(Photos taken with my cell phone camera)
It was like floating in space. The darkness spread out in all directions, unmoving sea of ink, its edges and breadth punctuated by distant neon signs, dotted lines of isolated street lamps, and faraway glowing house windows. In the middle of the darkness, here, where my feet encountered the asphalt, a chilly wind insisted upon reminding me of the path I had taken from my temporary new home somewhere back there. I had intended to make a roundabout circuit of the rice paddies that surrounded the university where I have now been working for the past three weeks (has it been three weeks already?), following the god-like point-of-view of the town map, but being the mortal of limited perception that I am, somewhere in the dark I got lost. Just like when I lose my bearings in the mountains I stopped in my tracks and stood casting about for something familiar. But there was nothing to turn to, not even the path itself. Instead I was floating upon blackness. Twenty minutes into my run and my first venture into this unfamiliar landscape and already I was having an out-of-body experience.
More by feel than academic certainty, I tip-tapped my toes along the fronds of grass at the side of the path and slowly made my way back the way I had come. The path sloped down into an irrigation ditch at one point and I could hear the trickle of water down at the bottom. The sky was vast above, the stars more spare than usual, as if competing for attention with the neon lights. Soon I heard the rush of cars on the main road nearby and the switch to gravel on the path. I found one of the street lamps and headed toward it, eventually getting back on the main, paved lanes and jogging the rest of the way to the university.
Dawn view of the university where I work.
When I swung the door open the brisk autumn air grabbed me and slapped me awake. A gibbous moon floated in the glacial blue of the morning sky, and a moment later a sparrow hawk arched over the white disk, its wings beating heavily. It was an omen. And for the first time in days I felt a loosening in my chest, and I took my first step into the neighborhood that shed its sense of dislocation and dread. The sun had not quite nudged its pate over the edge of the world, still waiting, perhaps for me to find more space and more distance. So I started on my second foray into the rice fields.
The train station which serves the university. The train line is so small it only has four stations, and trains come but once an hour.
Everything was different with light added. The dark car ports and sinister doghouses, pointy rooftops and fence doors banging in the wind, all had acquired a bit of color in their cheeks so that it now seemed pretty and domestic. Even the dry crackle of dead grass at the verge of the road, which had raised the hairs on the back of my neck two nights before, now wafted up the sweet smell of vegetation. Here and there locals strolled with their dogs along the roadside or hurried through their morning health walk. And everywhere, simply everywhere, sang and fluttered birds. Birds, birds, birds, like a a regal processional for the sun king.
For the first time in over twenty five years I spotted a bull-headed shrike (Lanius bucephalus), first by its slightly hysterical chatter, and then by its heavy, twitching leaping from branch to branch to telephone wire. Further on, also a long-missed friend from my early years of birding, the sky shrilled to the breathless melodies of skylarks (Alauda arvensis), as they climbed higher and higher, singing all along, into the blue until you could no longer make out the tiny dot of their hovering wings and then came diving down as if to strike the earth, only to pull away just before reaching the ground. In the first twenty minutes I filled up my notebook with a dozen old familiar names I hadn’t seen in a long time: gray heron, cormorant, yellow wagtail, kestrel, eared grebe, lesser golden plover, yellow-breasted bunting…
So this place wasn’t so bad after all…
Sluice gate for rice paddy irrigation. Leaving the main collection of houses of the town behind, the land opened up here. I could even smell the salt on the air from the ocean ten kilometers away.
Sign warning women to be careful of gropers and exhibitionists. Kind of took away some of the innocence of the rice paddies beyond. And gave it a bit more real history…
When the sun came up and sliced its yellow knife across the fields, I joined my shadow companion for some pantomiming fun.
Here and there some of the traditions remained from the Chiba (the name of this prefecture) of old. It is a land of wind and storms, and traditionally everything around the homes was protected by high hedges and islands of windbreaks. Today the unprotected modern houses and slap-dash way of building the highway bypasses completely ignore the earlier awareness of this rather brusque landscape. During the runs there were few places to get get out of the wind.
I’d wanted a place to go for long walks and I found it. Now I needed to take the time to slow down and look more deeply.
I returned to the guest house still glowing with the pumping of my blood and the heat of sun against my retinas. Before entering the enclosure of the housing development though I stood atop the overpass that climbed over the train station, the highest point in the immediate neighborhood, and surveyed 360 degrees, the extent of this new place I had taken a step into. For better or worse, this was home for now. A lot was about to happen, with some wrenching changes, but it was off to a good start. The floating had stopped and I had settled back on earth. The thing was, could I keep from slipping back into the long years of waiting I had just molted myself of? Each day now would be baby steps, but new. Perhaps it is good to sometimes pare yourself down to the essentials and see where they take you.
12 replies on “I Sing of Birds and Dream in Neon”
Whenever I read something that I like very much, as in this case, I am left without words. All I can say is that I loved the images, the description and, above all, the structure of your post, progressively switching from an unfriendly night environment to a sunny, warm, almost bucolic landscape. For me it’s been like a journey into a new land, although it will take a second slow reading to appreciate it more deeply.
I would like to ask some questions but perhaps it is inappropriate here – it would ruin the magic atmosphere.
You have a way of weaving a simple stroll or jog into a vivid reading experience. You are truly one with the moment and bring us along for the ride.
May- your own words on your blog have the same effect on me. I find I end up commenting on almost everything you write, which is very rare for me. Though you don’t usually end up leaving me without words; you so often get me thinking and wanting to talk quite a lot more than blog commenting will allow.
You are certainly welcome to ask your questions here, but if you’d prefer please contact me at butuki at gmail dot com so we can talk more.
Zen- wow, you got me blushing. The funny thing is that I wrote this post half in a daze. I’d been up for two days (shuttling back and forth between Chiba and my old home can take a lot of one’s time… about 2 and a half hours by train one way… and I’d been somewhat tense from all the new things to learn at the university) and the writing came out more like a spilling of emotional moments than any concentrated effort at getting the words right. I’m still surprised by the consistency now that I look at it again.
At least you’re getting out and exploring your new home. I’ve been finding it quite difficult in Bangkok — language barriers, the sheer vastness and strangeness of it — but it’s becoming increasingly clear that exploring is essential if you want to integrate into a new place, if you want to make it home and get the most out of it. I knew this before, but your post reminded somehow of just how important it is to get out there and let things happen, even getting lost and afraid. Thanks, Miguel.
Hi Butuki – linked here from may’s site. This is a wonderful post – I felt I shared the walk with you. I too like going for long walks although my environs are somewhat different! I will visit again.
I was puzzled by the sidebar links that seemed to go to empty pages – was it me or are they a future project to be filled?
Andru- I’ve been reading your own words on your site, and like always your thoughts are challenging and deeply thoughtful, but I must admit I am a little intimidated by the extent of your reading and knowledge sometimes and am not quite sure how to respond without sounding ignorant. I need a lot of time to respind on your site and I hope to do it more often soon when I’ve settled in this place a little.
But I understand what you mean about taking the time to walk through a place. It is something that I always do in a new place no matter when I am. Instead of taking a tour bus or following the usual tourists I just step off the main road and wander about until I am lost, often stopping to eat at local, sometimes seemingly unremarkable restaurants where I very often meet locals whom I would never even know exist if I followed the commercial byways. Here, too, where I have just moved, I take the early mornings and late afternoons to wander about, going where even some of my students, who come from around here, have never been or would never think to go. I never feel comfortable in a place until I have a general body-vocabulary of it, from turning many corners twice or taking side paths that lead no where; it’s sort of like a mouse in a maze, by ending up in a lot of dead ends I also get a more thorough map of the landscape in my mind.
SnowQueen- I hope what you see here will keep you coming back, though I never seem to have enough time to write all the things that patter through my mind.
This is very encouraging news, Miguel. Your opening bit reminded me of my own stay in Japan twenty years ago — I used to go for a *lot* of nighttime walks. (I guess it’s the one time when a foreigner doesn’t have to worry about being stared at!)
I have to say, these are some of the best cellphone camera snapshots I’ve ever seen.
It is Monday 20th November, 6 p.m. London time.
The blue column with words is apparently no longer there but I am sure I saw it sometime during the weekend – cannot remember exactly when. Now I can only see this central, wide column.
An hour later: the bar is back in its place.
I am not keeping track of it all night, though!
Hello SnowQueen, yesterday as I was preparing dinner I was thinking about your earlier comment about the dead links and realized that you had meant what you just wrote above. Yes, those pages are still under development. I hope to have a much more comprehensive site in the near future (after I settle down in a new apartment, which I am looking for at the moment). There will be a special section for my fiction writing; another for my drawings, of my illustrations and cartoons and online picture stories; a photo gallery where people can see better examples of my photos and possibly, if they would like, buy prints; a community page with information about topics I enjoy, like photography, hiking, bicycle touring, recipes, diabetes information, and hopefully a development of a small community; and a professional page of writing and illustration that I want to sell, hopefully with a few books under my belt. I also want to change the design of the whole site… at the moment it doesn’t show my design abilities at all and is rather drab.
Sorry about the empty links for now. I’m still trying to figure out how to create a good navigation system for the whole site, one that is easy to understand and as simple as possible.
Glad I kept you on my blog to remind myself to come back. Another great post. Thank you for sharing.