koi carp. Unbeknownst to me, one of the legendary bloodlines in Koi carp breeding (Bow-chika-bow-wow!!!) is referred to as ‘Kohaku’. These beauties regularly cash out for thousands of dollars, and reputedly one All-Japan champion was sold for 2.2 million! And remember- this is still basically our humble common carp, Cyprinus carpio… only a few genes removed from the aliens at our gates here in North America.
Anyhow, it’s disturbing how a symbol of courage and beauty, commensurate with dragons, can be painted as utter trash when placed in the wrong biological niche.
_ The locals along the Illinois River haven’t taken the fusillade of flying carp lying down. The Redneck Carp Tournament was launched in Bath, Illinois in 2005. For all the beer-guzzling, costumed, General Lee flying mayhem of this event, it’s fully sanctioned by the DNR- to the degree that participants are allowed to leave their life-jackets back on the dock.
There’s something endearing about Uncle Jesse and his posse ripping down the waterways, knocking carp out of the air with baseball bats… but it’s a bit troubling, the manner in which we castigate wild things when they refuse to conform to the rules. Sea Gulls invade our landfills, and we call them flying rats. Purple loosestrife clogs our ponds, and we break out the flamethrowers.
_ Don’t get me wrong… invasive species are one of the worst vectors for extinction and environmental Armageddon. But it’s worth remembering that the agents themselves are not to blame. We’re the ones flushing goldfish down our toilets, the ones with cheatgrass clinging to our shoes.
So I named this particular piece Moltrix after the Tournament. I picture a silver carp leaping in the wake of a passing boat, safe from the nets, eyeballing the passage to the great Lakes.
No- I’m not REALLY rooting for the fish in this case.
But part of me wants to.
_ Meet McKenzy, my 12-year old stepson. This most angelic of poses has been captured with the collusion of two stilettos, two k-bar knockoffs, a butterfly knife, and a brass-knuckle meat tenderizer.
Merry Christmas. Let peace over all the Earth its ancient splendors fling!!
_ We had to practically twist arms with Dru, our other kid, to get him to pick out anything for Christmas. (“I’m already getting soccer cleats- why do I need anything else?”)
McKenzy, in contrast, asked for 30 dollars and an hour on Amazon.com. When we came back, he’d ordered the goodies in the picture, plus two blowguns with ammo and a case full of shuriken (throwing stars).
I’m left pondering this odd love affair that so many small boys have with mayhem, with colors that flash in shades of bruise and flack, and with weapons.
_ My parents were Christian pacifists. I was a pretty gentle kid (my sisters may beg to differ).
I can still remember how I lusted after weaponry, however. We’d reenact every battle from Troy to Inchon around my neighborhood… and I was always the kid shamefacedly waving a squirt gun, yearning after the rattling M16 replicas that the kid from down the streets would bring to the fray.
When I was a bit older, my family campaigned for the nuclear freeze. I understood- and even loved- the idea of non-violence… and yet somehow a friend and I cooked up the idea of hopping a tramp steamer to Afghanistan and joining some sort of hypothetical junior Mujahidin club, fighting against the Russians. We were 12, and we were quite serious.
_ So- is this lust/love affair with the tools and trade of violence and war something to be suppressed? Channeled? Weeded out?
Think of ‘All quiet on the Western Front’, and Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen… and then contrast the sentiments in those works with Robert E. Lee’s famous quote about the allure of battle (beautifully evoked in ‘The Killer Angels’), or with the Sebastian Junger’s analyses of war’s psychological impact on young men (‘literally intoxicating, like a cocaine high’) in War.
What is it that makes a writer like C.S. Lewis, who slogged through front-line shelling at the Somme, write battle passages in ‘The Horse and his Boy’ that evoke nothing but banners and honor triumphant… and what it that makes these passages resonate with me? What makes me find post-modernists like George R. Martin tiresome, even when their exposition is arguably more 'honest'?
Maybe it’s hard-wired with gender. Or maybe its not (my own personal experiences certainly suggests that the capacity is there on both sides of the aisle!).
_ Sherri Tepper, one of my favorite authors, posits that ‘glorious causes’ and ‘heroic quests’ might vanish with the Y chromosome. She notes that our fascination with the tools of violence, whether Y-linked or not, has been pretty destructive to ‘the nonlegendary. The day-to-day scufflers. The watch-to-watch managers. The growers of food. The builders of houses. Those who lay on their bellies in the grass, watching bugs. Those who listen for bird-song. Those who will not overbreed or overbear.’(Raising the Stones).
All of this, of course, ignores my personal faith and the non-violence of its founder.
All of this, as well, side-steps the question of whether we’re bad parents for letting McKenzy load himself up with a private arsenal for Christmas. I certainly can’t fool myself that a stiletto is on the same playing field with a Swiss Army knife- these are all targeted anti-personnel weapons.
_ Honestly- I’m not even sure what McKenzy wants with all this cutlery. Calvin (see above) at least was guaranteed to have plans for his flamethrower. Whereas with the knives, I think that McKenzy just wants to fondle the things.
_ For me, the bottom line is that with a hyperactive, boundlessly creative kid, you need to pick your battles.
McKenzy loves a lot of awesome things, including hunting shaggy parasol mushrooms (Lepiota rachodes) , soccer, reef diving, playing ‘Boggle’, and giving his lunch to random street people. He also likes a certain number of things that give me hives, like virility knives, Axe cologne, jet skis, and Adam Sandler films.
_ I have to remember that my early plans for partisan combat in Afghanistan didn’t lead to a lifetime membership in the NRA. I have to trust that the good stuff will win out.
(And- for those of you who are worried- Idaho is a long way away… and the knives are in a tightly regulated lock-box).
One of my favorite rambles in the world is the nine-mile Ozette loop on the west end of the Olympic Peninsula.
The wild Olympic coast is noteworthy for:
_ My kind of place!
One of my favorite spots on the hike is a mid-sized sea stack perched in the intertidal zone. Somehow, the wave action (or maybe a stray trident strike from Neptune) has bored a perfect eyelet in the rock.
_ I’ve been intrigued by natural windows in stone for years. Somewhere- perhaps filtered through the bottom of a Guinness glass, I was once told that natural apertures like this serve as a portal into another realm- the haunts of the ‘good-folk’, the Sidhe, Faerie.
I believe that a sevenfold passage under a newly risen moon may have been part of the equation.
_ Incidentally- any online research into the concept of ‘Faerie’ pitches one into a bottomless potpourri-pit of new-age claptrap. Somehow, the adult market always gets it wrong. One needs to dive into George MacDonald or Mollie Hunter for the good stuff. (Heck- just read ‘The Haunted Mountain’- it’s a classic).
_ Needless to say, there’s a pretty active stew of mysticism bubbling under the Darwinian façade I wear while working my day job. I pay full honor to quarks and Higgs bosons… but the idea of crawling through that Ozette eyelet under a rising moon still... intrigues me
Opportunity has yet to present itself, mind you. There are probably only a couple days out of the year where that beach isn’t socked in. The trifecta of a moonrise, clear skies, my presence seems like an elusive target.
_ So… I thought I’d do a little research to see what I was setting myself up for.
There’s an enormous body of information about ‘Holey’ stones on the net.
Many ancient examples are carved, and tend to be extremely enigmatic. For instance, the Great Pyramids at Ghiza, contain a series of odd ‘star shafts’, tunnels with twin sealed ends and no apparent destination, with unfinished, graven windows in the stone that seals one end.
_ As another example, the Mnajdra temples on the island of Malta display a series of ‘oracle holes’… possibly used as portals for sacred communications (although one wonders if they might also have been rims for some archaic version of basketball).
Still- when it comes to natural apertures in stone, I’ve found nothing that directly mirrors my notion about passage into some alternate realm.
_ Certainly, there are multiple legends about ‘holey’ stones serving as some sort of scrying device, allowing one to ‘see into faerie’. I haven’t made it all the way through the ‘Spiderwick Chronicles’ (bad C.G.I. makes my teeth twinge)… but the ‘holey stone as a lens’ idea was certainly central to that flick. These are mostly depicted as small eyepieces, however, and it’s not clear whether a massive rock tunnel would function the same way (or if the viewer would need an eye that was proportioned to scale).
The Mên-an-Tol in Cornwall is perhaps the closest match I’ve found on the web. This ring-shaped artifact is said to be a natural feature (although it certainly looks carved). At one time, people would pass their children through its eyelet- either three times or nine times. This was supposed to be a sovereign cure for rickets, scrofula, and other maladies with ghastly medieval names.
More ominously, local legend suggests that a woman can impregnate herself by passing through the eyelet seven times backwards under a full moon. It’s not clear what the agent of this quickening might be. The Sidhe? Leda's swan cavorting amidst the silver gleam?
_ The whole question is complicated by the fact that numerous Celtic artifacts in the area include perforations as a suitable height for the ‘ritual insertion’ of certain appendages. See 'Ireland and the phallic conundrum' for more information than you probably wanted. ‘Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene’, as Mark Twain would say.
Overall- research suggests that a certain restraint might be in order.
_ Nonetheless, I’m considering the idea of incorporating passageways and eyelets into some of my fountains or lanterns.
And… if any of you have images or descriptions of natural passageways and windows from your own rambles, I’d love to hear about it.
One of the curses (or blessings) of a literary childhood is a distaste for simplicity in things like titles… and even website URLs.
Having dabbled my toes in the murky waters of 'web optimization' (oww!!) I'm well aware that other titles could have been more effective. Heck- I probably should have titled this site ‘Roon’s Pot Sales’ (or maybe not).
So why Kohaku River?
_ In my ceramics, I’m interested in the intersection of the sublime, the mythological, and the threatened- as well as with themes drawn from ecofeminism and the tension between ideas of Christian stewardship and Eastern philosophy.
(The word 'sublime' gets thrown around casually, but its evolved through a range of very specific meanings. In almost all cases, however, it evokes something immeasurable in the natural world, even fearful... but also infused with a great, trans-rational loveliness. At it's best, I'd like to think that the sublime can be recognized in a dew drop as easily as a mountain thunderstorm... but it's a shivering, uneasy recognition, while still intoxicating).
Obviously, my ‘day job’ as a wildlife/conservation biologist is a pivotal factor here, as is my love for canoeing in cold, northerly places.
_ In any case, I haven’t seen a better encapsulation of these ideas than Miyazaki’s ‘Spirit Away’.
First- for anyone who hasn’t seen ‘Spirit Away’, the film teems with gratuitous beauty. It’s not ‘safe’ beauty, however. Miyazaki loves the play of light over water and grass and the gleam of moonlight on cloudscapes… but every scene hums with a fey potentiality.
_Part of what lends ‘Spirited Away’ its resonance is Miyazaki’s sense of concern, and even loss, with respect to the natural world. This theme was developed even more strongly in 'Princess Mononoke'... but it's 'Spirited Away' that sticks with me.
The plot centers on a bathhouse where the spirits come to wash away the stench and decay of humanity. As with much of Miyazaki's work, the storyline is only tangentially linear. However, I'll mention one pivotal scene.
_The child protagonist (Chihiro- more on her later) has been charged with catering to a troublesome 'guest'- a ‘stink spirit’, a shambling entity of pure filth. In vintage Miyazaki fashion, little is as it seems on the surface. The stink spirit, of course, is the fallen spirit of a river, and the ‘chains’ are all the years of rubbish, ordure and slime that have crippled it.
_The scene has transfixed me every time I've watched it. The river spirit- freed of its bondage- laughs through a weighted silence, whispers ‘well done’ to Chihiro, and soars into the night. It reminds me of the River God in Prince Caspian, seeing the bridge that enslaved him crumble at Aslan’s command.
_t’s another river spirit, however, that gives my site its name. ‘Haku’ is an enigmatic changeling who befriends Chihiro when she is at her most vulnerable and fearful. He is- it turns out- a dragon… but moreover, the spirit of a river (the Kohaku River) that was buried beneath concrete some years in the past. His name and identity were lost as a consequence… but Chihiro, in her evolving courage and independence, find a way to restore them.
_So- the phrase ‘Kohaku River’ evokes a natural world freed from tyranny. It evokes friendship and courage and the loveliness of the untrammeled. It evokes a thin veil between the world we see and something deeper… a veil that children penetrate with ease, but that thickens for most of us, unless we work tirelessly to defy it.
‘Spirited Away’ epitomizes much that is splendid in Miyazaki’s work, including…
_Ultimately, however, it’s the co-mingled ideas of broken chains and the sublime that lead me to name my site after this character from Miyazaki’s wonderful film.
(Need I add- if you haven't seen it, hie thee down to the local house of DVD asap!)
So- what is it about these humble salmonids that makes me put them in my designs over and over again?
First- there are some words that are inherently musical- but moreover, strike a highly personal but nebulous connection with individuals.
For example- J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote (in a linguistic essay) that the word combination ‘cellar door’ had a particularly lyrical musicality. , Annie Dillard (writer of ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’) cited a poet friend (Rosanne Coggeshall) as giving the laurels to ‘sycamore’. I’m not sure I see eye to eye with Tolkien or Coggeshall on this- for me, ‘grayling’ is THE word of surpassing loveliness. I think I first encountered the word in a Scottish children’s book, and I still recall the shivers that caressed my spine upon reading it.
_ This was long before I’d learned about the ‘Northernness’ of these fish- haunting cold, swift, clean Arctic waters (and one watershed in Montana, where they’re threatened with extirpation). Hunted by harbor seals and Arctic foxes, migrating anadromously to the dark slate waters of Hudson Bay.
_ By the time I planned my first long Canadian river trip (the Seal River, 1994) these small fish, relatives of the whiting and dolly varden, had become a personal holy Grail. (Insert clumsy ‘grailing’ pun at your discretion here).
I finally hooked into one 17 days into our trip. Grayling aren’t the fiercest fighters in the finned ranks, but when that fish's flaring dorsal fin cut the water, the falling sun shone through it, igniting flashes of turquoise, malachite and rose in the delicate tissue.
_ I hated to kill it. I’ll never kill one again.
Grayling have since endured as one of my archetypal symbols of wildness.
Some Japanese master potters would develop a personal, simplified design and paint it in glaze on vessel after vessel, finding beauty in slight variation, in the ‘Wabi-sabi’ that is only achievable through effortless grace. Soji Hamada- the great contemporary of Bernard Leach- was famous for this.
_ I’ve taken to carving a simplified graying motif on many of my vessels. Note the paired images on the foot and hood of this lantern. Simple variations around the eyes, the structure of the fins, the tension in the lines of the tail... all of these things impact the 'feel' of each carving, while hewing to a uniform theme.
The textures and colors of Raku also evoke the stippling and transitory, shifting hues of a graylings flank... as does the very unpredictability of the Raku process.
Mind- I’d have to live a few lifetimes to walk in the footsteps of Soji Hamada, but between him and my beloved Thymallus arcticus, I feel like I’m covered on the inspiration end of things.
_The whole clan descended on Moscow this past weekend, and we managed to slot in a raku session in between over-dosing on tryptophan and pixar films (my three year old cousin Ben is a 'Finding Nemo' addict).
Raku always takes on an added zest when it's a community project. I had sister Maria manning the pulley on my kiln lifter, Aunt Norma pitching combustibles into the cans, cousins and kids slapping down lids and wielding the water hose, and my pop prowling around playing the shutterbug.
I've been having some running battles with my kiln of late- lots of trouble bringing it up to temperature without spiking a heavy reduction atmosphere. I've micro-managed the venturi (blowtorch), the aperture atop the kiln... all to mixed effect. Patience seems to be the key ingredient.
My principle brain wave this time involved using one of our Thanksgiving tables as a windbreak. Needless to say (you'd think) plastic table tops and 1700 degree combustion chambers don't mix well. Note the emergent heat bubbles on the upper right corner of the table- believe me, it got worse...
Other than nuking the table, we got by with one singed finger and a drum (pictured) that sustained a half-fracture upon the reduction stage.
It's always a gamble trying to fire in Moscow, Idaho in November. The wind was kind, but the Pacific tossed a nasty rain-squall at us towards the end of the session. I ended up scurrying about in the dark, hoisting my kiln base and frame under cover in a downpour. 'Bit Atmospheric', as my friends from the UK would say.
_There were some quality pieces emerging from the chaos, however. I've been producing some inverted planters lately (designed for orchids and other epiphytic plants, with a locking mechanism). Here are a couple examples.
I've also been working on a long term project to commemorate my mother, who died of colon cancer in August. She impacted a lot of people, and a number of people were tremendously kind in the aftermath. We've been giving away a series of raku globes- all of which incorporate designs that celebrate Mary's life. Here are three examples- the one on the left from the most recent firing (she loved the ocean, and was swimming on a reef in Hawaii as recently as July).
(Re-posted from Feb 6, 2011)
I'm gearing up to play a CD release tonight. Seemed a good time to tell the story behind one of my songs- 'Arctos'. I'll do more of this in the future.
Picture an small rock island in the maw of a braided river channel. The tea-colored water rolls down a ledge and into the endless expanse of Hudson Bay. The expanse is flecked with dots of white. From a distance, you and your friends had cursed and whinged, anticipating days spent wind-bound. (Hudson Bay is shallow and notoriously subject to winds... a strong westerly can whip the waters into a froth).
From a closer vantage-point, the 'white-caps' have resolved into the backs of thousands (literally) of Beluga whales, spouting and cavorting just beyond the breakers.
C.S. Lewis once spoke of 'drippings of Grace', moments that hint of the eternal, that leave you ever-hungry for something deeper and more tangible than the facade of reality. This is one of those moments. Except, of course, for the prickling at the nape of your neck. You turn. A Polar Bear is swimming down-current, riding the Seal River like a chunk of motile ice, turning inexorably in your direction.
A squawking cry of "Polar Bear". I'll never forget the look on my friend Jeff's face as he fumbles with the straps on a Duluth pack, a forgotten bannock cake with peanut butter flopping from his mouth like a cigar. Friend Matt all but knocks a camera out of my hand. The bear is 10 meters from the rock outcrop by the time we glide out to visit the whales.
There’s a lot more to tell, but the final hours of our final, long day on the Seal River, are among the most vivid of my life.
We’re all aware of the fragility of the stark, lovely expanses where the snow bears wander. Images of drowning bears and fracturing tundra have been haunting me for years, while our wayward politicians and media pundits argue the talking point.
The song was written before I really understood how deadly the end-game that we play may become… but there’s still an undertone of alarm. It’s taken on new resonance for me in the years since.
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