Friday 11 February 2011

Fire & Snow

The grey winter light filters softly through the bedroom windows as I emerge reluctantly from my warm cocoon. It is Sunday, so there is no need for Mika and the kids to surface yet. I quietly don the work clothes I put on the chair beside the bed last night, the touch of the fabric cold against my skin. I walk through the children’s room to the studio, change into my heavy work boots and step through the studio doors into the stinging cold. My boots crunch across the snowy ground as I walk to the kiln shed, the snow flakes whispering as they fall. My breath billows in clouds of vapour and forms droplets of condensation on my moustache. The clock on the shelf says 7:30 am. The pyrometer display tells me it is -16C. I hope it is wrong.

The sulphurous smell of the freshly struck match is quickly replaced by the fragrance of burning spruce as I set light to the fronds and kindling I arranged in the dual fire mouths of the kiln last night. The fire crackles as the flame climbs hungrily from twig to branch, and when it is burning well I check the top of the chimney to make sure the fire is being drawn through the kiln properly. When the first of the wood starts to crumble into embers I place five pieces of wood, cross hatched, in each fire box. Twenty minutes have passed since I lit the kiln, the pyro reads 15C. Satisfied, I return to the house to light the kitchen stove and start cooking breakfast.

The wood stove heats up quickly, warming the kitchen and living room, and the family emerges one by one. One must never waste a hot oven, especially on a cold snowy day, so I make batch of scones. Every twenty minutes I go out to stoke the kiln, and by the time the scones are cooked the kiln and the oven are both reading 180c. Scones with lashings of blueberry jam and cream, cappuccino for Mika and me, warm milk and honey for the kids. I leave the washing up to the family and go out to tend the kiln.

The snow has stopped falling, the fire in the kiln pops and crackles, the rest of the world is still and hushed. The plum trees in the garden are just beginning to bloom, and the snow decorates the blossoms with crystal mantles. The kiln gets hungrier as it heats up, rising 100C per hour, and the stokes get closer together; every ten minutes, every five..

The tribe comes rushing from the house in full winter regalia, and amid shouts, bursts of laughter and flurries of snow balls, an igloo and a giant snowman arise in the garden. Happy and exhausted, the children return to the house for lunch. The kiln has reached 6ooC, and I begin to stoke on top of the fire grates. Now the firing starts to get busy, climbing three hundred degrees in half an hour. 700... 800... 900C, I adjust the damper and the kiln starts to reduce. Mika sends Sora out with a lunch tray. "Buta-don", simmered pork on rice, with vegetables and miso soup. We drink green tea from Yunomi Chawan as we talk.

The tea is hot, 85C, when it is poured into the Yunomi, and the porcelaineous clay holds the heat well. In the west, we fill our cups with tea or coffee and they are too hot to hold, which is why we invented handles. In Japan, however, a yunomi is used. "Yunomi Chawan" (湯呑茶碗) means "Tea Bowl for Hot Water", and yet it has no handle. It is not used the same way as a "Macha Chawan" (抹茶茶碗), which is for powdered green tea in the tea ceremony. Instead, it is filled from a small tea pot to two thirds, which leaves the top third cool enough to lift between the index finger and thumb. Once lifted, it's foot is rested on the upturned fingers of the left hand, and it is lifted to the lips with both hands.

The Yunomi in this firing are designed with a change of direction at the two third mark, with a concave curve up to the rim which makes it easy to pick up with one hand. The foot is quite high, which protects the hand from the hot hip of the pot, and it's diameter is just nice to fit between the first and third joints of your fingers. Of course, people have different sized hands, and generally men's hands are larger than women's, so two sizes are made. They are called "Me-Oto" (夫婦), which means husband and wife, but the difference in size is for practical purposes, not social discrimination.

Sora sits with me as I fire the kiln, and we talk of many things. I explain to her about the trees using sunlight as energy to split the carbon dioxide in the air into carbon, which becomes the wood, and free oxygen which we need to breath. How, when I burn the wood, the flame releases the carbon and recombines it with oxygen to create energy and heat. How the hot, free carbon flows hungrily through the kiln, dragging oxygen from the materials in the clay, reducing them and changing their structure and colour. How everything in the universe is made of the same atoms, constantly combining, separating and recombining to become all the things around us, and that we are a part of that. That everything that is, always was, and always will be, it is merely changing form throughout eternity.

She is quiet for a while, as the heat of the kiln climbs and flames come blasting from the blow hole at the top of the door, like dragons tongues licking from the depths of the kiln.

"Dad," she says quietly, "What is Death?"

I look at her. "What do you think it is?" I ask.

"I don't know, really, that's why I'm asking you."

"Well," I say, smiling, "I think it's important to think about what life is first. Our bodies and all the atoms in them follow the same rules as the rest of the universe, so when we die, they change and become other things. Our spirit, our self, exists as surely as our bodies, does it not? The you that looks out through your eyes and sees the world and calls it beautiful is as real as the eyes that it looks through, but it cannot be measured. Yet it is, as much and no less as everything else that is, so how can it ever cease to be, if nothing else in the universe does?"

She nods slowly, a look of consideration on her face. The wind picks up and snow begins to fall once more. A flurry of snow flakes swirls into the kiln shed and a single flake sticks briefly to her cheek, before melting and running down to her chin like a tear drop.

I reach out and gently wipe it away. "I believe," I say,"That there is a great and universal spirit that pervades the universe, though we cannot see it nor measure it. It is like water, amorphous and all pervading. But in special circumstances, it crystallises into individual souls, like snow flakes. Every one is different, individual, special, and through all eternity it will never be repeated. For it's brief time it is the most beautiful and perfect crystallisation of the universal spirit, and though it may be surrounded by overwhelming numbers of other flakes, lost in drifts, buffeted by storms, and feels cold and alone sometimes, it partakes of the essence that is life itself and it is never really alone. And when its time is done, it will melt and return to the water from which it came, and flow once again as part of the universal spirit. It may, one day, be part of another snow flake, but the stuff of which it is made has always been and will never not be."

I hug her as the wind begins to buffet the kiln shed. "I believe that death is no more than the melting of a snow flake and it's return to the water from which it came. It is nothing to fear. What is much more important is to revel in the beauty and wonder of that snow flake, for it is unique and the miracle of its existence makes the universe a richer and more beautiful place."

She smiles at me. "Thank you, Dad. I love you."

"I love you, too." I say. "It's getting too cold out here, you'd better go inside."

The firing continues through the dusk and into the dark. Inside the kiln, as the temperature rises to 1300C, the minerals in the wood ash flying with the flames through the kiln melt into glass, and the yunomi change, vitrify, and become something new. When I open the kiln I will discover beauty that I have not made, that I have not seen before, but which has been born of the forces of nature, each vessel a new and individual expression of the beauty of nature. I feed the kiln, I listen to it and watch the flame, and I wait.

The cones are down, I believe the firing is done. I wait for it to cool to 1100C before stoking one last bundle of wood in each fire mouth and sealing the kiln. The snow has gone, the sky is clear, a crescent moon smiles down at me and the world shines in the darkness. The snow creaks beneath my feet as I go home for my supper, home in the warmth of my families embrace.

I have never really been a "chronicler" by nature. I find that I now have a lot of experiences, and things that I have learned from them, which I would like to share; And people like you seem to find them of value, which is very encouraging. Thank you.

The experiences go on though, every day, and I find myself with the conundrum of having a lot to write about and no time to write it! No words will ever compare to the actual feel of snow flakes on your skin, the smooth texture of a warm yunomi in your hand, the flavour and fragrance of green tea or the sound of children's laughter in the whispering snow.


  1. thanks euan...and thanks for the yunomi story too, everything has a purpose and a name for it in japan..

  2. That was a beautiful story man. I will never look at snowflakes the same way. Gonna go hug my kids now. Thanks.

  3. You made me cry again!

  4. What a beautiful and moving post. Sora--as well as your other children--are very fortunate to have you as a father. I cannot help but think how different my life might have been had I had a father like you.

  5. I agree with Growin' Granny, if my father were Euan, my life would be different. But I prefer Euan as my husband rather than my father, so my life is not so bad.

  6. i really appreciate your posts, euan. i am a relatively new reader of your blog, and i have enjoyed all of your posts so much. you have a gift for articulating those meaningful moments of working in clay that are the reason that many of us are drawn to the craft. thank you for sharing.

  7. Mika, I didn't mean to overlook you. Like your children, you are very fortunate to have such a man in your life. But, even more importantly, I'm sure that you contribute a great deal to your children and that you are raising fine young people with good hearts. They are very fortunate to have you both.

  8. Your words flow with beauty...

  9. I, too, love this post. My reading is enriched by my memory of watching you working at the wheel, entertaining a group of visiting potters while keeping three pairs of eager little hands off the freshly thrown pots you were preparing for an up coming exhibition in Tokyo. I left the group for a few minutes and wandered out to see the kiln you built in its little shed. That is a treasured memory of my 2004 visit to Japan. It is the perfect backdrop to today's lovely post--which I plan to send to my grandchildren. Thank you.

  10. Beautiful post as always Euan-san. You really do have a natural talent to write. Your story makes my heart warm and gives a smile on my face. The greatest thing is that every time I read your post, there is always something I learn from, which I find it so fortunate. I am sure many of us readers feel that way. Thank you for sharing. xm

  11. I am about to celebrate my 65th birthday and have been reviewing things about my life and my beliefs and feeling somewhat lonely.Then I was told about you and began to read.The resulting emotion generated by your words has brought me relief and a measure of confidence that ,despite the sometimes overwhelming challenges,my life is blessed--a gift--a journey that I love being on.Thank you for sharing a beautiful mind with us.

  12. Thank you! Your story about telling your daughter about life with the snowflake metaphor is one of the most moving pieces I have ever read. What an extraordinary family and life you have.

  13. I came to your post from a link on Ceramics Daily....

    This has been one of the most beautiful discriptions of life and death I have heard. It gives me hope. Thank you. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  14. My eyes are still damp from reading your words, but my heart feels full. The beauty of living in the moment is lost to many of us striving for a place in this fast world. Your lovely words pull us back to the reality of what we have in the present. It is all we really have, yet we constantly strive for either the past or the future. Interesting that we use the word present as an expression for gift giving. Your sense of the presence and your ability to express that in
    beautiful poetic language is indeed a gift. Thank you.

  15. Reading back through your posts to the time before the earthquake. It is strange. I hope that you find this peace of mind again and peace of heart. You write so beautifully that I also hope that as you rebuild your home, your kiln, that you will also continue with words.

  16. The way you describe death to your daughter is so touching and also very comforting. Thank you.