I’m back in Korea again. This time I’m up in the north of the south. I came to Korea last year to do some preliminary research and to suss out what might be possible, but mainly to visit as many single stone porcelain sights as possible. It was an amazing trip and I learnt more than I had hoped for. I discovered sites that I hadn’t previously known of and got to make some nice pots along the way.
From my reading and research, it seems that Korea might have been the place where porcelain was invented, some time around the year 900. That places it about 100 years earlier than the development of porcelain in China.
Before commencing this research, I had believed that China was the source of porcelain development and the technology had spread overland to Korea by osmosis. Some doubt has now been cast on this theory and it just might have been the other way around?
I certainly don’t know. I’ll wait for the evidence to be further developed to see what happens. It makes no difference to me. I don’t see it as a race. But an excellent example of human ingenuity.
In my own Walter Mitty world. They both came across the idea at more or less the same time, quite independently. Just as I did, more or less by accident, or good fortune. Although I do concede the truism that the harder you work, the luckier you get. McMeekin just seems to have stumbled on his porcelain deposit from word of mouth, possibly over a beer at the Mittagong pub? Who knows. I don’t believe that this sort of information is recorded. Luckily, whatever the circumstances of the insight, he was the right person, in the right place, at the right time.
I do know that when I arrived in my small hamlet of Balmoral, I asked around of the locals, if there was any clay deposits in the area. The best people turned out to be the local bull dozer driver and the back hoe operator. They spent their days digging the dirt in other peoples places and seeing just what is under the surface. They had lots of insights. Unfortunately, non of them lead to usable material at that time.
So now I’m back here specifically to work the YangGu sericite porcelain clay. There has been porcelain made here around these hills for centuries. I’m just not sure how long as yet. That is one of the things that I’m here to find out. However, what I really want to do is to get my fingers into the stuff and make some pots. The Yang Gu porcelain stone has been mined out of these hills for eons, possibly since the 1400’s? However, no one knows just where the stone was mined. It’s a mystery still. Most likely under ground, as there is no sign of any material like it on the surface and enigmatically, no shafts have been found. However, as we are so close to the border here. the material just might be located just over the hill in the North?
The walk to and from the studio to my dormitory is very pleasant. I get to walk past lots of little farms. There is a lot of poly tunnel agriculture here. I guess because the summer is short and the winter is very long and very cold. So a bit of extra warmth from the poly tunnels gets things started early when the ground outside would be just still too cold. I’m told that the frost penetrates down to 1 metre here.
There are several crops of beautiful garlic coming along. The outer leaves are just starting to turn colour, so they will be ready for harvest very soon. It must have been dry here lately, as I can see that this farmer has the sprinkler on the crop, irrigating it, to keep it growing a bit longer to fill out the bulbs.
As I walk to the village I can hear cookcoos calling from the forrest all around. All of the valley floor here has been levelled and terraced everywhere that you look. It must have taken hundreds of years of man and women hours to get the landscape so well prepared for rice culture. The terraced paddy fields go all the way up to the steep sides of the hill. Intermixed with poly-tunnels. Then some enterprising farmer has even ploughed the slope up the hill side, where it was possible. I’m not too sure that this is a very good idea, as when the big rain events come. He will loose most of his top soil. The forrest on the hills is all heavily planted with timber species. I’m told that all of this forrest was totally cleared all around here during the Korean war of the fifties. The hills from here to the border were denuded of all vegetation so that any enemy attack could easily be seen coming.
We are only a kilometre or two from the front line here. Now called the DMZ. At various times throughout the day I can hear loud speakers booming out the insane propaganda from over the border in the North. I can’t understand it and the locals tell me that they don’t even hear it any more. It’s just so much background noise, like heavy traffic passing. What is really tragic, is that a poverty stricken country like the North would waste so much energy in such a totally futile exercise.
There is a lot of water still issuing from the hills here in the form of spring water. It has all been harvested and channelled into culverts. It makes it’s way down across the valley floor and is diverted here and there in to smaller channels, ducts and eventually into local ditches that work their way around the paddies.
The rice seedlings have just been planted out and are starting to shoot upwards. The fields are kept flooded while the rice establishes itself. Once the top field is filled and is completely flooded. the excess water then flows down from ditch to ditch and field to field into the next, and so on. Once all the farmers fields are flooded. The excess water is returned to the fast flowing channels so that it can be used by the next farmer down the valley.
The water eventually makes its way down to the river in the valley floor, where some enterprising farmers who don’t have access to a spring fed flow. Pump the water out of the river and it starts its irrigating journey all over again.
In the evening the setting sun shines on the flooded rice and there is a peaceful harmony about it all. This enterprise of growing wholesome food, the tinkle of fast flowing water, the quiet of the evening, the last feeble rays off the sun and me walking home in the fading light after a productive day in the workshop, its a beautiful time. As I turn into the little valley where I am staying I notice that there is a very prolific bird sound. I am staying right up at the head of this little valley, so It’s a long walk. A couple of kilometres. The forest here is alive with some sort of birdlife that I don’t know. There must be thousands of these birds, all calling and responding with a kind of hooting sound. Maybe it’s mating season?
I can sense that there is no other wild life up here in this valley or the woods that surround it on all sides, because all the farmers fields are wide open. There are no fences to be seen most of the time. I guess that this also means the there is no issue of pilfering either. All the farm equipment is left out in full view, even power tools. It’s a lovely feeling to be in a place where there is so much neighbourly trust and respect. On the road I suddenly see a very small frog. I would have missed it except for its luminous green and black colouring. I decide not to touch it. Anything this colourful, hiding in plain sight without a care, must be very confident that no bird will eat it. I suspect that it is vey toxic. I only take its photo and not its pulse. As I walk further, I can see that there a whole lot of them that have been squashed on the road. Not only does their (possibly) poisonous skin make them totally unafraid of predators. They have no road sense either. Tragically for them, poisonous skin doesn’t deter cars.
As I walk up past all the poly tunnels, rice paddies and vegetable plots I nod and say “Anyohaseyo” to each of the people that I meet. I got a few double takes on my first trip, but now they recognise me and word has spread that I’m here and only sleeping in the dormitory building at the head of the valley. At first they responded in fast, staccato Korean. But I can only shrug my shoulders and look helpless. I can’t speak any Korean past the first few words of airpot language that we all learn to be able to get around. They smile back at me and we each go on about our own tasks.
I’m still quite amazed that even though it is summer and it hasn’t rained since I’ve been here, and there a people watering their plants, it’s obviously a dry time, but as I walk, I can hear the river rushing, then up the valley I can hear the irrigation ditches channelling the gurgling spring water. I’m suddenly struck by the fact that here is so much water, so far from home.
Best wishes from Steve in Korea