Animal tracks highlighted in the snow just after an ice storm, Mikuni Pass, Shizuoka, Japan, 1993.
I want to apologize to everyone who drops by here for not being around for a long while. This time of the year always gets to me, especially since I live far away from my family and I haven’t seen them in years. Not only does the Christmas season just have no counterpart here in Japan, seeing that it is quite hard to really get close to Japanese people, to be accepted as one of them, I also end up spending a lot of time alone, most especially during this season.
I don’t like to share the more personal aspects of my private life here on the blog, in part to protect people who are important to me, but also because I believe that some things ought not to be handed out to just anybody. There are some things going on in my life that I try to glaze over here, but they are big things that seem even bigger during the holiday season. Since it will be yet another Christmas and New Year’s alone I’ve been trying to compensate by pulling away from the blog a while, so as not to think so much. With 2 weeks vacation ahead of me it would be better if I got out of the house and cleared my head a little.
One thing that has been bothering me again is the effect of blogging on my time and my mental life. When I last put an entry in it had gotten to the point where any idea I happened upon or even some small anecdote in my day would immediately translate into how I could use it in an article in the blog. I even dreamed of topics and ways to write sentences in my sleep!
I knew then that I had to break away, if just to quiet the noise in my head so that I could open my eyes and see the world around me, not the computer screen. With quite a period behind me now I can say that my mind is quiet again and I’m taking time to get out there.
I know that the tendency to immerse myself in the blog rises out of too much time alone and no friends. When you find yourself wandering the city streets, feeling lost, constantly whispering to yourself that you will be okay, then the voices that surround you in the blog world offer great comfort. All of you out there who have grown into something approximating friendship, thank you.
So I must strike a balance, continue to release the words that well up in me for this ephemeral place, and to get out there and find my home. I can’t continue to live like this. I must find substantiation.
I hope everyone is finding their way through the holidays. To those who are lucky enough to wrap themselves in a winter warmth, cherish it and give it to whoever else needs it. To those who suffer a kind of silent grief, hold on. The darkness will pass. And don’t forget to look up and let the fabric of your spirit clear itself among those clean, untouched stars. These long nights allow us a window into whole of our world and all its possibilities.
I just find this whole thing disgusting: the American government and media gloating (and purposefully portraying him unkempt and looking like a criminal) over the capture of Saddam Hussein. While the Iraqis have every right to hate him and bring him to trial, the Americans have no right whatsoever to judge him or try him. To this day Hussein has done nothing to the Americans and is not guilty of any of the crimes that the Americans excused themselves into going to war over. Things being the way they are, the American government is going to drag him around like some ragged dishtowel and declare their “victory”, but still not address the central issue of the illegality of their being in Iraq in the first place.
What stirs my ire most is this recent establishment of an “international tribunal” within Iraq, to “try war criminals”. Naturally the war criminals are going to be Iraqis and other Arabs and Muslims, not the Americans themselves. Of course, the Americans ignore the fact that an International Court has already been established, precisely for the purpose of trying war criminals.
Seeing Hussein’s countenance shown in such a mean-spirited and childish manner, painting him as guilty even before given a fair trial, listening to the glee in the American speeches, not to say having to watch as they stick their fingers into something that is none of their business make me immeasurably sad. I believe deeply in “innocent before guilty” and in the establishment of a fair court. The Americans are making a sham of these principles and will probably get away with it.
It is hard not to sink into cynicism and fury.
Although I did see a Daurian Redstart singing atop the magnolia tree outside my apartment this morning. “Tee-eet, tee-eet..tac, tac!”. Birds have such wonderful names…
For those of you into the Lord of the Rings, there’s an interesting discussion going on over at Pericat’s Unlocking the Air, about whether the rewrite of the books for the movie works or not. Come join the discussion and say what you think!
For years now there has existed a kind of silent clawing at the air in my breast, the kind that led Henry Thoreau to remark upon when he penned the words, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”, in his most famous book, “Walden”. Over and over again I have read Thoreau’s careful remonstrations, spellbound by the sheer music of his wisdom and consistency of his insight (his book “Civil Disobedience” was the manifesto that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King. jr. turned to when formulating their ideas on peacefully opposing injustice), and I vowed early on in my life that I would not allow myself to fall into the trap of missing the rough hand of the real world, the natural world, upon my soul. I sought hard for the subjects that would pave the path I took, reading the literature and taking on the experiences that culled understanding, until I was whittled into the kind of life that fit me, with the wind and trees, earth and sky weathering my face to the point where my body was indistinguishable from the place that I inhabited.
But it seems I’ve been spirited away into another world, a world where the potential that sleeps within me must needs be drugged and cannot waken. Here I am living in the heart of the biggest city in the world, far, far away from hills that I dreamed of roaming, where dew clung to my hair and wool sweater, the gentlest whisper of my breath hung in the dawn light. That is where I always imagined moving within, but somehow I ended up here. The daily fare is of thundering trains carrying hoards of people stuffed between doors, of bread and bananas and pale meat wrapped in crinkling plastic, of rivers stinking of sewage and crows tearing up bags of refuse, of weekend after weekend finding myself, as if lead along by shifting, magic trails, back downtown amidst the concrete, over and over again heading through the same stores, buying the same, heartless magazines and clothes, reacting to people who all look the same, wearing their ties and latest fashions all picked up (not even harvested) from the same, lurking stores, no one daring to cast them off, of cars and cars and cars and cars, of electrical towers strung from house to house, of deserted streets as houses glow, unmoving, at midnight while the moon and the stars wheel unnoticed over the rooftops, of flickering, blue television light, transfixing me and the ones I love so that we sit unmoving beside one another, of distances stretched to breaking with houses and buildings and dams and levees and water towers and roads, roads, roads and bridges and factories and stadiums and wharves and warehouses and shopping centers and shopping centers and shopping centers and shopping centers and shopping centers, until the eye runs out of green to imagine, and no life exists but our own, and our own lives seem to exist only in the reflection in the windows of the trains at night, when hope passes through the darkness like street lights swooping past.
People seem to yearn for some measure of wealth pocketed in the clink of coins and slip of paper bills. They grin when their fingers close upon these symbolic messengers, their brains aglow with images of shiny objects, very much like the trinkets jackdaws and pack rats collect, big houses, fancy cars, exquisitely tailored suits, rare wines, and dazzling jewelry, shining fantasies made real at the expense of others and seeming the cul-de-sac of life’s endeavors, the very reason for being. It’s what seems to run the whole human world and charge up the great engine, so all-consuming and undeniable that even mountains disappear in the great, gawping maw, landscapes replaced by subdivisions and calculated risks. This is called wealth, called “reality”, called “the bottom line”. A cathedral of soaring desires, the very roof a crystalline structure built of vapor and mirrors, fantasy embodied in acquired tastes.
But I have never really wanted these things, from the earliest moments when the light in my eyes became more than just random events, and took on the complexity and dance and method that the natural world always exudes. I will walk into a desert and become awestruck by life, as I kneel down on the cracked soil and perceive the lizards or cacti or scorpions or toads holding on to tenuous moments. There is nothing really so desolate or abandoned as waste anywhere in the natural world, even the slopes of a black volcano, steaming, running with hot lava. I have never felt desolation in a wild place as I have in such burnt out districts as Brooklyn or the wharves of Tokyo at night or the gouged out bleakness of the empty crags around the Ashio copper strip mine, north of Tokyo, that, although closed down over one hundred fifty years ago, still evokes some ancient memory of what Hell must look like.
I am not a rich man. I have a few luxuries, such as a computer, a television, and a digital camera, but for the most part my life hasn’t been a preoccupation with acquiring a lot of things and thirsting after a big house or expensive car. Rather, what has always filled me with unending joy and a huge sense of well-being have been things like a great place to walk, or the sight of gnats dancing in a shaft of sunlight on a winter’s day or that wonderful feeling after a hard climb when your lungs settle down, the sweat cools, and for a moment you can rest and gaze over the valley below. As long as I am not too hungry or thirsty, I am dry and warm, and perhaps a friend or two to keep me company, what more have I ever needed? The time to appreciate living on this planet, to learn how it operates and moves, to listen to my own heart beating itself. When I think of the times I’ve been happiest in my life always, always it has been not when finding something new to stuff into my pocket, but when I felt as if I was owned by the world itself, an inseparable jigsaw piece in the joy of something hugely, but comfortably, greater than I am, when I had nothing to say because everything was as it should be. My wealth comes in sunlight and rain, in the taste of a handful of mountain spring water, in finding a lucky space to shelter in the rain, in the company of a fellow walker or watcher who can nod to me without a word because we both understand the pregnancy of the moment, in the flag of white breath on a frosty morning, in the ache of muscles as I knead some dough, in the silent steamroller of dawn approaching, in a cup of tea, in setting a butterfly free, or in singing as I stride along a ridge. These are my measurements of wealth, what I will most miss when I must finally turn away and die.
And I miss these things now, with all my heart, with all my soul. I miss loving a place, having it draw me until I belong to it. I miss the sense of responsibility for my surroundings and for those people who inhabit the place with me. I miss what it really means to be human and alive and free. My heart aches with loss and emptiness. This is poverty, the path that leads to despair. This is where I never thought I would be.
I’ve started to take steps to haul myself out of the pit. It begins with a shedding of skin and unnecessary baggage. It begins with remembering what is important. It begins with taking a deep breath, holding it, and letting go.
I wasn’t quite sure I was reading an intelligent person’s take on things when I read the speech by Michael Crichton, posted by Dan on North Coast Cafe. What is it with this unreasonable fear of environmentalists? Why do environmentalists evoke such reactionary diatribes? Why is it such a difficult thing for all of us to take responsibility for the only place we have to live? No one would question a homeowner’s efforts to economize and better run their household and dwelling, and yet it seems as if everyone has to continually argue about the need for maturing in our practice of living on the planet. Crichton’s simplistic and willfully negligent speech, ignoring the years of painstaking research and sweat of serious scientists and environmentalists who daily live and see the effects of our actions upon the planet, only reinforces the tendency to stick our heads in the sand and hope the problems go away.
I believe environmentalists are in most cases realists who look the world’s problems straight in the eye and attempt to find solutions to seeming insurmountable odds. We (and I count myself among them) are attempting to break the old habits in favor of a healthier way of life, so that all benefit. Crichton almost seems to have been paid under the table somewhere… I mean, take this quote from his speech: “I can tell you that DDT is not a carcinogen and did not cause birds to die and should never have been banned.” Did he even research how DDT works to cause birds to die? Did he think at all about exactly what DDT does kill, besides the crop-eating insects that it is targeted for? Does he have an inkling about how the food-chain works and why an imbalance is so destructive? Did he take the time to read Rachel Carson’s life-dedicated scientific research?
Crichton thinks that because he is some hotshot Hollywood writer and moviemaker that he knows what he is talking about. But he is just that, a hotshot Hollywood writer and moviemaker, not someone who has spent his life trying to understand the natural world or to live within its demands. Even his description of people who go outdoors to experience it, with an attempt to justify his view that “The truth is, almost nobody wants to experience real nature. What people want is to spend a week or two in a cabin in the woods, with screens on the windows. They want a simplified life for a while, without all their stuff. Or a nice river rafting trip for a few days, with somebody else doing the cooking. Nobody wants to go back to nature in any real way, and nobody does. It’s all talk-and as the years go on, and the world population grows increasingly urban, it’s uninformed talk.” by portraying an example of his trekking trip into the Himalayas, where he questions a porter about why it is necessary to take so much care in crossing a mountain river: his conclusion about the dangers of nature in a remote place only reveals his vast ignorance about learning to live in wild places so you don’t get hurt, which includes learning to cooperate with others rather than scratch and fight, and that this very uncertainty is part of the reason serious venturers into the wilds come back again and again to take the risks… it is a need and desire for many people to find a way back to our early roots of self-reliance, use of our innate intelligence, attempting to find some kind of real and practical relationship to our surrounding world rather than trying to dominate it on every level, and redefining and reevaluating what spirituality means in the sum of our lives.
No the natural world is not romantic… and what mountaineer worth their salt is romantic about the crags as they climb them? The insects in the garden eating your cabbages away are not romantic. I think environmentalists who deal with this daily have a very clear understanding of the price nature asks for survival; but that doesn’t mean that a person can’t LOVE the natural world. Anyone who would stop to gauge the romanticism and “reality” of children would probably never have them, seeing as children eat away your finances, causes innumerable inconveniences, disrupt well-laid plans, and often get into age robbing troubles, but, in spite of that, people continue to have kids, Crichton himself, most likely.
What Crichton fails to get is that we environmentalists LOVE our world, including the people in it. We want what’s best for it and will do what is necessary to protect it and make sure it is healthy, that it can grow up to have its own life when we are gone. For us the world is alive, not just some dead thing that can be chainsawed into firewood for the fire. Crichton calls environmentalism a “religion”. Perhaps. He’s assuming, of course, that “religion” is always a bad thing, that it cannot be molded into an aspect of our lives that does not necessarily prevent rational thought or change when it is necessary.
But then, perhaps he completely fails to grasp that environmentalism is probably something new, something beyond the dogma that he has his mind set to. And then, too, in spite of his acknowledgment that the environment needs to be protected, he gives absolutely no suggestions for solutions to the big problems. Kind of hard to believe his ability to perceive anything if he traveled to Nepal, but completely missed all those people living in abject, overcrowded, lacking-firewood-because-all-the-trees-have-been-cut-down poverty, isn’t it?
Crichton declares that all environmentalists live in a fantasy world… really, I ask you, who is he to talk?
Add another madman to the soup: Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan is now close to having his way of sending troops to Iraq, in spite of almost all Japanese citizens being against the move. If the Japanese think that the distant news of war is scary now, just wait until the troops start coming home in bodybags. The people’s silence until now will be too late then.
The Iraqi response to the Japanese government’s announcement about sending troops: Stay out!
Will this anger that I feel never lose nourishment? Why must there be a new source of stupidity and foolishness crawling out of the woodwork each and every day? Are there no leaders with wisdom and courage? Will there ever be a sense of people not letting things get so completely out of control?
Perhaps we all deserve this. When there is such a discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots, really we shouldn’t expect anything less than what is happening today. Serves us all right.
Back in 1994 I had to visit a country hospital in a small town west of Tokyo where I used to live. I was having problems with a pain in my abdomen. The doctor poked around with his fingers for about 5 minutes then announced, “You have cancer of the pancreas. You have about a month to live.” I was, naturally, speechless. (what exactly do you say when someone you hope knows what they’re doing, tells you that you are going to die?).
I left the hospital with my wife and wandered across the street to the strand that swept past the hospital, east and west, for 20 kilometers of black sand in either direction. It is the very place lined with black pines you see so often in woodblock prints from Japan, with Mt. Fuji looming in the background. Once a stunningly beautiful place. Today the beach is strewn with kilometeer after kilometer of washed up and tossed away garbage, so that’s it’s almost impossible to take a step without treading on some plastic detergent bottle or shard of broken glass or bauble of aluminum beer can.
In all the times I had been here before I had walked around cursing under my breath and stewing with outrage. Why the **** do Japanese have to be so slovenly and apathetic in the way they take care of the land? (It’s like this throughout the country… any illusions that people may have of a pristine, nature-loving society ought to remember that this is one of the most crowded, industrialized countries in the world… there is a reason why they have been so successful)
But that time it was different. As I strolled along, the impact of the doctor’s announcement still fresh, everything seemed utterly beautiful: the way the sunlight glinted on the old bicycle half-buried in the sand; the practical and unself-consciousness of the strip of butyle rubber, bicycle inner tube hanging from the beak of a passing seagull; even the old man, in baseball cap and socks pulled over his polyester workpants hems, who was burning a pile of polystyrene lunch platters and used, wooden, throwaway chopsticks… the black smoke drifted up into the air like a skein of incense, platitudes to the dying god on the horizon. The whole scene took on a gloaming quality, of a world sinking in embers, and each and every element that constituted its existence quietly and desperately held on to the few moments it had left to be.
I stood for hours at the wrack line, my wife beside me, listening to the waves dump and wash away, dump and wash away, dump and wash away…
I had intended to write the whole story about the pancreas cancer diagnosis, but somehow I got mesmerized by my own preoccupation with pretty words… sorry about that… leading readers by the nose is a writer’s misdemeanor.
It’s kind of weird about the diagnosis. The doctor only poked around my abdomen for about five minutes and then pronounced pancreatic cancer. When I got home that day I kept thinking, how could he possibly have known that, just by prodding me? The more I thought about it, the angrier I got, that he would so blithely pronounce my death without doing proper check-ups.
The following weekend I took the long-distance bus into Tokyo, alone and full of trepidation, to be examined by my family doctor. After x-rays, a boron test, blood samples, lots more prodding of abdomen and chest, lots of questions, and then one week of anguished waiting, my doctor pronounced me fit as a fiddle… I didn’t have pancreatic cancer. Which made me even more angry with the doctor in the country. Since this is Japan though, taking the doctor to task for his negligence and misdiagnosis is nearly impossible. Doctors are treated like gods here.
I look back now and I wonder, though. None of the doctors had specifially checked for diabetes, though I had the beginnings of all the classic symptoms (I still knew next to nothing about diabetes then). Two years later after about three months of suddenly losing half my weight, constant needing to go to the toilet, ravenous hunger and thirst, I visited yet another doctor near my new home in Tokyo and he discovered that my blood sugar was in the 800’s… I could have died any day. I was immediately checked into the hospital with a strict regimen to lower my blood sugar. This was the start of my diabetes.
I’m not sure exactly when the diabetes started, but it must have been around a while, only mild. I remember the exact day and moment, though, when it got bad… and that is weird, too. I was bicycling alone along the coast of Izu Peninsula, south of Tokyo, on a cold winter weekend. On the first night I took lodgings in a small seaside inn, the only guest in the entire place. The owner gave me the best room up on the top floor, a corner suite, with two huge picture windows overlooking the Suruga Bay, with its twinkling fishing boats out along the dark horizon. After taking a bath I returned to my room and sat in the armchair gazing into the night, when suddenly an earthquake hit, setting the whole building atremble. The next moment I got very dizzy and a sharp ringing awoke in my right ear. The ringing has not stopped to this day, and every time my blood sugar goes up, the ringing increases.
The way it all happened makes me wonder about the causes of diabetes. My diabetes doctor today denies that stress has much effect on diabetes, but two years ago, when I returned to the United States to spend five weeks with my brother after 8 years absence from the States and my family, mysteriously, though my eating habits and exercise routine didn’t change much during that period, the blood sugar stabilized at the normal levels of a non-diabetic. Upon my return to Japan, the old blood highs and problems returned, requiring use of insulin daily.
I wonder exactly what mental processes are at work here, what the great stresses of the last seven years have contributed to the demise of my health, and if the proper environment is as much a factor in preventing diabetes as diet and exercise and medicine. I find that my diabetes gets worse in the cold of winter and lightens up during the warmer months of summer. As the causes for all the anger and anxiety that plagued me in the last few years simmer down, so too has the grip of bad blood that coursed through me.
That week when I thought I would die remains with me, especially the first moments along the beach after the diagnosis. It is like a quiet song that plays in the background, arousing me to repeat the chorus. And I keep hearing the sound of the sea, reminding me of where and who I am.
But the biggest question still lingers: the diagnosis failed to confirm pancreatic cancer, but how did the doctor know that there was something wrong with my pancreas?
Coup de Vent ( of London and the North ) wondered about similar quandaries in a post (Changing Landscape) about the frustration and dismay of trying to protect land that is dear. Her thoughts further added impetus to thinking up my own post…
So many roiling emotions and thoughts lately about identity and the direction we need to take in the world today. The thoughts are rough and fleeting, like a cloud of bees, clarity alighting here and there, then flitting away into obfuscation, so that writing comes heavily and plodding. Several days ago I read the poem post by Madame Butterfly at Nehanda Dreams about the world’s tribes declaring pride and love in who they are, and then later her comment on my “Thunder” post, questioning the idea of race. It was a question that every non-white in the world, when subjected to the white world or other homogenous group, daily thinks about, in constant comparison to some amorphous image of perfection hovering over the psychic world.
Yesterday, as if on cue, I just happened to come across Barbara Kingsolver’s selection of essays “Small Wonder: Essays”, a last copy hidden in the corner of the bottom shelf of the tiny nature section of the Kinokuniya bookstore in downtown Tokyo. I thought the book was mainly about nature, since that is Kingsolver’s domain, but upon starting it, it became clear that this was her response to the New York tragedy, and, over time, an effort to comprehend what is happening in the world today. In the opening lines, her wounds are very fresh from the New York attack and still raw with grief and anger. I have to remind myself that her book appeared before much of what the United States is doing now took place, and that through the examples of her earlier work, I must remember that her mind is open to the minds of people in other places.
Then, today, I was watching yet another Discovery Channel documentary of one of our world’s smaller tribes, this time the Tauduram hunter gatherers of Palawan, the Philippines. In the last scene the narrator Phil Borges compares a shaman’s inability to heal a tribe member’s liver disease he had never encountered before, with the surrounding destruction of the forest. Borges wonders about the spiritual effect on these people, who until recently lived in intimate relationship with the mountain forests, of having suddenly to switch to a slash and burn economy and destroy the very forests that constituted the spirits of their ancestors.
It got me thinking about why it is that so many Native Americans lost the desire to live after the Indian Wars, and so many of them gave up after Wounded Knee, with alcoholism and domestic violence reaching epidemic proportions. I understood the sense of despair, but I couldn’t personally compare it to anything that I could empathize with. Until I thought of the New York tragedy and how Americans, and people all over the world, reacted to it. How the sense of the world coming to an end engulfed us all and wrought shock and despair. That must be how it felt, and still feels, to the Native Americans, their world toppled by an abrupt (if seen from their 10,000 or more years of history) and violent attack.
In addition the values that the Europeans brought with them, the very de-personification of the Land, of killing the spirits and gods as if the Land could be anything without them, must have shattered the foundations of what constituted their understanding of the world. What the Europeans brought forced them to adopt a world view in direct opposition to all that was true and right, in comparison almost as if a Christian were coerced into accepting the Antichrist as their god.
Madame Butterfly’s exclamation of “amandhla!” perhaps provides a glimmer of hope, a tiny first step for people around the world reclaiming their heritage and standing up to put the Christian god back in its place, as one among many in the pantheon. With her question of how we might understand race, I claim that we are now delving into something new. The old adages and proclamations need to be redefined, and a new understanding of what the human race is and how it needs to name itself demands discussion. People are mixing among themselves all around the world… the distances are foreshortened. It no longer means everything to claim you are American or I am German or she is Japanese or he is Nigerian. The borders are blurred.
So we are something new. The inability to clearly enunciate what this is illustrates just how new the changes are. Many people deny it and those who do recognize that all aspects of our relationship to ourselves, to each other, and to the planet are evolving, often react with anger and violence, out of fear.
But we are changing. And we must adapt. We must clear our minds of cobwebs and address the mounting problems that are overtaking the world. And we must learn to redefine what we are, once and for all ridding ourselves of the ignorance and intolerance that have plagued our history since we first formed societies. This is the new and fearsome frontier, blessed with peace and prosperity if we can truly learn from our mistakes.
With Russia’s official declaration earlier today that it would not ratify the Kyoto Treaty, because the treaty would limit its economic growth, a confirmation of the blindness and madness of the human world seems to have taken root and the shoots of the consequences will hereby officially make its first, introductory cough. The leaders (and, by association, the populace) are not taking the health of the planet seriously. You really have to question the sanity of people who fail to make the connection between the air they breathe and their own survival. This is the only place we have and yet we go on drunk, oblivious to all warnings. Nothing short of a super-hurricaned, multiple tornadoed, giant tsunamied, mass flooded, collapsing mountains, global food deprived catastrophe will seem to carry the clout needed to ring the bell in people’s heads that we are not going to survive this assault on our world.
The knowledge to care for our home is there. We know what to do, if we would only wake up. People like Bush focus on utterly petty concerns like the conquering of Iraq, but completely ignore the evidence of one of the most climactically disastrous years in history. Mass flooding in the States. Unending rain in Japan. Record-breaking heat waves throughout Europe (more than 10,000 people died in France alone). Uncontrolled wild fires in Australia. A new, unprecedented and fearsome drought in northeastern Africa. Huge super typhoons and cyclones in Asia. Unexplained mass dying off of mackerel and sardines due to new oceanic fluctuations. The entire, enormous island of Madagascar on the verge of an environmental collapse. The first melting of the permafrost in Siberia since before the last Ice Age. The breakup of the Antarctic Ross Ice Shelf…
What are people waiting for? Why do we deny that a problem exists? It’s like we have gotten caught up in a drunken party and are ignoring a great blaze burning right in our home, ready to bring the whole house down.
I was working for an architecture firm in Boston back in 1989 and one day was sent to measure and evaluate a site for a new holiday resort. I drove alone to the area, passing through wooded hills and New England style farmland. The hill where the resort was proposed stood overlooking a small lake and the surrounding countryside, with barely a break in the trees. I sat and ate lunch, sitting on a log and gazing at the clouds rolling by overhead. Birds twittered and sang in the tranquility, quiet enough to hear bees buzzing and grasshoppers zithering in the grass. As I sat there, the feeling that this place was perfect just the way it was crept up on me. More and more the prospect of walking around the site with a measuring tape and taking notes about the attributes and problems of the site in terms of architectural needs seemed like a foolish and unnecessary exercise. I did the work as expected, but as I drove back to Boston I resolved then and there that I would not be one of those contributing to the further degradation of the world’s already beleaguered natural places.
It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with architecture. Done the right way, architecture can help create extraordinary and integral human artifacts upon the land that exist almost as an extension of the land itself. Most traditional farming communities around the world have developed vernacular designs that work closely with the habitat they exist in, often enhancing the human presence within the landscape. One of the most ecologically balanced, human-altered landscapes in the world is Tuscany, in Italy, where a medium was reached, by which the natural world and the human world could co-exist without destroying one another. Traditional Japanese settlements worked much the same way, often with a buffer zone, a “commons” (zoki-bayashi or sato-yama), where wild animals dwelled and human interference was minimal. Such communities often continued for centuries with little or no deleterious effect on the land. Tokyo itself, when it was still named Edo, was once the largest city in the world, with over a million residents, hardly producing any waste, its water clean, its coastal fish the pride of the country, and nearly everything was reused.
These examples show that humans can create settlements and use local resources wisely, without destroying the delicate balance.
Ecologically efficient rural communities continued mainly because the amounts of resources they consumed and needed for upkeep were small compared to the ability of the landscape to provide, and also because they had time to become familiar with unique local issues of climate, terrain, feeding capacity, and so forth. With time many of these communities came up with unique solutions to problems that only experience could help recognize. The northern New England landscape was once plowed under to plant crops, but the poor soil and rocky conditions eventually caused many homesteaders to give up and move back to the cities, later to be replaced by livestock oriented farming.
Once human settlements began to grow, however, and the demand outstripped the resources, all the problems associated with modern development took over. The problems are so huge today that just attempting to figure out where to start to tackle the issues can leave one reeling.
Architecture itself has fallen into the trap of glamour and riches, often leading the drive into bigger and bigger projects, with less and and less thought given to the consequences. And yet there are architects who have thought deeply about how we might address the issues of huge populations, destruction of natural habitat, overrunning of space, and over-consumption of resources. During the 60’s Christopher Alexander and a group of back-to-the-land thinkers at U.C. Berkeley developed the idea of “The Pattern Language”, a kind of encyclopedia or almanac of typological precedents used throughout human history for dealing with local conditions or architectural needs. The book of the same name, “The Pattern Language” lists and diagrams hundreds of patterns and ideas that a modern day architect or settlement builder can browse and use within a design context. The genius of this idea is that it takes into account local differences and allows an individual to tailor a project according to individual needs. It is almost the opposite of the standard modular cookie-cutter designs that dominate most large scale development.
Another project that has been developing steadily since the sixties is the Arcosanti project, an ecological town in the middle of the Arizona desert. The brainchild of Italian architect Paolo Soleri, the town is being built by volunteers who develop solutions to onsite problems as they move along. Almost 40 years in the making, the project aims to house an entire town of 5,000 people, while using a minimum of resources and attempting to become an extension of the landscape itself. The idea of using a ecological town stems out of the premise that, if contained in a limited space, the population will cause minimum damage to the surrounding land, while providing all the needs for its inhabitants. Whether or not this idea will succeed remains to be seen.
Malcolm Wells, an architect living in Massachusetts, and with whom I was in contact for a number of years while I was still an architect, is one of the most influential architects promoting “green architecture” (See his book “Gentle Architecture”). He believed that it was important to build human settlements and buildings that put the environment first, so much so that he advocated building designs that actually incorporated the landscape as part of their construction. He proposed cities with forested roofs and subterranean streets to get cars out of the way. He is most famous for his underground houses which, when approached, look like gardens dripping with flowers, grass, and trees.
Shortly before I returned to Japan I had a conversation with Malcom Wells on the telephone. He had just finished apologizing for not being able to take me on as an apprentice, when I asked him what advice he could give me for getting started as an architect, especially in green design. He first replied that I should make sure to get a thorough background in all the essential fields of architecture, such as construction, drafting, structure, materials, typology, history, project management, drawing, and design. Then he said one last thing which has remained with me to this day, and which defines how I want to approach all the work that defines my commitment to the natural world:
He said (at least to this effect), “Forget the new sites and new developments. Forget trying to break new ground on pristine land. Instead, find the ugliest, most polluted, most badly damaged strip of earth you can and dedicate yourself to bringing it back to life. Find the beauty in it and revive it. Coax wild animals back to inhabit it. And when you’re done, be able to say that you helped the place to grow more healthy and beautiful than it was before it was destroyed.”
This is what the preservation of the world ought to be, I believe. We need to learn to be healers. If nothing else, we can start small, right here where we stand.