Why Wood?

This is an article I wrote in 2004 I think? A time when Enzien and I fired with many groups of people and even though we fire mostly by ourselves this article still makes sense today, Enjoy!

Why Wood?

            The Beginning:     I like the first shift.  It’s a late fall night, cool, and quiet in a land of big skies.  This is a time when one needs to be patient but it also allows a time for reflection. Many thoughts flow through my mind the least of which being; why wood? Not that I don’t already have a mountain of answers for this question and need to find one, I just think it a question that I need to revisit. Questions have become more important than the answers.    

            You can hear the camp fire crackle and pop inside the kiln, spitting bits of ash that will gently settle upon the shoulders and ledges of pots, this ash will melt into a natural glaze. Should we prolong this stage of the firing to build up the ash or should we crank it up?  I look up to the sky, it’s a clear night, the moon is dancing behind the silhouettes of trees while the northern lights sway to the sound of silence, and I realize that this kiln belongs here. In my experience, not all wood-fire kilns belong to the place they are built, very few do. It’s hard to articulate but a kiln that fits into its surroundings seem to mirror, enhance, and bind one to the other as if they have always been together. It’s this connection that fascinates me, a bond just beyond my comprehension, not unlike the bond that binds us to this reality.

            The crackle from the firebox has died down; I stoke it again and check the moisture coming from the blow hole. It will be dry in a couple of hours and I can pick up the pace a bit. I see a mouse sitting by the kiln, nibbling on a tidbit that got dropped by some one during the loading and I wonder if it has any clue to what I am doing. “Not much difference between you and I is there.” The mouse looks up at me, checks to make sure I am not a threat then goes back to its nibbling. The sun will be up in about four hours, there is still time to decide how fast we should go. Time does not seem to matter as much during the first shift.     

            Sitting in the Middle:Red-Orange flames shoot out of the blow hole, kiln roars, firebox crackles, and braids of black smoke twist and fall from the chimney, a rhythm has been established. There are more people around now, harder to keep focused with all the extra energy but it is a welcome change. A wood-fire usually means one becomes part of a community. A sharing of stories, ideas, questions, and philosophy usually takes place and all these things are not by any means limited to clay. Some groups are more dynamic than others and in one instance the group was able to tackle the topics of religion, politics, art, sex, life and death with answers and ideas that seemed so clear at the time. Wood-firing can be quite intoxicating.

            The kiln is very much at the forefront of my mind but during this part of the firing I usually step back and watch “The dance of the stokers”. A chain saw snarls and chews its way through some wood, spitting shavings in its wake. A whirlwind of people are sorting, stacking and stoking, not unlike a strange pyromaniac group from the Cirque du Soleil, all in an effort to feed the fire. Each shift has their own rhythm, their own dance. They have come, done their shift and left the stage for a much needed rest until it is time to return for another round. This will occur for several more hours, until the final stoke. Every participant, potter or other, finds one last piece of wood and puts it into the firebox for one last ceremonial stoke. The grand finale.

            The End:         The cooling of the kiln, another time of reflection. The kiln is quiet and dark now, but I am still drawn to it. I think of the kiln, firing, its stokers and the sharing of ideas. Like the mouse at the beginning, I am left to nibble on the tidbits of information, knowledge and ideas left behind by the firing and participants. Some people have gone home, some have hung around too excited to leave; all await the opening of the kiln. For me it all comes too soon, but it always comes.

            The energy is high again; every one does what they can to contain their child like anticipation, and to keep from ripping the door down like the wrapping on a Christmas present. The unloading is usually done by the one(s) who loaded it, and the knowledge that is gained can be invaluable in the next firing. Every piece that emerges from the kiln is, in my opinion, is a success as long as you have learned something from it. There are very few that really work or are a “hit”, most are adequate, and some are a “miss”. But firing this way is not really about getting everything that you want. Most participants come away with something, a few pots for some, knowledge and appreciation for others, but something for everyone for sure. What I get from the firing is bits of experience, bits of knowledge, ideas, and of course questions both new and old.

            Every one has gone now. It is windy and colored leaves dance about the kiln where once people did. I feel a sense of wanting not unlike the kind one feels after reading a good book wishing it did not have to end. Once again I am left to my thoughts and I come back to the familiar question. Why wood? There are many reasons: sentiment, process, effect, community, ecologically, interaction, and versatility….the list at times seems endless. I am not a religious man, spiritual maybe, but I do view a wood-fire as a ritualistic event. The kiln is a ritual space, and a portal that gives me a fleeting glimpse at what might lie beyond the veil of this perceived reality. It allows me the ability to search for answers and find more questions, which I need in order to hopefully find a sense of understanding that ultimately gives me solace. When I first started to wood-fire it was something that I wanted to do. Now, just like my work, it has become something that I need to do.


            Wouldn't it be terrible to have all the answers to one’s questions?

Christian D Barr

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