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Art & Design Art of Living Musings

Tracks

Wall of Clouds
Wall of clouds to the south, Shizuoka, Japan, 1995

It’s one of those momentous times in life when all the strings of the doily of life converge. Big decisions have to be made, whether I want to or not, and while I stand here in the clearing all the snow around looks fresh and untouched. Whichever way I go there will be new tracks. I love being the one to stamp into the new snow, but all the same it’s not a little scary. And not without its sorrow.

Since I was a boy beyond memory two main themes always reiterated themselves into the architecture of my thoughts and feelings: nature and art. The earliest light of my consciousness recurs with images of leaves and insects and the smell of soil. Most of my happiest memories occurred in places surrounded by trees or hills or living things. The sounds of wind and water infused the music in my mind, like a green concert hall, the orchestra still warming up. Whenever I wavered, when the fragility and uncertainty and cruelty of human interaction shook my connection to this ephemeral and ever-changing boat that I call myself I could always step outside and go for a walk. There was a reciprocative duality there that felt like one; the world and me. There was never any doubt in it.

Art has always done the same for me. Writing and books; painting and drawing; photography; singing, writing lyrics, playing guitar and violin, and listening to all the world’s musicians, from crickets to Peter Gabriel and Kiri Te Kanawa; movies and animation; cooking; gardening; pottery; architecture and interior design… Somehow all these activities defined the passage of time and effort for me.

Merely acting out the steps necessary for survival, without appreciation for the merit in every aspect of the things around you or of what you actually do, never seemed to quite fulfill the promise of waking each morning. People who tell me they get bored confound me… how can you get bored if you have imagination? Isn’t it the mind that defines the color of perception? And isn’t that just what art is, the painting in of the details? Art, for me, polishes the roughness in the old block. It is with imagination that you learn to see and by seeing you unfurl the wings within your daily grind.

I have the opportunity to once and for all combine the these two guides to my life. To not shunt onto another track out of self-doubt and fear. Writing, drawing, photography, wildlife, conservation, a lifestyle as close to nature as I can hope to make it. But I’m not sure how to go about doing it. Do I stay here in Japan? Try Australia or New Zealand? Go back to Europe? Or the States or Canada? Do I teach? Do I go back to university (perhaps to study biogeography or wildlife management or some such)?

The first step has already been taken. I finished writing a book two years ago, but it has yet to find a publisher. It was the first major accomplishment of the promises I made to myself when I was younger: to live according to the right vibrations.

A lot of this seems shrouded in clouds these days; I am not as sure of who I am as I was long ago, but I know what I miss most, and missing something that you love for too long requires the sacrifices and determination of a lover. And I want to be a lover of life.

Categories
Books Journal

Frodo

Sagrada Familia Rose Window
Rose Window, Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain 1988.

This is the seventh installment of the bi-weekly collective essay topics in Ecotone: Writing About Place. This week’s topic is Ancestral Place


I came across my first copy of “The Fellowship of the Rings” from J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings” in 1974, when I was fourteen, while browsing a musty old used bookstore in London with my father. He mentioned the book in passing and I picked it up, curious. Since we were headed for Germany in a few days, I decided to buy the entire set, so that I would have something to read while in Germany. Little did I know that these books would turn over my world and grab a hold of something in my heart that to this day has never left.

The summer of 1974 etched itself into my memories in a way no stretch of time ever did before or since. It was the summer that my parents toured Scotland and left my brother Teja and me with my grandparents in Hannover, Germany. My grandfather, grandmother, and great aunt, whom we called respectively “Opa”, “Oma”, and “Tante Luise”, had planned a summer of travel and adventure for us. We spent a few days at a pension in the Harz mountains, where Opa took us on long walks in the woods and my imagination bloomed with images of Elves and Dwarves and Dryads among the great oaks. For two weeks we stayed at a summer camp along the northern Elbe River, where I fell in love with my first girlfriend (and one of my oldest friends) and experienced my first kiss. In Hannover Teja and I took skulling lessons on the broad expanse of the artificial lake, the Masch See. In my grandparents’ apartment the rooms filled with the aroma of boiled German potatoes, rolled cabbage, fresh sauerkraut, and rotisserie chicken. The grandfather clock on the wall chimed on the hour. The coal cellar at the bottom of the echoing wooden stairwell wafted up its breath of chilly air and the acrid smell of carbon and stored gunny sacks of potatoes. The voices of my grandparents and great aunt fluted through the rooms as they bantered, laughed, and bickered in German, a language that carries the texture of time and warmth for me. And all the while, whenever I had a chance to sit or lie back uninterrupted, the Tolkein books occupied my attention and loyalties. The world of the Ring sank so deep that, one evening, while walking back with my newly returned parents, from an outdoor Handel concert at the Herrenausen Gardens, I could swear I glimpsed a band of Dwarves marching amidst the woods surrounding the Gardens.

It took me years to recognize that something about Hannover stuck with me and described a solidity in my world that the actual sifting of day-to-day experiences never seemed to coalesce. While writing my travel book about bicycling through Europe alone in 1987 it came to me just how much the spirit of the people and the town of my birth rubbed off onto my inner chalkboard. I came to realize that much as you might like to imagine that your past is a blank, or that the places you sojourn in or pass through never leave traces, in reality all the places you awake in draw scratches in the slate that forms you. Each place speaks through both its landmarks and the voices of the people and creatures that you have encounters with. It is as Gregory Bateson described in “The Ecology of Mind”: all existence is a shifting of balance… nothing that happens is without significance or consequence.

While exchanging comments with Fujiko Suda over her recent viewing of the first movie “The Fellowship of the Ring” and her observation that in both the movie and the books Frodo never really made an impression on her, I spent the evening reminiscing about those first weeks with the Tolkein characters and why they seemed at the time to infuse in me an identification with the German landscape. The books invoked a yearning for connection with a place that I, with my life divided between Japan, the U.S, and Germany, never could quite grab hold of. The books took each of the characters away from the places they held most dear and which defined most succinctly who they were. The interesting development occurred in Frodo himself, who, of all the Fellowship characters, most wanted to follow in the footsteps of Bilbo Baggins and who perhaps least fit into the Shire’s social structure. The further he wandered from the Shire, however, the less defined he became, and the more ephemeral and lost he seemed. For readers such as Fujiko Suda and me, Frodo never grew into a really likeable and identifiable personage… he just flickered out and turned to ashes, it seemed. On the other hand, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, who characterized the very soul of the Hobbit people, and who least wanted to leave the Shire, all began to grow and develop into more than their original counterparts, until all the strangeness and need for calling up heretofore unused emotions sculpted them into characters in full bloom. Frodo didn’t seem to really learn anything, or even lose anything, perhaps because he carried little for the reader to identify with from his ancestral home.

I often wonder if that sense of identity and that sense of place, including knowing the ancestors who shaped you, arise out of being washed in the waters of familiarity with a community. Familiarity takes time and as such a drifter, by definition, cannot accumulate enough duff to be able to express the richness of a place. I’ve spent more than half my life living in Japan, including my childhood, and in many ways it speaks through the timbre of my vocabulary and in my body language and temperament. However, few Japanese myths or folktales have ever evoked such strong sense of identity that the myths, legends, and folktales of Europe have. The same goes for American folktales… somehow they never awoke excitement or longing in me and I easily bored of reading them. The Lord of the Rings breathed European mythology and as such sang the very notes of place that had me devouring the story. I needed something in the books that had to do with place, had to do with a long line that stretched back into time forgotten. And yet, today, I still haven’t found that sigh of relief in knowing exactly where I am and exactly where I wanted to be. Like Frodo the uncertainly hangs around my neck like the Ring.

I envy those who find no crack in the mirror of the place they inhabit and who can, without a moment’s hesitation, look around them and see their ancestors and feel the grounding. The place where your heart discovers rest cannot ask for description; it just knows, because all the voices down the ages rise up in one chorus. The place of belonging is a sound, not a name.