On Potter Island, everybody without a trade was trained to be a potter. They didn’t have to show any particular skill with their hands; all they needed was the interest. Clay and water were ubiquitous on the island, which possessed no less than five rivers and nineteen different shades of clay. The island’s master-potters believed the making of cups, vases, pitchers, and bowls had its own satisfaction, salutary because creative, not to be found in the blacksmith’s endless burning and smashing. So they were eager to take on apprentices—not just for the income and adulation, but out of a deep, proselytizing faith in the value of pottery.
Equipping hundreds of young people with potter’s wheels and a rudimentary understanding of technique—cupped hands, keeping the clay moist, that sort of thing—transfigured miles of lumpish riverbank into serviceable earthenware. Some made urns for storing a loved one’s ashes or burned love letters. Others made vases for flowers gathered on nature-walks. (Potters often went on walks precisely for the purpose of filling the vases they had made.)
The relationship between a master-potter and his or her apprentices was a troubled one. The master wished the apprentices to become master-potters, every one—but only so that he or she could take credit for their transformation, and indirectly for their vases and bowls. The apprentices revered the master-potter (usually for mugs shaped early in the master’s career), but if they were given the chance, they would have happily shattered his or her works and set their own on the vacated pedestals.
The proliferation of trained potters filled Potter Island’s shelves with pottery, all of it symmetric, no wobbles along the rim. Occasionally, a potter from another island would arrive with his own, slightly misshapen wares. No matter how intricately he had painted his amphora’s sides, no matter what quantity of hummingbird ashes filled his funerary urns, his wares were either shelved behind the more competently executed ones, or kept off the shelves entirely.
Many apprentices lamented how no fellow islander would spoon soup from their exquisite bowls. How to convince people that the bowls had a use other than decoration—an actual reason for existence other than their potter’s compulsion to shape clay? By shaping a quarter ton of clay every year, the apprentices had driven down the value of pottery to match the value of clay—which never seemed to run out, and was always there for the taking. There had been very little money in pottery to begin with; it had been precious without being costly. Now it wasn’t even precious.
Neither the apprentices nor the master potters (who were, it was starting to seem, merely apprentices grown old) noticed the larger shift on Potter Island. How could they? They were busy dirtying their aprons and shaping figurines in their own image. (Molding yourself had been the fashion lately.) The Potter Islanders, unfortunately for the potters, had switched to plastic. Plastic was durable. Plastic was immortal—even more immortal than bronze, certainly more immortal than clay. It didn’t shatter when it hit the ground, unlike brittle pottery. And, best of all, there were no potters involved in the making of it, only machines, humble and tireless and mute.