Some of us are lucky. Through no merit, we end up in circumstances that enrich us, change us, forge new qualities in us.
I ended up in my cousin-in-law’s driveway last week and had such an experience, something new, something where I couldn’t compare it to anything else in the last fifteen months.
Like so many, I’ve lacked for new over the last year, treading ground I had covered before. That done-it-before sameness, plus a bout with Covid in January that left me listless for longer than I admitted back then, had me feeling just so meh for the first few months of 2021.
But I’m lucky. My wife’s cousin is married to a Jazz trumpeter, who’s an organizer, teacher, and, hardly needing to be said, a most generous musician, in that way that people feel they received a gift after hearing him play.
On the early morning drive from Massachusetts to the Hudson River Valley this late May, the trees were filling out, but there’s one that stands out. The locust is a trashy little tree in the pea family (Fabaceae), varieties of which are often found in junk yards, roadsides, and places where little else will grow. Its limbs are brittle, breaking in the wind, plus many of its kind sport thorns.
The locust, though, has one defender — William Carlos Williams wrote a short poem about a flowering May locust back in the middle of the 20th Century. After WC Williams writes about something, the rest of us hold back.
It’s been seventy years since Williams wrote his tiny poem about the locust. In humility, I include a locust tree in the poem below, which I offer as a kind of gift to the Suzannah Kincannon/Dave Douglas combo for hosting my wife and I for an afternoon of live Jazz in the driveway.
I’d list all the players — on the sax, trombone, violin, trumpet, drums, bass, and keyboards — but the spelling out of their names would do no justice to the sum of their efforts. Let me say, though, that I took the opportunity to spend some time talking with Jorge Roeder, a bass player from Peru who has made a home in New York.
Jorge opened up so intelligently and vulnerably about musicians having to keep to themselves for the length of the pandemic, arresting what they do that gives meaning to the bulk of their lives, that is, play music for others. Jorge told me that he did a sort of substitution during the pandemic, focusing like so many parents on making sure his child succeeded during the months when the rest of us were languishing.
So, thinking about locust trees, trumpets, Jorge and the generosity of family on my walk through town yesterday, I talked out a poem. Today, it came out written below — the form in deference to WC Williams, the spirit in honor of Jorge, Dave, Suzannah, and Marietta. Thanks.
Driveway SongAll real living is meeting.
— Martin Buber
Dripping white locust blossoms
meeting place of
nectar, bee, pollen
A lively drive
to pass on
Then brassy, all-afternoon Jazz
played live in the driveway
a salute to all real living
We meet there
Peruvian bass player
yearning to lay down sound
For another — any other
By the same measure
Missed the meeting
in the driveway
on the curb side
at the bar’s corner
The in-between where
deep string plucking
keeps us bouncing together
Jazz and the locust trees
you and me along with the bees
meeting in the middle
Of a driveway where
street turns into home
where we live, again
The middle of March, I sit in my morning chair, back to the window, left hand holding a book, right hand caressing a hot ceramic mug, and it hits me that time has taken another form.
By reshaping itself in my mind, time took another meaning as well — an idea I wasn’t ready for and about which I did not have the vocabulary to think clearly. I tried talking about it with friends, like I had a secret problem I wanted to divulge and needed their help solving. This seeking-therapy-from-friends gambit failed, as I was afraid to commit to the conversation, not sure that I could not make myself clear. Besides, talking about an expanded personal definition of time strikes few as a good time, and many of us, during the pandemic, have needed easy chats over the fence not explorations on the nature of time.
So, I tried to forget what I kept noticing. That didn’t work well, either, as I left notes on time all over my house and shack. I wrote snippets (here’s one from a notebook: “just the essence without the faux busyness”) about time and how this last pandemic year presented itself differently to me. I jotted down time-thoughts in notebooks, on various pieces of yellow legal pad paper lying about, and in my bullet journals.
It is a daunting task to write about time, think about something so abstract, something you can’t hold but of which we all feel the passing. Once Albert Einstein lays down the rules about time and relativity, then philosophers like Bertrand Russell weigh in, and writers, such as Virginia Woolf, have their say about the nature of time, folks like me have little new to add — except the one bit about how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our personal experience of it.
I have always considered a calendar year to be laid out like the narrow, red carpet leading Hollywood stars to the Oscar ceremony. In my time-as-red-carpet metaphor, all my days and years fit end to end, but on that March morning a few weeks ago, time rolled up, its linearity went cyclical. By that I mean that what I formerly thought of as sequential curled itself into a circle. The string wrapped itself into a ball.
The morning light gave me the clue. The angle at which the 6 a.m. sun shone through the still leafless maples ringing my front yard made me think: This light matches the spring pandemic light; I saw this scene only one short year ago.
When years stretched out in lines, my memories stacked up. Seeing the spring light a few weeks ago and remembering the exact light of a year before, when we all paused to try and keep the infectious virus at bay, changed the way I thought of a year. The clock, the calendar, a chronology was no longer a fit enough description to hold what I had witnessed.
Maybe the act of paying attention rattles the idea of the line. When I noticed more in my shrunken world last year, maybe the consequence of that seeing was a complication of time, as if a stretched out spring of time was let loose and recoiled into its original shape, a cylinder through which a curved line runs.
Not only did I remember the light seen from my morning chair, other events made me think this last year was less a line, more a cycle, where memories are relived.
I remember that cherry tree blossoming on my neighbor’s corner lot last spring. I was noticing because I had time. My work tutoring children had disappeared.
I remember the radish sprouts in my garden piercing the last layer of dirt in late April as they have done this year. I was there attending to them as they broke toward the sun, like I am this year, urging them onward.
In a notebook I recently wrote that I have never seen a year — spring to spring — with so much clarity, its beginning and end so bright in my memory. It occurred to me (and this, I realize, should have hit me sooner) that one year does not last long. March 2020 to February 2021 had twelve months, like all the other ones for which I’ve been around; those months, though, did not stretch out as a line, they rolled up. If I drew my idea of time now, it would like a Slinky, the coiled toy that flopped its way down a set of stairs without aid.
When the years were measured out in lines of time, they overlapped and I misplaced events from one year, put them in another. None of us will forget March 2021 — the light, the blossoms, the sourdough, the banana bread, the on-line Spanish lessons. I realized I was bamboozled into thinking that a year was long. And, yes, I wanted a year to stretch as long as it could. I will live a finite number of them, so I wanted them to last as long as possible. Living through this last pandemic year has made it clear — a year is not long, it’s a round point.
But our Pandemic Year was long. We waited interminably to hug each other, pay attention to strangers again, shake the hands of friends. At the same time, the year was so short, so clear, so round.
The lessons, the distillations, the loneliness, we felt them all, but for the first time I felt them all bracketed in one year. It felt visceral, like it was a small package I could tuck into the breast pocket of my vest, and hold close. All the confusion and misremembering was stripped away. What was left were moments, isolated and uncluttered moments.
There was less to remember, I know: fewer parties, less work for some of us, no new people met on the tennis court, at the library, at my regular coffee shop.
We faced the essence of time with nothing clouding our sight. We saw a year in its total, not made fuzzy by a quickened pace. My life, like so many others, slowed and I noticed what was around me, not for the first time, but with a clarity I had not experienced before.
I blame my garden. It’s in the dirt that one can learn to see clearly.
Ross Gay, the poet and essayist and chronicler of daily joy, wrote in one piece that working in a garden is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” He’s right and I believe that the increased attentiveness cultivated in my garden spread to my daily life, maybe helped change the way I think about time.
I’m back at my garden this spring, waiting on old friends to return, poking their new-growth green through the dark, damp soil ready to share their time again. So maybe this reaction to time and its shape is something engendered by the season, when a garden, or a forest, offers a newness to behold each day. Maybe my ability to notice is heightened only in March and April, during these days which seem to have been reborn from last year.
It’s as if I’m in last year and this year at once. We remain in a pandemic, so that contributes to this circle, this remaking of time when I can’t leave the moments behind and I’m experiencing them anew. It feels like a new againness, not a repeat, but a rounded sense that I remember this light, the way it angled through the trees last spring.
A week before those hijacked airplanes brought down the two towers of the World Trade Center nearly twenty years ago, I started my first teaching job and I was immediately thrown into a world where ordinary people are asked to perform work beyond their imagined capacity. Me, a dad who knew a little math and a bit more about how to put a sentence together, was asked to minister to a group of sixteen fourth-graders, answering their questions about the unthinkable.
During my years teaching, I kept encountering normal people who rose to, and above, levels of the merely ordinary. They could explain the intricacies of long division with a clarity and patience not reached by many, then at recess mend a broken heart while attaching a magical, healing Bandaid to a skinned knee.
The wide world does not notice bandage applications on bloody knees, or kind people teaching others to openly wonder in the New England woods. In those early days of teaching I would daydream about a world where these wonderful people (and here I do mean wonder-full in both senses, people full of wonder and superb at what they do), would be recognized for the high, if hard-to-measure, value they offered.
I think here of people like Virginia Brown, who taught third grade at the Westhampton Elementary School for decades upon decades, leaving her mark of strict, exacting kindness upon hundreds of nine-year-olds whose lives were measurably better for having Mrs. Brown as a teacher. She retired long ago, and while she never wanted to be famous, I do believe, if matters were equitable, here fame would rival that of a U.S. senator. Elizabeth Warren, perhaps.
This week, I learned that another teacher, who’s well-known among local child naturalists, will soon have a retirement party, getting some amount of recognition, though not to the measure I’d recommend. Ted Watt, who worked for decades as an educator and naturalist at the Hitchcock Center in Amherst, MA, will get his party May 6.
I’ve known Ted off and on since 2008 when I started teaching fifth grade at the RK Finn Ryan Road School, where a few far-sighted, imaginative teachers and one wise principal started a program of getting classrooms into the outdoors. Enter Ted, who came to our classrooms, helped us teach science by going outside, then quietly, kindly, and unmistakably changed us.
We could not help but take up his way of being and seeing in the woods, which, without doubt, is rational and scientific. But his method, and his way are more than science. They tend toward ecstasy
After shepherding a number of field trips with Ted, then choosing to take a year-long class with him where we would meet monthly at a different place in the Connecticut River Valley, I came to understand that he makes you see with wonder, and, though Ted often knows the answer — that’s a palm warbler there and those are winterberry there — he cradles the mystery, honors the act of asking questions.
A walk in the New England woods with Ted becomes more than a check list of identifying species. (For evidence of these kind of folk, find the determined people with binoculars and no smile on their faces striding to the next marsh where they’ve heard from their latest E-bird alert there’s some accidental, rare, bird hanging out.)
Ted’s way is with a smile, subtle at times, beguiling always, where a walk isn’t about collecting species but entertaining another way of being. Let me try and explain. As a former teacher, I can flatly say that his way of being with people is both special and difficult to replicate. For proof, I ask you to try it. He treats children as equal thinkers and naturalists, honors their questions, pondering alongside them, sharing, even turbocharging, their passion. But that is only half of the matter. While uplifting children, not making subtle distinctions between them and his intellect and storehouse of knowledge, Ted allows adults to play in the woods. By this, I don’t mean sitting and building dams in streams, though I can imagine Ted would do that, rather play by not being afraid to be wrong. Because you see that the fear of being wrong is the ultimate adult stance in the world. Ted, by his kindness and his own security about who he is, opens the theater curtain to questions that adults do not feel comfortable asking.
All at once, Ted uplifts children and unshackles adults so that all may walk in the woods as he does, wondering and learning and smiling and stopping so often you actually get nowhere in terms of miles, but so far in biotic measurement.
If you try this act — listening eagerly to children while helping adults to forget about having to be right — you’ll soon realize that few can pull it off. Ted is one.
I have a notebook from my year with Ted, spent tramping through and around bogs, marshes, riparian forests, mountain slopes, fern coveys, frozen streams, and warbler migration sites, and it’s full of Ted stories that help me remember species. He told an off-color tale he asked me not to repeat, so I won’t, about how to tell the difference between a red and a white oak leaf by looking at the shape of the lobes. When I see the pointy lobe of a red oak leaf, I think Ted Watt. And I smile. He wants me to smile; I know that.
Ted is an excellent, even locally renowned, birder, but one never goes into the woods with Ted pursuing just birds. Too much to be seen. Too many trees. Too many salamanders. Too many questions. Too many trails to wonder down.
Once you walk with Ted, if you’re paying attention (I used to call it paying aTedtion) and will offer yourself to the kind of openness he regularly gifts, then you’ll be forever marked. You’ll walk like Ted, think like him. Stop and inspect, like him.
Best of all, you’ll play in the woods, like Ted, a gift you’ll have received from a teacher who deserves all the parties people want to throw him.
Below is a poem I wrote about Ted back in 2011, the year I took the 10-month class with him. That year I wrote about woodpeckers, red oaks, ants, wasps, and bittersweet. A mast year is one in which the oak trees produce a bounty of acorns, meaning squirrels prosper as do the predators living off squirrels. That time spent with Ted was a mast year of learning and generosity and connection.
Our Mast Year
You dropped so many
nuts we couldn’t find places to store
all you cast about.
Found some strays in my pockets
cracked them open
tasted the meat of memory
the sweet of seeing.
Do wasp drones expect their exit
come fall — their jobs done?
Favored, the queen sleeps in her bedroll,
waiting out winter.
Saw Question Mark butterfly
made me wonder why so soon
this cold April?
Heard a sparrow note, note, note
knew it as a
prelude to a spring song he wrote
for his sweety.
One should know:
You don’t take many steps
when traveling any distance
attending with Ted.
I’ve run into a problem as I make my way through the Massachusetts woods to New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock. Each of the last two weekends, I’ve returned to the same area in the forested hills west of the Quabbin Reservoir, trying to hike a portion of the New England Trail from Cooleyville Road to Lake Wyola.
But I can’t manage to stay on the trail, and it isn’t because my internal compass malfunctions or the white-blazed trail is poorly marked. (This trail everywhere I go is in pristine shape, maintained with a high level of New England thoroughness.)
The problem, as I’ve come to understand it, is that I’m being seduced. Tie me, like Odysseus, to the ship’s mast and plug my ears. It feels like I will never be able to complete this section of the New England Trail without help.
An unhurried stream running through mature pine and hemlock forests has twice lured me away from the trail I set out to follow.
The stream runs clear; it pools alluringly; it swivels this way and that carving arced banks of out of dark, forest duff; it wears the beguiling patterns of afternoon light that sneak through low branches. And yet, what really attracts me to the West Branch of the Swift River is its aloofness. It starts in an unnamed swamp in south Wendell, then makes its way south, running alone, away from paved roads, hidden from easy access.
The stream is a bit wild, plays a little hard to get.
Here, comparing myself to Odysseus must stop. The Sirens tried to lure Odysseus to their island, singing a song that if heeded meant death. Read a bit about the Sirens, and you’ll soon find passages about the rotting flesh of sailors on rocky shores. A Siren Song is one of danger and temptation.
The West Branch sings of joy — and trout.
This early March, the trail still mostly covered with snow and ice, I set off north from Cooleyville Road in Shutesbury, noticing the Eastern Pines making up the forest were taller and bigger around than their spindlier kin on other parts of the trail I had hiked. With no houses near, and no one else around, I began thinking about the possibility of seeing a moose.
Then I heard the rushing of water to my left. I knew it must be the West Branch, and so with moose on my mind and the Swift River in my ears, I hiked past an abrupt turn of the New England Trail and continued north through alternating stands of hemlock and pines.
I passed moose tracks in the snow, found the scat of a large carnivore, and stumbled across a large red tongue of beefsteak Fungus (only made edible, I would read later, by soaking it for at least four hours in a bowl of milk.) I knew I was off track — I hadn’t seen white blazes for a while — but the older, deeper feel of the forest, plus knowing the river was ahead, kept me pushing north instead of backtracking and looking for the trail.
When I found the river, small and unassuming as it tumbled through the woods, I realized that if I was going to fish again in western Massachusetts, this is where I would do it. I grew up with a fishing father, who measured his day in two ways: Number of fish caught and number of people seen. A high first number coupled with a low second number (preferably zero) meant for success. When I’ve fished with my brother, who trained under the same success system, we do so out of sight of each other. It’s not something we say to each other; it’s what we do. Fish alone.
The West Branch of the Swift River can be fished alone, a rare river in western Massachusetts, where most water is paralleled by road, crossed by bridge, or floated by boat.
When I get home, I measure the length of this clear ribbon of water on my map. It stretches approximately four miles before it runs into the largest reservoir in Massachusetts, by some measure the largest man-made structure in New England. The Quabbin Reservoir.
I was born hating dams. Blowing them up was part of the dinner conversation about cutting down billboards and pouring Karo syrup into the fuel tanks of bulldozers. Letting rivers run free has been part of the way I see the world.
I didn’t grow up in western Massachusetts. I don’t know anyone who lived in the four towns razed to make room for the Quabbin Reservoir. Still, an allegiance with the people who lost their homes back in the 1930s because they didn’t have the political power to resist the force that is Boston is part of the small ball of resentment that forms each time I see the lake. Even when I see the blotch of blue on a map covering much of west/central Massachusetts I want to spit in scorn. All that water and not one drop goes to the surrounding communities, though Chicopee, South Hadley and Wilbraham get Quabbin water. Mostly, it’s for the thirsty folks in eastern Massachusetts, Boston and 48 other communities.
Thomas Conuel, author of An Accidental Wilderness, wrote that the quality of water in the Quabbin is “of an almost prehistoric clarity and taste.”
It all starts here. I’m miles from the New England trail, far from where I expected to be, but happy to be looking into the West Branch of the Swift River, the stream that keeps calling me to walk its banks. This stream is the headwaters that fills the toilets in Boston. It’s enough to make me want to take a leak in the river.
I don’t pee; to rage against the Quabbin and the too-many-people living in Boston is too simple a liquid response. The reservoir created the forest I am walking through. It’s on land owned by the Metropolitan District Commission, the group that runs the Quabbin. Boston gets the water, we get the forests, a young wilderness in the making. Still, it’s emotionally more satisfying if the bad guys would be unredeemable.
A week later, I try the same hike, approaching this time from the north and heading south. I scout the trail and realize that I must park a car less than a mile from where the West Branch leaves its birthplace in the little Wendell swamp. With Bruce Watson as my companion, we head south, the stream on our immediate right, singing softly. I stop often to admire the water, listen to it pour gently over the rocks. Later, I’ll read that Aglaope, one of the mythical Sirens who was daughter of the River God Achelous, sang with a lambent voice, one marked by a lightness of expression.
As I walk, talking with Bruce, who is as agreeable a conversationalist as one could ask for, while listening to the river at the same time, I pass a sharp turn on the New England Trail. We continue south along the Swift River, but the trail has headed east — not that I notice. I’m too busy talking writing with Bruce, author of The Attic (go now and subscribe for free to his weekly post about a kinder, cooler America at https://www.theattic.space/home) and being seduced by Aglaope, her of the lambent voice.
After we’ve crossed a small section of the West Branch and settled into a walk on the banks of the river, I look for the white blazes that mark the trail. There are none. I briefly consider heading back and finding where we went off course. But that makes no sense for the conversation from both sides remains too good to give up, Bruce on one side, my Siren on the other.
I’ll return another day to make the hike from Cooleyville Road to Lake Wyola. I know the route now. If I find myself off track, it’ll be by choice, willingly seduced by a river that clearly sings my song.
It turns out that Toni Morrison, Nikos Kazantzakis, Jack Gilbert, and Wallace Stegner (all dead) were born yesterday.
I took that as a remarkable fact and decided to celebrate it by gathering all the books I had on my shelves of those writers and selecting at random lines from their works. I gave away or threw away my Wallace Stegner books long ago, so I had to grab some quotes on line to complete my celebration.
When a writer stitches together the fragments of other writers into a patchwork poem, it becomes a cento. The word is Greek in origin and comes from the idea of taking tree cuttings and rerooting them. Below is my replanting, but it’s even more complex, because in combining four writers into one poem, the creation is a kind of literary hybridization. Being large-souled folks, I think Morrison, Kazantzakis , Gilbert, and Stegner would not have objected to rooting together, growing into something else with others who share their birthday.
Mr. K’s Typewritten Cento up at the Millyard Poetry Box
Cento for Four on Feb. 18
Where is home?
A kiss is the frontier in us.
My first theory is this:
The shape of flowers influences their colors
No, a star star. In the sky.
The mouth is our chief access
to the intimacy in which
she may reside
Each flower has a different effect
on their body
on their soul
Where do I belong in this country?
Keep your eyes closed
When stars can’t throb anymore
we must be extremely careful
they fall out of the sky
at the vanishing point
we are rewarded alone
Just as we are married into aloneness.
Toni Morrison — Tar Baby
Nikos Kazantzakis — Zorba the Greek
Jack Gilbert — Two poems from his book Refusing Heaven
Wallace Stegner — Angle of Repose and Big Rock Candy Mountain
I have a special fondness for Jack Gilbert, who late in life lived in Northampton, MA., wrote here and was one of the city’s first Poet Laureates. I wish I knew enough to know him back when he was alive. What sensual poems he wrote!
Stegner was a western writer who wrote heady, literary novels about poor, working class folks seeking riches.
Zorba The Greek is one of those novels where you can open it anywhere and be stunned at the life force that animates the main character, Zorba.
As for Morrison — just, Wow! The sentences she wrote, oh the sentences so lovely, so attractive. It’s not for nothing that she won a Nobel Prize.
“To be among trees that count one of my lives as four or five of theirs seems to me like being at a party with the future.”
A car with a Connecticut plate drives through my Massachusetts city. My reaction: WTF are you doing here?
I drive to a favored trailhead for a walk in my neighborhood, see a horde of cars parked there. My question: Who TF are all these people?
I’m not unwelcoming and narrow by nature. The pandemic, and our consequent separation from each other, has rewritten the rules: What’s close is more mine than ever and those visiting need to know it.
A year of being alone, then fearing what others may bring and exhale has left me more territorial, more suspicious, more judgmental (I can’t be the only one voicing too many opinions about too many people and their annoying habits.) The distancing protocol and mask wearing that makes it more difficult for the coronavirus to infect every possible host has left me with a kind of moral myopia — loving and embracing what is close, dismissive about people and matters from afar.
When I leave the safety of here, I am intruding. That’s how I’ve felt stitching together sections of the New England Trail this winter for my Hiking Slant project that has me walking the 80 or so miles from Connecticut to New Hampshire.
My son graciously joined me last weekend for a few miles of snow hiking in Pelham, MA. We noticed that on an afternoon, gray above with the coming of a new storm, still cold outside from visiting Canadian air, people were everywhere.
They ran on pavement.
They walked on plowed roads.
They parked at trailhead lots.
We drove into this activity, and I was struck with feeling like an interloper, like someone trying to sell tissues outside of a Kleenex plant.
Such an interesting etymology — interloper. Loper comes from “looper,” which was part of the Middle Dutch word “landlooper,” meaning land runner or vagabond. Then the English got hold of the word “loper” and fashioned interloper: an illegal or unlicensed trader. In essence, someone who goes where they’re not wanted.
On this February Sunday, trying to find a place to stow my car on Pelham roads regularly marked with reminders that no one is allowed to park without penalty of a tow, I want to hike, but have that teen-age feeling of being uninvited to the party.
Get me to the trees. I need somewhere to feel welcome, walking among a slow-living community that practices an expanding generosity.
We catch the New England Trail (NET) on Packardville Road, parking a half-mile from the trailhead, and enter the Cadwell Memorial Forest, owned and managed by the University of Massachusetts. We hike up Mt. Lincoln, topped with radio transmitters and a fire tower, and down a gravel road. I’m underwhelmed, need more.
Then the trail veers from the road into stands of red oak and mountain laurel, then glades of hemlock wood, all of it stitched together by a green thread of white pines. Walking on a snow path packed down by previous hikers, I lose the sense that I’m trespassing, that I’m encroaching on someone’s property, or puncturing someone’s purity bubble.
This is a studied forest. UMass ecologists and foresters run experiments throughout these 1,200 acres. If we were to ask, they would tell you and me that forests are communities, places where individuals argue, fight, but finally help the larger ecosystem survive. The more scientists study trees in particular, the more they find out that the trunks we see above ground communicate under our feet through the roots and mycorrhiza that carry messages of harm and warning and empathy. Mycorrhiza, think mushroom root, are tendrils of fungus that form the physical link between the roots of oak trees and pines and beeches and hemlocks. The fungi need sugars which the trees provide. The trees receive the service of being connected to each other, and, through this fungal network, communicate coming harm, plus — and this I find telling — send aid to ailing peers, even trying to keep cut stumps alive.
I don’t feel this vibration of communication going on below as I walk with my son down the slopes of Mt. Lincoln. What I see is my boot print in the snow, and, attached to that print, this thought: These woods know I’m here but they don’t care where I’m from. That’s a comfort. The beings that matter in this forest have no concern about where I eat my burritos at night and where I put on my new underwear in the morning. My print may be particular to my boot, but it’s of no particular interest to them. A print is just a passing of one more human — no more, no less.
What a balm. To be among beings who practice more presence and less judgement, who live long, slow lives over centuries if given the chance. To be among trees that count one of my lives as four or five of theirs seems to me like being at a party with the future.
I was listening to an author the other day, who said, if pressed, she would have to say that animals have souls. If I were pressed, I’d go further. Trees have souls, too. If they communicate with each other, as researchers from Germany to Canada have found, and if they send food, in the form of sugars, to stumps to keep them alive, as researchers have also found, then I can imagine that trees might feel some definition of empathy. From mutual concern and empathy, it’s a short journey to a soul.
This Sunday, when feeling judgmental, narrow minded, full of the personal barriers that a pandemic erects, being around souls that don’t mind if I tread on their toes makes me breath deeper and think less about what’s mine and yours, where I’m supposed to park and how you’re supposed to wear your mask.
Sam will leave the next day and I’ll work on a project all day at home, not leaving my house. It will be a Monday, another stone will get placed in my pandemic wall.
Amanda Gorman has captured my mind. The 22-year-old read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Joe Biden’s Presidential Inauguration, slack-jawing a nation by telling us what we needed to hear in a slant way that had us wanting more.
The inaugural reading propelled Gorman to cultural star of the moment, she’s scheduled to read a poem at the Super Bowl this Sunday, but before she found fame she shared in one radio interview a small secret.
She used the history of her ancestors, their fight for freedom and their striving for more, to write her own “literary mantra.”
Truth here: When I hear the word mantra, my eyes want so badly to roll back in my head as I mock that new-age import of a Hindu idea. The definition of the Sanskrit word “mantra” is a short saying one uses in meditation to remain focused while the mind tries wildly to do anything but stay settled. In our commodified, self-help culture, where being “our best selves” is the daily intention for many of us, a mantra is one more tool to aspiring higher. Oh my!
Gorman, though, took that word and reapplied it. She wrote a “literary mantra,” an arc that starts in the past and propels her into the future. It goes like this:
“I’m the daughter of Black writers who’re descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.”
If I’m a young Black woman with 400 years of oppression in my background, it’s easy to see how those words would motivate me when I’d rather doomscroll than write, rather vacuum than write, rather throw myself on my couch than write.
Amanda Gorman and me: we are the most opposite of human beings. She: young, beautiful Black woman growing up in a single-parent household in Los Angeles. Me: middle-aged, white man who comes from Northern California comfort and has no obstacles in his past that weren’t self-imposed or placed their by poor fortune. There’s nothing in the bones of this country that prevents me from doing what I please. That’s not true for Amanda Gorman.
She suggested in an interview that others could do that same, write a mantra by thinking about the difficult past they come from and the future place where they would like to end.
Interesting idea, except that won’t work for me. I come from middle-class bliss.
Gorman is talking about using difficulty to forge motivation, a trick that many people have used to positive effect.
Here’s a short list of people building futures out of injury, slight, and poverty.
Gorman uses the history of Black people being enslaved and the example of their fight to enliven her fight to keep writing and growing.
Lee Iacocca, the man who led Ford Motor Co. to new heights then switched to leading Chrysler Corporation and saved that company from bankruptcy, grew up poor. He often said he used his constant childhood lack as motivation on his way to running two of America’s iconic automotive companies.
Michael Jordan, the best basketball player in the 1990s, some say the best that ever played, was a master at using insult for motivation. In interviews for The Last Dance, the ESPN documentary about his career, he told story after story about how he used slights from other players to motivate himself. Woe be to the opponent who played well against Jordan, then talked smack about it later. Jordan used ill-will, even if he had to make it up, fictionalize it, to push him to play harder. His teams won six NBA championships, and his motivation to win was a major part of the success of the Chicago Bulls.
Then there’s my college friend Michael Pollack, one of the smartest fellows I have ever known who decided to become a chemist out of spite. We had a chemistry department at my university that decided that too many students were becoming scientists. The chemists aimed to stop the nonsense by weeding out as many students as they could with a combination of harsh grading, insanely difficult tests, and a no-empathy teaching style. Michael saw this and decided he not only wanted to study science, he wanted to become a chemist. His general attitude toward the chemistry department was a vertical middle finger.
Gorman, Iacocca, Jordan, Pollack. They all drew motivation from spite, insult, poverty, and evil. Their mantras, if they were to have written them, were a kind of Newtonian physics of motivation — their actions come from an equal and opposite reaction against evil, injury, and lack.
Me? I have nothing to push against, like I’m living in a bubble sucked free of obstacle. So, how to write a mantra when the easy motivation of injury doesn’t exist? In essence, the question becomes what does it matter whether I write today or not? Nobody suffers if I don’t create. Nobody loses if I decide to watch NCIS re-runs all day.
There are those — here I think of a former principal I used to work with — who rely on routine and duty for their motivation. Every morning before breakfast, this principal I used to work with, runs or walks. There is order to her day and from that order comes motivation. What must get done gets done.
I wish I could impose that sort of structural order on myself, but after 59 years of resisting order, I’ve stopped trying.
My literary mantra was not going to be easy: no self-help inanity, no deep obstacles in my life, no easy structure to build. I nearly discarded the idea, and yet, I had a feeling that if I continued thinking about what motivates me, then I would better understand what’s truly important.
I, like many of you, have long-lasting principles on which I base hefty decisions. Sometimes, though, don’t you feel that you haven’t dug your foundation deep enough? Maybe there’s a firmer bedrock down beneath your intellectual foundation. Maybe it’s time to find new footing as we go forward when we can’t see each other, and, if we do, we get each other sick. This literary mantra exploration had me thinking about all of that.
When stuck, find a good example to copy. I had Gorman’s to follow; I wanted another and that’s when I remembered the Tim Robbins character (Andy) in Shawshank Redemption squatting near a prison wall talking to Red, played by Morgan Freeman. Red told Andy to stop dreaming about Mexico because he was currently in a Maine prison. That’s when Andy dropped this dandy: “I better get busy living or get busy dying.”
“I better get busy living or get busy dying.”
At the same time, I was reading a collection of Zadie Smith essays in her book Intimations. One essay is called “Something To Do,” which is a meditation on time and how an artist should use it. Prime material, I thought, for a mantra. In the essay, Smith quotes the novelist Ottessa Moshfegh saying about love, “Without it, life is just doing time.”
Love. Living. Death. Fresh mantra ingredients. Then there’s The Gift, the text that has informed my intellectual life over the past few months. Here’s my take-away from that book: We come alive when we give away what was given to us.
Now, I had something with which to work: love, life, death, giving away your gift. I just needed something to make it more personal, something to make it mine, not yours, not a mantra available to be sold. Mantras cover the internet like dandelions in May. I needed mine to be idiosyncratic, a flower of one bloom. Better yet, a flower that never bloomed.
And that’s when it struck me that my mother had to be the center of my mantra. She was an emotionally wounded woman with a humming creativity inside her, who never truly bloomed. She never gave herself the chance to succeed.
She was a woman who never figured out how to honor her own spirit, how to give away her gifts and so to come alive. So, I made it my work to continue hers.
With thanks to Amanda Gorman, Zadie Smith, Lewis Hyde, Stephen King, he wrote the Shawshank Redemption, and Gayle Kerstetter:
“I come from a troubled woman who let her spirit atrophy, so I take up daily where she gave up, gratefully offering the talent she gifted me. In love, I labor.”
“Coming from a troubled woman who let her spirit decay, I take up daily where she gave up, developing gratefully a talent she could not honor. In love, I labor.”
From the first moment I heard Amanda Gorman answering questions about her poetry and her early success, I was, in equal measure, full of admiration and resentment.
Compelling yet too famous, too early, Gorman shattered any easy notions I had about her and left me, a middle-aged writer, feeling split open, old and bitter ideas about talent and growth revealed.
Her poem at the Presidential Inauguration and her youth left me inert, until I realized my internal warring about talent, and how it is recognized, is the point: My attitude about Gorman’s early success represents a conflict between ancient and modern thinking, a mindset battle that, I believe, we all host in some form.
She irritates me because she’s young and I’m not. She’s a successful writer with publishing deals for at least two of her books, while I continue receiving rejection slips for my manuscripts. In the order of things, she performs at a level beyond me and I want to see her fall. I resent the hell out of her.
This way of thinking is what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck identified as a “performance mindset,” one in which talent is believed to be immutable, and your place in the cosmos set.
This performance mindset is not new. It’s as ancient as Aristotle and the Greek and Roman Stoic thinkers, who thought that one way to achieve a bit of equanimity in this life was to accept your fate and argued that we best understand that talent is distributed unfairly — some (Amanda Gorman) receive a large helping while others get only a mediocre amount. That unequal allotment accounts for why some succeed and others don’t.
Dweck, though, did not achieve fame in education circles because she only identified a limited way of thinking; her research over the past twenty five years has shown that there are those who live a counter argument to the ancients among us — they are those with what Dweck calls a “growth mindset.”
I taught this idea of growth mindset relentlessly for nearly twenty years as an elementary school teacher, using the idea of growth as the defining learning principle in my classroom. In short, those with a growth mindset do not dwell in resentment of those who succeed. Why would they? Success is less about what is achieved and more about the distance covered between where you start and where you end.
You can trace growth mindset back to the Enlightenment nearly three hundred years ago, when philosophers like Emmanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were trying to figure out what type of thinking would replace Christianity and that of the ancients. Out of their writing came this idea that intelligence is not a virtue, like Aristotle believed, rather real virtue lies in the freedom to choose. The value of a life lies not in its initial dose of talent, rather in how it’s developed.
Dweck took this idea and applied it in the classroom. What she found — I’m reducing her research to a tiny nugget here, it’s more than self-help pablum — is that a student’s learning is governed by what mindset they hold. To be from the ancient school, where talent and status is paramount, means that school is more about performance and appearance than learning. Some students, she found, would lie about their school work rather than be caught being wrong, avoid the challenge of difficult projects, and not understand the value of mistakes in learning something new. Being wrong, for those who see learning as more performance than arc of improvement is, in effect, being less.
For those students who work with a growth mindset, choosing the wrong answer, getting their manuscripts rejected, building a model that fails are opportunities, data to be used on the upward flight of learning. No data, no learning.
I wrote my masters’ degree thesis about emotional intelligence and I featured Carol Dweck’s research prominently in my writing. I believed then that children would benefit as much from understanding the idea of growth mindset as mastering long division, and I built my fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms around that idea. Later, I coached basketball teams that every year would lose to teams in December, get run off the court by them, then beat them badly by the end of the season. The difference between the beginning and the end of the seasons, I believed, was a product of the growth mindset with which I coached and about which Dweck wrote.
But living a growth mindset seems to be harder than teaching it. As a writer, receiving a steady stream of rejections from agents and publishers, I catch myself resenting the success of others, wondering if I missed the line when writing talent was given out.
And that’s where Amanda Gorman comes back into the story. I heard her interviewed and resented her age and success immediately. I kept listening to her talk about her work and herself, when she mentioned that she wrote for herself a literary mantra. Why? To keep herself on track when she loses her way.
Gorman’s mantra goes like this:
“I’m the daughter of black writers who’re descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.”
In explaining her mantra, she said she wanted to draw inspiration from history in order to propel her into the future, because writing is hard and she needs help with the work. That I understand.
Her mantra is not my mantra, but I see the reason why to write one and it’s the same reason why I both resent and admire Gorman. Struggling for validation and a regular paycheck as a writer, I forget what’s important, impulsively resenting someone like Amanda Gorman before thinking about it. Even a powerful idea, like growth mindset, needs help distinguishing itself among the jumble of emotional responses residing inside us.
I need to be reminded because reverting to Aristotelian thinking that sees talent as bestowed, not earned, seems almost instinctual, like a plebeian bowing to passing royalty. In the thrall of the ancients, I see the success of others and see talent presented, not hours put in; hear applause granted, am not privy to all the criticism someone like Gorman endured then forged into feedback.
Dweck may be correct about the two mindsets. What’s also true is that we all understand the ancient and modern way of thinking, harboring two conflicting ideas. We believe in showing off our talent with which we were endowed and we believe that overcoming obstacles and learning from mistakes is a sure way to success. It’s why I can resent Gorman’s talent while admiring the path she has traveled.
Writing a literary mantra. There’s a good idea, a way to remind myself that even if resentment is a first impulse, it’s like driving down a dead-end street — a short trip with no way out.
Writing a mantra may also be a way to say thank you to a 22-year-old poet, who helped me realize that in this messy, don’t-always-get-what-you-want world I can resent her then recognize my mistake and rise to the challenge of learning from her.
I wrote a story last fall about my friend Sam Taylor’s kiln and the giving world he has incubated over the last twenty two years on the East Branch of the Manhan River. Studio Potter, an on-line magazine running stories about the creative life and ceramics, published the piece today in its January 2021 edition.
It’s not the first time I’ve tried to write about the kiln. Between the time I was a daily journalist and an elementary school teacher, I started at least two versions of stories about Sam building his kiln in Westhampton. I could not get at the real nut of the story and both versions thankfully died. They were horribly written. I could not crack what was important and essential about the kiln.
In September 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sam fired the kiln for the last time. I felt a pressure to figure out the true story of his kiln and the people who regularly gathered there. I think I came close to doing it.
I had help in figuring out what the true story was about. As Sam was firing the kiln, I was reading The Gift, a book about art and how the economy of giving differs from commodities and the economy of transaction. Lewis Hyde, the author, gave me the intellectual tools to name what I was seeing.
Give the story a read. It’s a bit longer than I usually write, but, hey, we’re in a pandemic and we’ve got time.
Sam Taylor built this wood-fired kiln in 1998, firing it eighty-six times in twenty-two years. Photo credit: Carol Lollis
86 Firings GREG KERSTETTER
January 4, 2021
A kiln lies at the center of this story, a brick arch built on a concrete slab next to a needing-to-be-painted red barn. On the gable end of the barn, alert passers-by will notice the large- letter sign fashioned of assorted pieces of abandoned metal announcing the enterprise at work here: Dogbar Pottery. All of it — kiln, barn, Sam Taylor’s pottery business — sits at the bottom of a little hollow that the tumbling north branch of the Manhan River has carved out of these western Massachusetts hills. The place and the people — it’s all so familiar. And yet, I arrive on an early-September afternoon, one member of a long- standing crew gathering to help mark the eighty-sixth and final time Sam will fire his kiln, bearing the unease of unanswered questions.
I think I know the rhythm and specifics of this place: How the river water filling the cool seat of the Captain’s Chair — the dipping hole across the gravel road from Sam’s front porch — runs muddy and overflows the rock cavity soon after a hard rain. Come a warm spring day, I’m sure Sam will head up the east-facing hillside that forms one vee of this hollow, where there’s a small brook running hard toward the river. On a flat near the brook, under red oaks and maples, Sam will find a spread of wild onion shoots. He’ll use the ramps he cuts in salad or sauce. Either way, I count myself lucky to eat what he cooks.
The years of coming here do not help me with my questions.
I approach a bearded group working near the cracked and splitting kiln. These potters, landscapers, electricians, teachers, and artists have assembled here to bid good-bye to a kiln that has been fired regularly since 1998. When pressed, they say they’ve also come because of an enduring friendship with Sam and his wife, Carol, but also for the gathered community, and their interest in wood-fired pottery. I believe them — but I know there’s more, questions buried and hidden in the layers of years Sam has fired his kiln. I understand their answers, like my understanding of these firings, as incomplete, the shallow crust capping something deeper. I’m certain that assembling community and throwing a party with jolly and creative people does not adequately explain what has been going on around this kiln.
What is it, I want to know, that compels people to drive hours down from Maine, draws potters up from Connecticut, pulls artists out of these old, rounded hills? And once we leave, why is it that we’re different than when we arrived? Beneath friendship and pottery, what’s going on here? So, despite the dangers inherent in gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic, that by late summer had killed nearly 200,000 people in the United States, I’m here to talk to these people, many of them my friends, about the deeper reasons for returning to fire this dilapidated kiln. I want to know what it is that Sam Taylor and Carol Lollis have initiated and continued in this hollow that is so rare, unique, and hard to find anywhere else in our culture. I’m here to identify it, after twenty-two years of living it.
Sam’s kiln, designed like all catenary arches to mirror the arc of a hung chain, sits on a concrete pad. A running dog mosaic, made of gleaming ceramic shards, decorates one its curved walls. The shine from the mosaic gives the kiln a fresh, almost new look. Get closer this night though, and you’ll notice age. Long angle irons have been inserted, and bolted to each other, to hold the expanding kiln together. The firebox, where stokers sit and feed long strips of wood cut from local forests, wants to peel from the kiln’s main cavity. Long and deep fissures run through the kiln’s outer plaster wall from base to curved top, where Sam has thrown an insulating
blanket to retain the heat. Dave Pavidis stands in front of the kiln, darkness at his back, flames from the kiln’s firebox lighting his face. He’s spent the day here with his two young boys, playing in the river. When he’s had a chance, Dave has split wood, hauled it to a pile near where the stoker sits. He’s even spent a spell feeding the kiln. Now he’s gazing at the mosaic of the running dog, the one Rob Logan and Tracy Martin fashioned in 1998. That mosaic on the side of the kiln is as close as Dogbar Pottery has to a flag.
At 39, Dave remains muscled, lean, and eager to do the hard work that a wood-fired kiln demands. More than fifteen years ago, Dave fell in with Sam, helping him prepare for firings by cutting and stacking wood, helping him with the repetitive work of carrying pots to and from shows. That work, including helping Sam rebuild his barn, came before Dave started a family, before he started his tree care business, before he moved more than a hundred miles away. So why is he here now?
“I’ve come to rally around the dog,” he says to me, eyes earnest and fiery.
I’m not the only one for whom this last firing matters. We all know Sam will rebuild, once he’s torn down this old one. But finality holds meaning, even if the bricks from the old will help form the new. So, here we are, Dave and I, saying good-bye to a kiln, knowing that is not the whole story. Dave returned to rally around the Dog for Sam and for Carol. But we both have a sense that there’s more.
Back at mid-afternoon, I look at the clock hung on the barn’s outer door. It’s a Susan Boss-Mark Brown creation, made of collected kitchen parts and bottle caps. It reads 10:30. I know better.The sun remains high, and it’s not morning. Then I remember this clock keeps kiln time. Bill Bennett, one of Sam’s closest friends, set the clock hands to straight up 12 when he rose early this morning and started the fire in the kiln’s box. I look at the time on my phone. It’s 3:30 p.m. Since the clock reads 10:30, that means that Bill, who drove in from Martha’s Vineyard the night before, started the kiln clock at 5 a.m. Sam tells me that the kiln was burning at a leisurely pace for much of the morning.
It’s true that a kiln is a tool, a means to fire clay at temperatures of 2,350 degrees Fahrenheit, or even higher. Having been around this one for a couple of decades, I also know that the kiln operates with some autonomy. There’s science and experience. Then there’s the mystery that’s part of firing a wood-burning kiln. It may have started slow, but the kiln now burns hot, blowing flames out its back wall through the spy holes, used for cone readings. I ask Sam what happened? Why the rapid increase in kiln temperature from a mild morning to a roaring afternoon?
“What happened?,” he answers, “Barry happened.”
Another of Sam’s close friends, Barry Moir lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the old fishing town more than a two- hour drive from here. When I drove up a few minutes ago, Barry was leaving to care for his eighty-seven-year-old father. That means Barry cared enough about being here for this last firing that he got up about the time that Bill did – 5 a.m. – to drive out to western Massachusetts, so that he could be part of this final gathering.
Barry will end up driving five hours roundtrip, in part, because of what we all have in common, our friendship with Sam. Sam stands six foot, six inches and has an easy way, like so many people of that stature, of getting your attention. His height attracts you, and his enthusiasm pulls you closer — the warm voice, the way he has of making you, in particular, feel important. People, men in the trades especially, gravitate to Sam.
“He’s a big dude with big hands,” Dave says.
Barry’s friendship with Sam does not explain why he would drive five hours to be here less than a full eight-hour workday. I press Barry before he gets in his car. “What’s in it for you?”
Barry, part carpenter, part artist, who makes his living as an energy consultant, tells me he likes being part of a team that accomplishes something, and these firings give him a chance to be part of a project he does not have to lead. He enjoys the work, the chopping of wood, hauling it to a pile, then feeding the kiln. I hear Barry saying that more than the work, he enjoys the coming together, where people gather to give of themselves. Barry does not make his living as a potter, has no pots in the kiln. But here he is. Working. Giving of himself. Influencing the trajectory of this firing.
Later, I think about my conversation with Barry, and I realize he’s right. When we drive from all over New England to fire this kiln together, I get the feeling of being on the same team, maybe, in secular way, the same congregation. We have the chance to aim for an agreed-upon goal, to make something real and meaningful happen. And now that I’m older, fatter, and more likely to break I don’t play on any athletic teams. Firing this kiln is the only team we have left. Barry helps me see that Sam and Carol aren’t asking us only to help them fire the kiln or party with
them. Sam and Carol, whether they know it or not, are asking us to participate in a small economy, one in which gifts and reciprocity are the currency. We arrive and we help — we continue circulating gifts we receive — and through all the hours we connect, becoming closer over years, and some of us leave changed. Still, this notion of a kiln gathering as an economy is unformed and uncomfortable in my mind. Sometimes, though, we get lucky. We read the right books, thinking about apt ideas at the right moment. Barry gave me a shove to get me thinking about these firings as events that were meaningful in multiple ways.
Lewis Hyde, whose book The Gift was published in 1983, gave me the words and structure to begin understanding what Barry feels. Hyde would recognize that this flame-spewing kiln, that Sam built so he could make a living selling his pots as a butcher would sell her meat, sits at the center of a gift economy, peopled by folks receiving and passing on gifts. These gifts do not come wrapped. They are, in part, the gifts of togetherness and participation in a cooperative event.
Exploring how these firings work means having to sit down with Carol Lollis, who uses a passionate curiosity as one way to attract those around her. She wants to know about you. The story you’re not likely to tell your partner, you’ll end up telling her. She pulls it out of you with both her interest in you and a charming attractiveness starting with her dark, full eyebrows framed by graying hair. Carol does not use Hyde’s words to describe what she has helped organize. While sitting on a picnic table next to a rock-encircled fire pit, Carol tells me she has one overriding rule about these gatherings. Whoever comes must contribute. In other words, if you come and receive the gift of Sam’s easy-going bonhomie, of Carol’s insistent attention, then you had best figure out a way to take part in this gift economy with a fire-breathing kiln sitting at its center.
Hyde writes about this participation, the reciprocity of receiving and then giving away gifts, like this: “A gift isn’t fully realized until it’s given away.”
As I see it, this idea of the firings as equal parts giving and receiving evolved over time. Back when the firings were first opened to guests and an audience, it was more party than economy. Carol would find herself alone in the kitchen doing dishes or making lunch for children, looking out the window at the crowd of sometimes more than fifty people reveling without her. “I love what (these firings) brought to my family, but I had to figure (something) out. How do I make it work for me?”
The kiln parties left her house and the grounds around the kiln in chaos, and then Carol wondered if it was worth the effort. The family continually struggled to pay bills. On top of all that, no one acknowledged her effort in making these firings work for Sam and the crew stoking the kiln. Over time, Carol figured that if these firings were her gift to her community, then all those attending needed to show some reciprocity. She was not going to throw a party four times a year if everyone else didn’t help. Who knows when it changed? Those of us who continued coming know Carol’s rule: Help or don’t come back. The parties shrank in size, but expanded in what they meant for those of us who learned something deep was happening here.
“To me, that’s what is so magical about it,” Carol says. “We didn’t stop when it got hard.”
A firing remains a party, a sixteen-hour span of working, drinking, laughing, dancing, river bathing, and more drinking. No one, though, is being served. We are all, instead, in service to the kiln — and to each other. Still, I have resisted over the years that notion of me being in service to someone else, being part of a tribe that gathers four times a year. I’ve had at times a one-foot-in, one-foot- out relationship with these firings. I’m skeptical about joining in general, often watching out for those not included, as much as enjoying the company I’m in. To dig deeper into the meaning of these gatherings, I needed to talk to more people. One of those conversations allowed me the opportunity to see more deeply into what was going on in this hollow, and how inescapable my part in it was.
Five days after we completed the firing, Sam took down the kiln’s brick door, opening the cavity so he could unload his wares.
Potters who fire their kilns with wood, thereby depending on a sometimes capricious heat source that can be wet or filled with impurities, must be comfortable in not being able to completely control the final look of the pots. Jack Troy, who put out Wood-Fired Stoneware and Porcelain in 1995, wrote in his book that when potters decide to use wood to fire their kilns, they “enter the mystery, not merely harness it.”
That entering of the mystery helps explain why when Sam opens his kiln, he’s often joined by Tom White, Christy Knox, and Hayne Bayless, all potters with wares in his kiln, all people who join this gift economy and who say they’ve been changed by the firings. They are hardly joiners. They keep returning.
When I help carry a box of Hayne’s pots from the kiln to his Honda van, I corner him. I want to know not only what he thinks is going on here, but what it is that Hayne receives as his gift. I trust what Hayne thinks, and I trust that I will understand him. We both come from the Pacific Northwest — Hayne from lower Puget Sound and me from Port Angeles, Washington — and both of us spent time working for newspapers. Hayne has a humble wisdom, plus I find him funny.
Potters, he says above the low roar of the river across the road, are, most of them, friendly, more convivial than most folks who earn their living making and selling crafts. They collaborate with other artists, and they cooperate with each other, sharing techniques, ideas, and, obviously, kiln space. But Sam, he says, is not merely friendly. He actively welcomes strangers into his world. Hayne sees Sam as teaching him an important lesson about suspending judgement and accepting others.
I look at Hayne squinting in confusion while he tells me this. For as long as I’ve known Hayne — more than ten years — I’ve considered him to be one of the friendliest people I know, quick to draw in others, slow to criticize. Those qualities are at the core of why I consider him a friend. And all this time, Hayne has been coming, learning that lesson of how to be more welcoming.
Hayne tells me this as we are standing in a drizzle. He says he must get back to Connecticut. I need to get out of the rain. As he drives away, I realize there’s more to what happens here than friendship, community, and parties. Later that week, reading The Gift, I write down this quote: “Gifts carry an identity with them, and to accept the gift amounts to incorporating the new identity. It is as if such a gift passes through the body and leaves us altered. The gift is not merely the witness or guardian to new life, but the creator.”
Now, it feels like I’m in deeper than I want. Someone I know, someone I like and respect, admits without hiding it that he leaves these firings a different person. Could it be that I’ve been part of something larger than me that has been changing me — all without my permission or my knowing it?
Christy Knox tells me she isn’t a joiner either. Christy, though, consistently takes part in these firings, this gift-giving and receiving. It’s play that invigorates her. Like Barry and Dave, Christy, with a potter’s earthy
strength born of carrying and forming clay, likes the hauling and the splitting and the feeding of wood. Tonight, one person stokes, and unlike many other firings, it’s Sam who does most of the feeding. Many other nights, two stokers worked in concert, and in that back and forth of feeding either end of the firebox at the right time, Christy saw a kind of play.
“Having these happenings that are so much improvisation, it’s like the visceral perfection of being human beings together,” she tells me in Sam’s studio, several feet away from where Sam runs the kiln. “And it feels really honest.”
Christy knows exactly what she gets when she attends these firings, a chance to stop thinking, use her body, and enter that dance of work where time loses its sharp edges.
“It ends up like being a very beautiful dance,” she tells me. “There’s also this rhythm. That rhythm is really nice in the body. I lose myself in that rhythm, and time goes by in this kind of dream-like way. You lose yourself in flow. That’s the sweetest thing in the world if you ask me.”
It’s a neat package for Christy. She helps, and she enters the dance surrounding the kiln. I think later that Christy instinctively knows about this gift economy, the idea that art can’t be sold, but only given away, because once it’s turned into a commodity, it loses meaning. Three or four times a year Christy drives down from her Cummington home, up higher in the hills, to put a small number of her cups in Sam’s kiln. For years she never sold what came out. She would take one or two wood-fired pieces to craft shows, including them with her brighter, glossier line. People would often as not pass by the wood-fired cups. She waited. Christy knew that someone would cotton to the one cup that came out of Sam’s kiln. And when they did, Christy never sold it, never took money for it. She gave it away. Those cups from inside a kiln that reaches 2,350 degrees all had stories, according to Christy. She was giving away stories.
I wonder if those lucky few to whom Christy gifted those cups from Sam’s kiln know, maybe feel somehow in the receiving, that only in the passing on of those gifts is their power realized? I have one of those Christy Knox mugs fired in Sam Taylor’s kiln sitting on my shelf, the one I choose most often for my morning cup of coffee. I know the difficulty of passing it on. I resist giving it away, maybe like I resist joining.
But here’s the iron-ore center of what Hyde was writing about nearly thirty years ago. Giving and receiving, participating in an activity bigger than you, has a change component. If you commit to being part of the hollow’s kiln culture, then you must expect to change, whether you want to or not. Here I refer to one of North America’s brightest literary lights, Margaret Atwood, who, after reading The Gift back in the 1980s, started passing out copies of the book to artists and writers. She wrote an essay in the Paris Review a few years ago about copyright law and how Lewis Hyde’s ideas could guide us in thinking about art. She ended the essay with a bolt, making me consider more deeply what Sam and Carol have created and kept running these last two decades.
“Gifts,” Atwood wrote, “transform the soul in ways that simple commodities cannot.”
This kiln, the gifting culture that Sam started, changes even potters who’ve been doing their work for nearly forty years. Tom White, eyes seemingly always lit from the inside, moves at a steady pace that matches the evenness with which Sam goes about his business. The two potters fit together — the way they move similarly, the way they bend to each other’s insights. Tom, graying hair ponytailed under one of his large supply of billed caps, tells me on the day that the kiln door comes down that he works differently now than he used to. Tom, disciplined and practical, has constantly met the demand for his plates, bowls, and mugs, the backbone of his business. And yet, there’s the central idea that creativity must be honored. The manner in which he starts his day has changed, Tom says. The list of what he must do remains, but the question that he asks to start his day is different. What am I going to make today?
He says that open-ended question is a change of focus that can be traced to this kiln – Sam’s studio – this culture at the core of which is a human concern for making and for growing.
I return to the hollow in that waiting time before snow arrives and after the trees have dropped their leaves. New Englanders prize these weeks, for it is when we can see the shape of the land around us. With our expanded field of vision, we see horizon lines that lie hidden behind a blanket during greener months. It feels like the time of truth.
Holding truth and sadness. That’s how I approach Sam’s kiln. I see a large patch of the plaster skin peeled from the kiln. The rectangle, laying on boards held up by saw horses, contains the shard-mosaic dog. At the feet of the kiln’s door lies a pile of brick rubble that used to be the firebox. In back, the kiln’s chimney is disassembled.
I pat the old kiln on plaster skin left intact. I inspect the inner curve of bricks forming the arch, and Sam points to the bulging wall indicating a weakness of the structure. I want to defend it, arguing for one more firing, one more chance at being open to what I now understand this kiln represents — change, transformation, connection to something larger than us.
For so long, I resisted belonging to the crew that propels this kiln, held at arm’s length the idea that I would accept the help of others. Now, though, seeing the bricks in piles, knowing there will be no other chances to stoke the fire that raged and flowed within this kiln, I want to sign up for full allegiance, one more chance at entering the giving, receiving, and changing cycle. Maybe the old kiln has done its work.
I ask Sam if he imagined in 1998 that he would be installing a culture, where participating and making and giving acts of reciprocity would change the people involved in firing as surely as the clay pots inside the kiln would be transformed.
Sam is not given to yes or no answers. He responds to my inquiry by remembering that night when he sealed the last holes in the doors of his new kiln and walked to the upper dipping hole on the Manhan River with his friends. He
remembers thanking those friends for trusting him, for joining him on this journey. Something meaningful had begun, fueled by the giving nature of his friends’ time and skills. This transformative, giving-and-receiving economy he and his wife have built will continue.
Picking bricks out of the rubble of the old kiln, he will erect a new one, half the size. He has no intention, though, of firing it alone. Those bricks contain the seared cultural DNA of a giving kiln, one that will change you if you allow yourself to get too close.
I’m balanced on a frozen wetland, skiing toward a gentle hill at the top of which a building crew is working on a new house. Behind me, I see through the trees an excavator digging on a site off of a state highway. No wild ski through mountains, I’m gliding through what used to be a golf course — and I couldn’t be happier, if a bit uneasy about my intellectual dishonesty. More on that in a bit.
Now, though, I’m feeling blessed because:
Snow covers the ground in Massachusetts before Christmas, an event not to be taken for granted anymore, and so I lay my head back and say thank you.
I’m skiing — not walking, not snowshoeing, not Christmas shopping, and, better yet, the skiing does not hurt.
I’m not trespassing. This tract of open land belongs to us; the City of Northampton bought it last year when the owner of the Pine Grove Golf Course decided to retire.
I’m skiing through a field marked with deer tracks and droppings, a sign, along with the tiny, black snow fleas I saw a few minutes earlier under a white pine tree, that I’m in a place where we’re trying to share the land. (In five minutes, I will see the bark torn from a large pine tree, and will guess that a black bear has done that work. Maybe, it’s more accurate to say I hope that a bear felt comfortable enough on this undeveloped tract between two state highways to do his work.)
All this bounty puts me in mind of some Northampton residents who aren’t so happy; they’re fighting the land-use idea that makes my morning ski possible.
If I were to ski northwest, up and over a hill, through some state-owned fields and forests, and across the Mill River, I’d be in the Bay State Village of Northampton. (We’re old here in New England where many cities contain neighborhoods that demand to keep their names from a time when they might have been autonomous, and sometimes they even petition the US Postal Service to retain their own zip codes. It’s like Puritan tribalism.) Some of those Bay State Village residents are fighting the idea that the city allows for the dense building of houses on small lots.
You see, a developer bought a corner house at the intersection of a well-traveled intersection with the idea of razing the home in order to build even more housing. Many residents oppose the change for reasons you can guess: destruction of historic housing stock, overdevelopment, cutting of mature trees to make way for buildings, and the loss of architecturally important buildings. Those concerns are the same ones that appear nearly every time a large housing project is proposed in a city of active citizens.
But why should that development fight affect my happiness skiing on the old golf course about two miles away?
We have a plan in Northampton. It’s a simple swap. And it runs counter to every notion of progress our country holds. We will make building houses in the already dense sections of our city easier (planners, and those who like planning talk, call this infill), while making more onerous rules for developing houses in the open sections of our city. It’s like we’ve decided to stop Manifest Destiny — no taking wagons to undeveloped land to build your house.
We want people living close to the city center, in order to retain open space. What it means is that some of us have to live on streets packed with houses so that bear, deer, marten, and fox have somewhere to roam on the outskirts of our city.
I’m not the only one touting this plan. We have a name for it. We call it Sustainable Northampton and the sixth guiding principle of the document, which we adopted twelve years ago, says we should: Use land in a way that maintains a mix of urban and rural areas; concentrate development in neighborhood, village, and commercial centers supported by adequate infrastructure, including public transit; promote energy efficiency; and protect environmental, open space, and agricultural resources. (The bolds are mine.)
Like many plans, it’s a good one in theory, yet one with drawbacks when it visits your backyard. Some city residents in Bay State now want our city council to redo our Sustainable Northampton plan.
This is where I’m supposed to write about how these city residents are wrong-headed and short-sighted, if not a little selfish.
They are selfish and short-sighted. And so am I.
I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that a group of my neighbors down here off of North Street held off the development of a piece of land that a builder wanted to “optimize.” They tried ton block Doug Kohl at every turn, arguing that the open land behind their houses offered a sort of wildlife reserve in the middle of the city. It’s true. It’s where my friends the foxes and hawks and skunks and woodchucks and possums spend time. We’ve even had bear back there — a ten-minute walk to downtown.
The fight to save my little shaded, wet and a bit wild parcel happened a year or so before I moved in twelve years ago. The developer didn’t pursue his plans, because he died before he had a chance. But he had the city’s backing to build.
Back to these Bay State Village residents. I hope the city councilors give them an audience, then ignore their pleas. The Sustainable Northampton deal is a fine one: Save the land we can by building on what’s already urban. If you must suffer some infill in your neighborhood, that’s the price we pay for undeveloped land on which I can ski.
Here’s where my beliefs and my happy reality diverge. I believe that my neighborhood is improved with that wet and open space near my home, even if I, in theory, don’t agree with the folks who saved it.
Indeed, I have reason to be happy about the undeveloped land on which I ski and the tract near my property I ramble through — as long as I don’t think too deeply about my blessings.