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Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Snake and the Fire

When summer's over, I drive over to a rented studio in West Haven where I make pots, sculptures, and the occasional painting. Often I'll just sit surrounded by all my clay and instead write bits of rhyming poetry. Or I'll stretch out on the blue rug, and do yoga.

Cannabis is extremely helpful in the production of rigorous abstract poems, either rhyming or free verse. Combined with yoga, this herb is really superb for the mind. Smoked alone, it can lull the brain, and body to sleep. I've discovered the other side of the plant - it's a stimulant of thought.

My wife and I bought a house for the first time in our lives just last year. Working on it has taken over my life recently, and this summer, when West Haven temperatures at the studio made potting really uncomfortable, I've been up north, working on the new place. It's a 'fixer-upper', sold to us by a cousin. A lot of my family referred to it as a 'tear-down-job". All spring long I've been there cutting massive trees which the previous owners let grow so close to the building that some of the branches were threatening to break inside. I bought a chainsaw and have been at it hard, weeks on end.

Felling a tree is easy when compared with the work of dealing with the fallen wood. Limbing, splitting firewood, and hauling away brush is exhausting work. I'm a believer in cutting up everything that can be used as fuel, and not running good wood through chipping machines, which is a tendency in northern climates these days.

Make your own pact with the petroleum God. I use him to get there, then get back. Then I turn him off. He uses me to help get the carbon out of the earth. High cost in the short run, but man is doing his job.

I don't run a generator for electric lights though I could. We're off the grid, too far from the main road. I therefor do my reading by daylight. I rise early, and I enjoy the first few hours of darkness in the evening, sitting and looking into the fire, listening to the sounds each log telling it's life history as it burns, or the loons goofing around on the lake if it happens to be a moonlit night.

Recently my pottery hit a high point. For years I've made the same forms again and again, plates and teabowls, and I've let the wood fire at the co-operative kiln in Cold Spring decide how they should be different. Sometimes I'll splash on a little iron oxide with a brush and see if that changes the outcome but by in large I'm submitting blank pages for the fire to write on, preferring not to compete with a writer that has a whole lot more experience than me.


About a year ago I made a large one of a kind vase by first constructing a square four sided vase out of four slabs of damp clay and then using a rib and curved wooden spatula to distend and stretch the form into shape from the inside with pressure from my hand inserted through the top. The giant vessel looked so much like so many others thrown by potters all over the globe. It needed something. I remembered that just a week earlier, on my way returning from a previous firing, I ran over a stick in the road, but when the car rolled over it I realized it wasn't a stick, but a giant black snake, that had crawled onto the road.

I stopped the car and turned back. The wheels had broken it's back, close to its tail. Hissing at me angrily, it mustered the strength to crawl off the gravel and into the leafy moist undergrowth.

I felt terrible.

The American Racer, or Coluber constrictor, is non-venomous, extremely fast moving, and like the King Cobra, deadly to other snakes.

So I decided, in memory of the snake which I most likely had killed, to put an image of the Racer upon the top of this giant vase, the biggest pot that I have ever made.

The pot was biscuit fired, and sat about in my studio for the past two years. I'm a believer in energies. I waited for a sign that it was time to fire this piece. If it turned out, somehow the spirit of that snake would be brought to heaven. I would be absolved of my crime. No cobra in India would seek revenge for it's brother in New York State because I had not been caring enough to honor it's passing.

Sure enough two months ago my son and I came upon no less than three different snakes of different species at our Adirondack place within a few days. I resolved to glaze and fire the big pot at the next opportunity.

I took it to Tony Moore's kiln to glaze and ready it for the firing. It was exactly the same kind of damp rainy July during which the black racer snake had been run over by my car. I felt almost haunted as I took the large pot out of the back of the car and brought it into the studio.

I decided to give it a heavy application of Shino glaze, request that in loading it be put on the top shelf of the main chamber. Tony, the owner of the kiln, very kindly complied.

The following week I showed up for my eight hour stint stoking the kiln from midnight until eight in the morning. The entire firing took over three days. A large number of potters were involved, an orchestrated event which Mr. Moore had superbly organized. All through the night I thought about the snake inside the kiln.

That week I researched cobras. I wanted to know if the energy caused by my accidental injury of a sacred creature had been released through fire. I learned cobras (the black racer is not a cobra) have a remarkable memory of individual people, and their faces. I learned that a person who has harassed a cobra when he looks through a peephole into the snake's cage, will be greeted by a flared hood and hissing, whereas a stranger would be ignored.

Meditating upon these discoveries I realized that this pot, and these researches were all part of a mediation, a ritual of sorts, that had started early in my childhood when I read Kipling's short story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi about the vengeful king cobra, Nag, that plans on exacting revenge on a young family. The family mongoose saves the day.

There is another angle to this complex of superstition in my mind:

Somewhere in my adolescence I began to upend this primitive mythology. And as fate would have it my wife bought a place near Ahmedabad India where snakes live in relative abundance. Common Cobras, King Cobras, Russell's Vipers, Common Kraits, all live around the house. I became fascinated. Obsessed even. I read all I could about snake worship in India. In parts of Bengal, to this day giant King Cobra's are coaxed from their holes by priests, and paraded around town amidst the din of a hundred drums and chanting villagers. The snake is anointed, touched with sacred herbs, ghee, and red powder. He is fed milk and butter. A serpent with venom enough to kill an entire village bites no one. The King is a friend of Man.

Most of the time.

I realized I would need to find a way to make peace with the cobras in order to co-habit.

During my last visit to the place a few years ago I walked the property with the driver who had brought me out. Large Nilgai roamed about, grazing on the low hanging leaves. I took some pictures. The dry season was ending.

We spotted a large black cobra sunning on the dirt path. Immediately we gave chase. The intention was to afford me a chance to take a picture, but the snake moved too fast. All I could do was run through the bush alongside it and try to snap a shot as it fled past me. The photo posted here shows a tiny fragment of the snake's partially flared hood and body as it made a beeline for cover.

Later I realized what a dangerous thing I'd done, and now I wonder - will this snake remember me?  Will it lie in wait for me or one of my family just as Nag in Kipling's story waited on the cool tile floor for the Englishman?

Into the fire I sent my best wishes to snakes everywhere, vowing, that when I get back to India, I would pour this particular serpent, a bowl of warm milk to lap up on a warm winter day.

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