Brother Daniel, of Taize

A Secret Shared

translated from the French
by Brother Anthony, of Taize

Part Three : The Gousseau glaze

It all goes back to the days when the chain-saw, dubbed "Queen of the Forest" by the posters you could see stuck on dozens of barn doors, had not yet brought tumbling the last of her subjects -- oaks, beeches, or hornbeams, all of them too slow in growing for the needs of an age famished for paper.

Today, our countryside is growing ever darker with conifers. Planted close together in neat lines, they cast a sterilizing gloom, where the only things that grow are ghostly mushrooms that have learned to do without sunshine. In ten years time these trees will be books, papers, or posters. Only the branches will be burned on the spot. Which means that there is still hope for the potter, but the Gousseau glaze of AD 2000 will not be what it was ten years ago. A glaze of oak and a glaze of pine are two very different things, like Beaujolais and Bordeaux in wines. Ashes too have superior vintages.

As I was beginning to discover pottery, I quickly came to the conclusion that the living heart of the craft bore the name Metamorphosis, a metamorphosis that was all the more fascinat- ing because it involved a passing from formlessness to form, from a substance that was in some sense 'base' to one that was noble. And if really ashes, in which living organisms were reduced to almost nothing, could be brought back to the world of light once more, then I might find in them a kind of master-symbol of that metamorphosis, the potter's most private dream come true.

It was from someone who was visiting my workshop that I first happened to hear the little magic phrase, "There's a potter in England who glazes his pots with ashes..." The words slipped into my mind like a cat beside the stove. The speaker, a potter himself, had gone on to add, "It's a difficult technique, it doesn't always work." But there are words that are hot enough to burn away the surrounding comments.

Bernard Leach's Potter's Book had not yet reached us across the Channel, and Pierre Piganiol had not yet enabled me to discover Palissy's "Complete Works." Then one day, years later, the Belgian potter Antoine de Vinck passed me a copy of his own translation of the chapter in Leach devoted to glazes, and the little phrase woke up, stretched, and waited for me to set it to work and show what it could do.

It was a good moment. The workshop had just been equipped with one of the first gas- fired kilns for high temperatures. I was about to change from faience to stoneware, which meant I would have to invent a whole new gamut of glazes, with none but the most rudimentary means at my disposal.

Just at that time, the woodcutters were hard at work in their different parts of the forest up on the hills opposite, burning those pieces of wood that would not fit into their piles of logs or bundles of firewood. From the workshop window, I could see little columns of blue smoke rising at regular intervals straight into the still, late winter sky.

I got together, then, my gold-hunter's gear: a spade, a mason's sieve, and some plastic garbage-bags. But I had no way of knowing that, upon my arrival in the Forest of Gousseau, I would encounter two characters perfectly embodying the two opposing poles of the word 'ash': death, and renewal.

Some of the fires had already grown cold. Luckily we were in a dry period, no snow or rain had fallen, and there was no wind. I set to work. My sieve held back a good share of the less desirable materials: scraps of charcoal and baked earth, the wire skeletons of the old tires that had served to get the blaze going, the sardine can or the chicken bones from the wood-cutter's lunch. Kneeling on the fire-hardened ground, I was carefully harvesting my mounds of ash when I heard from behind me the sound of hastening steps, followed by broken phrases that were hard to understand, the voice was so stifled by rage. "... empty your bag. Get out of here... those are my ashes, you hear, mine... go and buy your fertilizer somewhere else; you're well enough off, and I've got nothing, nothing at all..." I realized that the best thing was to withdraw without insisting, and as I was going, I heard him proclaim, as if it were an overwhelming title of honor, "I'm a disaster-victim, I am, a disaster-victim!"

Being a novice as far as harvesting ashes in public forests was concerned, I had not imagined that you might have to have some kind of special permission! I knew that in the old days people had used ashes to wash clothes with, and I had just learned that those same ashes could be used to fertilize the soil, but in our age of super-phosphates, I had reckoned that these last remains were certain to remain lying on the ground, abandoned by everyone but the potter. Besides, in the course of my woodland walks, I had often noticed the circular mounds where a certain kind of moss, alone among all the plants of the forest, grew over rain-sodden mounds of ash, draping them with pale green fronds, not unlike Palissy's salicorne in its alkaline hunger. But here, at least, I must have been mistaken. Quickly gathering together my tools, unwitting accomplices in my theft, I prepared to leave the clearing empty-handed and not a little humiliated.

Just then I saw the second character of my strange adventure approaching, a tall man, ruddy faced, holding in his hands a cap like the one you see the peasant holding in Millet's "Angelus." This monument of modesty addressed me in a deep, very gentle voice, slightly bombastic: "I believe, if I am not very much mistaken, that I have the pleasure of greeting..." and so on. Then, gesturing towards the other fellow, who was now disappearing among the surrounding trees, "Don't you let him bother you. He's a poor wretch, his house burned down and it's turned his wits. Why don't you come over into my area, there's plenty of ashes there. But if it's not being indiscreet, might I ask for what purpose you intend to use them?" After hearing my explanation, which seemed to interest him intensely, the giant went on, "In that case I'd be delighted to set aside the ashes from my stove for you. I've always thrown them away until now, except for the pan-full my wife uses to slow down the cooling of her biggest glass pendants..."

Yes, I had heard him aright, glass pendants! That detail, and the husband's generosity, meant that I was duly invited home, and there everything more than matched my expectations. I had never realized it before, but in a nearby village lived one of France's last traditional enamelers. If I had ever stopped there at the roadside just opposite the baker's, I might have noticed, squeezed between a pane of glass and a lace curtain, a cardboard box holding a few necklaces, brooches, some rings...

She had a child's gaze, with eyes blue as her sapphires. For Madeleine, such was her name, the stones she produced at the focus of a triple blow-torch were as real as the strong tress of white hair that framed her angelic face. She kept company with gems: moonstones, tiger's eye, opal, or chrysoprase were as familiar to her as the flowers in her garden.

Seventy years old, she sensed at once what dreams might emerge from my ashes. "We have the same job," she said, "only you cover clay with your jewels!"

After that first visit, her husband became a scrupulous supplier of ash for my glazes. He spent a large part of his time working in the woods, to keep himself busy in his retirement, and as a way of taking exercise. From that moment on, he began to pick and choose among the brushwood, the shorter branches and top-pieces of the tall trees, that the woodcutters had left behind. Oak to one side, hornbeam to the other. But sometimes the retired policeman would find himself obliged to burn whole mounds of twigs without being able to classify them precisely, and I found myself obliged to reassure him and his wife that the mythological moonstone, or a celadon glaze, might very well lie hidden in the most mixed of brushwoods. In actual fact, with the ashes of that brushwood we brought to birth a glaze we called the Gousseau glaze; in those days Gousseau was all deciduous, soon it will be all pinewood.

Since then I have had other suppliers, some regular, some occasional, who have brought me the ashes of a large variety of botanic families. A horticulturalist, for instance, bitterly regretted having thrown away the cuttings from his rose bushes in the years preceding his first visit to my workshop, so certain he was that the ashes of rose-bushes metamorphosed must surely have yielded rubies! Or that couple who brought a bale of straw hundreds of miles across frontiers, tied to the roof of their car, because they were afraid they would not know the ideal way of burning it for me at home. Then that cabinet-maker with his mahogany ashes destined to introduce into my glazes something of the delights of the virgin forest. To say nothing of someone patiently saving used tea-leaves to clothe a ceremonial tea-bowl in the purest Japanese tradition...

Such is the fascination of ashes, once they no longer proclaim the ultimate abolition, but announce instead a future promise, previously inconceivable. The imagination is immensely stimulated by this discovery of the possibility of a Metamorphosis freed of the risks of any kind of half-and-half; indeed, it may even loose its way and go wandering off beyond the realms of possibility.

Almost everyone seems to share this fascination, from the most experienced potter to the least informed amateur! Why should this be? Are we faced with a return, or a new version, of the myth of the Phoenix? But in the case of the fabulous Phoenix, the ashes of the dead bird never gave birth to anything other than the same Phoenix, so that the new beginning is nothing more than an annihilation of death in favor of what existed previously. Whereas our transposition of vegetable ashes offers a quite different symbolism. What seems most astonishing is the fact that the choice of minerals that each plant makes as it grows, by the necessity of its biology, is always capable of becoming a form of glaze. The mutation is strange indeed, from one realm to another: one living, the other inert, realms that owe their existence to laws that apparently have nothing in common. There is nothing in the appearance of a glaze to remind us of the meadow out of which its materials grew. No sign in these iron-based blues of the maple or hawthorn that begot them. Yet it is the presence of a continuity in this passage from one reality to one quite other that is so captivating and wonderful, open as it is to interpretation as a new form of symbol.

If most of us seem to share a quite natural wish to begin a new existence after our death, a new existence that goes at least a little bit beyond our previous life, is it not because, much deeper and underlying that depth out of which comes the wish, there is an unreasoning hope alive within us that we shall suddenly become, "as if by fire", all at once and for ever nothing less than that quite other reality? Quite other, and yet not a stranger, a new reality that would somehow preserve within itself the transfigured impress of that body which was the bearer of our initial life.

A glaze is a glaze, at the antipodes of any plant. Yet the elements of the plant, those at least that were not destined to drift off as smoke, are present within it; the tissue of relationships is different, of course, but present nonetheless. And for the potter, there is another aspect of that "impress" that comes quite naturally to mind, though it is hardly a rational idea, through the experience of firing the kiln.

The flame only preserves the basic minerals of the plant, so that we seem to be moving away from life into a process of sterilization and mineralization. Yet is it too far-fetched to say that the agitation, or rather the dance of particles that becomes increasingly intense as the temperature rises, that the crisscrossing of atoms separating and regrouping according to new affinities in an intense vibration, might in the end be assimilated to a new biology that echoes the life of the plant: a biology that is not restored but likewise transfigured?

Enough of that! As the Bible says, "The potter is not found among the makers of proverbs." But privately at least, I do not hesitate to tell myself that the metamorphosis of ashes into glaze is a token of the Resurrection, rather than a recall of the rebirth of the Phoenix.


blue with cold:
the autumn crocus.

My pots always go
into the fire.

Slowly the oxen plough
the Hercynian fields.
Field mice panic.

fresh from my hands,
my pots!
No, I will not drop you!

How busy the swallows flit,
noting on the lines
their farewell songs.

A grey-tit on a sunflower,
a chaffinch on an amaranth,
and me on my wheel.

the crimson creeper
dies of beauty.

Expecting a treasure,
I emptied my kiln.
I knead fresh clay.

Rain falls shapeless,
but in the undergrowth
mushrooms swell.

What would you be, vase,
if it weren't for me?
The same to you, potter!

Chrysanthemums lie dead
on the rubbish heap.
Who will deck their tombs?

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