(Please click on the images to see them at their full size.)
More drawings and sketches from my journals and sketchbooks.
(Please click on the images to see them at their full size.)
More drawings and sketches from my journals and sketchbooks.
(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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
Spring is in full swing, with the cherry blossoms billowing along the streets and in the parks everywhere. It happened all of a sudden, sudden because just a week ago today we still had the heater on in our apartment. Two days later the air switched dresses and the next thing you know the sun was wearing gauzy petticoats of humidity. And the dawn tiptoed in earlier, too, just before what anyone might consider a sane hour for the alarm to go off.
It was just this patting about to turn off the alarm that caused me to oversleep my Sunday wake up call meant for the day’s hike. I hadn’t gotten quite enough sleep and getting up was not a top priority, so I snoozed until about 9:00… by then too late for the longer hike I had had planned.
Without really thinking about where I would be heading I wolfed down a breakfast of tea and rice with natto (fermented soy beans… an acquired taste) and raw egg. Then I was out the door, just walking foot in front of foot, with no plans, or even a map. A bright, almost summer-like brilliance lit up the neighborhood. The sky stared down with its big ole blue eyes, unclouded by thoughts of rain and for once blinking away the usual smoggy grime. I sauntered along, and hot, stopped to remove my jacket, then continued sauntering all the way to the train station, and humming Tears for Fears’ “Call Me Mellow”, a song that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for the past three weeks.
First I headed for the train that goes downtown, from where I had a vague idea about taking the Japan Railways train fro downtown Shinjuku out to Nikko northeast of Tokyo, but while standing on the platform and eyeing all those passengers heading toward the big parks I suddenly changed my mind. Instead I tripped down the stairs and climbed back up to the opposite platform, to wait for the train there and just see where it took me.
Forty minutes later I got off at Takao station… not the usual end-of-the-line Mt. Takao Trailhead station, but the big town just before it, the one that I had gazed out at countless times on my way out to the far off mountains. So many times I had glimpsed the hills surrounding the town and wondered if it was possible to just head out of the station and follow the ridges all the way back to the bigger mountains to the west. Idle thoughts, all those times, often at the end of a weekend of grinding walks, and then too tired to do much more than wonder.
A mountain walker would scoff at the petty little stroll that the town could only offer, but today I just wanted to follow my nose and to hell with always trying to prove myself on higher ground. Why not kick along the curbside like I loved to do so much as a kid, and take time to really look at things?
It was lunchtime by the time I exited the station so I trundled over to a “Moss Burger” joint, the local MacDonald’s offshoot franchise that specializes in high quality hamburgers and salads, to sit a while and just munch on a burdock root burger and gaze out the window at the Sunday strollers. And they were out in force, families browsing the streetside stores and all heading off in the general direction of the imperial garden north of town. Half of them wore surgical masks in a futile attempt to ward off the onslaught of the hay fever epidemic that plagued Tokyo. For the first time in months fathers walked about in t-shirts while mothers wore the bright colored, long sleeve shirts that spoke of summer but warded off the harmful effects of the sun while preserving their “bihaku”= “beauty white”.
Continuing my sauntering I crossed the train tracks and took the main road toward the hills that I could see at the other end of town. Along the way I watched an old woman wearing a white sun hat and a tiny back pack and hiking boots, bend down to the curbside, grab a handful of the pink cherry-blossom petalbanks that had accumulated there, and toss it over her head like snowfall. She followed the petals with her eyes, a big smile stretching across her face, and giggled like a little girl. I stopped discretely to watch her. Her laughter echoed in my own chest.
Camellia blossom resting in the late afternoon sun, Shirayama Temple Hill, Takao, Japan
The road led further into the throngs of tourists visiting from all over to gawk at the cherry blossoms. Busloads began to pass me by, and the sidewalk became more and more difficult to follow, as strings of people bottlenecked at the street crossings and by the overpasses. Eventually the sidewalk led to the gate of the imperial garden, where hundreds of people stood like packed cows waiting to pay the fee to enter the garden. It was hot and I hadn’t bargained for crowds of people so I stepped out of the crowd onto a side street. No one disturbed the stillness there and the further I walked along it the more distanced from the spring fever I became. To my surprise I found a neighborhood of small gardens and old, wooden, post-war houses, many of them run down and in disrepair. Flowers bloomed everywhere: in the gardens, on the rooftops, in planters by the entrance gates, along the tops of walls, from windows, from planters hung in the branches of trees, the trees themselves. Delighted, I followed this little road around the chin of a knoll until I was out of sight of the main body of the town.
There a little river gurgled along the side of the road. Houses kneeled at the very edge of the river, some spilling stairways down to its banks, some wading out over it with small terraces and sloping lawns. Crooked cherry trees and weeping willows, still waiting to bud, and plane trees lined the banks on both sides.
It wasn’t all beauty and joy, though. All along the river plastic bags and discarded cans, rusting bicycles and tires, wads of toilet paper, some tossed out mattresses, and once even an old refrigerator marred the river’s charm. Typically Japan, this. For a people who take so much meticulous care of their bodies, they certainly are slobs when it comes to taking care of their land.
The road entered a hidden vale that only walking up to this point could have revealed. It degraded from asphalt to gravel, then to simply to dirt, dry and dusty now from more than two months of no rain. A cemetary lay just off the left side of the road, surrounded by dogwoods just budding and the air golden with the haze of pollen and strands of spidersilk. Bird songs lifted from the quiet corners and I saw my first Siberian Meadow Bunting fluting to anyone who would listen from atop a newly budding Japanese maple.
The road narrowed to a crumbling path strewn with windfallen branches and unmoving eddies of old leaves. At the end, nestled in the crook of the ravine, stood a dilapidated old house that had been abandoned long enough that the windows had cracked and splintered and a sumac tree had grown through the rear end of the roof. The timbers had rotted through and carpenter ants thronged like the cherry blossom viewers in the heat of the afternoon sun. It was so still that instinctively the tension lifted from somewhere behind me and for the first time in a very long time I was unselfconscious enough without all the overly prying eyes of Japanese curious and sometimes disapproving of a foreigner in their midst to be able to stop and take a look at things the way I love so much to: slowing to a crawl and mimicking a praying mantis with incremental steps taken with the breaths of wind and then standing still for uncounted moments while peering hard at things around me, sometimes even getting down on my belly to see things from a different perspective. I lost myself in the trickling of a tiny brooklet that had created a new path from the slope overlooking the house, watching a water strider flick wavelets across a puddle.
Behind the old house a derelict shed revealed itself. It was strangling on thickets of bamboo and two flax pants growing right up against its crumbling wooden walls. In the corners two old delivery bicycles hid in the shadows, their tires blistered away.
Derelict shed being reclaimed by the forest
I discovered paper wasps building nests under the eaves, baby orb web spiders hanging motionless in the sunlight, blue bottle flies fiercely buzzing over the roof of the house, fritillary, cabbage, and sulfur butterflies… hardy species all… protecting their little islands in the new sunlight, wolf spiders dashing up the blue painted outsides of the house, and a lone inchworm hanging from a thread more than 20 meters long from the tops of one of the surrounding trees.
A look through the broken window of the front door of the house revealed rooms abandoned with many of the former dwellers’ belongings still scattered about: a calendar of a young woman in a skimpy bikini advertising Kirin Beer, a pair of rotting slippers, a ceramic tea cup, two floor pillows covered in dust, and a sticker of Hello Kitty plastered to a paper closet door. A dank, acrid odor rose from the floor and gave the interior a slightly sinister feel, in spite of the tranquility of the area.
After making a round of the house I started back down the road the way I had come. Earlier I had spied a side path leading up along the hill overlooking the road so I went back to find it.
This path took me up over the little vale through a cedar forest, to one of the ridges I had seen so often from the train. i was surprised that there was not another soul around. The wind blew with a moan through the trees and lent the end of the day a mournful feeling, so that when I found a glade atop the hill surrounded by a council of old chestnut and beech trees, still naked against the sky, I had to sit down and take a deep breath. I was so happy and lonely at the same time.
The trail led over the top of the hill then back around to a clearing where an ancient and grizzled old camphor tree, its trunk a mass of cracks, wrinkles, and growths, stood guard over what must once have been a shrine to the deity of the hill. The tree was so badly in need of pruning that people must have quit coming this way long ago. The trail led back down the hill from here, passing through stands of bamboo and camellia and eventually ending up behind a ancient temple so old it was housed in a protective wooden latticework house (the oldest temples in Japan used no paint and often had thatched roofs). All the artificial trappings of a usual temple had been removed except the two guardian dog statues and the stone entrance lanterns. A huge cherry tree branched out across the temple square, aching with white blossoms that no one came any more to see. Japanese often say that viewing cherry blossoms, while beautiful, is also profoundly sad, even frightening. Standing there alone in the last rays of the sun, in a place that no one had set foot in for many years, while not far away hundreds of people thronged to see cherry blossoms with more star status, I could feel the sadness and fright of being abandoned, of beauty left unnoticed, of something that must once have been loved left here to fall to ruin. Part of me rejoiced in this return to nature, but I couldn’t help but see that we weren’t following along. This was nature making a comeback, but with no respect on our part.
I bowed to the temple and also said a silent thank you to the Shinto hill deity still residing up by that old tree. Then I took the steep, broken stairs back down the hill to the level asphalt roads below, from where I slowly made my way back home, my eyes filled with silence and the heat of life persisting even through our efforts to remain immortal.
Old stovepipe protruding from the roof of the old abandoned house
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!
This is the fourth installment in the ongoing online essays series at Ecotone, this time on the theme “Trees and Place” Please drop by and have a look at what other people are writing, or possibly contribute your own essay if you like.
Love knows no bounds, so the saying goes. At times I wonder about the cogs that spin around upstairs in my attic, because most of the emotions that have twirled and waltzed me around to that indescribable music seemed sourced to some transmitter on another planet, completely disconnected to any wires in my own little control panel. I’ve had my share of relationships with women and each time some tugging force manifested itself without my say so. Each of the women were different in so many ways, and each went their own way with vestiges of wonder, joy, and sadness. Without having known each of these women, the steps that I have taken so far through my life would have left me that much further behind in my unsteady progress across the stepping stones in the river. Men have, of course, played significant roles in the drama, but none with the intimacy and intensity of what I have known with women, to whom I have both completely opened the gates, while at other times letting out the monster. Love has turned me inside out, lifted me to where no man had gone before, and dragged me kicking into the open.
So it has been with trees, too. Perhaps it is their seeming immoveability, their tendency to be there when you get back. When you look up, there they are. They can usually be counted on to take you as you are, without comment, and to listen without prejudice. And unlike so many friends, perhaps, their stationary nature provides a pillow against time, somehow creating the illusion that nothing changes and that you can rest easy in their infallible devotion to one place. They are the friends that preserve the substance of memories when you return home.
The first tree that arises in my own memories was a venerable old Weeping Willow that stood in the back yard of the Parkway Village housing complex in New York, back in the 1960’s. It was a craggy old stick with crooked branches and a wide gash in its abdomen where mud dauber wasps found refuge. The long strings of its leaves cascaded from the scant branches that clawed at the sky and swayed in the wind. A grey squirrel resided in a crook in its cranium, dashing out along the limbs to chatter at me as I sat playing among the roots, or tightroping out to the ends of the branches when I clambored among the boughs. For four summers that tree and I grew together, and when my family moved to a new apartment that looked right out at the backyard, I would greet the Willow every morning from my bedroom window.
Then, in the winter of 1968, a great blizzard hit, turning the night blue and the wind screaming across the window panes. In the middle of the night a great crack woke me and when I ran to the window I witnessed, through the indistinct blurr of snow and darkness, the great form of the Willow lying prone in the yard. I cried that night and still grieve for the loss of a great friend.
My family moved to Japan the following year. New trees that I had never seen before stood watching as I took my first tentative steps in the new country. Among them I discovered new creatures and fresh adventures and as I grew the visions that they evoked seeped into my making. One particular tree, a Camphor Tree, five stories tall and just as wide, with a trunk as wide as a Volkswagen, stood behind my junior high school building. It was a place few students ventured and where I loved to retreat to when I wanted to be alone. One afternoon I was reading a book at the Camphor’s base, when three boys, Peter from Australia, Marcel from South Africa, and David from America, found me there. There was little talk. They were big and strong and thorough. Afterwards I lay sobbing between two huge roots, blood from my nose spilling across the wrinkled bark. I lay there until night fell, clutching the great roundness of the tree.
After high school I moved alone to Oregon, on the west coast of the United States. In all the ten years that I lived there, no single tree stands out. Rather it was like walking into some grand banquet hall of giants, 30 meter tall Titans, the Douglas Fir, standing at attention at every corner and every open space. The mountains were covered by them. The university campus ran like a green carpet under their legs. When I looked up at their faces their eyes were far away, as if contemplating the sea to the west. They never looked down. And so for ten years I scuttled among these mighty sentinels, getting smaller with each day. When I left Oregon I was no more than a mouse, but my eyes had learned to consider the horizons, and the distant clouds, and the wind.
Boston was my next stop. After Oregon it seemed as if walls had closed in. The company of trees dwindled to what the verges allowed, but I was grateful for the Plane Trees around Harvard. And one sunny spring day I stared amazed during my first encounter with a weeping tree, a Sugar Maple leaking sap with the first warm spell of the year, a delirious joy at the retreat of the cold of the northern winter.
I had found a woman I loved in Boston, but could not love Boston itself and I felt I had to leave. So I forsook what I had started there and returned to Japan. The distance was great. The telephone bills ate half my paychecks. The one who was waiting for me couldn’t bear the strain and left. In my sorrow I took to the mountains around the small town at the foot of Mt. Fuji, every weekend walking farther and harder, till my feet ached and I would sing Beatles’ songs at the top of my lungs as I descended in the evenings. On one small and almost unnoticed mountain that pitched itself right at the knees of Mt. Fuji and commanded a wide perspective of the entire waistline of the great volcano, stood four aging Japanese Cedars. They reminded me of my beloved Douglas Firs in Oregon, standing in the same regal straightness and also looking away over my head. Many afternoons I fell asleep at their feet, bees buzzing in the grass and crows cawing in the distance. One time I decided to camp there and I sat all night listening to Racoon-Dogs, Red Foxes, and Sika Deer shuffling amidst the underbrush. The following morning I stood naked beside one Cedar trunk, watching mist rising from the valley, as Mt. Fuji rose like a golden queen in the rising sun.
And so the circle made a full turn. Tokyo is my home again. The trees that I have loved still stand behind me along the long road, and I wonder if they will be there if I were to return to give them my regards. Tokyo is cutting down much of its tree kin. It is a lucky gift if you can open your window and hear the leaves sighing. And in that perhaps I am lucky. For, outside my window, for the past three years, I am able to rest my eyes upon a big chested Magnolia Tree. In spring she bursts her corset and waves at the sky with a thousand white gloves. The first bird of the dawn, the Brown-eared Bulbul, heralds the light with his piccolo screech, from atop the highest branches. And in strong winds, such as the big blow earlier today, all the fat leaves turn up in prayer, asking only for another day. Just another day. I watch and smile and nod in agreement.