Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Dancing Feathers and Snowflakes

My hopes of joining Urbexia on Saturday for a day of exploring were dashed by the weather. Snow and freezing rain were forecast for the afternoon and it was now supposed to start earlier than predicted the day before. But camera batteries were charged so I needed to find an alternative. I had no intention of spending all day indoors, especially if the impending snow storm was going to leave me trapped on the hill on Sunday.
A search on the internet for local activities landed me on the site of the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley which was having a free open day today. They also had The Star Road Dance Company from Taos, N.M performing to celebrate the opening of a new exhibit, 'Hear My Voice' , showcasing Native American art from different cultures across centuries, the first Native American themed exhibition to be shown here. I grabbed my bags and headed out to Winchester.
It seemed much of the town's population had the same idea as me, there were large crowds and the parking lot was almost full. I had nearly an hour until the first dance performance so went upstairs to see the exhibition. It was a little unclear whether photography was allowed or not. One person said I could use my camera, but no flash, while another said only cell phones without flash were permissible. I took only a few images, it was so quiet in there and I didn't see any other photographers so I packed mine away, not wanting to appear rude.
The exhibits were stunning. The detail and evident hours of patience that had gone into creating these pieces was mind boggling. Art pieces were made of bone set with turquoise, jet, lapis, mother of pearl and other gems. If bones became scarce the Native American s would get their bones from Chicago where slaughterhouses were plentiful. Dyes were made naturally and baskets were made from different barks and rushes and even feathers. The shirt above was spectacular, I would have loved to wear it while hiking. The owner would have earned it by showing great bravery while hunting or in battle. It was made from hides and decorated with porcupine quills, glass beads, feathers, horsehair and fur. The stitch work was exquisite.
I joined the line of people waiting to enter the auditorium where the dancing would take place. I noticed many were wearing their Native American style jewelry and for the first time realized mine looked similar. I've always preferred silver to gold and in the past year have found myself admiring turquoise, now worn on a bangle on my wrist and on a necklace.
 I was amazed to be able to snag a seat right in front of the performers, discovering also that I was sitting next to an elderly gentleman who was the father of Kel Rainer, the main drummer and singer of the troupe. He proudly showed me his footwear that Kel had adorned for him, hand sewn beads onto tennis shoes, that he called, 'mocashoes'.
Kel's children were performing with him, Kayl Rainer, 15, Kenyon Olsen-Rainer, 21, Pretty Plume Rainer, 6, and also his uncle. They began with drumming and singing. Kel explained that many of the southern songs were actually prayers and he had written songs for his children which they performed. He wrote these to make them feel special and so they would remember him. As head singer he had complete control of the songs and drumming, often making gestures for the others to follow. The loud beats are called 'honor beats', usually heard during the verses. It was mesmerizing, sending tingles down my spine. The room reverberated and the drums thumped through the floor. There were a couple of local newspaper photographers who had initially plonked themselves right in front of us with their bags and huge cameras. I felt very smug sitting in my perfect seat as they were asked to leave the floor and had to stand to the sides. I didn't abuse my position though, and only took photos for the first few seconds of each dance, resting my camera on my lap to give my full attention to the dances and songs. I did make the mistake of asking my new friend a question during a performance and was instantly dismissed, a lesson in respect quickly learned and I didn't interrupt again.
Pretty Plume was the first to dance, wearing her jingle dress, decorated in traditional elk beads and Sioux bead work. Supposed to sound like rain, they are dresses of healing. The cones are usually made from tobacco lids but Kel explained that he's seen some using bullet casings, which must have been heavy. Pretty Plume jangled her way around the arena and received thunderous applause.
Kayl was up next, looking resplendent in his regalia. The boys performed northern traditional plains dances and we were told these usually involved acting out hunting scenes. Huge feathers from bald and golden eagles adorned them and we were asked to refrain from touching these. They are are earned by good behavior or dancing. Kayl also had stitched all the bead work on his costume himself.
Kenyon, below, while waiting to dance, was hailed as being single by his father, causing a lot of tittering in the crowd. He's a champion dancer and singer and wore a very similar outfit to Kayl, although apparently he didn't sew the bead work, instead relatives helped him.
After his routine, Pretty Plume performed a side-step dance, which we were told involves needing very strong calf muscles, and then the boys came back out for a duck and dive dance, showing warriors searching for the enemy and ending with a battle cry of winning. Warriors always advance and never retreat, which is why dancers never dance backwards. They started off crouching and slowly circling, then whirled and leaped, feathers and beads flying as they twisted and whirled. It was breathtaking, especially being so close to them, feeling the whoosh as they spun in front of me.
The whole performance lasted nearly an hour but felt like 10 minutes.They even let us have our photos taken with them, a first for me to have my picture taken with the real owners of this country; it was even a little humbling.
I had to rush out afterwards. There was another performance at 1:30 but the snow would be falling by then and I was anxious to be on top of my hill before it got bad. I drove towards Blandy to see Bill as the first flakes fluttered on to the windscreen. I met Bill and we drove around the farm taking photos of the fast whitening scenery.
The roads were still clear so I was OK to hang out for a while and somehow ended up stopping until Bill finished work. We jumped in and out of the car to take shots, noticing that the flakes were getting bigger and the wind was blowing stronger. I should have left then but was enjoying myself and when a pint at the local pub was suggested, I heartily agreed. We chatted at the warm bar until I looked out of the one window behind us. Huge gusts of snow were blowing across the window pane and it was completely white outside, the snow even sticking to the bark of the tree in view. I had to get home.
 The drive was treacherous. Even though the roads were slushy, they were slippery since none of them had been treated. I passed 4 cars off the road and never once went above 30 mph. The journey seemed interminable and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I saw our hill. But for the first time ever I was unable to get up it, all wheels unable to grip. I tried 8 times and then had to give up, instead driving up a hill further down the road which wasn't quite so steep, and then skidding across fields until I finally reached Meadow House. I had made it home just as dusk was beginning to fall, snow still falling like feathers all around me.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

An Apologue of a Pot

Saturday was a wet and miserable day, but just perfect for an indoor activity. I had asked Janice to join me on another of my 'have a go' endeavors, and today's try out would be the potter's wheel. In Marshall, is a business called Big Dogs Pottery, which popped up about 3 or 4 years ago. I'd always looked at it as I drove past but never ventured inside, assuming that it would be too expensive. Last year they added an extension to the shop and my curiosity was aroused further, and so I got on line to do some research. I discovered that it held classes which weren't all out of my price range and so Janice and I signed up for a morning's spin with the clay.
As you enter, a wonderfully enticing display of pottery for sale is loaded on to shelves and tables, every color of glaze imaginable, and many different designs. Perfect gift ideas. For me, and maybe some friends. I've always been drawn more to glass than clay, but today I saw quite a few pieces that I wouldn't mind owning. I walked into the class room area and chatted to Lori, the owner. Spotting a few 'basic' looking bowls on a shelf near the potter wheels, I thought we'd be making similar, until Lori laughed and said she'd give me a job if I could produce something like that on my first day. I looked back at the bowl and thought she must have a low opinion of our skills. I would shortly have my rather smug self confidence wiped clean away
 After meeting the other two ladies in our group we laid claim to our wheels, set ourselves up, and then had to 'wedge' our clay. This involved starting off with a square of clay that had been cut from a large lump, and then kneading it with our palms leaving a ram's head impression as we pushed it forward onto the bench. This rolling movement ensured the molecules within the clay were all facing the same way, which would later help our finished pieces to survive the firing without blowing up. We were using a brown clay which was soft and malleable, and after wedging, we then sat at our wheels, took one of our three pieces and then molded and mashed it into a cone shape which we then slapped hard onto the middle of the wheel.
The potter's wheel with the tools we'd use while creating our masterpieces.
Lori started by showing us how to make a cylindrical pot while we simply watched without getting involved, so we could take note of the process. Using both hands, linked together, we had to steady the lump of clay while swooshing lots of water over it to keep it slippery while pressure was applied to the top and outer edge to push the clay back down into a 'tuna can' shape. This was actually really hard to master and if your piece was clay wasn't centered properly, a disaster would happen later when the 'pot' was opened up.
Using the two first fingers of each hand we had to press down into the clay to create an opening and then slowly pull out to open up the interior. The wheel spun pretty slowly while we did this, a high  speed only needed at the beginning while centering and initially shaping the piece. We cleaned up the base of the pot from the inside, reducing the thickness and the risk of air bubbles which could cause the pot to blow up while firing. A little wooden tool with a rounded curved edge was used for this, and I found the task strangely satisfying, probably because all at once it gave a polished professional kind of look to the inside, making my pot look almost as though it had been made by machine rather than thrown together by a Neanderthal.
Out of my three lumps of clay I produced only one pot that I was pleased with. One was a bust and the other survived with a lopsided lurch, but it may not make it through the firing. The pot I succeeded with felt really good while I was working on it, the clay spun between my cupped hands like a well oiled machine, not a single tremor distorting or weakening the walls. It felt so clean and slippery smooth that as my confidence grew I experimented with tapering the top edge. I fought to balance my third piece of clay, even removing it from the plate and recentering it but it just didn't sit right. I hoped I could rectify the balance once I got going but the further I progressed with crafting my bowl, the worse it became until, like a drunken dude on the sidewalk, it wobbled a little, then finally gave in to the effort of staying upright and flopped on to its side, breaking the clay wall apart. Game over!
Janice with her third pot. she didn't bust any of hers but had problems trying to stretch this one out, but it still looked fine and should make it through firing.
This is the little dish I was pleased with. We used corn starch and stencils to tap our initials into the sides of our completed pieces. There were 5 different colored glazes we chose from which Lori will apply to our pots once they've been fired. Those pieces which survive can be picked up in about a week's time. We helped to tidy up our stations, and even though I was covered in clay it took little time to clean up. I really enjoyed this try out session and both Janice and I are thinking of repeating the event. It was tough to get going but I felt more at ease with this process than I did at blacksmithing or glassblowing.
The wall of glaze colors. Some of these glazes change their color when firing, not all stay the same color on all pieces but I loved the hues. There's also an area where folks can just walk in and paint blank pieces. White dogs, foxes, Christmas trees and even Darth Vaders are lined up on shelves waiting to have color and glazes applied. Lori also has a room for stained glass and fused glass classes which piqued my interest. I will definitely be back, I want to have a go at everything!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Lamenting Lake and Skeletal Ice

Thompson Wildlife Management Area is a pretty vast area. George Thompson donated the land to Virginia upon his death as he'd been a keen hunter and wanted his friends to be able to continue enjoying the pastime. Very well known for the Trilliums which bloom each spring and also for hiking, I had come here last weekend since we had experienced an amazing 61 degrees, and although breezy, I had set off in a t-shirt, loving the unusual warmth. But it had been exceptionally muddy and only about a mile in, I had heard gun shots ahead. I had my bright orange cap on but was still concerned. When, just a minute later, I heard more shots behind me, I lost my nerve and made it back to my car, skidding and sliding at double speed.
On Saturday I returned, but this time went down to the lake area, intending to just walk around and see what ice patterns I could find. When I saw only one other truck in the parking lot, with its owner walking down the trail towards me, I thought that hopefully I'd manage a hike too, this time without hunters hidden among the trees. A heavy frost sparkled with a pristine whiteness and ahead of me on the trail brown curled leaves danced in a circle, the wind spinning them like a circle.
As I approached the lake I spotted a patch of ice and bending over I heard an odd, deep, whining noise. I stood up and walked towards the lake edge. The sounds continued and I despaired, thinking an animal was trapped under the ice. A loud crack to my right, where a large mound of branches were stacked, had me thinking a beaver was trying to break his way out. I stood still, watching and listening until I realized that the lake was draining into a covered grill area and as the level dropped, air caught underneath the ice moved and moaned. The lake was groaning so much I had to take a short video, here. I've never heard these sounds before, it was eerie, as though the lake were alive. It was quite fascinating and I must have stood a good 10 minutes watching the pond's performance before I turned and started the climb upwards.
It wasn't a hike that stunned me with nature's beauty, I was doing this purely for exercise purposes today, but it was fun looking for the patches of ice. Similar to many parts of the Appalachian Trail, the trek here looked the same, no nature, just barren brownness and the wind. No green plants or spikes of shoots breaking through the undergrowth. There were few birds and the only sound was a woodpecker jack hammering into a tree. I didn't see a single animal, no squirrels or chipmunks were leaping across fallen tree trunks or scurrying across the crunchy carpet of dead foliage. I wondered if there were any bears close to the trail, tucked up in their lairs, slumbering away through these freezing winter days.
I loved the different ice patterns. In black and white, they took on a sinister tone, losing their icy frozen quality and taking on an almost luminous tone, looking like a mucus substance from an alien planet. All the photos from today's hike were going to be in black and white, since that's what we had been asked to show at our photo club on Tuesday.
Dried leaves, curled up tight and reminding me of sea shells, blew across the path, whispering as they swept in front of me. The trail was crunchy underfoot with frozen mud and ice, a far cry from last week's muddy and slippery saunter. I only met one couple and their dog as I trekked back down the hill. I'd climbed to the top of the crest and getting tired of the sameness had turned around to head back to the lake and its sounds.
It was still creaking and whining, although less frequently now. The sun had thawed out some of the puddles and muddy areas that weren't shaded by the trees, but the wind was still cold. Down by the water's edge were blankets of ice crystals nestling in the grass. I crouched down to look at them more closely but kept slipping towards the lake's mantle of ice that was now breaking up around the rim, exposing dark still water beneath it. Time to warm up in the car and head home to stack wood. Another ice storm was coming.