(Please click on the images to see them at their full size.)
Laughing Knees is 10 years old today! What started out as a way to express my rage and anguish at the Iraq War and Bush, gradually lost it’s fever and mutated into something much closer to my heart. It’s been a long, long journey, not always easy, but also never boring. Blogging has connected me with people around the world I would never have met otherwise, some of whom have become close friends, and most of whom I am still in touch with even today. While I haven’t been around much for the last two years, lately I’ve begun to revive my interest in blogging and slowly uploading material that wasn’t part of the blog in the past. I hope to make Laughing Knees more comprehensive, but also more focused. Hopefully you, my friends, will find more to read and think about in the coming 10 years.
(These are not the best of my drawings, just a sampling of my recent, first scans. I hope to get some of the better ones up soon.)
Naturally it wasn’t all the blog that was on my mind all those years. However, besides writing and photography, I’ve also spent countless hours drawing the world around me and figments of my imagination. Recently I took out 30 years of sketchbooks, backs of envelopes, napkins, and margins of tests and note-taking during boring work meetings, and started to scan what I hope are the more interesting outtakes. Here are a smattering I’ve started with:
For the first time in months the air was warm enough to go out in just a T-shirt. If I lifted my nose I could smell the perfume of flowers in the wind. Gray starlings, rufous turtle doves, and brown-eared bulbuls filled the still-bare branches of the trees and the rooftops with their chortling and cries, all getting ready for the hunkering down of spring. Grass lizards poked out of the cracks in the garden wall to sun themselves and a lone sulphur butterfly fluttered past the back door and nosed through the organic clutter of my unkempt garden, amidst the only greenery in the immediate neighborhood. The first hint of warmer months to come was getting off to a good start.
With my diabetes acting up lately, making me feel more exhausted than usual, I opted out of my usual 10 kilometer run, and decided instead to go for a long-overdue stroll with my camera. I packed a shoulder bag with sketchbook, extra pens, my pocket notebook, a telephoto lens, a pair of binoculars, and a chocolate bar for low blood sugar emergencies. The excursion had no particular itinerary; I just wanted to get out to stretch my legs and have a looksee. Like the birds the warm wind was making me anxious to get outside and explore.
Any direction would have been fine, but almost without thinking I found myself beside the Noh River. For four years now I’d been watching its changing character, always heavily impacted by the combined encroaching of the apartment buildings and human population along its crowded and concrete-contained banks. I passed this way more out of necessity than for any abundance of natural things in the water and riverbed.
The water ran ankle deep as it does most of the year, a bare trickle. Flocks of spot-billed ducks and mallard ducks paddled in the deeper pools, keeping eyes out for people tossing bread crumbs. The smaller pintailed ducks that had wintered among the other ducks since last November had taken off for parts north, in the more comfortable climes of Siberia and Kamchatka. The vast winter flocks of the gray starlings had recently begun to break up into the smaller mating groups. Dusky thrushes still dashed along the grassy banks, though within a week or so they, too, would set off for the north. American painted slider turtles, pets that had been released from captivity after they had grown too big for their caretakers, basked on stones at the river’s edge, and huge gray carps patrolled the murky brown riverbed, lazily muscling among the dozing duck flocks.
My whole morning had been spent in front of the computer so it took a while for my eyes to adjust to noticing potential photographs. For the first part of the walk I mostly just drank in the fresh air. Other pedestrians, many of them sneezing incessantly from the clouds of cedar pollen that yearly invades Tokyo from the surrounding mountains, jogged and quick-walked along the footpath along the river, so I descended to the trail along the riverbank itself and waded through old dried stands of reeds. My shoes caught in the stiff bracken, sometimes tripping me up, but it was quiet here and I could stop with less self-consciousness to examine the tiny flowers and the fritillary butterflies that flashed their colors here and there.
I got so caught up in kneeling into the grass to take photographs of tiny, violet flowers, that I lost track of time. Before I knew it I had wandered a little further than I had intended and had to hurry to get back home in time to get ready for my evening job. I clambered back up to the paved footpath above and upped the pace. A chilly wind had stirred up and clouds began to close in from the west.
I was nearing the last section of the river before I had to turn away and head to my apartment when I noticed two jungle crows… the huge, raven-sized crows that have taken over Tokyo… harassing a lone, female spot-billed duck in the water. Oddly the duck refused to budge and instead sat huddled right inside the flowing water. The crows pecked at it and attempted to pull away feathers. The duck swiveled its head in weak attempts to drive off the crows, but other than that it didn’t attempt to get away.
Concerned I backtracked to the nearest emergency stairway, descended back to the river bank, and made my way over to where the duck lay two meters from the edge of the river. It was too far to reach. The duck made no attempt to flee, though normally spot-billed ducks always put at least five meters distance between themselves and me. The crows flew off to the treetops overlooking the river, joining a group of other crows peering down.
I squatted by the riverside, watching the duck and trying to figure out what I could do. She was obviously very weak; her head swayed unsteadily and when I moved she worked her bill in a silent mime of quacking, no sound coming out. Occasionally she shook her head as if trying to clear her vision or concentrate, but then she would drift off again into listlessness. I thought perhaps the white plastic bag that had wrapped around her tail feathers might be the culprit for her predicament, but the water moved it away somewhat and I realized that the duck must be sick or badly injured.
Just then the air above me erupted with the racket of a hundred or more crows cawing at me and at one another. I looked up and saw the air above the opposite bank of the river and above my head swarming with the black wings of crows. For a split second it felt as if it were me they were after and whose name they were calling. I glanced back down at the duck and a great sadness filled me. She watched me unsteadily, silently quacking at me to back away.
I didn’t know what to do. There is no animal rescue that I have ever heard of in Japan that could have been called for just this situation. Just to go home and seek the information would have taken so much time that when I got back the crows would already have done their job. I contemplated swathing the duck in my windbreaker and bringing her home, but I knew nothing about caring for a wild duck. And what if she were sick? I evaluated the water, only ankle deep, thinking that it would be so easy to just take off my shoes and wade barefoot into the water to retrieve her, but I didn’t budge. I glanced at my watch and realized that I had no more time to waste here; I had to get home and get ready for work. So I stood up and backed away from the edge of the water. Then I thought, I must do something to remember the situation and how I felt. Drawing out my camera I knelt along the bank and took two shots of the duck. She quacked at me silently.
I walked back up the emergency stairs to the promenade above.
Looking back up at the crows I justified my actions by telling myself that the crows were doing their job just as they were meant to. The duck would be dead by the next morning, her bones picked clean. The duck was too weak to survive much longer and hopefully the crows would play their role quickly. I headed home, glancing back only once. In the glare of the evening sun reflected on the surface of the river I could make out her silhouette, alone and waiting. I wasn’t there to help, and neither were her flock mates. The whole world had abandoned her.
Except the crows. They waited in the treetops as the wind picked up. Waited and cawed and watched me walk away.
Lisa of Field Notes posted an account of her encounter with a dead raccoon that had been hit by a car and how she was moved to stop and take it off the road. The story reminded me of Barry Lopez’s essay “Apologia”, from his book, “About This Life: Journeys to the Threshold of Memory”, and both Lopez’s essay and Lisa’s struck a recurring chord in me.
Just the other day I was walking to work and passed the crushed and flattened body of a pigeon that had been hit by a car and run over multiple times, until it was recognizable only by the splash of its grey feathers.
So many animals I’ve seen downed by cars, all over the world. In Japan it’s mainly birds and large insects, hit by cars or ramming into windows and street lights. In America it’s raccoons, squirrels, skunks, armadillos, deer, opossums, seagulls… In Europe it’s hedgehogs, badgers, pheasants, foxes, jackdaws… I still remember finding a badger in Northumberland, its paw still soft and warm, like a baby’s hand, and blood leaking out its eyes. I called the animal rescue service; there was, of course, nothing they could do.
On my walks I try to keep an eye out for where I step and for creatures that might benefit from a bit of helping hand. Grasshoppers, spiders, cicadas and cockchafer beetles sprawled on their backs, even bold-faced hornets, all get the tip of my finger to grab onto and hitch a ride into the verge bushes. On the trains, when a butterfly or hoverfly find themselves baffled by the false lights and cannot find their way out, I will swallow my embarrassment in front of all those unconcerned people (who nevertheless shriek when the insects get too close) and lift them to safety. Bees and wasps always present an entertaining diversion, because no one around me can understand how I would risk getting near them. It’s not risk for me, though; if you know how to move and to anticipate them there is no danger. I have never been stung. Can’t say the same for the people…
But the numbers of the dead always outnumber the living.
Perhaps the most searing memory of roadside death occurred while I was still living in Oregon, back in 1984. I was driving with a friend around the Dexter Lake area just after sundown. My friend was talking and driving and not keeping her eye on the road. Suddenly there was a loud thump on my side of the car. My friend slammed on the brakes and the car screeched to a halt. We opened our doors at the same time. I stepped out onto the tarmac and looked back. From the darkness came a high pitched screaming, like a woman with a very high voice. I trotted toward the sound and came upon a raccoon writhing on the ground, her stomach split open and her guts spilled over the pavement. I kneeled down, horror struck. My stomach heaved.
From behind came my friend’s voice. “What is it?”
“It’s a raccoon.”
“A raccoon? Is it hurt?”
“Yes. It’s not going to make it.”
A short pause. Then, “Well, let’s get out of here then. It’s cold. And that sound is awful!””
I didn’t say anything. The raccoon continued screaming and writhing, aware of me, and attempting to drag itself away. Its urine had spilled out. Suddenly across the road, from the grass I saw two pairs of eyes… her cubs. They watched unmoving, without a sound.
I stood up.
“What are you doing?” asked my friend. “Come on, let’s go!”
“I’ve got to do something.”
I stepped into the grass opposite the cubs and felt around for a stone. I quickly found one that fit in my grasp like a loaf of bread. The screaming behind me cut off, followed by quick gasps.
I stepped back onto the road, wielding the stone, and made my way over to the raccoon, who was sprawled halfway across the road now, a trail of blood painting a wet swath on the asphalt. I knelt down beside her and reached out to touch her fur. It was warm and soft, like down. Her ribs heaved quickly. Her tongue lolled from between her teeth. Her breath wheezed now.
Closing my eyes I lifted the stone and brought it down on her head. I felt the crunch of the bone and the jerk of her muscles. I lifted the stone away and stood up. Silence. An awful, nauseous hole bored into my stomach. I lifted the stone and tossed it into the grass, then kneeled down again, ripped out a wad of grass stalks, and then lifted the limp, wet body. As gently as I could, I carried it toward the cubs, but they dashed away at my approach, one of them mewling quietly. They disappeared into the surrounding shadows.
I lay the body down in the grass, away from the reach of car-strewn dust, under a blackberry bush. With a stick (I just couldn’t bring myself to do it with my fingers) I did the best I could to push the innards back into the gash in her abdomen. I sat back on my haunches and silently apologized to her, tried to find words to make some kind of recompensation. What came out was an awkward, self-conscious prayer. Then I stood up and headed back to the car.
I said nothing to my friend, just wiped my hands on the dry grass, got in and waited for her to join me. Without a word she started up the car. We made a u-turn and headed back to town.
Nineteen years later that event still flashes through my mind. It was perhaps one of the most authentic experiences I’ve ever had with a wild mammal. And one of the most troubling.
I have always held a strong dislike for zoos, feeling that all creatures ought to have the full expression of their evolutionary complexity in the way they live. All creatures became what they are out of an inextricable relationship with their surroundings and thus should live within those surroundings.
However, upon starting the book “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, his argument that animals don’t feel stress when in confinement, as long as that confinement fulfills their individual needs has gotten me thinking a lot about the nature of both what habitat means and what our own lives mean as we live in cities today. While I won’t give up my contention that wild animals ought to live their wild lives in wild places, I now wonder if perhaps zoos, good zoos, are a necessary part of caring for endangered species today.
Martel knows his animals. He has either really done his research or spent a lot of time with animals, because he knows details about them that only someone who has spent a lot of time with them could witness. And he doesn’t “cutify” them either, a practice here in Japan that has reached epidemic proportions (and is the sad source of the Japanese illegal trading in endangered species).
I remember stepping into a pet shop in Shin-Okubo about six years ago and coming upon a fennec fox curled up in the corner of a tiny cage. I was so shocked that such a rare animal was being displayed openly like that, that my anger left me speechless. But I didn’t even know what to do. Who to approach about this here in Japan? The country where whales are killed now more out of chauvinistic resentment than any need for the meat, where whale meat is brazenly sold on mid-day women’s variety show commercials, by a woman who presents the whole product line with such a pleasant voice you would think she was hawking perfume.
People too often think of animals as mere commodities. And with the world getting smaller day by day, any reform of such pot-bellied thinking seems quite unlikely.
Still, Martel has made me ponder my own prejudices. Time to look at my own motivations.