Journal Natural Places Nature

Fresh Snow

Pond Logs
Logs and reeds in Shirabiso Lake, Yatsugatake, Japan, 2003.

For anyone who has driven their car to a trailhead, hoisted on their backpack, and stepped away from the tarmac onto a path leading a week through a region cut off from help or convenience, the first sense of how big the world is and how small each of us are might feel quite familiar.

The Discovery Channel aired a documentary the other night reenacting a possible scenario of what it might have been like for the first Siberians to cross over the land bridge into the Americas. Most likely they had no inkling that in the vast continents ahead of them not another human soul existed, that they were the very first people across. At the time of the land bridge, with no sea to drown the highlands, it must all have seemed just a continuation of the Siberian land mass itself. But for me, living in the confines of crowded Tokyo, with dreams of wandering some expansive steppe with not a human figure or even a tree in sight, I envy those people no end.

Just the sheer self-reliance they exercised in order to survive in a harsh environment with giant animals that no longer exist today mocks the knowledge I have worked at over the years for my little forays into the mountains and on long distance tours. So much of what I know and feel proud of relies on highly technical materials and gadgets, almost all of which I know next to nothing about making myself. While I do possess knowledge about basic survival and could probably survive a winter snowstorm for a few days, I have never hunted, never made my own clothes, never had to slog for months on end through snowdrifts and wild, uncharted mountains. I think of arriving on the shore of a new continent, with nothing but the animal hides on my back, the hunting tools I’ve fashioned, and the lifetime of intimate lessons in animal behavior, moving in the terrain, and working in life saving cooperation with others, and realize just how far from the mechanism of living I have actually strayed. Put me in the same position and that shore would seem like a death sentence, vast, unfriendly, unforgiving, and indifferent.

In spite of knowing how inadequate my skills in surviving in the natural world are, I can’t live without nature and remain happy or fulfilled. This Tokyo world I live in gathers a sterile amalgamation of concrete, steel, and structure, excluding most of what makes the real world whole. I live here like a drone, performing my function in the hive, but otherwise useless and utterly dependent. I think back on the wonder I carried about all living things around me that filled childhood and can sense that the function of that wonder was to drink in the living world and learn how to participate in it. The wonder allowed me to learn without feeling it was meaningless or irrelevant. It must be something much like the native enthusiasm for hunting in cats and dogs, or the urge to beat their wings in fledgling birds. That so many of us have been breeding the wonder for nature and the wholeness of living within its sphere out of our experience seems to invite a kind of personal ecological death.

One day I would like to step onto a distant shore and set out across the unknown with just a spear and my companions. And feel my confidence lapping at the shores of wonder and the eternal.

Journal Musings Natural Places Nature


Poppy Field Germany
Poppy Field, area north of Lübeck, Germany, 1995


For anyone who has had the experience of being stateless or drifting between nations not knowing where they might be allowed to stay, the news that I received from the Japan immigration office today, that my application for permanent residency was approved, will carry the familiar sense of relief that I am feeling today. Though I am a German and do not want to give up my German citizenship I have never lived there and don’t think I would really know what to do with myself if Germany was the only place I had to return to. I’ve been in Japan so long now that it almost goes without saying that I would make this place my permanent home, but all my life until now Japan has remained a kind of mirage that hadn’t accepted me yet into its fray. It has always been difficult to commit myself to this place, give my whole heart to it, while its people had not in return shown me steps that would justify my spending my energy in making this a proper home. Yet, today, the nod was given and, in spite of my skepticism before, it has made a whole lot of difference.

So many people around the world take the place they live, and their country, for granted. Many of them have never experienced the wrenching feeling of dislocation that accompanies the realization that, if circumstances dictated, you would find yourself adrift in an indifferent world, belonging nowhere, akin to no community. In these last two years, with the choices of possibly being forced to leave Japan, but not being able to return to the States because of the crackdown in immigration (even though most of my family lives there), maybe only being able to choose Europe as my destination, but knowing only a few people there and no job prospects, or perhaps seeking out some other, only obscurely imagined country (I’ve imagined New Zealand) my sense of losing hold of my place on the ground grew more and more acute, until, in these last two months, I had the feeling that parachutist might have when drawing nigh a forest with no breaks… no idea where to put my foot down because there is no place safe or solid.

I had always thought of myself as more a less a wanderer and lone wolf until the wandering and lone wolfing became the only path I could see. I understood then that, while roving still boils in my blood, I also need some ground to lay roots in and to grip the earth with my toes so that I can see where and who I am. Just as much, I need others… friends, colleagues, neighbors… around me to help define me as an individual and act as the catalysts that bring alive and give meaning to all that I endeavor when communicating or working. Wandering around without purpose or direction or starting point only adds to a sense of aimlessness that I feel has the effect of rendering human actions and thoughts null if not reciprocated by another or by a place. I no longer believe in the individual who gets all they want or does whatever they damn well please. More and more I believe that a fulfilled person is an individual in the larger world, filling in the role of a piece in the jigsaw puzzle.

And so this acceptance of my part in Japanese society has given me a show of confidence in me that I deeply appreciate, even if it is only a bureaucratic filling in of check-marked requirements. Someone, somewhere thought to allot me a place here that I can fill and, like an anchor, it secures the long luffing sail of my self confidence and gives me a place to recalculate my new steps.