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It Is, After All, about the Wood, Right?

I had always hated Chinese elm trees.

Could the powers of the universe have created a more unlikable tree? I thought not!

Too sparse to be called a shade tree, too leafy to be overlooked. A complainer of a tree, I think, remembering each wound, each scar, every nick and bruise, perpetually weeping from each of these traumas like an adolescent football player limping on each hurt, hoping to garner the sympathy of passers-by.

A trash tree, really: insidiously, incessantly dropping brittle little branches every season of the year, never resting, nor allowing a moment's rest for the caretaker of any yard containing its species.

And why… why in the wisdom of the universe, would Nature have seen fit to program the physiology of these already unattractive trees with the biological imperative to have their massive trunks routinely split into two at a height of six or seven feet above the ground? Split: creating a crotch that collects rain and snow and wind-blown trash and rot, bugs and amphibians and reptiles and worms, bacteria and fungus and mold. Split: creating a most unseemly soup of smells—a crotch stench so unpleasant that even our children avoid the beckoning branches of these trees in the heat of the summer—a rancidity of such putrescence that the mere description of which would be so indelicate as to be an injustice to one’s sensibilities. Split: ensuring that ultimately, in some season of small storms, the lightest wind and rain will cause those two cloven halves of the tree to move so far in opposite directions that inevitably both halves will crash to the ground in resignation—in a wind that would cause an oak barely to sniff or wince or shudder.

And given such obvious inferiorities, who possibly could have thought it a good idea to import this Chinese cousin to the North American shores?

And back to you, Mother Nature, if I may for just a moment: why would you have imparted upon this wretched ensemble of mediocrities the power to procreate in amplitudes surpassing almost all other trees? How many billions of incessant little rice crispy-like seeds are indeed needed each year to ensure the survival of the species?

I never could forget the scores of ladder hours I had spent emptying my full gutters of soggy elm seeds. Nor would I ever forgive the seedy avalanche of the spring of '96 that so clogged my gutters during an afternoon shower that my roof emptied its entire contents over the edge of my gutters, through my window wells, and into my basement. I came down the basement steps to spy a river of dirt and sludge that hosted hundreds of elm seeds blithely floating like miniature inner tubes across my basement, all seemingly oblivious to my distress.

And I would hate to calculate how many hours, days, and weeks I have spent pulling Chinese elm seedlings from flower beds and rock gardens and strawberry patches and fern gardens and patio cracks…tenacious seedlings with long, deep-worming roots. And how is it that only weeks after tilling my entire garden, I discover young elm saplings, tall as my waist, hidden by the tall-staked tomato plants!

And if the seeds and seedlings were not enough, consider how indiscrete a tree whose blanket of autumn leaves are, in their multitude, too large and dense to be allowed to remain upon the yard, but, in their individuality, too small to be moved by normal raking.

What was Mother Nature thinking?

My disdain for these trees was further aroused when, upon moving to our new home, I discovered that the skinflinty landscapers, instead of planting the pagoda dogwoods, the American beeches, the contorted filberts, the Japanese maples, the flowering crabs, the chestnuts, the mountain ashes that this lovely property invited, had instead merely thinned out the natural insurgence of Chinese elms to a few prime “specimens”—and left us with the decades of consequences.

And so it was, years later, during one of those “seasons of small storms,” that five of these (now giant) “prime specimens” were felled by the slight breath of a springtime breeze and blocked our driveway, the road in front of our house, the side yard, but graciously spared our house and the kiln shed.

But then a dilemma: What to do with all that wood? Me, a wood-firing potter. I would have liked nothing better than to have those trash trees hauled off to some land-filled oblivion. But both my pride and my pocketbook intervened—could I, should I, might I, dare I!—try burning this wood in my kiln before making the expensive decision to pay someone else to haul it away?

Begrudgingly, and with my moral tail between my legs, I decided first to try cutting, splitting, and burning before calling the “tree doctors.” But even in my resignation to these trees, they seemed to demand a final and demeaning last word, holding out until the very end, their stringy, sinewy, tentacled flesh resisted the forces of the wood splitter. Sinking the splitter's wedge at 12 o'clock, 3, 6, and 9 o'clock— and from both ends of the logs—the cantankerous chunks required my best efforts before finally resigning to my own stubborn will. Just how is it, I wondered, that a tree so weak, so easily felled by the lightest of breezes, can possibly be incongruously so strong and difficult to split?

This wood I hated, I burned it in my next firing. For 15 days I tossed it into the firebox: wood that however quirky had ultimately been true to its biological imperative (and subject to the particularities of the roughly 200 cubic yards of soil through which its roots had grown); wood that had quietly and steadily stored away in its bark and cambium layer a particular set of soluble minerals and salts. And as I burned this hated elm, minuscule amounts of these minerals and salts hitchhiked on the fly ash and began a journey through the kiln. The ash swirled and eddied around the pots, was lifted by the heat of combustion to higher elevations within the kiln, then, cooling a bit, began to descend through the pots and shelves, being inexorably pulled by the chimney's draft to a small exit flue hole at the bottom of the kiln. And if by some chance of the swirling tides of flame currents within the kiln, the fly ash had avoided direct contact with the pots and exited the chimney, and eventually returned to the earth to fertilize another generation (God forbid) of Chinese elms.

But some of the fly ash, during its dance among the pots, came in direct contact with the red-hot molten sticky pot surfaces, leaving the smallest imaginable trace of flux and hitchhiking glaze chemistry on the surface of the pots. And after 15 days, there began to collect a formidable swell of these glaze-making traces, emerging as an oozing sticky mass of improbable collaborators.

It was then as the pyroplasticity of the clay caused the clay to soften, as the natural ash accumulations melted and softened the contours of the pots, it was then that my heart softened as well. It dawned on me that these pots, fired with this fuel, were perhaps more mine than any others I would ever make: precisely because of the Chinese elm. These trees had patiently, over a series of decades, grown on my land, absorbed the nutrients and solubles from my soil, been subject to the seasons of my climate. Then, in the journey of the firing, these trees had given back to my pots the very solubles they had taken from my soil.

And the giving back was not unspectacular, ranging from white, yellow, gold, and pastel pink crystal formations to orange, green, brown, blue, blue-gray, and aquamarine glaze runs. Textures ranged from dry ash-encrusted deserts to glassy smooth pools. The Chinese elm ash deposits caused the topographical surfaces of my large-orbed works to appear as mountains and deserts and seas on some distant planet. What a remarkable paradox!

I no longer hate Chinese elm trees: they are now part of my technique; they have joined me on this wood-firing journey. I can no longer bring my heart to harbor them ill will, despite the quirky idiosyncrasies with which Mother Nature has endowed these hapless giants. Instead, I live in gratitude that reflects my passion. Gratitude, because wood-firing is, after all, all about the wood, right?

What follows is a remarkable collection of writings by and about contemporary wood-firing potters. These stories offer us an international glimpse of the techniques that motivate and the journeys that inspire these clay artists. But a deeper investigation may reveal to you that these writings, these lives, these works are about more than just journeys and techniques. These writings reveal passions that both express and give meaning to life and work. Listen, for a moment, to some of the words and ideas that grace these articles.

At times, it is clear to me that these authors are reflecting upon both the firing process and the pots themselves: we hear them speak of the soft sound of the crackling fire, their urgings to be inventive, to “think like the flame.” They convey their awareness of the community that exists among potters and the importance of bringing together a synergistic group of artisans. They confess a desire of “going beyond ‘common sense’ toward listening to the…voice of the fire and the voice of the clay.”

We hear expressions of hope that clay artists will be able to create work “with a voice of its own, something that can't really be duplicated,” pots that reveal firing history through the “search for that synthesis between my own aesthetic and the fire's.” One author confided that “truly good pots owe more to the generosity and spirit with which they are made.” Others disclose their conviction that the best pots “go beyond their grounding in intellectual understanding,” and become works that “enliven the spirit.”

At other times within these writings, it seems less clear to me: are the authors speaking about pots or life…or both? What is the focus of their reflections about beauty, pleasure, sensuousness, hope, and wistfulness? And of what are they speaking when they mention collaboration, teamwork, hospitality? The rich intermingling between work (noun) and work (verb) invites one to fantasize for more than a moment with “power and sophisticated beauty,” “a means of exploring relationships,” or “focus tempered with affection.” Is it descriptive or autobiographical when we read of technique following one's heart and soul, “overcoming difficulties as a revelation of true beauty,” or the blushing confession of “an indescribable difference in soul”?

And finally, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that at times these writers are speaking of an inextricable synthesis of pot and process and person: I hear these echoes: “I can shape the life I create”…“pleasure in everyday living”…“an expression of one's self and one's values”…all of life as “one meditation,” and “discipline which allows the spiritual, physical, and emotional parts of life to balance and integrate...to become more whole…to discover what life is all about.”

Other authors are even more bold, describing this synthesis as “not being bound…by the definitions of common sense,” works and work and life that go “beyond the light of the sun and the moon” that are simply “an embarrassment of riches”…for which there is nothing but gratitude !

These wood-firing potters grace us with a glimpse of the passions that inform their technique and journey. In the words of my dear friend Mr. Shiho Kanzaki, “As artists, it is our responsibility to always pursue a better thing.” Indeed the passions are the journey.

Dick Lehman