Sunday, January 10, 2010

Stoneware Potter Talks About Rocks

I keep thinking about posting this....and then my smarter "why-post-it?" angel sits on my shoulder and asks"why post it?"

But tonight my other angel (sitting on my opposite shoulder. I conveniently have two shoulders for just such angelic polemic) has my ear and so I'm going to tell you. Okay, no big deal. Just maybe you'd get a kick out of it. Anyway, I get to type out stuff on this blog and post it for, like, totally free and stuff, so it doesn't even have to have any redeeming value (good thing, that).

At one time I was thinking about starting to write a story (or something like a story). I didn't really have any idea where the story was going to go as a story. It had no plot. It had no reason for the writing. Quite possibly that's the reason it never got written. But it had about a dozen or so vignettes that I really liked.

One such vignette I got from combining the stories of two friends of mine. One was an orchard man. The other was a guy named Doug Noreen.

I met Doug during his incarnation as a Shaker reproduction furniture maker. But I soon found out (as I got to know him) that he'd made a considerable "fortune" by inventing/engineering (as I remember it) some kind of underwater mining machine. But, no matter how successful, Doug didn't love his life as an engineer.

So Doug started making reproduction furniture and, before long, settled in the pastoral countryside near Shipshewana, IN -- one of the country's biggest Amish centers. He bought several hundred acres and, way back in the back of one section -- tucked discreetly behind a hardwood stand -- he started to build his family a log house.

Anyway, in Doug's endeavor to build the log house, he learned from the neighbors how to take the huge granite boulders left by the recession of the ice at the end of the Ice Age, and that year after year worked their way up to the surface in the fields and were discarded all along the windrows ..... he learned to take those boulders and, sometimes by sledge and chisel, and sometimes by fire and water, bust those huge suckers into manageable material to make the foundation of his log house.

When I first saw the log house, the Noreens had just spent the first winter living in it -- living in the stone basement. In the BEAUTIFUL hand-cut granite stone basement. Doug hadn't just learned to bust up the boulders. Doug had learned to cut that granite into very regular variations of squared-off blocks, and with those squared-off blocks, had mortared up a beautiful, subtly colorful foundation. He had finished that part of the house the previous autumn, covered it with the decking that would become the house's sub-flooring, and had further covered that with plastic sheeting. It had made them a wonderful, weather-tight winter house.

Two years later I went up to visit Doug and the log house was then complete. Yeah, Doug had taught himself how to hand-hew the logs and finish the corners into tidy dovetailed joints. He put everything he had into everything he did.

Anyway, Doug told me about how he worked the biggest, least manageable boulders -- the ones that he could only see the very tops of, but that extended far into the earth. He said that he'd un-dig them and haul them as much to the surface as he could. He'd then stack LOTS of firewood around them and get a long-burning fire going around them. When they were sufficiently heated through, he would pour water over them. The stress from expansion and sudden contraction split the huge rock, sometimes in half, sometimes in more pieces.

Next part of this story that never got written:

Then I had another friend tell me about his walnut stand -- a hand-planted "orchard" of walnut trees. He was (as he told it) planting his grandkid's retirement. I once played around with a bit of verse that reflected such forward thinking ... I don't remember it exactly, but it was something like...

In your twenties, plant oaks.
In your thirties, plant maples.
In your forties, plant poplars,
In your fifties, plant pines.
In your sixties, plant oaks with your grandkids.

Anyway, I'd gotten the next idea for this narrative that never got written from talking to this walnut grove guy. I thought it such a transcendent idea that he'd be planting a "crop" that he'd never harvest ......... and, further, that he had in mind his progeny. Impacted me, it did.

Anyway, when I saw this walnut stand, the trees and the rocks came together in my mind. No, I don't know why.

See, the walnut stand is, in some ways, not a terribly impressive or beautiful picture. Not like a wild and natural forest. It's purposely somewhat sparse where foliage is concerned because the higher the umbrella of foliage, the more useful lumber grows beneath.

But there are a few cool things about such a walnut stand. One of those cool (to me) things is the straight rows of a man-made "forest". It just struck me as interesting. Animated. I could walk in the rows and feel as though I was enclosed by walls.

Or I could walk laterally across the rows and have the feeling of walking through those walls. And when I walked thus across the rows, there was an ever-so-slight sensation like one gets watching the "running fields" that one first notices as a child riding around the countryside -- a passenger in the folk's car. Anywhere the rows of the field run perpendicular to the road on which Dad's driving, those rows appear to be "running" beside the car.

And this particular walnut stand was planted on a slight hill, such that I could look up the length of a row of trees and see clearly to a horizon line. That completed this vision I had of this story that I never wrote.

I thought about a family settling on this property and one of the first things done (by this family that thinks ahead) is to put in a walnut grove. And this walnut grove is planted (as the one I saw) on the side of a hill so that the horizon could be seen up between the rows.

And the man of the family (later to be the grandfather of the family) had built the house -- including the stone foundation. And while gathering and working the boulders for this foundation, he had the unusual happen -- an irregularly pointed boulder split virtually in half.

So, sappy sentimentalist that I am, I had the guy take one half of the boulder and position it, point up, at one end of one of the rows of the Walnut stand. He then took the other half and placed it at the horizon end of the same row in the walnut stand. And here was to be the sappy part: The two boulder's upturned points would line up with exactly where the sun rose every year on the anniversary of their wedding.

I think it never got written because, unlike Thomas Kinkade, I can tell (I hope) when I've painted my house a little too close to the creek.


  1. Great story. Good beginning/rough draft. It would be interesting to see what you could do with this if you drilled deep into the motivations one has to spend time with stubborn heavy materials like boulders, or learning how to work with what's on one's land.

    I spend a fair amount of time working with raw materials of all kinds, not just clay. I always feel like an effort shouldn't be so high on my priority list of tasks, but there is something to the challenge ordering my universe. Be it digging up a boulder or splitting firewood.

  2. hi john, any story about trees is good with me. my godfather had an apple orchard (peaches too) in central ny and we spent many a summer day amongst the trees all in a row like you describe. my sister bought the orchard after he died and i thought how great for it to remain in the family but she got divorced and it had to be sold. it is still behind my aunts house and i saw it at thanksgiving (in a sad state as orchards go, but a natural state nonetheless). my uncle (godfather) loved trees and i think he actually like nut trees better. he planted a large stand of butternut trees up behind his house (butternut is close to walnut and the wood is prized by some carvers). when he was still alive and the stand was about 4 years old, i actually got one of the trees and drove it to kentucky and planted it in my backyard... sadly, as with the orchard, it did not survive more than 4 more years. my uncle was a machinist by trade and at the time of his death was tinkering working on a universal nutcracker that would open anything from a hickory nut to a coconut. the prototypes were great fun to play with. this idea i believe generated by the fact that cracking butternuts is counterintuitive and not many people realize this as they try to crack them like walnuts. well, enough rambling, great post, very evocative

  3. Michael,

    Thanks for taking the time to both read my (very lengthy -- I'm just not the jot-a-quick-note kinda guy) post, and to comment on it.

    I've often wondered similar things -- why some of us have the urge to modify our surroundings to a much greater degree than others. Especially when it often involves some real effort.

    I came ---><---- this close to posting to your "Looking and Seeing" post on the 5th of January. I had just photographed my dog, Breeze, pulling my wife (on a dogsled) across a snow-covered harvested bean field. When I showed the photo to a friend, his comment was that if I edited out dog, woman, and sled, the snow covered bean stubble looked just like the Declaration of Independence. He was right. And your photo essay echoed the sentiment of finding things in the snow so coincidentally as to be remarkable.


    I've always been drawn to the visual of orchards. It's an amazing mix of wild with order.

    I even wrote a song that I just couldn't bring myself to finish, the theme of which was orchard lore too.

    The song was about the "straights" and the "twisteds" of an apple grower's life...

    We prune the straight branches to give more energy to the twisted, fruit-bearing branches...but we plant the trees in rows so that maintaining them is easier.

    We then take the straight roads to market -- the shortest, quickest way to ensure the freshest fruit....but we enjoy the twisted scenic route home, enjoying the great rest that follows hard work.

    We like the straight truth...but, God, how we enjoy a crooked tale.

    The theme was kinda like that.