Brother Daniel, of Taize

A Secret Shared

translated from the French
by Brother Anthony, of Taize

Part Four. Creation: Victory over Chaos

Stoneware potters, in particular those of us who are passionately interested in inventing our own glazes, are endlessly reflecting on our relationship with nature, for it is nature which gives us all our raw materials, as well as the water and fire which serve as the agents of their transformation. But what always remains most striking in this meditation is the feeling, sometimes happy, sometimes apprehensive, that we have on finding ourselves invested with the role of Master of Revels in a world of Metamorphosis.

This feeling is most apparent when standing in a quarry, whether one producing clay or rocks. There I find myself challenged by a superabundance of minerals, and although I only carry away, perhaps, a tiny quantity, it seems to be calling out in provocation, or maybe supplication: "Get me out of this chaos, give me an identity, work me (I am plentiful, really), I am always good for something (there is hidden treasure within)!"

Chaos! Certainly that is how a quarry often looks, whether it is being exploited for ballast, or for cement, glass, or ceramic production. A mountain-side ripped open, the rockface hacked by bulldozers or blown apart by dynamite, mounds of rubble, embankments, heaps of gravel or sand, dust everywhere. And if it rains, all the dust turns into rivers of mud. So especially in the clay quarry, no matter where you look, from the pools full of reeds and frogs to the banks of compacted earth, you find yourself confronted with every possible combination of the two elements. Those in charge are obliged to take strict measures in operating their machines over surfaces that you never know for sure whether they are going to carry you or swallow you up.

Yet beyond this chaos that first strikes the eye, there lies another, less obvious confusion, whose role as stimulus is decisive in the creation of pottery.

It is something that I experience each time anew, whenever I go prospecting a new deposit spotted on a map, or when I try to identify a rock with the aid of my textbooks. There I note a discrepancy between what I find and what the books or the geological maps say. And if I happen to be able to obtain an analysis of my specimens, the discrepancy becomes even more flagrant. That rock, or rock dust (blessings on the rock-crushers!), which in the books seemed quite simple, with a splendid name accompanied by so clear a formula, turns out in the indiscreet spectrograph to be of an incredible complexity. True, the rock indicated takes up the lion's share, but it is accompanied by a whole host of other minerals which, while they may be secondary or negligible for a geologist, are not so for the potter's fire. And you can bet your last button that a specimen taken only twenty yards away will reveal a roughly similar composition, perhaps, for the oxides present, but differing significantly in the proportions.

Geological metamorphoses, and the shifting of surfaces, mess up all our systems of classification, so that the mineralogist is obliged to name only rocks of fairly simple composition. The result is that, while the industrial quarryman, with his limited objectives, feels threatened by such natural anarchy, and is ready to give up the exploitation of any deposit that turns out to depart too far from the norms required, the seeker of new glazes comes alive at the sight of this chaos, which offers him as many new possibilities as it provides him with varieties of unnamed minerals.

Now I am going to have to intervene in the superabundance of this confusion, where I am offered all that goes to make up the thousand and one paths of the ceramic art, jumbled together higgledy-piggledy; what deep inner sense is going to guide me here?

Once again, it is the observation of nature that seems determined to guide my steps. Plants were exploiting the subsoil long before humanity began to do so; what I find in their ashes are the remains of their mining efforts. Vegetable ashes have always offered the potter an alternative, indirect source of raw materials! But by reason of its having passed through the biological sphere, such ash bears a very special mark, for it is characterized in every case by the mineral selection that is proper to each family of plants, and even to each specific part of each plant. This phenomenon of natural selection becomes most strikingly obvious when I observe this or that quarry at various moments of the year. In the early springtime, all the slopes and piles of rock that are the least bit sandy are studded with little yellow coltsfoot. Later, towards the end of June, the purple foxglove and the rose bay willow herb can be found, growing in profuse colonies where each plant reproduces exactly all the others, no matter how the ground beneath them may vary chemically. That is precisely the point that strikes me: each plant employs a selective function tending towards the creation of coherent organisms. There is a corollary, too, apparent at least to more sensitive eyes, found in each plant's utter beauty. I have the impression that here I put my finger on a kind of definition of what I myself am doing as a potter: this selective and creative function is that of life itself, life which tends to achieve in humanity its fullest expression.

Yet between plants and people there are considerable differences! The fibres uniting me with the mineral realm are quite other than roots, and I am not limited by the determinism of a particular species reproducing itself. That means that I am free, in my creative activity, to give birth to objects that no eye has ever seen, although they are part of nature by their raw materials and the processes of metamorphosis those materials undergo. This is the reason why a thousand and one ceramic responses are possible. Yet I feel that my freedom is a directed freedom, in the sense that my creative activity must never work backwards, in the direction of chaos.

That is not necessarily automatically so. If I return once more to my quarries, I have to admit that they are powerfully fascinating, seductive by the might of the rocks lying there in their broken masses, with all their subtle nuances of color, the flowers growing along the faults, the mosaic of cracks in the dried mud, all those "accidents" where nature seems to enjoy working on herself, sometimes in a most avant-garde style! There is then an ever-present temptation to take the palette as the model, especially on days when I grow weary of the modern age's artifice and the spectacle of nature seems to offer a quite sufficient antidote!

Chaos is ambivalent; it is the necessary preamble to all creation, but it is also capable of hindering it. What it all comes down to is that I have to keep discovering again how, as I work with nature, I am constantly sent back to myself, with the question, "Who are you? And as a human being, what are you going to make of me? I offer myself to you in all my beauty, to be used for your creative plans, for your victory over my chaos!"


Tile, under snow,
what memories of fire?

Waiting together
on the alder branches:
catkins and icicles.

The hare has the snow,
the potter his clay:
two biographers.

That blackbird
has eaten a pear,
but it is the cold
that makes her swell!

Pots that fail,
pots that succeed:
the same attentive work.

Who can turn the tit
on its back?
I can, said Death.

You and I, my pots,
will enter Eternity
as potsherds!

There, in the Museum:
a Sung pot
that failed!

So very similar: a pit dug
to bury the dead,
to plant a tree.

My pots
must look after themselves:
I cannot speak or write!

It's New Year's Day!
Will the aspen release
its mistletoe balloons?

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