The Kim Chi Chronicles – Episode 6, Siila Mountain

The very next day Jun Beom turns up early at the b&b and tells me that he has been doing some research of his own. In actual fact, there is a porcelain stone mine right here in Yeoju. I already know this, because Mr Jung Du-sub, at YangGu showed me the scrap-book of his exhibitions, and explained to me through the amazing translation medium of Miss Kang, that he collected some white porcelain stone from Yeoju. The very place that we had set off from at the start of the week. Well, I said. “I must go there.” The stone that Mr. Jung collected was quite siliceous and refractory looking porcelain, so he used it as a kind of irregular grog to give a rough texture to his otherwise quite fine work. He tells me that he had to go there and collect some because it is mentioned in the early records of the Royal Court as being a site where special porcelain stone was found.
Jun Beom asks “Do I want to go and have a look for it”?
He tells me that it isn’t far away, we can drive to the base of the hill and apparently it’s only a quick 20 mins walk to get there. It’s going to be a very hot day today, up in the 30’s, so we had better set off early. “It’s not a problem, just a quick walk”!
OK, I agree, lets get going, but not until we have had a good breakfast of fried eggs on toast, coffee and some fresh fruit at his house.
We eventually set off at 10.30 and it’s getting quite hot already. We drive to the spot where the path up the hill starts. Luckily there is a map at the start, showing the various paths up and along the mountain. I have learnt from my very enjoyable, but wasted morning spent wandering with Miyuri san in Kyushu, looking for a porcelain stone site, up on spooky, misty ‘black-hair’ mountain. That if you see a map, photograph it on your phone and take it with you. It will save you an hour or two of miss-directed wandering.
So I do just that and I’m glad that I did, because it shows that I am capable of learning a new trick – even at my age. And, on this occasion, it saves us from wasting a couple of hours going in the wrong direction in the intense heat.
We start off in the lower left hand corner of this map and  walk all the way to the top right hand corner.
We set off up the hill. It’s steep. It varies from ‘quite’ to ‘very’, and in places even ‘f@#$%ng steep. We are starting to puff a bit as we trudge onwards and upwards. We are carrying a shovel and a sack too. Nothing  suspicious about that!
 We get to the top and start to follow the ridge. The path continues along a highly silicious, intrusion that has formed this mountain. We walk for some time and I’m starting to think that we might have gone too far, if it’s only 20 mins away. It’s not!. We walk for an hour, consulting my phone map every 10 mins to make sure that we are going in the right direction. Whoever told Jun Beom that it was only 20 mins away, had clearly never  been here.
Along the way, I see a number old workings, on both sides of the ridge, where potters have been exploiting this material in the past. But there are no fresh excavations.
Just about the time that I’m starting to think about going back, because we have almost reached the far end of the mountain track. I can hear cars passing by below us  not too far away and I know that the mountain walk stops  where the free way cuts through the base of the foothill. Then suddenly, there it is. I’m relieved. It’s a lot farther than we thought or were told.
I can’t see any way of getting down into the workings. All the edges at this end fall away into the clay pit very steeply. If I where to climb or fall in. The only way out would be to follow the contour down the hill to find the exit. So we decide to walk around the edge of the pit to try and find the other end, where machinery must have made their entry. Because the hole is so big that it wasn’t all carried out by hand in a sack, like we are about to do. This huge hole has been quarried by machines.
We set off along the ridge track for another 50 metres. We have lost sight of the pit, but we know that it must be there, nearby to our right. We stop and decide to go straight down the very steep slope through all the dense undergrowth and pine tree forest. We swing down, holding onto roots and branches to stop us sliding in the loose scree and humus. We go quite a way. We stop. it isn’t here! Where has it gone? A quarry can’t just disappear. We haven’t come across a track or road that might have led back up into the mine.
We feel that we have come down the hill much too far and our only way out with certainty is to go back, but it isn’t east going. We are on all fours hauling our selves back up, root by branch, occasionally sliding back down again on a flow of loose rubble. We are forced to take a slightly different way back up to take advantage of the better gradient or firmer foot holds. I’m keeping a pretty close eye on where I need t be heading, since I lost sight of my old foot holds that I made on the way down.
Suddenly, it’s right there in front of us. It’s the quarry. We went past it by about 6 metres on the way down. It was obscured by the thick brush and undergrowth. I walk straight into the workings and discover a nice fresh wombat-hole-like, shovel-sized excavation that some other potter, or potters have made in the last few years.  Perhaps it was Mr. Jung?
We scrape out half a dozen kilos of the whitest fraction into our sack and make our way out and around to go back up. It is quite a bit slower going back up when you have to hang onto the sack as well as the tree trunks and stems of bushes. We devise a method of throwing the sack up the slope, above our heads and metre or two ahead of us, and then scrambling and hauling ourselves up the cliff-like, almost vertical slope of loose scree and rubble, Until we reach the sack. Then propped against a pine tree trunk, I throw the sack a bit farther up the incline. Eventually, we emerge back onto the track, with a sigh of relief. We are saturated with sweat from the heat. We’ve been at this now for a few hours and it must be past mid-day. The sun is at its apogee and we are feeling like we are cooking. We are out of water and it’s still a long walk back to the car yet.
We set off, taking turns to carry the sack. We swap it for the shovel. I wouldn’t have brought a shovel. I wanted a garden trowel, but Jun Beom couldn’t find one. So this is the only thing that he could find at short notice. It’s not heavy, but it is awkward, and when we see another walker coming our way along the track. I feel compelled to sling the shovel onto my shoulder, like a miner of old, with jun Beom out in front with our sack of booty, held over his shoulder in a similar stance. I feel like a complete idiot, out here in the baking sun pretending to be some sort of miner. He must think that I’m some sort of mad-dog, but in actual fact I’m actually an Englishman!
We have to stop every so often to take a rest. The view from up here is tremendous.
We get back to the car, with only one wrong turn. It’s taken us 3 1/2 hrs. So much for 20 mins! I’ve earned this stone sample. When we arrive back at Jun Beom’s place we have no problem in emptying a bottle of water each. He offers me a towel and some of his clothes, a T shirt and some shorts. We are totally saturated in sweat, soil and rock dust. It’s clogged onto us like a paste. I revel in the fresh clean water, washing my hair as well. I emerge feeling human again. Jun  Beom has turned on the air-con and the living room is now delightfully cool. After Jun Beom has showered, we sit and drink more water. he offers me orange juice, but its too sweet and thick. The juice tastes just too strong for me now. What I really need is the water to re-hydrate. I end making a shandy of orange juice and 2/3 water, the juice has just that little kick of sugar that seems just right in a small quantity right now. I’ve burnt a lot of calories on the climb, but lost a lot more water as sweat.
We put all our smelly clothes into the washing machine and then I spread all our rocks out on Jun Beom’s floor to dry. The day is baking hot outside, but the humidity is also quite high too. Things still take a long time to dry.
I sort out all my samples that I have collected over the last week, as well. I spread them all out to dry along with todays haul.
I spend a couple of hours hand sorting the Tae Baek Mountain sample, but now that it is all crushed I ought to call it Broke Baek Mountain stone. I sort it into pure white and slightly iron stained samples. I will make the purest, whites stones into the body to get the best translucency and use the slightly iron stain stones to make the glaze.
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It’s anything but rocket science, but I know from working with my own porcelain stone materials back home in Australia, that this slow, painfully dull and boring couple of hours will be extraordinarily worthwhile in terms of the  finished results that  will be able to achieve. I’ve done this with much larger volumes than this and with materials with a grain size of just a few millimetres. I once sorted 40 kilos of fines using tweezers.
Took two days with plenty of breaks, where I just had to get up and walk away and go and weed the garden. This is an extreme example, but if you don’t get serious and give it a try, you don’t get extraordinary results.
No one notices this by the way. It doesn’t rate a mention, and I’m too cautious to mention it in public lest people think that I’m a bit loony. But I discuss it with my close friends, as they already know that I’m nuts and accept me as I am.
One potter once asked me if I’d sell her some of my milled stone clay. I said that I hadn’t even though about selling any. It’s just too precious. There are too many hours of work involved in making clay like this. She said try me! I said something along the lines that it would have to cost somewhere around a couple of hundred dollars for a 5kg pack. Needless to say I didn’t make a sale!. Later, when I though it through more thoroughly, I was very pleased, because I came to realise that the clay cost me so much more than that to make. Before I aged it for the couple of years that it needs to get some workability.
Even though I have never sold any, I have actually given some away to students who are keen to try it on the odd occasion when they attend my classes, but I’m very cautious about that and I ask them to return the trimmings to me, so that I can recycle them.
After lunch I decide to write that letter to the Southern pottery site and send the ‘letter of proposal’ that was requested earlier, last week. I don’t use letter head, or even letter format. Just send an email saying what I said originally, but adding the proposed dates of my show at Watters Gallery next year.
I add the closing sentence that I am writing a book of all my experiences in the research of single-stone porcelain from all around the world that will accompany the exhibition. This implies that because their conditions are so strict. I won’t be able to include any piece of theirs in my show which will feature quite a few pieces that I have been able to make in other places in Korea, But it also means that Although they will miss out getting any mention in the show and catalogue. There will definitely be a chapter in the book on my negative experiences as well. So, really it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other, as I now already have all the other work that I need. He’s made himself irrelevant.
The rest of the day is spent in glazing my pots that made before I left on my week-long sojourn with Miss Kang. I decide to simply use a clear glaze and keep the work simple and consistent with all the other work that I have made in the other countries. I think that the material should speak for itself.
Jun Beom gets a phone call during the afternoon from the Southern Pottery Manager. He tells him that he will post a sample of their clay to me at Jun Beom’s address!
My response is that;
A/ I don’t believe him.
B/ If he does. He had better send it express mail as I leave in 3 days and I won’t be here for the last two.
I return to the b&b and go to bed early as I’m feeling completely wreaked from lack of sleep and the long hike.
Miracles will never cease! I arrive at the pottery the next day to pack up all my dry samples for postage back to Australia. These are all clean quarry rock samples collected from deep in the ground, with no top soil or humus contamination, so I am confident that they are safe to post to Australia. I have had no problems posting samples back from China or Japan in the past. But I did get one of my parcels that I sent from England opened for inspection by customs, but not quarantine. This was the stone from Cornwall, from William Cookworthy’s pit. This pit has been open and abandoned for many years, with lots of brambles and bracken invading the site and creating humus and compost. I also think that cattle grazed the site.
I’m a cautious kind of guy. I don’t want to cause anybody any trouble. I certainly don’t want to be responsible for importing any dangerous soil-borne diseases into Australia. So in the case of the Tregonning Hill stones. I scrubbed them thoroughly in water to get them very clean, then soaked them in chlorine bleach overnight, before drying them at 150oC to 180oC in the oven for an hour. I felt that this would probably kill any pathogens that might be lurking in any crevices. It probably also killed any beneficial bacteria that might have been there too. But I’d rather be safe. Funnily. It is this box that gets opened by customs!
I’m busy packing my samples into plastic bags and weighing them when the mail man arrives with my box from Cheongsong in the south. I’m quite amazed, stunned even. I open it to find a wooden box, not unlike the sort of box that a pot might be presented in – only rougher. I open that to find 3 kilos of clay wrapped in plastic. No note, nothing but the clay. Well! Wonder of wonders!
Jun Beom drives me and my precious cargo of 4 samples to the Post Office. I don’t use the wooden box from Cheongsong. It looked a bit iffy, lets say roughly made. I don’t think that it is safe to post to Australia. I’m sure that it hasn’t been heat-treated or sterilised in any way, so I discard it.
I have no problem with posting pots from Japan, packaged in beautiful hand-crafted wooden boxes. The first few times I brought them back to Australia in my hand luggage so that I could declare them and have them confiscated easily, if it was necessary, but each time the Border Force people let me keep them saying more or less that this kind of wooden product isn’t likely to carry any bugs. So from then on I felt OK about posting them home and haven’t had any trouble with them.
I’m about to test the System. I buy a suitably sized Post Office cardboard post-pack box. I fill it perfectly with my samples. I fill out the customs declaration form stating that the parcel contains “Korean Porcelain stone and porcelain clay”. That should do it!
The lady behind the counter processes and weighs the box. She reads my form and suddenly stops dead. Looks up at me gravely and asks me through Jun beom, If I’m aware of Post Office rules regarding posting this kind of material? I say no, please tell me! She looks very stern and informs me that “Australia has severe rules about posting anything that might contain soil!” I release quite a sigh of relief. I tell her, no worries. I’ve done this before and its quite OK, I’ll take the risk! She franks it and I swipe my card. It’s gone.
If there really is a rule about exporting porcelain stone from Korea. No one has told the Post Office!
PS. my parcel arrived home safely and before I did.
Sweet dreams from Steve in Korea