Forces of nature

21:01, Jul 12 2012
spencer stand
Mike and Lynne Spencer derive great pleasure from their natives on teh banks of Stony River at Okato.

Lynn and Mike Spencer live by the forces of nature.

Not only do these potters create from the elements, they are also at their mercy.

On a clear-sky Wednesday, a day after rain, you can hear the white noise of water shushing in the background. But there are days when the Stony River isn't so harmless.

"The river is a monster," Lynn says in her gentle Canadian accent. "Most people don't see it in flood."

When that happens, or if the Hangatahua (its Maori name) is running high, they can hear rocks rumbling like giant marbles as they tumble in raging waters. "It's awesome in the real sense of the word," says Mike, who hails from England.

In April 2008, the river blew out 500 metres upstream from the Spencer property and followed its old channel - right through their front paddock. "It flattened a lot of our native garden," Lynn says. "A wall of water smashed the fence, which has now been restored, and carried it over to the neighbour's paddock."


The Spencers know the river will flood again but, after 40 years of living by its side, just take it in their stride. Almost.

"If it leaps the banks again I'm not worried for the house, but our native garden," Lynn says. Still, she wouldn't be anywhere else but Okato. "It's an amazing place to live."

Before the foray into the garden, the Spencers serve coffee and muffins, plump with homegrown raspberries, on oblong side plates made back in their wood kiln days, from 1973 to 2006.

"Now we fire with electricity," says Lynn. The older plates are glazed copper red and some have been coloured with kokowai, which is red ochre. "We used to go up and collect it, but we can't do it any more, because we are old and decrepit," she laughs.

But there's vehemence in her voice as if she's been let down by her body.

Throwing clay has destroyed the rotator cuff tendons and muscles in her shoulders, causing her a power of pain. Then, when Mike's back went, their wood-firing days had to end. That also meant farewell to their larger garden pieces. These days their work is all tableware, plus a few trinkets and jewellery. Fired at a lower temperature, the porcelain and clay works are finer in body and lighter in colour.

The copper glaze now comes out in mint and earthy greens, rather than red. Hold a porcelain coffee cup up to the light and it's translucent. In the corner of their studio are the solid not-for-sale remains of their high- powered, wood-firing days. Still, these artisans have lived off their pottery for 39 years and continue to.

"Dare I say it, National Super is very nice," Lynne says. "When my shoulders packed in it got really hard." Lynn can't do long sessions at the potter's wheel any more, but she's still making teapots, cups and bowls, ring boxes, brooches and pendants.

Her other passion is the garden. Before meeting the natives, they pause at a stand of buddha's belly bamboo, which Mike admires and Lynn doesn't. They planted bamboo in the early days, but it is a bone of contention.

"Mike loves bamboo. I like it as an architectural tool, but not in a garden," she says.

"She's a revisionist. She liked it when we planted it," he says.

"But then in two years I didn't." That led to a drawn-out period of winding up Mike.

"I told him I had this really serious thing I need to talk about. I had him worked up for a month." Finally she let it out. "Could you please trench the bamboo?"

To contain invasive bamboo, the idea is to dig a trench around the plants and put something solid in the ground to stop the runners. In the native garden, Mike has used sheets of corrugated iron.

On the way to the 8000-square-metre garden, we wander slowly past the old wood- fire kiln, which sits sleeping, like a relic from an ancient civilisation. "It really was a good kiln - we fired it 60 times," Lynn says.

From bricks and burnt memories, we head into green. "It was a bare paddock when we arrived and it had a couple of cows. Then we fell in love with the native vegetation and had to wait for the cows to die."

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