Before the temple of fire: in the Oregon woods, tending the art of the inferno.
I've walked in the Quartz Creek drainage near my home in the Cascade Mountains for almost thirty years, and recently have begun to feel I've reached a kind of agreement with the beaver living on its lower stretch, despite obvious, manifold gaps in my understanding of their lives. For these years and longer, until he was incapacitated by a stroke, my downriver neighbor has trapped and killed them and sold their pelts, a tactic of life that never arrived for me, though I, too, have sought something from them. I wanted permission to remove, from the back eddies and banks of their reserve, twigs of alder, willow, and cottonwood that they'd stripped of edible bark. I regarded the abandoned cobs as lumber needed neither for dams nor for shelter. That permission could come in only one way, as I saw it: I would need to make restitution. I would have to establish reciprocity with them.
Managing an arrangement like this is like starting life over in the woods with no help, though I've been at the practice awhile. I've met men of my own culture -- middle-class, educated, white -- engaged in a similar way, exploring moral relations with what we still differentiate as "the natural world." Mostly, in my understanding, equity here comes down to listening. With the beaver, I stand where they've been falling timber or sit somewhere on creek cobbles by willows they've been cutting into. I remain a few hours, not trying to achieve anything, just trying to listen. I then gather a few beaver sticks, depending, and go home. Each one I pick up I heft. I try to get its measure. Are you finished with this one? I think. May I take this one?
I put the sticks in my truck and add them to a pile at home. Most are small, a few feet long, maybe an inch through. In this tenuous exchange with the Quartz Creek beaver, however, a few stout logs -- eight or ten inches through, ten or twelve feet long after I buck them -- have also come my way. It's taken more than a year to assemble a half-cord of beaver wood. I need four cords. It doesn't bother me that this is going to take a while. The slowness of it is another lesson.
The beaver wood is for a particular fire, to be stoked in the maw of a large pottery kiln in the central Coast Range. Fed splits, it will mount and intensify until in the sixtieth hour, devouring Douglas fir, maple, hemlock, and alder chunks the size of a man's leg, it will be as nuclear in aspect as anything seen on earth. The wood heat will surge through the kiln at 2400 [degrees]F, rippling like a river through decks of pottery, clay stabilized just shy of a threshold beyond which it would buckle and ooze like volcanic magma.
The kiln I keep in mind stands in a copse of red alder a few miles from the crossroads village of Chinook. It's misleading to say that someone owns the kiln, in the sense of possessing it like an automobile or a painting, but the man we shall call Jack is its chief interpreter. I'm inclined to call him the kiln's human companion, though paragraphs from now you may choose some other appellation. Local people call it Jack's kiln; or they say the Dragon Kiln, because sometimes flame lashes Gorgon-like from its side ports, because the cavity of its mouth roars white-orange when it's being fed, and because, over a three-day firing, its brick spine arches.
Some among the group of potters who fire there speak of the kiln as though it were sentient. I've watched Jack run his hand over its heated flanks, a light stroke, the way a man might massage the swollen belly of a pregnant woman. Effleurage, it's called. The tender, encouraging motion of his hand is a sign that one is not within the realm of a technology here, but nearer cooperation with a mystery.
When the kiln is hibernating and I'm at Jack's to cut wood, I've still seen him reach for it, his inquiring touch lingering while he considers where, exactly, to stack new wood so that the splits will rotate in right, meld into a flow of firewood so they will wind up at the mouth of the kiln at the right moment, dry, and with the least human effort.
Once Jack and I were falling black locust in the town of Forest Grove near Pacific University, where in 1974 he took a degree in ceramics and comparative religion. I glanced across at him -- the two of us quick-lopping limbs with axes -- an affirmation without words. It seemed we were sprung on white threads, tethers that rose from our shoulders into the bright September sky, and shuddered in the wind's carry across mountains to the Dragon Kiln on a far hillside, to cold decks of firewood there, to an adjacent studio in a converted barn where Jack fisted clay and worked antlers, freshwater mussel shells, bird wings, and a dozen other earthy cantles into his handforms. In that moment, breathing black-locust perfume, we were the kiln's antennae, gathering histories human and natural embedded in the logs. The wood's stories would debouch in the kiln. What had happened to the trees would imbue the pots.
Years from now, when the beaver firing Jack and I plan is finished, I'll carry back a few bowls, a ceramic, mask, maybe a stone whistle. I'll set them amid the cottonwood and alder growing along Quartz Creek, votives placed incongruously on the ground. If I don't, the beaver will intuit something missing, and I will ever after have to walk the creek through their countr-y an exile.
Anagama kilns like lack's, wood-burning tubular chambers built on a gentle slope to promote draft, burn hot enough to fire porcelain. In 1980, perhaps a dozen of them were operating in the United States; by the late 1990s, the number was passing a hundred. Part of the explanation for their popularity lies with the pottery itself. Licked and scorched by wood flame, glazed and encrusted with wood ash, anagama ware contrasts sharply with ware produced in tamer environments like that in an electric kiln. Anagama pots have additional standout character because the effects of a wood firing are so much less predictable than those achieved in the carefully modulated heat of other kilns. Even an experienced anagama fire boss may be unable to explain the outcome of a particular firing and not know how to achieve such beauty again. Strikingly distinguished from the domesticated (some would say staid) appearance of much contemporary pottery, anagama ware impinges on the 1990s the way raku pottery impinged on the 1970s. Its popularity, however, has as much to do with the process as the look.
The physical effort required to prepare wood and feed the fire night and day for several days means a small human community has to coalesce. The communal aspect of this protracted firing, and the fact that the fire changes its nature with a change in stokers or the type of wood being burned, attracts potters drawn to social cooperation, physical work, and subtle firings. Anagama is the antithesis of the rigid commercial kiln processes that produce the indifferent stoneware people most often buy to vase flowers, dish trinkets, and store their pasta in.
I knew none of this when I sought an invitation to one of two anagama kilns I knew were operating in the Coast Range near my home. I approached a woman I shall call Nora, an internationally known Wasco Indian ceramist, and asked if she'd consider introducing me to one of the anagama communities she fired with. Weeks later she called to say, "I think you and Jack should meet." I thought she meant I should learn the anagama process at Jack's kiln near Chinook, but she meant exactly what she said. Jack, half Hawaiian, had grown up in a logging family. He spent a lot of time in the woods and was caught up in the lives of wild animals. Nora believed we had much in common. Before I ever thought of it, she saw the beaver firing coming. And she knew just how Jack would respond.
The landscape cradling the Chinook Dragon Kiln is a patchwork of low-lying pasture and wooded hills, mostly second- and third-growth Douglas fir. (The surrounding area has been heavily and repeatedly logged.) Jack's home stands at the edge of a river valley cleaved by sloughs and wire-fenced into great, green paddocks where meat and dairy cattle graze and wild birds strike and wheel and glean -- herring gulls, ring-billed gulls, crows, cliff swallows, Brewer's blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds, red-tailed hawks, and great blue herons. His few-acre landhold on a southeast-facing slope of alder and Douglas fir sits a few miles inland from the Pacific and includes a beaver-dammed creek.
The kiln shed, roofed with sheet tin and fiberglass panels and corniced with a jerry-built section of clerestory windows, stands on a wooded bench at the back of his property. It closes out most inclement weather -- light winter snows and about eighty inches of annual rain -- but admits the wind. The shed's wide entrance is bunked with ricks of wood and fronted on one side by two long, shallow sheds jammed with kiln fuel: old-growth hemlock, bundles of trim from planing mills, dimension lumber salvaged from house demolitions and dumps, alder, locust, and cherry logs, Douglas fir limbs, shipping pallets, and furniture stiles.
On each of a dozen visits to Jack's to assist at firings and to deliver wood, I've regarded the kiln as a site of repose. It has the feel of a structure built for semireligious purposes or periodic social gatherings, an Eskimo kargi or Hopi kiva. (An unspoken agreement keeps radios, recorded-music players, and cameras out.) Artificial lights are used at night as needed, but only briefly, as though darkness itself were a fuel necessary to the firing. No materials but firewood are stored inside, and no other human activity occurs within. After an unloading the kiln is swept clean.
Stepping into this oblong shed on the day before a firing, one enters a trench-like corridor formed by two six-foot-high walls of dry wood, neatly squared and divided according to species. Passing between these ricks, one arrives at the mouth of the kiln. A semisubterranean tunnel about three feet high, it slopes upward into a hillside at an angle of twelve degrees and is abutted on each flank by a flagstone walkway. These walks, beginning as steps on either side of the main fire door, start at a point about halfway up the catenary arch that describes the kiln's cross section. They rise at a slightly steeper angle than the kiln and run out into the same hillside.
Alongside these stone paths are long decks of short lumber, kindling-size pieces that will be fed through the kiln's side ports. About twenty-five feet from the front fire door, the kiln narrows to form a smoke trace or underground smoke trail, which carries exhaust gases to a yellow-tan firebrick chimney. The flame path from fire door to chimney cap is about fifty-two feet.
Jack once showed me the original drawing for the design, a stub-pencil sketch on ruled paper torn from a notebook. It is characteristic of Jack that he would take a traditional design idea -- the layout for an anagama kiln -- and adapt it to a task he envisioned but had not performed, using whatever materials he had to hand. Traditional anagamas have no fixed length, but they typically consist of a main firebox separated from a ware chamber by an open lattice of stacked brick called a bagwall. The kiln tapers at both ends; its floor ascends in a staircase of long, shallow steps to provide level surfaces on what is customarily a fifteen-degree slope. The vaulted roof is also arched front to back, forming an interior frequently likened to the shape of a candle flame or the inside of an inverted canoe.
Jack's kiln differs in two ways. Its rise is slightly shallower (the consequent reduction in draft, jack imagined, would promote a reducing, or oxygen-poor, atmosphere in the ware chamber). And it's got a loading port about halfway back on the right side. Traditional anagamas are loaded through the front fire door.
Although the japanese are generally credited with perfecting the anagama kiln, the design is Korean, brought over to japan perhaps as early as the fifth century. All anagamas are cross-draft kilns; air enters at one end, passes through a ware chamber, and exits through a flue. Because of the length of the chamber -- the one at Jack's is about nineteen feet -- it can take many hours to build uniformly high temperatures throughout. Anagama firings, therefore, tend to be long, from a few days to a month or more. (Longer firings are deliberately designed to retard the rate at which the chamber gains temperature, an approach some prefer for curing the pots.)
The variables in the anagama process, especially with regard to the type of wood burned and the way in which it's fired, range toward the incalculable. It is largely for this reason that no other pottery currently produced in the United States departs so dramatically in its conception and execution from traditional European ideas of what constitutes art, beauty, and refinement.
Jack built the Dragon Kiln with a friend in 1985, after first experimenting with a salt kiln, a cave kiln, and other firing methods in pursuit of a particular look, an aesthetic grounded in the forms and colors of the Pacific tidal zone and mountains he'd lived in all his life. He built the refractory (heat-reflecting) interior of the kiln with brick salvaged from the lining of a cannery boiler dumped in the Columbia River near Astoria. In place of a second layer of insulating firebrick, which he couldn't afford, Jack chose a nontraditional route. He cased a second layer of hard brick in several layers of insulating and heat -- resistant material -- mixtures of fireclay, Portland cement, and alumina hydrate reinforced with chicken wire. The outermost skin is a pale gray layer of smooth clay mud checked with sooty cracks. (The Japanese contend that in the best anagamas this last layer always cracks in a pattern like a turtle's shell.) Inset in it above the fire door are a black-tailed-deer antler, seashells, and other natural objects on the verge of a handprint at the center.
The kiln walls are about thirteen inches thick. The openings to its interior include the main fire door (nine by ten inches), which surmounts a draft hole eleven inches high by fourteen inches wide; four side-port fire holes (four by six inches) with bottom-hinged firebrick doors; and a side loading port, an open catenary arch thirty-six inches across on the floor and thirty-five inches high. (This entry is bricked up and insulated before a firing begins.) At the end of a firing, the draft hole and the doored ports are bricked and mudded over, and the pots are left to cook. During a seven-day cooling period the temperature drops about 2300 [degrees]F, to about 90 [degrees].
A trained eye, one that had taken in the functional architecture of the famed anagama kilns of medieval Japan in Aichi and Shiga prefectures near Nagoya and studied firings at modern Japanese anagama kilns, would see the lines of Jack's kiln fighting the idea of institutionalized anagama. Indeed, that well-versed visitor, noting that neither the length nor the species of wood here is standardized, that stoking procedures are not regimented nor the stoking shifts formalized, would be inclined to call the Dragon Kiln process chaotic. In cure Jack, however, he would recognize an anagama master (a notion to make Jack smile, break into laughter at the absurdity, and quickly change the subject).
The idea that the individual ceramic artist possesses genius and that the kiln is a servant technology, long the prevailing European view, is replaced at the Dragon Kiln by the idea of a community of artists working alongside a powerful and enigmatic partner. But the learned visitor from Aichi, studying the scene at Jack's on a winter night while rain pounds the tin roof, observing a sweat-drenched stoker shooting a thirty-four-inch split of clear fir through the fire door and hearing the flame careening through pots and sculpture, would recognize anagama, however deinstitutionalized.
One evening, after Jack and I had unloaded three-quarters of a cord of wood from my trailer (a firing typically consumes four cords of wood in seventy-two hours), we took seats in his living room and I asked about his history with the kiln. He recalled building at least six chimneys before getting the draft right. He burned up two or three steel damper plates in the smoke trace ("They couldn't take the energy") and experimented with various air delivery systems before finding one that he felt worked. (Well designed, the latter system ensures the kiln will reach and hold temperatures within a certain time frame; it conveys heat evenly through the ware chamber; and it maintains a reducing or oxidizing atmosphere around the pots, as required.)
Jack's still not entirely happy with the design. And the kiln itself, he points out, changes with every firing. "It changes during a firing," he says. "It's always changing, growing older. Like you."
A community of potters -- a core group of ten or twelve but sometimes more than twenty -- fires regularly at Jack's every three or four months. They cut and haul wood together, and they share chores and potluck food at the firings, around which rotate, like planets, a certain number of jack's neighbors, curious visitors from outside the United States, assorted friends, dogs, and a few children. Although their aesthetics are divergent, the potters take obvious pleasure in examining one another's work before and after a firing. Some are seasoned clay artists, others determined amateurs, but no system of seniority prevails. Jack's is the only conspicuous presence.
Early on in the development of his art, Jack wrapped his pots in natural materials -- grass, feathers -- to create surface effects. Seeing how high-temperature fire warped pots, he began melting species of rock -- feldspar, obsidian, basalt -- into and through his forms. This way, he said, he became "involved for a very short time in the geology of the rock." When we talked about wood that night in his living room he referred to bark as "the expressive and emotional face of the tree." (The distinctive character of an anagama pot comes largely from its contact with gases and ash from mineral-laden wood bark.)
Perhaps the most compelling aspects of Jack's art are the near recklessness with which he approaches the requirement for order, his constant experimentation with unpredictable materials, and the extent to which he includes the accidental. (A Japanese formal garden is considered more beautiful if a few fallen leaves lie scattered about. Jack's taste approximates this principle of shibumi.) His singular devotion to the refinement of his aesthetic, along with the fact that he eschews notions of commerce and career, has made Jack, at the age of forty-eight, something of a hero to other Oregon artists. He's also criticized for favoring process over product; for his lack of interest in perfecting technique ("People focused in on technique," he told me once, "tend to want to make the same thing all over again"); and for his fascination with funk, with most any wamper-jawed object.
The evening we talked about his history with the Dragon Kiln, Jack discoursed about his neighbors at length, as if this group of people, none of them potters, had as much to do with what he was up to as clay or alder wood. He wasn't gossiping. He was clearly intrigued with their skills, their farming success, interested in their self-sufficiency and savvy. Jack grew up within a few miles of here. He joined the Navy after high school and went to Vietnam, but he's deeply rooted in this agrarian landscape. Until 1978, when he became a full-time potter, he supported his wife, Carol, and himself by working as a logger for Crown Zellerbach. His respect for several older men who farm nearby, and who drop in regularly during firings, is based on regard for their physical endurance, the depth of their experience with the surrounding country, and a knowledge of tools and techniques of which they are the last masters. I've seen jack's cups and pots in their living rooms and kitchens, and I've seen their families' grave monuments curing in his kiln. Jack's heritage is theirs, his art merely another mystery, like the life of the wood duck.
In the years since he first started working with clay, jack has come to focus exclusively on local materials; he serves as an anchor for a local community of potters; and he prefers to show his work in local galleries. I've never known an artist more insistently local. It took many conversations before Jack concurred that there was little appreciation around Chinook for what he wants to do. He wants to redefine the relationship of a clay artist to natural materials in an era of manufactured materials; and he wants to redefine the artist's relationship to community in an era of gallery-courting and self-promotion. The absence of local understanding only compels him to pursue his ideals more ardently. He doesn't want to embrace any artistic success that would take him out of daily contact with his neighbors.
"The kiln's very American," Jack said once. "Everyone is welcome -- the accomplished artist with commissioned work, the beginner. We've had a Japanese anagama artist feeding wood alongside a twelve-year-old girl at her first firing. We're always tinkering, you know, looking for new ways to help the community, to make good pots, to involve the wood, the history of the trees. The residue of animals that once lived here is in the clay; my neighbor's cows walk around on it out there."
Jack wants to narrow the rift between human society and nature in works of art. And he wants to insinuate that art in the lives of people who feel they do not have the education or the social standing to appreciate it. In Wood-Fired Stoneware and Porcelain (1995), author J. Troy underscores an often repeated maxim of modern anagama, explaining that it's a spirited rejection of an older English tradition of mastering the materials and exercising a high degree of control to produce an object stopped in time like a portrait. Fire potters, he says, are set apart by a desire to enter the mystery, not merely harness it. For them, he writes, quoting another historian, "the pot may be considered not so much a static object as a record of the play of various forces."
A striking difference between Troy, an international spokesman for woodfire technique, and Jack is that for Jack these forces are more pervasive, unruly, and beautiful, and collaboration with them perhaps more salvific.
Walking me up to my truck that evening we spoke, Jack said, "When I started sketching the kiln out, talking to potters up in Portland and wherever, talking to my dad, you know, thinking where am I gonna get the materials for this, how am I gonna learn it, I saw this was a big, big, big idea." He shook his head, as if to say it is only by such naivete, such miscalculation, that he ever seems to find illumination. It's also, of course, the beginner's mind to which Buddhists aspire.
Jack asked me to wait at the truck while he ran back to the house. From the gravel drive on the hill I could see bufflehead and American widgeon at rest on a pond, the dark crowns of huge maple trees motionless in the night air, and cattle grazing slow as winter in a pasture where I'd heard coyotes howl. Jack returned with a small package, backstrap meat from an elk he'd taken that fall -- in exchange for the wood I'd brought. When I took the package from him I held his hands briefly in mine, then let them slip like a released salmon.
A first-time visitor to the Dragon Kiln quickly spots the signs posted around the eaves of the kiln shed: QUIET PLEASE, DO NOT DISTURB THE STOKERS; CHECK-OUT TIME 2 A.M.; IF IN DOUBT, STOKE. Stenciled on the side of a wheelbarrow is HARDLY MINING CO. One also catches the eclectic array of seats right away. A legless office chair is suspended on cords from the roof beams. Twisted wheelchairs, backless dining chairs, and chairs cobbled together from scrap lumber are clues to funk at the kiln. Taken together with the stokers' clothing ("singewear"), the soot and wood debris that smudges people's faces and clings to their hair, and the mud that forms around the shed entrances during a firing in the rain, the chairs offer a stark contrast to the raison d'etre, the spectral eggs visible in a fundament of white heat when a fire door is opened for a stoke.
The first time I came to Jack's, arriving late on a fall evening and walking up the steep drive in a light mist to find him and a friend silhouetted against light projected from the draft hole, I marked the chairs. At night they convey an informal conviviality, suggesting the comfort of a battered sofa in a well-used clubhouse. I held back in the mist for a while, watching the two men, the sideways incline of their heads, a gesture of the hand indicating an occasional remark. Later, I would understand that Jack's concentration was on the color of the flame, on listening to sonic amplitudes that signaled the fire's rhythm and intensity, and that he was second-guessing the load, his placement of some 300 pieces of stemware, flatware, and hollowware. The reactions inside the kiln -- quartz inversions in the clay, the melting of glazes in the Hyrcanian fire -- belied the tranquillity, the domesticity of the scene.
On first encounter Jack seems extremely polite and slightly scattered. Dark brown eyes, short black hair. His corded muscles lean not bulked. He walks quickly, with a slight forward cant, as if compensating for a lumbar injury. His habit of lacing his boots in such a way as to bind in his lower pant legs, an assortment of odd ball caps, and the way his belt bypasses belt loops contribute to an impression of absent-mindedness. The idiosyncrasies form an effective barrier, however, for someone exceedingly private. Behind the ready laugh, the urgency with which he seeks someone else's view on a problem, he's alert like a wild animal, as focused as a cutting torch.
In the months following our introduction, Jack and I drove about a good deal in his truck or mine, cutting firewood, culling used lumber from dump sites, collecting fresh mussels and clams for dinner. We stopped for anything that looked useful. Sometimes we dug clay.
Jack has a good grasp of local geology and of the soils within fifty miles of his home. I found it difficult at first to grasp "clay." Most clays derive from the disintegration of granitic and feldspathic rock, and consist of silicates and aluminum oxides bound with water molecules. Stoneware clays, unlike earthenware clays, hold their shape at very high temperatures; all clays render color according to impurities they contain, mostly metallic oxides of iron, and some manganese, copper, and chromium. Clay is further textured and colored by the action of glazes and slips and, in wood firing, by the deposition of cinders and fly ash, by moisture and minerals in the wood, and by fluctuations in the intensity and quantity of energy in the fire.
Selecting or mixing clay for an anagama firing is like setting out the two-by-fours for a house. Although the framing lumber is essential, there's slight hint of the architecture in it.
The chemistry and geology of clays (a staple component of the protracted conversation around a firing), like the throwing of pots, didn't draw me like the kiln process, the central mystery in anagama. At Jack's, an elementary dragon inhaled massive drafts of air from a grove of alders to feed a fire so hot it melted stone, and the earth within it was wrung of water. Around these primal elements, a group of men and women, some with Native American and Asian backgrounds, worked hard on the problematic themes of community life: loyalty, selflessness, respect, generosity. How, they would inquire, feeding wood, can such desirable attributes be maintained in a culture where consumption has replaced communion, where the consumer has replaced the neighbor? More than quartz inversions, more even than potters' gossip sometimes, these topics bearing on communality drove the anagama conversation.
Here is what Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher and science historian, had to say about the animating element in this event:
Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and hides there, latent and pent-up, like hate and vengeance. Among all phenomena, it is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in paradise. It burns in hell.
That night I came up the hill and met Jack and the others for the first time, I knew I was at the edge of something right away, a kind of knowledge I didn't have but that I might intuit. Given the late hour, I was reluctant to stride up the grade. Someone's dogs might be loose in the bucolic dark. The firings were closed, the community close-knit. Why make room for a stranger? All I possessed, really, was the introduction from Nora, my enthusiasm, and, by a slight stretch, the credential of local residence.
Jack's curious about enthusiasm. His initial handshake was cordial, and without preamble we fell into a conversation about wood, which is alchemical for him. We talked like two paleontologists passing an inscrutable bone back and forth. (The first time I brought Jack a load of black locust, a wood with which he was not familiar, he took a narrow split and sat with it, turning it over and examining it carefully, as if it were an expensive vase. He lay it to his cheek to get its moisture. After a while he suggested that it compared with cascara in smell and color. He went back to the deck of logs we'd stacked and picked at them with his fingernail. He likened its texture to elderberry wood. A while later he pronounced the locust "imposing" as a kiln wood because of its thick bark. What you could get from an index to firewood -- locust's specific gravity, its porosity -- was not as interesting to him as the sound of his fingernail popping away from the runnels of its bark.)
The summer after I started firing with Jack, I learned that a house lot in a nearby town was being cleared of trees and went to look it over. The owners had felled bigleaf maple, Douglas fir, Lombardy poplar, red cedar, that black locust, and a little cherry. I cut about three cords of locust, maple, and cherry, using my truck like a tractor to skid the big logs free of one another and swamping them out with a limbing axe and a bow saw. I bucked them into thirty-four-inch lengths with a chain saw, split the bolts, and loaded them.
I like working alone at a steady pace, using the mechanical advantage of a truck and employing good hand tools in combination with power tools. The days I was cutting were sweltering, and I gorged on water. I worked the day long damp with sweat. Canada geese and ducks flew by over the river, and when the saw wasn't running I could hear woodpeckers tappeting and osprey cries. Splitting the locust revealed pale green heartwood and creamy-white sapwood. It split cleanly through the bole but called for a wedge higher up in its stout limbs. The cherry split as cleanly, its heartwood golden in the sunlight and bound by a rind of pale tan sapwood. The organic smells were intoxicating. The textures in the saw kerfs drew my eye, drew hand.
I was refreshed by the physical labor and surprised to find a set of river-otter tracks etched sharply in a patch of silt. When I asked the owners what decided them to cut the trees down, they shrugged. One said a larger lawn would improve the property. The woodpeckers, I thought, the osprey, the otters tangent to the trees, were they just to move along now' I nodded politely. to his logic.
When I told Jack the story of the man's disdain for the life around him, he asked me to describe the otter tracks. He told me about a time he found a Lincoln-head cent in a coyote scat.
You load the Dragon on hands and knees. You squat in its dank interior like someone preparing to trowel a flower bed. The refractory walls gleam chocolate, the color of impurities boiled out of the brick over time. The tang of a fresh coat of kiln wash rises off the cream-colored floor. The air is damp from a hosing out the day before and cool because of the heat sink of the earth underneath. The stark record of sixty-some firings is apparent where fireclay mortar has cracked or where wood ash has bonded to the walls.
Stacking (or "loading" or "setting") an anagama kiln is guided, as is all else in this process, by a mixture of the irrational and the intuitive, set within the ambit of the known. The same pot fired in a different place in the kiln -- high or low, front or back -- will come out looking different. It will take its look, too, from the pots it's placed beside. Pots toward the front will be more affected by ash deposits. They'll mature in this, the hottest part of the kiln, in a reducing (oxygen-lean) environment, in which dark black and deep purple wood-ash glazes commonly emerge. The floor at the back of the kiln, where the flame tongue is at its thinnest, is usually the coolest section. An oxidizing (oxygen-rich) atmosphere here most often produces softer blushes of color. But every kiln has microenvironments; and the way the kiln is loaded sets up wind currents that affect the circulation of the flame and ash, sometimes creating strong back eddies that will accentuate the asymmetric glazing typical of anagama pottery.
The stacker is charged with building the rapids around which the river of fire will stream. The usual practice is to stack tightly near the top to force the flame down to the floor, but the loader must also stack firmly and securely so that pieces won't fall over or get knocked down by a stick of side wood. He or she also has to select, in consultation with the artist, a "front" for each piece, the part of it that will face the flame. Some pieces are tumble-stacked together, leaning against each other or a wall; others are set on silicon-carbide shelves' which then are tiered up using posts of the same material or firebricks set on end. To keep melting glazes and slips from bonding pots to the shelves or the floor, the pieces are footed on handformed wads of kaolin (a porcelain clay) or a similar material.
At Jack's, considering all these variables, a conscientious stacker will want two days to load, though he or she rarely gets it.
Potters bring three sorts of ware to the kiln: unfired pots, called greenware; bisque ware (short for biscuit ware), which has already been fired but at a lower temperature; and ware previously fired at high temperatures that is to be fired over again, anagama-style. The majority is bisque ware. Its pale tan, pink, and white coloration gives no indication of the primary colors -- ethereal, tortured, deep -- that will emerge days hence.
The loader will also set out test bowls, draw tiles, and cone packs. Test bowls contain minerals in loose or powdered form. The way fire affects these bits of glass and rock gives the potters some idea of how they might behave used in glazes at high temperature. Draw tiles (or draw "trials") are pulled from the kiln during a firing. Their condition gives stokers a sense of how various glazes are fusing, though not what their colors might be, because the tiles are cooled too quickly, plunged hissing and spitting into a bucket of water.
Cone packs (or "plaques") are temperature indicators. They consist of four or five pastel-colored clay posts, each one with a different melting point, set up like a picket row of three-inch fangs in a base of high-temperature clay. Six or eight cone packs, placed atop the bagwall and within view of the side stokers, give the fire boss an idea of time and temperature relationships in the kiln and of differences in heat distribution. At Jack's the desired goal most often is to "get cone ten down" at the back of the kiln and to "get twelve down and fourteen leaning a little" at the bagwall. (If the kiln has been gaining temperature at about 108 [degrees] F /hour, cone twelve will go down at 2383 [degrees] F, cone fourteen at 2530 [degrees] F. Above these temperatures, very few things on earth hold together. The most refractory materials known, carbides like tantalum carbide, borides and sulphides, and a few elements like hafnium, have melting points approaching 4000 [degrees] F. Outside these rare and often unstable exotics, common clay -- [2SiO.sub.2][Al.sub.2.[O.sub.3[2H.sub.2.O] -- is one of the most heat-resistant earthly compounds.)
It's commonly suggested by fire potters that commercial clays don't fare well in wood-fired kilns. Many Dragon Kiln potters mix their own clays. They're after a certain degree of plasticity in the clay body. They'll also blend in preferred fluxes like talc and bone ash that act like shortening in a cake mix. For color they'll wedge in mineral impurities, coarsely or finely ground. And they'll add a greater measure of refractory material like alumina (aluminum oxide) or kaolin to help the pot hold its shape in very high temperatures but still open its pores to the wood ash.
One evening, stoking at a side port and taking a few extra moments -- with the head stoker's permission -- to stare into the fire with a pair of welder's glasses, I actually saw the current of white heat moving slowly through the kiln. It flowed visibly around sculpture, vases, and kimchi jars, stroking the larger pieces, as Jack had described; It moved through like a storm front unfolding over low hills and a wooded plain, a silent susurration. The head stoker signaled me to close the port. He didn't want to lose temperature.
I sat there in the darkness, listening to big winds coming in off the Pacific and seething in the alder grove without, to the clatter of rain spat and alder twigs on the corrugated roof. The weather, especially the wind, is one of the uncontrolled natural elements that help form anagama ware; in the stacking and in the stoking of the kiln, however, one can't miss the clear assertion of human will, a desire to exercise authority very much in keeping with human nature, East and West. The Dragon Kiln potters deliberately try to achieve some of the very effects their progenitors in Japan were trying to prevent, by not paying such scrupulous attention to heat and temperature fluctuation, and by not controlling so tightly the spacing and duration of cycles of reduction and oxidation.
"We have this incredible tool," Jack mused one day. "The hard part is knowing what you want."
At midpoint in a long firing, the kiln and its environs have come to feel as comfortable as old clothes to the participants. To an outsider, the scene may seem as intimidating as an unfamiliar urban neighborhood. Especially confusing is the temporal disarray. Three or four people may be upstairs in the loft above Jack's studio, sleeping off a night shift. Someone else might be grilling in whole salmon on a bed of coals taken from the kiln's firebox. Someone else is racking splits of wood in a rick closer to the head stoker's reach. Another person might be shaking off a nap with a cold breakfast, thrown together from an array of casseroles and fresh and fast food arranged on long tables in a covered area adjacent to Jack's studio.
It's hard to discern a clear pattern of work, but the fire is never without a head stoker, without a personality to engage with. Someone's always driving. It's the map that eludes an observer, and to a lesser degree the participants.
The fire-baking of clay, the oldest and most widespread human art, begins with wood fire. Fred Olsen, in a review of the history of ceramics, calls wood "the most alluring" of fuels, but its allure defies analysis. To a stoker it has two salient characteristics beyond its species and mineral content. First, how wet is it? What is its degree of greenness' Although green wood may come into play at some point (to hold temperature but not increase it), it's dry wood the stoker wants. Each split of wood, secondly, has its own volume and surface area. The smaller and drier the pieces, the farther back in the kiln the flame will reach. Softwoods will produce fewer coals than hardwoods and release their energy more quickly, though hardwoods hold more potential energy in any given volume of wood. Bark wood will provide most of the ash and cinder for natural glazing, but the stoker, either as a variable in his or her own regimen or in concert with other head stokers, might want to stay with lumber wood for a few hours in order to raise temperature in the kiln more quickly.
Ideally, the head stoker will examine every piece of wood he or she pitches in, watching especially for painted wood, plywood, wood with nails, and driftwood. Their salt, metal, glues, and enamels could mar the pots. (Such possibilities, again, might be attractive to potters at a particular firing. As a rule, however, stokers set aside any material likely to corrode the interior of the kiln, such as driftwood, because of its salt content.)
Whatever wood a stoker selects and with whatever rhythm it's fed, the combination will have three basic effects. It will raise or lower temperature (a measure of the intensity of the energy being released by combustion). It will increase or lower heat (a measure of the quantity of energy flooding the interior of the kiln). And it will change the atmosphere in the kiln. Understoking makes more oxygen available, producing an oxidizing atmosphere for the pots. It will also promote an increase in temperature and allow for fuller combustion of carbon in the wood, resulting in fewer coals. Overstoking removes oxygen from the kiln, creating a reducing atmosphere. It retards a rise in temperature, but it permits more ash to circulate in the kiln wind. It also produces an excess of coals, which may crowd the firebox and have to be removed.
Depending on the stage of the firing, and what effect the stoker is after, he or she will favor either a reducing or an oxidizing fire. (The nature of Jack's kiln and the method of firing it are such that it's more often in an oxidizing state. A stoker can quickly judge the condition of the kiln atmosphere with a glance at the chimney cap. A dunce cap of flame there indicates reduction; a cone of clear shimmering air, oxidation.
Troy writes that fire has five important characteristics: tempo, velocity, sound, color, and texture. By a regular visual inspection of the tire, by exchanging information with the side stokers, noting the gradual collapse of the cones, and paving attention to the roar, a good stoker can keep track of the behavior of the fire and convey that information to her successor at a shift change. (At Jack's, much of this is written down in a kiln log for later review.)
Traditionally, anagama firings start out slowly. The fire at the Dragon Kiln is lit on bare ground in front of the draft hole. It's a small fire, meant to heat the interior of the kiln very gradually. Hours later, after the kiln has developed a good draft, the fire is pushed into the firebox. The side-port doors, left open to vent moisture from the kiln during the initial heating phase, are closed and the fire is slowly built up. Sixty or so hours later the temperature at the front of the kiln peaks at over 2400 [degrees] F. The head stoker holds it there for another twelve hours or so, a final, high-temperature "soaking" of the sculpture and pots.
Firings at Jack's always seem to end at about two in the morning. The last few sticks might be passed around and people present might hand-rub them along their length before sliding them through the fire door, sometimes with a generous soaking of sake. The fire door is then closed for the last time and mudded over along with the side ports and the main draft. The chimney is damped and capped, and the fire is left to bum itself out. At a temperature of about 1075 [degrees] F, a few days after the kiln is shut down, its interior has cooled enough to no longer glow. For the first time since a fire was struck at its mouth, the inside of the Dragon is dark.
Some front stokers work relaxed but are highly focused. Others are fastidiously organized and intense. Some exude confidence; others are unsure, self-conscious. Over the years, Jack's seen many personalities come and go at the Dragon Kiln, and he has been through the trials of human community with them. In a group like this, where little money changes hands, no one who arrives without wood or food stays long. Jack and the others pose silent questions to any newcomer: Can you imagine the other fellow's needs? Can you recognize and take on the less glamorous, more onerous tasks? Can you put a young visitor at ease? Will you give as much as you take?
Since it requires an integrated human community to properly load, fuel, and operate an anagama kiln, keeping the community well integrated is a sine qua non of memorable anagama pots. As the linchpin of a leaderless group, Jack exerts a great influence on the direction a firing takes; and for as serious an artist as he is, he shows remarkable flexibility and patience. During several firings I watched him observe petulance, competition, and immaturity without a ripple. To him, such expressions of frustration are just another stick in that particular fire.
When I pressed him, about a year after we met, he confided that only three things really bothered him. People who didn't bring wood or ever join wood-gathering or wood-cutting expeditions. Loadings that went too quickly, because people waited until the last minute to bring their pots. And the way people scattered so soon after an unloading. There was no time, then, to savor what happened, to study it.
In the beginning, probably like any outsider, I perceived a relatively seamless group of fifteen or so people ebbing and flowing in their emotions through a firing, a mall of them clearly at ease with each other and enjoying each other's company. (Very few human events anymore, of course, bring people together this intensely for this long on a regular basis.) But over the two years I attended firings, I saw people who didn't have much to offer except their pots eased gently out of the group; and I watched others struggle with new responsibilities as fire bosses. One person's dog interrupted another person's steep or ate someone's unguarded food, and it was roundly denounced to its owner. People sketched when someone else wouldn't relinquish his position as head stoker. What I saw was the prosaic stumbling of human endeavor. But what always seemed praiseworthy about this polyglot group, what overrode any individual failing, was their willingness to work, to cooperate, to give in to each other. And Jack was the exemplar.
Toward the end of my time in their community, the Dragon Kiln potters were getting ready for their first group show. Wrote one artist in her artist's statement, "There is no switch to flip to turn the kiln on, and no computer to monitor its progress, so there is room for human ignorance, and therefore room for brilliance as well." A ceramics instructor wrote of the kiln "sometimes speaking a language hard to understand," and of the harmonious relationship he found between the "gestural qualities" of his pieces and the action of the wood fire. And he wrote that the ritual of firing helped him reestablish the connections he wanted to have with other people and with the landscape he lived in.
Nearly every potter used the same terms of wonder, curiosity, and respect in referring to the Dragon Kiln community and in describing ceramic sculpture and pots. They saw each as integral to the most important element of a firing-creation, making beautiful and useful objects within the frame of a working community.
A potter who'd attended firings at the kiln since the early '90s wrote of how Jack's neighbors-loggers, fishermen, farmers, store owners, high-school teachers -- and a small but steady stream of visitors had affected him. "It is the most unusual coming together of divergent personalities and occupations that I have ever seen," he wrote; "And each time I look at one of the pots that came from the kiln, I am, reminded of these many different people who made a difference in the looks of that pot."
Jack remarked once that stoking the fire was like "groping in an energy field." He could as easily have said this of building relations with potters in his community. It annoys him when people don't attend to each other, or presume they know what someone else is going to say. In response to this tendency toward inattentiveness, he once removed a pyrometer (a device that measures temperatures inside a kiln) that he'd reluctantly agreed to install. "People were watching the pyrometer," he told me. "They weren't listening to the kiln."
Sad moments come at a firing: a pot is seen to break down inside or someone suffers a burn or an allergic reaction to the terrific heat. The saddest moments are at the end, when it's finished and there's nothing to do but wait out the week and see what's happened. People drift off to their cars and trucks, some omitting their good-byes. Others collapse in makeshift beds or on sleeping pads in the summer woods and sleep away the rest of the night.
One time I drove up to Jack's the evening before an unloading. I found him in the shed, his back to me, his hands to the kiln's blunt nose above the fire door. He brushed its surface like a man comforting a stranded whale. I went down to the house and waited for him.
In my memory unloadings often fall on sunny days. (Because so many in the community have other jobs -- nurse, set designer, computer technician, freelance photographer -- firings usually begin on a Thursday and end on a Sunday, with the unloading a week later.) Robins, Swainson's thrushes, and fox sparrows call from the alders, and more children than attend a firing are running around, with more dogs. The mood is festive but anxious. Although most of the work in the kiln is personal or even experimental, some potters have expensive commissioned pieces inside and may be on tenterhooks. The chimney is uncapped and undamped and the stoking ports are opened to vent the last of the heat before the wall in the loading port is dismantled. The interior is always warm and, entering the kiln, it's easy to believe it's still breathing, still alive.
It takes only half as many hours to unload, or "draw," the kiln as it does to load it. Each piece is examined first in the low-temperature light of an incandescent bulb, then handed to someone outside who looks at it quickly in the warmer but still shaded light of the kiln shed. Finally it's passed to someone in bright sunshine, where the pale ware of ten days ago reveals itself fully. Here, as if by a miracle, are raucous purples, coy yellows, prosaic blues, belligerent reds, and what the poet Denise Levertov calls ardent whites. Here are glazes thin as breath, cracks that enhance a form rather than mar it because of where they occur. Here are deposits of ash that unify, like a calligrapher's hana stroke, elements in a piece that previously were not well integrated. Here is a pot that raises nothing but a shrug from its maker and causes someone else to do a double take.
The pots -- jars, tiles, masks, urns, torsos, bowls, faux industrial tools, water pitchers -- come forth sintered, flashed, scorched, ash-decorated, swollen, fatigued, and composed. Some glazes are seen to have produced unfamiliar colors, other glazes to have wept across a piece like colored rain. As the pieces come from the kiln they're arranged on large tables where a milling crowd of potters and their families and everyone's friends can examine them at leisure, lifting, comparing, appraising. Meaning bursts through in disjointed ways in some pieces that are technically flawed. Other work shows exceptional technical skill but no strong vision. Classic pieces contrast with kitsch, the whimsical with the romantic.
Gradually exposed to light, the interior of the kiln appears tomblike. Beneath one side port a large jar sits bunked in ashes, seemingly the dust of centuries. At another side port a cluster of tumble-stacked, unglazed cups looks like a nest of dinosaur eggs. Pots that have buckled may have destroyed stronger pots alongside them. Dripping glazes may have glued some pots to the shelves. (They can often be tapped free using a wooden mallet, a toosening achieved not by direct blows but by setting up a harmonic vibration.) On the surface of pots from the front of the kiln you can read the generational and evolutionary phases of the firing, the layering-up of ash. Pieces klink now. Glaze and clay have become glass and stone.
What Jack calls "successful" is any pot that offers good evidence of the anagama process. It might not in itself be a beautiful object. I asked him once what a potter means at an unloading by referring to a pot as "a failure." Is it a failure because it cracked or was otherwise distorted by the heat and temperature? Or was it an aesthetic failure because the color was unappealing?
After a moment he asked, "What's the difference?"
The ceramics historian Daniel Rhodes has written, "Often the kiln confers graces on the pots which exceed even the potter's dreams. The greatest pots are those one meets coming from the kiln as strong objects; they may seem in texture or color quite beyond one's power to visualize or predict."
"The best pots," Jack told me one evening, "make me understand something I never did before." After a pause he said, "In wood fire, what I'm involved with in myself is the part some people call `nature.' It's an emotional thing that's grown into me through the things I have eaten and the space that I have lived in, and stuff that has seeped into me over a very long period of time. I know that. And if we separate ourselves from nature, we will never understand wood fire. We will never appreciate it in its ultimate sense."
My conversations and working days with Jack were always marked by long silences, as if we were fishing for steelhead together in the coastal rivers and not inclined to talk much because it broke our concentration on the fish. Late one night when he was stoking the front port and we were sitting together for four or five minutes at a time, Jack told me about a pot he'd placed in Tanner's River, the river that the creek he lives by drains into. He told me he waded out and put it down in the current and left it there for several months, and that when he came back and pulled it out, holding it up to the light and letting the water spill down his arms, he was astonished to find he felt the same way he'd felt taking the pot out of the kiln. Jack, who is childless, never looked across at me but kept his eyes on the fire.
When he sat down again, I told him that for several years I had been walking in the current of the river by my house. In summer the current is clear, the river no deeper than three feet, and you can see the bottom on the other side more than three hundred feet away. It's a strong current, I said, but I'd learned to walk in it without a staff by not having any specific goal, no particular place I had to get to, no thing I had to do. I just wanted to be in the current. I wanted to feel it against my legs, feel it against my arms when I swept them back and forth in the cold water. I wanted the undulation of it to enter my flesh. I wanted to take the physical sensation and translate it.
"The kiln's just like the river," said Jack. "We're trying to get back inside something here."
The next morning, before I left, I walked up the creek on Jack's place to a spot where beaver had been working. They'd built a series of dams, and the water there was so calm I could follow the convolution of clouds in its surface. Ravens called around me, that complicated raw cry and pop and cluck and mutter they can make. I thought of the beaver back home on Quartz Creek, and imagined beaver all over the mountains carrying on despite all that had happened to the country they lived in. I saw their forbearance.
At the next unloading, Jack gave me one of his large pots. It was fall. I took it home and put it out in the middle of the river to overwinter.
Midway through my time at the kiln, Jack had a one-person show at a local gallery. I came up for the opening on a cool, wet October night. His slide presentation was disarmingly open and unpretentious -- photographs of woodcutting, of stoking the kiln at night, snapshots of his neighbors and of slash burning on local clear-cuts, studio portraits of his confreres' pots. He spoke directly to issues of community and the importance of the commonplace.
I bought one of Jack's large pots for a friend in California and milled among the crowd until it thinned and only Jack and a few friends were left. It was suggested that we all go somewhere for coffee, but it was late and Jack wanted to get home. He was after anonymity again. Like clay and wood, privacy, a freedom from scrutiny, was crucial.
It takes about five hours to drive from Jack's house to mine, to cross the Coast Range, move up the Willamette Valley, and then up the McKenzie into the Cascade Range. I got home from Jack's opening just before dawn and watched first light rise in the woods and infuse a stream of river fog. I heard birds calling out repeatedly as the day began to brighten. I was relieved to be home. I went down to the riverbank and sat, weary from the drive, wanting the refreshment of cool air in my lungs and on my face. in that morning stillness, the hesitation of breath that bridges night and day, I heard a characteristic river sound, a sound that can be unsettling at night and in daylight is often dismissed as something else. It is a shifting on the cobble bottom of the river, a muffled thud coming from a place where the current has prized a rock loose and wedged it differently in the bed.