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surface clays: good clean dirt

updated fri 10 dec 04


primalmommy on wed 8 dec 04

We spent the evening lifting roof rafters up onto the walls of our
addition-under-construction. It has taken a long time to build, because
a) we have done every bit of it ourselves, b) we have only the vaguest
notion of what we are doing, and c) we only get to work a few hours a

When we dug the trench, I found lots of clay. I put it in buckets, added
water, used the drill mixer to make soup, then poured it through a
window screen into a plaster trough.

At ^06 (I put it in with my stoneware bisque) it is a lovely, bright
bricky orange terra cotta, almost but not quite mature. I am using it to
make little oddities, tiny pots, goddesses and mojo, beads and doodads.
I am making a little wall shrine to hang in the new addition when it's
done, using clay from the trench, moounted on the deep salmon-orange
clapboard cedar siding I am pulling off little by little from the old
part of the house. I plan to decoupage the frame with newspapers
apparently used to insulate around the old back door, replaced
(according to the date on the Toledo Blade) in 1963. Little bits of
Kruschev and Johnson and Saigon. I was 2.

Lili, I have no doubt the paint on that clapboard contained lead, and I
am being cautious. But three feet under the surface is the layer of Ohio
Blue Clay that runs under the whole state. I am not eating it; I am not
breathing the vented fumes. I am not making dishes out of it (though it
makes a lovely terra sig.) Like the clay I dig in the Irish Hills of
Michigan, it is just earthenware, and has a bit of good mother earth in
it -- a root here, a chunk of dirt there, a pebble or clod and a bit of
sand. Good clean dirt.

Scary dirt, to me, is the grey coating of wino piss and bus fumes that
coats Paris; the smear of a thousand grubby germy sneezed on hands down
a hand rail at the train station... the grime of some campus bar or the
street out front, years of cigarette butts and broken glass and car
exhaust and vomit. Factory town grime. Industrial rivers and their
banks. City dirt freaks me out a bit.

But whatever is in my yard -- what I hauled out to the compost to rot,
what my chickens pooped in the grass, the leaf pile, the turkey bones I
buried in the garden -- are the stuff life is made of, food for
earthworms, manna for the rapunzel and arugula I am still picking from
my cold frame for our salads. In summer I make buckets of soup from
horse manure to water my tomatoes with. Life is not hermetically sealed
in supermarket packages; if you have ever gutted a chicken or skinned a
deer you know the cellophane wrapped rectangles in the glass case are
still meat.

Embrace the mess, Lili. If I lived in Gary, Indiana I would not dig in
the sediment of factory ponds. And no place is completely untouched --
my hubby, the environmental biologist, can date the layers of a core
sample by locating one slightly radioactive section -- cesium, maybe? --
from the first nuclear testing.

But the clear, cold Northern rivers where my grandfather taught me to
catch brown, brook, and rainbow trout -- (then clean them, wipe the
knife on my pants and then use it to butter my bread) -- those places
still exist. The little glacial lakes where I spend summer weekends
probably have some fossil fuels in them from pontoons and jet skis-- but
they are cleaner than they were when outhouses graced every beach. My
dad and his friends fished and swam there and lived to tell the tale.
Our bodies have an amazing capacity to defend us from our indigenous

I read somewhere that the polio epidemic came on the heels of the notion
that everything in a baby's life should be sterile -- (including
formula, in bottles) -- they weren't exposed to germs until later, and
they had no defenses.

Toxic stuff, pesticides, heavy metals, pcbs, those are bad news, to be
sure. But good clean dirt, crawling with living organisms that poop and
eat and die and decompose -- that's the stuff of life. My disgustingly
healthy children run barefoot in it, pull carrots, wipe and eat them.

Clay is clay. It's not practical for me to dig and clean the hundreds of
pounds it would take to produce pottery, when I can buy it ready to go.
But it's fun to mess with local clay, and whatever cooties it may harbor
are likely no match for a couple thousand degrees.

Just my way of seeing it. Hope it didn't give you the willies, Lili!

Kelly in Ohio

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