Archives for the month of: July, 2007

This was a long weekend, the kind where you can hardly remember morning by nightfall.

We saw various friends at the downtown Toledo farmer’s market Saturday morning, Unitarians and homeschoolers and potters. We only bought local stuff. I bought yams and red fingerling potatoes. Tyler bought green bell peppers, his favorite. Connor bought a cantelope, and a peck of small cukes with a big bouquet of fresh dill, announcig that he was going to make dill pickles. Jeff bought some little summer squash that looked like dirigibles, and Molly coasted from free sample to free sample.

Jeff made a monster batch of fresh garden salsa again this weekend, and a big batch of pork and venison meatballs to freeze. We went to Kapnick orchard on Saturday and picked blueberries for $1.85 a pound (twenty pounds of them!). We were close enough to the lake to go visit my dad at the cottage, and brought chicken and sweet corn to make supper for him since Mom was with her Mom in Midland for the night.

At one point Connor (12) pushed his grandfather (70-something) on the big rope swing with the plank seat that hangs from a tree branch. My oldest son begged to spend the night at the lake with his grandpa, so we drove off without him… leaving the two of them with no mom/wife around to remind or instruct or scold. I have no idea when (or if) my kid went to bed last night, and I get the feeling he lived on potato chips, but he helped my dad haul some wood this morning and they ran some errands and had a nice time. I drove up today to get him — an hour there, an hour back — and was able to listen to more of my Kingsolver book on the ipod… (also stopped for 3 dozen eggs from a roadside farm, and a bag of black sweet cherries.)

Last night before dark, Jeff and the kids helped me build the metal frame of an 8X8 hoop greenhouse I found at an end-of-season bargain. I am going to plant it with cold weather greens, the mache/rapunzel we love, spinach, kale and wild Italian arugula. The plastic needn’t go on until frost threatens.

Tomorrow morning we have our homeschool assessments by a certified teacher, which means my kids will “graduate” to the next grade (4th, 6th and 8th.) We’ll probably go out to lunch as usual.

Tonight they gathered all the workbooks and texts they have finished this year, but more importantly, made little “resume” lists of music lessons and recitals, sport, martial arts and gymnastics accomplishments, scout merit badges and camp adventures from archery to citizenship to horseback riding and astronomy. Ty listed his spelling bee, they packed up the robotics team trophy, and listed our trips to Chicago’s field museum as well as art and science classes at the Museum and the Lake Erie Center. They listed community service projects, hobbies (cooking, fishing, camping, pottery) , church and homeschool group activities and more, skimming their daily journals from last year and finding more and more adventures thay had forgotten. Molly’s box holds her badge-crusted brownie vest. Connor’s has the glass ornament he blew himself.

We’ll be going to Washington, D.C in August, but that will be in their journals for next year’s assessments. Ty may be headed for high school after this year, so he might do a standardized test next year. (I was surprised to find that all three of my kids were disappointed to be doing assessments this year instead of testing, which they apparently loved.)

We’re pretty much in full summer vacation mode, now… though we’ll be reading aloud from an American history book in the weeks leading up to our DC trip. Soon we’ll ease back into Rosetta Stone Spanish on the computer, then daily Singapore math… but winter is long and confining, and this is the time to swim and ride bikes, help pick and can tomatoes, play on the trampoline and lie in the hammock reading. (The last Harry Potter has long ago been finished and shelved.)

I can remain in full denial about the coming of fall, ignore the school supply sales and let the weather decide when our school year begins. That, and we can plan our vacations for the time when most kids are back in school and we have the good touristy spot all to ourselves. One of the fringe bennies of homeschooling… and one I try to focus on, as moms around me gloat about having the whole day to themselves again when the big yellow bus pulls up.


When I got home from up north, I pulled the pop-up into the back yard and opened it up, intending to clean and unpack. My three kids flagged me down one afternoon with a proposal: they wanted to sleep out there.

So for the last three nights, 8:30 arrived and the three of them, without reminders, brushed teeth, kissed us goodnight, gathered their books and journals, and left the house until morning.

Leaving Jeff and I all alone, in the peace and quiet, with the house to ourselves. Heh-heh. Not bad.

The first night, Tyler had finished Harry Potter by the wee hours. When I went out in the morning to knock and wake them for breakfast, the door was locked.

“Who are you locking out?” I asked. “The raccoons?”

“Voldemort”, came Tyler’s reply.

Speaking of ‘coons — Jeff had turned on the deck light the other night to see what our cat was growling at, and found her surrounded by 5 raccoons! All the same size, like siblings… maybe the siblings who grew up in our attic. They scattered when the light came on. The cat swaggered in as if she’d scared them off herself, and I laid in bed reassuring myself that the breached attic vent was now inaccessible to creatures without a makita and a crowbar.

Monday, I was fired up by the stats saying that our generation’s kids have a SHORTER life expectancy than ours, due almost entirely to diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other dietary disasters. (Apparently in the age of high fructose corn syrup, which no human had ever tasted before 1980, they have had to rename “adult onset diabetes” because it’s now happening so frequently to kids.) So my family sat down to a meal of marinated tofu on a nest of my own rainbow chard, sauteed in garlic and olive oil. They were good sports about the mountain of chard; Molly liked the stems best and Tyler liked the greens best. Connor just made a face but he ate it all.

Tuesday I made mozzerella cheese with the kids. It was a lot of fun, not especially hard, and took half an hour. (look for the recipe at ) I had brought a fat Amish tomato home from up north –a big one, the size of my head — and chunked it up on plate with strips of fresh basil leaves from the herb garden outside the kitchen door. Once we had stretched the motz (like taffy!) — dipping it back in the hot whey when it cooled too much to stretch — we made it into a thick shiny log and then cut off chunks to arrange on the tomato plate. Balsamic vinegar and olive oil were in two of my ewers on the side. It wasn’t all we had for dinner but it’s all anybody remembers. They all helped, and had never been so excited about a hunk of organic cheese before. We plan to make it weekly, now, just before homemade pizza night.

Wednesday I dug out the seeds for my cold weather crops, and turned over a small patch of sod between my mini tomato beds out back. I planted mache (also called corn salad or rapunzel, the green the Grimm Rapunzel’s pregnant mom craved and stole from the witch next door). I planted wild Italian arugula, though in retrospect so much of it has gone wild in the lawn that was my last garden spot, every time Tyler mows, the whole neighborhood smells skunky.

I still intend to plant peppergrass, spinach, lettuces and curly kale, but I have to build the framework of a groundhog-proof shelter that will become a hoop house over cold frames in winter. There is very little an Ohioan can grow in November, but my old hoop house kept us in salad greens until new years.

I found grass fed local eggs, and local milk from Calder Dairy in glass deposit bottles. I discovered that Dei Fratelli tomato and pizza sauces are grown in Ohio and canned in Toledo.

I made goat cheese this week, and a half gallon of Kefir is now ripening in my oven with just the heat of the oven light bulb. Today we made two quiches with orange-yolked local eggs, back yard chives, Michigan Amish swiss cheese and a whole wheat crust. The bacon was just the regular old evil kind, and the walla walla sweet came with a helping of fossil-fuel guilt. But we had one for dinner and the other is in the freezer.

Connor and I made five trays of fruit leather, with blendered canned peaches I put up two years ago in apple juice, and applesauce with cherry juice concentrate. They shoud be ready in the morning, along with the refrigerated dough we made for home baked soda crackers and plan to roll through my pasta machine. Tomorrow I’m grinding wheat to make graham crackers as well, and pizza crusts and flat breads for the wood oven. (One pizza will be roast garlic, tomato, fresh basil and homemade goat cheese.)

Meanwhile to counteract all the good eating, we have each made our own exercise charts with daily check-boxes for sit ups and biking, bench presses and workouts, and have hung them over the treadmill and weight bench in our den. (I bought the weight bench for $35 at a yard sale, and it has leg and arm machine thingies like a nautilus machine. This, I hope, will be my antidote to what one of the sculpture students referred to as “floppy bus driver arms”. )

Connor got a chinchilla this week to replace his late friend Rattus. It’s a cute little thing, with so much wrinkled fur on its forehead and between its big yoda-ears that it looks like a grumpy little gnome. It moves like a forest creature, whiskery and squirrelish.

Tyler’s not feeling well, today… headachey all afternoon, and he had a small fever this evening. I hope he’ll feel better in the morning. We are generally so disgustingly healthy that I hardly remember the last time somebody was sick.

I raced a thunderstorm home tonight, coming from teaching my guild class on the bike in the dark… thunder booming and lightning flashing. I made it into the garage, trailer and all, before the rain started. We so need rain. The grass is brown and crunchy underfoot.

Tomorrow is friday already. Saturday is the farmer’s market, and then to Michigan to Kapnick Orchard, where we can pick buckets of blueberries for half the price of the u-pick nearer by. We make a pie or two but freeze most, becuase the kids love a bowl of frozen blueberries with milk. We’ll stew some for adding to yogurt and kefir, and the kids plan to make blueberry ice cream this weekend with our local pasture fed milk.

It’s been all about food, this week. My kids, who love nature and have always been good about saving water and electricity for the environment, have accepted my answer to “why do we care if it’s local?” It was interesting to walk through the supermarket’s produce department reading where things came from. The kids were so into it they went form place to place announcing, “These grapes are from Chile! These strawberries came all the way from California!”

An older man came up to me and asked, “What’s bad about fruit from California?”

I didn’t want to get on a soapbox right there in the store, so I shrugged and said we’d rather support local growers, and that it seems like a waste of energy to buy strawberries shipped from California when Michigan blueberries are ripe right now.

He didn’t roll his eyes, anyway.

Did I mention I am building a little hen-cottage in my yard?

I was unable to get on line all day Thursday, because it was really our last full work day.

I drove in the morning to a local dairy where I had seen pastured cows, and asked for a couple of buckets of cow manure. He led me to an indoor enclosure and gave me a shovel. The poop I scooped was nothing like the grassy cow pies I remember from childhood pastures; it smelled like omnivore poop, (like a loaded diaper, in fact) and was full of whole corn kernels and grains. But I was determined to make a kind of litema, using manure with its fine-digested grass fiber, and some wood ash, sand and a small amount of clay — so home I went, with all the windows down and my head hanging out the window. I got lost and pulled over to ask a nice lady for directions, but when she walked over to the car window, she ended up backing away looking offended and somewhat alarmed. I’m sure she thought I had pooped my pants.

For all of thursday and friday morning, my tools and clothing were so pungent that I was kicked out of the house (you stink!) and had to eat lunch at the picnic table. Of all the loads I wheelbarrowed to and from my work site (a hilly gravel road with tools and storage tubs full of clay, sand or worse) the poop trip was the least enjoyable. Once I made the quarter mile trek down the gravel road, I then had to work my way along the woods trail, and my wheel wallowed in the sand every time.

I used a broomstick on the sides of my form and built up cob around it to make fluting on my “column”. It occurred to me that what I was building was a pedestal, and the thing I wished to put on the pedestal in the place of honor was: soil. forest floor. biodiversity.

Once the column was complete, I began to plaster it with the cow manure mix. I detected a slight lean, and since the top had not yet been built, I decided to accentuate the curve, pressing it outward as I plastered with my rubber gloves. I was sorry to have included chicken wire in the project, as it was scratchy and interfered with the sensory delight of pinching and smoothing cob into place… and now I regretted the litema, which (between the wood ash, the smell, and the dubious purity of the manure) required gloves and took skin contact out of the picture entirely. All in all, given the workout of hauling and mixing cob (mostly in a rubbermaid storage tub, with my feet) I was determined that if I ever did this sculpture class again I would work with something that required less sweat and pain — like cattail fluff, or cheesecloth.

Looking back, the entire project seemed to be a compromise: between the idea, and the requirements of the profs, between the idea, and the reality of the materials, between the idea and the restrictions of time. I did budget my time well, but worked right up to the very last minute, and could still see what more I might have done, given another day.

I had put up a rain-fly arch over the column, so I could work through the thunder and rain on Thursday. I made ancient looking potshards — Native American and ancient Jomon — to embed in the upper pedestal above the fluting, and fired them back at camp in a quickie firebrick-stacked kiln with the propane tank off my camper ,and my weed burner. Brian helped me find and cut a wooden armature for the pedestal top, which I hauled back to the site and decided it didn’t look right… then hauled it back to the workshop and re-cut it.

I built a fire in the column Friday morning, by digging a tunnel underneath it and lighting the straw, cardboard and small tinder I had put inside. I wheelbarrowed my propane tank and burner and quick-dried portions of the outside. The litema/manure mix was olive colored but hardened to a khaki cement-like surface, supposed to weather-proof the cob. The underlying cob wall was still too wet for me to scrub with a brush to re-expose the stones and fossils, but I decided that was OK — that weathering would do the job.

Once the top was built, fitted and covered with wire, cob and litema, I took my shovel and wandered looking for samples of the diverse forest floor. (The top of the pedestal is about at my eye level, maybe just over five feet tall.) I scooped whole microcosms; moss that looked like a forest of tiny pines, or mounds of emerald lawn. Clusters of maple seedlings no taller than my thumb. Whole ferns, wildflowers, chunks of mossy rotting wood. I arranged them atop my pedestal like a careful terrarium, and sprinkled handfuls of seeds I had stripped from plants in passing.

I headed up the hill to find one last specimen. I had removed my shoes, because they were crocs, and the manure mix kept plopping down through the top holes and grossing me out, trapped inside my shoes. So I had been treading on lumps of the glop barefoot, working in circles around the column, but it was better than a rubber shoe full.

On my way up the hill, I stepped on something sharp, rusty and metal under the layer of leaves and sand. I still don’t know what it was; buried junk of some sort. It was clear pretty quickly that I had cut myself deeply, and I headed back down to my work site as fast as I could hop. In my backpack, with my water bottle, cheese, sketchbook and camera, I found an old head scarf, and wrapped it around my foot, jamming it into a mucky croc, and started hobbling the quarter mile home. By the time I got there the inside of the shoe was pretty gory and sticky with blood; I decided if I was ever going to get an infection, a shoe full of cow poop was a pretty good way to go about it.

I wasted half an hour of daylight irrigating the cut, spackling it with antibiotic ointment and layering it with bandages from my first aid kid, but hiked right back to the woods to finish up. It didn’t need stitching, and it likely wouldn’t hurt until later; I didn’t have time to worry about it.

Friday after lunch was “critique time”. We walked about three miles of trails to see the 13 pieces, strewn across the 86 acres of Parsons property. I will go through photos in the days to come and put up some of the projects and their makers. For now, suffice it to say that some were inspiring… a few reassured me that mine maybe wasn’t so bad… but all of them were a fascinating look at the variety of ways a project could be interpreted.

By the time the group reached my piece, they were weary of walking, and took a seat up the hill from my column — and thankfully, upwind as well. Tracy, the very gentle and kind ecologist who had showed us morning yoga stretches for our tired muscles, offered that she liked how it “engaged all of the senses” — but others were more direct with their opinions about the pungent cow shit odor.

I admit that the end of the project and the whole “tah-dah!” moment was kind of a letdown for me. I was not overly impressed with my final project, especially after seeing some of the more Andy-Goldsworthyish approaches used by others. It occurs to me that as a newbie to sculpture and the Parsons land, I was naiively thinking in terms of making “an object” — while others were thinking of an arrangement, a presentation, an effect or event.

I pride myself in being a really hard worker, and pushed myself to my physical limit with this sculpture, taking advantage of the uninterrupted block of time to see what I could do if I tried. But apparently the skillful execution of a half baked idea can’t stand on hard labor alone. I have to wonder what I might have done if I had pursued my original dome ideas, which had started to look at fabric, paper, or something translucent arched on saplings over a hole, from a ring of cob foundation. If I had seen the site, first, and the materials at hand. Or if I had gone with my original “hippie totem pole” idea, something less ordinary, with the eye in the side or bristling with sticks.

I feel so bound by that firstborn instinct to please, to get it right, follow directions, do what I am told, that I can too easily discard ideas that excite me if they
are dismissed by a teacher or a peer. In a year I will be back in my own studio space, dancing to my own tune, and I am very much looking forward to regaining that freedom.

I really was almost in tears after the “crits” were over, though little was really said at any site in terms of crit or comment. I just wasn’t that impressed with the results of all of my labor. I wanted it to knock my socks off, and inspire great applause from my peers. Instead, I ended up standing on the hillside saying to myself, “It looks like a f***ing birdbath.”

As for the fine idea of raising biodiversity to pedestal-status, inspiring faithful reverence nature, forest and soil… it occurs to me in retrospect that the straw I used to make cob had heads of wheat in it, and the cow manure had whole kernels of corn, and they will likely sprout (well fertilized) in the wet cob walls and grow, cracking the structure. Agriculture will likely bring down the natural space, as it has in so many other places.

This morning as we all worked on the house, I cleaned the little bathroom, pulling community hairs out of the shower drain and wiping community toothpaste slobber out of the sink. I decided I’d clean my own little dwelling later, at home.

When I seemed to have one of whatever anyone was looking for in my camper-home, campfire compatriots joked that my pop-up was a magic Harry-Potterish place, with several big internal rooms invisible from the outside. I’d claimed to have a full basement, with a jacuzzi and a rec room. Turning my week’s lodgings into a little box on wheels always feels like a magic trick, pushing in beds and cranking down the roof, like a turtle that can pull itself into a shell a third its normal size.

But little by little, this morning’s cleaning, packing and preparations felt like breaking the spell. One prof’s family arrived, so he kind of morphed from team-coach to half-distracted dad (his boys were adorable.) Our sketch books and notes were reviewed by the profs this morning over coffee, and we filled out evaluations, but the week’s adventure just seemed to trickle to an end.

Tents were rolled up, leaving squares of yellow grass. We took a group picture on the front steps and then the team of camper-buddies drifted off to their individual cars, oddly strangers again. Some will graduate and never be seen again. Others we will bump into on campus and say hi, but for a week we were a team, a family where each one had a specific niche, something to offer, a network of inside jokes and shared experience bonding us into a group. We’d shared meals, chores, stories and back rubs. Friday after crits we spread sheets and blankets on the sunny hill in front of the Parsons house and took a big group nap in the grass, like hippies, or puppies; some of us snoring, others chatting. Now we were mentally headed back to the real world, half heartedly exchanging email addresses and waving each other down the driveway.

750 miles I drove this week, and walked a dozen more with the wheelbarrow I came to know, love and hate. I left behind a big ugly plant pot, in the woods. It’s possible that if I had a few more days to “cool down” and get past my own preconceptions and expectations, I could see it with new eyes, forgive it and even appreciate it. It is possible that passers by will at least stop and scratch their head over it. I suppose it might age in an interesting way.

At any rate, I am home. My kids ran out to the driveway for hugs, telling stories about the Harry Potter party at the library and the fun they had at grandma’s. Jeff made me a wonderful moussaka. I got home about dinner time… I’d stopped on the way home to buy sweet corn, and sweet cherries, and stopped in Midland to visit my grandma in her bright and lovely new senior apartment.

Tonight I will drift off to sleep hearing traffic, a snoring hubby, cat arguments and familiar house-noises instead of coyotes, loons and owls. Tomorrow I will be wading through a week’s mail, cleaning out the camper, and unpacking the tools, tarps and buckets still sprinkled with north woods pine needles and chunks of clay, and carrying the unmistakable, lingering odor of cow manure.

I sleep so hard every night, here, that my pillows and blankets look undisturbed when I wake up. A pine branch stretches so close to the screen above my pillow that it touches the screen; this morning I opened my eyes to an obnoxiously loud bird song and startled the little singer inches from my face.

The loons and coyotes both were wailing this morning early, when it was misty and cool. I worked on my sculpture early this morning before it got hot, and got so much cob made and applied that I almost completely covered the armature. Cyntha came to get me because our cooking team was to go shopping, and we went to the Traverse City farmers market; I got fresh blueberries, cherries, peaches, apricots and local honey to make a fruit salad. Jen picked up lots of good veggies for kebabs. We cook tomorrow night, the last team cooking night before the profs take us all to dinner Friday night. Friday is final critique day.

When we got back and scrounged the several days of leftovers for lunch, I sat at the table and Brian (sculpture prof) said, “John and I need to talk to you about your piece.”

“uh-oh”, I said.

It turns out that my sculpture is not on Parsons property, and would have to be moved.

As soon as I finished my lunch, I hiked back to the woods and stood looking at the stupid thing. I pulled all the inclusions out of the base, gathered up the cob (still mercifully wet) and chucked it into the wheelbarrow. I moved it maybe 20 feet to Parsons property and went back for the “trunk”.

I managed to tip it over into my wheelbarrow and teetering-and-tottering, haul it to the new site. It was deformed and the base of the sonotube had begun to collapse withthe dampness, so I re-installed it bottom up and recreated the base.

I worked through the heat, the bugs, the mud. With no clean-up water, and using my feet to mix the cob, I ended up with clay up to the elbows and knees, so every time I swatted a mosquito or pushed my sweaty hair out of my face, I left a streak of mud.

I began to build fluting (roman column style) on the center portion of my pillar by building around a broomstick. I was so tired that my back was screaming “stop now!” but I had to use up the cob I had made, as it would be too dry by tomorrow.

I dragged myself home, pushing my squeaky wheelbarrow, just as dinner was being served, and after supper, took my first shower of the week. This is the first day I haven’t made it to the lake, though some of the crew has gone to swim in the dark.

Tomorrow I have to build an armature for the pillar-top. I really wish I could post pictures here. I’ll go back to these entries when I get home and post the snake, the armature, the sculpture, and the gang. There are 13 people here and everybody seems to “play well together”.

Tomorrow night is the deadline to be done. Everybody is working hard, casting, sewing, dyeing, carving, weaving, pruning… one student is even baking sculptural pieces to hang in a tree.

More tomorrow…

My grandma is 92, and just moved into a small apartment in a senior complex in Midland, MI with a dining hall and transportation (so she won’t need to drive). I am hoping to stop and visit her on my way back through Midland on Saturday, and have been thinking about this latest move: she went from the big farm where they raised three kids, to a cottage at Houghton Lake, to two trailer houses (one in Florida, one in Michigan.)

Grandma never seems to spend a lot of time looking backward, sighing over the old cherry trees or the place on the lake. She blooms where she’s planted, and seems pleased that with every move there’s less to keep track of.

This being the third day of living alone in my pop-up, I am beginning to understand how freeing that can be. Somewhere back in Ohio, somebody else is reminding the kids to do their chores, or brush teeth, and feeding them nutritious meals. Or not, which is OK too: it’s not me, this week. Someone is remembering to call and check the bank balance, water the hanging plant, feed the rabbit/fish/guinea pig/cats, sort the mail, chase the running list of projects that need to be finished and phone messages to answer. Or not.

For just this week, I am only in charge of myself, and it’s pretty uncomplicated so far. I can clean my entire kitchen with a single wet-wipe. “Doing laundry” means tossing mud crusted clothes into a hamper and digging clean ones from my bag. I have exactly one cup (an ash-drippy Mark Issenberg one), one plate, a spoon, fork and knife that I use for every meal, wash and put away.

I have one pair of shoes, outside my door. Life is simple.

So all my energy goes into working my butt off on this project. I have developed a relationship with the squatty old metal wheelbarrow I truck up and down the road, and then the trail. I greased its squeaky wheel and have learned to quiet its rattle and bang by putting the straw and backpack under the shovel, pruners, wire cutters and metal gear. When I am at the work site I have discovered that my butt will nest comfortably in the low end, and my fat sponge allows me to rest my head at the high end, and sit in it like a recliner, planning and looking over my progress.

I have developed a relationship with the blue plastic bucket I haul up and down the steep hill, thrashing through underbrush to the swampy edge of the lake to fill it with murky black water. I carry it back up and mix it with clay, sand, wood shavings and straw to make the cob for my structure. Today I was stirring clay with my hands and pulled up an inch-long, wiggling mud puppy baby! He’s in a bowl in my camper, now, in clean water. I am afraid he got a lot of clay in his gills before I pulled him out, but if he survives the night I’ll return him to Parsons Lake.

I can work all day for one day in a row, apparently… But the second day of full-speed-ahead leaves me at a point, by late afternoon, where if I sit down I will likely lose all momentum and not be able to get up again. How did that proverb go? “Go fast”, said the rabbit… “Go slow”, said the tortoise…”Pace yourself”, said the cheetah, “It’s a long run.”

In the time it takes for the dry clay to slake and the wet cob to dry, I have several “sub-projects” going. Last night I made shell-fossil-type forms and bisque fired them in Jean Parson’s studio. This morning I made ancient looking pot shard and, since Cyntha was working with ferns and birch bark in the studio and I didn’t want to wait for a kiln to cool, I stacked some firebricks in the campfire ring, pulled the propane tank off the pop-up and used the weed burner to fire those. I also went on a hunt for storm-downed trees to cut some roots.

At the end of the day I was so dirty (mixing cob with my feet and smearingit with my hands with no water to clean up in) and so hot, sweaty, buggy and tired that I could feel Ransom Lake pulling me toward home. Some of my new friends were already out there swimming, and I spent about an hour in the water, mostly floating on my back with my arms out to the side like flying.

Tonight’s cooking team made rosemary chicken, pasta with some winderful spicy dried-tomato sauce, spinach salad with feta and artichoke hearts and rosemaried veggies, including sweet potato fries. Blueberry tarts were dessert.

Now the night owls are gathered by the fire, and I am going to go join them for a bit before heading for bed. The stars are deep and glorious every night; the coyotes sing us to sleep and the loons sing us awake at dawn.

I need to hit the ground running, tomorrow…

(This is the second entry in my sculpture project journal. Photos will come later. If you want them in order, read July 15th first…)

Monday afternoon: stopped for lunch. I’m sitting at my lap top (an old model, second hand, with missing key, but a marvel nonetheless) in my little tent-trailer pop up. Outside the window to my right is a clearing with waist-high of ferns where three deer grazed early this morning.

Soft needled white pines surround the clearing and a grassy area at one end of it, where Andrea (who brought her banjo on this trip) is walking the outline of a labyrinth in kind of a week long meditation. Little by little the path is being beaten into the tall grass. I took her an orange and offered to lend her my propane weed burner to scorch the path into the field, but that may not be the meditational experience she was hoping for. ;0)

Between last night and this morning I have pretty much scoped out the property. I saw so many things I used to consider lovely and sacred, and remembered suddenly having written (and published) woods poems in a past life: ones about morels, and about the mossy cathedrals that remain when stumps rot to mossy mounds and worm-carved spires.

Several of us walked around seeing with sculptor-eyes the gnarled roots, bark textures and land formations, and came home last night dissatisfied with ideas that had seemed worthy back in the classroom. At our campfire “meeting” last night, the profs agreed that a certain evolution was inevitable, and a good thing — but they hoped we would stay with at least the essence of our initial plans.

This morning’s walk took me through a bog where — though dry — the low areas rest on so many layers of compost and peat-like humus, it feels like walking on a floating surface. I spotted a long snake stretched on a bare log under the ferns, and laid down on the path to photograph him.

Suddenly there was a loud snort-grunt and a thump that I could feel in the ground beneath me. Startled, I rolled to look behind me and saw an enormous white tailed deer, a buck, bounding in what seemed like eight foot leaps across the ferns and underbrush. Each time he landed he let out a snort; I could hear him breathing, and he came so close to leaping right over me that it made quite an impression. I had not imagined a deer in the woods to be so loud; it reminded me of the way my horse grunted for every breath when he galloped hard,

Once I had explored the bog I headed for the back edge of the property to explore a planting of pines. My feeling as I wandered through was the same as years ago in Oregon replanted areas: it is more farm than woods, more like rows of corn than a forest. The trees are planted in rows, close together to lower branches won’t develop and interfere with board-feet of knotless lumber. Their race to the sunlight has made the green canopy above almost invisible from beneath. Still, the occasional maple or hardwood has filled a gap to add variety to the monoculture.

The back edge of this wonderful wooded land is the property line of a housing development. I tried to work through in my head why it should make me so annoyed to see vinyl siding, chem-lawns and bright plastic playground equipment up against the woods edge. After all, I live in a house in a neighborhood that used to be woods. Lots of people love the woods and want to live nearby. Is it really that nature’s patterns are all beautiful, and human ones ugly? Or is it just my own short-sighted bias?

The birds didn’t seem to mind. Maybe those yards have birdfeeders. I worked hard to see that line between woods and neighborhood as a continuum of habitats instead of a boundary, but didn’t have much luck. I felt better when I had put enough space behind me so that the artificial colors and horizontal parallel lines were out of sight.

So here are the ideas that have been taking seed in my mind since Diana and I started talking about some honey pots I had made. I had used the beeswax foundation beekeepers can order pre-printed with the first raised ridge of honeycomb cells, so the bees will build on what is already neatly ordered.

“It’s too regular”, she said. It was; it looked mechanical. Bees on their own do build intricate hexagonal cell rows, but they have some variation; they conform to the hollow of a tree, get foreshortened of lengthened, rounded on the corners. I have recently learned that many beekeepers use a top bar hive that allows bees to build from start their own comb size and shape, and inevitably, they build smaller comb and regress to a smaller, more natural size bees that might be resistant to some of the parasites that plague bigger bees. Apparently, in the name of productivity, we have made an oversized bee with a “supersized” honey storage comb. Like the cattle we’ve bred to be too large to mate on their own, and the turkeys, and the sterile franken-hybrid produce…

But that’s another story.

What I know is that I like the comb built by bees better than the comb printed at the factory. I like the subtle wobble and comb-marks of the field of straw harvested by the Amish, on hilly terrain and drawn by horses, better than the wide uniform stripes and shrink wrapped bales of the mechanical harvesting machines. I like the winding path the deer makes better than the straight line roads laid out by humans.

And here I am in the woods, handed the job of making art to place in this setting. It seems a heady responsibility. I feel the way a religious artist might feel if commissioned to make a piece for a church or cathedral: this is a sacred place, to me. Whatever little human project I can muster will pale in comparison to a single mushroom, a clump of moss, a wet frog and its song. It feels arrogant even to try.

The best I can hope for is to imitate the natural, or find some balance between the human hand and natural creation. A winding human footpath through the forest is not a highway; there’s an element of balance, there, and compromise. This fern is trodden underfoot, but we go around this tree, this low wet spot, and follow the trails the deer already made for us, wherever we can.

So I chose a place for my first sculpture. It’s not far from a path, because it’s a nice spot and I have to haul clay in a wheelbarrow. It is in visual range of an uphill sandy dome, and a downhill brush-choked mucky lake-pond. I have carried sand down and water up to a tub of old contaminated pugmill clay I brought from home, and returned for a wheelbarrow full of straw and wood shavings from Earl Clark the woodworker just down the road.

It’s far enough from my camper to the lake that I pack water, and food, and plan to spend several hours there at a time. I have put up a sonotube anchored with a rusty fence-stake I found in the woods. I drilled holes all over it and inserted short sticks to “hold on” to the cob mixture. I had planned to use chicken wire and
roofing nails, but I want to try using only natural materials, if I can. The cardboard sonotube should burn out of the inside when the project is done.

Tonight’s dinner team made enchiladas, we played some flashlight bocci, and now I am ready to sleep. More tomorrow.

Day one, Parsons sculpture and design project, Lake Ann Michigan:

I had spent a lot of the week getting ready to go, so I had some time to enjoy my kids on the weekend.

Saturday had been one of those picture perfect family days. We had gone to breakfast and laughed all through the meal, making up out own acronyms for IHOP. At one point Molly looked at the newspaper photo of family members grieving around Ladybird Johnson’s draped casket, and asked me, “Mom, why is that lady resting her head on the coffin?” I explained that she was likely bery sad and saying goodbye to the woman who died. Molly nodded seriously, and said, “I thought maybe she was listening for breathing.”

I left home around 8:30 yesterday morning, loaded up with scrap clay, sonotubes, groceries and camping gear and towing the pop-up. MOlly gve me extra hugs, Connor made me two bags of trail mix for my adventure, and Tyler assured me that he would be extra helpful at Grandma’s this week. (Also trustworthy, helpful, courteous, kind, and the whole boy scout promise.)

The day was breezy, blue and in the 70s, the kind of everything’s-perfect weather that makes everyone cheerful and grateful. My van rode low inthe back with the load of cargo but the pop-up pulls like a dream.

In Ohio I drove through a sea of corn and beans while Barbara Kingsolver crooned her book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” in my ear though the ipod headphones, talking about monoculture and the loss of the family farm. Small towns like Assumption seem centered around a church and an old cemetary, and it is maybe the last time in the history of our culture that the names on the tombstones are the same as the names on the mailboxes, family names carefully lettered on big barns, names of gravel roads. In a country where the average American family moves every three years, the notion of a family living on the same farm for 100 years certainly seems worthy of a “century farm” marker. I worry with Kingsolver that the people who tie a land to its history will disappear, and it will become just real estate, acres to plant or lawns to mow.

I look over the landscape and the little cemetaries in passing, with the corn fields now stretching for miles and the family subsistence farms gone, and wonder if the dead outnumber the living.

I always drive country roads looking for the little wooden hand painted sign that says “eggs”. It’s especially lucky if the chickens are visible, out scratching at a field’s edge, eating bugs and gras and seeds and all those omega-3 goodies we no longer get with our corn fed livestock.

I realize how much I have come to recognize the seasons of the year from the landscape that was part of my childhood. Roadside ditches right now are in the season of blue chicory, queen ann’s lace, pink milkweed blossoms. yellow blossomed stalks of fuzzy leaved mullein, orange tiger lilies and occasional purple spikes of the invasive loosestrife. Some of the flowers, like the perennial sweet pea, must have escaped from some long gone farm wife’s flower bed; other things were planted by wind or birds, and some came over in horse feed on wooden ships from faraway places long ago.

It is not yet the purple and gold season of goldenrod (and honey flow!) that precedes autumn, but the peeper frogs are done and the cicadas can be heard sometimes on hot, still afternoons. The fields of wheat have been harvested and the straw rolled into big round bales. The gold of wheat stubble is pleasing to the eye, and I love the randomness of giant straw bales left in the field at intervals; most, these days, are shrink wrapped in bright plastic and stored near metal pole barns, all very practical. But my sentimental preferences tend to the weathering straw and rickety old impractical barns (doors too narrow for big farm equipment, cows sent to agribusiness CAFOS, and no need for a hayloft.)

I sigh over empty hen houses, too. Having built a couple of too-small, not-right homes for my too-few backyard hens, I love the authentic architecture of these now useless buildings; the careful slope of the roof, the rows of windows, the doors that let hens out to forage and the rows of nesting boxes. Now hens are stacked in rows in cages, debeaked, corn fed, inbred until they are too stupid to know what an egg is for.

I also keep tabs of the season and countryside by roadkill. There is the occasional cat, which I always hope was of the unnamed-barn-mouser sort and not the grandma’s-lap variety. Represented among the countless raccoons, though, are fox, muskrat, oppossum, and deer (though there seem to be more deer in the fall.)

Roadside signs announce that this is the season of cucumbers, blueberries and sweet cherries. Strawberries are past, and tomatoes not yet plentiful enough to share after a long winter of rock hard imports. As I entered Michigan and the landscape changed from corn and soybeans to woods, pastures and smaller fields broken by creeks and bogs, Barbara Kingsolver was talking her book to me in maternal tones, about being a “locavore”, refusing food that required a thousand miles of travel (and fossil fuel)… about supporting your local farmer, your local economy, eating in season. I stopped at a cider mill outside of St. Johns and bought blueberries, sweet cherries and local cheese which I hoped came from some of the cows I had seem grazing on pastures all afternoon.

I am not by nature a covetous person, but I am itching to own land; a parcel of woods big enough to get lost in, an old farm with a chicken house in need of a coat of paint and a flock of heirloom hens who remember how to forage and raise chicks. Maybe one with one of those big ceramic-tiled silos, now standing empty as corn and soybeans have become a river of commodity, flowing through big elevators and train cars. (Michael Pollan, “Omnivore’s dilemma” is on my nightstand.)

I jotted on my notebook the icons of familiar local culture — NASCAR and Jesus, mostly, bible verses stenciled on big blue silos and flags the ubiquitous giant #3. (Who was that, again? Dale Earnhardt?) In one place I passed an elk farm… in Fayette, right where main street turned to neighborhood, I had to slow for an escaped peacock standing in the middle of the road. At some point I passed a six foot fiberglass chicken standing in front of a closed business.

The farther north I came, the more it was just woods, increasingly piney-er and with little lakes here and there.

Directions led me to dirt roads near Lake Ann, not far from Travers City. My cell phone registered no connection, a source of mixed feelings: how will I know what’s going on at home? But then again… an entire week with my uninterrupted thoughts to myself, trusting my husband and mom to be the loving, capable people they are and trusting my kids to survive a week without my instructions.

I pulled into the Parsons property, which I had seen only in slides.

I was the only one here, at first. The house was locked but I could peer in windows and see the bunks. I peered hopefully into the outhouse (huge hornet’s nest) and pulled my pop-up camper into a ferny back yard spot, at the fringe of the fire-circle-and-picnic-table back yard, within extension cord reach of a small gas kiln shed with a missing window pane. The cardboard replacement pulled up at one corner to admit my plug.

I set up my little home. It’s nice to be settele din for an entire week. I set a pot of live herbs outside my little door, rinsed my growing jar of alfalfa sprouts and put them by the sink, plugged in the chargers for laptop and camera. I plugged my coffee pot and crock pot into a timer so breakfast would wake me in the morning, and made my bed with a goosedown duvet and five fat pillows.

Students arrived and I joined three girls in a hike down the stream to Ransom Lake. The stream empties out in a sand, spring-cold spot into a lovely wooded lake. It quickly became clear that we had the lake all to ourselves and could swim “Tom Sawyer style”.

Evening meant a camp fire inthe fire ring, and the profs and a few of last year’s veterans played “flashlight bocci” — a game that seemed odd to me, but generated a lot of laughter.

I will write again later about the woods, the creek, the other lakes and the sculpture inspirations. It’s monday morning, my coffee is gone and it’s time to get started.

So I had drawn several large sketches to present during my proposal today, of possible “straight line” column shapes, some with silo type roofs, some with flat tops of living sod. Some were simple and others more complicated. I built this scale model just to show how the armature would be made an how I could build with cob around it.

I have no idea, yet, how I want the outside to look, and since it’s site specific and I don’t know what I will embed into the cob. I had to do something, though, so I just experimented with textures and whatever detritus I could find around my studio door. I poked a bunch of pine needles in it and liked the bristly nail-fetish effect. Maybe a whole column bristling with sticks? I thought about glass bottles piercing the walls, and used Molly’s glass beads to reproduce the effect. I just dorked around to see how stuff looked.

It had been fun to make the model. I was that kid in 4th grade who really liked making the volcano out of salt dough or the diorama in a shoebox. For this one I slid a box of wet sand inside the box supporting my model, and then poked peppermint, oregano and lavender through holes into the wet, to look like bushes.

Here was my rationale:


Sculpture Proposal: Written Rationale

Why cob?

Cob costs nothing.

It is long lasting, yet will eventually weather away to its original ingredients: sand, clay and plant material.

Cob is natural, earth-friendly and appropriate for animal habitat and natural spaces. It doesn’t impose any materials on an environment, it just rearranges materials already there.

Cob is earth. Seeds planted in it will grow.

And cob contains clay. As a potter, I like that… and it seems well suited to a potter’s property, as well.

While I originally had envisioned a structure made of cob, I am now thinking of cob as a “mortar” to hold together other materials. Unlike clay, cob won’t shrink around objects when it dries.

Why impressed objects?

It’s difficult to plan here, for a site-specific project to be completed there. By leaving lots of question marks and undecided aspects of the project, I can allow for exploration and inspiration to play a part of the project. Will I find clay? What color will it be? Are there snail shells, fossils, is there interesting junk?

I can also create objects from clay to represent what I cannot find. Maybe shelf mushrooms, or ancient fossils to affix to the cob. Since I have a propane tank on my camper, carry a torch, and have access to stackable fire brick, it would be a simple thing to make a small raku or pit kiln to fire “inclusions”.

Why a column?

I spent the first week and a half sketching dome forms, rounded, organic objects that could be experienced from the inside. It felt familiar to me, like a vessel, a dwelling, and far from the scrape-across-the-desert or pointy-concrete-bunker art that seemed to me so arrogant and visually jarring.

When handed the challenge of working with straight lines, though, a column seemed like a good compromise. The inability to enter it will keep me focused on aesthetics over function, and the challenges of armature and threat of collapse will test my ability.

A column is also a tree trunk, a silo, and in this case, a figure about the height and width of the human who makes it.

Why habitat?

It seems only fair to offer a “hostess gift” to the wildlife making room for our sculpture. As rotten logs and hollow trees become scarce in an urbanized landscape, some cavity nesters have trouble finding nest sites, and animals intended to burrow at the base of trees can hardly find shelter on the golf course or metropark.

The large, seemingly in hospitable sculpture at the University of Michigan campus housed both a bird nest and a hornet’s nest. Either would be welcome in my cob column.

I have let go of the notion of function as much as I can. I accept that I will not be baking bread in my sculpture, nor crawling inside for a nap. But I like to think that birds might move in, or that some small mammal might hibernate in the base over the winter. At the very least it will likely collect the kinds of spiderwebs and cocoons I found inside Laurie Spencer’s “Phoenix Cairn”.

Happily, openings in the base, and a few holes in the sides, will aid in the building and stoking of the internal fire at the week’s end.

Why fire?

Cob hardened by fire becomes sturdy. Being mostly sand, it will never vitrify and become “fired”, but it will stiffen the inner layer, adding support to the entire structure.

There is a certain performance aspect, as well, a celebratory display when the project is finally finished.

I am curious, as well, to see how glass bottles might react if embedded through the cob with necks facing inward over the fire.

Why a living roof?

Grass, or moss, or some form of forest-floor on the lid of the piece will serve several purposes.

It will help with the illusion that this is somhow a “rising”. A core of what lies beneath the soil suddenly raised above it, with the cap of surface still intact.

It will combine the cob architecture traditions of both flat roofs – like adobe or West African homes – and the thatched or living roofs native to other places. I have seen photos of goats grazing on sod roofs in some northern countries. While my roof might not live long and likely won’t support a goat, it might at least entertain the occasional dragonfly or bird, and seem more hospitable than asphalt shingle.

The surface of the living earth is an organism, able to heal. It grows over our insults. Highway is forever, but the grassy roadside ditches accept our litter and bury it, season by season, along with the roadkill deer that will be digested and put to good use. The forest floor is alive with nematodes, insects, fungi, all busy turning fallen trees and leaves into good soil for what comes next. I like the idea of elevating a circle of that soil, even temporarily, even symbolically.

Kelly Savino

July 12, 2007


I got some good suggestions both from teachers and the class. What about incorporating green, growing plants into the piece? What about a bowl shaped lidtat would retain rainwater, with lips directing runoff to the green things? What about buildingit around a dead tree? What about making more than one?

The sculpture prof looked a little sideways at my model, thoug, and expressed his concern that my finished work not look like “A hippie totem pole”.

Then I took my ewers to Diana’s and lined them up in rows along her back deck. I have never been in the same room with Diana nd my ewers, and was really hungry for feedback.

Some of what she said rang a bell, and now I can’t unsee what is wrong with those pots when I line them up again. Thus far no two are alike, though they seem to fall into families (except for a few mutants.) She has asked me to settle on a few prevalent body shapes, make half a dozen of each, and thenmake variations with slightly more family resemblance and subtler variations. When Iget back from the woods, that’s what I’ll do.

Off to teach at the guild, and then it’s time to start packing the pop-up.

I’m having lunch with Diana tomorrow so she can critique “a couple of ewers” I’m bringing for her to look over.

Tomorrow’s the last day of sculpture at EMU. Next week we head north from Sunday to Saturday to actually build our sculptures. So tomorrow we present our proposals. I have a scale model, 5 to 7 variations on my idea, (sketched), and a power point presentation about my materials and techniques.

All I need to do is pack a lunch… and hope to find room for it in my van!

For a sculpture student who was hoping she could find some for a project she wants to do.