Dreaming of How it Was Done

As a boy, I spent long days roaming the chaparral-covered foothills of eastern San Diego County, 25 miles from the California coast. Along with my two brothers, I wandered the rabbit runs and coyote paths behind my house, my head bent trailward scouting the hard-packed earth for mysteries.

On good days I found a few. Small black roots, chipped and shiny. ``Could this be a broken arrowhead?'' I'd wonder aloud. ``Or part of a spear?''

``What about this?'' my little brother would ask. He'd run up lugging a broken cobble. ``Looks like a hatchet,'' he'd say, waving it through the air.

But nothing I saw set my mind to dreaming more than the scattered bits of red-brown pottery, washed down by the rain to the edge of the bedrock boulders.

Here a thick one, that one thin. What kind of pot did it come from? What did they use it for? How did they even make the pottery?

Then I'd stoop and brush dust away from what looked like the broken rim of a jar. That was treasure.

I'd fall back, sitting on a granite seat, and gaze off across the valley to the huge stone-wall mountains facing me. And I would dream. I'd close my eyes and run my finger along that rim, right where her fingers must have run.

Her fingers. Two hundred, 300, maybe 500 years ago, an Indian woman sat somewhere nearby and shaped that jar.

And when I touched where she had touched, for a moment I caught a sense of her. Who was that woman? I wanted to know something about her. Was she maybe a young pretty girl learning the art at her grandmother's side? And how did she go about shaping that jar? There I was in the 1960s, a 10-year-old boy holding that potsherd, imagining her presence and the rustle of a laurel sumac bush as she walked nearby.

In school I could learn about the Navajo, and there were all kinds of books about the Sioux. But who were these people? What were they like? My teachers didn't even know their name. Where could a captivated country boy go to learn anything about the mysterious Indians of San Diego?

Sometimes I knelt and felt small depressions of smooth-worn granite.

``Hey, is this where they'd grind their corn?'' I'd look up, trying to imagine cornfields among the woody green bushes of redberry and flat-top buckwheat. Later I learned that acorn meal, not corn, was the staple for these people. Often they stored the meal in pottery jars. And they called themselves ``Kumeyaay'' (Ku-me-yi).

One day this past July, some 30 years later, I knelt outside San Diego's anthropological Museum of Man, in an aged Spanish-style corridor, and shyly handed a bag of clay dust to Manuela Aguiar. She was a potter and tribal elder from the Paipai village of Santa Catarina, located in the mountains of Baja California, Mexico. Under the auspices of the museum, an anthropologist had brought her north to demonstrate ancient pottery-making techniques.

I was there to have a few ancient questions answered, too. Earlier in the week I'd dug clay from an old dry riverbed. I'd used a brick to grind the raw chunks into dust on my driveway. Then I strained the grindings through a kitchen sieve to remove the coarser bits.

I knew the Paipai of Baja shared a common language root with the Kumeyaay, the Indians who had lived for centuries in my boyhood hills. Also, Manuela and other Paipai indians still created pots and baskets in the old traditional manner. North of the international border, however, few traditionally trained Kumeyaay artisans still practiced their craft.

``I ground the clay myself,'' I told her through an interpreter. ``It's from a river bottom.''

Manuela nodded and felt the clay. She sat in silence.

``I don't know if it'll work,'' I said. ``But if it does, I'd like to make a jar. Could you show me how?''

She considered the request. Her face was warm, wise, and gentle, with full cheeks that rose like smile mountains every time she laughed.

``We won't know anything,'' she said in Spanish, ``until we try it.''

She emptied the bag into a battered porcelain bowl. I had my concerns about the clay, even though I'd taken it from Rose Canyon, near my house on the San Diego coast, just as the indigenous people had done for over five centuries. I now knew that up until the early 1900s, this area had been occupied by thousands of Kumeyaay and their predecessors dating back some 12,000 years.

Manuela continued to sample the clay dust, clutching it with her fingers, scratching the bottom of the porcelain bowl. Then she trickled water on the back of her hand, letting it run down between the grooves of her fingers and into the bowl.

Large fingers, full and strong, worked the clay into mud, worked and worked until the mix felt just right. Finally she broke off a piece.

Now for the real test. She rolled it between her palms, then held one end and dangled it like a limp lizard. It didn't break.

``Bueno,'' she said. It was good.

And to me it was. Muy bueno. I sat quietly, flying back all those years, my head bent trailward, watching those hands coax the clay.

She stopped and handed me a lump. I followed her lead, tapping it with a small pine paddle, molding and shaping as together we learned with our fingers the character of this new batch.

First we built the bottom of the jar on a pottery template. Then the sides were formed from ropy coils. There was no potter's wheel. We worked in a methodical, freehand style, adding one coil at a time to the jar-to-be, then smoothing each new layer into the sides.

Higher and higher it grew until finally we reached the most important part.

I'd followed her lead as best I could, but the tricky bend of the neck and rim stopped me. My clay was starting to dry and crack.

``Maybe you should take over for me on this part,'' I said. My reasons for asking went deeper than clumsy craftsmanship, but I kept silent.

I watched intently as she narrowed the throat, then tapped with the paddle to bend back the mouth. I studied her fingers as she pressed down the very last coil, patting it softly now with the hands of the paddle.

Then she wet her fingers and formed the rim. She slid her thumb all along, building the lip.

And leaving her touch behind.

So now I knew. This was the woman in my childhood dream. This was the jar. And this was how it was done.

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