From the dragon’s belly

Yesterday, I took my sister-in-law Luz to visit Jack Troy, a local potter and author of Wood-Fired Stoneware and Porcelain, a seminal text in its field. The focal point of our visit was his huge anagama, a wood-fired kiln of traditional Japanese design. Made from special, high-temperature-resistant bricks, it stretches some ten to twelve feet up the side of a hill, bulging in the middle like a snake digesting a rabbit. A side door, through which the pottery is loaded, allows one to enter and sit inside.

I felt as if I were sitting under an overturned boat – a common impression, Jack said. But in fact the resemblance is accidental. The design evolved over the centuries largely through trial and error. Anagama means “cave-kiln,” and the first anagamas, Jack said, were basically just “woodchuck holes with a chimney.” The chimney for this one is relatively short, because an arched flue extends from the tail of the kiln uphill underground for another twelve feet. A large, open-air tin roof shelters kiln and wood supply from the elements.

Though there are many other ways to fire pottery with wood, the anagama process is unique for the extremely high temperatures that are involved – up to 1300 degrees Centigrade during the last day of the 5-day firing. No glaze is needed; ash from the burning wood lands on the pieces in a random pattern and then melts and flows over them. The chemicals in the wood as well as the currents and eddies of the flames determine the look of the finished work.

Jack uses hardwoods exclusively – oak, cherry, maple and black locust – because of the complex colors they can yield. Pine and hemlock produce nothing but greenish tints; only deciduous trees, with their high calcium content, can reproduce all the shades of flame. Most of the wood comes from a local saw mill’s scrap pile, so there’s a high proportion of bark to wood.

Jack fires the kiln only once a year, in late spring. During this time the fat snake turns, of course, into a dragon. The anagama consumes roughly a cord of wood a day, and needs to be tended around the clock. Firing is thus of necessity a cooperative affair, with many potters sharing the labor and the rewards. Barry Lopez wrote a lyrical piece for Harper’s a few years back in which he described the experience of helping with an anagama firing: it was like watching over a river of fire, he said. Peepholes in the side allow the tenders to gauge its condition with the help of special cones designed to wilt at precise temperatures.

Concentration is essential. To keep the tenders alert and entertained, Jack has rigged up what he calls an “Amish video game”: a long cord with a two-inch-diameter metal ring tied to its end. The cord is suspended from the eaves midway between two of the support posts, and a hook protrudes from one of the posts about five feet up, right at the end of the cord’s swing. The idea is to stand next to the opposite post, grasping the ring, and let it go with just the right trajectory and momentum to make the ring drop down over the hook.

Jack’s delight in this simple game was infectious. He managed to hook the ring after ten tries, Luz after eight. It was difficult to gauge the role played by accident, as opposed to skill. I quit after 15 unsuccessful attempts, though I think I could have gone on trying the rest of the afternoon. Luz and I were impressed by the way that an activity so addictive could have such a calming effect.

The anagama method militates against any consistency in appearance; Jack’s resistance to assembly-line standardization extends to every facet of his work. He takes his motto from Moby Dick: There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method. Barry Lopez’ river analogy reminds one of Heraclitus’ famous dictum that you can’t step into the same river twice. Accident and surprise animate the anagama potter’s art.

“I’ve never been a lizard,” says the generally silly Random Surrealism Generator at the bottom of the page when I go to fetch the Heraclitus link from my archives.

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