Moon – waning crescent
Recycling is very important, as we all know. At Mud Station our goal is to keep all the clay we have in the system for as long as possible – ideally till it’s been glaze fired and returned to its proud owner. Till then, everything that isn’t made into something someone wants to keep – all the trimmings, offcuts, disaster pots, throwing water, slip, slurry, and unclassifiable lumps that we’re left with at the end of a pottery class – goes downstairs to be turned once more into the sort of clay you can actually make things out of.
If you think about it a bucket of slip probably has about a mug’s worth of clay in it. Why pour that down the drain? But reclaiming it involves a lot of drying, mixing, waiting, de-airing, waiting, combining, waiting and waiting.
One thing clay work teaches you, is patience. The other thing it teaches you is timing.
There’s a massive tray of clay in the basement, as heavy as a piano. For weeks it’s been too soft to mill but suddenly it’s going to be too hard, if you don’t do something with it today. You take a garden trowel, get down on your knees and start digging around, dividing and loosening cobbles of clay and laying them on their side so the air can get to them. After a while of this the trowel bends uselessly so you start sliding the flat of your hand under the clay to lift it out.
Prising the cobbles out is like trying to move an ancient rusty lever. You grit your teeth and make a noise in the back of your throat. It is like digging a grave with your bare hands. Your hands are mud, fingers glued to each other in solid lumps. You start trying to make a pile out of the cobbles, moving around in the semi dark amid spillages and encrustations, like something unbelievable glimpsed under a microscope.
You think of the life you used to live, up there in the light, before you came downstairs. Coffee, music, visitors, Japanese temple incense, oh I think I’ll throw a pot. That was upstairs. Down here life is simpler and starker, and a lot dirtier.
The pug mill is a device for de-airing and homogenising clay. If you didn’t know what it was you might think it was a late Victorian kitchen utensil, possibly deployed in mass catering to the military, or an orphanage; or is it something salvaged off a cold war Russian submarine: most of it is taken up by a great big barrel gruffly bolted together. It’s got a brass screw inside turned by a motor. It’s got a hopper on the top with a lever you depress to compress the old clay, and the recycled clay comes out the end of the barrel in a dense tuberous length that you have to slice off with a wire and stack, rhythmically, like someone shovelling coal or bailing water. You panic a bit, sometimes.
Working with the clay at this level seems a long way from the work of making pots, selling pots, producing, consuming or promoting ‘ceramics’ – but it’s a crucial part of the process. It’s all about the clay’s journey – you almost don’t think of individual pots as simply discrete and finished any more. Part of you sees clay on its way from one state to another. You’ve intervened, and made some shapes with it. But everything moves.
Upstairs you have a large lump of red stoneware to throw, and customers, and a life to try to figure out.
Speaking of recycling, we attended the climate strike march in Edinburgh on Friday. There were thousands of people there, and it was good to participate in such a necessary moment – Greta Thunberg is unafraid of speaking truth to power, and has focussed so much of the timely, fierce good that abides in people. She reminds me of a medieval child saint, and I sometimes fear for her. I hope she is as strong as she seems and has some good people around her. I certainly admire her myself.
We’re entering that part of the year – my favourite part as it happens – which is rich with ritual moments. Halloween, Bonfire Night, Midwinter, Christmas. This weekend we hit the autumnal equinox, when day and night are of equal length, and the sun’s annual pathway, called the ecliptic, intersects with the celestial equator. In astronomical terms it marks the beginning of autumn, which lasts until the winter solstice.
I was cycling home thinking about magic. Not ritual magic, but rather the everyday magic of being open to the world, willing to step into your own life and let it unfold, the magic of being in the right place at the right time, and as I thought this, I saw a badger, moving around in the grass on the edge of the cycle path. At first I thought the grey sack of his body was the fat hairy cat I see there from time to time, then he lifted his burglar’s mask into the light from a street lamp. He didn’t seem to mind me stopping and watching him – three feet away – while he foraged. It was the badger equivalent of rummaging in the fridge at 11pm, which is exactly what I did when I got in.