I will be firing the anagama beginning March 26. Hopefully at this time next week, I will have finished loading, bricked in the door, had a personal conversation with the kiln god, and will have lit the gas burner (pre-heating use only) some hours previously. I’ll sit there relaxing with a cup of hot cocoa, alone in the stillness of deep night (even the kiln’s cats will be sleeping), and think on the coming days and past firings.
Getting there isn’t easy with a todo list as long as my arm. Some random items: make wadding | fill the propane tanks | get new wheelbarrow | trim dead grass around endou and chimney | finish preparing wood | buy food for the firing … oh yeah, schedule labor.
On this much truncated list, that last item is the most difficult. It’s a snap to get people to work Friday or Saturday night. I could get dozens of hands, so many that people would be tripping over each other and worse: semi-partying. When the stokers party, the kiln is neglected. Firing an anagama isn’t about drinking beer and chatting. It is about diligent servitude to the kiln. What I really need is people to stoke from about 10 am – 5 pm from March 29 through April 2nd or 3rd. I need that shift covered so I can sleep.
If I can’t sleep at least five hours per day of the firing, I won’t make it. Now, I will say that sleep deprivation induced hallucinations are beautiful, but when I have progressed to that stage, I have at most 12 hours before my body involuntarily quits.
I was going to talk about all the things I have to do. I’d rather talk about the hallucinations.
The singing is indescribable. I remember so clearly the first time I heard it. Dawn was just about to break and the fields around the kiln were bathed in dim silvery light — the light that comes before even the first glint of gold sun crests the mountains to the east. Drifting with the morning mists off the small lake behind the kiln, I heard the faintest wisps of music unearthly in its beauty. I looked out over the fields, vainly attempting to locate the singer — if I could find her direction, I could walk toward her and truly hear her voice. I was enraptured but frustrated because hard as I might try, she eluded all attempts at location.
At last my eyes settled on the campstove and more to the point, the tea kettle sitting atop a lit burner. It wasn’t whistling — I had started it only a few minutes before — but it was making the first faint sounds water makes as it begins to heat. In that moment I realized that there was no heavenly being singing an ethereal melody, but even as I finally realized the truth, I still felt … still feel … as if a divine creature was singing to me. This is hard to explain — I know it was only a trick of my mind, but it felt so real that I wouldn’t have been surprised to meet her. Even today, I feel as if she was out there, an elusive unreal yet tangible siren.
The firing continued. Eventually, I was dozing off between stokes. Stoke, dream for five minutes, wake, get wood, stoke, dream, wake, get wood ……
Dreams and waking intermixed so deeply that keeping them segregated was futile. The dreams were like visions, resplendent, cloaked in vivid colors using palettes that don’t exist. I can recall only one, but it instantly and permanently affected me. Unfortunately, it was about slugs.
Awake, I dreamed that I turned over a log and saw a ball of slugs squirming about like snakes. They were moving fast with the supple yet disturbing fluid motion snakes possess. With a feeling of revulsion in the pit of my stomach, I lifted the log I had in my hand, round end pointed at the writhing ball of slugs, intent on squishing them into a slimy paste. As I was about to strike, someone stopped me, explained that slugs are amazingly beneficial for the environment and that I shouldn’t harm them.
In that instant, I gained a profound love of slugs. When I looked back at the slugs — I suddenly saw them as graceful and beautiful creatures. To this day, if I see a slug in a place hazardous to its wellbeing, I will gently move the slug to a safe location. I have rescued countless slugs from hikers’ treads by transporting them from the center of a trail to the side. I look carefully at logs that have been on the ground before splitting them so I can save any slugs from the chopping block. Slugs really are “graceful and beautiful creatures”. I know it deep in my heart in a way beyond rational knowledge.
That really says it. If you don’t have enough labor to get enough sleep during an anagama firing, the experience will change your life … and in ways you don’t get to choose. I became a slugophile for life in my first firing.
Although I miss the hallucinations when I do have enough labor, it really is better for the kiln and my own mental health to get enough sleep.
And all joking aside, don’t be mean to slugs.