This is the sixteenth installment of the ongoing Ecotone essay series. This week’s topic is Food and Place. Please stop by and read the other essays or feel free to contribute your own words.
In this fast-tracked modern world, where the goods that hold up our daily lives magically appear, cut up, cleaned, wrapped, and ready to eat, more and more it seems as if we’ve lost touch with how and where it all comes from. Even when we do head out into the “wild” to harvest some measure of communion with our green past, we carry all the implements with us, like an astronaut walking on the moon. Throw away the backpack, the quick-drying clothing, the stove and pot, and most importantly, that nylon ditty bag of sustainables, and we’re lost. Most so-called “outdoorsmen” today, if suddenly left to fend for themselves far from the road and the aid of transportation, would quickly find themselves starving to death, even if an abundance of food presents itself an arm’s breadth away. Just watch a “Survivor” episode; those people know nothing about actually surviving.
In the late summer of 2001, upset and disoriented from an argument, I set off one weekend for the back country mountains north of Nikko, a national park area 2 hours north of Tokyo, without properly checking my packing list. All I could think of was that I needed to get away from people and from my home. I hoisted my pack and set off to the train station, intent upon images of forest trails and windy ridges.
Things went badly from the start. I had forgotten the map for the area and so missed the campsite that would have set me right at the trail head for the following morning. Instead I had to pitch my tent in an auto camping area, a few kilometers from the trail. It was hot and muggy and all night I lay swatting mosquitoes while drunk campers nearby reveled until the coming of dawn. I got perhaps three hours of sleep, and when morning broke, my muscles and head felt as heavy as the wet mist that sat upon the tent.
I packed quickly and headed off toward the trail, leaving early so that I might avoid the crowds of hikers. The approach to the trailhead zig-zagged along a river valley, with no signs posted, and only by querying a few farmers tending their sweet potato patches did I manage to make it to the trailhead. By that time the sun had already climbed quite high and the Japanese summer heat had begun to melt away the mist. There were no other hikers, which, because I was glad to be alone, I didn’t take note of.
The trail led into an overgrown wood with downed trees across the path and thick, almost impenetrable bamboo thicket lining the inclines on either side. Much of the walk involved scrambling through branches and stepping around crumbling ledges. Luckily a few faded wooden signs pointed to the one name of the mountain I was trying to reach and I followed them on faith.
The trail grew steeper and entered a dry ravine riverbed, old painted trail markers polka dotting the boulders and outcroppings. Walking here meant digging my boot toes into gravel and pedaling through loose scree, pumping heart and breath in an effort to stay afloat on a steep slope.
Huge, fat, wingless grasshoppers began to appear all around in the gravel and dry grass. All of them moving in the same direction, adjacent to my own movement. They were so heavy they could barely hop, but even when I approached they seemed not to notice my presence. When I reached a small ridge, I sat on a stump, eating a rice ball and watching the mass movement of the swarm, like a flowing green carpet displacing the stillness of the terrain.
I reached the summit at about noon. The peak overlooked a tarn with lead blue water across the surface of which dragged shadows of the storm clouds, mounting behind the peak opposite. Thunder rumbled from the distance. I stopped to evaluate the trail and saw that I needed to traverse a treacherous slope of loose rocks and slippery mud.
That’s when my hypoglycemia, a diabetic reaction to insulin, too little food, and high energy exertion, hit. I absently reached into my pack’s top pocket for the chocolate bar I always kept there for just such occasions. My fingers fumbled around and found… nothing. I threw the pack down and rummaged more carefully throughout the pack, hoping that I had misplaced the bar somewhere in the main compartment. Nothing. I paused, looking into the pack, then pulled out the ditty bag of food I had brought. That would do, I thought. I’ll just eat the lunch I had brought. When I opened the bag though, only a package of freeze dried rice, another package of freeze-dried spinach, a packet of soup, and a tea bag fell out. Panicking, I emptied the contents of the pack onto the trail and sifted through everything I had. Nothing.
The hypoglycemic reaction was beginning to make me dizzy and my vision blurred. I forced myself to sit still and think. Carefully I placed everything back into the pack, leaving the ditty bag of food out. I sized up the incoming storm cloud and figured I had just enough time to get my stove going and cook all the food I had left. I found a sheltered space beside a huge boulder, set up my stove, and placed a pot of water on top to boil. I waited.
I observed the landscape around me. With my vision blurring and hands beginning to shake and an uncontrollable sweat slowly drenching my clothes, the mountains seemed surreal. I hugged my knees as a frigid wind blasted the shelter and howled among the treetops back behind the trail. I pulled on my insulated jacket and watched the water in the pot, counting the tiny bubbles forming on the bottom. Steam curled off the edge of the pot and was whipped away by the wind.
During those fatal moments, when I thought I might die, all I could think of was how soft the clouds looked and how I missed my wife, with whom I had argued. The mountains seemed cold and pitiless and my stomach had no belief in the bounty of nature. Everything felt like bones around me.
I was breathing fast when the water started to boil. I emptied the open packages into the pot, not caring what mixed with what, and whispered a litany to myself, of the dream of an explosion of flavors in my mouth. Of warmth streaming down my veins. Of a pact with the world in which my body must sacrifice its independence to house the freewheeling flight of my soul. Food is life, and life is food. There is no such thing as life without the death that food requires.
I could barely hold the bowl as I spooned through it, my hands were shaking so badly. I ate so fast my lips and tongue were scalded. Lights swirled in my eyes and I was shivering from the cold sweat. I used the remaining hot water to make a cup of tea and while it steeped I finished the rice soup. The soup poured into my recesses and glowed like a firefly, reaching into niches of sustenance that only the heat could revive. Gradually the shaking died away and I squatted beside the pot, breathing slowly, in and out. Breathing slowly, slowly. When I switched off the stove the stillness clapped shut around me, with only the wind speaking.
That was perhaps the best meal I ever ate, not because I had abandoned preferences and simply enjoyed the taste of rice and spinach and egg and salt, but because that meal was stripped of distractions. The cold wind, my beating heart, and the flow of calories and nutrients made up the entire moment.
It began to rain.
I put away the tools and scraps and cinched up my pack. I stood up on steady legs. I picked my way across the slippery slope and reached the ridge on the opposite side of the dale. From there it was just a matter of crunching down the steep trail towards the road below, just discernible. And a step ahead of my next meal.