Scatter my ashes in a wood kiln
“…woodfired pottery is the most complex, difficult, ancient, profound, durable, and magical way to fire clay… Firing a wood-kiln is an extremely high risk endeavour, and each piece that we make and which survives the trial by fire, is utterly unique, and one-of-a kind. In a world over-full of mass-produced, disposable items, many see woodfiring as the antithesis of consumer irrelevancy, and as a philosophical and aesthetic balm for our age.” —Clark Wood Fire
Don’t worry, I’m not dead yet.
But after recently finishing my 10th (?) or so group firing of a large, wood-fueled anagama (“climbing”) kiln outside of Madrid, New Mexico, I decided that there is no better place to fling my earthly remains, when the day arrives, than into the fiery maw of that very kiln.
Toss my ashes into the firebox to be flame-swept and melted into glaze, settling onto the pottery of a dozen or so of my most excellent friends in clay and fun and fire. The last bits of carbon and mineral of the former Me will become a permanent aspect — or enhancement, I should think — of their cups, bowls, and sculpture of endless variety. Decorative and utilitarian objects that will be welcomed into homes to live awhile among the living, gathering and giving the energy and love of those who created and honor them. Of course, I may outlive my friends and the kiln, in which case just deposit me under a tree somewhere.
Until then, come with me on a little tour: here are some pictures of my favorite pieces from the recent firing, and of the kiln itself during various steps of the extremely labor-intensive process. If you’d like to learn a little more — about the four-to-five cords of lumberyard scraps that are cut, sorted and stacked before we begin, or the intricate, piece-by-piece loading of 400-800 wares, or the four consecutive around-the-clock days of firing — please see this series of posts. They were written two years ago when no one was actually reading my blog. Except you, Rodger (your reward in heaven will be great), and you, Postmanisms, for reasons unclear to me. I’ve also included an excerpt from one of those earlier posts, a reflection written in the wee, sleep-deprived hours after the 2010 firing.
What the pictures don’t capture, aside from the incredible thigh- and brow-singeing heat radiating from the kiln, is the relationships: between ourselves and the fire, the kiln, one another, the landscape. There’s something really special about a group of people gathering around a fire year for a common purpose, as people have done for thousands of years, whether for food preparation, protection, comfort, ritual, or the creation of art. Fires of destruction and fires of purification. Just like water.
I’ve learned a lot about the nature of fire, a wild and insatiable thing, from working with clay. I’ve learned not to panic in the presence of intense heat and/or flame, and what it feels like to pick up a 900℉ brick with my bare hand (oops), and about Japanese woodfire masters who can identify the temperature of a kiln not by using cones or pyrometers, but by the interior colors alone: orange, red, light red, dark yellow, light yellow, white.
But even after the thousands of hours our group have collectively invested in the study of fire through our anagama kiln, we still find it mysterious and unpredictable and prone to moments of utter disaster and devastating beauty. Which, of course, is probably why we continue: The challenge of controlling the flame and heat just enough to transform the simple work of our hands into objects more beautiful than we alone could make.
What the pictures don’t show is the way the 30-foot kiln breathes fire back and forth through its chambers with every stoke of wood into the firebox, the way it tells us where the fire is by spilling flames out the cracks, the way it sometimes won’t gain heat no matter how much wood we throw in or how many different fuel-oxygen-reduction strategies we try. The way the kiln is another character, along with the 14 or 15 of us, in our annual drama of the four elements.
In The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade, poet and mortician, Thomas Lynch, presents an interesting exploration of our relationship with, and attitude toward fire with regards to burial practices. Why do we burn trash and bury treasure? Why are we allowed to watch burials but not cremations, like they do in Eastern cultures where funeral pyres are common? A fine and insightful read.
What I’ve learned about fire seems to be what I’ve learned about everything: remaining engaged long enough to understand it, really understand it, displaces fear with respect and even admiration. I suppose this is true for anything, whether mice or kilns or people. Maybe fire fighters should be called fire controllers. How can you “fight” something that doesn’t fight back? It seems to me that when we choose genuine empathy for something or someone we fear, the black-and-white, oppositional nature of the I versus Other relationship invariably dissolves into a mysterious, breathing world of I and Thou. The fire is in between.