Holding Water: Nine Word Bowls
Sespe Creek is one of the last free-flowing rivers in Southern California, depending on where you define "southern" and what you view as a dam. The Sespe flows for 55 miles in northern Ventura County; 31.5 miles of the river are designated Wild & Scenic. About 50 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, it joins the Santa Clara River, on which the Vern Freeman Diversion Dam poses a significant barrier to the southern Steelhead that might reach Sespe Creek.
Taj Mahal is graveling through "Queen Bee" on stage while I'm sitting at a table answering questions and pitching membership for Los Padres ForestWatch. An older gentleman walks up and hollers something at me. All I catch is "beavers." We get a little closer as Taj riffs between verses. "You ever see any beavers on the Sespe Creek?" Can't say that I have. "Well back in the ‘50s there were beaver dams across the river down from Lion Camp, a bunch of them." And he walks away.
Left alone with the music for a few minutes, I remember the sandstone ribs, the beds of ancient oceans tilted on end, jutting from the chaparral down the mountain to the river and up the other side like the eroded footings of a dam that failed long ago. I remember the spring that flows from the riverbank just upstream of what would have been the Topatopa dam site, a real concrete river-killing dam, proposed in 1967. Whenever I look at the X marking the spring on my topo map, I trace the contours of where the lake would have been and wonder what springs might lie under Lake Piru to the east and the sediment-filled lake behind the Matilija Dam to the west. The Sespe flows like a wild remark between the parentheses of the two dammed watersheds on either side. The line between containment and release seems thin and fragile.
The last time I waded through the Sespe toward the spring to drink and refill my bottle, a mallard burst skyward from a clump of grass an arm's reach away. When my heart started beating again, I took a step to the left and looked down into a green nest holding six pale eggs. As I remember these things, Taj sings, "Ooh love me to my soul, rock me to my soul."
The longer I look, the more I feel compelled to keep looking, turning over stones, peering at the ground as I stumble downstream, sifting my hands through the wet sand and mud at the river's edge. There must be something left of the bowl I stashed in a gap between two stones a couple of seasons ago. I don't need much. In fact, I don't think I ever expected to find the bowl in one piece. All I really need is a fragment, just enough to see the river working on the glaze, evidence that time passed here, too, while I was elsewhere, thinking of other things, mostly trivial things. Even to know the bowl was broken, is broken, is breaking down—that would be something worth looking for.
I'm trying to think about geologic time as I hammer pieces of rock-hard clay into smaller pieces of clay to make a glaze I hope will adhere to my bowls through a cone-10 firing. And I'm trying not to hit my fingers. These two activities being less than compatible, geology goes out the window of my mind. All I think is that I'm speeding up time. I'm doing what rivers of water and wind would do a little slower.
The softball-sized rock I picked up from the bed of Sespe Creek was already falling apart. It looked like a whole rock, but you could see the cracks crazing its surface like a three dimensional puzzle in fragile layers. The pieces began to separate as I put them into a bag and then into my pack for the long walk home. Now, days later, remembering my safety goggles, I tap the pieces with a hammer and sweep the dusty fragments back toward the center for more pounding. What's left looks nothing like a rock, but it smells like the rock it was and tastes like it. When I hold the tub of dust and chips it has the weight of stone. Finally, thinking of the river, I add water from the faucet and when the clay has absorbed it, I stir and then work the muddy slip through a screen to remove the bits that don't break down further the way I'd like them to.
I'm looking down at bear tracks in the mud at the edge of a long pool with steep cliffs on both sides. This is the one way up and down stream. Bears of every size have been walking by, sometimes extending their claws for traction in the wet ooze so that their tracks look a little like those of the grizzlies that died out here—were killed here—a hundred years ago. Near the very edge of the pool the tracks hold water, just like the famous tracks of Old Ben, the great bear that embodies the vanishing wilderness in Faulkner's Go Down, Moses. I feel the black mire around the tracks and wonder if these bowls could be lifted out and later fired in a kiln like the abandoned swallow nests I once saw fired with luster glazes.
Why the urge to make the fragile tracks into something that lasts? Even stone becomes fluid given enough time. I know this familiar desire to take something of this place with me that I can hold in my hands as a tangible mnemonic to let me feel my immersion again. A bear track bowl would take its place in my house among rocks I once saw as special, fossil shells, feathers, the bobcat skull, the wooden river teeth. I'm forever grasping at this shifting river, trying on different perspectives, listening more closely, and trying to feel for what's beneath the surface. Just when I think I'm holding something of value, I'm somehow relieved as whatever it was crumbles and slips through the cup of my fingers.
First I wedge the clay, leaning into it over and over, turning it slightly until its rounded cone is ready. Sealing the lump to the wheel, I slap it a few times and finally squeeze water from a sponge over the clay and begin to center it. I bend over the clay. As the wheel spins, I cone the clay up and press it back down, wedging my elbows into the clefts between my thighs and belly. To center the clay I must center my body and rid my mind of distractions. If I do this often enough, kinetic memory seems to shape how my hands meet this wet bit of earth and how my hands relate to each other. When I have compressed the mound, I close my eyes as I press my fingers into its center to open it. For some reason, visual cues fool me, and if I watch the clay or my fingers I lose that middle, that balance, and forget to feel the start of a wobble.
Looking around in all directions, I mark the spot in my memory, choosing to place the small ceramic bowl in the notch between two boulders big enough to withstand all but the largest of storm flows. Lifting a few stones, I wedge the bowl in tightly and replace the stones on top, just above the early fall water line. Any winter storm should bring the creek up to the bowl to do what it will do. The small bowl is a test piece, glazed with different thicknesses of my single-rock Sespe slip. I'm too muddy-headed to figure out exactly what I'm doing, but this return offering has something to do with water and earth and fire, with cycles that hold and release. I want to see the effect on the bowl, on the glaze, of a season's worth of flowing, silty water. I want the bowl my hands have shaped to meet the water flowing through and over and around it, infinitely more than it could ever contain.
At the end of the rains when the creek has dropped back down, I'll hike in again to try to find the bowl, though I know my chances are slim. Boulders move and shift and the streambed twists like a snake from year to year in some places. The bowl could work lose and be buried under gravel; it could shatter, its fragments scattering. Still, I want to leave something even at the risk of loss. It could be that that the river erodes meaning as fast as I try to accumulate it. Inflow and outflow. I lay down the bowl in lieu of my body.
It's the last day of the month, and I'm hiking to the Earth, Wind & Fire song "September" going off in my head. After two days of hopping from rock to rock down the creek, I can hop and be funky, even with a pack on. Never was a cloudy daaaayyy (horns, horns, horns).
Then everything changes as I walk toward a jumble of rocks leveled across the river. I seethe, I overflow with anger and grief all tangled up together. It's just a simple road, but it's set right down in the middle of the river I love because someone thinks they own the river as well as the land along the banks. Someone thinks they need a convenient driveway more than endangered steelhead need a river to swim in. Rocks and boulders and dirt are bulldozed perpendicular to the flow, and no storm would blow this out like it would a beaver dam decades ago. Water trickles through underneath, but no fish could ever get through to its spawning habitat upstream. Thousands of years of evolution come to a halt because one clever human decides to play with dirt where he thinks no one will notice. I know I participate in the destruction of the earth in a thousand ways every day, but do I have to be pure to be angry at something so immediate, so present, so stupid? I want a backhoe, now. I want a few sticks of dynamite. If I had a rocket launcher, an anti-tank missile, any damn thing.
When I show my pictures to a friend, he says, "People like that should be shot. That would be an honorable thing to go to jail for." He's a fly fisherman. He understands. I opt, however, for a slower approach, spending days leaving messages and waiting for agency enforcement officers to pick up the other end of the line. I'm racing the winter rains that will bring the river to life and the steelhead nose-first from the sea seeking the headwaters.
In the studio, I press a strip of wet clay from the lip to the base of a bone-dry tea bowl I threw last week. As the wet clay dries it will pull at the bowl's more rigid, dry clay, stretching and cracking, breaking it into a bowl that might hold my anger.
As we drink tea together, I watch her remember something silently. Her eyes leave, and after a sip the bowl hovers near her mouth, her nose moving back and forth slowly. Her tongue follows a rivulet of tea then traces the edge of the bowl. There's a reason they call it a lip.
You don't have to be an expert in the art of the Japanese tea ceremony to tip your tea bowl to your lips and see the green layers of matcha as a landscape or even a universe. Whisked foam of hot water and green tea adhere to the sides, each sip adding contour lines, near and far, to a view that seems familiar to me from watching light rise and fall in the Sespe backcountry—hill upon hill, one bend in the river after another.
As I hold the bowl in my hands, I look at the dripping shino glaze. I feel the glaze, turning the bowl over to examine the base. I tap with my fingernail to hear the bowl's thickness ring. And I keep returning to its interior landscape because in it I find my own. I begin to think of what it means for this bowl to hold within itself the water, the tea, and finally, a view of something beyond itself. What kind of containment reaches beyond the walls meant to hold? I think of a watershed, a bowl pressed into the land, and of the rivers coursing through my body, circulating, cycling, and returning to their source.
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