Categories
Japan: Living Journal Life In Nature Stewardship

Passing of Trees

Zelkovas through the window

In the depths of winter the desire comes to you to plant a seed and shepherd a life. You break the soil and drop in the kernel, then cover it up and wait for the world to shiver and wake. The months go by, bringing the Spring rains, the breath of the South, and the beaming face of the Sun, incubating the loam till veins stir to life. And then one day in June, while absently sticking your face out of the window, the green shoots greet you with their luminous green light, little children out to give the world a try.

And that’s what I did four years ago a year after moving into this apartment. I planted two zelkova seeds and watched them grow along the edge of the tiny garden I have. They grew quickly, almost a meter a year, last year about three meters in just three months. This year they were destined to push above the roof of the apartment building, and spread out in a great canopy of sighing leaves. The two trees shielded my window from the prying eyes of neighbors, blocked the searing summer sun to cool my studio, and entertained me with their Bali shadow puppets upon the curtain. In the midst of this Tokyo grey they were two little arms of hope and joy for me. Just the sound of the leaves rustling when I opened my window would elicit a deep sense of relief.

Zelkovas in the garden

Then, yesterday morning, my doorbell rang. It was my landlord. He’s actually quite an amiable old man, albeit with a hand-wringing, leering-about-money sense of greed about him that never lets me quite trust him. He held his hat in his hands and, bowing profusely, announced that the gardeners would be coming today and removing my trees. “You see, the leaves get stuck in the rain gutters. But don’t worry,” he amended, “They’ll just cut the trees down to their bases, leaving the stumps intact. We won’t remove the trees entirely.”

After experiencing all forms of garden outrage, this was the last straw. In sputtering Japanese (my tongue gets all clay-like when I get emotional in Japanese) I declared, “You’re cutting the trees to their stumps? Just like that? Hokaaay! I don’t know why the hell I picked this apartment with the garden if I can’t use the garden the way I’d like to. I mean if you’re just going to come stamping in here every time you feel like it and rearrange my garden any way you like, then why should I even bother making an effort to take care of the damn thing? Well, why don’t I just make it easy for you? This weekend I’ll get my shears and chop down everything in the garden. Make it totally bare. That way you won’t have to worry about anything clogging up your gutters or attracting any kind of life whatsoever. Okay?”

Needless to say this gesticulating, cross-eyed foreigner losing his cool just rendered my landlord a bit dazed. The smile was gone. “There’s no need to do that! Please don’t misunderstand, you can use the garden any way you like. It’s only the trees that we want to cut down.”

“Ah,” I replied. “Only the trees. Well, I guess cutting them down just to the stumps doesn’t really make sense, does it? I think you’d find it in your interests to get rid of the trees right down to their roots. Otherwise, next thing you know you’ll have them crawling all over the garden again.”

His eyes lit up. “Would you really go for that? To pull the trees out by their roots? That would be most helpful. I’d really appreciate it if we could go ahead and remove the trees entirely. I’ll have the gardeners drop by some time around 10:00 tomorrow morning, okay?”

Zelkova cutters

I know they’re just trees. I’m not supposed to feel anything serious about them, and most certainly not get attached to them. Dogs and cats and horses have their places in our hearts, but trees and cockroaches don’t have souls you see, and therefore their lives are forfeit to casual swiping into oblivion. That they come alive, struggle to continue, and carry out all the same purposes in their lives as you and me means nothing. In the movies people will holler bloody murder if a cat or a dog is mistreated, but no one squeaks a murmur when showing pro wrestlers chewing on worms or heroes’ boots crushing the life out of a cockroach. The same goes for trees.

But for some reason it hurts to see my beloved trees hacked to bits and hauled away. Something in myself feels the chop of the blades. And an emptiness remains.

To make matters worse, the landlord has been marching around the neighborhood chopping down all the annoying trees on his lands. Just up the street a magnificent zelkova stood next to another apartment building, already tall and splendid when I first moved here five years ago. Two years ago the landlord decided, in that typical, Draconian Japanese way with gardens, to lop off all the zelkova’s branches, leaving the poor creature standing naked throughout the years. The only concession was a tuft of sprouts capping the trunk, just enough to allow the tree to scrabble for doses of sunlight. It was but a large stick standing in a parking lot, not really a tree at all.

And after all that, yesterday the landlord ordered the tree to be chopped down and removed.

Doomed Zelkova

Five years I walked by this tree every day and not once did I fail to stop and admire it, even if only for a second. Now it is gone and no one will ever lament its passing. What a waste of a life.

Categories
Journal Living Things Nature

Exhuberance

 

Koi in Nogawa River
Carp in the Nogawa River, Tokyo, in March Carp in the Noh River, March 2004

 

The magnolia outside my window is bursting forth with clouds of white blossums. This is the fourth time to witness the joy of its vitality, though, in typical Japanese gardening mentality, the gardeners have chopped it down to but a fraction of its former glory. It is a pruning philosophy that I can’t understand; most of the time trees in Japanese gardens are so manicured of their natural form and grace that half the year the trees stand around like dejected sticks. A huge zelkova along the way to work, last year towering 30 meters over the corner, with a massive umbrella of swaying leaves, was lopped of all its branches a few days ago, so that now it looks like a naked pair of legs sticking out of the sidewalk. This kind of chopping up occurs all over Japan, and while I appreciate a well done traditional Japanese garden, I also think there is a time and place for the gardening practices to be employed. When you randomly reduce an entire neighborhood to matchsticks, not only do you get a pretty stark looking place, but you rob people and the soil of shade. Tokyo, without all the trees it once had, must surely have heated up quite a bit since neighborhoods went concrete. And besides, I just love the sound of wind in the leaves.

For all that, nature is popping up everywhere. The barrel cactus on my window sill started flowering for the first time since I got it 8 years ago. Twenty buds a’ringing the crown of the bulb. The flower is supposed to turn bright magenta, but perhaps the cactus is testing my ability to appreciate things that cook slowly.

On the trains passengers sit with tears in their eyes and white cotton face masks while suffering under the pall of Japanese cedar and cypress pollen. It sounds like a chorus as one person lets go a volley of sneezes, and is promptly backed up by another person across the car, and repeated further down the train in rapid succession.

Yearly the hay fever epidemic grows worse, all due the thoughtless plans of the government right after the war, when they decided, in an effort to reestablish the country’s lumber sources, to plant the entire country’s denuded hills and mountains with one vast crop of cedar and cypress. No thought was given to the effects this would have on the future, in terms of allergies; loss of topsoil (cedar and cypress, while able to cling to the steep, rocky slopes of Japan, put down shallow roots and fail to hold the soil down), with the resulting landslides, mudslides, and silting up of the rivers; and devastation to the endemic animals and plants. Now, forty years later, the trees have matured, and while most of Japan’s wood is raped from other countries, the cedars and cypress have started to reproduce in one giant, pollen exchanging orgy. When I lived in Shizuoka Prefecture umber clouds of pollen would writhe through the air like swarms of locusts, all being blown, gathering in size as the swarms from other prefectures accumulated, toward the catchall basin of the Kanto Plain, which Tokyo has basically overrun.

My hay fever isn’t so bad, but I know many who hate Spring because of it. What a strange world when all the life around us is hopping for joy at the coming of warm weather and rebirth, while so many of us cover ourselves up in misery.

But I intend to enjoy this Spring. My body agrees. I feel like dancing! Like dashing along the river. Like climbing a tree, or singing at the top of my lungs!

In fact, I think that’s what I’ll go do right now. I’ll leave it to your imagination which one I decide to do!