Friday, 8 January 2021

Libations

 The powdery snow creaks and groans as I shovel a path from the house to the kiln shed in the pale predawn light. I take special care on the stone steps, making sure they are free of snow before I walk on them, as once the snow is compacted it becomes ice, slippery and dangerous, and I will be walking this path many times today. This is the day of my “Hatsugama”, my first firing for the year. 





Returning to the house, I get the tray which I have prepared and carry it carefully to the kiln shed. On it are two sake cups from my last firing, a rice bowl with a handful of uncooked rice grains mixed with salt, a bottle of Nihonshu and a box of matches. The sake is a gift from an old friend, his favourite, a “Daiginjo” from Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture, my old stamping ground. I open the bottle and pour sake into one of the cups, a cylindrical guinomi with strong throwing rings, a form based loosely on the shape of bamboo, filling it to the brim. A little of it spills on my hand as I lift the cup and place it on the brick beside the arch at the top of the door and the sweet fragrance of sake fills the kiln shed. The second guinomi is rounder, like an inverted shiitake mushroom, and I take it outside and fill it with freshly fallen snow. I place it carefully beside the first guinomi. Above them, on the metal frame of the kiln, is the “Kagami mochi” new year’s rice cake. I carry the rice bowl outside and sprinkle the mixture of rice and salt to the four compass points for protection and purification, then come inside and do the same in the four corners of the shed.


 




I pray.


I pray for a safe firing and a safe year. 


I pray that the pots will be blessed with the beauty of the flame. 


I pray for health, happiness, and peace for all my loved ones and all those who will use the vessels from this firing. 


I pray for the wisdom to do what is right and good.







It is six degrees below zero outside, but the pyrometer reads minus one inside the kiln as I pick up the matches. I strike one and put it to the tinder which I set under the fire grate in the mouth of each fire box when I finished stacking the kiln. As the fire starts to pop and crackle, I go around to the back of the kiln and open the damper fully to allow draft to flow through the kiln. It is imperative that the kiln heat slowly and evenly, as the pots inside the kiln are all raw, and although they have been thoroughly air dried,  there will still be free water in the clay from humidity which must be driven from the clay without damaging the pots. Particularly in winter, when the kiln is below freezing, one must be careful not to crack kiln shelves as well by heating them too fast. Keeping the fire just inside the fire mouths means that the flame is at least a metre away from the pots inside, having to travel the length of the fire box before entering the ware chamber. Being on the floor of the ash pit, rather than on top of the fire grate, also prevents the fire from burning to ferociously as air is not able to be drawn from underneath. The bricks of the fire box and the floor of the ware chamber start to warm as the heated air and smoke is drawn through the stack of pots inside, circuiting down through the exit port in the floor of the chamber, between the twin fireboxes, and up through the chimney at the back. 






Once satisfied that the wood is burning properly, I go back to the studio to mix a batch of soft fire clay slurry to seal the gaps between the bricks of the door. In a bucket I mix warm water and dry powdered “Dosembo” fire clay in about a 1:4 ratio to make it a thick porridge-like consistency. I stir with my hand so that I can feel it’s texture and make sure it is smooth and free of lumps. Carrying it back to the kiln shed, I start to smear it over the bricks of the kiln door with my right hand but leaving my left hand clean, carefully forcing the clay into and over the gaps to prevent draft from seeping through them between the bricks and sealing the kiln door. Starting from the bottom, I gradually work my way up, systematically and painstakingly. Sealing the door properly means that the only source of oxygen into the kiln is the fire mouth, and the only exit for exhaust fumes is the chimney or the spy holes. It therefore allows a much better control of the draft and atmosphere inside the kiln, either by adjusting the damper or by the amount of fire wood per stoke, the size to which it is split and the timing of each stoke. 







As I seal the door with my right hand, I keep a constant eye on the pyrometer to make sure the kiln doesn’t climb too quickly. This firing is starting from frozen, so I want it to climb at about seventy-five degrees celsius per hour, rather than the one hundred degrees an hour which I would fire to in summer. When the wood in the firebox has burned down to embers and the temperature starts to drop below the ideal gradient, I stoke five pieces of wood into each fire mouth with my clean left hand, then continue the sealing of the door with my right. At last the door is sealed, and I take the bucket with the remaining fireclay back the studio so that it doesn’t freeze solid, and wash my hands with soap and water before returning to the kiln. 






Venus, the morning star, shines brilliant in the ruby glow of false dawn above a jagged black horizon, and a shooting star streaks briefly through the fading indigo of night. The firing will continue through the day and into the night, gradually climbing in temperature until it passes thirteen hundred degrees. How I stoke and adjust the kiln will change during the day, and the pots within will undergo irreversible changes.  But for now, not quite an hour and a half since I lit the kiln, it registers one hundred degrees on the pyrometer, and the snow in the curved guinomi is starting to melt, becoming water. The free water in the clay of the pots has all turned to steam and fled up the chimney into the atmosphere, and water vapour rises from the drying fire clay on the kiln door. Perhaps it will return to earth as snow again, a new and unrepeatable crystallization of the essence of water.


I am reminded of another firing, ten years past, a day of fire and snow just before the earthquake, when I spoke with my daughter about life and death. About how I believe that a human soul is to the universal soul as a snow flake is to the life giving water which pervades our world. Ephemeral and precious, we are fragments of spirit in the world looking at itself and finding meaning. The libations that I make are symbols of that, acknowledging the “Genius Loci”, the spirit of this place and the generations who have come before us. They symbolise the changing nature of the universe and help me recognise and show gratitude to the greater forces which I borrow in order to practice my craft, to live and breathe, to be. And the understanding that I, too, will one day return to that from which I came, and that this firing, this day, this moment, is a blessing that should be cherished. 


And thus the year, the “Hatsugama”, the first firing, begins. Let’s pray that they turn out well, but let us also strive to make each moment, each action, the best that we can. For that is what defines us.


With these thoughts in my head, I stoke the kiln once more, and go back to the house for breakfast.





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