Image taken of the Earth by Voyager, 5.76 billion kilometers away, in 1991, at the suggestion of Carl Sagan. Credits: NASA, 1991. I’ve retouched the photo to take out the original light reflections from the Voyager camera. That tiny white dot a little off center to the right is Earth. You may want to clean your computer screen of any other dust particles. That is where dinosaurs scuttled, continents jittered, Jesus claimed he was the son of a god, the Buddha found a truth, Julius Ceasar claimed victory over the whole world, Mick Jagger sang “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, a growing, vibrating spot of microbial beings threatened to overwhelm the dot, two tiny projectiles plinked against two folicles of concrete and it was claimed to be a changing point in the history of the dot, and a curiously unaware leader of the microbial beings squeaked out to the dot, “We have prevailed!”
I couldn’t sleep. Swinging my legs over the side of the bed I stumbled in the darkness out into the hallway and blearily made my way to the toilet. Cricket song rang through the open bathroom window and seemed to float on the chilly night air that poured in through the screen. Somewhere another sleepless soul, a jungle crow, cawed irritably among the treetops. I flushed the toilet and for a few moments the rushing water drowned out all other sounds and the closeness of the apartment made it seem as if the world ended at the walls around me. When the gurgling of the water cut off, suddenly the darkness opened around me again and the walls seemed to disappear. The clock ticked in the kitchen along to the hum of the refrigerator. LED lights from the microwave oven, the telephone, and the sleeping computer floated in the dimness, like distant city lights. A wraith of a moth softly batted at the kitchen window and then whirred away.
I heard myself whisper in the dark. “What are you afraid of?”
I broke open the refrigerator door, light streaming out like the Mother Ship, and ran my eye over the milk carton and carton of apple juice. Nothing I wanted, so I closed the door and stood a moment letting my eyes readjust. I picked out a glass from the drying rack and ran the faucet in the kitchen sink, filling the glass. More by feel than sight, I sipped from the rim, and felt the cool liquid run down my throat. A little spilled over onto my chin and the chill made me jump. The taste of chlorine and iron.
“Shouldn’t have to pay for this,” I whispered.
I tiptoed back to the bedroom door and looked in on my wife sleeping. The covers were partly thrown back and one knee was lifted. Her face, her closed eyes and slack lips, reflected the grey light from the window, all still. I leaned over the bed and as softly as I could, drew the blanket back around her. She stirred, the rhythm of her breathing momentarily paused, until it resumed again.
Last photo of the Earth taken from the surface of the moon, Apollo 17, 1972. I was twelve years old in Japan, Israel was at war with Egypt, my best friend Steven Radolinsky was about to return to the States, the human population had just reached three billion a year or two before. Credits: NASA, 1972
My fingers found my fleece jacket on the floor at the foot of the bed. I slipped it on and headed back out to the hallway, to the entrance way. Crouching down, I laced on my beat up sandals. They felt cold and the straps stiff when I pulled the tab. I unlatched the front door and pushed it open. Cool air rushed in, like a curious dog sniffing out the confines. The door closed with a heavy thud, which raised the hairs on my neck; the sound was so isolate and abrupt in the pre-dawn stillness. The soles of my sandals crunched on the gravel and I glided beneath the dark beards of unpruned Japanese maples and Japonica, the tips of leaves brushing the top of my head and shoulders. When I came out to the street the street light was blinking and a lone hawkmoth whizzed around the light, seeking a center that only it could see. Beyond the sphere of light neighborhood houses stood along the sides of the street, somber and dozing, and I passed, peering left and right, expecting any moment for someone in a window to shift position. A lone cat slid across my path, pausing only a moment to glance at me, before blending into the shadows.
I made my way to the nearby park, where open space, dewey grass, and the sky cut out of the frame of Tokyo let me stretch out a little and look up. All above hung a black curtain spilled with salt, with needles on end, with the powder of silver from a broken mirror, the fabric so thin and delicate that the skin of heaven shone through. I lay back in the wet grass, legs and arms spread out, my back soaking up the chilly damp, and breathed in and out. A satellite charged across the emptiness chasing a bear and a swan, hunted in turn by a soldier. I closed my eyes and heard the crickets again, millions of them, all in chorus, singing to the sky.
“What if this is not here tomorrow?” I murmured. “Who will remember me, in this moment?”
Sombrero Galaxy M104, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credits: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STSci/ AURA) Hubble Space Telescope ACSâ€¢STSciâ€¢PRC03-28
Much as I love immersing myself in the beauty of mountains and the peace that I find there, my recent refusal to write about things that make me angry or that I find unnecessarily ugly or unfair is tantamount to sticking my head in the sand. It’s not all pretty pictures, as you all know.
This morning I woke at dawn to go for a long walk, this time without my camera, just to be out there to look and see. I had slept well and in the dim enclosure of my apartment I moved about humming to myself. When I finally did open the front door and step outside, the air was brisk, with a sky flush with clouds. All the rooftops and trees rang out with the calls and songs of brown-eared bulbuls, jungle crows, great tits, tree sparrows (Passer montanus… not the Western hemisphere species), and hordes of flocking grey starlings. It should have been a tranquil and invigorating morning, but right on the street outside my apartment my crest fell.
A man walking his cocker spaniel waited as the dog did his number on the sidewalk, and then the man just walked off, without glancing at me, leaving the number to do its fly-ridden thing. It being a morning of serenity and tolerance I decided to shrug that off and continue walking. Two minutes later another man stepped, this time with three dachshunds, out of his newly built, meticulously manicured house and walled garden, into the gravel driveway belonging to the kindergarten next door, and waited as all three dogs did their numbers. When they were done, the man turned his heel and reentered his fastidious house, again, leaving the mess on the ground for bombardier beetles and maggots. Well, I told myself, this isn’t my home, and he seemed like a reasonable man, so let’s not assume anything here. So on I trundled, still in the mood for humming.
I rounded the next corner and came face-to-face with yet another housing development in the vicinity of my apartment… the seventeenth so far in my five years here… this time taking over a small park that must have been part of this area since I was born. Now, Chofu, my town, supposedly has a law which requires 20 percent of the land area to be reserved for trees and parks or small farms and nurseries. One of the reasons I moved here was to make sure that I had a least some semblance of greenery around me while in Tokyo. However, the big housing corporations like Daiwa House and Sekisui Homes and Mitsubishi Development must have made some under-the-table deals with city officials and bypassed the laws. Every single one of the green areas around my home, now that the little park had been taken, had disappeared during the five years I’ve been here, to be replaced by exceedingly cramped mockeries of American “little boxes on the hill top” “all made out of ticky tacky”, some with barely a meter of space between the walls of the houses. Everything was beginning to look exactly the same with none of the older expressions of individual creativity and the signs of various states of growth and dilapidation that traditional Japanese neighborhoods always carried with an air of dignity and pleasure.
I saw yet another man (always men… I’ve rarely seen a Japanese woman not carefully pick up after her dog) allowing his pomeranian to proliferate the various species of dung beetles that tumble about those odoriferous miniature landscapes, this time going out of his way to part some streetside azaleas, stepping into and trampling the branches, and setting the dog inside that space like a flower pot. He, too, after glancing guiltily about, walked away as if he were the only man in the world committing such misdemeanors.
As tends to happen when my eyes focus on certain subjects, my mind went into overdrive and saw all the ugliness repeated over and over again, the hideous housing developments, the pooing dogs, the litter-choked river, the signs shooing skateboarders and bicyclists away from the public parks, someone’s dirty panties by the side of the river path, a small, hidden slope seething with discarded refrigerators, bicycles, bookshelves, and stained mattresses, tendrils of plastic cordage suspended from trees, a flock of oily and filthy pigeons, many with club feet or deformed beaks, piles upon piles upon piles of garbage-filled plastic bags waiting to be picked up, the first bomber plane of the day roaring by toward the American air base in the west, the sickly-sweet odor of sewage and detergent flowing from a storm drain into the river, the carp and turtles poking about in the toxic mud of the ankle deep river water, and a horizon choked with rooftop after rooftop after rooftop after rooftop after rooftop…
I started clenching my fists in anger and felt my chest constrict, so that it was hard to breathe properly. I saw a man walk nonchalantly down to the river’s edge and, since it was dawn and few people were about, zip down his pants and send his urine arching into the water, and that did it for me. I couldn’t enjoy this walk. So I turned and headed back home.
Along the way I happened upon yet another man standing as his dog, this time a huge samoyed, did its contribution to the pinworm empire, right on the walkway of some student apartments. I almost walked past this man, too, but was boiling over with indignation, so I stopped, turned around and asked him point-blank, “Excuse me, are you intending to just leave everything there, right in front of that person’s home, in the walkway?”
He scowled and turned bright red. “No,” he replied.
“Ah, then you intend to pick up after the dog with your bare hands?”
He, of course, couldn’t reply to that, but he did anyway, “No.”
“What if I decided to do the same thing right in front of your house?” I asked.
“I probably wouldn’t like it,” he answered. I felt like I was talking to a naughty teenager.
“Please think about it then,” I said, and with that I turned and continued on home. I felt prickly and off balance, and scolded myself all the way to my door.
When back in the apartment I let out a great sigh, made myself some tea. Tea in hand I ventured to my computer and turned it on. Opened my e-mail. And found this news
“Tibetan Nun Shot by Chinese Soldiers at Nangpo Pass In the Himalaya”
Body of a Tibetan nun shot by Chinese soldiers at Nangpo Pass in the Himalaya.
View of the Shirane-Three Peaks, with Mt. Kitadake, the second highest mountain in Japan, off to the right side. Here Mt. Noutori rises above the clouds. The valleys hid in shadow below, while the world above basked in late summer sunlight.
Conversations heard along the trail.
“Where did that dog come from?”
“The one standing there on the trail, looking down at us.”
“Wow. How’d he manage to get down those rock faces? We had to use chains!”
“And he’s just standing there, politely waiting for us to pass. A mountain dog with good manners!”
“Looks like he’s just out for an afternoon stroll. I wonder if he’s going or coming?”
“Coming, I guess. If you were from around here and knew this killer trail, would you be starting up right now?”
“He probably thinks we’re a little daft.”
“No doubt. Do you think that’s a smile on his face?”
“Look, I think he wants to pass now. I guess all this babbling has ruined his solitude.”
“Best let him pass then.”
“There he goes, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.”
Looking back over the ridge toward Mt. Kannon. The whole array of peaks in the Houou Three Peaks range pay tribute to Buddhist luminaries, like the bodhisattvas Kannon and Jizo. Everywhere you walk tiny shrines and offerings to statuettes concentrate the presence of walkers’ involvement with the place. One ridge, where numerous walkers have died, shelters a group of jizo statues in memory of the walkers’ spirits. An almost eerie sense of others watching pervades the whole mountain range.
“I did not say that I didn’t want to wait for you, or that…!”
“You always have to show how tough and manly you are! Why can’t you just slow down?”
“I am slowing down. I’m trying to match your pace…”
“What, so you think I can’t climb this trail? You think I’m too weak to handle it?”
“I didn’t say that. I just don’t like falling behind and having to walk right behind some stranger in front of me.”
“Oh, so you think everyone here is too slow? FIne! I’ll just pick up my pace and make sure to be better than everyone else! See you later!”
“Hey, don’t do that. Come on. Where you going? Oh, come on. Don’t be silly…”
Like a dark queen Mt. Fuji rises to the southeast. Though the deity that lives in the volcano is considered male in Japan, Mt. Fuji has always seemed like a female monarch to me. In the over thirty five years I have seen her, including five years living right at her base, where she surveyed me below in my apartment window, she has never revealed herself the same way twice. Dark and fiery red on summer days, wreathed in clouds in autumn, even gliding ghostly white on moonlit nights, she sits aloof and alone in her vast throne between the surrounding, more timid mountains.
“Are you all right?”
“I feel sick. I think I pushed myself too hard.”
“Here. Try some water. It might make you feel a little better.”
“I wasn’t trying to slow you down.”
“I’ve only been in the mountains once this year.”
“I slept badly all night.”
“That climb was really hard !”
“You can say that again! It was so steep and slippery I couldn’t even stand still to take a break!”
“I still haven’t forgiven you yet.”
The last peak before Houou descends into the valley. Seemingly from the top of every creeping pine, windblown larch, and outcropping, nutcrackers called and winged amidst the drifting clouds. Called “hoshi-garasu” (star crow) in Japanese, their spangled breasts flashed white as they whisked by.
“Would you like another chicken dumpling?”
“No thanks. It’s too hot to eat chicken.”
“Really? It goes well with the pork broth rice balls. Follow it with some salt-pickled celery. Nice and crunchy!”
“I don’t see how you can stuff yourself like that in this heat. You’re like a drunk salaryman.”
“Better grab some while they’re still available. This walking does wonders for the appetite. Sure you don’t want some? They’re remarkably good. I thought they were your favorite?”
“You’re unbelievable. You’ve begun savoring convenience store food. All discrimination right out the window.”
“In the mountains everything tastes good. Sure you don’t want one? Last one!”
Stunted yellow birch hold on tight to the rocks to survive the relentless winds. The rock garden above Kannon Peak Mountain Hut seemed like something out of a surreal painting, the colors and forms so intense and twisted.”
“The woods smell nice.”
“Balsam fir. I got some of the sap on my fingers. Here, take a whiff.”
“I like just lying here under the trees. I could lie here all day.”
“Too bad we have to get back to work tomorrow.”
“My legs feel like rubber bands. Don’t think I can take another step.”
“We have some time. Let’s just close our eyes and forget about the time for a short while.”
“Shhh. Listen. The wind rustling the leaves.”
Larch woods appearing out of a lifting mist, along the steep trail out of Gozaishi Kousen.
“That sign said forty minutes till the end!”
“How many minutes has it been?”
“One hour and thirty minutes.”
“Perhaps the sign was meant for faster walkers.”
“This ice cream really hits the spot! I think it’s the best ice cream cone I’ve ever had!”
“Do you think we have time for a hot spring bath? I could really use a bath right now.”
“The bus comes in twenty minutes. I don’t think so.”
“Hope the other bus passengers will survive my influence! I don’t have a change of clothes.”
“Well, you might knock them all unconscious, so probably you don’t have to worry about their reactions… Ow! That hurt!”
“Serves you right! Hey, can I take a bite of your ice cream? I’m already finished with mine.”
Click on the images to have them open as bigger images as your read.
The cloud, huge and black and shaking with fury, lowered its brows as I stepped over the finger of a ridge. It had enveloped the mountain, sending the world into a shifting grey sea of veils and doubts, daring me to pass. Arms of vapor muscled their way across the trail, now so washed out by the featureless blankets of cloud that the ground beneath me seemed to turn to gas, and only the firmness of footing reminded me of its solidity. My eyes followed the thunderhead down into the bowl of mountains where I was to spend the night, and I saw nothing but roiling soup. Lighting sang staccato within the belly of the cloud, like frenzied fireflies, and the cloud responded with a series of stentorian whiplashes, on vocal chords so heavy and pure that the mountain beneath me jumped in fright.
I hesitated. Looking back down the trail I had just climbed I could make out the thread of the stream far below, and the last of the sun’s rays pooling in the ravine. My whole body burned from the last eight hours of exertion and my knees felt about to give way. There was no going back. I turned to face the rumbling monster in the valley and started down the trail. Lightening and thunder greeted my decision, as if in exultation.
Tokyo lay sweltering in summer forgetfulness. Like a finger poked through tissue paper the train carried me out of the steam and deposited me gently along its bright, sleepy reaches, just at the edge of wheels and pavement. With my discount ticket that only allowed carriage by trains that walked, not ran, my arrival in the hot spring town was greeted, in the first store I stepped into for a can of coffee, by closing-time music over the speaker system. Most of the throngs of tourists had already retired to the inns and the parking lots waited, deserted.
I crossed the bridge over the roaring river, from the town, over a no-man’s-land of snow melt-off, to the wilderness waiting on the other side. It began abruptly: a wall of cedars that radiated a shell of cool air and hid its innards with tangles of lichen-bearded downfall and brush. The trail skirted the edge of the forest as if timid, only reluctantly entering the silence when the laps of the cliffs left no alternative. Within a hundred steps the forest and the mountain had me to themselves. I began to whistle, a sliver of sound declaring my own little territory.
I walked past kneeling grandfather spruces and Mother Earth breathing from openings in the ground. Flotillas of dragonflies, like angels wrapped in cellophane, circled my brow, the cranes of their legs and mandibles working the air of gnats and mayflies. Grasshoppers set up bandstands in the grass and zithered the blues to the accompaniment of jays screeching in the canopy. In the late blue sky tufts of clouds set sail for the peaks, marking mileposts for me to follow.
The four men, clad in rock-stomper hiking boots and nylon pants, had been friends a long time. With an ease and camaraderie borne of years of mountain walks together, they trudged up the trail in single-file, grunting at the same boulders to scramble up, and breaking out in laughter at the same old jokes and recounts of past mishaps. The fabric of their packs had faded in the sun and each wore a different, worn-out baseball cap, stained with sweat and adorned with medallions from previous walks. One of them had obviously been drinking too much and when he, red in the face, but oblivious, farted loudly while hauling himself up a steep embankment, the other three politely referred to him as “Mr. Aromatherapy”. They slapped their thighs in merriment and had to stop and let me pass while they sorted out their composure.
We did a kind of relay race, those men and me. I kept up a steady, but slow, pace, stopping to take photographs or to gaze at the mountains opening around me, while they trundled on in bursts, huffing and puffing to some next vantage point, where they would stop to take breaths and smoke cigarettes. One of them, cigarette in hand, nodded to me as we stood on an overlook with the entire valley below, and mused, “Ah, mountain air! It tastes fresh as a young woman’s kiss, no?” With that he took another drag on his cigarette and blew a plume into the afternoon breeze.
The man in the neighboring tent, who must have eaten something disagreeable, punctuated the night with various demonstrations of his bodily functions, most notably a medley of wet and dry farts, from squeaky to tuba-like, combined with more ominous interruptions of a more throaty nature. When he finally decided to proclaim his virtuosity to all the world by exiting his tent and crunching back and forth across the gravel in front of my tent I decided to battle sleeplessness with a sortie into the darkness. To my astonishment and utter delight, the Milky Way had sprayed itself across the sky with particular fervor; I could almost feel the Earth swing along the outer rim of our galaxy. Aside from the debilitated musician wandering about the campsite, no one else was awake and I had the stars to myself. The air had been inhaled by the mountain and held, so that all was still, and a kind of downy heat bloomed in the valley. I snuck away to the opposite side of the campground… and came upon a scene I will never forget. Beneath a blazing full moon wooly dollops of clouds bathed in the silverly light and splashed feathers against the great bathtub of surrounding mountains. It took my breath away. I sat on a rock, beyond which the world dropped away into darkness, and lost myself in the magic of the moment. Then I broke the spell. Thinking I could capture what I saw and felt in a photograph, I ran back to the tent and retrieved my camera. When I returned the moment had passed. All the clouds had drained away into the plumbing of the forests below.
The clouds had covered the sun. So far the talk back at the camp of a typhoon surging in hadn’t materialized into winds yet, so, cheerful in the rain that sprayed the flower meadows along this lonely side trail, I meandered along with my camera, stopping every few feet to kneel down among the fronds and flower heads, legs and hands and face wet with dew, every separate, tiny life a wonder. For the moment at least, until I reached the next mountain hut only a hour’s hurried march away and could determine whether the storm’s potential was too risky for further climbing, I could linger and not worry about time for once. Everything caught my eye, everything photogenic and new. Such moments bring out fierce joy in me, a real sense of what makes me happy and knowing who I am. I often imagine what I would have been like as a prehistoric hunter. The pleasure of immersing myself in my surroundings and learning to see would have felt complete, I think, as much of what a human being can hope to make out of life as any modern aspiration for a career.
This brings the story back to the beginning when the thunderclouds rolled in. The day’s walk had taken four hours longer than planned and I arrived in camp in a pouring deluge. Everything got wet and the campsite was a quagmire of running mud. To my dismay I discovered that the tent leaked like a sieve and to stay warm and dry I resorted to covering my sleeping bag with my rain gear. Most of the night was spent sponging up pooling water and wiping down the tent walls. In the middle of the night, with the thunder clapping right over the campsite, I felt as if I were trapped in some B-rated horror movie using Chinese water torture by dripping the water onto my head from the soaked seams. It wasn’t a matter of fearing for my life, but more of enduring the misery of nightlong discomfort and sleep deprivation. I dozed off just as the rain let up near dawn. The camp began to wake up then, everyone else well-rested from holing up in their snug, dry shelters.
The highlight of the morning was greeting Englishman Sam Short, who had arrived the same time as I the evening before. We both had a good laugh at the events of the night. Later on the trail, even though I had left two hours before him, Sam locomotivated right past me, churning up the trail like a mountain goat and leaving behind a trail of dazed hikers who down the trail later marveled to me at his speed. “Do all you foreigners have such wonderfully long legs?” an elderly woman remarked to me. “If you ask me,” grumbled a middle-aged man who had fallen far behind his wife waiting for him at the summit, “I don’t come to these mountains to go speeding along the trails like some race car driver.” Sam must have covered twice as much distance as I did that day.
I was walking along a level section of the trail when I recognized an outcropping upon which, seven years earlier, my wife and I had eaten lunch. We had laughed that whole day, even along the hardest stretches of the trail. Today the sight of that outcropping drove the feelings for my wife back up to the surface and churned in the pit of my stomach. I kept walking, each step slower than the last, until I passed into an area alight with flowers. I gazed around me, looking at nothing in particular, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere it seemed, I burst out sobbing. It came on in waves, so hard that I fell to my knees amidst the flowers. I couldn’t stop, in spite of being half conscious of the possibility of other walkers appearing along the trail. When I finally managed to pull myself to my feet I stumbled along the trail still heaving sobs, clearing some invisible clot that had lodged itself in my chest. I don’t know how long it was, perhaps fifteen minutes, when as suddenly as it had come, like clouds opening, the crying vanished. The pull of the end of the trail lost its relevance, and instead I let my feet take their own baby steps through this indifferent wilderness. And I found comfort in not worrying about the end. All I needed right now I had with me right here. It was simple, a pack, a shelter, some clothes on my back, something to eat when I got hungry, and two pairs of still-serviceable legs. I was free to go where I wanted. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.