Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wild Plums

Wild Plums. It sounds like the title of a Yasujiro Ozu movie. And the association may be apt. This morning Hilary and I strapped our bikes to the car, intent on a bike ride up across the loping hills of Elm Creek (which is in Maple Grove) but decided along the way that it was too gray and cold for such foolishness and turned east on 694 in the direction of Stillwater. Our destination? The annual St. Croix Valley pottery tour.

Year after year we receive the flyer in April, detailing the location of the many potters who live and work in northern Washington and southern Chisago counties; and year after year we make a mental note to visit them during this rural art crawl. But until today, we’ve never actually made the rounds. It may be because our cupboards are already overflowing with pots, bowls, tea bowls (neither of us drink tea), hand-thrown plates, pitchers….

Why should this year be any different? Perhaps because we spent a good deal of time yesterday looking at Chinese landscape scrolls from the Song and Ming dynasties at the Art Institute, and then ate lunch at a restaurant on Lyndale called Zen. Or maybe it was because we were talking about pots with some friends at a party last night.

In any case, we soon found ourselves at the boom site on the St. Croix, looking at a huge flock of cedar waxwings in the trees and a lone solitary sandpiper on the beach. A few minutes later we pulled into Guillermo Cuellar’s studio in the hills overlooking Osceola, where we looked at a large array of beautiful pots set out on eight or ten long tables on the lawn overlooking the crest of the hill above the valley.

There are many talented potters in the region, but it seems to me that Cuellar has the most earthy and organic style. Perhaps you don’t quite know what I mean. A great pot is a work of art, of technique, of thought and repetition and habit. Due to the materials and the hands-on method and the uncertainties of the firing, a great pot can capture the nonchalance of nature—its uncanny knack for incorporating accidents into its lovely creations—perhaps better than any other art form. And the fact that the object is designed to be used brings the individual who owns and uses it into the flow of those natural rhythms. Hence, earthy and organic.

We bought one of Cuellar’s very large serving bowls with a tenmoku glaze and very little decoration. We don’t have anything quite like.

We proceeded north through Taylor’s Falls to four other potteries. One had a wandering accordion player and a popcorn machine, at another they were serving red wine and sun-dried tomato hummus. Some of the “guest” potters were from as far afield as Connecticut and West Virginia. Many good potters, some whimsical potters—though that trend seems to be running its course. The parking was often difficult—the edges of gravel roads dropping off steeply into the woods. And although it was the tail end of the last day of the sale, the tables were still amply stocked with wares.

But half the fun of such an excursion is simply wandering the countryside. Just south of the Arcola Railroad Bridge we spotted a trail and pulled over. It led a half-mile down through the woods to the St. Croix, dropping steeply near the end, and along the way we saw plenty of wildflowers and two ovenbirds. (No luck with the morels. A week too early?)

On a county highway leading north to Sunrise we heard some crows harassing a red-tailed hawk and pulled over to watch. At first we couldn’t see where the hawk had landed but Hilary finally spotted him, and then she noticed that a gray squirrel was dangling lifelessly in his talons. When the crows had quieted down the hawk made a break for it, flying low across a swamp, but it was clear that the squirrel was weighing him down and the crows were soon in hot pursuit, cawing with clamorous abandon.

Ain’t Nature grand?

But perhaps what impressed me most about the day were the explosions of white flowers here and there along the fringes of the forest. Most of these trees were less than ten feet tall, but they were far more vigorous in bloom than the serviceberry we also spotted from time to time deeper in the woods. There is something very undisciplined about the branching pattern of these dwarf trees; and the rows of tightly-clustered white blossoms that define the branches, largely unobscured by leaves, come at you from the forest like a giddy and unbridled shout. Their appearance is quite unlike that of the crabapple trees, which are beautiful but seem rather lush and domesticated in comparison.

What are these beautiful little trees? Google Images was no help at all. I imagined they were hawthorns or plums, and finally, by resorting to my basement library of natural history, I arrived at a conclusion. In A Natural History of Trees by Donald Culross Peattee (1966), I came upon this passage:

Where, throughout its large but irregular range, the Wild Red Plum grows profusely, spring has a special loveliness. For the plum thickets, early in the year, foam with white blossoms piling like snow upon the naked wood. Alone or as an understory tree beneath hardwoods, this plum is a lacy note in the forest pattern. Though it grows usually little higher than 12 to 15 feet, and is commonly a mere shrub… its branches are comparatively widespacing, and even somewhat dropping, forming a broad-topped head. Since it sends up many sprout stems, it spreads wherever it finds the opportunity, and there the odor of the blossoms freights the spring sunshine—an odor faintly fetid but yet not wholly unpleasing to any who played as children in those flowering and but sparsely thorny thickets.”\

Does anyone still write like that? In a “scientific” field guide? I think not. But Peattee has hit the nail on the head, bringing that splendid little tree to life.

Nature is full of wildness. Everyone knows that, I guess. Is it so strange if we want to have a little wildness in our serving dishes, too?