Spent the weekend in a small town northwest of Tokyo, surrounded by mountains and delineated by the slow passing of the Chikuma River. Snow usually blankets the area at this time, but this year, in spite of all the local cars clad in snow tires, the wind bore tidings of spring. I walked to the hot spring inn wearing only a t-shirt and long-sleeve shirt, sleeves rolled up. Even the mountains in the background had thrown off their usual cloaks of snow and bared their ams with but ragged patches of snow.
All morning yesterday I sat on the banks of the river, watching the water roll by. Little and Intermediate Egrets attended the shallows and were later joined by Grey Herons, Green Winged Teals, Common Galinules, and a dancing white cloud of Great Knots, large sandpipers new to me. On the opposite bank a pair of Black Kites mated while eyed by wary Carrion Crows. Mallard Ducks laughed amidst the reeds. The sun cleared the crests of the mountains behind and gave a golden patina to the entire river valley.
Since this is the same river appearing in the 2002 Japanese movie “Letter from the Mountain”, naturally the morning here reminded me of the scene where the protagonist couple are sitting in the doorway of the little shrine, gazing at the river below. And it reminded me of the poem, Ame ni mo Makezu (Unbowed by the Rain), by Kenji Miyazawa, that was quoted in the movie:
unbowed by the rain
unbowed by the wind
unbowed by the snow or the summer heat
sound of body
always quietly smilingeating four cups of brown rice
miso soup, and a few greens each day
leaving himself out of the account
watching, listening, understanding, and not forgetting
living in the shade of a pine grove
in a field, in a small thatched hutto the sick child in the east, he tends
to the tired mother in the west, he bears sheaves of rice
to the one dying in the south, he says, “Do not fear”
to quarrels and lawsuits in the north, he says, “Forget these petty differences.”
in times of drought he weeps
in a cold summer he paces
called a fool by all
neither praised nor criticized
that is the kind of man I want to be
The warm sibilances and interspersed fricatives of the Japanese original cannot be adequately translated into English, but the spirit of the poem steps forth in any translation. A simple life, unassuming, appreciative of what one has and generosity to those in need, joy in the very enclosure of the place one lives in and depends upon for sustenance, these are the elements that, when I first saw the movie, so brought out a weeping at some unfathomed biological memory that I had to sit for quite a time in the movie theater after the projector had long since been switched off.
What is joy but the removal of sorrow? What is sorrow but the memory of wholeness?
It’s one of those momentous times in life when all the strings of the doily of life converge. Big decisions have to be made, whether I want to or not, and while I stand here in the clearing all the snow around looks fresh and untouched. Whichever way I go there will be new tracks. I love being the one to stamp into the new snow, but all the same it’s not a little scary. And not without its sorrow.
Since I was a boy beyond memory two main themes always reiterated themselves into the architecture of my thoughts and feelings: nature and art. The earliest light of my consciousness recurs with images of leaves and insects and the smell of soil. Most of my happiest memories occurred in places surrounded by trees or hills or living things. The sounds of wind and water infused the music in my mind, like a green concert hall, the orchestra still warming up. Whenever I wavered, when the fragility and uncertainty and cruelty of human interaction shook my connection to this ephemeral and ever-changing boat that I call myself I could always step outside and go for a walk. There was a reciprocative duality there that felt like one; the world and me. There was never any doubt in it.
Art has always done the same for me. Writing and books; painting and drawing; photography; singing, writing lyrics, playing guitar and violin, and listening to all the world’s musicians, from crickets to Peter Gabriel and Kiri Te Kanawa; movies and animation; cooking; gardening; pottery; architecture and interior design… Somehow all these activities defined the passage of time and effort for me.
Merely acting out the steps necessary for survival, without appreciation for the merit in every aspect of the things around you or of what you actually do, never seemed to quite fulfill the promise of waking each morning. People who tell me they get bored confound me… how can you get bored if you have imagination? Isn’t it the mind that defines the color of perception? And isn’t that just what art is, the painting in of the details? Art, for me, polishes the roughness in the old block. It is with imagination that you learn to see and by seeing you unfurl the wings within your daily grind.
I have the opportunity to once and for all combine the these two guides to my life. To not shunt onto another track out of self-doubt and fear. Writing, drawing, photography, wildlife, conservation, a lifestyle as close to nature as I can hope to make it. But I’m not sure how to go about doing it. Do I stay here in Japan? Try Australia or New Zealand? Go back to Europe? Or the States or Canada? Do I teach? Do I go back to university (perhaps to study biogeography or wildlife management or some such)?
The first step has already been taken. I finished writing a book two years ago, but it has yet to find a publisher. It was the first major accomplishment of the promises I made to myself when I was younger: to live according to the right vibrations.
A lot of this seems shrouded in clouds these days; I am not as sure of who I am as I was long ago, but I know what I miss most, and missing something that you love for too long requires the sacrifices and determination of a lover. And I want to be a lover of life.
Well, so much for my triumphant Rocky antics. The day following my euphoria and canine empathy session, I woke up to a blithering cold sweat and a stomach playing, “Pass the cheese, please.” I spent a lovely, sunny day staring into the toilet bowl and wishing gravity were on my side. I wore a down quilt about the apartment like a northern king and spent too much time genuflecting to the refrigerator, seeking something, anything that would not offend my oh-so-vapid nose. Nothing doing. The mere whiff of anything hinting of nutrients sent my inner space into earthquake musings, so I finally bowed to my body’s greater wisdom and lay for two days, fasting.
Just when I thought the storm had passed, the vile little space invaders decided to try WMD’s. My fever abandoned me to the exquisite world of pain, and after four weeks of working on my abs for that “leaner, straighter look”, found myself hobbling about the rooms bent over like a wizened old man. “Good evening, my dear,” I was forced to croak to my wife, “Would you be so kind as to help an old pretzel like me to lift a glass of water?” Needless-to-say, that night recounted, for my wife, the sheer joy of the nocturnal callings of wild creatures in the jungle… as she endured the grunting, oofing, moaning, snorting, panting exhortations of this fitful boar, awash in a high fever, beside her.
Yesterday she accompanied me to the hospital. The taxi driver kept flicking nervous glances in the rearview mirror as this foreigner in the back seat of his immaculate car made strange noises that didn’t quite sound like language. I must have looked like a none-too-distant relation of Mr. Hyde, with my dark, unshaven face, cactus hair, and smudged mascara-look under my eyes. The hospital had just opened and the young receptionists, clear-eyed and smiling (I was quite surprised when the entire front desk staff lined up and bowed a cheerful good morning to all and sundry… I breathed to my wife… some unconscious attempt to emulate Marlon Brando upriver, no doubt… oh, the horror, the horror… that I wondered if they were going to sing and dance a scene from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), greeted everyone with an enthusiasm that surely made the venetian blinds wink and the potted plants dance a jig.
Until one of the receptionists met me. She told us that, since this was our first time at this hospital and that we didn’t have a referral from my usual hospital, we would have to cough up Â¥2,000 (about $22.00). I was incensed (as much as I could be that wasn’t already pretty much up in smoke already) and must have slobbered on the counter or something, because she stopped talking and stared at me. Luckily my wife intervened and a rational progression of vocabulary ticked out of her mouth. Both of them didn’t say a word, just silently endured my presence and agreed on the inherent boorishness of men.
The doctor. too, couldn’t restore my lost Rocky Horror Picture show. He greeted me with a pale blue face mask obscuring his features (he did have nice eyes, I have to admit) and a habit of rearing back from me when I leaned in to make a comment. With the avian flu scare and mad cow disease and SARS and worldwide flu epidemic I guess he had every reason to suspect some foreigner who complained of “very painful intestines, possibly due to a semi-satisfying meal (though the company was wonderful) at a Mexican restaurant on Friday night”. He laughed, albeit somewhat with a hiccough, saying, “Ah, you can speak Japanese! That makes me feel much better!”
In the end, it was simply a stomach flu, nothing to notify Doctors Without Frontiers about, or the CIA, or Jean Luc Piccard. I am safely back in my cell, ready to stand up and sing, “The Boar’s Head”.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll give Rocky another go for his money.
For the first time in almost two years the strength in my body broke through the accumulation of inactivity and slow muscles. For four weeks now I’ve been keeping up a regular succession of exercise, in part to prepare myself for less encumbered mountain walking this summer, but also to take control of my diabetes and to just plain feel good about myself. With all the heavy events and responsibilities of the last two years, turning 41, then 42, and now 43, seemed to weigh down upon my sense of vitality, as if all the voices had pummeled me into submission and I was about to join the flocks of flabby-midriffed housebounders. So many people my age seem to have given up. They want life easy and handed to them on a plate. They feel they have earned the right to rest and atrophy.
But I miss the mountains. I miss swinging my legs and feeling the air fill my lungs and my legs propelling me along the ridges. And I miss waking with a jump out of bed. I feel that piece by piece the elation at being alive is blowing away on some temporal wind, like dandelion seeds. That’s not how I want to grow older. I don’t want to succumb to cynical newspapers, closed curtains, and packages of potato chips. The engine that drives me… that drives us all… yearns for hope springing eternal. Again and again.
So I’ve embraced this physical promise of reawakening the muscles, bones, lungs, and eyes, talking myself into rhythms, tweaking a defiance against gravity, pushing and pulling at the immovable. It is a kind of dance, and the more often I reincarnate this resistance against entropy the more the movement reinforces itself and my body awakens. It is just sleep that incapacitates us.
Tending my core with Pilates workouts, yanking gravity with weights, bending branches with stretches and calisthenics, and touring my neighborhood with long loping runs and walks, all leave a feeling of occupancy, of claiming my place in space.
The effort has begun to pay off. This afternoon the weights lifted with less pull. My head inched closer to my knee. I breached the pull up bar five extra times. And most of all the run felt like bouncing, allowing me to spend more time acknowledging the glint of sunlight on the river’s water than on the crashing of my feet.
On the way back to my apartment I passed a house where a huge German Shepherd occupied a metal cage (Japanese have a bad habit of buying dogs too big for their tiny homes and often leaving them locked up in cages). Right as I paced by, the nearby kindergarten’s 5:45 chime went off, a loud, canned version of Big Ben’s bells. At the same moment the German Shepherd began to howl, sounding for all the world like a wolf. I stopped and watched him, his muzzle raised to the air, eyes shut, lips pursed, and hooting at the sky. With my rediscovered muscles bursting with energy I wanted to join in, to call to the horizon and regain paradise, the pack rolling over the hills and taking me away. Something was singing in me and I wasn’t alone.
As if a silent start gun had gone off my legs resumed their walk home. This is just the beginning. The cage will melt away, and I will heed the calling of the wild.
This is the sixteenth installment of the ongoing Ecotone essay series. This week’s topic is Food and Place. Please stop by and read the other essays or feel free to contribute your own words.
In this fast-tracked modern world, where the goods that hold up our daily lives magically appear, cut up, cleaned, wrapped, and ready to eat, more and more it seems as if we’ve lost touch with how and where it all comes from. Even when we do head out into the “wild” to harvest some measure of communion with our green past, we carry all the implements with us, like an astronaut walking on the moon. Throw away the backpack, the quick-drying clothing, the stove and pot, and most importantly, that nylon ditty bag of sustainables, and we’re lost. Most so-called “outdoorsmen” today, if suddenly left to fend for themselves far from the road and the aid of transportation, would quickly find themselves starving to death, even if an abundance of food presents itself an arm’s breadth away. Just watch a “Survivor” episode; those people know nothing about actually surviving.
In the late summer of 2001, upset and disoriented from an argument, I set off one weekend for the back country mountains north of Nikko, a national park area 2 hours north of Tokyo, without properly checking my packing list. All I could think of was that I needed to get away from people and from my home. I hoisted my pack and set off to the train station, intent upon images of forest trails and windy ridges.
Things went badly from the start. I had forgotten the map for the area and so missed the campsite that would have set me right at the trail head for the following morning. Instead I had to pitch my tent in an auto camping area, a few kilometers from the trail. It was hot and muggy and all night I lay swatting mosquitoes while drunk campers nearby reveled until the coming of dawn. I got perhaps three hours of sleep, and when morning broke, my muscles and head felt as heavy as the wet mist that sat upon the tent.
I packed quickly and headed off toward the trail, leaving early so that I might avoid the crowds of hikers. The approach to the trailhead zig-zagged along a river valley, with no signs posted, and only by querying a few farmers tending their sweet potato patches did I manage to make it to the trailhead. By that time the sun had already climbed quite high and the Japanese summer heat had begun to melt away the mist. There were no other hikers, which, because I was glad to be alone, I didn’t take note of.
The trail led into an overgrown wood with downed trees across the path and thick, almost impenetrable bamboo thicket lining the inclines on either side. Much of the walk involved scrambling through branches and stepping around crumbling ledges. Luckily a few faded wooden signs pointed to the one name of the mountain I was trying to reach and I followed them on faith.
The trail grew steeper and entered a dry ravine riverbed, old painted trail markers polka dotting the boulders and outcroppings. Walking here meant digging my boot toes into gravel and pedaling through loose scree, pumping heart and breath in an effort to stay afloat on a steep slope.
Huge, fat, wingless grasshoppers began to appear all around in the gravel and dry grass. All of them moving in the same direction, adjacent to my own movement. They were so heavy they could barely hop, but even when I approached they seemed not to notice my presence. When I reached a small ridge, I sat on a stump, eating a rice ball and watching the mass movement of the swarm, like a flowing green carpet displacing the stillness of the terrain.
I reached the summit at about noon. The peak overlooked a tarn with lead blue water across the surface of which dragged shadows of the storm clouds, mounting behind the peak opposite. Thunder rumbled from the distance. I stopped to evaluate the trail and saw that I needed to traverse a treacherous slope of loose rocks and slippery mud.
That’s when my hypoglycemia, a diabetic reaction to insulin, too little food, and high energy exertion, hit. I absently reached into my pack’s top pocket for the chocolate bar I always kept there for just such occasions. My fingers fumbled around and found… nothing. I threw the pack down and rummaged more carefully throughout the pack, hoping that I had misplaced the bar somewhere in the main compartment. Nothing. I paused, looking into the pack, then pulled out the ditty bag of food I had brought. That would do, I thought. I’ll just eat the lunch I had brought. When I opened the bag though, only a package of freeze dried rice, another package of freeze-dried spinach, a packet of soup, and a tea bag fell out. Panicking, I emptied the contents of the pack onto the trail and sifted through everything I had. Nothing.
The hypoglycemic reaction was beginning to make me dizzy and my vision blurred. I forced myself to sit still and think. Carefully I placed everything back into the pack, leaving the ditty bag of food out. I sized up the incoming storm cloud and figured I had just enough time to get my stove going and cook all the food I had left. I found a sheltered space beside a huge boulder, set up my stove, and placed a pot of water on top to boil. I waited.
I observed the landscape around me. With my vision blurring and hands beginning to shake and an uncontrollable sweat slowly drenching my clothes, the mountains seemed surreal. I hugged my knees as a frigid wind blasted the shelter and howled among the treetops back behind the trail. I pulled on my insulated jacket and watched the water in the pot, counting the tiny bubbles forming on the bottom. Steam curled off the edge of the pot and was whipped away by the wind.
During those fatal moments, when I thought I might die, all I could think of was how soft the clouds looked and how I missed my wife, with whom I had argued. The mountains seemed cold and pitiless and my stomach had no belief in the bounty of nature. Everything felt like bones around me.
I was breathing fast when the water started to boil. I emptied the open packages into the pot, not caring what mixed with what, and whispered a litany to myself, of the dream of an explosion of flavors in my mouth. Of warmth streaming down my veins. Of a pact with the world in which my body must sacrifice its independence to house the freewheeling flight of my soul. Food is life, and life is food. There is no such thing as life without the death that food requires.
I could barely hold the bowl as I spooned through it, my hands were shaking so badly. I ate so fast my lips and tongue were scalded. Lights swirled in my eyes and I was shivering from the cold sweat. I used the remaining hot water to make a cup of tea and while it steeped I finished the rice soup. The soup poured into my recesses and glowed like a firefly, reaching into niches of sustenance that only the heat could revive. Gradually the shaking died away and I squatted beside the pot, breathing slowly, in and out. Breathing slowly, slowly. When I switched off the stove the stillness clapped shut around me, with only the wind speaking.
That was perhaps the best meal I ever ate, not because I had abandoned preferences and simply enjoyed the taste of rice and spinach and egg and salt, but because that meal was stripped of distractions. The cold wind, my beating heart, and the flow of calories and nutrients made up the entire moment.
It began to rain.
I put away the tools and scraps and cinched up my pack. I stood up on steady legs. I picked my way across the slippery slope and reached the ridge on the opposite side of the dale. From there it was just a matter of crunching down the steep trail towards the road below, just discernible. And a step ahead of my next meal.
Here, let me murmur a bit about the light today, the falling of heat like a rain of down from some passing flock. The passage from sleep to that soft transfer of thought didn’t stop at the window. I stepped out and showered in peace, wings of stillness rising and falling about me, where only yesterday the air shook with trepidation. I waited in the bated morning, expecting a voice to shatter the emergence of it all, but the interval lasted, pregnant with silence. For a time it was just as I imagined, me and clouds scratching by overhead, heading north-northwest. Speed or a trendy displacement had no place in that brief perfection, as if I was given a reprieve. But I dared not blink, lest, in that eternity of blindness, time forsook me, and the slow ghosts of change failed the quickness of my eyes, too slow for remembrance. Even to mouth the news turns the encounter to dust, so, as I speak, the light is lost, sifting through wire, long, powdery, and loved into absence.