Rain, Corn and Clay

The Oaxacan potter works in rhythm with the seasons...

It is quiet in the Oaxacan country side, the hush of rain. Out there in the hills the village potters have stopped working. The wood is wet, the clay mine out in the field is covered over by corn, the clay mine in the arroyo is flooded with water. The soil is soaked, no good for ground firing. It's a lousy time to be out peddling pots too. The country roads are mud bogs, the river crossings dangerous, the burro trails slick and treacherous. It is no time to be a potter. There are those who do, potters who's villages are close to the city and who have become more influenced by the seasons of tourism than the seasons of the sky. But these potters take their chances and take their losses. There are so many opportunities for vapor to get into the workings and pop pots apart. As for the other potters, those far removed from the wallets of tourists, potting has stopped for a spell. It's the rainy season, no time to be making pottery.

And more than that, it is the rainy season, time to plant and look to the crops. What need for a pot if there isn't food to cook in it. Working the soil has always come before working the clay. When the rains come the potters put aside their aprons and burnishing stones and put on their hats, take up their hoes and become farmers. So it has been forever, starting with the first rains in late May when the oxen are taken out to turn the soil and finishing, given the blessing of rain, in late October and November with the harvest and putting up.

The crop is corn, almost always corn, with some squash and beans thrown in for variety. Corn is everything here and has been for a long, long time. Corn is tortillas, present in every meal. In endless other incarnations: tamales, corn drink, soup, sweet bread, etc., it is also present in every meal. And there is no getting tired of it, corn is just plain good and filling. The leaves are used to wrap tamales, the stalks are saved to feed the oxen, goats and donkeys through the long dry season when forage is scarce. The cobs are used by the potters to scrape and form their pots and as fuel in the firing. A good harvest is security, dried and stored it guarantees full bellies through the next year. Any surplus is money, not just because it can be sold for cash, but because in its own right it is currency, as good or better than cash for village commerce. The corn currency unit of measure is an Almoud, a wooden box about half the size of a shoe box. "How much is that pot?" "Two Almoud." Long before there where pesos here, there was corn.

Sometime in early October the rain generally lets off. The soil slowly dries, everything flowers, the grass is tall and food is abundant. It is a pleasure to be alive. With the bringing in of the harvest the farmer/potter starts thinking about pots again. She may check to see if the arroyo clay mine has dried and begin to gather wood. December is mostly spent in the celebrations associated with Christ's birth; parades and masses, huge feasts and visiting. Then January, the air dry and the year new, the potters set to work again, in earnest, filling their days with clay until the gathering clouds of May let loose.


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