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wood-fired pot with flowers, in kiln

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by Dick Lehman

We had come from many places with varied motivations. We had  caffein-ed through the night, our trucks weighted down with "the goods"; we had traveled all day, through 3 or 4 States, cartop carriers groaning under the pounds of pots which had  'wonder' wedged into them, 'purpose' pulled through the throwing rings, and 'hope' hardening as pots dried on the ride. Others of us merely walked from dorm or home, or from "real" jobs close-by with boxes of yet-to-be-sintered forms in tow, skidding across the base of snow.

We were English majors, and nurses; orchid-growers and builders. We were professional clay artists and administrators. We were teachers, writers, cooks and psychiatrists, and all...learners. We were all...potters.

Our life stories were like yours: carpenter ants in our attics, driveways that needed to be shoveled, and exams for which to study. Our pantries were full for the winter, there was venison in the freezer, we had good books to read. We were falling in and out of love. Our relatives were very ill, were recovering...were fine. We felt inquisitive, sentimental, curious, nervous, bored and contented. And our pots told all these stories -- to those who listened.

The clays themselves must have thought it a convention, being gathered as they were from the corners of the nation, and from Europe. Oh the stories which could have been told from eons of geological time spent waiting!...stories far more complex and interesting than the ones which of late had caused this clay to change shape and be gathered here. One can almost imagine those conversations  as pots sat by the hundreds awaiting loading, arranged by height, by maker, by clay-type, by firing preference.   

"Did you hear the story of the silica?...how it rested in the light of this same Huntingdon moon for scores of centuries, waiting,... only to be uprooted, crushed, ground, sieved,  bagged and shipped off halfway across the continent?   Now, mixed with peers who carry equally long views of history and pre-history, it returns to Huntingdon — to sit once more under the same moon, and to await an experience which will change it forever."

The mountains of pots were dwarfed only by the stacks of firewood ready to collaborate in bringing  the clay to a new place of waiting...slabs with only 70 or 100 year-stories...trees which no doubt had been nourished by, and now stored some of the mineral solubles which had accompanied the silica through the eons of pre-history...wood which in the inferno of the firebox would very soon redeposit these exact minerals on the very  material which had held it for so long.

As the last of the side stoking was completed the kiln seemed to shudder, to shiver. And I shivered a reply,   inhaling a soul full of new energy, feeling for a moment like I could stoke for another three days.  But it was time to close the stoke holes, to join the others for supper, and make a small Glenlivet toast to hope, to our own time of waiting, and a full night's sleep.

What had been a restful slumber was abruptly ended by a fitful dream:  a raucous woodpecker rapped incessantly. Exasperated, I cracked one eye and the bird flew off, disappearing mysteriously into the swirling steam of a fresh cup of coffee just a few inches from my nose. The pecking sound ended...a distant chuckle: my host had tired of waiting for me to wake up — breakfast was served.

After breakfast our host announced that we would be going on a secret mission known only to him: "dress warm" was the only instruction. After a short drive we arrived at Sinking Valley, then walked to the mouth of the cave. Tytoona Cave was formed by a stream cutting under a mile-long hill. It was a low anagama-shaped bluff, and the cave's interior seemed to mimic the shape of the exterior. Having just completed three and a half days of firing, I believe we all saw the similarity.

Flashlights were distributed at the cave's foreboding entrance. The intense cold had caused the seeping water at the cave's mouth to freeze into giant "stalac-teeth" — rows of uppers and lowers giving the mouth a beastly appearance. We picked our way through and around the fangs, and progressed past the second curve, where light from the outside no longer penetrated. 

The water was high, and the noise inside had the moaning rush of a firing at it's height:  the rocks around which the water rushed were the pots...the darkness in the cave, as efficient as the blinding white light of the kiln...the orchestration of resonance,  as thunderous and delicate as the flames. We each found our way to a spot of our own, groping along in this lightless belly of the earth, mesmerized by the timpanic thunder and the delicate filigree....waiting in the music of the stream.

Individually we returned to the mouth of the cave, having had the chance to make peace with something larger than ourselves. We traveled to the opposite end of the kiln-hill, stopping at the base of the last large bluff to unpack our politically correct lunch: sandwiches made of Jewish rye, Swiss cheese, Korean kimche, and Norwegian sardines. It wasn't much — almost more a sacrament than a lunch. 

We were silent as we climbed through knee-deep snow to the crest. Looking down a hundred feet or more, we saw the flue of the cave: mysterious swirling plumes of water, not unlike the orange-red curls at the top of our chimney not so long ago. Jack told us the tragic tale of the lone scuba diver who attempted, but failed, to negotiate the entire route of the underground river. I winced at her misguided misfortune, but used the last bite of my sandwich to toast her courage. 

Only four more days of waiting until advent:  we unload on Thursday.

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

© Dick Lehman, December, 1997. All Rights Reserved.