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.
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.
It’s been a month of losses. Losses in time, losses in money, losses in confidence, losses in trust, losses in sleep. And recently a great loss for my sense of balance within my own home: the small, deserted lot just outside my living room window, over which I would peacefully gaze every morning as part of my ritual of waking up and feeling at least a little connected to the natural world, was suddenly converted into a two-story apartment building. Within one day the only view of the sky that I have in my apartment was wiped clean of any further connection to the horizon. And a disconnection to the magnolia tree that I have been gazing at every day for the past four years.
Here is what has been taking place (along with daily pounding of hammers and screeching of saws) You can see the magnolia tree in the back, between the scaffolding:
Now my home is completely surrounded by windows and walls. With the recently moved-in family on the other side of the apartment, complete with four screaming little kids (promptly waking me each morning at 5:30, effectively drowning out the birds, and continuing unabated all day until the first crickets begin to try their tentative chirps), and my wonderful college kid neighbors upstairs who love rearranging the furniture at three a.m., I feel as if the spirit of Tokyo has flooded my sanity with its hordes of restless crowds. This also being Japan, however, you are expected to grin and bear it, taking it all down to “shoganai” (It can’t be helped). But shoganai it ain’t, because my heart and soul remember much freer pastures and greener grass. Certainly I’ve never in my life felt this hemmed in before.
To make matters worse, the hotel project I was working on came to an end, finally, only to leave me with the news that I will only be getting paid about half of what was originally expected. Still not sure about the logistics behind this, but I suspect a disingenuous spirit on the part of my benefactors. It’s been, to say it mildly, a crappy sort of day. Now it looks like I have to put up my dukes and fight it out for proper compensation, though I have the sinking feeling that, as has happened five times before here in Japan, I will lose the round. If anything this experience has confirmed in me a great disillusionment with design work and any sort of foray into advertising and such. I knew it when I started this project, but like money always does, especially when you really need it, I listened to the clinking of coins.
I do have to say, though, that taking a run later in the evening, along the darkened proliferation of reeds and vines along the river, cleared my head quite a lot. Bats and toads and feral cats and a bellowing American bullfrog greeted me along the path, reminding me of the simple pleasure of moving and smelling the cut grass in the night air. And as I ran the knot of anxiety and feeling of being wronged evaporated. Perhaps it was a good thing that the project ended with a flop. After all, it was never what I wanted to do in the first place. So I finished the circuit around my neighborhood and slowly came to a stroll. A gibbous moon hung pregnant in the sky.
Is it just me, or does everyone feel a primordial need to live close to the seasons and to the breathing of the Earth? Does everyone else also feel an almost unutterable ache somewhere in the interior when it seems as if your life is disconnected from the very source of its heartbeats? Why can I just not feel happy with this citified world that has heaved up around me? Why do I constantly, every single blinking moment of the day, and on a deeper, soundless level at night, feel that my life is unbalanced and shallow and hungry? And yet I can sense the source of satisfaction and joy somewhere around the corner. If only I wasn’t so groggy and full of fog. If only there was just me and the open door, all the stuff released behind me.
Whenever the Barn Swallows swoop past my head for the first time in the year I know that Spring has returned for sure. On my way along the river to the sports club yesterday the liquid chortling and twittering of this first harbinger of Spring spun out of the grey, rainy air like cotton candy, a taste of what was to come. The next moment the daredevil eye drop of its lean, indigo and rust body, wings cutting the air like scissors, flashed past my head and dove to within a finger’s breadth above the water’s surface. It banked and disappeared in the bend of the river.
All the along the river birds were preparing for the Spring Bash, everyone breaking off into pairs. The pairs of Green Winged Teals kicked the water in tiny sambas, the males complete in their Mardi Gras emerald green mask. A female Carrion Crow (similar to the American Common Crow, and smaller than the more numerous and Raven-like Jungle Crows) chuckled as she tenderly tended her new nest of twigs, in clear view among the bare branches of a Beech tree. A pair of Common Kingfishers, both flashing metallic turquoise, perched beyond sight of one another, but staying close to the tiny nest burrow in the mud embankment and keeping to their customary solitary habits in spite of pairing. White Wagtails square danced among the rocks while Spot Billed Ducks tangoed amidst the watery grasses. A Great Cormorant, dressed like a blackjack, flamencoed right through the crowd, unable to make quick turns. And in the champagne cloud of blossoming Cherry trees a contingent of White Eyes turned minuets, their wispy chirps giving voice to the Cherry trees’ ardor.
And off to the side, hunched like an old man, stood a Little Egret, his yellow feet in odd contrast to the swirling grey water and cold rocks. The wind stirred the billowy fronds of his coattails and, almost dejected, he pulled his long neck further into his shoulders and eyed the darker depths of the water for morsels. While everyone else danced, calling up sunshine that still didn’t have the strength to break the hold of Winter, the Egret remained a realist, looking at the present with still and uncompromising eyes. I crouched down along the bank of the river and tried to mimic his immovable spirit, but like all humans my mind wandered and took off with the dancers. Soon I was up and walking again, off to other, more pressing matters.
Took a run this evening along the river near the apartment. Twilight had overcome the earlier fiery sunset and it had gotten cool enough to need a windbreaker as I ran. It had been a long time since I felt so light and agile and, deciding to take the run slowly, it seemed as if the passage of concrete and soil beneath my feet slipped past without effort. Something about today seemed to awaken the animals, too. As I left the path that followed the river and descended to the overgrown trail next to the river itself, the air was filled with bats swirling about my head. Some passed close enough to hear the soft batter of their wings. Spot-billed ducks watched me warily from the water and everywhere cats stalked among the tall stands of grasses.
It was a perfect blend of tranquility and energy. A whisper of the world long before we plastered over it.