) are another one of my favorite subjects in art- right up there with grayling
in terms of the frequency with which they haunt my designs.
Harbor seals (
I’ve been planning a series of seal entries, relating to a swathe of topics ranging from the idea of personal totems and the perils of anthropomorphizing to Irish legend, from thoughts on a few of my favorite canoe routes to a review of ‘Seal Morning
’ (an old Scottish kids book that I adore).
The vessel in the picture (above) is an example of some early work from my Minnesota days- an urn inspired by P. Vitulina
. It's still one of my favorites. If I could massage the crackle effects during the Raku process to achieve that type of outcome every time, I’d be a happy man!
I’ve been sidetracked, however. This entry is now going to serve as a bit of a tribute to a guy I’ve never met.
Here’s the best one I’ve ever taken (from a kayak trip through the Deer Island group off West Vancouver Island).
I like the way this dude is lurking nestled in the kelp… pretty typical for him and his breed. Silhouettes at the eye’s periphery- stare at them directly and they’re gone.
On this particular trip, there were never fewer than four of these guys shadowing us, and often more. They have a strangely intense stare- even intimate... I don't know of an analogue from any other mammal. It's easy to see how the Selkie legends from West Clare and Scotland originated (more about that in a future essay).
So- I was honestly quite pleased with this photo... or at least until I encountered this guy's work...
It started with a search for a few good harbor seal photos. I’ve spent a lot of time around seals, but they’re bloody hard to photograph. For one thing, they’re extremely wary. For another, they’re not the most chiseled of creatures, and the subtle features that make them beautiful are hard to capture.
Anyhow, Kawika Chetron snared these images- in the main- off the coast of Northern and Central California. Apparently, it’s a hidden world of reefs, ledges, and chasms, all laced with rip currents and tidal surges.
These are stunning images.
I'm a cursory photographer at best, but I've taken enough pictures to recognize that images like these represent one of the following:
(Probably all four
- Hours, days, years of dedication
- A keen, uncomprimising eye for beauty
- A deeply rooted understanding of the character of a specific place and its denizens
- A healthy dose of serendipity and fortuitousness
Yes- there’s probably something wrong with me in that I find something endearing and tantalizing about the idea of a seal biting my head.
So- I fired off an email, asking whether I could use a few photos in an essay. A few days later, I received a gentle, gracious message from Kawika’s mother…
Kawika’s work is so manifestly a labor of love that I couldn’t stomach pirating his legacy without permission. At the same time, I’ve never seen better pictures of harbor seals (or ling cod for that matter- maybe my second favorite fish after grayling).
Our sad news is that Kawika was lost at sea on a dive March 17, 2007. You may see his website at www.coldwaterimages.com. You may also view a newspaper article from April 1, 2007 regarding Kawika here.
For one thing, this type of loss is infinitely more relatable to me now than it was a year ago, in light of the death of my mother
Obviously, my thoughts and prayers are with Kawika’s family.
Secondly, the blithe spirit is perishingly rare, and a precious thing.
There are so few people who pursue a single passion with utter joy, without regard to risk or the censorship of society. Kawika seems to have been one of these outliers.
This was like a blow to the gut.
essay series… and maybe add a meditation on the acceptance of risk. I’m fascinated by the moral implications of consciously skirting annihilation in the search of...
- first descents
- the divine
- comradeship and love
- the perfect photograph
- or even just a chance to turn the dial down on society’s racket for a few minutes
But for now, please take some time to visit Kawika’s wonderful site and honor his memory. R.I.P.Coldwater Images
I’ll still log my
Since I’m bereft of my clay time, I’m going to indulge in some remarks about ‘The Hunger Games’ series, by Suzanne Collins.
The snow is trickling back into the bottomless volcanic soils of the Palouse, and I’m anticipating a return to the studio this weekend. Mixed emotions, to say the least- that was some wonderful, glide-worthy power for a couple of days.
The Hunger Games
, Catching Fire
) are teetering on the edge of becoming a cultural juggernaut on the level of Harry Potter, or (here I swallow a half liter of liquid Dramamine) Twilight
They certainly passed the ‘white-knuckle’ test with my 12-year old stepson. There’s a major film adaptation lurking in the wings, starring the splendid Jennifer Lawrence (please see ‘Winter’s Bone
’ as soon as possible if you haven’t already).
The three books (
But… I was left with a pretty sour taste in my mouth.
There’s actually a lot to like in the trilogy. Katniss (the protagonist) is a courageous, complex heroine in a desperate setting. It’s a wildly imaginative, dystopian world with revolutionary undertones. The characters are richly drawn, often flawed, dynamic and prickly. There’s some devilishly nasty social commentary as well.
(I’m about to move into spoiler territory here- Caveat Lector)
I totally get the hype (more on that in a minute) and I confess that I devoured the series, often fighting my family members over an increasingly dog-eared copy of each book.
I simply can’t get past the level of cruelty in the book. In my opinion, it crosses the line into sadism.
Let me throw out a few qualifiers here.
First, I have no interest in censoring literature- including children’s literature. Leave that to The State of Arizona
Second- I don’t object to violence, despair, sexuality, or other mature themes in books written for children. Kids are savvier than we often realize… and literature provides context, even catharsis.
Many of the best in the genre- from C.S. Lewis to J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman, treat with despair, mortality, and cruelty in their writing… but there’s a moral center- a sense of providence.
Here’s the thing….
Make no mistake- these books are being marketed at thirteen year-olds and younger (although I’ve seen them in weekly readers aimed at a younger demographic)… but in many ways, they’re thematically more aligned with George R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ series or Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Tower’… both noteworthy for ruthless fate, virtue dragged through the gutter, and an cosmology that’s cold, almost bloodthirsty.
Mind you- I like both ‘Thrones’ and ‘Tower’. I even know a couple of pre-teens who have read ‘Thrones’, although I’d personally want to have a few pow-wows with our 12-year old as he digested that one.
So when Suzanne Collins starts destroying some of her gentler characters, or torments her protagonists, I have to ask
The ‘Hunger Games’ series ends with ‘Mockingjay’, and that’s where it lost me. The climax involves the horrorific death of one tangential but beloved character, and the utter moral degradation of another. Katniss- indeed the entire network of humanity that anchors her- fades out in an unsatisfying, gray-shaded dénouement that fails to justify or redeem the ugliness that preceded it.
‘The Hunger Games’ is captivating in part because the events and character arcs are so brutal. The book evokes ‘Lord of the Flies’ on some levels. Innocent children slaughter each other with spears. The protagonist is forced to pantomime suicide, to ape a sexual relationship with another adolescent. I’m not sure if we should ever be ‘easy’ with presenting children with themes like these. I know that it’s a bleak, shrill world out there… but there’s a certain creeping normalcy in effect when we stop filtering how it reaches our kids.
One thing I know for sure, though- just because a book is addictive to kids (or anyone) doesn’t mean it’s healthy. I don’t know how many people remember ‘Flowers in the Attic’ a truly sickening goulash of incest, debasement and cruelty that was all the rage when I was a kid.
to a slightly less negative review of Flowers). ‘Twilight’ isn’t quite in that ugly league, but in many ways, it’s more pernicious, with its passive, acquiescent ‘heroine’ (every copy of ‘Twilight’ ought to come with a complimentary burkah).
Note- I’m not implying that ‘Games’ is in the same rarified league of shame as ‘Flowers’ or ‘Twilight’. Collins has infinitely better chops as a writer… but more importantly, I truly feel that her intentions were honorable.
So- am I off base here? I’d like to field a challenge or two on this one… because I know a lot of good people who love these books.
really wanted to write an adult novel, somewhere in the weird but fertile no-man’s land between horror, sci-fi, and dystopian realism, one that serves as a cautionary parable. The fact that she succeeds on so many levels makes me all the more frustrated that she targeted her work at the wrong audience.
Anyhow, let me know what you think.
In the end, I suspect that Collins
is a little depraved? I mean… did they even read the book?
P.S. Can we at least all agree that a marketing machine that spins off Hunger Games themed
Whatever the name may be, the stuff is gleefully blanketing Moscow, Idaho as I write. Some frat boy down the lane just side-slipped his jalopy into a telephone pole.
I love this stuff!
What do you call precipitation that falls like snow and lands like rain? I’m sure that there’s an Inuit word. Possibly ‘Ooblek’. I keep looking for Bartholomew Cubbins...
“I own five pairs of skis, and I intend to use EVERY ONE of them today.”
The smattering of Floridians in the group didn’t look amused.
Real snowstorms are like rogue waves in the ocean, or tornado warnings. They throw everything into chaos, sometimes with heinous results to the unwary or geographically misplaced…. But man, do they ever get your blood pumping!
I taught class yesterday. Halfway through lecture, I looked out the window, where an Eigeresque avalanche was falling from the eves, and started to chortle. The students looked at me like I was nuts.
I grew up in Minnesota, and from a young age, was never satiated with snowfall. I remember being deeply impressed with a passage from ‘The Long Winter’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder, where a steam locomotive gets buried in a blizzard. (Apparently, this is not completely apocryphal- see photo).
Hinged to this love for uncompromising snow was a disdain for the half-hearted ‘Minnesotans’ who anchored the local news. Most of them seemed to be transplants from Waco, Texas. They’d ooze across the screen, wailing in the face of each glorious Arctic blast. Just take your pick from one of the following…
That, for me, was the goods. A winter that couldn’t drown a train was no winter at all
“Spring’s only two months away” (simper-wink-simper)
“I talked to my brother in <Phoenix/LA/Miami/Corpus Christi> last night. He said he’d save a round of golf for me” (simper-wink-simper)
“Nature has no mercy at all. Nature says, "I'm going to snow. If you have on a bikini and no snowshoes, that's tough. I am going to snow anyway." (simper-wink-simper)
gives a credible performance.
(Actually, I like the third quote… much love to Maya Angelou).
Wash, rinse, and repeat.
My pottery studio is unheated, and located 20 meters from the nearest water spigot. I can’t say that washing 20 tools and my splash pan in a half frozen, crusty bucket really enhances the ceramic experience.
(<--- six months and 50 degrees Fahrenheit of separation)
So- I was starting to pout when we got socked in for the third day in a row. That is, until my sister Amy posted this.
I’ve found signs in my character of late that this love for snow in its fierce, boisterous glory is, in fact, a fragile thing.
I must now bow before the primal (dare I say) maleness of embracing nature in such a fashion. Ben is now my role model. Every sloppy, dripping, skid-lined snow day that comes my way, I’ll wake up and resolve to live a little more like Ben.
So- here’s the mucky, fuggy aftermath of an hour-long cruise around the nearby golf-course. Note the inch of rime on the rim of my hat.
Apparently, my nephew Ben (who lives in Seattle where snow is a rare and wondrous thing) was so keyed up to cavort that he ran outside with his mittens, hat, jacket, boots… and no pants.
Of course, I wasn’t smiling as much an hour later, after I'd finished shoveling the stuff.
Technorati is a blog registration engine. The following code- Y5X82FJX6FRW- will alert them to the fact that I am, in fact, the proud author of this 'Blog'. Yay!!
My plan is to craft a Māori-
style Hue Puruhau
I plan to throw the vessel on the wheel, then burnish and alter a bit to break up the symmetry and evoke the gestalt of a proper gourd.
I thought that I’d post a few preliminary sketches for phase one of my ‘Last Chance to See’ project (see
of the animal.
There’s something almost Holy about the visibly innocent, however. The Kakapo, both through its essential character and through its history of near-extinction, evokes this quality in spades. As one example, consider
the cover photo from ‘Rescued from the Brink of Extinction
’. I'm reminded of a thousand different photos of war children and refugees- the moral accounting weighed out in a simple gaze.
Douglas Adams comments on this quality in ‘Last Chance to See’
. In the following scene, a tireless Kakapo conservationist/tracker named ‘Arab’ has just located one of the birds. (‘Boss’ is Arab’s dog…)
In terms of the design, it would be easy to emphasize the
It took me a moment or two to work out what it was that the scene so closely resembled, and when I realised, I stopped for a moment and then approached more circumspectly. It was like a Madonna and Child.
Arab was sitting cross-legged on the mossy bank, his long wet grizzled beard flowing into his lap. And cradled in his arms, nuzzling gently into his beard, was a large, fat, bedraggled green parrot. Standing by them in quiet attendance, looking at them intently with his head cocked on one side, was Boss, still tightly muzzled. Duly hushed, we went up to them. Mark was making quiet groaning noises in the back of his throat.
The bird was very quiet and quite still. It didn't appear to be alarmed, but then neither did it appear to be particularly aware of what was happening. The gaze of its large black expressionless eye was fixed somewhere in the middle distance. It was holding, lightly but firmly in its bill, the forefinger of Arab's right hand, down which a trickle of blood was flowing, and this seemed to have a calming effect on the bird. Gently, Arab tried to remove it, but the kakapo liked it, and eventually Arab let it stay there. A little more blood flowed down Arab's hand, mingling with the rainwater with which everything was sodden.
It’s this quality of vulnerability that I’d like to capture- the quality that’s relegated Kakapos to a shred of rocky island miles from the New Zealand coast. I can imagine them in exile, endlessly gazing back over the waves at the main shore of the South Island.
I’ve been dabbling in some preliminary sketches.
However, I think that this image, and something built from it, is probably what I’ll utilize in the end. I like the way that the bird seems to be challenging the viewer.
I'm also faced with some intriguing stylistic decisions. While kakapo have some striking features that could lend themselves to the sort of impressionism that I like, I may go a slightly more representational route (see the sketch at the top of this entry).
Once I get the basic Hue Puruhau shape thrown, I’ll need to start mulling glaze textures and colors… but that’s a topic for another day.
At the moment, Moscow, Idaho is knee-deep in snow and bluster, so it may be a few days (or weeks) before I get back on the wheel (my studio has clapboard walls and lacks a heater, and greenware tend to crack and shiver in the cold).
(traditional zither) with motifs based on the Aye-Aye
. I spent a little time this morning listening to some recordings of this instrument… and I have to say I’m more than a bit daunted.
It’s a gorgeous instrument with a deep tradition, and I’d better do it justice. Just listen to this clip
… or check out this short account about Rakotozafy
, a deified master of the art…
On a tangential but related note, I’m starting to imagine what my Malagasy end of the project may look like. I’ll be making a
I’m feeling in need of a slightly more structured ceramic project. Anyhow, I think I’ve found a way forward. The idea was sparked by re-reading one of my favorite books, ‘Last Chance to See’ by Douglas Adams’. Douglas Adams is- of course- legendary for writing the 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. Let's all contemplate the profundity of the number '42' for a minute.
Mind you- I was never able to hang with 'Hitchhikers' across the whole series. Relentless snarkiness is fine... but without a certain narrative weight I tend to snooze. Terry Pratchett has the same effect on me.
Last Chance to See, however, is a beast of a different stripe.
Last Chance to See marks a venture into non-fiction for Adams. He teams up with a working zoologist (Mark Cawardine) and they globetrot with the goal of encountering a series of wild creatures that are 'on the brink'.
The book is written in a weird, gonzo journalist voice, but there's an deep moral outrage and empathy beneath the zaniness. Apparently, it's hard to maintain a cynical edge when faced with one of the last Mountain Gorillas, guarded ceaselessly by AK-47 toting Congolese, or when imagining the life of a blind Yangtze River dolphin trying to navigate one of the most noisome, polluted waterways on earth… using sonar.
The most effective crusaders for conservation leaven the pathos with black comedy (think of Carl Hiassen or Edward Abbey) and Adams is one of the best. Want to learn how to use Chinese condoms to study the critically endangered (now extinct) Baiji? Look no further. Interested in viewing a Mauritian kestrel's unseemly love affair with a rubber hat? Come on in.
Anyhow, my plan is to dedicate a series of wheel thrown objects to the beasts in this book. Each object will be derived from a traditional musical instrument indigenous to the human neighbors who share space with each creature. Thus- in sequence- I’ll be crafting objects dedicated to:
- The Kakapo in New Zealand (Māori Hue Puruhau)
- The Aye-aye in Madagascar (Valiha- this one ought to be a serious challenge)
- The Komodo dragon on the islands of Komodo, Rote, etc. in Indonesia (Sasando- see notes on 'Valiha')
The first project I'll tackle will relate to Strigops habroptila
, the Kakapo. Kakapos are terrestrial parrots from New Zealand, described as resembling ‘Victorian Gentleman in sideburns’. As with most of the endemic birds and reptiles from Kiwi land, they're remarkably gentle creature, evolving in the absence of any significant pressure from predators or scavengers. As a consequence, the Kakapo displays a number of endearing but counter-adaptive traits, like building ground nests on ridgelines out in the open, with large, juicy eggs that an invasive rat can spot from miles away. Their mating and courtship rites are indiscrete and clamorous, a beacon for every feral pig, cat, rat, or dog on the islands. As a consequence, the few remaining Kakapo were airlifted to Codfish Island, where a merciless war against rats and all other interlopers has created one of the few Kakapo-safe zones on Earth. There are 131 in the wild as of 2011, and every single one is named.
As an aside, a Codfish Island Kakapo named Sirocco was filmed attempting to hump Mark Cawardine’s head in 2009. As a consequence of the viral popularity of this tape, Sirocco is now the official ‘spokesbird’ for New Zealand wildlife conservation.(Somehow, I think that the social climate in the U.S. could be improved if we had a randy parrot as our mascot. Heck- I don't even care what group it represents...) I’ll be working a Kakapo design into the surface of a vessel shaped like a Māori Hue Puruhau.
These were originally made from gourds, with the neck severed to create a mouth hole.
The instrument was played like a flute, producing a deep, basal tone.
The flanks were etched with traditional designs.
Traditionally, the gourd used to construct these devices was called a ‘Hue’ and was associated with an entity named ‘Hine Pū te Hue’
, the daughter of the god of forests and birds.
She was a calming spirit… the instruments would facilitate the calming of storms.
I’ll post updates as I finalized my designs, and as I throw, fire, and carve the vessel.
Carp? Eh what? Ewwww!!!
I spun this planter out on the wheel earlier this year. The design is a representation of an Asian carp, detailed in several copper-based glazes. 22 inches in height, white crackle background. Moderate reduction during the firing process.
Nasty, slimy, pucker-mouthed, muck-swilling, rotting-on-the-embankment, cook’m-on-a-cedar-shake-and-eat-the-shake, bloated fish (or so the story goes).
Even the name is loaded. Apart from terms like 'carping', there's a natural tendency to swap the 'r' and the 'a'.
The odd thing here is how socially constructed these reactions are.
Most of my friends have a squirmy, crawling aversion to carp, and it’s a deeply entrenched thing.
In fact, I believe there was a DNR regulation against returning carp to the river. All too often, your walk would be punctuated with the sound of some cursing Captain Ahab slamming his unwanted catch repeatedly against the rocks. Needless to say, all of these dead carp lent a distinct sachet to the morning.
For me, some of my earliest memories of carp date back to family walks along the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities. Carp were the bane of fishermen in that watershed- I guess there was nothing more frustrating than thinking you had a channel cat or sturgeon on the line and pulling in a blubbery, bovine-looking monster.
A huge carp was grubbing in a blanket of watercress. My first reaction was a deep, tow-curdling disgust… but then I paused to watch the creature. Its stubby fins flared and quivered in an oddly playful fashion as it rooted in the mud, pirouetting like one of the hippo ballerinas from Fantasia.
Near my house, a protected wetland meandered near an urban lake. I was walking the trail through this wetland one day, and caught movement in a nearby shallows where the spring flood had inundated a ditch.
in Jaws. Not so with this particular carp- its gaze evoked nothing less than someone’s goofy Labrador rummaging in a trash bin About that time, a late ray of sunlight skimmed over the water, striking all sorts of vermillion and golden tints from the carp’s flank.
I walked away carrying two weirdly incompatible platonic ideals of ‘carpness’ in my head- and a lot more ambivalence towards carp overall.
I’d always thought of fish eyes as being flat, depthless things, the ‘dolls eyes’ from
(Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) and related species in the Illinois River and its tributaries. Silver carp are massive, aggressive, voracious, and plow through river mud like four-wheelers mud-bogging in some fragile alpine meadow.
As of 2012, non-native carp knocked out a series of commercial fisheries along the Illinois and Missouri Rivers, and they now account for a majority of the visible biomass in these waterways. They’re a trophic-web time bomb.
I’ve been thinking about carp a lot recently because of my work as a conservation biologist. For all of the rooting and mucking and ecosystem engineering that Asian carp have done throughout the Mississippi River basin, it’s nothing compared to he impact of Silver Carp
massive electric barrier
across a system of man-made canals that leads into Lake Michigan- a barrier that’s supposed to fricassee anything with a pulse.
The idea of carp in Lake Michigan (and beyond) is inciting the type of political hysteria
usually reserved for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mad cow disease, and wardrobe malfunctions at Wayne Newton concerts.
More ominously, they’re lurking like the proverbial barbarian horde at the very gates of the Great Lakes. Surveyors found a one-meter bighead carp in Calumet Lake near Chicago. This is ABOVE a
For one thing… Silver Carp fly.
There must be some noisy, gargantuan predator in their native range. In any case, the sound of a boat motor sends silver carp airborne. Honestly, the first time a saw a photo of leaping silver carp, I thought it manufactured. It’s not. They really do that. Imagine some yahoo riding his beloved crotch-rocket jet ski down some Illinois River backwater at 30 mph, and face-planting into a 40 pound, smooch-mouthed leaping leviathan.
So yeah… non-native carp are a menace. Is is a character flaw that I’m starting to root for them on some bizarre level.
It’s also remarkable how the public attitude towards carp changes in other parts of the world.
On May 5 (Kodomo no Hi- Children’s Day), the Japanese fly windsocks painted like carp to symbolize family. The Chinese and Japanese believed that carp were symbols of boldness and perseverance, of courage in the face of adversity. Remarkably, the Chinese even believed that a carp that fought upstream against a current would morph into a dragon.
Our North American attitudes towards carp as food are socially constructed as well. Carp is viewed as a delicacy and a sport fish in Asia, and the old world in general.
I also feel a sort of weird affection for any invasive species- at least insofar as they confound our perceptions of control and remind us that Mother Nature owns the last laugh.
I don’t know how many people have read a wonderful children’s book called ‘The carp in the bathtub”, but it had a big impact on me as a kid. The title almost says it all…
- Jewish family keeps carp in tub for making Passover Gefilte Fish
- Kids fall in love with carp and try smuggle it down to a neighbors bathroom
- The inevitable happens
(I desperately wanted one of those fishing cormorants... mind you- who wouldn't?)
Another kid’s book that reveled in carpiness was ‘The Story of Ping’. I don’t know if anyone remembers this one other than me, but it involved a wayward duck and Chinese rivermen who fished for carp using tame cormorants.
Cyprinus carpio… only a few genes removed from the aliens at our gates here in North America.
Anyhow, it’s disturbing how a symbol of courage and beauty, commensurate with dragons, can be painted as utter trash when placed in the wrong biological niche.
Aside from sportfishing and Gefilte Fish, there’s the fanatical breeding and selling of koi carp. Unbeknownst to me, one of the legendary bloodlines in Koi carp breeding (Bow-chika-bow-wow!!!) is referred to as ‘Kohaku’. These beauties regularly cash out for thousands of dollars, and reputedly one All-Japan champion was sold for 2.2 million! And remember- this is still basically our humble common carp,
Redneck Carp Tournament
was launched in Bath, Illinois in 2005.
For all the beer-guzzling, costumed, General Lee flying mayhem of this event, it’s fully sanctioned by the DNR- to the degree that participants are allowed to leave their life-jackets back on the dock
There’s something endearing about Uncle Jesse and his posse ripping down the waterways, knocking carp out of the air with baseball bats… but it’s a bit troubling, the manner in which we castigate wild things when they refuse to conform to the rules. Sea Gulls invade our landfills, and we call them flying rats. Purple loosestrife clogs our ponds, and we break out the flamethrowers.
The locals along the Illinois River haven’t taken the fusillade of flying carp lying down. The
So I named this particular piece Moltrix after the Tournament. I picture a silver carp leaping in the wake of a passing boat, safe from the nets, eyeballing the passage to the great Lakes.
No- I’m not REALLY rooting for the fish in this case.
But part of me wants to.
Don’t get me wrong… invasive species are one of the worst vectors for extinction and environmental Armageddon. But it’s worth remembering that the agents themselves are not to blame. We’re the ones flushing goldfish down our toilets, the ones with cheatgrass clinging to our shoes.