Tuesday 27 March 2012

The Ides Of March

Wraiths of powdery snow blow in translucent veils across the surface of the dark asphalt as I drive Sora home from school this evening. Now, one year ago, we were crossing the mountains trying to stay ahead of the cloud of radioactive fallout that was blowing across the Kanto plain from the devastated nuclear plants in Fukushima. The snow which falls here today is just snow, beautiful and quiet, just snow. It adorns the trees and covers the lantern with the broken leg that I rebuilt in our garden. Our garden. Somewhere safe for the children to climb trees, have snow fights, play chasey. 

This winter has been long and cold, and though I have made plans, schedules are beyond my control. I take each day as it comes, do what I can, try not to stress over what I cannot do. I remind myself to take time to breath, to take notice of the ephemeral beauty of the world around me, live in the moment.

The ice on the puddles in the morning form growth rings as they freeze and expand, freeze and expand.  There is a simple, subtle beauty that nature creates. We humans tend to over work our art, making art about things, instead of making things like nature does; it is what it is. I have always been saddened by humanities insistence on separateness from nature, as if we are somehow exempt from its rules. We are not; to the contrary, we are the product of nature, dependent on nature, part of nature itself, conscious and aware, looking at itself and striving to find meaning. That is why we find such beauty in the world around us, if only we have eyes to see, and why we all recognise the same fundamental beauty of, say, a sunset, regardless of the superficialities of race or creed. We all share a common understanding, and it is that which I strive to express through my art.

Whether it is the snow on our cobblestones or the wood stacked for the stove, there is beauty there for those who choose to look for it. Now, more than ever, we must understand that. We can no longer afford to squander the earths resources in profligate consumption. We must husband this world so that our children and theirs have a healthy and beautiful world in which to live.

It is not a matter of if there is an earthquake, or tsunami, or typhoon, but when there is. Nature has extremes, and they will occur. Just after the earthquake, after I had evacuated my family here to Minakami, a radio announcer in Australia asked me "What do you think about the nuclear power disaster?" 
"I think they were stupid to build a nuclear power plant on a beach in an earthquake zone," I replied. Now, a year later, the fear of radiation contamination still lingers. As we walk around the supermarket we check where the food is from, knowing that there is a great deal of difference between "no detectable radiation" and "within safe limits". Yes, there are still earth tremors, aftershocks, everyday, but if we build wisely we can live peacefully.  The radiation, however, is an insidious poison that will accumulate in your system if you are not constantly vigilant. We are constantly worried for the children, and strive to keep them safe.

Work on the kiln shed continues. Rebuilding after the earthquake is hard enough. Dealing with radioactive contamination is a much more difficult challenge. It is not confined to Fukushima, the exclusion zone or even the Tohoku area. Over the past year, contaminated beef has found its way into the market place, into supermarkets and consumers mouths, and even into school lunches. Fish from lakes and rivers are not safe, milk has been contaminated. We buy milk from Hokkaido, Australian beef, American pork, Brazilian chicken. Seafood is off the menu for the time being. 

We have a Geiger counter now which measures the gamma radiation in microseiverts, and we have checked our immediate environs. I can now watch the children playing in the garden without the worry of radiation. At least atmospheric radiation. The issue now is the radiation in the soil, in the wood and leaf mulch, in the vegetables. The soil has been tested in the areas surrounding us, showing no detectable radiation, and so we feel it is safe to buy local produce. We have not had mushrooms, however, for a year, and spring herbs like Fukinoto are very suspect. Yesterday, Tochigi prefecture announced that harvesting of Shiitake mushrooms has been prohibited in Mashiko, Ichikai, Haga and Mohka due to unsafe levels of radioactive Cesium 134 and 137. If there are unsafe levels of radioactive materials in the logs for mushrooms, the fallout in that area must have been significant enough to contaminate the forests.Thus far there has been no such problem in Minakami. It seems we were right to move here, and I hope that our friends who remain there are taking precautions.     

Mashiko has sent a letter to all of the potters warning about the radioactive materials present in fire wood. The radioactive materials remain and become concentrated in the ash.
The discovery of 40,000bq/kg of radioactive Cesium in ash from wood stoves in Nihonmatsu city in Fukushima Prefecture has raised the issue of radioactive materials in fire wood and charcoal for food preparation and domestic heating, but also for the fire wood, charcoal and wood ash used in the production of ceramics. Potters are asked to not use ash that they have prepared themselves until it has been tested, and to only use materials and firewood that has been checked and declared safe. Controls of the source and route of firewood and charcoal, and the disposal of domestic wood stove ash are being strengthened. The acceptable limits of radioactive Cesium are; 40bq/kg of dry fire wood and 280bq/kg of dry charcoal. The wood we have used over this winter has been under cover, either inside the green house or inside this building, since before the earthquake, so we are safe for now. Our future wood supply, however, must be carefully controlled and tested. Even here in Minakami we are requested to take the ash from our stoves to the town office, though they have no plan as to how to deal with it yet. Japan is inundated with radioactive waste.  

I have always striven to live in harmony with nature and to draw beauty from the simplicity of a natural lifestyle. That is why I fire with wood, why I work in the mingei tradition. As the kiln shed takes shape, as I draw closer to building my new kiln, I become more certain that my path is true. The future of my family, of their children and generations to come, depends on this generation choosing to pull back from the brink of annihilation, choosing to draw on the wisdom of tradition and combine that with advances in technology to create a new society, a new aesthetic, in harmony with nature. 

It is not the easy path, perhaps, but it is the right one. I believe that I do not walk it alone, and I have many friends who support my efforts, who have faith in me. Without them I could not have come this far, and difficult though it may be I know that we will win through in the end.  
There is now only one nuclear power plant left operating in Japan, and I hope and pray that it, too, will shut down soon. Japan can survive, nay, flourish, without nuclear power, and the decommissioning of all its nuclear power plants is imperative to the safety and welfare of the population. Japan is a land of earthquakes and tsunami and typhoons. There are questions even now as to whether the reactors in Fukushima were badly damaged by the earthquake even before the 23 metre high tsunami, but the radiation is still too high to investigate... the damage that has been done cannot be undone. As long as there are nuclear power plants there will be nuclear accidents! The consequences are too dire, we must find a better path.  
My path remains clear. It is not enough to just rebuild. We must learn from our experiences, the good and the bad, and build a stronger and better future. I hope to finish the roof of the kiln shed this month. I should begin the kiln at the start of April. It is a year since the Ides of March, when the nuclear reactors exploded and we evacuated here to Minakami. We have come a long way, and there is still some way to go, but it is that journey that is important, each and every day.  

Sunday 11 March 2012

One Year, One Day, One Moment

The fire glows dull gold through the opening at the bottom of the wood stove in the predawn darkness. The sound of the flame within roars a muted bass note to the soprano singing of the metal expanding with the heat. The kettle joins the ensemble and, if I listen very closely, I can hear the steady rise and fall of my family breathing in their futons on the tatami floor in the washitsu beyond. The fragrances of wood smoke and heating metal join those of tatami and coffee. I pick up my yunomi, it's surface hot against my fingers, the subtle texture of the chattered hip counterpointing the smoothness of the shoulder. Taking a mouthful of coffee, it's complex flavours flowing hotly round my tongue, I can feel it's passage as I swallow, it's warmth soaking into my chest.

None of this is extraordinary, at least not in the common understanding, but every moment of every day, every experience that touches my senses, every feeling that moves my soul is precious. I have always known this, that is why I chose to become a potter, why I live the life I do. I have not made pots for several months now, instead I have been a carpenter or a plumber or a myriad of other roles that a man must be in order to ensure the welfare and safety of his family. I have been a father, and a husband, and a friend, as best I could, for these are occupations which take precedence over all others.

Soon, I will be a potter again. My studio awaits me beyond the shoji screens, free now of the timber for the kiln shed. We have finally finished cutting the joints in the preloved posts and beams, and though they are not the work of a professional, they will do. Yesterday's snow will melt in a few days and I can begin the task of building the kiln shed, and then the kiln. But that is not today.

Today is for my family. A year ago today our lives were changed by the great earthquake. We were spared, and I am grateful for that blessing. So many have suffered so much loss, and my heart still goes out to them. It has been a long and twisted road this far, but we have not walked it alone and I am grateful for that blessing too. Thank you.

The road goes on, one step at a time, and we are moving forward. We have come a long way, and looking back it is a miracle that we have come this far in just one year. We have a long way to go, and though the way forward is unclear sometimes, we know it will open for us if we remain faithful and resolute. It is important not to forget the here and now, though, by dwelling on the past or longing for the future. Today is good and blessed, full of love and beauty.

The sun has risen from beyond the mountains, beams of golden light spear across the room to the dark wooden panels of the room beside me where my loved ones sleep. As these rays of light pass, the steam from the kettle on the wood stove dances with them and motes of dust sparkle in the eddies roiling above the hot stove. I will cook breakfast soon, and spend today quietly with my family, in gratitude. We will mourn for those who have been lost, pray for the relief of those still suffering and be thankful for our blessings. Thank you all for sharing this journey. The simple beauty and joy of an ordinary day is the most precious gift of all.