salt firing: flask

I am making some flasks, inspired by antique versions I found in photos.

Fire in the hole

This part of Nancy’s sculpture, glimpsed through a peep at the back of the chimney.

Salt firing

(repost from a yahoo group… edited somewhat. Tuesday night.)


I’m so tired I feel like I am sleepwalking, but I wanted to chime in

before I crawl in a hot bathtub and then my warm bed.

Yesterday was one of those rushed, frantic, trying-to-get-myself-

packed,-my-bisque-unloaded,-my-kids-schooled days, but by 2:00 I had

everything I needed… except the camper key. I searched long enough

to miss my entire printmaking class, and finally just threw my

sleeping bag in the van, kissed the kids and headed for Ypsi without

the camper.

I spent a few hours in the ceramics studio glazing my pots, gathering

up gloves and burners, and getting organized.

My kiln buddy Nancy was firing a large six-segment sculpture and had

never done this before. I have done it, uh, let me count.. once,

before, so I was the expert. ;0)  She made make cone packs

and we mixed a big batch of wadding. My prof uses EPK and silica, and

others suggested epk and alumina, so I used all three, with a bucket

of sawdust and fine shavings from hubby’s lathe.

We ended up loading in the dark, in the snow/rain mix. So far both of

my salt firings have happened in really crappy weather… I can only

imagine what a sunny summer firing would be like.

We loaded Nancy’s sculpture in the back of the kiln, smaller segments

below to avoid double-stilting, and the really big ones on top,

wadded with a fat coil underneath.

The front shelves I filled with a couple of teapots, some cups with

various slip and terra sigs on them as tests, a couple of ewers and

some this-and-that. I carefully loaded a cream and sugar and a couple

of matching cups glazed in ^6 reduction chocolate, and after the last

door brick was in, turned around to see their tray waiting to be

loaded. Oh well. it will make the next salt firing in April, I guess.

There were a million things I thought I knew how to do, but ended up

second-guessing myself. Diana (my prof) stopped by at about 9:30

after her class, and answered some of my questions, but she was

shivering so hard her teeth were chattering so I told her I was fine

and knew what I was doing (ok, not so much.) We told her she should

go home to bed and she pointed out that the moving van had come that

very afternoon and moved every stick of furniture — bed included —

to her new house in the town of Saline, but that she was going to

spend one last night in her little house on the edge of campus, in a

sleeping bag on her wood floor.

I have a key to her house and have spent a monday overnight there for

a year and a half now, on the night my mom keeps the kids, so that I

can put in a full studio day Tuesday. She said I was welcome to her

floor, so camper or no, I had a place to sleep!  No furniture,

but any place with heat and a bathroom seemed like a better choice

than sleeping in my van.

We finished bricking up around 1:00 am. In a perfect world we would

have timed it better, but Nancy is a high school art teacher and

works all day, and I have my own daytime obligations, so it is what

it is.  We were chilled to the bone and I suspect Nancy had no idea

what she was getting into when she decided to salt fire. (I know I didn’t, last year.) She kept asking, “What time do you think we’ll be done?” and I could only shrug helpessly.

I hooked up the propane burners to a couple of two hundred pound

propane tanks, lit them and turned them low and yellow “flamey” —

just enough that they wouldn’t go out. I felt weird leaving them

unattended but I would be back before it was light out to start things up for real.

I keyed into Diana’s house and found a rug she had laid out for me

next to a baseboard heater . I’m 46, creaky, and spoiled by my foam mattress and piles of soft pillows, so I was grateful but pretty stiff in the morning.

And I kept waking up and thinking: what if a burner went out? What if

it heated up too fast and blew up the wadding? Pots flying, shards

everywhere? and at one point I realized — OMG — we used the

softbrick to brick up the door INSIDE the arch and the hard brick

outside! Yaaaahhh ! What were we thinking? I even remember looking at

the nice salt marks on the hardbricks as we stacked… I guess I can

only claim tiredness as my excuse. It was too late to change it by

then. When I confessed later to Diana she just shrugged and said it

would be OK.

I suppose I didn’t need to confess this on line but there it is…

I’m learning!

I was back at the kiln bright and early with a bad cup of McDonalds

coffee, turned up the burners and watched the sunrise from my van.

Long johns and several layers of clothes were definitely in order, as

the rain/snow had stopped but the wind was gusty, cold and wild.

Nancy came later in the morning (I didn’t call to wake her… how many grad students does it take to watch a kiln fire?) and we sat in our cars which were parked on the grass, aimed at the kiln. Every 20 minutes or so one of us would go check the pyrometer, signal “rising” or “falling” or “holding” to

the other, and I would occasionally go turn up burners or dork around

with the knife blade damper.

Other than that I spent about 12 hours sitting behind the wheel

watching the burners, trying to stay warm, and foraging in my van for

food. Due to what my dad would call the “3 P’s” (piss poor planning)

I mostly had food I had packed for the camper. Somehow, though, a

pound of raw venison and a few onions didn’t seem like what I wanted

for lunch. I did find a pack of gum, a protein bar of dubious vintage

and some packaged cocoa mix. So I didn’t starve.

Just after noon when 012 was going down, I pulled an extra coat up to

my chin and dozed of for a bit. I woke wondering whether we really

needed to tend this kiln every minute it was firing. (The big noisy burners don’t seem like something to walk away from).

Just then, a huge gust of wind rocked my van — and rocked the four

foot gavanized chimney pipe that sprouted out of a kind of basket-

weave of bricks on top of the kiln. It swayed once– and again — and

sure enough, down it came, in a rain of bricks. I sprinted over there

with Nancy on my heels, stood on tiptoes over the burner port and

teetered it back into place on the second try. Nancy handed me bricks

and I stacked it back into place, breathing way more hot stuff than I

liked in the process.

It’s been a useful chimney for all this time,

and D. is great at making things happen on a very limited budget, but now I sat eyeing it warily every time the wind picked up.

I finally went to scrounge behind the sculpture building and found a

roll of concrete reinforcing mesh, and cut enough to wrap the

chimney — brick base and all – and wired it into place from atop a

barstool. It looks like hell, but it never budged after that.

Fellow mfa students Joanne and Patrick showed late in the afternoon  to kiln sit, so Nancy and I could go to our seminar class.

I had a real dilemma when I got to Ford hall: there was a gallery

reception going on, with students, profs and assorted well dressed

people gathered around a table full of appetizers in the hallway. I

was suddenly aware that I’d slept on a floor, hadn’t showered or

found a hairbrush, smelled like a kiln yard, had a red frozen nose,

was wearing no makeup and a pair of overalls with chunks of wadding

wiped on them, and had a coiffure styled by a red flannel yooper hat

with fuzzy earflaps. On the other hand, dinner had been a bag of

slivered almonds and some cold coffee… so I sidled up to the line

and got my cheese and veggie dip, trying to look inconspicuous.

Every time there was a break in seminar, I was calling the

kilnsitters like a nervous new mommy. I came back and whispered the

news to Nancy — “1200C!”  “Cone seven bending!”… I fidgeted until

class was over and we bolted back to the kiln site just in time to


Patrick and I did the salting. We started with the 6 pounds of the

same kind of chunky kosher salt we had used last spring, dumped in

across from the burner ports with angle irons… then tried rock salt

(It pops like popcorn!), and in several saltings went

through ten pounds of that. We finally ran out of draw rings (we were

crowded and put in too few) and salted one more time before we shut

it down. (This was only the third successful salt firing for this kiln we built in summer of ’06, so no residual salt yet. I’ll have graduated by that point)  ;0)

It’s kind of a dilemma. We’re using glaze developed for ^6 gas

reduction, but a clay body that’s ok up to ^10 (and a little

underfired at 6, imo.) And salt changes everything. So it’s kind of a

crapshoot, especially for newbies. We’ll see on Thursday when we

unload… I’ll take pix, good or bad.

So: what I love about salt firing:

The pots. Loading, if I can get somebody else to make the little

balls. The way it looks when it’s all glowy through the cracks.

Peeking in at hot lemon-yellow pots. The crackle of rock salt. The

quiet when the burners are shut down and the kiln clammed up. But

mostly the pots.

What I hate: Dry, rough hands, gloves or no. (wadding? bricks?)

Chapped lips (after the salting.) The roar of those burners you have

to yell over to be heard. The burn in your nose, chest and throat

from fumes. Propane! (which smells like a cross between burning metal

and cabbage farts). Watching the big smoke cloud roll out the chimney

and through a tree (sorry, tree) and over the dorms (sorry, students)

and into the sky (sorry, planet).

I wonder if it would be different if I were firing my own kiln, in my

own place, with some familiarity and skill. Maybe less nerve-

wracking… of course, then I would have to buy my own gas, and nobody

 would stop by to bring me coffee!

After we cleaned up the kiln site we stood around reflecting about

the firing. I wondered what I would have to charge per pot if I were

to figure my time by the hour. We laughed that nothing in the kiln

was worth the cost of the propane we used to fire it… but the truth

is, my tuition is going for an education, and every new firing is the

learning experience of a lifetime. I’m getting my money’s worth.

I’ll post pix after we unload, probably thursday. Overall it was a

good firing, though writing about it now is kind of like asking a

woman how she likes being a mother when she’s still in labor… when

I am rested, clean and warm again I will forget the hard part, and by

the time I unload my pots I’ll be ready to do it again.

Hen house

My three hens live here, tucked into a corner of my yard, far from neighbors and under the protective wing of the little barn that houses bird seed, lawnmmower, garden stuff and beekeeping supplies.

I built it with silvery, weathered wood scavanged from elsewhere because that’s what my great grandma Parker’s henhouse looked like, and my Uncle Bud’s still does. (The first henhouse I built in this yard 15 years ago looked like a cross between foghorn leghorn and a swiss chalet on stilts, complete with a windowbox.  This one is more practical, AND raccoon proof.)

I found the old farm mailbox — rusted and painted to a wonderful hue –and Jeff cut a hole in the side so I could attach it to the henhouse as a nesting box.

I used an old pitchfork handle attached to a sliding door (like the knife blade damper in a kiln) so we can open and close their outdoor access by pushing it in, or pulling it out.

The side you can’t see is made of weathered pickets from old fencing, and looks kind of like a treehouse with windows across the top. They perch on an old wooden ladder, inside, and have bedding of straw, fall leaves, shredded junk mail, and wood shavings from Jeff’s lathe. Along with organic chicken feed and grazing on grass and bugs in the yard, they get our leftovers: whole wheat couscous with venison stew, leftover soggy cheerios, pizza crusts soaked in broth or milk, bug nibbled chard leaves. and… “is this cottage cheese looking sour to you?” They like it fine…


Now if I could only get them to put up the flag when they layan egg!

Pot pie

I make unremarkable but comforting pot pies out of leftover meat when we roast a chicken. When my brother was a bachelor I used to make extras for him.

I made this one for Patrick at EMU. It’s a “pot” pie. Get it? See the pot? Am I hilarious, or what?

I forgot to post this…

This was from the Toledo Potters Guild show at the University of Toledo’s Center for Visual Arts (on the grounds of the Toledo Museum of Art.)

It was a lovely show.  I had three pots juried in and they all sold.  The one on the poster that looks like a portly woman in heels with her hands on her hips was mine; it was maybe a foot tall.

Old oven

The fancy details have long since weathered off of my bread oven, but I still think it’s a thing of beauty with it’s smoky patina and unapologetic functionalism.

I am collecting images form medieval woodcuts of an oven like this that was portable, and could be taken to market on a two wheeled cart.  Bakers sold breads and pretzels in the streets in the 1400s using portable ovens. I found images in books of clay ovens used by the Romans, as well. It has me thinking what my own smaller clay oven might look like.  Yet another project to scheme on while I drive up and down 23 to school!

mud cracks…

This is a close-up of the weathered surface of my bread oven. I love how organic patterns like this make you lose a sense of perspective. It would look the same under a magnifying glass,  at your feet, or from an airplane.  Wind-made ripples in sand look like dunes, exactly. Water carves rock in miniature the same way it makes river valleys. 

Mud cracks are cool. This is a recent, thin layer of local clay smoothed over the surface of the oven, which — if I am not mistaken — is two years old last summer and still in good shape, despite having been left uncovered through a few rainstorms.

Tomorrow we are having a big sunday dinner after our yard work. The kids will pick up sticks and make a fire with them in the oven and we’ll feed it twigs and branches all afternoon– so I plan to make a nice big sourdough loaf to bake in there before dinner.  Amazingly, the oven fires best on small bundles of sticks, and the trees in our yard provide a steady supply.

pot du jour

This is the big casserole I’m working on, awaiting a knob. I have read that for ovenware, the bottom shape most resistant to thermal shock is a curve instead of a sharp corner, but I am not sure I like the way the base of this thing resolves itself, or the outward curve around the walls. I will throw a straight walled one next and see how I like it.

It also looks tightly thrown to me. I threw it with imposibly wet clay so it wouldn’t hurt my right arm/shoulder, and reworked it later. Maybe that’s why.

I could roast a turkey in this thing.  At least now. It will shrink in firing, no doubt.  It will need some kind of glaze that will do something  interesting on the curve of that dome.  Wood, salt, gas? decision, decisions. Maybe I will make 3 and do one in each.


Inside the hoop house

Isn’t rainbow chard lovely? This photo doesn’t really do justice, as the sun was setting and it looks best in the warm light.  The cold frame on the right has lettuces and arugula, the one on the left is mache/rapunzel (which we love) and spinach. Elsewhere is kale and snow peas.

I like the hoop house because in the cold of winter I can go out there and it still smells like dirt. I even like to weed in the small space. I left a grassy spot where I can sit, and where I can pick green grass for the guinea pig and the hens when the world is under snow. I moved all my hardy herbs out there before the freeze.

It’s not heated, but the combination of solar from the hoop house and retained heat from the cold frames means I have had salad from my back yard on new years day — in Ohio! For now the days are still warm so the vents are unzipped and the side flaps are still raised at the bottom.

This was a late purchase, so it isn’t as loaded with plants as I wish it was. Next year I will make a larger late summer planting, and have more kale, collards and chard, and maybe some hanging plants. I wish I knew where I could dig up some farmer’s doomed greens right now. It has frosted hard enough that the kids and I pulled all my limp, blackened basil plants today, and the eggplants, and some of the tomatoes. We still have leaves on the trees but enough have fallen that we can see our neighbors’ houses again. Oh, well.

We rented a haul-off dumpster today, tore down the old play house, pitched some rotted picket fence, put up the bird feeders, and organized our garage workshop/kiln room. We’ll be looking through attic, basement, loft and every room in the house for things we need to pitch, this week. It’s a good feeling to lighten the load and let go of the detritus of the past.  More is going to goodwill, and we plan to sell a few of the kids’ very nice but outgrown bikes on the curb.  Winter means we’re confined in a smallish house, so the “stuff” has to go.

Meanwhile I am healing. My elbow only aches now if it is all the way extended or all the way bent, and it works pretty well at the angles in between. When I overwork it with lifting or pushing (like I did today) I pay the price in that shoulder, though — it’s where most of the impact seems to have been when I fell and landed on the elbow. I don’t bounce back from stuff as quickly as I once did.  Motrin is my friend.

I was supposed to be in Cleveland today.  I had signed up for a charter bus trip with the Art Masters Association from EMU. I was supposed to get up at 5:30 to head for Ypsi by 6 to catch the bus at 7… I was just tired, though. I slept in, on my fat pillow, with Jeff and a purring cat, and it felt like bliss. Mostly I’m tired of being on the road, of eating dinner out of a little plastic storage container,  and not having any down time. Last weekend I was in Detroit for Michigan Mud. Next weekend we’re firing the wood kiln.  The next weekend Jeff will go deer hunting back east.  So this weekend I slept late, and did some projects around the house.

I see a lot of my kids. All my classes are afternoon and evening. I am here every day until just before their dad gets home, except for the two times a month when they go to grandma’s and I sleep over at EMU and do a studio marathon. I am working in my own studio (my “homework”) a lot of the time, but I work with them on their homeschooling, listen to music practices, and we eat breakfast and lunch together.  I would not have gone to school if it meant I would miss out on days with my kids. Two years without mom around is too long when you’re 9.  And two years without being up to my elbows in kids would be too long for me.

Jeff sees a lot of the kids, too. He goes to work early so he’s home early in the day, and he’s now the one who takes them to scout meetings, tae kwon do, community band, and miscellaneous activities, and feeds them dinner without me most weeknights. Thursdays we bolt down dinner as a family before I fly out the door to teach at the Potter’s Guild and they all watch “Survivor” together.

Jeff’s the one I don’t get to see enough. We’re on the cell phone all day long from wherever we are, but it’s not the same as cooking together, doing projects together, or just stretching out on the couch with my feet in his lap while I read my book and he watches a movie. We really appreciate our weekends, now.

 My son Tyler enrolled this year in an on-line charter, and his schedule is no longer up to him. He says, “I get up every morning with plans for my day, but by the time I am finished with school work and chores, the day is over. I feel like I never get any time to do the fun stuff anymore, except for the weekends. “

I feel for him, I really do. I point out to him that his dad’s life — in fact, most adult lives — are like that. It’s why people love the weekend, and hate mondays. 

I guess he’s joining the adult world, except he has summers off, and has apparently not inherited his mother’s compulsion to work on the weekends, too.   He and I both remember a time before I went back to school when I could call an impromptu vacation from schoolwork and we’d go hike the trails, or make applesauce, or paint the treehouse. There just isn’t that kind of flexibility anymore.

But I don’t remember ever being so grateful, before, for simple things like a meal of bratwurst, cottage cheese, homemade pickles and grapes on paper plates with my family, after a day of appetite-inspiring work in the crisp, fresh fall air.  Any food tastes good when you are hungry, and relaxing is wonderful when you’re bone-tired and have a sense of accomplishment.  Time with loved ones is easy to take for granted when you are always together. Now, though, Jeff’s voice on the phone just makes me wish I were home, and when I am,  I’m glad of it.  


When frost threatened, I stretched the top over the hoop house, and yesterday when Jeff got home from work he helped me put the ends on as the nights are getting really cold. I had put the window-frame-lids on the cold frames inside, but it was still looking pretty frigid out there in the early mornings.

The ends are just fastened loosely with cable ties, and then the top is pulled over each end and a drawstring is pulled to overlap the ends — like the od covered wagons. Very clever design, especially for the price.

My old homemade hoop house was made of PVC and a heavy duty plastic tarp left over from a university art installation, but when it finally succumbed to a windstorm, I discovered that I couldn’t rebuild it very cheaply if I had to buy the plastic myself. This clearance sale one was a better deal. The old screen door from the former hoop house is now on my chicken coop.


Entry for November 3, 2007

In August I put up the frame of a cheap hoop house that I got on season-end clearance. I planted mache, lettuce, spinack, green onions, and arugula, and transplanted some of my cold hardy plants in the month that followed: beets from the farmer’s market were planted to provide beet greens, as well.


ok so i went and screwed myself up good tonight… carrying a board with pots and supper through our tight packed-with-grad-students, profs, pots and equipment workspace, i ran shin-level into a low dolly full of sculptures waiting to be photographed and went ass over applecart. i came down hard on my left elbow on a big plaster sculptural mold; ended up on my back on the floor clammy and grey with potato soup in my hair, bloody knees, and bits of pots all around. Profs Lee and Diana swooped down to help, and studiomate Joanne came to the rescue, taking me to the ER for the several hours of fun that always turns out to be. She even gave me 3 motrin without charging $40 each for them.

x rays said nothing broken in my arm so no cast, but he pointed out that it didn’t mean i didnt mess myself up pretty good — he predicts the next few days will be more pain, bruising, swelling, back/neck other involvement. i drove home tho before it got too bad. jeff helped me undress and got me supper.

i’m in a sling, iced down and drugged up for the next 4 days or so, and he said it might hurt like hell for a month or more afterwards.

but it isn’t broken. diana had directed me last year after nancy’s break not to ski/skate/otherwise damage my throwing arms but i am forever in a rush and half distracted and manage to rack myself up semi-annually regardless. i laid on the little bed in the hospital gown thinking how i would finish and graduate… have patrick center big cones of clay on bats for me so i could hump throw left handed? do some intricate decorative work, somehow, lefty, if i couldn’t throw?

anyway i am down to typing lefty so no more long posts for a while… i need to put some pix on my blog tho… give me a day or two.

letter to mel (a clayart post)

mel wrote: (on clayart, the ceramics listserver)

“the acts of throwing, slab building and a thousand other
tasks in ceramics…..are not art, metaphor, smarty pants…
they are craft/skill.

it is skill based.

when you control the skill and understand your materials…
clay/glaze/fire most anything can be done and you may sneak
into some art.

far too many teachers in the past two decades did not want to
teach craftsmanship…they wanted to teach big A art.
craft was treated like a disease. idea became the savior of art.
it did not work. bad ideas, executed with zero skill is still junk.”

OK, mel, that post was my 2X4 for this evening. I pulled into my driveway tonight ready to quit school.

(I won’t go into personal details, family drama, health issues, etc. but take my word when I say it’s been a rocky, worrisome week to begin with, so I didn’t have a lot of “reserve” for school.)

I hadn’t seen my kids since yesterday lunch, or hubby since sunday night. I came inches from hitting a deer on the way home (she turned at the last second) and my hands shook for three miles afterward.

I had come to school Monday with two big flat boxes full of new mug and creamer forms I had stormed up over the weekend, only to learn that they were too this, too that, wrong here, heavy there, poorly designed, etc. I spent this morning with my head in a dirty clay mixer, and the rest of the day dripping sweat in a hot, windowless cinder block room over a shimpo that sounds like a John Deere.

The kicker is that last night I attended the lecture of Dr. James Elkins, prof of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. His 18 books include “The Object Stares Back: on the Nature of Seeing” — and he was the keynote speaker at an NCECA once (Kansas City, maybe?) His talk was interesting and not at all dry.

This morning he came to the ceramics grad studio to critique the intricate sculptural work of my studio mates Joanne North and Nancy Sly. Sculpture is, of course, capital-A-art. It looks damn good in a gallery, and profs from all over the art department accept it as a valid form of creative high-art expression.

Joanne invited me to sit in. It was exciting to listen to the discourse. He challenged her to think about why she was making the choices she made, what her work means, how much information about her work she would/should share with the viewer in her show, and the pros and cons of sharing vs. not. They talked about color and surface, her artist statements, her vision for future work, where her limits were and what she might do if she could surpass them. They talked about ideas. Damn, I love ideas.

He talked with the same insight and reflectiveness about Nancy’s massive stupa forms, and suggested to both of them that they imagine their “big break” one woman show, the one “someday”, where the media and reviewers show up — and then picture what would be in that show.

Meanwhile, there I sat in my corner, making pots. I felt like Cinderella in rags watching her stepsisters (though these two are not the least bit wicked) dance with the prince.

Though I’d declined the offer, Diana suggested that he look over a year-old project of mine, the only thing handy, collecting dust on a shelf. It was a series of ancient Anatolian jugs (somewhat awkwardly thrown and embarassing, now, to my more trained eye) that I’d tried to “evolve’ from the original funerary decoration form to something more functional, utilitarian and “pourable”.

He suggested what every prof except mine suggests to me, sooner or later, in one way or another: forget function. Try another series, making it increasingly LESS functional. I sighed and shrugged at Diana. How do I tell him that’s out of the question?

I have been given the task, for these two years, of throwing utilitarian work until I can do it without flaw, without effort, without doodads or gimmicks, and with some kind of personal style. Non-functional is NOT an option. Not with this prof, not for me.

No metaphor, no narrative, no deep personal motivations, symbolism or meaningful statements for me. I am to make pots.

Some days it feels like a very short leash.

No artist’s statement I can write will keep the Capital A artists from thinking, “craft” about my making “dishes”. Even if I fancied myself a writer — and most days I doubt it — I can’t imagine what might be said, beyond the clicheed, oft-repeated sentimentalities about the intimacy of the cup we hold in our hand every day, the niceness of using handmade things, bla bla bla. That doesn’t make it Art. Ask anybody.

I work without my shoes because it is so blazing hot in the studio, summer or winter, kilns or no, and the cement floor feels cool on my feet. Often I forget that I am barefoot, and travel the hall with my board of pots, headed for the kiln. Our building is full of tech classes, and I often pass students from India, Pakistan, Africa… they take in my bare feet and muddy clothes and my board of pots with an ironic smile. I imagine some of them come from towns where potters often walk barefoot in the street, carrying their wares. If so, they likely do not have — or need — tuition bills or letters behind their names.

But I am too far invested in this project to quit. Diana is too much a product of Alfred to see any possible grey area between Utilitarian work and Sculpture. It’s an either-or proposition. And mostly, I hear mel’s taunt/challenge in my head: do you say it’s dull to throw good work in series because it’s dull, or because you don’t have the ability? I can’t let myself quit because it’s hard, or the bar is set high.

Still, I am crit-weary. I rarely see Patrick anymore, and he was my moral support/fellow thrower in the program; we’re on different schedules and are no longer “roomies” at Diana’s. Surrounded in the grad studio by 4 sculptors I feel like the one onion in the petunia patch. And profs Lee and Diana waste no time gushing over anybody’s work; they cut straight to the failures. Usually it feels useful and necessary, like dental work. And usually it’s about as enjoyable. On a bad day it just makes me want to surrender, like there is no such thing as “getting there” — no milestone, no light at the end of the tunnel, no wiggle room in my assigned role.

On the way home I thought about how often I correct my kids. When I got home tonight I went to kiss each one goodnight and promised that I would tell them something wonderful about them, every day. My Tyler is trustworthy and responsible. Connor is enthusiastic and generous. Molly is affectionate and has a great sense of humor. I told them to remind me if they hadn’t had their compliment for the day, and I would come up with a new (and honest) one every time.

Mel, I have eight months left, give or take. I am not ungrateful, and feel my prof is one of the best anywhere for teaching the skills, the design, the craftsmanship of good pots. But it’s a long road. The possibility of my ever “sneaking into some art” seems discouragingly remote at this point. And the chance of my “art” being taken seriously by the other profs/students seems slimmer still. I know I should be above caring. I’m working on that.

Sylvania Art Fair SUNDAY!

I’ll be selling pots this weekend, at the Sylvania Art Fair.  This year’s fair has apparently been upscaled, is juried, and has been moved to the Lourdes College campus on Convent Boulevard.

The fair is from 9:30 to 4:00.

I’ll also be selling with the Toledo Potter’s Guild at the Farmer’s Market, the following Saturday (September 15) — from 9 to noon.

I’ll write soon about school, and life… right now I have pricing and prepping to do!


I promised the kids…

…that I would put this poem on my blog. We composed it together around the fire. Pardon a couple of inside jokes that won’t make a lot of sense.

We are Team Savino,

And we don’t have a cheer!

We rode our bikes to Confluence,

and all the way back here!

We braved nine miles of rapids

along the middle Yough

Got stuck in several places

but never had to walk!

We walked bikes down the mountain!

We rode to town for lunch!

We also stopped for ice cream!

(Mom got cappuccino crunch.)

We saw the local waterfall

where Washington was stopped,

and then we had to walk our bikes

back to the mountaintop!

We saw raccoons and ospreys,

We saw a dozen deer!

Ty saw turkeys on the bike trail

(and we STILL don’t have a cheer!)

We had the campground to ourselves!

The kids explored on bikes!

They sailed at light speed down “coast peak”

’til Molly wiped out (Yikes!)

The kids rode rocky waterfalls

at “natural water slide”

and dad stood in the rushing stream

to catch as they went by

Mom baked good breads and cobblers

like a true dutch oven chef

and cooked good campfire suppers

for a very happy Jeff.

We couldn’t read our email!

Cell phones were out of range!

No movies or computers!

(The peace and quiet was strange!)

Instead we tried the hammock,

told stories, played Old Maid

did rounds of 20 questions

relaxed, and laughed, and played.

We wrote our days in journals

and sketched with fire-charred sticks.

We pulled out all our corny jokes

and stupid campfire tricks.

Now home, with happy memories,

and with laundry up to here…

Yes, we are Team Savino…

and we STILL don’t have a cheer!

Kelly, Jeff, Tyler, Connor and Molly Savino


The view above

I have never seen a more glorious rails-to-trails bike trail anywhere. Ever. We’re determined to plan our next camping trip with bike trails in mind.

The view below

I rafted this river in college, in 1979, with my pal Nancy DeCaprio and a bunch of dorm-mates. This trip, we paddled the more family-friendly portion of the river, with just class 1 and 2 rapids. Anyway,this was the view looking down from the wooden bike bridge.

A week in the mountains: Ohiopyle, PA

I haven’t completely unpacked from our trip, yet — but I want to post a few shots, so I can show my grandma tomorrow when we go to celebrate her 92nd birthday. (Happy Birthday, Grandma Lowe!”)

We just had one of those vacations where you just shake your head all the way home about how nothing went wrong and everything was great. You hate to say it out loud lest you jinx your luck… but it was really an ideal family vacation.

We took off last Monday, leaving straight from the annual homeschoolers not-back-to-school picnic — five bikes tied atop the van, and the pop-up camper towed along behind. We were headed for Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania — in that magic week after school has started for the rest of the world, and before Labor Day Weekend, so we had an entire state park campground to ourselves.

The van groaned up the mountainsides and ground brakes back down, but we got to our site before dark, and the kids (all big enough to help, now) jumped out to assist us in setting up camp. (We love our pop-up… it’s like a big tent but has mattresses to cushion tired paddlers… it has a table for family games on rainy nights… and we can travel cheaply by eating in. Plus, the few times we’ve had to break camp in a downpour, it beats emptying out and rolling up a wet tent, by miles!)

In the days that followed we biked over long wooden bridges crossing wide river valleys… paddled nine miles of the middle Youghiogheny river, navigating rocks and rapids (Molly too, paddling along in the back) … rode our bikes 25 miles in an afternoon, from Ohiopyle to the charming town of Confluence and back… (Molly too, pedaling her little legs off on her small, one speed bike)… we swam and floated and shot the rapids with our bodies at “natural water slide”… hiked mountain trails… cooked campfire meals. The weather was perfect, hot clear days and cold misty nights with a full moon. We all got along famously, even in tight quarters. Molly had one wipe-out while biking around the campground, but her boy scout brothers bandaged her scrapes, dried her tears and pamered her for an evening, and we all thanked our stars it was only a couple of bumps and bruises. (Yay, bike helmet!)

We came home through Pittsburgh and spent the afternoon at a water park with a wave pool and fun, scary tube water slides.

And by the time we got home, the kids were thrilled to see their pets and happy to be back in their own beds.

Family and falls

We spent part of every day wading in ice cold water, over flat, slippery rocks; swimming or sitting or sliding in different narrow, frothy streams… or exploring waterfalls close up. Molly was always on the lookout for salamanders. Connor had a first aid kit on his belt and was “medic!” for the inevitable scrapes that happen when you play in rapids and on rocks. And Tyler seemed to be all about climbing the highest place, going over the tallest falls, and generally making his mom nervous. In this picture Jeff’s on his way under the falls.

No photographic record of mom, of course… I was the one with the camera.

Miles of falls

I have been in places before where you could hike in and take a picture of a waterfall… but these were mountains made of rock, with streams everywhere and a whitewater river running through it. So everywhere we biked, hiked or paddled we saw waterfalls.

Mossy rocks, ferns, cool wet stone of every texture and pattern, wter and wind carved, earth weathered… little caves and caverns, mountain laurel, and wild rhododendrons the size of trees.

Canning for Peace

When my grandma moved to a new senior residence, I was given her old canning supplies. This just tickles me to no end. Her farmhouse kitchen when I was a kid was a wonderful place where endless bushels of tomatoes were stewed and canned, where pickled beets stained hands and aprons and horseradish pickles sent a dilly vinegar smell up the stairs, across the screened porch and over the glider-chair where kids could spend an afternoon reading comic books.

Along with Grandma’s canner came a pressure cooker and my Great Grandma Parker’s old canner, a huge grey enameled beast with decades of well water hardened to calcium on the inside. Inside one big canner pot was a ziploc bag with several versions of the “Ball Blue Book” — a canning guide put out by the makers of Ball canning jars. I have the modern version in my own kitchen, but Grandma had a few vintage ones, scribbled with her notes and splattered with juice. One especially charming version had an artful arrangement of produce and jars pictured in too-vibrant color on the cover, and was published in 1941.

Inside the back cover was a brief essay from the Ball Brothers of Muncie, Indiana.

“To Save Is To Serve”, it was titled.

“Until now, homemakers have canned food in BALL jars because it is pleasant, convenient, economical, and healthful to have a well stocked pantry. Now, more home canning should be, MUST BE, done for the sake of personal economy and national welfare.

The transgressions of overseas dictators leave us no choice but to prepare to defend our liberty against possible aggressors. The debts for defense will be great. Each of us must pay a part. Some, perhaps all, must forego certain comforts and luxuries, but, unlike the peoples of the warring nations, we need not be deprived of neccessities. If we waste not, we shall want not.

All surplus fruits, and vegetables, and meats can and should be saved by canning. Every extra jar of home canned food will be needed — by you, your children, your neighbor or your Nation.

Today, the Stars and Stripes fly over a land of freedom and plenty. We can keep it so if we but remember that the wages of waste are high — and that to Save is to Serve.”

I am fascinated by the era of rationing, victory gardens, and the Great Depression. Maybe it is because I spent so much time as a folklorist interviewing people who lived in that generation. Maybe because it is so hard to imagine not having whatever we want at our fingertips. Maybe because “the wages of waste” are no longer a concern for most of us.

I have always canned peaches and tomatoes, and made jam, pickles and sauerkraut. This summer, though, it seems more important than ever.

Partly that’s due to my summer reading list, which included The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I can no longer buy lettuce shipped from California or CAFO-fattened beef without knowing just exactly what the price is — in fossil fuel, in pollution of the environment, and by extension, in human lives. For me to take part in the waste of resources — like by buying Florida strawberries when local farmers are selling fresh-picked-today — weighs on my shoulders, in the light of my new perspective.

It wastes my money not to grow my own, buy in season, pick and can. It hurts my community, to buy from elsewhere while local growers and small farms struggle all around me. It hurts the planet to take for granted that we should have watermelons in January, Chilean grapes, coffee and pineapples year round. The cost in fossil fuels to transport all that food is staggering.

And oil fuels wars. It gives power to tyrants. It makes beggars of out the countries with the highest appetite for fossil fuels. I am not ready to give up driving, to boycott my cup of coffee or live off the grid in a yurt… but canning my own produce feels right on so many levels. I can feed my kids home grown organic, even in winter. I can buy by the bushel from local farmers, bypassing all the middle men and chain groceries who get the lion’s share of the profit otherwise.

We build family memories, gathered in a steamy kitchen peeling peaches and lifting canning jars from the boiling water, lining them up to cool and hearing the “tink” of lids sealing. My kids love every part of it. They go out with baskets and come in with wild grapes, elderberries, cherry tomatoes to slice and dry — all from our little suburban back yard.

And the primal part of my brain likes the notion of stocking up for the cold weather. Deep down, we are cave men, and don’t grasp the fact that the Kroger store is open all winter and we are unlikely to starve. Fall means gather, harvest, prepare. School shopping just doesn’t do that for me.

And I suppose some of us — especially those of us whose imaginations were fired by Y2K scenarios, years back — also consider history to be a cautionary tale. 9-11, Katrina, earthquakes and blackouts in the past have reminded us that it’s important to have something in the pantry “just in case”. A friend who works in emergency management recently reminded us that quarantine would require provisions, as well, if something virulent were to break out. Visit the Red Cross emergency preparedness site and make sure you’ve got the basics in the house, ok?

I’m not stocking the bomb shelter or hoarding red beans and ammunition, and I am pretty sure our society will march along into some kind of Jetsons future without any major detours. Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I know my grandma didn’t can her produce because of the high price of organics, or becuse she wanted to support the local economy or save fossil fuels. But she had a pantry that was a work of art, and it fed us all wainter long with cherries and plum, fruits and veggies that tasted like summer itself.

Maybe that’s the final appeal. In the bleak grey of January, I can open a can of August – red haven peaches canned in fruit juice, golden as the summer sun, sweet and cold from the fridge.

Weekend pottery sale

After a rainy week we had a lovely Saturday for the annual pottery lawn sale at a potter friend’s home in Waterville. There were eight of us there and we each averaged a couple hundred dollars in sales.

The best part is always the company, a group of potters sitting at a table in the shade eating good food and talking shop. I feel a little like a gypsy with a traveling road show; out of my van come tables, shelves, fabrics, boxes of pots and an ez-up tent… and eight hours later, back in it all goes.

There are faster ways to make better money selling pots, but nothing replaces the information you get from watching people move through your booth. What do they look at? What do they touch? How do they react when they look at a price tag? If you loiter nearby, what comments do you overhear?

As usual, the pots most people seemed drawn in by, and interested in, weren’t the ones that sold the most. This time it was my lottoe ewers for soy/oil/vinegar/whatever. As I sat up late pricing the night before, my son Connor filled each one and poured it to make sure it didn’t dribble or glug. I had a stack of small funnels for folks to take when they bought an odd one with a narrow fill hole. I sold a couple of really good ones, but many more bowls, trays and lidded jars. My prof hates the little faces I put on things but the public seems to snatch them up.

I made a slide show of all my new ewers, and posted it at (actually, three slide shows with ten slides each.) Most of those ewers are still for sale, so if anybody wants to adopt one, they are twenty bucks. Just email me. Comments and critiques are welcome, as always…

Weekend Nick Joerling workshop at the 577 Foundation in Perrysburg, OH

Yes, I brought home a trophy… nicely discounted for workshop attendees, too!

This weekend was spent at the lovely 577 Foundation in Perrysburg. The former estate of the area’s wealthy Stranahan family, the foundation has nature trails, education programs, community flower and veggie gardens, a geodesic dome full of steamy green plants and fish ponds, and a thriving ceramics studio which Edith Franklin pioneered years ago (“when you all were just babies!”, she’ll say.)

Now Julie Beutler is at the helm, and she brings in some great workshops.  (Two years ago, Mel jacobsen came.) This year’s offering was Nick Joerling, and that’s where I have spent the last two days — in a padded metal folding chair at the pottery barn, from 10 to 5, watching.

I wanted to see how he made the animated, dancing potsI had seen in mags, in books and on posters. Since I have spent the summer using the wheel mostly to make parts — to be assembled later — I was fascinated with his views on altered pots, and the book he and Gay Smith and Suze Lindsay are cooking up about altered forms.

One thing he said was that, for better or worse, altered forms are more photo-friendly than, say, symmetrical, volumetric pieces like big open bowls, that have no obvious “front” or “profile”.

Nick said, “Some hope their images are as good as their pots. I hope my pots are as good as my images.”

He says his work comes from a “drawing sensibility”, and it’s clear that his thought processes run that direction; his rims frame moving lines, he points out, the way a comic strip’s frame encloses a figure that might be moving past the boundaries of the box. The curved decorative lines he makes on tall forms are like the lines showing movement in a cartoon… “If I could make them outside the edge of the pot, I would.”

He’s from Western NC near Penland, surrounded by good potters, and he’s a neighbor of Paulus Behrenson.  He shared stories about teaching, learning and collaborating at the art/craft schools like Penland, Haystack and others, places with a special sociology where “everybody leaves their category behind, and gathers around the material”. 

He also volunteered (or patiently fielded questions about) his own evolution as an artist. He talked a bit about  where his pots began. In grad school, he said, he made “a real timid and serious pot and tried to rescue it with decoration”.  Clearly, now, his pots have become anything but timid.  While he has no interest in “cute”, he feels that humor can be substantial in ceramics, not just superficial. It works the same way humor in conversation does — “it opens our ears to hear other things”.

He was incredibly generous with private information about his life, his business and studio practices, health insurance, and other personal stuff we interrogated him about. He even shared the story of his fairly recent near-death experience when, overcome by exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide (from a kiln behind a closed door, in a room with open windows) he passed out alone in his studio next to a firing kiln. His girlfriend found him hours later and he was life-flighted to the hospital — and lived to tell the tale, but not without cautionary advice about taking kiln ventilation seriously.

I came home last night a bit wound up from a whole day spent sitting, and drinking coffee, eating a huge potluck lunch, and the visual overstimulation of good slides.  I laid awake thinking about a lot of what he said about making pots. 

He made the point that potters can enter the market too quickly, and be pushed in the wrong direction.

He suggests that there is a point at which you need to stop taking in images of other people’s pots and let your work feed off your own work.

He encouraged us to stay with a pot, past the point where the learning curve seems to stall, instead of moving on to more exciting novelties.  He suggested that working in series can help a pot evolve, and fine-tune unresolved details.

He points out that innovative, functional pots are worthwhile, but warns against a tendency to “try too hard to be novel”.

And he points out that potters’ final products often hold a clue as to which part of the process they like best, in the making. Wet, soft clay? leather hard? decoration? firing?

At any rate, it was well worth my $75 admission, and I bought a plate as well. I likely will kick myself when EMU tuition is due and my studio account cupboard is bare, but I have pad pots in the glaze kiln right now, and a sale next weekend, and hope to be able to make up the difference.

Nick left us with a good feeling, some useful tools and tips, and a sense of familiarity I can’t put my finger on. Tall and slender, like David Hendley, … soft spoken, like Robert Piepenberg… a great smile and sparkle, like Josh DeWeese… a great sense of humor, like just about every potter I know.

I brought home a great plate. Jeff sighed. “We have to hang it on the wall, don’t we?”  Poor Jeff has wanted some hand thrown dinner plates for as long as we have been married, but I have yet to make work good enough to want to see every day. And frankly, if I made it now, I’d rather have the money! So at least for while, we’ll eat off the fake willow ware we got at the grocery store in Texas  with our frequent customer trading stamps.

This evening’s adventure included the Wood County Fair, barbershop quartets, chainsaw carvers, champion dairy cows and laying hens.. but that’s not a story for tonight. I’m off to the bathtub to soak, and will be up early to unload a cooling glaze kiln of pots for this weekend’s sale.


Hear Ye, Year Ye!

Stop by! Support your local potters!

Bring wheelbarrows full of money!

Connor made pickles!

This was a long weekend, the kind where you can hardly remember morning by nightfall.

We saw various friends at the downtown Toledo farmer’s market Saturday morning, Unitarians and homeschoolers and potters. We only bought local stuff. I bought yams and red fingerling potatoes. Tyler bought green bell peppers, his favorite. Connor bought a cantelope, and a peck of small cukes with a big bouquet of fresh dill, announcig that he was going to make dill pickles. Jeff bought some little summer squash that looked like dirigibles, and Molly coasted from free sample to free sample.

Jeff made a monster batch of fresh garden salsa again this weekend, and a big batch of pork and venison meatballs to freeze. We went to Kapnick orchard on Saturday and picked blueberries for $1.85 a pound (twenty pounds of them!). We were close enough to the lake to go visit my dad at the cottage, and brought chicken and sweet corn to make supper for him since Mom was with her Mom in Midland for the night.

At one point Connor (12) pushed his grandfather (70-something) on the big rope swing with the plank seat that hangs from a tree branch. My oldest son begged to spend the night at the lake with his grandpa, so we drove off without him… leaving the two of them with no mom/wife around to remind or instruct or scold. I have no idea when (or if) my kid went to bed last night, and I get the feeling he lived on potato chips, but he helped my dad haul some wood this morning and they ran some errands and had a nice time. I drove up today to get him — an hour there, an hour back — and was able to listen to more of my Kingsolver book on the ipod… (also stopped for 3 dozen eggs from a roadside farm, and a bag of black sweet cherries.)

Last night before dark, Jeff and the kids helped me build the metal frame of an 8X8 hoop greenhouse I found at an end-of-season bargain. I am going to plant it with cold weather greens, the mache/rapunzel we love, spinach, kale and wild Italian arugula. The plastic needn’t go on until frost threatens.

Tomorrow morning we have our homeschool assessments by a certified teacher, which means my kids will “graduate” to the next grade (4th, 6th and 8th.) We’ll probably go out to lunch as usual.

Tonight they gathered all the workbooks and texts they have finished this year, but more importantly, made little “resume” lists of music lessons and recitals, sport, martial arts and gymnastics accomplishments, scout merit badges and camp adventures from archery to citizenship to horseback riding and astronomy. Ty listed his spelling bee, they packed up the robotics team trophy, and listed our trips to Chicago’s field museum as well as art and science classes at the Museum and the Lake Erie Center. They listed community service projects, hobbies (cooking, fishing, camping, pottery) , church and homeschool group activities and more, skimming their daily journals from last year and finding more and more adventures thay had forgotten. Molly’s box holds her badge-crusted brownie vest. Connor’s has the glass ornament he blew himself.

We’ll be going to Washington, D.C in August, but that will be in their journals for next year’s assessments. Ty may be headed for high school after this year, so he might do a standardized test next year. (I was surprised to find that all three of my kids were disappointed to be doing assessments this year instead of testing, which they apparently loved.)

We’re pretty much in full summer vacation mode, now… though we’ll be reading aloud from an American history book in the weeks leading up to our DC trip. Soon we’ll ease back into Rosetta Stone Spanish on the computer, then daily Singapore math… but winter is long and confining, and this is the time to swim and ride bikes, help pick and can tomatoes, play on the trampoline and lie in the hammock reading. (The last Harry Potter has long ago been finished and shelved.)

I can remain in full denial about the coming of fall, ignore the school supply sales and let the weather decide when our school year begins. That, and we can plan our vacations for the time when most kids are back in school and we have the good touristy spot all to ourselves. One of the fringe bennies of homeschooling… and one I try to focus on, as moms around me gloat about having the whole day to themselves again when the big yellow bus pulls up.

Kitchen adventures

When I got home from up north, I pulled the pop-up into the back yard and opened it up, intending to clean and unpack. My three kids flagged me down one afternoon with a proposal: they wanted to sleep out there.

So for the last three nights, 8:30 arrived and the three of them, without reminders, brushed teeth, kissed us goodnight, gathered their books and journals, and left the house until morning.

Leaving Jeff and I all alone, in the peace and quiet, with the house to ourselves. Heh-heh. Not bad.

The first night, Tyler had finished Harry Potter by the wee hours. When I went out in the morning to knock and wake them for breakfast, the door was locked.

“Who are you locking out?” I asked. “The raccoons?”

“Voldemort”, came Tyler’s reply.

Speaking of ‘coons — Jeff had turned on the deck light the other night to see what our cat was growling at, and found her surrounded by 5 raccoons! All the same size, like siblings… maybe the siblings who grew up in our attic. They scattered when the light came on. The cat swaggered in as if she’d scared them off herself, and I laid in bed reassuring myself that the breached attic vent was now inaccessible to creatures without a makita and a crowbar.

Monday, I was fired up by the stats saying that our generation’s kids have a SHORTER life expectancy than ours, due almost entirely to diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other dietary disasters. (Apparently in the age of high fructose corn syrup, which no human had ever tasted before 1980, they have had to rename “adult onset diabetes” because it’s now happening so frequently to kids.) So my family sat down to a meal of marinated tofu on a nest of my own rainbow chard, sauteed in garlic and olive oil. They were good sports about the mountain of chard; Molly liked the stems best and Tyler liked the greens best. Connor just made a face but he ate it all.

Tuesday I made mozzerella cheese with the kids. It was a lot of fun, not especially hard, and took half an hour. (look for the recipe at ) I had brought a fat Amish tomato home from up north –a big one, the size of my head — and chunked it up on plate with strips of fresh basil leaves from the herb garden outside the kitchen door. Once we had stretched the motz (like taffy!) — dipping it back in the hot whey when it cooled too much to stretch — we made it into a thick shiny log and then cut off chunks to arrange on the tomato plate. Balsamic vinegar and olive oil were in two of my ewers on the side. It wasn’t all we had for dinner but it’s all anybody remembers. They all helped, and had never been so excited about a hunk of organic cheese before. We plan to make it weekly, now, just before homemade pizza night.

Wednesday I dug out the seeds for my cold weather crops, and turned over a small patch of sod between my mini tomato beds out back. I planted mache (also called corn salad or rapunzel, the green the Grimm Rapunzel’s pregnant mom craved and stole from the witch next door). I planted wild Italian arugula, though in retrospect so much of it has gone wild in the lawn that was my last garden spot, every time Tyler mows, the whole neighborhood smells skunky.

I still intend to plant peppergrass, spinach, lettuces and curly kale, but I have to build the framework of a groundhog-proof shelter that will become a hoop house over cold frames in winter. There is very little an Ohioan can grow in November, but my old hoop house kept us in salad greens until new years.

I found grass fed local eggs, and local milk from Calder Dairy in glass deposit bottles. I discovered that Dei Fratelli tomato and pizza sauces are grown in Ohio and canned in Toledo.

I made goat cheese this week, and a half gallon of Kefir is now ripening in my oven with just the heat of the oven light bulb. Today we made two quiches with orange-yolked local eggs, back yard chives, Michigan Amish swiss cheese and a whole wheat crust. The bacon was just the regular old evil kind, and the walla walla sweet came with a helping of fossil-fuel guilt. But we had one for dinner and the other is in the freezer.

Connor and I made five trays of fruit leather, with blendered canned peaches I put up two years ago in apple juice, and applesauce with cherry juice concentrate. They shoud be ready in the morning, along with the refrigerated dough we made for home baked soda crackers and plan to roll through my pasta machine. Tomorrow I’m grinding wheat to make graham crackers as well, and pizza crusts and flat breads for the wood oven. (One pizza will be roast garlic, tomato, fresh basil and homemade goat cheese.)

Meanwhile to counteract all the good eating, we have each made our own exercise charts with daily check-boxes for sit ups and biking, bench presses and workouts, and have hung them over the treadmill and weight bench in our den. (I bought the weight bench for $35 at a yard sale, and it has leg and arm machine thingies like a nautilus machine. This, I hope, will be my antidote to what one of the sculpture students referred to as “floppy bus driver arms”. )

Connor got a chinchilla this week to replace his late friend Rattus. It’s a cute little thing, with so much wrinkled fur on its forehead and between its big yoda-ears that it looks like a grumpy little gnome. It moves like a forest creature, whiskery and squirrelish.

Tyler’s not feeling well, today… headachey all afternoon, and he had a small fever this evening. I hope he’ll feel better in the morning. We are generally so disgustingly healthy that I hardly remember the last time somebody was sick.

I raced a thunderstorm home tonight, coming from teaching my guild class on the bike in the dark… thunder booming and lightning flashing. I made it into the garage, trailer and all, before the rain started. We so need rain. The grass is brown and crunchy underfoot.

Tomorrow is friday already. Saturday is the farmer’s market, and then to Michigan to Kapnick Orchard, where we can pick buckets of blueberries for half the price of the u-pick nearer by. We make a pie or two but freeze most, becuase the kids love a bowl of frozen blueberries with milk. We’ll stew some for adding to yogurt and kefir, and the kids plan to make blueberry ice cream this weekend with our local pasture fed milk.

It’s been all about food, this week. My kids, who love nature and have always been good about saving water and electricity for the environment, have accepted my answer to “why do we care if it’s local?” It was interesting to walk through the supermarket’s produce department reading where things came from. The kids were so into it they went form place to place announcing, “These grapes are from Chile! These strawberries came all the way from California!”

An older man came up to me and asked, “What’s bad about fruit from California?”

I didn’t want to get on a soapbox right there in the store, so I shrugged and said we’d rather support local growers, and that it seems like a waste of energy to buy strawberries shipped from California when Michigan blueberries are ripe right now.

He didn’t roll his eyes, anyway.

Did I mention I am building a little hen-cottage in my yard?

July 21, 2007: Home again

I was unable to get on line all day Thursday, because it was really our last full work day.

I drove in the morning to a local dairy where I had seen pastured cows, and asked for a couple of buckets of cow manure. He led me to an indoor enclosure and gave me a shovel. The poop I scooped was nothing like the grassy cow pies I remember from childhood pastures; it smelled like omnivore poop, (like a loaded diaper, in fact) and was full of whole corn kernels and grains. But I was determined to make a kind of litema, using manure with its fine-digested grass fiber, and some wood ash, sand and a small amount of clay — so home I went, with all the windows down and my head hanging out the window. I got lost and pulled over to ask a nice lady for directions, but when she walked over to the car window, she ended up backing away looking offended and somewhat alarmed. I’m sure she thought I had pooped my pants.

For all of thursday and friday morning, my tools and clothing were so pungent that I was kicked out of the house (you stink!) and had to eat lunch at the picnic table. Of all the loads I wheelbarrowed to and from my work site (a hilly gravel road with tools and storage tubs full of clay, sand or worse) the poop trip was the least enjoyable. Once I made the quarter mile trek down the gravel road, I then had to work my way along the woods trail, and my wheel wallowed in the sand every time.

I used a broomstick on the sides of my form and built up cob around it to make fluting on my “column”. It occurred to me that what I was building was a pedestal, and the thing I wished to put on the pedestal in the place of honor was: soil. forest floor. biodiversity.

Once the column was complete, I began to plaster it with the cow manure mix. I detected a slight lean, and since the top had not yet been built, I decided to accentuate the curve, pressing it outward as I plastered with my rubber gloves. I was sorry to have included chicken wire in the project, as it was scratchy and interfered with the sensory delight of pinching and smoothing cob into place… and now I regretted the litema, which (between the wood ash, the smell, and the dubious purity of the manure) required gloves and took skin contact out of the picture entirely. All in all, given the workout of hauling and mixing cob (mostly in a rubbermaid storage tub, with my feet) I was determined that if I ever did this sculpture class again I would work with something that required less sweat and pain — like cattail fluff, or cheesecloth.

Looking back, the entire project seemed to be a compromise: between the idea, and the requirements of the profs, between the idea, and the reality of the materials, between the idea and the restrictions of time. I did budget my time well, but worked right up to the very last minute, and could still see what more I might have done, given another day.

I had put up a rain-fly arch over the column, so I could work through the thunder and rain on Thursday. I made ancient looking potshards — Native American and ancient Jomon — to embed in the upper pedestal above the fluting, and fired them back at camp in a quickie firebrick-stacked kiln with the propane tank off my camper ,and my weed burner. Brian helped me find and cut a wooden armature for the pedestal top, which I hauled back to the site and decided it didn’t look right… then hauled it back to the workshop and re-cut it.

I built a fire in the column Friday morning, by digging a tunnel underneath it and lighting the straw, cardboard and small tinder I had put inside. I wheelbarrowed my propane tank and burner and quick-dried portions of the outside. The litema/manure mix was olive colored but hardened to a khaki cement-like surface, supposed to weather-proof the cob. The underlying cob wall was still too wet for me to scrub with a brush to re-expose the stones and fossils, but I decided that was OK — that weathering would do the job.

Once the top was built, fitted and covered with wire, cob and litema, I took my shovel and wandered looking for samples of the diverse forest floor. (The top of the pedestal is about at my eye level, maybe just over five feet tall.) I scooped whole microcosms; moss that looked like a forest of tiny pines, or mounds of emerald lawn. Clusters of maple seedlings no taller than my thumb. Whole ferns, wildflowers, chunks of mossy rotting wood. I arranged them atop my pedestal like a careful terrarium, and sprinkled handfuls of seeds I had stripped from plants in passing.

I headed up the hill to find one last specimen. I had removed my shoes, because they were crocs, and the manure mix kept plopping down through the top holes and grossing me out, trapped inside my shoes. So I had been treading on lumps of the glop barefoot, working in circles around the column, but it was better than a rubber shoe full.

On my way up the hill, I stepped on something sharp, rusty and metal under the layer of leaves and sand. I still don’t know what it was; buried junk of some sort. It was clear pretty quickly that I had cut myself deeply, and I headed back down to my work site as fast as I could hop. In my backpack, with my water bottle, cheese, sketchbook and camera, I found an old head scarf, and wrapped it around my foot, jamming it into a mucky croc, and started hobbling the quarter mile home. By the time I got there the inside of the shoe was pretty gory and sticky with blood; I decided if I was ever going to get an infection, a shoe full of cow poop was a pretty good way to go about it.

I wasted half an hour of daylight irrigating the cut, spackling it with antibiotic ointment and layering it with bandages from my first aid kid, but hiked right back to the woods to finish up. It didn’t need stitching, and it likely wouldn’t hurt until later; I didn’t have time to worry about it.

Friday after lunch was “critique time”. We walked about three miles of trails to see the 13 pieces, strewn across the 86 acres of Parsons property. I will go through photos in the days to come and put up some of the projects and their makers. For now, suffice it to say that some were inspiring… a few reassured me that mine maybe wasn’t so bad… but all of them were a fascinating look at the variety of ways a project could be interpreted.

By the time the group reached my piece, they were weary of walking, and took a seat up the hill from my column — and thankfully, upwind as well. Tracy, the very gentle and kind ecologist who had showed us morning yoga stretches for our tired muscles, offered that she liked how it “engaged all of the senses” — but others were more direct with their opinions about the pungent cow shit odor.

I admit that the end of the project and the whole “tah-dah!” moment was kind of a letdown for me. I was not overly impressed with my final project, especially after seeing some of the more Andy-Goldsworthyish approaches used by others. It occurs to me that as a newbie to sculpture and the Parsons land, I was naiively thinking in terms of making “an object” — while others were thinking of an arrangement, a presentation, an effect or event.

I pride myself in being a really hard worker, and pushed myself to my physical limit with this sculpture, taking advantage of the uninterrupted block of time to see what I could do if I tried. But apparently the skillful execution of a half baked idea can’t stand on hard labor alone. I have to wonder what I might have done if I had pursued my original dome ideas, which had started to look at fabric, paper, or something translucent arched on saplings over a hole, from a ring of cob foundation. If I had seen the site, first, and the materials at hand. Or if I had gone with my original “hippie totem pole” idea, something less ordinary, with the eye in the side or bristling with sticks.

I feel so bound by that firstborn instinct to please, to get it right, follow directions, do what I am told, that I can too easily discard ideas that excite me if they
are dismissed by a teacher or a peer. In a year I will be back in my own studio space, dancing to my own tune, and I am very much looking forward to regaining that freedom.

I really was almost in tears after the “crits” were over, though little was really said at any site in terms of crit or comment. I just wasn’t that impressed with the results of all of my labor. I wanted it to knock my socks off, and inspire great applause from my peers. Instead, I ended up standing on the hillside saying to myself, “It looks like a f***ing birdbath.”

As for the fine idea of raising biodiversity to pedestal-status, inspiring faithful reverence nature, forest and soil… it occurs to me in retrospect that the straw I used to make cob had heads of wheat in it, and the cow manure had whole kernels of corn, and they will likely sprout (well fertilized) in the wet cob walls and grow, cracking the structure. Agriculture will likely bring down the natural space, as it has in so many other places.

This morning as we all worked on the house, I cleaned the little bathroom, pulling community hairs out of the shower drain and wiping community toothpaste slobber out of the sink. I decided I’d clean my own little dwelling later, at home.

When I seemed to have one of whatever anyone was looking for in my camper-home, campfire compatriots joked that my pop-up was a magic Harry-Potterish place, with several big internal rooms invisible from the outside. I’d claimed to have a full basement, with a jacuzzi and a rec room. Turning my week’s lodgings into a little box on wheels always feels like a magic trick, pushing in beds and cranking down the roof, like a turtle that can pull itself into a shell a third its normal size.

But little by little, this morning’s cleaning, packing and preparations felt like breaking the spell. One prof’s family arrived, so he kind of morphed from team-coach to half-distracted dad (his boys were adorable.) Our sketch books and notes were reviewed by the profs this morning over coffee, and we filled out evaluations, but the week’s adventure just seemed to trickle to an end.

Tents were rolled up, leaving squares of yellow grass. We took a group picture on the front steps and then the team of camper-buddies drifted off to their individual cars, oddly strangers again. Some will graduate and never be seen again. Others we will bump into on campus and say hi, but for a week we were a team, a family where each one had a specific niche, something to offer, a network of inside jokes and shared experience bonding us into a group. We’d shared meals, chores, stories and back rubs. Friday after crits we spread sheets and blankets on the sunny hill in front of the Parsons house and took a big group nap in the grass, like hippies, or puppies; some of us snoring, others chatting. Now we were mentally headed back to the real world, half heartedly exchanging email addresses and waving each other down the driveway.

750 miles I drove this week, and walked a dozen more with the wheelbarrow I came to know, love and hate. I left behind a big ugly plant pot, in the woods. It’s possible that if I had a few more days to “cool down” and get past my own preconceptions and expectations, I could see it with new eyes, forgive it and even appreciate it. It is possible that passers by will at least stop and scratch their head over it. I suppose it might age in an interesting way.

At any rate, I am home. My kids ran out to the driveway for hugs, telling stories about the Harry Potter party at the library and the fun they had at grandma’s. Jeff made me a wonderful moussaka. I got home about dinner time… I’d stopped on the way home to buy sweet corn, and sweet cherries, and stopped in Midland to visit my grandma in her bright and lovely new senior apartment.

Tonight I will drift off to sleep hearing traffic, a snoring hubby, cat arguments and familiar house-noises instead of coyotes, loons and owls. Tomorrow I will be wading through a week’s mail, cleaning out the camper, and unpacking the tools, tarps and buckets still sprinkled with north woods pine needles and chunks of clay, and carrying the unmistakable, lingering odor of cow manure.

Wednesday? July 18, 2007

I sleep so hard every night, here, that my pillows and blankets look undisturbed when I wake up. A pine branch stretches so close to the screen above my pillow that it touches the screen; this morning I opened my eyes to an obnoxiously loud bird song and startled the little singer inches from my face.

The loons and coyotes both were wailing this morning early, when it was misty and cool. I worked on my sculpture early this morning before it got hot, and got so much cob made and applied that I almost completely covered the armature. Cyntha came to get me because our cooking team was to go shopping, and we went to the Traverse City farmers market; I got fresh blueberries, cherries, peaches, apricots and local honey to make a fruit salad. Jen picked up lots of good veggies for kebabs. We cook tomorrow night, the last team cooking night before the profs take us all to dinner Friday night. Friday is final critique day.

When we got back and scrounged the several days of leftovers for lunch, I sat at the table and Brian (sculpture prof) said, “John and I need to talk to you about your piece.”

“uh-oh”, I said.

It turns out that my sculpture is not on Parsons property, and would have to be moved.

As soon as I finished my lunch, I hiked back to the woods and stood looking at the stupid thing. I pulled all the inclusions out of the base, gathered up the cob (still mercifully wet) and chucked it into the wheelbarrow. I moved it maybe 20 feet to Parsons property and went back for the “trunk”.

I managed to tip it over into my wheelbarrow and teetering-and-tottering, haul it to the new site. It was deformed and the base of the sonotube had begun to collapse withthe dampness, so I re-installed it bottom up and recreated the base.

I worked through the heat, the bugs, the mud. With no clean-up water, and using my feet to mix the cob, I ended up with clay up to the elbows and knees, so every time I swatted a mosquito or pushed my sweaty hair out of my face, I left a streak of mud.

I began to build fluting (roman column style) on the center portion of my pillar by building around a broomstick. I was so tired that my back was screaming “stop now!” but I had to use up the cob I had made, as it would be too dry by tomorrow.

I dragged myself home, pushing my squeaky wheelbarrow, just as dinner was being served, and after supper, took my first shower of the week. This is the first day I haven’t made it to the lake, though some of the crew has gone to swim in the dark.

Tomorrow I have to build an armature for the pillar-top. I really wish I could post pictures here. I’ll go back to these entries when I get home and post the snake, the armature, the sculpture, and the gang. There are 13 people here and everybody seems to “play well together”.

Tomorrow night is the deadline to be done. Everybody is working hard, casting, sewing, dyeing, carving, weaving, pruning… one student is even baking sculptural pieces to hang in a tree.

More tomorrow…

Day 3: July 17, 2007

My grandma is 92, and just moved into a small apartment in a senior complex in Midland, MI with a dining hall and transportation (so she won’t need to drive). I am hoping to stop and visit her on my way back through Midland on Saturday, and have been thinking about this latest move: she went from the big farm where they raised three kids, to a cottage at Houghton Lake, to two trailer houses (one in Florida, one in Michigan.)

Grandma never seems to spend a lot of time looking backward, sighing over the old cherry trees or the place on the lake. She blooms where she’s planted, and seems pleased that with every move there’s less to keep track of.

This being the third day of living alone in my pop-up, I am beginning to understand how freeing that can be. Somewhere back in Ohio, somebody else is reminding the kids to do their chores, or brush teeth, and feeding them nutritious meals. Or not, which is OK too: it’s not me, this week. Someone is remembering to call and check the bank balance, water the hanging plant, feed the rabbit/fish/guinea pig/cats, sort the mail, chase the running list of projects that need to be finished and phone messages to answer. Or not.

For just this week, I am only in charge of myself, and it’s pretty uncomplicated so far. I can clean my entire kitchen with a single wet-wipe. “Doing laundry” means tossing mud crusted clothes into a hamper and digging clean ones from my bag. I have exactly one cup (an ash-drippy Mark Issenberg one), one plate, a spoon, fork and knife that I use for every meal, wash and put away.

I have one pair of shoes, outside my door. Life is simple.

So all my energy goes into working my butt off on this project. I have developed a relationship with the squatty old metal wheelbarrow I truck up and down the road, and then the trail. I greased its squeaky wheel and have learned to quiet its rattle and bang by putting the straw and backpack under the shovel, pruners, wire cutters and metal gear. When I am at the work site I have discovered that my butt will nest comfortably in the low end, and my fat sponge allows me to rest my head at the high end, and sit in it like a recliner, planning and looking over my progress.

I have developed a relationship with the blue plastic bucket I haul up and down the steep hill, thrashing through underbrush to the swampy edge of the lake to fill it with murky black water. I carry it back up and mix it with clay, sand, wood shavings and straw to make the cob for my structure. Today I was stirring clay with my hands and pulled up an inch-long, wiggling mud puppy baby! He’s in a bowl in my camper, now, in clean water. I am afraid he got a lot of clay in his gills before I pulled him out, but if he survives the night I’ll return him to Parsons Lake.

I can work all day for one day in a row, apparently… But the second day of full-speed-ahead leaves me at a point, by late afternoon, where if I sit down I will likely lose all momentum and not be able to get up again. How did that proverb go? “Go fast”, said the rabbit… “Go slow”, said the tortoise…”Pace yourself”, said the cheetah, “It’s a long run.”

In the time it takes for the dry clay to slake and the wet cob to dry, I have several “sub-projects” going. Last night I made shell-fossil-type forms and bisque fired them in Jean Parson’s studio. This morning I made ancient looking pot shard and, since Cyntha was working with ferns and birch bark in the studio and I didn’t want to wait for a kiln to cool, I stacked some firebricks in the campfire ring, pulled the propane tank off the pop-up and used the weed burner to fire those. I also went on a hunt for storm-downed trees to cut some roots.

At the end of the day I was so dirty (mixing cob with my feet and smearingit with my hands with no water to clean up in) and so hot, sweaty, buggy and tired that I could feel Ransom Lake pulling me toward home. Some of my new friends were already out there swimming, and I spent about an hour in the water, mostly floating on my back with my arms out to the side like flying.

Tonight’s cooking team made rosemary chicken, pasta with some winderful spicy dried-tomato sauce, spinach salad with feta and artichoke hearts and rosemaried veggies, including sweet potato fries. Blueberry tarts were dessert.

Now the night owls are gathered by the fire, and I am going to go join them for a bit before heading for bed. The stars are deep and glorious every night; the coyotes sing us to sleep and the loons sing us awake at dawn.

I need to hit the ground running, tomorrow…

Entry for July 16, 2007

(This is the second entry in my sculpture project journal. Photos will come later. If you want them in order, read July 15th first…)

Monday afternoon: stopped for lunch. I’m sitting at my lap top (an old model, second hand, with missing key, but a marvel nonetheless) in my little tent-trailer pop up. Outside the window to my right is a clearing with waist-high of ferns where three deer grazed early this morning.

Soft needled white pines surround the clearing and a grassy area at one end of it, where Andrea (who brought her banjo on this trip) is walking the outline of a labyrinth in kind of a week long meditation. Little by little the path is being beaten into the tall grass. I took her an orange and offered to lend her my propane weed burner to scorch the path into the field, but that may not be the meditational experience she was hoping for. ;0)

Between last night and this morning I have pretty much scoped out the property. I saw so many things I used to consider lovely and sacred, and remembered suddenly having written (and published) woods poems in a past life: ones about morels, and about the mossy cathedrals that remain when stumps rot to mossy mounds and worm-carved spires.

Several of us walked around seeing with sculptor-eyes the gnarled roots, bark textures and land formations, and came home last night dissatisfied with ideas that had seemed worthy back in the classroom. At our campfire “meeting” last night, the profs agreed that a certain evolution was inevitable, and a good thing — but they hoped we would stay with at least the essence of our initial plans.

This morning’s walk took me through a bog where — though dry — the low areas rest on so many layers of compost and peat-like humus, it feels like walking on a floating surface. I spotted a long snake stretched on a bare log under the ferns, and laid down on the path to photograph him.

Suddenly there was a loud snort-grunt and a thump that I could feel in the ground beneath me. Startled, I rolled to look behind me and saw an enormous white tailed deer, a buck, bounding in what seemed like eight foot leaps across the ferns and underbrush. Each time he landed he let out a snort; I could hear him breathing, and he came so close to leaping right over me that it made quite an impression. I had not imagined a deer in the woods to be so loud; it reminded me of the way my horse grunted for every breath when he galloped hard,

Once I had explored the bog I headed for the back edge of the property to explore a planting of pines. My feeling as I wandered through was the same as years ago in Oregon replanted areas: it is more farm than woods, more like rows of corn than a forest. The trees are planted in rows, close together to lower branches won’t develop and interfere with board-feet of knotless lumber. Their race to the sunlight has made the green canopy above almost invisible from beneath. Still, the occasional maple or hardwood has filled a gap to add variety to the monoculture.

The back edge of this wonderful wooded land is the property line of a housing development. I tried to work through in my head why it should make me so annoyed to see vinyl siding, chem-lawns and bright plastic playground equipment up against the woods edge. After all, I live in a house in a neighborhood that used to be woods. Lots of people love the woods and want to live nearby. Is it really that nature’s patterns are all beautiful, and human ones ugly? Or is it just my own short-sighted bias?

The birds didn’t seem to mind. Maybe those yards have birdfeeders. I worked hard to see that line between woods and neighborhood as a continuum of habitats instead of a boundary, but didn’t have much luck. I felt better when I had put enough space behind me so that the artificial colors and horizontal parallel lines were out of sight.

So here are the ideas that have been taking seed in my mind since Diana and I started talking about some honey pots I had made. I had used the beeswax foundation beekeepers can order pre-printed with the first raised ridge of honeycomb cells, so the bees will build on what is already neatly ordered.

“It’s too regular”, she said. It was; it looked mechanical. Bees on their own do build intricate hexagonal cell rows, but they have some variation; they conform to the hollow of a tree, get foreshortened of lengthened, rounded on the corners. I have recently learned that many beekeepers use a top bar hive that allows bees to build from start their own comb size and shape, and inevitably, they build smaller comb and regress to a smaller, more natural size bees that might be resistant to some of the parasites that plague bigger bees. Apparently, in the name of productivity, we have made an oversized bee with a “supersized” honey storage comb. Like the cattle we’ve bred to be too large to mate on their own, and the turkeys, and the sterile franken-hybrid produce…

But that’s another story.

What I know is that I like the comb built by bees better than the comb printed at the factory. I like the subtle wobble and comb-marks of the field of straw harvested by the Amish, on hilly terrain and drawn by horses, better than the wide uniform stripes and shrink wrapped bales of the mechanical harvesting machines. I like the winding path the deer makes better than the straight line roads laid out by humans.

And here I am in the woods, handed the job of making art to place in this setting. It seems a heady responsibility. I feel the way a religious artist might feel if commissioned to make a piece for a church or cathedral: this is a sacred place, to me. Whatever little human project I can muster will pale in comparison to a single mushroom, a clump of moss, a wet frog and its song. It feels arrogant even to try.

The best I can hope for is to imitate the natural, or find some balance between the human hand and natural creation. A winding human footpath through the forest is not a highway; there’s an element of balance, there, and compromise. This fern is trodden underfoot, but we go around this tree, this low wet spot, and follow the trails the deer already made for us, wherever we can.

So I chose a place for my first sculpture. It’s not far from a path, because it’s a nice spot and I have to haul clay in a wheelbarrow. It is in visual range of an uphill sandy dome, and a downhill brush-choked mucky lake-pond. I have carried sand down and water up to a tub of old contaminated pugmill clay I brought from home, and returned for a wheelbarrow full of straw and wood shavings from Earl Clark the woodworker just down the road.

It’s far enough from my camper to the lake that I pack water, and food, and plan to spend several hours there at a time. I have put up a sonotube anchored with a rusty fence-stake I found in the woods. I drilled holes all over it and inserted short sticks to “hold on” to the cob mixture. I had planned to use chicken wire and
roofing nails, but I want to try using only natural materials, if I can. The cardboard sonotube should burn out of the inside when the project is done.

Tonight’s dinner team made enchiladas, we played some flashlight bocci, and now I am ready to sleep. More tomorrow.

Entry for July 15, 2007

Day one, Parsons sculpture and design project, Lake Ann Michigan:

I had spent a lot of the week getting ready to go, so I had some time to enjoy my kids on the weekend.

Saturday had been one of those picture perfect family days. We had gone to breakfast and laughed all through the meal, making up out own acronyms for IHOP. At one point Molly looked at the newspaper photo of family members grieving around Ladybird Johnson’s draped casket, and asked me, “Mom, why is that lady resting her head on the coffin?” I explained that she was likely bery sad and saying goodbye to the woman who died. Molly nodded seriously, and said, “I thought maybe she was listening for breathing.”

I left home around 8:30 yesterday morning, loaded up with scrap clay, sonotubes, groceries and camping gear and towing the pop-up. MOlly gve me extra hugs, Connor made me two bags of trail mix for my adventure, and Tyler assured me that he would be extra helpful at Grandma’s this week. (Also trustworthy, helpful, courteous, kind, and the whole boy scout promise.)

The day was breezy, blue and in the 70s, the kind of everything’s-perfect weather that makes everyone cheerful and grateful. My van rode low inthe back with the load of cargo but the pop-up pulls like a dream.

In Ohio I drove through a sea of corn and beans while Barbara Kingsolver crooned her book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” in my ear though the ipod headphones, talking about monoculture and the loss of the family farm. Small towns like Assumption seem centered around a church and an old cemetary, and it is maybe the last time in the history of our culture that the names on the tombstones are the same as the names on the mailboxes, family names carefully lettered on big barns, names of gravel roads. In a country where the average American family moves every three years, the notion of a family living on the same farm for 100 years certainly seems worthy of a “century farm” marker. I worry with Kingsolver that the people who tie a land to its history will disappear, and it will become just real estate, acres to plant or lawns to mow.

I look over the landscape and the little cemetaries in passing, with the corn fields now stretching for miles and the family subsistence farms gone, and wonder if the dead outnumber the living.

I always drive country roads looking for the little wooden hand painted sign that says “eggs”. It’s especially lucky if the chickens are visible, out scratching at a field’s edge, eating bugs and gras and seeds and all those omega-3 goodies we no longer get with our corn fed livestock.

I realize how much I have come to recognize the seasons of the year from the landscape that was part of my childhood. Roadside ditches right now are in the season of blue chicory, queen ann’s lace, pink milkweed blossoms. yellow blossomed stalks of fuzzy leaved mullein, orange tiger lilies and occasional purple spikes of the invasive loosestrife. Some of the flowers, like the perennial sweet pea, must have escaped from some long gone farm wife’s flower bed; other things were planted by wind or birds, and some came over in horse feed on wooden ships from faraway places long ago.

It is not yet the purple and gold season of goldenrod (and honey flow!) that precedes autumn, but the peeper frogs are done and the cicadas can be heard sometimes on hot, still afternoons. The fields of wheat have been harvested and the straw rolled into big round bales. The gold of wheat stubble is pleasing to the eye, and I love the randomness of giant straw bales left in the field at intervals; most, these days, are shrink wrapped in bright plastic and stored near metal pole barns, all very practical. But my sentimental preferences tend to the weathering straw and rickety old impractical barns (doors too narrow for big farm equipment, cows sent to agribusiness CAFOS, and no need for a hayloft.)

I sigh over empty hen houses, too. Having built a couple of too-small, not-right homes for my too-few backyard hens, I love the authentic architecture of these now useless buildings; the careful slope of the roof, the rows of windows, the doors that let hens out to forage and the rows of nesting boxes. Now hens are stacked in rows in cages, debeaked, corn fed, inbred until they are too stupid to know what an egg is for.

I also keep tabs of the season and countryside by roadkill. There is the occasional cat, which I always hope was of the unnamed-barn-mouser sort and not the grandma’s-lap variety. Represented among the countless raccoons, though, are fox, muskrat, oppossum, and deer (though there seem to be more deer in the fall.)

Roadside signs announce that this is the season of cucumbers, blueberries and sweet cherries. Strawberries are past, and tomatoes not yet plentiful enough to share after a long winter of rock hard imports. As I entered Michigan and the landscape changed from corn and soybeans to woods, pastures and smaller fields broken by creeks and bogs, Barbara Kingsolver was talking her book to me in maternal tones, about being a “locavore”, refusing food that required a thousand miles of travel (and fossil fuel)… about supporting your local farmer, your local economy, eating in season. I stopped at a cider mill outside of St. Johns and bought blueberries, sweet cherries and local cheese which I hoped came from some of the cows I had seem grazing on pastures all afternoon.

I am not by nature a covetous person, but I am itching to own land; a parcel of woods big enough to get lost in, an old farm with a chicken house in need of a coat of paint and a flock of heirloom hens who remember how to forage and raise chicks. Maybe one with one of those big ceramic-tiled silos, now standing empty as corn and soybeans have become a river of commodity, flowing through big elevators and train cars. (Michael Pollan, “Omnivore’s dilemma” is on my nightstand.)

I jotted on my notebook the icons of familiar local culture — NASCAR and Jesus, mostly, bible verses stenciled on big blue silos and flags the ubiquitous giant #3. (Who was that, again? Dale Earnhardt?) In one place I passed an elk farm… in Fayette, right where main street turned to neighborhood, I had to slow for an escaped peacock standing in the middle of the road. At some point I passed a six foot fiberglass chicken standing in front of a closed business.

The farther north I came, the more it was just woods, increasingly piney-er and with little lakes here and there.

Directions led me to dirt roads near Lake Ann, not far from Travers City. My cell phone registered no connection, a source of mixed feelings: how will I know what’s going on at home? But then again… an entire week with my uninterrupted thoughts to myself, trusting my husband and mom to be the loving, capable people they are and trusting my kids to survive a week without my instructions.

I pulled into the Parsons property, which I had seen only in slides.

I was the only one here, at first. The house was locked but I could peer in windows and see the bunks. I peered hopefully into the outhouse (huge hornet’s nest) and pulled my pop-up camper into a ferny back yard spot, at the fringe of the fire-circle-and-picnic-table back yard, within extension cord reach of a small gas kiln shed with a missing window pane. The cardboard replacement pulled up at one corner to admit my plug.

I set up my little home. It’s nice to be settele din for an entire week. I set a pot of live herbs outside my little door, rinsed my growing jar of alfalfa sprouts and put them by the sink, plugged in the chargers for laptop and camera. I plugged my coffee pot and crock pot into a timer so breakfast would wake me in the morning, and made my bed with a goosedown duvet and five fat pillows.

Students arrived and I joined three girls in a hike down the stream to Ransom Lake. The stream empties out in a sand, spring-cold spot into a lovely wooded lake. It quickly became clear that we had the lake all to ourselves and could swim “Tom Sawyer style”.

Evening meant a camp fire inthe fire ring, and the profs and a few of last year’s veterans played “flashlight bocci” — a game that seemed odd to me, but generated a lot of laughter.

I will write again later about the woods, the creek, the other lakes and the sculpture inspirations. It’s monday morning, my coffee is gone and it’s time to get started.


So I had drawn several large sketches to present during my proposal today, of possible “straight line” column shapes, some with silo type roofs, some with flat tops of living sod. Some were simple and others more complicated. I built this scale model just to show how the armature would be made an how I could build with cob around it.

I have no idea, yet, how I want the outside to look, and since it’s site specific and I don’t know what I will embed into the cob. I had to do something, though, so I just experimented with textures and whatever detritus I could find around my studio door. I poked a bunch of pine needles in it and liked the bristly nail-fetish effect. Maybe a whole column bristling with sticks? I thought about glass bottles piercing the walls, and used Molly’s glass beads to reproduce the effect. I just dorked around to see how stuff looked.

It had been fun to make the model. I was that kid in 4th grade who really liked making the volcano out of salt dough or the diorama in a shoebox. For this one I slid a box of wet sand inside the box supporting my model, and then poked peppermint, oregano and lavender through holes into the wet, to look like bushes.

Here was my rationale:


Sculpture Proposal: Written Rationale

Why cob?

Cob costs nothing.

It is long lasting, yet will eventually weather away to its original ingredients: sand, clay and plant material.

Cob is natural, earth-friendly and appropriate for animal habitat and natural spaces. It doesn’t impose any materials on an environment, it just rearranges materials already there.

Cob is earth. Seeds planted in it will grow.

And cob contains clay. As a potter, I like that… and it seems well suited to a potter’s property, as well.

While I originally had envisioned a structure made of cob, I am now thinking of cob as a “mortar” to hold together other materials. Unlike clay, cob won’t shrink around objects when it dries.

Why impressed objects?

It’s difficult to plan here, for a site-specific project to be completed there. By leaving lots of question marks and undecided aspects of the project, I can allow for exploration and inspiration to play a part of the project. Will I find clay? What color will it be? Are there snail shells, fossils, is there interesting junk?

I can also create objects from clay to represent what I cannot find. Maybe shelf mushrooms, or ancient fossils to affix to the cob. Since I have a propane tank on my camper, carry a torch, and have access to stackable fire brick, it would be a simple thing to make a small raku or pit kiln to fire “inclusions”.

Why a column?

I spent the first week and a half sketching dome forms, rounded, organic objects that could be experienced from the inside. It felt familiar to me, like a vessel, a dwelling, and far from the scrape-across-the-desert or pointy-concrete-bunker art that seemed to me so arrogant and visually jarring.

When handed the challenge of working with straight lines, though, a column seemed like a good compromise. The inability to enter it will keep me focused on aesthetics over function, and the challenges of armature and threat of collapse will test my ability.

A column is also a tree trunk, a silo, and in this case, a figure about the height and width of the human who makes it.

Why habitat?

It seems only fair to offer a “hostess gift” to the wildlife making room for our sculpture. As rotten logs and hollow trees become scarce in an urbanized landscape, some cavity nesters have trouble finding nest sites, and animals intended to burrow at the base of trees can hardly find shelter on the golf course or metropark.

The large, seemingly in hospitable sculpture at the University of Michigan campus housed both a bird nest and a hornet’s nest. Either would be welcome in my cob column.

I have let go of the notion of function as much as I can. I accept that I will not be baking bread in my sculpture, nor crawling inside for a nap. But I like to think that birds might move in, or that some small mammal might hibernate in the base over the winter. At the very least it will likely collect the kinds of spiderwebs and cocoons I found inside Laurie Spencer’s “Phoenix Cairn”.

Happily, openings in the base, and a few holes in the sides, will aid in the building and stoking of the internal fire at the week’s end.

Why fire?

Cob hardened by fire becomes sturdy. Being mostly sand, it will never vitrify and become “fired”, but it will stiffen the inner layer, adding support to the entire structure.

There is a certain performance aspect, as well, a celebratory display when the project is finally finished.

I am curious, as well, to see how glass bottles might react if embedded through the cob with necks facing inward over the fire.

Why a living roof?

Grass, or moss, or some form of forest-floor on the lid of the piece will serve several purposes.

It will help with the illusion that this is somhow a “rising”. A core of what lies beneath the soil suddenly raised above it, with the cap of surface still intact.

It will combine the cob architecture traditions of both flat roofs – like adobe or West African homes – and the thatched or living roofs native to other places. I have seen photos of goats grazing on sod roofs in some northern countries. While my roof might not live long and likely won’t support a goat, it might at least entertain the occasional dragonfly or bird, and seem more hospitable than asphalt shingle.

The surface of the living earth is an organism, able to heal. It grows over our insults. Highway is forever, but the grassy roadside ditches accept our litter and bury it, season by season, along with the roadkill deer that will be digested and put to good use. The forest floor is alive with nematodes, insects, fungi, all busy turning fallen trees and leaves into good soil for what comes next. I like the idea of elevating a circle of that soil, even temporarily, even symbolically.

Kelly Savino

July 12, 2007


I got some good suggestions both from teachers and the class. What about incorporating green, growing plants into the piece? What about a bowl shaped lidtat would retain rainwater, with lips directing runoff to the green things? What about buildingit around a dead tree? What about making more than one?

The sculpture prof looked a little sideways at my model, thoug, and expressed his concern that my finished work not look like “A hippie totem pole”.

Then I took my ewers to Diana’s and lined them up in rows along her back deck. I have never been in the same room with Diana nd my ewers, and was really hungry for feedback.

Some of what she said rang a bell, and now I can’t unsee what is wrong with those pots when I line them up again. Thus far no two are alike, though they seem to fall into families (except for a few mutants.) She has asked me to settle on a few prevalent body shapes, make half a dozen of each, and thenmake variations with slightly more family resemblance and subtler variations. When Iget back from the woods, that’s what I’ll do.

Off to teach at the guild, and then it’s time to start packing the pop-up.

My van’s all packed…

I’m having lunch with Diana tomorrow so she can critique “a couple of ewers” I’m bringing for her to look over.

Tomorrow’s the last day of sculpture at EMU. Next week we head north from Sunday to Saturday to actually build our sculptures. So tomorrow we present our proposals. I have a scale model, 5 to 7 variations on my idea, (sketched), and a power point presentation about my materials and techniques.

All I need to do is pack a lunch… and hope to find room for it in my van!

A little grape vine

For a sculpture student who was hoping she could find some for a project she wants to do.

A little wood

scrounged cedar to stack by the wood kiln tomorrow after class.

About sculpture class

This is the moth I found on some rusty metal out behind the sculpture building, where “our” big kilns are.

It had some spooky, fascinating wings with irregular leafy shapes, and these wonderful portholes dow one side of its body. Reading, and thinking about, and watching a dvd about Andy Goldsworthy makes me mourn for how awake I was as a child, how aware of the natural world and able to pay attention with my whole mind. I was proud to have noticed this creature at all.

His colorations seemed to attract him to the patina of the rust. And the patterns on his skin reminded me of the sculpture students inside the building. Of all the art majors I have met and watched in the last year, the sculpture students seem most tattooed, pierced, dyed and decorated. I suppose I show my age. My earrings are deadhead-peyote-stitch-seed-beed-fringes, but the girl across from me has a barbie arm dangling from her earlobe, and the one beside me has her earring through her bottom lip. My hair is greying, while another student’s is rainbow hued; they dress in expressive and creative ways, while I am in my usual military-surplus-meets-art-fair casual. Boy scout shorts and a tye-dye.

But they are art students, and like homeschoolers, seem quirky enough individually that they don’t seem to spend much energy on other people’s quirks.

Today began my second week of driving back and forth to school. The kids have had a great play date every single day, and haven’t missed me a bit; next week, when I head for the northern woods to make my sculpture, they’ll be with the grandparents at the lake.

Class has been a real crash course in sculpture and sculptors, especially works done outdoors or as part of the environment. Today when the teachers asked each of us to define what makes good work, for us, I blurted out my honest opinions without stopping to think. I said I didn’t like straight lines and sharp angles, the gouge-across-the-desert art, the angular massive bunker shapes, the man-imposed-upon-nature stuff that seems egotistical and… anthrocentric, if there is such a word.

A tree farm planted in rows, tight together so lower branches die and don’t interfere with the board feet of lumber.. that’s not the same as a forest.

A corn field is not a meadow, its straight industrial rows planted by neccessity to suit the machines that plant and harvest. It is practical, efficient… but it’s not a meadow where damp and dry spots, high and low, sun and shade cause variations in plants, colors and blooms with soft, undulating edges.

Straight lines are for metal pole barns, walmarts, highways, power lines, com trails. Highways are not rivers. Com trails are not clouds, though the wind can be kind to them.

It doesn’t help that I am simultaneously reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and
A Geography of Nowhere”, and listening to Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” on my ipod. I suddenly resent the styro cartons of eggs laid by factory hens. I have started going out of my way to buy milk made by pastured cows. I want chickens scratching in the hedges, not in straight lines of cage batteries stacked in a metal warehouse.

I am even slightly offended by the pre-printed beeswax foundations I buy for my bee hive. Left to their own devices, they make lovely, sculptural, round ended comb, not perfect rows of straight lines.

So I told the profs how I felt. And of course, Brian Nelson the sculpture prof declared, “I think you need to work with straight lines.”

He went on to point out that he has seen my pots, and understands that I want to work with clay cob, and am leaning toward organic forms… “It seems like you are in real comfortable territory here. ”

I wailed out loud. A week’s worth of sketches, domed shapes, clay-and-stitched-chamois constructions, earth-dens with cool dark insides and light coming though in interesting ways… all shot to hell.

Why didn’t I say I hated soft, organic curves? Clay is not meant to make sharp corners.

Wave Field

The sculpture class met at University of MIchigan’s campus one day to see the sculpture there. This is “Wave Field” by Maya Linn, the woman who designed the Vietnam Memorial wall. It’s really cool. If you sit in the middle of it and lean back into one of the waves it kind of cradles you, grassy and cool.

The boys are still at scout camp.

This is a photo we took Wednesday, when we went for family night.

The first part of the week, I was truly not thinking much about my guys. I knew they were having a great time, the troop leader is a marvelous guy, and even though it’s Connor’s first year, they are together.

Besides, the house was so quiet with just one small girlchild. Messes stayed cleaned up. I spent whole afternoons in the studio. I started to understand what it must be like in houses where the school bus comes.

Then Wednesday night we went to Camp Pioneer to visit, and I have been missing them ever since.

They ARE having fun, and learning skills — climbing walls, earning merit badges, playing cards, swimming, cooking under the dining fly and bonding with their peers in that tribal, lord-of-the-flies way boys do.

I had to laugh at how naiive I continue to be, as a mom… I had helped them pack little toiletry kits for the shower, sunscreen and bug spray, organized little bundles of clothes and towels, compass and mess kit, canteen and first aid stuff… even a duffel bag for dirty laundry.

But when I unzipped the tent flap to put in some fresh clothes and take home the dirties, it wasn’t the way I had imagined it at all. It was a chaotic, twisted pile of dirty socks and underwear, playing cards, candy wrappers … every gadget pulled out of its pocket in the backpack and stirred into the blankets. And dirty clothes hardly says it… I don’t know whether to wash them or take them directly to hazmat.

Judging by their mosquito bites and sunburn, they haven’t exactly been hitting the supplies very hard. When I tidied up and made their sleeping bag “beds”, I found their soap still in the wrapper, and Ty doesn’t seem to have washed his hair this week (though they swim every day, which is some consolation.) The tent looked (and smelled) a little better by the time I was done, and I am pretending that it stayed neat and tidy after we left. Ty had bought us all a gift at the trading post. Jeff got an eyeglass repair kit and I got a sewing kit– which I used while I was there to mend the ripped tent screen and sew a patch back on Tyler’s class A uniform shirt.

They were happy to see us, and told us all the exciting things they were doing, though Connor looked wistful for a moment as his parents and little sister climbed into the car to go. His big brother put an arm around his shoulders and said, “It’s only two more days.”

No way was Connor ready to come home, though — they do a lot of the learning-the-ropes stuff early in the week (literally, for the climbing and rapelling) and then the last two days they get to do the exciting parts. I’m sure once we were out of sight, we were out of mind again — though for the first time all week I woke in the night thinking of my sons sleeping in a damp tent on the ground, in the thunderstorm that was boiling up as we drove the hour home.

They’ll be back in the morning. Their dad is going to get them. I’m cleaning their room, remaking their beds, and making a good supper to welcome them home. They packed up their entire camp tonight and are sleeping in the open for the last night, under the dining fly. I hope they won’t be sucked dry by mosquitos by morning. Man, do I sound like somebody’s mom, or what?

Jeff and Molly

At the Order of the Arrow ceremony, where the ceremonial rituals were racing the thunderstorm…

Midsummer night

Janis sang (to my generation, anyway)–

Summertime, and the living’s easy…

Fish are jumpin’, and the cotton’s high…

Your daddy’s rich, and your mama’s good looking…

Hush now, baby, don’t you cry….

I was born 46 years ago this midsummer weekend. Maybe that’s why I feel such an affinity for the midle of June, the long days, the blue skies, ripe fruit, lightning bugs and quick summer thunderstorms.

This morning the kids did their homeschooling in the sun room while I made pots at the wheel I moved to the deck. Before lunch, Connor took an old tie-dyed sheet out to spread it under the mulberry tree and shake the branches. He came back to sort and wash a big bowl of mulberries; some joined the back yard currants and cherries in the freezer, and the rest became turnovers for their dessert.

It’s been a good week, the calm before the schedule-storm of boy scout camp, then my three week summer session sculpture course (at EMU and then up north near Traverse City, MI). I am enjoying the rhythm of days, and being home with my kids.

We don’t do a lot of school work in summer, but are doing some projects together that we didn’t have time for last year with my school/commute schedule. So little of what we do involves and “I teach, you listen” , and they usually work independently, but this summer we’re working on our ancient history timeline, making posters about geometry, and doing an economics study unit together.

Family and home life feel really good when I have time to do things well. Jeff and I took a look in the mirror and decided we’d gotten out of the habit of eating healthy, so I’ve made some changes that have us all feeling (and looking) better. There is a perpetually refilled tupperware box of raw veggies in the fridge, and everybody elbows in whenever I put it out on the counter. Fresh local fruit fills bowls on the counter and has replaced sugary desserts, and we have started eating smaller meals, 5 times a day. I serve from the stove or counter instead of leaving bowls and platters at the table, and we’re all drinking more water, all day long. We ride our bikes everywhere, including homeschool meetings at the metropark, saxophone and art lessons, the grocery store and the post office.

I am hoping, for my birthday, to get one of those rear view mirrors that attaches to my bike helmet so I can truly be a bike geek. I’m not quite ready for the spandex bike pants. Maybe after another several hundred miles of pedaling.

Last night my kids pitched tents in the back yard and slept out there. Connor and Molly were in the two man tent, and Tyler pitched the little dome tent off by the hedge, feeling adventurous and independent and older. By 11:00, though, I looked out to see the two glowing domes parked side by side, sharing a screen. I guess they missed each other’s company. They had caught fireflies and released them inside the tents, so when the lights went out the fireflies hung on the screen-domed ceiling and blinked their little lovelorn morse codes all night long.

Tonight Connor’s out there in the big tent with his sleepover friend Rhys. I had ridden my bike — trailer full of wet pots — over to teach at the guild, leaving them cooking kielbasa on skewers over the fire they’d built in the chiminea, and when I rode home late tonight (moon bright, and the evening star blazing away) I walked across the cool grass to say goodnight to them in their tent.

It’s the big square family tent, three rooms. They had a lantern on in the middle section and were sitting near one tent wall, talking, waving their arms to illustrate some wild dialogue. It looked like shadow theater, perfect silhouettes of two animated boys, projected in the dark yard larger than life.

Twelve is a good age. They are so excited about everything, so grown up in a lot of ways, but still boys. From their encampment in the wilds of the back of the yard, they are Lewis and Clark — except with a game boy, and popcorn.

Connor came out in his jammies to give me a hug goodnight, bubbling with enthusiasm that makes me wonder if he’ll sleep at all, tonight. “Rhys says this is the best sleepover EVER”, he said, grinning.

Life just seems incredibly sweet, in this solstice day of generous light and ripe fruit, warm days and cool sleeping weather. The kitten wrestles again and again with a tennis shoe, tantalized by the dangling mouse-tail shoelaces, and sticking her paws into the deep mouse-hole of the shoe’s inside. Her imaginary battle is full of prowling advances and hasty retreats, pounce attacks and wild, halloween-kitty sideways arched poses. She weighs not much more than a bit of dandelion fluff, but can thunder through the house making enough stompy noises for several buffalo.

My mom and dad took me out to Rosies for lunch today, for an early birthday celebration, as they’ll be heading for the lake for the weekend. They gave me an ipod. I am sufficiently middle aged and uncool that I barely know what it is, or how to work it — though I have the weekend to learn.

I was not tempted by the music as much as the nerd factor… my friend Regina told me she’s able to download and listen to lectures about library science. Me, I’d like to be able to hear the podcast versions of all the lectures I had to miss at this year’s NCECA ceramics conference in Lousiville. I always say (about homeschooling, or having kids, or whatever) that everything we choose, unchooses something else (often something of value.) It’s like that at a conference, where you have to decide between two rockin’ choices in the same time block.

So picture me totally hip… my flaming blue bike helmet with the little pointy racer thing on the front… my pee wee herman bike with the wicker basket, headlight, tail light, and bike trailer full of pots (or tools, or groceries, or library books, or picnic lunch) … a bright blue ipod the size of a graham cracker in my pocket, with earphones in my ears as I pedal down the road, listening to Ron Roy talking about glaze chemistry.

I’m off to bed. Tomorrow morning I plan to get up early and make pad pots for all the patient granola types who have emailed me to ask after them. I’m making mulberry buckwheat pancakes for my sleepover boys. I need to plant the six eggplants I brought home from the late season clearance of scraggly plants in a grocery store parking lot, feed them well and wish them luck. It’s late in the season to be just getting started, but maybe we’ll have an indian summer. Anything seems possible.

Then it’s the weekend. Crosby Festival of the Arts is always on my birthday, which is great because every year my father in law sends me a check for my age ($46 this time!) and I go shop at the fair. They were setting up tonight when I went to the gardens to teach my class — artists pulling in with campers, volunteers there to guide and help them, rows of bottled water awaiting the crowds.

My boys will be parking cars in front of my dad’s building with their scout troop, to raise money. Cold bottled water for a buck, and for a few extra dollars they’ll wash the car while their customers are at the fair.

Molly wants to make a lemonade stand Saturday in our front yard, to take advantage of the increased traffic during the art fair. It’s one of the “try it” projects in her Brownie Girl Scout book. Maybe I will set up some tables, too, and sell the two things that are always overflowing around here: pots, and books.

Good night.. good, short, midsummer night.

Glory Bee

And God Save the Queen.

I was all but resigned to having lost my hive this summer. My queen was infertile or damaged, my package of bees burning out it’s lifespan, and a worker bee was laying only drone (male) eggs, so the hive was doomed .

I posted about the friendly beekeeper in Michigan who gave me a couple  frames of brood and eggs (female!), and my hope was that the current worker bees would decide (quickly) to raise a new queen by feeding a tiny larva some royal jelly.

It didn’t seem likely. They would have to somehow keep the laying worker away from the baby queen in her enlarged cell, or she would kill it.  They would have to work fast, since there was not a ton of uncapped brood (honeycombs cells still open and tiny larvae being fed).

Then the queen would have to leave the hive, mate, return mated, and the hive would have to go kill the laying worker who had appointed herself interim queen.

I checked a week or so after I added the new frame. I saw no queen cells being made, and somebody was still laying drone comb. Drones have no sting, and no purpose but mating with future queens, but they eat lots of honey. The females build honeycomb, tend babies, clean, tend and feed the queen, and do all the foraging to collect nectar and pollen for the hive. They are te worker bees, the nurse bees and the guard bees at various stages of their lives.  They only live for a matter of weeks, but the queen(if there is one) lays thousands of eggs a day to replace bees who have flown themselves to tatters and died.

So it seemed like I was losing a race with time.

I went out again last Thursday on a coolish morning, and didn’t see much activity in the entrance/exit doorway of the hive.

I was like a poster for how NOT to be a beekeeper. Bare feet, tank top shirt, shorts.  No smoker, no bee veil, no gloves.  But I decided to test the romantic notion that if the bees sense no fear or negativity coming from the keeper, they will stay calm and not become excited or defensive.

I removed the cover and set it on the ground, and then lifted each frame to check out the top two “supers” (the word for the topless, bottomless stackable boxes full of hanging frames of comb.)

Not many bees, but fresh lovely yellow-white comb was being built. I have been making changes to encourage the bees to build their own comb without following the pre-stamped shapes on the “foundation” (a sheet of beeswax in the new frame that they will use as a base to build from.)

The new, bee-designed comb is lovely, soft and rounded and organic. But not many bees, not much honey.

The third super down was full of busy bees. I pulled the nine frames out of each super and looked them over, trying to link what I was seeing with pictures in the beekeeping books. New drone comb… smallish bees.  Then — yikes, was that a queen cell? I found an empty cell that had been built out past the rest so it looked like a little igloo, with an open door.

I worked my way very carefully through thr frames in the bottom super. I found — capped brood cells! Flat topped ones, that meant female brood!

Then, for the first time in my life, I actually SPOTTED A QUEEN BEE among her daugters on the frame.  In the past, once I released the queen from her box, I never saw her again, unable to distinguish her longer abdomen and short wings among the wall-to-wall, moving bees.

But there she was.  My resourceful survivors had pulled off a successful coup, raising a queen in secret, and then assassinating the old drone-layer.

I grinned about it all afternoon.  In human society, a bad leader can be a tyrant or mismanager, cause social, political or economic chaos… but in the hive, no queen means no babies.  Like the movie “Children of Men”.  They’re doomed.

A new queen means my hive has a darn good chance, and that’s a happy thing.

That’s the day’s news. I’m off to get supper for the “dad” of the house! Molly’s peeling garlic…


Girl Scout weekend at Camp Libbey

This was our annual no-boys-allowed weekend at Camp Libbey, near Defiance, Ohio. We had a great time. We slept in the pop-up in the tent field, ran into some folks we knew and made some new friends as well. They had campfire songs, climbing wall and ropes course, archery, trail riding, speed stacking, tomahawk throw, hiking, an astronomy and a wildlife program, and we swam in the big pool where Molly passed her swim test for the first time — which meant the deep end and the diving board, with no “floaties”.

We saw deer and wild turkeys, handled deer skulls and live animals, and laid awake late at night looking at the stars and talking the way girls know how to talk.

I posted some moments below. Tomorrow we take my dad to breakfast for Father’s day, then Tyler is awarded his Religion in Life medal at our Unitarian Universalist church. Jeff has asked for pork chops with pesto and provolone for his father’s day dinner. Jeff’s mom and her husband have been in town/at my folks’ cottage this last week, and left today for the next leg of their trip. I’ll be back to the studio this week for the first time in a while.

Girl scouts rock… energetic, intelligent, “unaffected” teen girl counselors from the US and all over the world made the activities fun. They knew just when to push and when to step back, at the climbing wall, knew how to match each kid with the personality of each horse, and took their jobs seriously without ever losing a sense of fun. And they seemed to know every kid’s name by the first day! I was amazed at how many girls called Molly by name, despite the large number of brownies and girl scouts attending. I’d love to see M join their ranks when she’s old enough for a summer job that far from home.

Girl Power

Last summer, Molly took one look at the really high scary climbing wall and said, “No thanks!”

This year, she was up for it. She made it about halfway up before giving up, but when her spunky little friend Pilar made it to the top, she got back in line and climbed even higher the second time.

She weighs barely 50 pounds, but she’s a determined soul, my Molly.

I can see why the climbing wall is such a rich metaphor.

If you look too far ahead, it seems overwhelming and impossible… if you look back at how far you came, you get dizzy and start to think about how far it is to the ground.

So you have to just focus on that one next grip, one step at a time, always reaching just a little higher than where you’re standing now…

Waiting for Bobby

It was almost sunset and we were the last trail ride for the day. Here, Molly and her friend Pilar are waiting for the horses that would take us on a ride in cool, dusky wooded valleys, along the Maumee and the waterfall over the dam, and we saw a lovely leaping doe…


Here’s my girl at the archery area, next to the building where we petted a skunk and held ferrets, and the astrolab planetarium. Camp Libbey rocks.

About the weekend, and saving the world.

A good weekend.

Saturday, Jeff and the boys went to church to climb the steeple, a tradition for those who have finished the coming of age program. It turned out the Old West End festival was in full swing by the time they climbed down, and they got to see a parade. They waved at the mayor, saw the Toledo Symphony go by on a flat bed truck, horses, and the Toledo Glassmen marching band… clowns, roller skaters, and the whole routine.

Meanwhile, Molly and I rode our bikes to the guild after breakfast to unload and reload the class kilns. If I had taken a picture for this blog entry, it should have been my view, following Molly’s girly little bike. She’s got a bright pink helmet, hot pink and orange tye-dyed shirt, sparkly streamers off the end of her handlebars, and her little tennis shoes just pumping away… she hangs a littl epurse off the handlebars with her treasures in it. It tickled me to see people in passing cars grinning at her.

The neighborhood still seems impossibly green, after a cold grey winter. We ride by huge clusters of fragrant, fist sized peonies, bearded Iris, and Stella D’oro lillies just ready to bloom.

Molly put on protective glasses, found a hammer and chisel, and chipped chunks of glaze off the kiln shelves for me while I unloaded class pots. Then we rode through the neighborhood behind the guild and visited several garage sales. (I had my bike trailer, but we didn’t find anything irresistable.) We ended up at the grocery store and managed to fit $115 worth of groceries into the trailer, including several half-price bags of bargain pet bedding. It was a tight squeeze! I am sure I exceeded the two-toddlers weight limit, but it rode home quite easily.

I worked in the sunny yard all afternoon, turning and harvesting last year’s compost and building another raised bed. I’m thinking a few tomato plants are just NOT going to do it, the way I had originally imagined. Last summer before I started school I tore out the 30X40 veggie garden I’ve had (in various sizes) since we moved here in ’91, but I missed it more than I thought I would. I was only considering the weeding and work, but hadn’t realized how much I would miss eggplant on the grill, tomatoes warm off the vine, and the way the garden feeds my eyes and my head.

I am thinking more about the way we feed ourselves. I have Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the new “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” book on my list of things to read, but haven’t managed to pick them up yet at the library. (I’m reading beekeeping books, mostly, and old Ceramics Monthly mags).

I have always canned and preserved, because my farm grandma did. And I’ve always loved farmer’s markets. But when I consider the stats on how many miles the food on our plates has to travel to get there — isn’t 1500 miles the estimate? — and how much energy that takes, it seems sensible to grow your own, and buy local when you can. Lord knows our local economy can use all the help it can get.

Here’s my disclaimer: I have no illusion that I’m saving the world with my tomato plants and my bike. I fire my electric kilns to over 2000 degrees to make art the world could live without, and sit here nightly typing on a computer that is sucking energy every night. Even Barbara Kingsolver with her year of eat-local experiments wasn’t willing to give up her olive oil. I’m good with that too. We all have to make choices.

And frankly, if one more person tells me what Al Gore’s electric bill is, I’m just going to lose it and hop down the street yelling WOOHOO! WOOHOO! WOOHOO! like Daffy Duck. Being married to an environmental biologist, I am equally disinterested in being retold Rush Limbaugh’s theories about global warming.

Everybody assumes that because we consider ourselves environmentalists, that Al must be our hero. The truth is, I prefer David Suzuki to Gore. I haven’t even seen “The” movie, though I am not unhappy about the conversations it has started. I’d love to see him go solar, too (I supect he can afford it) — but nobody’s hands are completely clean, really, and he hasn’t called to check with me.

It seems to me that the goal is to do something to offset the impact we all have. One could argue that Gore has done something to help the environment.

I’m sure there are some arrogant, granolier-than-thou folks out there who feel ethically superior to all mankind for buying hybrid cars and organic produce. I suspect there are some equally short sighted, self involved people who see the “Al Gore’s Electric Bill” information as permission to dismiss any concern about their own unexamined wastefullness, as well.

My feelings about the environment have always been part of my life, and not necessarily tied to politics. As a kid who read Ranger Rick, I remember taking a petition around the neighborhood to protest the clubbing of baby Harp seals. (I remember my neighbor Jim Bankey signing, and then asking with a wink, “If they weren’t so cute, do you think anyone would care?”

When the kids were little I had an earth day party every year. We read Denise Fleming’s “Where Once There Was A Wood”, and planted a tree, holding hands around the sapling to recite a blessing for it once it was in the ground. We’ve made bird and wildlife friendly areas in our otherwise suburban yard, and have always done busines swith or donated to earth friendly organizations. We worked with the urban gardens project, growing veggies in downtown vacant lots. So we were green before it was trendy.

Back in the days before Y2K when a) we were reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and b) I began to wonder how we’d do without the support of “the grid”, we used to have the occasional “Non-electric weekend”. We’d unplug everything but the fridge and sump pump. We covered the fridge with a sheet, cooked on the wood stove or outside. We made lanterns, played lots of board games, read aloud, and went to bed when it got dark. My kids still remember the experience and ask when we can do it again, but camping now provides that life-away-from-the-screens experience.

Sometimes I think the older I get, the smaller I draw my circle. When I had babies I felt so strongly about breastfeeding, attachment parenting and cosleeping that I was probably obnoxious about it, in retrospect. I also spent a lot of time defending and explaining our decision to homeschool, to friends, family and total strangers. It seemed essential to get past the misconceptions and stereotypes. Now, not so much.

Maybe I have grown weary of conflict. Maybe nothing seems so black and white in retrospect: every choice sacrifices something else, and people who have made very different choices than ours have raised great kids and taught me along the way.

But mostly, I think it’s that I no longer feel the need for everybody to “get it”. I’ll be 46 this month, and I trust my own instincts and experience. Our experiments seem to be working. I don’t believe that mine are the only answers, but I believe that they fit for me, my family, my kids.

I suspect our childrens’ generation will look back at ours, and be aghast at the waste. Financially we don’t seem to offer our childrens’ children much promise of retirement security or affordable health care. The resources we use so freely — clean water, air, fossil fuels — won’t last forever, at this rate. When my friend returned from a year in the Peace Corps in Africa, where people walked a mile for a bucket of fresh water, she was horrified to watch a neighbor hosing off his driveway. I suspect our kids might have similar feelings, remembering what we took for granted.

No, I am not wracked with guilt about every little pleasure that isn’t “green”. But I am happy to see the tide turning. I didn’t like it when my corny old Organic Gardening magazine became slick and expensive, or when “simple living” became a marketable concept pushing organic hemp eye pillows and flax-stuffed yoga mats.

But it wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t buy organic milk at my grocery store; now there are
three brands. Same for eggs, produce, and free range meat.

I had a hippie friend in Eugene who had a two word answer to everything: “Tread Lightly”. When conversations turned to arguments and push came to shove, he’d say to the combatants, “tread lightly”. It applied to everything from road rage to logging virgin forest, from waking the neighbors with late night partying to flicking cigarette butts into the street.

That’s all I am after, with my garden and my bike. I’d like to tread lightly on my little corner of the world. I have invited a group of moms to make jam with me this month, and if it goes well we’ll maybe can tomatoes, or peaches together. Many hands make light work, the Shakers used to say.. and I grew up canning in a farm kitchen with my grandma, mom and aunt. So, yeah, it does my conscience some good, and sets a good example for my kids to follow (and skills they may well need, if one day we can no longer afford to pay a banana’s plane ticket.)

But mostly my bike trips burn calories, make Molly happy, show me neighborhood peonies and save me $3.40 a gallon for gas.

And mostly my garden makes me happy, and keeps me eating veggies.

And a kitchen full of moms should be a lot of fun, as well.

So maybe it’s not so much about saving the world. Maybe it’s all about me. I’m good with that.


Remember my friend who brought over the salt water aquarium?

She’s a clever one. She invited friends with kids for a cook out, Monday, and “oh by the way, my six-week-old kittens who have had their first shots and are ready to be adopted are upstairs in the bedroom, if you want to go see them”…

Molly spent almost the entire day on the bed with the kittens, giggling and snuggling and sighing.

Yeah, we brought one home.  She’s a very dear little furball, and kept popping her head up out of her box on the ride home, so Molly named her “Peekaboo”. (Boo, for short.) We set her up in Molly’s room with her own little food dish, litter box and sleeping basket.

The parallels to bringing home a new baby are obvious. Last night, Molly came into my room after midnight, weepy. “I love the kitten, but she sleeps a little and then wakes me up again and again. I need to sleep!”

Molly crawled into my bed, and I went to sleep in hers with the “baby”. I slept with my own infants in my bed and remember well that careful kind of sleep where you’re always aware of the little body you can’t roll over on. But my babies just woke to nurse… this one wants to pounce on my hair or climb me with her little claws.

My goodness, though, she’s sweet. Between romps she napped against my cheek, or my neck, or any place that seemed snuggly.

The other new-baby angst Molly is discovering is a sense of guilt about the jilted “old baby”.  Our cat Spooky is accustomed to sleeping in Molly’s bed and now she’s not invited — at least until new baby gets familiar with her new family. Molly sat with Spooky this afternoon and gave her some attention. I heard her say, “You probably think Peekaboo will take all your love, but there is enough love for everybody.” Spooky is, however, unimpressed with the little fuzz-wad thus far.  

The big challenge now is to get Molly to leave the kitten’s side long enough to do her homeschooling and eat her meals.

Grandma is coming tomorrow to wallpaper her bedroom (the border has kitties on it) — so Molly’s pretty happy, these days.

In other news… Connor’s snake escaped from its aquarium. We have not given up the search, but I am beginning to suspect we’ll find a crispy bit of snake jerky some day under the piano.

The bees: grasping at straws.

After two years of keeping a humming, populous hive, I lost my bees last winter.  No sign of the infamous colony collapse, though I’ve been forwarded more articles and theories than I can count to explain the nation’s disappearing bees: cell phones, pesticides, genetically modified crops, overuse of antibiotics and miticides by beekeepers, and on and on.

In my case, something happened to the queen in late summer, and there were no more eggs. The hive was full of honey, but bees have a relatively short lifespan (replaced by the offspring of the couple thousand eggs a day the queen produces.)  So… no babies, no future. Usually bees can raise a new queen (or three) by feeding royal jelly to selected eggs, but we had an early frost and my guess is that there were no eggs to raise, or there was nothing left to feed the baby bees.

At any rate, I had a healthy looking hive, loaded with honey and pollen, untouched by antibiotics and chemicals… but nobody home. So in April, I ordered a package of bees. (I posted about it in an earlier blog entry). The queen in her little box with her handmaids is suspended in a wire box of maybe 50,000 bees — which went bzzz bzzzz bzzzz  all the way home.

I loaded the bees into the hive and all seemed to go well, but… no eggs appeared in the following weeks, no larvae, no capped cells of brood.  I was mystified. Did I damage or kill the queen by accident? Was she infertile?

After sufficient time passed, I decided to “requeen”.  I bought another queen and introduced her, with  her handmaids in the little queen box, into the hive.  The swarm seemed unimpressed.  Hmmm.

After a few days, when she had not eaten through the bit of candy blocking her exit hole (which both feeds the bees and stalls the progress so that her pheromones have time to enthrall the hive) — I widened the hole. As I returned the box to the frames of comb, I watched one of the handmaids climb out of the queen box, where she was instantly stung to death. It wasn’t looking good for the home team.

That meant there likely was still a queen in my hive, and her swarm was protecting her territory.  No wonder the new queen was in no hurry to come out. But the reigning queen wasn’t laying. I closed up the hive for a day or two, hoping for no real reason that the new queen met a better welcome than her handmaid.

Then I opened it again a few days ago, and found… drone comb.

Allow me to pause here and push up my nerd glasses, before I launch into what I consider a fascinating bit of bug trivia.

A queen is raised by worker bees.  If they are unsatisfied with their current queen, they will do this covertly. (This boggles me. Secret late night committee meetings? A classified memo? They email each other about the queen problem, vote, what?)

In some corner out of traffic, they build extra large, long, peanut-shaped cells out of beeswax, around a few of the ordinary eggs the queen has already laid. They keep the bad queen away while they feed those larvae on royal jelly, which (like wax) they produce from glands on their bodies. When the babies are large enough, the bees cap the cell with wax, enclosing the fledgeling queens as they do all bee larvae.

The first queen to hatch emerges from her cell, then immediately locates  the other queen cells, breaks them open and stings the “unripe” queens to death. The queen has a stinger that doesn’t tear out, unlike other bees, so she can sting repeatedly and live to tell the story.

So now she’s queen… but she’s still a virgin. She needs to make her way out of the hive, undetected by the old queen, and fly straight up in the air and make big circles, reeking of hey-baby-come-and-get-it bee perfume, and hoping for a mate.

Every hive has a proportionately small number of drones. While the female bees (“workers”) clean the hive, make wax, feed babies, guard the hive and forage for five miles in every direction to gather pollen and nectar, the drones just hang out. They have no stingers, do no work, and eat enough honey that they are generally evicted in cold weather to die on the doorstep.

But this is their big moment. Drones are much bigger than the other bees — like houseflies, with enormous eyes. (The better to see you with, my dear!)

They will sniff out our virgin queen and mate in flight. Like the bee who stings, though, they will lose their lives in the process.  They leave a seminal sac inside the queen which will hold a year or more worth of sperm for her to store, and then break free leaving their entrails trailing out behind the queen’s abdomen.  Still, she somehow managed to get more “dates” — each providing a year’s worth of sperm. She flies back to the hive trailing their guts like an ad banner behind a biplane.

(A quick aside: in hotter climates where Africanized “killer” bees can survive the winters, the succession of matings can make for a nasty surprise. If the queen mates with some docile and well behaved Italian and Russian bees, then the beekeeper can expect to open the hive and find a docile swarm. But if she had an Africanized boyfriend somewhere in the middle, that same hive will go suddenly “killer” when his seminal sac gets a turn in line in the queen’s system.)

OK, so back to my Shakespearean drama: the virgin queen returns mated.  The hive will now go find the old queen and assassinate her. The queen is dead, long live the queen.

Now: back to my drone comb. If our queen goes for her one maiden flight –the only time she will ever leave the hive, before she spends the next five to seven years laying thousands of eggs a day — what happens if she doesn’t get a date?

What if there aren’t enough drones in flying distance, or she has B.O. , or for whatever reason she fails to breed?

She returns to the hive, and begins to lay eggs anyway, even though she has never mated. It’s called parthenogenesis.

But here’s the poetic irony: she only can lay male/drone eggs. Once her workers raise the male babies and die off, the hive is doomed. (Anybody see that movie, “Children of Men”?)  There’s some kind of sweet justice there, though.. that even though her hive can’t survive, the number of drones it will produce in its dying gesture will improve the luck of other virgin queens and other local hives.

Me, I want honey. I can’t eat poetic justice.

When I pulled a frame with drone brood (the photo is above) life got even more complicated. Real beekeepers who actually know what they are doing explained that if the round-capped drone cells (drones are bigger, remember? so they get odd shaped cells) are laid in a scattershot pattern instead of in tidy rows, if the eggs are laid shallowly in the cells and some cells contain more than one egg, I might have a worse problem: not an infertile queen, but a laying worker.

That’s nature’s plan C: a queenless hive with no hope of survival, can produce a worker bee capable of laying drone eggs.

Why is that bad? Because I could find an infertile queen, by searching every frame of comb, and kill her. Then they would accept a new queen if I bought one.

But the workers all look alike, so there’s no way to know which one is laying.

I was so sad. It seemed like there was no way out of the situation, and it’s too late in the season to buy another package of bees. They wouldn’t have time to build up stores for winter if they are just getting started in late May.

So  I wailed to the beekeeping list on Yahoo, and I’ll be damned if a woman in Brooklyn, Michigan didn’t come to my rescue.

Monday morning on the way home from the lake, we stopped at the farmhouse of a total stranger — a woman named Cheryl.  She let my kids visit her 4 day old puppies, dug up hostas and other perennials to send home with me in a box, and best of all, pulled two frames of healthy brood out of one of her beehives and boxed it up for me. Capped workers, uncapped little fat white grub-larvae, eggs, and hundreds of nurse-bees clinging to the frames came along for the ride.

Though I rarely use gloves or my bee-hat, I put on all my gear, not sure what would happen when I introduced “new-bees” to the hive. On Cheryl’s advice, I smoked hell out of the hive, pulled the drone comb frames out of the brood box and popped her frames in, bees and all.

My hope is that the hive will seize the opportunity and start feeding some of those eggs royal jelly, and raise a new queen. Lord knows she ought to be able to find a date, with all the drones in my hive. I scraped out some of the drone cells, just to keep a balance.. and also because Molly’s mouse and Connor’s rat think sweet, fat little bee larva grubs are delicious.

I’ll keep you posted. I’m staying out of the hive for a while, and will check back in a week or two and see if there are queen cells, or eggs. I’m not in a hurry, since there’s not much I can do if this last ditch effort doesn’t work. Go, bees!





My token garden…

Last summer, before I started school, I tore out the fence around my 30X40 veggie garden, dug up the perennial plants and mowed it flat. It’s lawn, now, though volunteer arugula replaces the crabgrass and clover we usually grow for grass.

I knew I wouldn’t have time to tend, water, weed and harvest my usual edamame, snow peas, okra, several heirloom varieties of eggplant and tomato, garden greens and every kind of salad leaf, curly kale, strawberries, garlic, ground cherries, onions, blue potatoes, zukes and butternut squash, melons, peppers and gourds.

But I was miserable by fall, buying rock hard flavorless tomatoes at the store. I had underestimated how much my eye and brain are fed by pumpkins on the vine, gourd shapes, the production-mode of canning tomatoes. I even missed weeding. No garden toad, no crunchy asparagus snapped off the stem and eaten raw.

I still had — have — the cherry trees, the self-sustaining gooseberries, raspberries and currants, rhubarb along the back fence, and I stuck a few veggie garden plants in the front flower beds but it wasn’t the same.  I have my herb garden as always, near the kitchen door, and get a handful of blueberries from the bushes in front.

So this summer, I hauled four boards out of a dumpster at school and brought them home to make a very small raised bed. Three heirloom tomato plants and two super sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. I usually eschew hybrids but the sweet 100s fill an Ann Tubbs majolica or Theresa Yondo porcelain bowl on my table all summer, and the kids eat them like candy. We dry them and seal them in jars for crunchy snacks and winter pestos.

I keep telling myself that’s it… but what’s summer without grilled eggplants, peppers and zukes? I am eyeing the lumber fromthe treehouse the kids are taking apart, thinking maybe eggplants… and in the fall, I may set up my hoop greenhouse again for greens into the cold months.  For now I’ll spice up the grocery store salads with fresh herbs and leaves of the arugula I can still find in the lawn.


New critter and bike adventures

Sunday was the last regular sunday school class at church. The lesson was about recycling, animals and our environment.

The guest speaker was a woman who brought in several pet snakes, and taught the kids about their habits and habitats. She had a small tank full of snake babies, since one of her pets had given birth: baby checkered garters, as big around as a pencil.

Of course, Connor came home with one.  He named him squeaker, and feeds him earthworms.  He has a lovely olive color and intricate patterns. He’s as smooth as a polished stone, solid and cool in my hand. Watching  his sides expand and contract while he breathes is a strangely fascinating sensation.

I spent the rest of sunday planting moss roses, lobelia and pansies in the windowboxes, and mulching the raised flowerbeds in the front yard.  They are perennial beds and have been layered with mulch-compost “lasagna style”, but they haven’t looked too pretty this spring withthe sprouts coming up through fall leaves. 

Now the folks across the street are selling their house, so I’m sprucing up the yard to be as helpful as possible.  I hate the fake dyed-red mulch, but there were several torn/rebagged ones for a dollar each, so red it is. I am pretty sure the red color will be gone with the first rain, anyway.

Jeff took the boys to see Spiderman 3, and later we continued with our let’s-see-where-we-can-bike-to adventure, and found a way to the Bob Evans by the highway, through neighborhood streets.  Good old American comfort food, starch and grease that probably offset any health benefits of biking.

This morning the kids and I spent some time on geometry, then rode our bikes to the metropark for homeschool park day. 8 to 10 moms and dozens of kids usually show, and it’s a nice connection for everybody.  The kids fly kites and play red rover and tag among the trees, and the little ones make sand castles and play on the slides and swings. There are kids in the group my kids have known since they were in strollers. 

This evening Jeff dropped the kids at gymnastic/tae kwon do and then he and I rode our bikes to the grocery store for milk; I made 10 pints of yogurt, culturing now on the counters. I am rethinking all the places we do business and trying to find a place within biking distance. Of course, this is only going to be useful during the summer month.

(That’s not a typo, that’s my attempt at humor.)

Tomorrow my mom will pick up the kids to deliver Mobile Meals, and I’ll rent a u-haul trailer to go pick up a load of cedar and me-haul it to the wood kiln at EMU.  These May days are busy, but feel somehow unpressured; varied, and unscheduled. I think spending less time in my car has added to my sense of peace. No clock in front of my forehead telling me whether I’m late, gas gauge telling me how far to empty, kids arguing in the back, red lights and tailgaters. The bike ride includes the smell of honeysuckle and catnip along the trail, tadpoles in the ditches, shortcuts through parkinfg lots, perusal of neighbors yards and flowerbeds, fresh air and exercise.

Between my bike and the hammock I got for Mother’s day, this is turning out to be a lovely spring. It’s still sunny enough for freckles but too chilly for bugs. Nice cool sleeping weather, coffee on the deck in the morning. And getting out of the car means I have a new relationship with my “territory” – like when I was a kid. I know where the hills are, huffing up and gliding down. I know where the squished roadkill squirrel is, and whose dog barks along the fence when I pass.

Now if only I could hitch that U-haul trailer to my bike…

Life is good.

I went up in the garage loft and pulled down the old bike trailer I used to use for toddlers. Now I use it for groceries, clay tools, packages for the post office and general shopping trips.

We’ve complained in the past about businesses popping up all around us, traffic and noise… but now that gas is over $3 a gallon, and I don’t have to drive to and from school all summer, I’m able to bike to work (my class at the potter’s guild), to the park for homeschool meetings, to the grocery store, my bank, the post office, and anything along the bike trail (including Lowes and my doctor’s office.) I could go to WalMart if I had to.

Since my low carb diet has lost out to my wood fired bread oven, the bike will maybe keep me in shape, as well.

Yesterday we did drive back to EMU, Jeff and the kids and I, for my friend Ben Bigelow’s MFA show. I hadn’t been back since April. Diana was out of town for the weekend, but I stopped by the clay studio on myway home. It was kind of unsettling. Everything looked different than I remembered. The pots I had left on my shelves were not as good as I’d imagined.

I’m still making pots every day at home, but without the pressure or the critiques. I’d be dishonest if I said I was looking forward to going back for more of either, but I’m sure I’ll be up for it by fall.

Today I went to a workshop at the guild, where members had extruded all kinds of forms for us to work with for the afternoon. The pot luck was good as always, and I got to sit with Edith Franklin who I haven’t chatted with since NCECA. I managed to get a platter of bread and goat cheese pizza over there in the bike trailer with my bag of tools and Mark Issenberg’s coffee mug. It was a nice day.

When I got home, Jeff was making venison medallions with a red wine reduction, black rice, grilled veggies with eggplant and portabellas. We had a nice dinner with the sun and breeze blowing through our sunroom, and the kids took turns as usual telling what was the best thing to happen to them today. After dinner, they went out to sit in their climbing tree and eat popsicles and I beat Jeff at Scrabble (318 to 238). We climbed up on the roof and permanently sealed up the vent where the raccoons had broken in. (They’ve all taken off for wilder places.) I sat up there for a while looking down at my little yard, all lush and green, the cherry and plum trees, the raspberry vines, the gooseberry bushes already making berries. Then Jeff and I hung out in the hammock for a while, before he went to his woodshop to turn some really pretty walnut bowls, and I sat at the kitchen table making more ewers. Jeff’s bowl with the tumbling blocks it in the Salon de Refuses show right now, at the Parkwood Gallery across from the Art Museum. I had to teach the night of the opening but he took the kids, who apparently hung out near te pedestal telling passers by, “My dad made this!”

Now everybody’s in bed, Molly talking in her sleep across the hall from where I sit typing, and the cat purring on the arm of my chair. Connor’s rat is in her cage, chewing on the crusty end of one of my raisin walnut loaves.

I’m going to bed, myself. I love my bed, and these cool nights have been perfect sleeping weather. Tomorrow we’ll go to church in the morning, then I’ll work on the yard, mulch around the peonies and blueberries,, plant a few tomatoes, and go through boxes in the studio that need sorting. I sit down when I can and throw a dozen spouts, put them in a damp box, and then make ewers for them when I have a minute to myself.

I’ll check my hive, tomorrow, too. The queen is still in her queen box with the attendants, so I pushed a bigger hole in the candy blocking her exit, to set her free. The bees are paying a lot more attention to her, today, hanging all over the box, and getting really ornery when I pulled it out to check on her. I think that’s a good sign that her pheromones have taken over the hive. I just need her to get out and get laying!

More soon…

Happy mother’s day weekend, all.

It’s a lovely weekend here. Mornings have been misty, with the intoxicating smell of lilac floating through open windows. Afternoons have been warm with fat floaty clouds, and the grass is growing so fast you can almost watch it happen. Evenings are cool, pleasant enough to eat out on the deck, and no bugs yet. Everything is blooming. An Eastern Oriole has appeared in our yard for the first time in 16 years, and belts out it’s pet-shop-parakeet-sounding tunes.

A groundhog the size of a small buffalo comes out of hiding in the evenings while we have dinner, and grazes around the brushy edges of our long narrow suburban yard. And after midnight, mama raccoon and her five (!) roly-poly offspring pile out of the ravaged roof vent like clowns out of a volkswagen. They single-file across the roof edge, over the gutter, across the top of the trellis that borders our deck and then across the railing to the stairs. The little ones scrabble and slip, bump into each other, chitter and squawk and otherwise look lik a cornball cartoon strip. I suppose they head for the neighborhood drainage ditch to find frogs and crawdads, though one night I ran out in my jammies to find the source of a pitiful wail, and found one little coon kitten stranded on top of my studio rainbarrel, looking for the way down. His mom was in a nearby evergreen, hissing at me, so I went back to bed and let her parent her own unruly kids.

Connor came in yesterday thrilled to announce that a pair of wrens have chosen my clay birdhouse this year, and have babies inside. Their music always feels like a blessing, and I love to see the tiny bird with their tails in the air, perched on my clothesline wit a mouthful of bug or cussing the cat from the rusty wire fence, so angry they seem not to know or care that they’re barely the size of a walnut.

I love that I have a kid who can get that excited about a family of wrens. And though I have no great joy in having coons under the roof, we at least have some wildlife in our scrappy little yard behind the Walmart.

The bees are thriving, as well… I need to take pictures. The ice cream truck is back with its over-amplified, repetitive song — the joy of neighborhood kids and the bane of their mommies.

(I know a woman who told her younger and more gullible kids, “When the music is playing, that means they are all out of ice cream.”)

The last few days have been busy, with the Toledo Potters Guild’s annual second sale (in conjuction with the mother’s day plant sale, at the botanical garden that houses our guild.) It’s nice enough that I can ride my bike to and from the guild, now, and so can my kids. They’d show up at the sale, bring me lunch, help out a bit… wander to the log cabin where somebody in period costume helped them make paper flowers for mom… then ride home on their own to play with roving neighborhood friends, raid the cookies or climb their back yard tree with a library book.

I demoe’d handbuilding, today, while another member threw pots. I had thrown a bunch of little spouts and ewer bodies, and put together eight or ten of them in a sunny spot near the sale table. Somebody emailed me the photo above.

I made a couple hundred bucks on pots I needed to clear out of my studio. Some had been dusty bisque, sitting on shelves since last summer, and I glazed them with my glaze test tiles. Others were experiments from EMU that were send home as unworthy of further consideration. The guild’s slice of the profit is minimal, the company was fun and the weather lovely… so all in all, a nice weekend. Maybe I’ll spend the money on a workshop in Indianapolis I’ve been thinking about, though I should be saving it for next year’s tuition.

Right now, middle son is listening to a Harry Potter book on tape while whittling a stick… Molly’s both listening to the story and reading Garfield (which always boggles my mind.) Eldest is having his first teen party in the basement of his out-of-town grandparents (equipped with a pool table, foosball, air hockey and wide screen nintendo/dance dance revolution). Jeff is upstairs at grandma’s being the responsible adult.

I am going to go unload boxes, photograph a few pots to put on my site, put the new ewers in the kiln and take a hot bath. I plan to sleep in on mother’s day and my kids have promised me coffee in bed at the crack of nine. We’ll head for the lake for a cook out with my mom… thank goodness for good weather!

A musical day…

This morning, Tyler’s Coming Of Age program at church (the UU version of confirmation, I guess) had their graduation celebration, in a service led by the 16 junior-high aged kids.

They each read the “credo” they had come up with for themselves during meetings, discussions and retreats, and Tyler played “Amazing Grace” on the sax.  Those verses are a bit more “salvation” oriented than what the UUs are accustomed to singing, but it’s a lovely old hymn and he did a nice job.

Then we drove to Monclova for Connor and Molly’s piano recital. It’s funny to see the little kids playing their simple tunes and remembering my own kids when they could barely reach to climb on the bench. Now they look so big, and are proud to be able to play such complex tunes.

We raced home because friends were arriving for an early supper, and to  plan a summer canoe-camping trip.

Now it’s late, the house is quiet and I’m running a bath. We cleaned yesterday at the potter’s guild, and the ton of class clay had arrived. Four kind hearted volunteers took turns sliding the 50 pound boxes down an improvised ramp into the basement, but as the only one at the bottom of the stairs, I lifted, hauled and stacked — literally — a ton of clay yesterday. I’m starting to feel it.

So sunday wraps up the week, recitals wrap up the lessons, and soon our days will be our own (more or less). I’m hoping for a hammock for mother’s day.

Rat Tales

May 2: Sad rat story

Connor (11) took his beloved, almost two year old rat to the vet today. She’s getting a frequent bloody nose and is losing weight. He looked in her mouth and said there’s a tumor pushing down on the roof of her mouth, nothing he can do.

She has maybe a month, maybe two.. but when she’s suffering, C. can bring her in and the vet will euthanize her. The vet said (in front of my kid) that it involves an injection directly into the heart, and he doesn’t let pet owners watch because it’s kind of disturbing. I kind of wish he hadn’t said that but he was a nice guy anyway.

Con wanted so badly not to cry in front of the vet, but he’s so sad. When we got home we took Rattus outside under the blooming crab tree and let her wander in the grass in the sunshine. She still is eating and seems kind of OK, only she washes her face a lot which I think means it’s painful, and her eyes look a little bugged out. DS will have to decide when it’s time. The vet made it clear that she won’t just slip away — it will be unpleasant and drawn out.

So he’s cried on and off, spent some time with her, but it makes him really sad now. I reminded him that she’s not upset or afraid, and that we can make sure she has good treats and a comfortable end to her life. He’s been so good to her. When we were outside he blew away dandelion seeds to make a wish. He said he wished she would have “an easy time at the end of her life and a good afterlife”.

We’re doing a few looking-ahead things. He’s getting library books about chinchillas, which the vet says can live 12 years. And he’s planning to make a clay sarcophagus, rat sized, with an eqyptian-mummy-looking lid only with a rat face. I can cremate the remains in the pot, in my kiln, as the vet won’t do it.

I know some people hate rats but I have a kid who is going to have one of those life lessons, whether he wants it or not.

Plus he has strep this week.

Any ideas to help him out? He’s writing about it in his journal.


May 3: A better rat story

So I was up until one in the morning reading horrifying accounts of heart-injection euthanasia for rats, and looking up home options for doing it a gentler way. Rat lovers boards said, “If the vet won’t let you come in for the euthanasia, just say no.”

I looked into a homemade carbon dioxide chamber, or overdoses of meds. I talked to Connor about it this morning, but he was all conflicted and upset about the whole thing.

He took her outside to play in the grass, caught her bugs to eat like always, but looked so sad the whole time, since time seemed so short for her.

In desperation, I called another vet (Dr. Paul Pipher, a good guy who camps in sub zero temps every year to be the Iditarod vet.) He used to be Connor’s scout leader, and knows us pretty well. I asked if he could please, please do a general anesthesia before the heart injection… he says he always does. I was relieved and told ds about it, and we agreed that’s how we’d do it when the time came.

Then, later this morning, Molly came yelling out of Connor’s room– something was really wrong with the rat. We went in to find fresh, bright red blood (lots of it) all over the rat’s bedding, chest and front paws and flowing out of her nose. Con and I agreed that it was probably time for her to go, and that if this was what it was going to be like for her, we needed to put her down right away.

So off we went to the scout leader vet, Rattus in a box, Connor crying and petting her.

The vet was so kind, talked sweet to her, petted her. He asked if we wanted to bury her ourselves, and Connor said yes, and decided we’d wait in the waiting room for him to bring the body out, rather than going in to watch.

We waited. We were both in tears, me mostly feeling badly for Connor who really adored this rat, and has had her on his shoulder or in his shirt every day.

After 20 minutes or so the vet comes out, but no box.

“Interesting development”, he says. “Once she was out, before I did the injection, I decided to have a look at the tumor in the roof of her mouth”.

No tumor. Apparently she has such a bad overbite that despite the chew sticks we gave her, the bottom teeth grew so long they were PIERCING THE ROOF OF HER MOUTH. Thus the weight loss, the bloody noses, etc.

He cut the teeth off off, let her wake up (she’s still a bit groggy, he really had her under) and brought us in so he could show us the holes. He gave us antibiotics for the next week while her mouth heals and off we went, my son just as happy as he can be. PLUS the vet says two years is not that old for a rat, that he’s seen some four to six.

The sibs were thrilled to see him coming home with a live rat instead of a body.

She drank a little bowl of Dannon actimel when she got home, and is napping now in a clean box of cloth diaper rags in her cage.

Damn, I’m relieved. I had even considered doing a secret midnight benadryl thing to save DS the trauma… glad now I didn’t.

Yesterday’s misdiagnosis: $16
Today’s vet visit with antibiotics: $70
Happy kid: priceless.

Look who dropped in.

We were sitting in the sun room doing our homeschool and we heard a thump behind the wall.

No clue. We looked in the pantry, checked around, went back to doing our studies.

Maybe ten minutes later, we heard the unmistakable, miserable chitter of a baby raccoon calling for mama. Yep, it was right behind the drywall, in a narrow divider wall between my pantry and stairwell. Way too narrow a space for mama raccoon (who has raised a litter in an unaccessible part of the roof, above our new addition) to come to the rescue.

The kids and I gathered to stare at the wall, and listened as little lost coonkitten tried to climb up… made it a foot and a half or so– then thumped down again and cried for mama. This went on for maybe half an hour, until we lost hope that baby would make the climb alone.

Fortunately, this bit of wall is still under construction from the new doorway for the sunroom we built on, and it hasn’t been finished yet. So I went and got a knife and a screwdriver and began cutting a section out of the drywall.

This little face peered out of the hole. As mad as I have been at the stupid varmints for moving in under my roof, the old maternal instinct kicked in and I just wanted the get this cutie back to mama. The kids were absolutely enamored, as well.

An impossibly cute little pain in the butt…

He’s waving goodbye before I climb up the ladder and stuff him into the roof vent his mom tore open to make a nest in there earlier this spring. Yeah, that’s right, I am putting raccoons INTO my attic.

At least until mama decides to take them all out on a night raid. Then I climb up there in my jammies and nail their little door shut.

The kids found it a nice diversion from their Singapore Math studies.

Life after school

This is what Jeff came home to, today. I didn’t know about it until I discvered it this afternoon — Tyler had put up the letters, and the kids set up some snacks around his reading chair (an extra pillow on the chair) and set all his turned wood bowls out on the piano for him to feel proud about.

Jeff got an answer today about a job in Virginia he’d been really excited about — and they picked another of the three finalists. He’s really disappointed, and I guess the kids wanted to cheer him up.

At dinner, we took turns listing things we’re happy not to move away from: our friends in town, nearby grandparents, homeschool park day, scout troops, our nice back yard and the climbing tree, my parents’ cottage in the Irish hills, my brother and his new wife/new Tia Jenny.

Now we’re making summer plans: canoe trips, camping trips, building a new treehouse/club house, making a tile mural for the sunroom floor. We’re scheduling back yard baking and gatherings, dinner parties, and some redecoration projects.

We had a good weekend. Friday night Connor had a friend for a sleepover, and Jeff and I fired up my old raku kiln in the back yard with my new weed burner. (The little girl next door had come to play with Molly earlier, and I heard M say, “That thing? That’s my mom’s flame thrower.”)

In the morning, we headed for Wolf Lake (taking Connor’s friend along) to help my folks rake leaves, pick up sticks and put in the docks for the summer. On the drive up, we saw a fox trotting through a field, several lovely hawks, and a glorious rooster pheasant. At the lake, we saw a big raccoon strolling across the beach in broad daylight, after the nestlings or eggs of the red winged blackbirds in the reedy marsh.  A pair of swans are nesting on the lake, and Connor caught a fish.

C started complaining of a headache in the afternoon, and we headed back home.  We stopped to drop off his friend and got out of the car to visit the 11 new lambs born at his farm in the last week or two — I wish I had taken pictures!  There may be something in the world cuter than a wooly new lamb, but I don’t know what it is.

By saturday night, Connor had a temp of 102.5. It lasted all day Sunday, and when I looked in his throat Sunday night it looked like a horror movie. So we headed for the doc today, and the test confirmed strep.

On the bright side, this is the first Monday since last September that I am not scheduled to get in my car and drive to EMU.  We have been so well for so long that I’m feeling like this was pretty good timing.

I rode home from the lake with a wire mesh box in my lap holding three pounds of Italian honeybees. They are all set up in the hive, and finding the gooseberry, currant, crab apple and plum blossoms.

The grass is so green and succulent, this time of year, full of dandelions and tiny flowering weeds. I spent an hour out back in the grass with sickie-boy and his rat, and an hour under the weeping crab with Molly-pie and Tyler’s white guinea pig (who ate clover to her heart’s content.). Spring is a miracle, every time.  I’m trying hard not to miss it.



My space at school

This is how I staked out my territory in the mfa studio before I left. My only real disadvantage is that there’s “pull up a chair” space (something we tried to eliminate) but it’s behind me when I am on the wheel…

I miss my space but I’m organizing my studio at home, which has some promise as well.

Entry for April 24, 2007

The end of winter is like waking up from a long, wearying, troublesome dream. Suddenly we have neighbors again, chatting over the fence; sheets dance on the clothesline. Car windows are open and people notice each other again, after a long season of being hunched over, clenched and cold, bundled into coats and hoods, sealed into our houses and cars against the cold.

I wake to the sound of birds, neighborhood kids, dogs, squirrels, cars, mowers, more birds. Some little frogs in the drainage creek next door are trilling at night. There are smells, again, now that the forced air heat is off: grass, food, dirt, flowers, wet clay, the neighbor’s dryer-vent and BBQ grill.

It seems an impossible blessing to be able to walk outside barefoot again, to have bouquets of dandelions handed to me by my kids (for which I thank them, and then discreetly feed them to an ecstatic guinea pig.)

I posted more flowers below, as an apology for the gross bruise picture. Off to my last classes for the year.


My dad used to say,

“Spring is sprung,

the grass is riz,

I wonder where the birdies is…”

Finals week

About 16 years ago when we bought this house, we took out a chain link fence that ran across the front of the yard, and I planted a quince and a red twig dogwood out there. Later we discovered that the old lady who had lived (and died) here had planted red tulips all along that chain link fence. They remember her, and come up every year. Mostly they don’t get to bloom before Jeff mows for the first time, but these girls somehow ended up near the dogwood I planted, and have managed to bloom every year.

If I were more persnickety I might have rooted them out, as it’s absurd to bloom in the middle of a bush, but I just send out a good thought to the lady who planted them, and let them be.

I’m packing this morning for my last trip to EMU for the school year. I need to finish printing and make mats for the etchings due tomorrow afternoon (my last final). I’m taking a bucket of cleaning supplies to help tidy up Prof. Diana’s house, which Patrick and I have been using all winter while she has been in Florida and Italy. I’ll do some mopping at the studio, where most of the pots not worth further study have already been packed up and hauled home. I suppose I will bring my plants home, because although I will make a few trips down this summer to help with firings, and take bisque to load my shelves, I won’t be there enough to keep a plant watered.

Patrick’s dad is flying down from Tennessee and helping him drive home, on the 28th. It’s going to seem really weird not to see him all summer, after 9 months of having him as a studio-mate and once a week roomie. We rearranged our shelves and wheels in the MFA studio, to adapt to new changes: Reem from Libya (who has a baby girl, Salma) will switch to U of M next fall, so she is moving out; Nancy Sly was an MFA who broke her arm and is just now getting back into the game, so she’s moved in, and there are rumors of a new MFA coming next fall.

We’ve arranged our stuff so as to define (and claim!) our spaces, allow for interaction with others, but make it difficult for chatters to pull up a chair and turn our limited work time into a social occasion. Prof. Lee had suggested last fall that we hang curtains or put up partitions, and we thought he was nuts because we all got along well, and had no concerns about “stealing ideas” with such a diverse body of work. But as we get more serious about producing the bulk of next spring’s MFA shows, and we juggle the responsibilities of kilns, firings and GA duties, we’ve come to see the importance of protecting our time — in this case, by defining our space and turning our wheels to the wall/backs to the room.

I am still cranking out ewers and pouring vessels at home, I can’t seem to get tired of them. I have almost 100 in my bisque kiln right now, waiting to be fired. None are the same but they seem to be forming themselves into “families”. There’s a group based on an ovaled cylinder, pinched straing across at the top, that have a “chickenish” look, beak/spout and fill/tail. Another group of tripod bottomed ones with funnel spouts have an aardvarkish shape. I could see categorizing them in some pseudo-Linnean system, with Latin names.

My plan for summer is to choose one type to produce as a pair, as vinegar and oil cruets on a tray, maybe with a fill-funnel incorporated somehow… to evolve something into a cream and sugar… to make one perfect for olive oil, one for soy, one for sake with cups. Something like a sauce or gravy boat. Maybe some small lidded jars/boxes using the same ideas. I will need to use them at my own table to solve problems: is it easy to fill? Does it pour too little or too much of whatever it holds? Does the hand want to grip it by the sides instead of the handle? Picture the Savino dinner table covered with ewers, while I plan meals requiring dribbles of this or that!

OK, well, my folks are back from Florida and my mom picked up the kids today to deliver Mobile Meals, go to lunch, see a movie and sleep over — so I need to hit the shower, pack my bags and go to school. Tomorrow morning is their last homeschool science class at the Lake Erie Research Center with their dad.. and Mom’s last day of college until September. My blog is likely to shift to details of baking in the wood oven, garden projects, weekends at the lake and camping trips. I think I’ll adapt ;0)