“Raku is this far from being impossible” says Bjorn Schie, indicating with his thumb and forefinger a tiny gap. Bjorn -a Norwegian- born former seaman who took up pottery in Australia – led a raku day at our place on Sunday attended by some local potters and some from afar. He is a man of many stories, a published author (on atheism) and against the odds made a living from both potting and teaching pottery. He has conducted raku workshops all over Victoria and internationally for school and community groups – in fact I think he’d travel anywhere to do a raku firing such is his passion for the art. Accompanying him on our day was Peta Loback -herself an experienced potter who made the day flow smoothly.
Raku itself is a Japanese tradition which became popularised by Americans after WW2 and is exciting, unpredictable, dramatic and social. It involves throwing pots with raku clay, bisque firing and then glazing before firing in a small kiln to 1000 deg C.
The popular part involves (more or less) instant firing (say 20-30 mins per load) before the more dramatic part of removal and plunging into a reducing medium (with flames) where the oxygen is eliminated and colours form from the reduction process. The pot is then immersed into water to set.
Its part alchemy, part skill, part luck and hugely entertaining. And immensely tiring as we found a day later.
Persian Blue glaze
The sunny weekend commenced on Saturday with the building of the kiln, plumbing in the gas, setting up reduction bins, pre-mixing glazes, and test firing of the kiln. Peta, Gayl and I assisted Bjorn to be ready for the firing day. Sunday was busy with the mixing and painting of glazes, warming and firing of pots, social chatter on all aspects of ceramics (and Nordic culture eh Neil -Bjorn said he learnt a few things about his homeland), wine drinking, food sharing and lots of laughter.
Some 2 hours after lighting, the kiln was cherry hot and a suitable array of pots and mini sculptures were stacking up on top of the kiln -ready for firing. Bjorn was initially feeding the kiln but passed this task on to me while he took on general overseer duties. I then took the title of “Tongman” – a daunting task as I precariously passed peoples treasured pots both into and out of the inferno with a pair of tongs.
Gayl has been concentrating more on hand built pots lately. From an initial wheel base she forms the terracotta pots into a basic shape and then adds layer after layer of clay. slowly paddling them into bellied-out pots. Its a painstaking process as the layers must remain at the same plasticity……..which involves putting them into a drying cupboard to dry a bit or conversely covering them in plastic if the temperature threatens to dry the layers out differentially.
On completion of the shape, a pattern or decoration is added (in this case Kurrajong leaves) and Shellac and other techniques are used to make different textural surfaces. The pots are then bisque fired in the gas kiln to approximately 1000 deg C, and then readied for sawdust firing to obtain the smoky carbon effect. The sawdust firing involves collecting loads of horse manure and sawdust from adjacent farms, drying it out without causing instantaneous combustion (raking, covering etc) and then stacking it around the pots in the separate brick kiln. In this example, the pot was fired once but gave little effect on the top. We fired it again upside down and got what we wanted on the top, but managed to burn off the bottom effect. Three times lucky ie without cracking, we fired it once more to obtain a better overall marking. The final pot is then cleaned up, waxed and polished. Voila!
This one entered in the current Man From Snowy River Arts exhibition.
Sawdust fired pot
Working through another hot summer period, I’m reminded of the resilience we’ve learnt by living on our property. It’s a natural part of living in tune with your environment rather than trying to control that environment and is part of the makeup of most country folk. There’s a sense of principled determination in seeing through your vision and philosophy of life. Its probably what separates those lifestylers who try a rural change and eventually find the going too tough and ultimately unmanageable.
Lately the run of 40 plus days has been relentless and has meant changes to our lifestyle. Working early and late, managing the house to accommodate the oppressive weather, hand watering long established orchards, looking after animals, keeping a constant vigil for fire and having to keep mechanical and other systems working in trying circumstances all test your mettle to varying degrees. Although there is a (rainless) change passing over tonight, there are more hot days coming and this can be very dispiriting for those under any or all of the above pressures. We have our own ways of dealing with these matters…….I tend to imagine the now brown paddocks and dry bush with their first flush of green growth after the autumn break.
Three days ago, as we enjoyed refuge in the cooler house after early morning spraying, we heard a loud slithering sound above us in the kitchen ceiling. This was distinctly different from the odd blue tongue lizzard sound and was clearly a snake of some variety. We were under a tight timeframe to leave the property and meet someone at a pre-arranged time and would not be back til late. How did the snake get into the roof space? Could it find its way into the house while we were gone? Would we return to an unwelcome surprise? Henry Lawson short story re-visited. Suddenly we were racing around in 42 deg heat, plugging up all those various ceiling holes and spaces that we’d been meaning to fix for the past few years. We left with the snake still moving constantly across the ceiling above us. We returned that night and tentatively moved around the house………..no ceiling sound. Next day the dead animal smell told the sad tale of our roof intruder (lured there no doubt by the promise of a rodent feed). We endured the next few hot days with the house closed up for the cool but with wafting smells of dead snake permeating the air.
Yesterday we noticed the end of another brown snake disappearing off the balcony wisteria toward the ground. Had it made its way from the roof? Was this the route to the ceiling? I doubt we’ll ever know but we’re determined to now fill those gaps.
At last! …some reprieve from an unprecendented record week of very hot weather with 6 consecutive days over 40deg C (max of 44). We suddenly have a more “normal” summer day of some 32 deg and it seems cool by comparison.Thankfully through all this heat, an evening coolness spreads through the place and seeps down the hills, offering a restful nights sleep. It lowers the temperature of the house mass and if the house is closed up in the morning, it remains cool through the day.
We’ve been feeling a bit of cabin fever towards the end of this spell, initially working outside from 6am and in by noon to do inside work. However the continuing heat towards the end had us unable and unwilling to travel freely around the property for fear of starting a fire. This meant spending all available time on our fire prevention works, which was a worthwhile task in itself -2 new window screens made, vegetation pruned and raked away from house, pumps and tanks primed and now fire protected, fire plan revised, plastic plumbing fittings changed to galvanised etc.
The fire plan got a good workout when a reported grass fire (lightning strike) some 5 kms away was reported over the CFA pager . We immediately went into fire mode and enacted our plan, not knowing whether the fire was under control or not (it was covered quickly by the local brigade). This really was a blessing in disguise as it highlighted some deficiencies in our plan which we’ve now corrected.
Not so fortunate was a local friend who suffered a complete loss of his merino breeding stock and all pasture in a fire started by lightning strike. At least he saved his home (and skin). We watched anxiously from our hill the same evening two nights ago as brilliant bolts of lightning hit the ground kilometres away….eventually starting a number of fires over the district.
The weeks intense focus on fire and its consequence has led me to think more about the prospect of personal and home protective measures and their design. It is in line with our own philosophy of self building of simple dwellings with natural materials ….more especially earth covered buildings with great thermal properties and fire resistence.
Hot windy day today. Forcast for the week ahead is temps in the 40’s. Taking refuge from the heat of the (mid)day, we have now updated our fire plan to account for new and changing circumstances. We have written the plan as if to inform a possible visitor here who is unfamiliar with the place and routines. Our essential plan is to stay and take refuge in the house and make it as well prepared as possible to defend. On extreme days we may be encouraged to depart early for a picnic day in the local town (30 kms) or Murray River (7 kms). Both these destinations are not without their own difficulties ie travelling 30 km or taking shelter at a camp spot (albeit it next to the river).
Our Fire Plan encompass contacts, location of resources, refuge detail and pre and going-fire procedures. We have increased our fire resources over the past few years with separate water pumps and independent supplies for each of us to fight fire, fire screens for windows and verandah sprinkler system. Visiting a well prepared property recently (previously burnt out), we picked up a few extra preparedness hints and were encouraged by the owner to stick to our original plan (with some additions). We now aim to make fire covers for our pumps, fire resistant skylight covers, more window screens and safer refuge detail.