With temperatures now up at 37 to 38 C and humidity draining all will from your willingness it is nice to have some kind of agent that might buffer the effects of the heat. Here in Japan sounds have traditionally stepped in to make a psychological difference when the thermometer is about to burst. The most obvious ones are the wind bells that people hang up outside their windows and the bamboo fountains that fill up and drop to the rock base below, where they make a distinct “PUNK” sound, sort of like a hollow wooden replication of a bat hitting a baseball. Japanese also like the sound of suzumushi, a kind of ground dwelling tree cricket whose song sounds like a zithering bell. There are also the calls of bush warblers and oblong-winged katydids, jungle crows and, of course, bubbling streams. But my favorite sound of all, and one that fills me with melancholy and remembrance every time I walk along the paths among the rice paddies while swatting mosquitoes on my legs, is that of the Higurashi zemi, the evening cicada. For me it is one of the most beautiful and haunting sounds in the world.
The wind blows through this little town like a newly landed boat passenger, all breezy with new ideas and pent up enthusiasm, legging across the gangplank, scarf whipping about, and pushing past the locals without considering them. From my apartment balcony I can look out across the treeless rice fields to the line of trees along the coast, just at the edge of a morning’s walk, from where the salt air flies in and harries the metal bannister of my apartment building. On blustery days like this I can smell the brine of the sea and that fresh stirring of ammonia, carried in by distant seagulls.
I’ve heard that some of the highest concentration of birds gather along that imagined coastline over there. Now that things have slowed down at work and I have several weeks to put the new apartment in order, I think I might take a bike ride out that way to see for myself. Since coming to this area (northeast Chiba) of Japan four months ago birds seem to be my constant companions, watching over me during some of the bleakest days of my life. Just when I feel that I’m just not going to make it, some bright-eyed elf of a bird flutters into view and does his dance, either to distract me from my, as one of my readers put it so humorously, “tortured writing”, or to remind me that even in the depths of self-doubt nothing is really ever that serious or self-important. And like an angel dressed as an overworked waiter the one bird, the white wagtail, that has always followed me everywhere, all the way since childhood, daily I find one of their representatives waiting impatiently at the foot of the apartment stairs, calling out, “Hurry! Hurry! There is work to be done! No time to dilly-dally!” I’ve seen a ural owl and a wood cock, two mysteries that let their guards down long enough for me to receive their blessings.
On other, cloudy days when even the birds take to the bushes or when night falls, I’ve found myself out away from the windbreaks and trudging along dirt roads, sometimes long after midnight, with the sky slipping along the heavens and me down here, below, making my way between ditches and telephone poles. One night, having spent the entire day at my office in the university without another soul in the building, I emerged onto the deserted streets and couldn’t feel the draw of the compass that usually beckons me home. I stood beside a sleeping maple and listened to a shred of corrugated plastic banging against a wall, trying to make sense of the emptiness that welled either from my own heart or resided as it was in the carelessness of these modular houses.
What is it to need someone, anyone, nearby, just to hear their voice, though you don’t know them, or to reassure yourself that you are not just imagining those dark shapes fluttering at the periphery of your vision? Why do I end up whispering so much to myself as days go by without speaking a word to another person? What is this need to speak, to reach out and brush your fingers against another soul, or to say, “Stay. Stay for just a minute. I need to see myself reflected in your eyes, to know that I am there.”
With her gone now the nights seem longer. I still have the habit of turning over and reaching for her, my fingertips expecting her smooth shoulder and my ears listening for the soft sound of her breathing. The white mug that was paired with the blue one, which we both used to share a cup of tea together every night, now sits unwashed in the sink. She had wrapped it in newspaper while packing and when I took it out of the box in my new place the flood of memories choked me. One after another memories came spilling out of the boxes, so many of them that I had to stop and go for a walk.
I wonder how you are doing, dear heart, over there, all alone yourself? Are you holding the blue cup, or turning over and patting the mattress where my pillow once lay? Do you have to go for a walk, too?
I guess I can say the worst is over and that from here on out it is the healing that takes over. I’ve had some hard walks in my life, sometimes the trail so battered and strewn with boulders or the rain so bad that the mud made it impossible to push on, that I had to turn back and hope to climb the mountain again. What often made those climbs easier was a partner to consult with and call to through the thick mist. It’s easy to get lost when you’re on your own. These last few months have opened my eyes to the existence of that door through which you might never come back. It didn’t know it was so easy to lose all substance and turn into a ghost right before your own eyes.
Yesterday I took a train ride through the area north of my town and stood in the doorway of the train when it stopped at the next station. A quiet little place, with farmhouses guarded by bamboo groves and side roads that turned off the main roads and took off into the hills. “Maybe this is where I can settle down.” I thought. “Maybe the thing is to go further and deeper than you are now, take the quietude a step closer to the birds and follow their lead.”
Along the edge of the field a wave of starlings settles into the grass and soaks in the bright morning sunlight. Azure-winged magpies swoop in and out of the persimmon canopy, chuckling and purring to one another. A black tailed kite keens high above the fields, rising on the updrafts and disappearing into the clouds. A white wagtail cocks its head and bobs its tail. Then it is off scuttling along the road top, peeping its satisfaction.
“Excuse me, sir. I think you forgot your umbrella.”
I’ve been haunting the university halls until the midnight hours these last two weeks, trying to catch up on class preparation, and also trying to avoid going back to the isolation of the guest house I’m staying at. Not that staying at the university while everyone else is gone isn’t isolating, but at least I have an internet connection and can talk to people. And there is some privacy in the room that otherwise I wouldn’t really have. Still, burning the midnight oil is no way to freshen up for the next day, and so yesterday evening, tired of the monotonous, though healthy, offerings of the local Seven Eleven, I decided to head out the other end of the university and take the half hour walk to the Lawson convenience store located along the desolation of the bypass.
Fog had rolled in from the sea and hugged the fields all the way to the shadows of the nearby hills. As I walked along the road, my footsteps sounded loud in the stillness. I pulled the flaps of my cap over my ears to stem the chill, and softly sang a line of an Abba song that just wouldn’t leave my head. The round-trip to and from the convenience store resembled a circumambulation of a graveyard, even the huge lights of the billboards and pachinko parlors cast long shadows across the asphalt and denuded fields, so that as I walked a silent presence followed me with precisely timed steps.
I was passing the back gate of the university again, with its line of trees and bushes when suddenly above my head there was a soft rustle. I looked up and thought I made out the form of a very large sleeping crow. It was hard to tell in the dim light. Then the figure swiveled its head and gazed down at me with huge, moonlike eyes. A ural owl. The first wild owl I’d ever seen in Japan ever since I started watching birds as a boy. The elation that bloomed in me was hard to describe. It was like a lifelong gift, and the moment I recognized the bird all sense of loneliness, all sorrow, all the heaviness of the past few weeks dispelled like smoke. I wanted to run to the nearest birder and tell them… “Look! Look! I’ve got to let you know what I saw! A ural owl! I actually saw a ural owl!”
But what birders do I know around here? I smiled up at the owl and it seemed to nod in understanding. It turned its head away, looked up at the night sky, and lifted into the air like a whisper. I heard the almost tender swish of its wings as it flapped away into the darkness.
It was but a moment, but it is a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.
(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.
Photo of a Little Egret I took about a year ago during a spring walk along the Noh River near my house. Some of you might remember it.
About three weeks ago I was returning from a long run in the rain when I happened upon two male Little Egrets stalking one another. I stopped along the bank of the river and for half an hour didn’t move a muscle. Just when my bones seemed to begin to turn to ice, the Egrets started dancing. Slow figure eights each, but never quite breaching the edge of the other’s floorspace, and all the while when one dancer approached the inner edge, the other would swing to the outer. They held their wings half open, their necks straight and their beaks high. In silence. When I could no longer stand the cold, I moved and the dance broke up, each dancer taking off with an sharp croak, and once again I was left with the hurry of the falling rain and my own shivering mind.
Funny how the cacophony of birds resides in the realm of stillness, whereas a single blink of a human eye sends the denizens scattering.
This reflection was inspired by New Zealander Pete’s latest post, “Being Still”. Pete’s serene photography and lyrical words is fast making his site, Pohingapete, one of my favorite places to visit these days.
Spring is in full swing, with the cherry blossoms billowing along the streets and in the parks everywhere. It happened all of a sudden, sudden because just a week ago today we still had the heater on in our apartment. Two days later the air switched dresses and the next thing you know the sun was wearing gauzy petticoats of humidity. And the dawn tiptoed in earlier, too, just before what anyone might consider a sane hour for the alarm to go off.
It was just this patting about to turn off the alarm that caused me to oversleep my Sunday wake up call meant for the day’s hike. I hadn’t gotten quite enough sleep and getting up was not a top priority, so I snoozed until about 9:00… by then too late for the longer hike I had had planned.
Without really thinking about where I would be heading I wolfed down a breakfast of tea and rice with natto (fermented soy beans… an acquired taste) and raw egg. Then I was out the door, just walking foot in front of foot, with no plans, or even a map. A bright, almost summer-like brilliance lit up the neighborhood. The sky stared down with its big ole blue eyes, unclouded by thoughts of rain and for once blinking away the usual smoggy grime. I sauntered along, and hot, stopped to remove my jacket, then continued sauntering all the way to the train station, and humming Tears for Fears’ “Call Me Mellow”, a song that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for the past three weeks.
First I headed for the train that goes downtown, from where I had a vague idea about taking the Japan Railways train fro downtown Shinjuku out to Nikko northeast of Tokyo, but while standing on the platform and eyeing all those passengers heading toward the big parks I suddenly changed my mind. Instead I tripped down the stairs and climbed back up to the opposite platform, to wait for the train there and just see where it took me.
Forty minutes later I got off at Takao station… not the usual end-of-the-line Mt. Takao Trailhead station, but the big town just before it, the one that I had gazed out at countless times on my way out to the far off mountains. So many times I had glimpsed the hills surrounding the town and wondered if it was possible to just head out of the station and follow the ridges all the way back to the bigger mountains to the west. Idle thoughts, all those times, often at the end of a weekend of grinding walks, and then too tired to do much more than wonder.
A mountain walker would scoff at the petty little stroll that the town could only offer, but today I just wanted to follow my nose and to hell with always trying to prove myself on higher ground. Why not kick along the curbside like I loved to do so much as a kid, and take time to really look at things?
It was lunchtime by the time I exited the station so I trundled over to a “Moss Burger” joint, the local MacDonald’s offshoot franchise that specializes in high quality hamburgers and salads, to sit a while and just munch on a burdock root burger and gaze out the window at the Sunday strollers. And they were out in force, families browsing the streetside stores and all heading off in the general direction of the imperial garden north of town. Half of them wore surgical masks in a futile attempt to ward off the onslaught of the hay fever epidemic that plagued Tokyo. For the first time in months fathers walked about in t-shirts while mothers wore the bright colored, long sleeve shirts that spoke of summer but warded off the harmful effects of the sun while preserving their “bihaku”= “beauty white”.
Continuing my sauntering I crossed the train tracks and took the main road toward the hills that I could see at the other end of town. Along the way I watched an old woman wearing a white sun hat and a tiny back pack and hiking boots, bend down to the curbside, grab a handful of the pink cherry-blossom petalbanks that had accumulated there, and toss it over her head like snowfall. She followed the petals with her eyes, a big smile stretching across her face, and giggled like a little girl. I stopped discretely to watch her. Her laughter echoed in my own chest.
Camellia blossom resting in the late afternoon sun, Shirayama Temple Hill, Takao, Japan
The road led further into the throngs of tourists visiting from all over to gawk at the cherry blossoms. Busloads began to pass me by, and the sidewalk became more and more difficult to follow, as strings of people bottlenecked at the street crossings and by the overpasses. Eventually the sidewalk led to the gate of the imperial garden, where hundreds of people stood like packed cows waiting to pay the fee to enter the garden. It was hot and I hadn’t bargained for crowds of people so I stepped out of the crowd onto a side street. No one disturbed the stillness there and the further I walked along it the more distanced from the spring fever I became. To my surprise I found a neighborhood of small gardens and old, wooden, post-war houses, many of them run down and in disrepair. Flowers bloomed everywhere: in the gardens, on the rooftops, in planters by the entrance gates, along the tops of walls, from windows, from planters hung in the branches of trees, the trees themselves. Delighted, I followed this little road around the chin of a knoll until I was out of sight of the main body of the town.
There a little river gurgled along the side of the road. Houses kneeled at the very edge of the river, some spilling stairways down to its banks, some wading out over it with small terraces and sloping lawns. Crooked cherry trees and weeping willows, still waiting to bud, and plane trees lined the banks on both sides.
It wasn’t all beauty and joy, though. All along the river plastic bags and discarded cans, rusting bicycles and tires, wads of toilet paper, some tossed out mattresses, and once even an old refrigerator marred the river’s charm. Typically Japan, this. For a people who take so much meticulous care of their bodies, they certainly are slobs when it comes to taking care of their land.
The road entered a hidden vale that only walking up to this point could have revealed. It degraded from asphalt to gravel, then to simply to dirt, dry and dusty now from more than two months of no rain. A cemetary lay just off the left side of the road, surrounded by dogwoods just budding and the air golden with the haze of pollen and strands of spidersilk. Bird songs lifted from the quiet corners and I saw my first Siberian Meadow Bunting fluting to anyone who would listen from atop a newly budding Japanese maple.
The road narrowed to a crumbling path strewn with windfallen branches and unmoving eddies of old leaves. At the end, nestled in the crook of the ravine, stood a dilapidated old house that had been abandoned long enough that the windows had cracked and splintered and a sumac tree had grown through the rear end of the roof. The timbers had rotted through and carpenter ants thronged like the cherry blossom viewers in the heat of the afternoon sun. It was so still that instinctively the tension lifted from somewhere behind me and for the first time in a very long time I was unselfconscious enough without all the overly prying eyes of Japanese curious and sometimes disapproving of a foreigner in their midst to be able to stop and take a look at things the way I love so much to: slowing to a crawl and mimicking a praying mantis with incremental steps taken with the breaths of wind and then standing still for uncounted moments while peering hard at things around me, sometimes even getting down on my belly to see things from a different perspective. I lost myself in the trickling of a tiny brooklet that had created a new path from the slope overlooking the house, watching a water strider flick wavelets across a puddle.
Behind the old house a derelict shed revealed itself. It was strangling on thickets of bamboo and two flax pants growing right up against its crumbling wooden walls. In the corners two old delivery bicycles hid in the shadows, their tires blistered away.
Derelict shed being reclaimed by the forest
I discovered paper wasps building nests under the eaves, baby orb web spiders hanging motionless in the sunlight, blue bottle flies fiercely buzzing over the roof of the house, fritillary, cabbage, and sulfur butterflies… hardy species all… protecting their little islands in the new sunlight, wolf spiders dashing up the blue painted outsides of the house, and a lone inchworm hanging from a thread more than 20 meters long from the tops of one of the surrounding trees.
A look through the broken window of the front door of the house revealed rooms abandoned with many of the former dwellers’ belongings still scattered about: a calendar of a young woman in a skimpy bikini advertising Kirin Beer, a pair of rotting slippers, a ceramic tea cup, two floor pillows covered in dust, and a sticker of Hello Kitty plastered to a paper closet door. A dank, acrid odor rose from the floor and gave the interior a slightly sinister feel, in spite of the tranquility of the area.
After making a round of the house I started back down the road the way I had come. Earlier I had spied a side path leading up along the hill overlooking the road so I went back to find it.
This path took me up over the little vale through a cedar forest, to one of the ridges I had seen so often from the train. i was surprised that there was not another soul around. The wind blew with a moan through the trees and lent the end of the day a mournful feeling, so that when I found a glade atop the hill surrounded by a council of old chestnut and beech trees, still naked against the sky, I had to sit down and take a deep breath. I was so happy and lonely at the same time.
The trail led over the top of the hill then back around to a clearing where an ancient and grizzled old camphor tree, its trunk a mass of cracks, wrinkles, and growths, stood guard over what must once have been a shrine to the deity of the hill. The tree was so badly in need of pruning that people must have quit coming this way long ago. The trail led back down the hill from here, passing through stands of bamboo and camellia and eventually ending up behind a ancient temple so old it was housed in a protective wooden latticework house (the oldest temples in Japan used no paint and often had thatched roofs). All the artificial trappings of a usual temple had been removed except the two guardian dog statues and the stone entrance lanterns. A huge cherry tree branched out across the temple square, aching with white blossoms that no one came any more to see. Japanese often say that viewing cherry blossoms, while beautiful, is also profoundly sad, even frightening. Standing there alone in the last rays of the sun, in a place that no one had set foot in for many years, while not far away hundreds of people thronged to see cherry blossoms with more star status, I could feel the sadness and fright of being abandoned, of beauty left unnoticed, of something that must once have been loved left here to fall to ruin. Part of me rejoiced in this return to nature, but I couldn’t help but see that we weren’t following along. This was nature making a comeback, but with no respect on our part.
I bowed to the temple and also said a silent thank you to the Shinto hill deity still residing up by that old tree. Then I took the steep, broken stairs back down the hill to the level asphalt roads below, from where I slowly made my way back home, my eyes filled with silence and the heat of life persisting even through our efforts to remain immortal.
Old stovepipe protruding from the roof of the old abandoned house
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.
This will not make world headlines and most likely will not trigger most people around the world into a mass hysteria, but when I read the news in the Independant yesterday about the massive drop in sea bird populations in the North Sea, I couldn’t help but feel a great chill sweep through me akin to the shock I felt when first hearing the news of the New York tragedy. In fact, as I sat contemplating the repercussions of what is happening in the Orkneys and the Shetlands, and broadened my perspective by connecting the dots between what is happening there to all the interconnected ecosystemic failures around the world, a slowly dawning horror spread through me like a pool of blood. Global warming is no longer just conjecture. It is no longer the day after tomorrow. It is happening right here, right now. And the consequences to us are truly terrifying; they make the New York tragedy look like a garden party in comparison.
And of course, there will be lots of debating whether there really is any danger at all, whether the data is slanted, whether the loss of the seabirds will have any bearing on us financially or in disrupting our merry lives. The focus will remain on Iraq and the American election and our global habitat be damned. It’s always about just us, and always we disassociate ourselves with any relationship to the respiration of the planet. We like to think of ourselves as astronauts within our own homes.
I traveled to both the Shetlands and the Orkneys in 1995. I sat on the cliffs for hours gazing at the teeming millions of Fulmars, Guillimots, Black Guillimots, Razorbills, Gannets, Cormorants, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Arctic Skuas, Great Skuas, Arctic Terns, Great Black-Backed Gulls, Glaucous Gulls, Common Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Shags and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the sheer clouds of wings and metropolis-like vertical cities on the cliff sides. To think that by next year this will have vanished, like a great hand sweeping across a clock face, defies belief. It is like my heart has been raked over and my own existence and culpability questioned.
Here in Japan, a supposedly temperate climate, this summer the days are troubled by daily tropical storms, exactly how the Philippines, a tropical country, receives its summer costume. Mornings beamed into by a beating sun, followed by afternoons of thunderous showers. This is not Japan at all. The gods must be playing the wrong game up there among the clouds. Could it be a shift in values? Are the regions playing musical chairs and roles reversed? Am I going to have to learn to grow bananas and papayas now? Or will the Great Ocean decide to clean house and inundate the lowlands with an angry bath that will have us running for the hilltops in our shoving, thoughtless billions?
How much longer will the pastoral last? If the structure of the world we know falls into chaos, how long, for instance, will I survive without the medical elixir of insulin to keep my diabetic blood from consuming me? (a few days, perhaps? A month, as my body slowly eats itself to death and I crash into a coma?). Will we be left alone among the heat waves, to contemplate our mass stupidity and finally, but too late, take the blame for our irresponsibility?
Or can we learn now, before our brothers and sisters who sustain us vanish, that there is no hierarchy and that our ape-like motivations coupled to immense power makes for a time bomb that we must learn to deactivate now, or we all perish?
People want soft words and comforting scenarios. They cringe at the the idea of the romance disintegrating. But the natural world is as real as the hard knocks of the real human world. They are, in fact, one and the same. So when are we going to wake up and manage our home (the “eco” of ecology and economy) the same way that we are so compelled to do in our workaday lives? When will the natural world become our work and our livelihood? When, if we can imagine it so, will we become animals once again?
Spring is ratcheting by (yes, I know it’s not a real word, but it sounded so descriptive of the occasional glimpses I make out of the window… if I was a camcorder the whole world outside would pass like a time lapse film outside my window, not too different from Rod Taylor’s 1960’s “Time Machine” visions of his world fast forwarding and fast rewinding. The two zelkovas that I planted two years ago have sprung out into a surprise of light green leaves, already waving a meter above my head. I peek out the curtain between bouts at the computer, while hard at work on the last spurt of the hotel design project, and lament yet another passing of Apollo’s chariot across the rooftops.
The other parts of the connection to sunlight and green things and air living in freedom come to me in little gifts of passage while on the trains, going to and from work. I stand on the train platform of the station near my home, looking over a tree nursery of flowering dogwoods and take a few moments to hear the last rays of the sun tinkling into the corners of my eyes, seeping in like warm honey. Or I sit transfixed, staring across the breadth of the train car at the hard lavender sky building up muscles among the clouds. When no one objects I pull open the window behind me and close my eyes as balmy fingers of wind buffet my face; at times I inhale deeply, seeking traces of sweetness in the night air. Or better yet, the living room sliding door rattles open to my hand and I step out into the dawn light, mist still screening the neighboring garden, while a flock of one of my favorite birds, the Azure Winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyana) (Pica, a very interesting curiosity about this species is that they live only here in Japan, parts of southeastern China, western Spain (in the Extremadura), and in Portugal. ) keep watch in the magnolia, their long, azure tails pointing down beneath the branches.
Perhaps the most delightful moment occurred four nights ago on my way home on the train from a long day of morning at the doctor, afternoon at a design review meeting, and evening of teaching English… I was so tired that the moment I sat down I drifted off into sleep. For some reason I woke one station before my stop and opened my eyes straight into the face of a young woman staring at my… knee. My knee? My eyes followed the line of her gaze and I nearly jumped out of my seat: there, doing a pretty little pirouette, she was, a female katydid (Holochlora japonica), green as green can be. That was not something I had expected to see on a late night train, a chilly spring evening, while half-subdued from nature-deprivation. And yet there she was, saying hello, waving at me with her antennae. I thought she was delightful, though I think the woman staring at me must have felt she was witnessing the coming of the body snatchers. I reached out to grab the katydid, and she hopped to the floor. In front of everyone and just not caring what anyone thought, I leaned down and caught her, bringing her to the window, which I promptly pulled open. I stood with the wind blowing in, my back to everyone on the train and waited until the train passed through an open area where the katydid would be sure to find the company of leaves. I tossed her into the night, wishing her well, and somehow wishing I was tossing myself out with her. She disappeared into the darkness and I closed the window, sat down, and closed my eyes again.
Nature is not some foreign dreamworld that only the initiated can attend. It is all around us, every day, wild and free and vital. It may be harder to recognize it in this concrete lab experiment we’ve decided to call “good living”, but if you peer between the cracks the denizens are moving, going about their own lives. And occasionally they look up and see us, and when you’re lucky, they wave hello.
One thing I’ve been missing is that sense of raw expectation that infuses wild places, that prescience exuding from the interaction between unseen, but watchful presences, where even the wind takes on the personality of a living entity. In the city this only rarely manifests itself and it is a rare gift when it happens.
Lately I’ve taken to running to my sports club and then walking home, both along the banks of the Noh River, which runs northwest and southeast through the western half of Tokyo. Though most of the river has been encased in a concrete cast, earthen banks, resembling European towpaths, run along the sides, with stairs leading down to them for those who want to walk their dog, watch birds, or just go for a run. Hardy grasses, reeds, and scattered trees flourish where the water stills or doesn’t often reach, and among them all sorts of wildlife, mostly birds, carry out their lives. When you walk along the banks, down below the busy passage of the human world above, you get an almost palpable feeling that the awareness of the creatures around you arises out of a connection to a past memory that characterized the whole landscape all around you in years gone by. It is their world you have entered, and with each skittish creature waddling away or bursting into the air you further sense your disengagement from the symbiosis of the organic world.
It was raining when I started home from the sports club the other day. The first rain since the start of winter and a much needed slaking of the soil’s thirst. The workout with weights and the long push with the stairmaster, and afterwards the solitary soak in the great Japanese bath, left my muscles radiating with heat and, in spite of the chill of the wind and the rain, walking along the path stirred up exhilaration. The air smelled green with new leaves and bitter with earth. The wind scythed in the sky, muscling at invisible impedances, bullroaring, knocking, bellowing. Shivers of wavelets raced across the river’s surface, as if invisible wings were darting by.
There is an old cherry tree leaning out across one section of the river and that day its branches carrying the first knots of swelling blossom buds. I stopped and just stood there, letting the rain drop its curtain of silence all around me, while I watched nothing in particular. Some Spot-billed Ducks. a pair of newly arrived Green-Winged Teals, a stately Intermediate Egret, and a self-conscious Great Cormorant splashed in the grey water, each in their own world, watchful. A bare bank of clay, into which a Common Kingfisher, brilliant turquoise in the sun, had burrowed, stood unmoving, no hint of any life.
And that was it. Just me in that place with the wind blowing, rain pattering on my head, and birds minding their own business. No grand adventures or dramatic international crises. Just me and the river. But it was enough… For that small instant I felt connected to everything and whole. Completely empty of myself. It was an echo of the world as it wants to be.