Friday, August 24, 2012

Alewife by Douglas Watts


Ordering info for: Alewife by Douglas Watts (hard copy and ebook).

"Alewife" is a personal, biological and historical account of the alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus), one of the (formerly) most abundant sea-run fish of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. It is the only full-length treatment of the natural and cultural history of this keystone wildlife species ever written.

"Alewife" tells the story of a fish, the alewife, once ubiquitous to the eastern U.S., which is almost gone due to wholly human causes; and a never-been-told 400 year history of many long forgotten people who labored mightily to bring the alewife back. It tells the story of the fish through its own eyes and life, apart from what it 'can do' for us. It depicts a place where cultural, natural, political and legal forces wildly collide. It's about the fight for, against, and over a dimunitive but once extremely abundant fish that still continues today in state and federal court rooms across the states of the eastern seaboard. It is about what nature in our backyards meant to us in the past, what it means today and what it might mean to us 10, 20 or 50 years from now. It's a story about a lot of disparate people over 400 years and how nature and culture provoked them for good, bad and indifferent. It's not nearly complete, there are many stories still untold, but gives a flavor for the battlefield, the stakes to be lost and gained and hints to where the tipping points have been and still are. It's a hybrid, with all the advantages and disadvantages an unorthodox approach entails. Bridging gaps might be its central theme. I wrote this for an adventurous reader who is not afraid to skip a chapter and then come back to it later. It is intentionally kaleidoscopic; a multi-levelled story. The essays owe much to the series of young adult books, "Tell Me Why," by Arkady Leokum. 

The book is in two sections. One section is selected verbatim public domain record excerpts describing the species and its use and abuse by humans in New England from the 1600s to present. Most of these documents were written in quill pen, discovered and hand copied by the author, and have never seen the light of day before. The second section tells, in a personal essay style, the story of the alewife, based mostly on recent efforts in New England to protect and save them. 

The book began several years ago as the historic texts with a short introduction and was originally intended for dissemination to fisheries scientists, environmental regulators and river conservationists as a technical, factual resource. At the instigation of a fellow writer, Kerry Hardy (who wrote the foreword), I loosened up to tell in a first-person voice my many encounters with these critters in the waters of New England since childhood and the obstacles one encounters trying to help them not go extinct. It's a tough racket. These personal stories echo back to the historical texts, which detail how people 50, 100, 200 years ago tried to do the same thing and encountered nearly identical obstacles, albeit time-shifted by a century or three. 

The tone and weight of the text is balanced to make it accessible to an informed and inquisitive lay audience and to a professional scientific audience; and above all, to be fully scientifically sourced. My brother and I's personal travails trying to help alewives survive are deliberately told in a 'camp-fire' fashion and with the level of humor and absurdity the details deserve. 

About the Author

Douglas Watts was born in North Easton, Massachusetts in 1964 a few dozen miles from Cape Cod and the Atlantic Ocean in southeastern Massachusetts and spent most of his childhood up to his waist in ponds and brooks and saltwater. He received his education in journalism and English at the Univ. of Maine at Orono from 1982-1986. In 1986 he began work as a full-time newspaper and magazine reporter, editor and photographer in Maine and Massachusetts for a variety of small and large newspapers and then as a conservation writer for the Maine Sportsman magazine, the Atlantic Salmon Journal, Wild Steelhead & Salmon, and Corporate Challenge News. Since 1999 he has worked full-time as a professional consultant for numerous New England conservation groups, doing ecological and legal research on the history and health of New England's coastal river ecosystems. This historic research forms the bulk and inspiration of "Alewife." Since 1998, he has been a plaintiff and/or principal researcher in numerous legal cases in Maine and Massachusetts regarding restoring native sea-run fish to rivers of the northeastern U.S. His historic research has been used and cited by the United States Supreme Court in a landmark 2006 Clean Water Act case, S.D. Warren v. Maine BEP, and by the National Academy of Science in its 2004 monograph on the status of native Atlantic salmon in the United States. His advocacy on behalf of the American eel is featured in a Sept. 2010 National Geographic story by writer and artist James Prosek and his book on the same topic, "Eels," (Harper Collins 2010). He was a consultant and subject in the 2003 film "Troubled Waters: the Dilemma of Dams" by Beth and George Gage, featured at the Telluride Film Festival and Maine Film Festival.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hunt-Libby Special Project No. 1 by Sonny Probe


Hunt-Libby Special Project No. 1
An Opera in Four Acts by Sonny Probe


I. Act One  

Their Assault on Our Assault on Their Liberties

1. Bay of Pigs Veterans Clandestine Radio Goo Goo.
2. Launch of  the Prostitute Yachts in Baltimore Harbor.
3. Sirhan B. Sirhan, James Earl Ray and Pete Cosey.
4. To Put it Bluntly, How to Screw Our Political Enemies.

II. Act Two

A Firm but Measured Response Involving Burglary

5. Cuban Exiles Wtd, Mad Sklz w/ Lck Pks gd.
6. He's Dr. Feel Ding.
7. Watergate Break-In Memorial Day Bake No. 1. 
8. Watergate Break-In Flag Day Bake No. 2.


Intermission w/ Complimentary Pinot Noir, Deviled Eggs
and Consensual Pocket Litter Exchange.


III. Act Three 

Yeah, We Jam on Wednesdays at this D.C. Modified Limited Hangout.

9. John W. Dean Karaoke Night.
10. Jeb Stuart Magruder Home Organ Samba Freak-Out.
11. Facing the Constituents at Home on Rat Poison.
12. CREEP Political Memorandum No. 18.
13. John and Joni Mitchell Up In A Tree.

IV. Act Four 

Cleaning Up Behind the Elephant.

14. The Sam Ervin Galatians Mahlerian Aria.
15. Edmund Sixtus Muskie Goes All Frank Marino.
16. Impeach Earl Warren !!!
17. Flying Mr. Johnson Into Space.

Deux ex Machina, Global Licensing Claim/Disclaimer
and Location of Fire Exits and Restrooms.

Hunt-Liddy Special Project No. 1, the revenue generating and trademarked subsidiary product component wholly owned by the license holder (see Tab A, fn. 1), by which you have now irrevocably agreed to abide by reading this word, not that one, but this one, hah! made you read it, has created the attached 'original work' ('original work') so as to create an wholly spurious but facially justiciable claim on all of the thoughts, words and feelings of the Dramatis Personae and any rights held by their heirs and assigns and you too. Alea iacta est

Operational Objectives: Emplaced tactical tangents will first create a verifiable cover as 'screenwriters' for an 'opera' titled 'Hunt-Liddy Special Project No. 1' through various 'underground' network dissemination channels and establish social and cultural  infrastructural oxyrhynchus where necessary to secure entrenchment. No ants will be stepped on. If cover is compromised, embedded operatives  will deploy Operation Beetle where they turn into beetles and crawl into an asphalt street to get squashed like bugs. If no large trucks come by, operatives will apply Operation Hydrofluoric Acid Facial Scrub and Sticking Your Head into a Giant Belt Sander Connected to a Blast Furnace Underneath a Nuclear Bomb so as not to compromise mission effectiveness. 

ACT ONE

Scene One opens with a brief mid 1960s Top Secret Comint message regarding Commie Infiltration of 4H clubs in Nebraska not fully unopposed to recreational bunny hangings.

Scene Two scopes out a bold and aggressive attack against enemies at home and abroad. 

Scene Three shifts to a dark cellar DC club in 1968 as MLK and RFK are offed but Blind Willie Johnson is found miraculously alive, with a pen knife.

Scene Four counts the number of footsteps travelled up and down back stairways by couriers to achieve approval of the Enemies List and its operational actuator, Hunt-Libby Special Project No. 1.

ACT TWO 

Scene Five contains the music offered by a pick-up band in a decrepit Homestead, Florida dive bar at closing where the properly skilled anti-Castro burglars were located and enticed by Hunt to execute Special Project No. 1.

Scene Six is the Cuban-styled song and video game going through the burglars' heads as they ransack Dr. Fielding's psychiatric office in Beverly Hills, CA to find his file on Daniel Ellsberg, who sent the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

Scene Seven depicts the same Cuban-American burglars, along with CREEP Security Officer James McCord, Jr., planting telephonic bugs in the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on Memorial Day weekend, 1972.

Scene Eight depicts the burglars' second entry into the Watergate to fix a faulty phone bug on June 17, 1972, getting busted by Watergate Hotel security officer Frank Wills, then getting hauled off, mug-shotted, finger-printed and having their 'pocket litter' examined, which included numerous $100 bills with consecutive serial numbers which the FBI traced to illegal, unreported campaign donations made to the CREEP. 


This is intermission time, so please feel free to go into the lobby, mix and mingle with other generous SeasonSubscribers and enjoy the complimentary white wine and deviled eggs. 


ACT THREE 

Scene Nine depicts Counsel to the President John W. Dean sitting in and stealing the show with Roger Miller at an invite-only CREEP event the night he realizes he is going to jail no matter what happens, so he might as well grab $4,850 in Hunt-Liddy hush money from his office safe to pay for his honeymoon and leave in its place a personal cheque.

Scene Ten is a rare binaural recording of CREEP chief of staff Jeb Stuart Magruder, feeling musically jealous of John Dean's boffo cameo with Roger Miller, whipping out some edgy home organ Samba riffs on the night he perjured himself to the Watergate Grand Jury. 

Scene Eleven depicts a disturbing hallucinogenic dream that Sen. Edward Gurney (R-FLA) keeps having where he is back in his birth state of Maine giving an incoherent 'JFK' styled stump speech at Carthage Town Hall during Congressional Recess where the 10 elderly Grange members in attendance keep looking like chickens without heads. 

Scene Twelve captures the musical mood when John J. Wilson, attorney for H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, calls U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) "that little Jap" on the steps of Congress. Sen. Inouye has no right arm. He lost it in battle in Italy during World War II. Good times were had by all.

Scene Thirteen is [REDACTED FOR NATIONAL SECURITY REASONS PURSUANT TO 13 U.S.C. 315. et seq.]

Scene Fourteen is a wiretap obtained by the infamous 'double agent' from a now-legendary late night hootenany at John Mitchell's Manhattan apartment, where over numerous fifths of Dewar's, Mitchell rocks the mike Kingston Trio style at why Dean and Magruder need to stick to the plan, jail or no jail. A young and precocious Lee Atwater walks in halfway through the jam session with an ice bucket and his Gibson Flying V and lays down some 'hippy' guitar licks and goes all Steve Miller and Pharoah Sanders. Mitchell's third and fourth chins nod approvingly.

ACT FOUR

Scene Fourteen depicts U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC) gavelling in and out the Senate Select Watergate Committee Hearings. 

Scene Fifteen is a previously undisclosed closing concert given by U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie to the Senate Select Watergate Committee where he brings out the Vinnie Vincent Invasion and the non-gay guy from Queensryche in an 'All Star Lite Metal Tribute to Roy Orbison and all those Other Old Fuckin' Rockin Dudes' to the Senate podium. During the tap bass solo, Sen Muskie forcefully argues for the President's signature on the U.S. Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, especially Section 401. He also seeks a Congressional Resolution where Geddy Lee is not allowed to say, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the Professor on the Drums," anywhere in hearing distance of the international boundary of the U.S. and Canada along Lake Huron.

Scene Sixteen is a piano etude written by Hugo Black and performed by U.S. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in memoriam to the recently deceased Chief Justice Earl Warren at the commencement of oral arguments in United States v. Nixon. 

Scene Seventeen is the Greek Chorus of the Ghosts of Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom discussing with Congress the importance of the future of space travel to the United States as they lie burning to death like baked potatoes in aluminum foil in the Apollo 1 space capsule at Cape Canaveral in a pure oxygen atmosphere while Liddy and Hunt and Colson decided the Real Enemy was Black U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-MI).

PRODUCTION NOTES:

The song "Truck Driver Divorce" (Scene 5) was written by Frank Zappa. The song "I Catch Myself Crying" (Scene 9) was written by Roger Miller. Fair use of these two songs is invoked since they are used herein as operatic and satiric vehicles to describe felonious crimes for which the culprits ultimately were convicted in federal court. Whether the real people involved in these felonious convictions actually sang these songs on karaoke night in Washington, D.C. in 1972-1973 has yet to be firmly established but might well could have happened.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Truck Driver Divorce -- The 1926 Version.


Here's a radically traditional 1926 version of a song by Frank Zappa that he and his band played quite a bit in their early 1980s tours. At the time, he allegedly described it as "a country song on PCP" that would cause the "death of country music." It did not surface in a recorded version until the 1984 double album, Them or Us.

Truck Driver Divorce -- 1926 Version.

In the late 1970s Zappa couldn't resist poking fun at country music, probably due to the ascendance of televangelists like Jerry Falwell and his waterboy, Ronald Reagan, who piously extolled the genre's celebration of enduring family values ... like ... umm ... cheating on your wife and being a useless drunk.

But Truck Driver Divorce is not a country song. It's really a mid 1920s Al Jolson kind of song ... on PCP. But then again, Al Jolson is like Al Jolson on PCP, so go figure.

And despite some enthusiasts' claims that this song is just Zappa's live band doing a loose, free improvisation behind a similarly free vocal improv, it is built on a standard 1920s-type descending I-IV blues progression using two major chords and their dominant seventh and minor, ie. I-I7-IV-IVm. In each second section, the I-IV resolves to the V. This is a scheme heard in countless ragtime and blues songs of the pre-1930s era and practically begs the singer to do the melody like Al Jolson, which is what Frank does, creating the appropriate level of cloying, obviously fake sentimentality the lyrical subject requires.

In the key of G, the basic chords are:

D7 (intro chord).
G -- G7 -- C -- Cm
G -- G7 -- C -- Cm -- A7 -- D7

While the vocal melody starts on the G, you need the D flatted seventh to set up the flavor of the song's tonality. This type of intro is a standard ragtime device, probably to get people in the room to notice the band is going to start playing a song. Blind Lemon Jefferson uses this kind of an intro in his 1926 song "Beggin' Back."

Note that all the seventh chords are not the major seventh but the dominant, ie. flatted seventh. So in G7, the seventh note is F natural, not F sharp, ie. G-B-D-F, which is what gives the progression a ragtimey feel.

Because this is supposed to be a country song, the G position on bass does not let you alternate down to a low D as the fifth which you really need to get that honky-tonk feel. Instead of detuning the low E bass string to D, I alternated the low G with the open D string. In the back end (4 bars) of each second section the bass really needs to walk through the chords on straight eighth notes instead of the rocking chair squeak kind of quarter notes at the front.

The final verse is different:

Cm - G - D7
Truck Driver divorce, it's very sad.

A7
Bust Your Ass

Cm
To deliver some string beans

A7
To deliver some string beans

D7
To Utah

G
Tonight.

Despite that Zappa's original live recording sort of sounds like a free improv, the composition is tightly structured and Zappa's vocal melody follows the I-IV progression closely, even though he and the bass player perversely flatten or double flatten a bunch of the notes. According to those who zealously research this arcane stuff, the instrumental back end of the recorded version is a spliced-in live performance of the song Zoot Allures from 1981 in New York City.

So anyways, if you have an acoustic guitar and can play open first position chords, you can play the 'real' arrangement of Truck Driver Divorce and exorcise your secret desire to be Al Jolson or Bessie Smith doing a really stupid country song about driving a truckload of string beans to Utah.

About the string beans. Zappa must have written these lyrics at the same time he wrote "No Not Now" from Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, since both songs contain a lot of the same phrases, like "transcontinental hobby horse" and "oh the wife ... oh the waitress ... oh the drive all night long," etc. And, of course, string beans to Utah, which apparently has some weird connection to Donny and Marie Osmond.

What I like about Truck Driver Divorce, aside from its sheer and unrelenting idiocy, is that the melody and chord progression are rooted in the 1900-1910s ragtime changes which by the 1920s became 'citified' by singers like Al Jolson, to the point where it's almost impossible to sing this song without subconsciously wanting to say, "Oh Mammy .... all the way home from Alabammie .... she used to cook me eggs and hammy ... Oh Mammy."

But the biggest challenge in recording the 1926 version of Truck Driver Divorce is that you can't sing the song straight because it's too flat-out stupid and songs in 1926 were never sung 'straight.' This is pre-method acting time. And I also didn't want to imitate Zappa's arrangement, since then what's the effing point?

After a lot of trial and error and messing around at 4 a.m. I started adding in all of the background noises, which consist of me pouring dirty bath water back and forth from a couple of plastic cat litter buckets and then kicking them over on the floor, shaking a bag of styrofoam packing peanuts, mumbling incoherently and imitating the voices of some weird people I know who talk like they have marbles in their mouth about shaving Brenda's crotch.

This fake audio verite approach is itself a direct rip-off of the Mothers' song "America Drinks and Goes Home" from Absolutely Free where Zappa creates a sound collage of a dive cocktail bar at closing time with Ray Collins saying 'last call for alcohol, drink it up folks' and offering them peanut butter and jelly and baloney sandwiches at their next gig while the patrons start throwing chairs and bottles at each other.

One problem with this recording approach is that it requires just the right mix of mayhem vs. music, which has a lot to do with mic placement and panning to enlarge the stereo spectrum so that you can still hear the song but the mayhem is right in your face. The production challenge is to take a completely studio recorded piece but make it sound like a single condenser mic at some weird PCP-laden hillbilly cabin in the woods.

The tail-out is me, Mark Kemezys, Jerry Trevino and Jeff Hursch doing some weird improv at 38-C Northern Ave with those 99 cent plastic slidey whistles.

Enjoy!


You can also do the song in C, which falls well on an open, first position guitar, and nicely on the bass, since you get to hit the C root on the 3rd fret, 2nd string and drop right to the G on the low E string. That progression is C-C7-F-Fm with D7 and G7 replacing A7 and D7 as the adds.

Actually, Lemon Jefferson was one of the only 1920s singers to 'drop' the theatrical pose and do a song straight, meaning sarcastically, in "Beggin' Back," where in the improvised verses he's goofing on the chorus of the song.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

When kids used to go down to the Kennebec River to get Atlantic salmon for breakfast.


Citation: Boardman, Samuel L.: in Ninth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture. 1864. Augusta, Maine. Stevens & Sayward, Printers to the State. Subsequently published in the Maine Farmer, March 23, 1865.

At page 109:

"An aged woman, who formerly lived on the banks of the Kennebec in Vassalboro, and who, at that time, had a large family of children to support, once told me that, in spring and early summer, the fish from the river were a very essential aid to them -- that many times she has sent one of her boys down to the river early in the morning to catch a salmon for breakfast, with as much certainty that he would bring one home in season, as if she had sent him with the money to a city fish market, where she knew they were kept for sale."

How Maine's Sea-Run Fish were Dammed into Oblivion, 1864.

Citation: Boardman, Samuel L. 'Aquaeculture': in Ninth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture. 1864. Augusta, Maine. Stevens & Sayward, Printers to the State. Also pub. in Maine Farmer, March 23, 1865.

At p. 109-110:

"Everyone now knows that salmon, shad and alewives, and indeed all the other kinds of migratory fishes -- those that spend winters in the salt water, and come up out of the sea at certain periods, as if sent by a kind Providence, to spend the spring and summer in fresh water -- are now very scarce indeed, and in some streams totally extinct. Everyone knows, too, that many of the species of fishes which remain permanently in our fresh waters, have very much decreased in numbers, as well as in size and fatness. People say that this is a necessary consequence of the building of dams and mills, and filling the streams with obstructions of various kinds for the industrial pursuits of a civilized community. No doubt it is a consequence of these obstructions, but it not need be a necessary consequence. I hold that dams and mills might be constructed, and continued, and yet by a little concession on the part of dam and mill proprietors, and a more general diffusion of the knowledge of the natural history fishes, more intimate acquaintance with their peculiar habits, instincts, and wants of life, the mills might remain and the fish continue to perform their annual pilgrimage to and from their breeding haunts, if not in so great numbers as in former times, yet in such numbers as to afford a vast amount of provisions and even luxury to the communities which are now wholly deprived of them.

"I am also aware that this subject has been discussed over and over again -- that for years and years past, every session of our Legislature was thronged, and committees were worried and teased by mill owners on the one hand and fishermen on the other -- one demanding the privilege of building dams and mills without let or hindrance as to the fish, and the other pleading for some reserve, some fish-way, or some accommodation to the annual flow of the fish, which had been of such signal service to the support of the people on the banks and vicinity of the waters in question. I am also aware that our Legislators, actuated by a sincere desire to do justice to all parties, and to give equal rights to all, have, in most instance, made provisions in the several charters and private acts pertaining to mill owners, for the passage of fish at certain times and seasons, with a hope that, while it encouraged the establishment of mills and machinery, there would be also at the required times a safe and successful transit for the various species of fishes that required such passes as one of the indispensable requirements for the continuation of their existence. And we are all aware also that, either from ignorance of what habits of the fish demand, these ways have not always been properly constructed, or from selfishness in mill owners in not keeping them open at suitable times, these provisions in most cases failed, and the destruction of the fish is the inevitable result."

How Maine's Sea-Run Fish were Overfished to Oblivion

A few early to mid 1800s historic references I just came across illustrate how early and quickly the sea-run fish of Maine rivers were wiped out by over-fishing:

Citation: William Durkee Williamson. 1832. The History of the State of Maine. Vol. 1. Glazer, Masters & Co. Hallowell, Maine.

At p. 158, describing striped bass:

"The Bass is a large scale fish, variable in its size from 10 to 60 pounds. They are striped with black, have bright scales and horned backs, and are caught about the coasts. They ascend into the fresh water to cast their spawn, in May or June, being lean afterwards and fat in the autumn. In June 1807, there were taken at the mouth of the Kenduskeag, 7,000 of these fishes, which were of a large size -- a shoal, either pursued up the river by sharks, or ascended in prospect of their prey, or to cast their spawn."

Smelt at p. 160:

"They are caught in abundance, after March, in our rivers; 20 barrels of them have been taken at the mouth of the Kenduskeag at a sweep, and sometimes they are worth no more than half a dollar a bushel."

At footnote 3, same page: "On the 2d of May, 1794, at the mouth of the Kenduskeag (on the Penobscot) were taken at one draft 1,000 shad and 30 barrels of alewives."

----

Citation: Boardman, Samuel L. 'Aquaeculture': in Ninth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture. 1864. Augusta, Maine. Stevens & Sayward, Printers to the State. Also pub. in Maine Farmer, March 23, 1865.

At p. 117:

"Three years ago, in the month of May, in company with a friend, while passing by the lower lock of the Cumberland and Oxford Canal, in the city of Portland, our attention was drawn to the a crowd of men standing by the side of the lock, several of whom had long-handled nets, with which they were fishing, or rather dipping out fish from the water. On coming up, we saw that they were catching alewives in great numbers. It appeared that these fish, in their peregrinations along the coast, had been attracted by the fresh water of the canal, and instinctively entered it in order, as they supposed, to follow up to its source, (Sebago Lake,) but were brought to a standstill by the upper gate of the lock. The men engaged there then shut the lower gate, and commenced catching them. As soon as those of them that were confined in the lock were all caught, the men opened the lower gate again, and admitted a lot more of them, and thus a wholesale destruction of them went on. I supposed that some of them might possibly work their way up, when the several locks should be opened for the passage of boats, and thus Sebago made a breeding place for them, but on inquiry, am told that there are few or none seen there. Now it would be a very easy matter to stock that lake with young herrings (alewives) by proprietors of the canal forbidding any of them to be caught on certain days, and placing men along the route to let them go through the gates into the lake. Indeed, it seems that by renting the privilege of fishing for them on certain days, some considerable revenue might accrue to the company, while the production of the fish would again become a benefit to the section of country through with the canal passes. The same system might be adopted on many streams by having fish-ways or fish-locks, to aid their ascent, with much benefit to the country and no detriment to the mill interests."

_______

Citation: Twelfth Annual Report of the Maine Board of Agriculture, 1867. Stevens & Sayward, Printers to the State.

At page 90: "In Monmouth they [smelt] run into some very small rills that lead into Cochnewagon Pond, and are dipped out in considerable quantities. In May, 1867, after it was supposed they were all gone, a fresh run occurred, that yielded thirty barrels."

Monday, July 04, 2011

Clay is Rusted Feldspar

My wife Lori asked me to explain to her pottery class in a fairly simple way what clay is, where it comes from, and how it got here. So here's an attempt at a non-technical explanation.

Clay is feldspar rusting. This is an analogy, but not that far from the actual process. We all know what happens if you buy a nice, shiny piece of cast iron from the hardware store and leave it outside in the sun and rain. It quickly rusts. If you leave it out long enough, it turns to almost all rust. So what is rust?

Rust is primarily the minerals limonite and goethite, created when iron combines with oxygen from the atmosphere and oxygen in water. We all know that iron things tend to rust faster when wet than when dry. Moisture hastens rusting.

Feldspar is not iron. Iron is one element, iron. Feldspar is a large family of minerals made from oxygen, silicon, aluminum, sodium, potassium and calcium. Feldspar does not form on the Earth's surface. It only forms miles beneath the Earth's surface, where solid rock is naturally in a semi-liquid, molasses-like state.

Feldspar is only released from its 'natural' home and to the Earth's surface either when it is forcibly ejected from a volcano as lava or when, after hundreds of millions of years, the 2-3 miles of solid rock above the feldspar is eroded away, leaving the feldspar nakedly exposed on the Earth's surface. This is usually in the form of granite, which is a rock made of feldspar and quartz and some mica.

To add another analogy, just like a piece of fine pottery on the edge of a shelf 'wants' to fall on the floor and smash, feldspar 'wants' to turn to clay when it is exposed to the Earth's surface. The agent for the pot on the shelf wanting to fall down and smash is gravity (in outer space, pottery does not break, it orbits). The agent for feldspar wanting to turn to clay is a bit more complex, but similar in design to iron rusting. In both, the agents are primarily air and water.

In the presence of air and water at the Earth's surface, the most natural and restive state for feldspar is to re-align its molecules into clay molecules. Clay is a mineral, just like quartz or feldspar. It has a very regular and ordered crystalline structure, like a diamond or a cube of salt. The three predominant clay minerals are kaolinite, illite and montmorillonite. With a scanning electron microscope you can get pictures of very nice, well formed, plate-like clay crystals growing right next to a crystal of feldspar.

Feldspar becomes clay by slowly bringing water into its crystal structure, like a sponge left in a puddle of water. This water becomes part of the very fabric of the feldspar; like how iron becomes part of your blood cells. The feldspar wants the water. It likes it. Which brings us back to rust.

What we call rust is the natural state of iron on the Earth's surface. Iron readily combines with oxygen to make rust. It wants to become rust. In fact, we have to do all kinds of crazy things to prevent iron from becoming rust. We coat it with oils, with paint (like Rust-Oleum) or galvanize it with zinc, all to keep the iron from contacting oxygen in the air and oxygen in water, sort of like teacher chaperones at a high school dance. Left to its own device, feldspar becomes clay because it wants to; that is its most stable and natural state on the Earth's surface. Like a thrown ball 'wants' to come back down, feldspar wants to become clay. Clay is rusted feldspar; and the actual chemical reactions are not that different.

In Maine, where I live, from 1880-1930 there was a flourishing industry where large feldspar deposits were quarried and mined for use as ceramic pottery glaze. This was feldspar that had not yet had time to weather into clay. It is still solid enough to make a house foundation. But if you crush into a fine enough powder, it works beautifully as a glaze ingredient. Most of the feldspar mined in Maine was shipped to pottery works in New Jersey as a basic glaze ingredient for everything from fine plateware to toilet bowls. It was an 'industrial mineral,' as the saying goes.

The only reason Maine does not have deposits of natural, 'primary' clay is because for the past million years Maine has been scoured by successive, mile high glaciers every 100,000 years or so, which like a steel plow on a snow-filled driveway, scraped away all the clay and softened rock right down to hard bedrock and dumped the residue in the Atlantic Ocean. In the U.S., you have to go south of the line of glaciers, ie. Kentucky or Tennessee, to find clay deposits still intact and near where they were first formed. What we in Maine call 'marine clay' is actually the finely ground-up residue from the glaciers' scraping and grinding that has partly altered into true clay minerals and is on its way to doing so, give another 10 million years. That said, it is still perfectly usable as a slip or a low-fire earthenware body. Be patient, Maine !!!