(Please click on the images to see them at their full size.)
Some photos from an afternoon walk in the summer of 2012, out in Chiba Prefecture, from Togane to Naruto. It was as always a quiet, lonely walk… quite a relief from the work earlier in the day, and the crowds of Tokyo.
Between my home and the university where I work lies a stretch of rice paddies that takes me about 45 minutes to walk (or 20 minutes to bicycle). I came here in the middle of the winter while the land still lay fallow, the trees bare, and everything brown and dusty. The sense was of a landscape gone dry and dead, and the state of the dying town where I live didn’t help the overall impression that I had landed obliquely on the moon. Those first few weeks negotiating the dirt lanes on those early winter evenings, coupled with all the baggage brought from Tokyo, while being followed by hollow winds rolling off the coast, really made the whole area seem like some sort of banishment into the Gulag.
So when one evening as I walked home I caught the croaks of the first frog I’d heard in years, it was rather like feeling the first raindrop in a year of drought. Just the sound itself was green. Its voice arose from a hidden embankment, full of confidence and ardor, and hung in the darkness right out of reach.
In the coming weeks the fields transformed as if by magic. Water flooded the empty platters of dried paddies, flowing in like mercury in the burning evening sun, while breezes scalloped the surfaces and prodded the sleeping frogs awake. I never would have thought the soil carried such a rich harvest of voices, but within a month the fields had awakened and the whole world seemed to erupt with the din of frogs, millions upon millions of them, as far as you could lean your ear and out beyond, where the wild reeds and rushes from last year rustled unseen in the shadows.
The sound of the frogs lit up something that I had not felt before here. In passing through the fields I found myself slowing down more and more to stop and simply listen, even though it was always after work and darkness had already fallen. With the neon lights of the mall strip road shining in the corner of my eye and enhancing the depth of the darkness all around me by visually dividing my head from my feet, when I hunkered down in the grass to listen close, it was like dropping into a darkened pond of sound, all else drowned out. The urgency of the frog song, its rhythm and texture, sang to something in me as a fellow living creature, rejoicing in the appetite of being alive. And a little, just a little, corner of my sadness and loneliness began to melt away.
Farmers began to people the fields, planting rice seedlings in neat rows that suddenly gave scale to the duns and russets. And as if this was a cue the hills and copses all around sprang to life right along with the rice. In the blink of an eye there was green everywhere, and first hints, then rashes, and finally swaths of pink and red and yellow as flowers raced under the skies. What only a week before only shook in the wind, now billowed and swayed to the same music playing in my head. The days drew breath and expanded, loosening their belts to allow the light to spill out into the edges of wakefulness, longer and longer into the territory of night time. The walks lost their aura of anxiety and spending 45 minutes or more making my way between points seemed to grow shorter. I actually began to look forward to getting out of the office and crunching through the fields.
The frogs sing outside my bedroom window now. Spring has flourished. Each day more birds arrive, bringing with them new songs of hope. And new names: Great Reed Warblers, Common Gallinules, Woodcocks, Northern Shrikes, and Blue Rock Thrushes.
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.