A Dancing Flame

posted in: Journal, Musings | 5
Moosehead Lake Dawn
Moosehead Lake at dawn, Maine, U.S.A., 1991

It’s a little late, but I just discovered the wiki Ecotone: Writing About Nature and Place where there is an ongoing series of writing projects. The most recent topic is titled “How Are We Defined and Shaped by the Place We Live?” was due July 1st, but I want to see if I can still contribute to the discussion.


Back in elementary to high school, at St. Mary’s International Boy’s School, Tokyo, Japan, I was one of the “Others”. This meant that those of us who belonged to this unofficial group basically didn’t come from one of the significant countries, like America or Britain or Australia, or, to a lesser extent, even though we all lived here, Japan. Usually us Others had dark skin, we played soccer or table tennis, instead of the more macho basketball or wrestling, we ate weird food at the cafeteria tables, and we had to be sanctioned off into the “Non-Christian Religion” class, the other two being “Catholics” (the best denomination) and the “Protestants” (the tolerated denomination). Since a majority of the students hailed from Asia, Africa, and South America, the disproportionate weight of our numbers had to be counterbalanced by strict reference to the West as the basis of our education. We spent seven years studying American history, one year world history, six months Japanese history, six Chinese, and one year Roman history (in Latin, of course).

Now I wasn’t the sort of person who kowtows to convention, and since I had enough conflict with the American and Australian bullies under the great camphor tree behind the school, I spent whatever time I had away from the school out in the fields and woods around Tokyo, hunting insects, kneeing through the susuki grass, and walking the trails around the rice paddies and the hills and mountains. This is where I was at peace and where the world made sense.

As a German/ Filipino/ only-discovered-at-twenty African American who grew up in Japan, the States, and Germany, who has been traveling since he was two, and was stateless until twelve years old, places as defined by humans, such as the arbitrary endowment of nationality or the invisible barriers of borders, never gave me any sense of belonging to a place. Even today the fervor that people build up in mindless displays of nationalism, such as the madness that seems to have overcome the U.S., makes no sense to me. The way I see it, the mobbing arises out of a herd mentality, each individual feeling safer with companions nearby and most importantly, companions with whom they are familiar. That these people declare American or British soil as the container of their identities seems, to me, to get the picture backward. Places have always seemed to work more as catalysts for identities; after all, the Native Americans developed a completely different world outlook from the immigrant Europeans, and even modern African Americans bear little resemblance to Africans from the continent, both culturally and often physically.

As I grow older Asian influences on the nature of existence and identity take greater and greater precedence in how I view myself. The Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist idea that the self is no more than an illusion, and that all of creation is but a flicker of a dream, makes sense and seems to explain a lot of the dilemma of body/ soul, life/death, mundane/heavenly, and human/ divine that Western philosophy seems unable to resolve. Buckminster Fuller put it succinctly: “I seem to be a verb”. Lately I’ve begun to see myself, my whole being, as a series of actions and ideas, constantly fluctuating, always becoming something else, but in the end, not having been anything but some dancing flame.

Looking back over my life, I often wondered why it has always been the wild, healthy places, or on occasion some well-designed garden or structure, that held sway over me and kept me coming back or stopping me dead in my tracks with awe and delight. If it is that I am just a dancing flame and that places around me just shifting veils of illusion, then what is it that arouses such wonder in me? What is the relationship between beauty, health, love, and place? Why does a beautiful place universally draw people, to the point that they will travel around the globe to see it?

Perhaps it is that when a place and an individual (or group) participate fully with each other, a recognition of the inseparability of each awakes in one’s consciousness. That is my experience at least. Throughout my life I have always felt most in tune with a place when I forgot myself and just “let go” into the elements. Walking a ridge, gazing from a boat window, crouching in the garden observing tiger beetles, or even drifting off into a deep sleep.

Life begets life. Though I have lived in disparate places, thousands of miles apart, they have all been linked, mainly by the forces that greet me each time I wake, like wind, sunlight, rain, trees, birds, insects, and fellow people. All these things have always moved in and out of my life, like seconds in a continuous curtain call. What happened in each of these encounters amassed into the theme that I play today. And tomorrow it will change again. I feel the restlessness that characterizes us humans and will probably move away from Tokyo, to be shaped yet again. A constant honing:

…walking in the woods of Germany with my grandfather, who taught me to find wild blueberries and hazenuts…
…hunting butterflies and rhinoceros beetles in Karuizawa, Japan…
…bicycling the gravel roads of the 1970’s Hokkaido, Japan…
…arriving in Oregon from Japan and dumbstruck by the hugeness of the douglas firs…
…strolling the same azure and corn yellow lanes of Arles, France, that van Gogh frequented…
…watching a hundred humpback and fin whales amidst a thousand common dolphins, all cavorting in a copper-colored, mirror-still sea in the Stellwagon Banks, off of Boston…
…bicycling to work in a blizzard along the blue ghost of the Charles River, in Boston…
…sitting silent all day on a cliff in the Shetlands, watching fulmars and puffins and razorbills…
…paddling a kayak across the Suruga Bay, Japan, with my first encounter with deep sea swells, like the earth heaving…
…falling asleep beneath an ancient cedar and waking up to Mt. Fuji bathed in gold…
…running along the Noh River near my apartment, as pipistrelle bats loop above…
…pulling weeds in my garden with mosquitoes biting and cicadas singing…

Anecdotes, but like a string of pearls. These make up my world and my mind. Places drawing through me, more like lines than points, and insisting that I dance along.

I am that blue marble hanging in the darkness. The Earth that shapes me. Perhaps a song. And finally, nothing, nothing at all.

5 Responses

  1. Numenius

    It’s a wonderful list you have of encounters with place and the elements. I’m curious what you think about the discussion going in the wiki about beauty and meaning in the landscape. At what point is beauty something that is learned, like Fred’s contrary example of early explorers finding the Blue Ridge Mountains “most awful in aspect”, and at what point is it something that simply hits us at a deep and primitive level?

  2. Miguel

    It is interesting how the first Europeans perceived America. I think there is a real difference between how the Spanish saw it, the French, the British, and the Russians. The Russians saw nothing new, and thought little enough of it to sell Alaska at a bargain. Big open spaces were routine for them. The French took to the Indians with a lot more empathy than the others ever did. The British were terrified of the huge spaces and unending horizons. Of all the groups they were the most close-minded and destructive. And the Spanish, very interestingly enough, saw reflections of their landscapes back home, so much so that they even had the vocabulary for the landforms, like canyon, arroyo, and mesa. Of all the groups that came over, perhaps the Spanish perceived the most beauty, because they were familiar with it.

    Perhaps beauty only arises when one feels safe and at home, when the familiar greets the eyes?

  3. Steve

    The photo of Moosehead lake brought me back to forgotten times. I remember spending time up there in the summer at a friends camp, fishing for perch (but catching eels!), swimming out to sleep on the floating dock. Spending an afternoon in a Boston Whaler going off in search of Frye’s leap…
    Beautiful place, Moosehead lake…
    Beautiful photo

  4. Miguel

    That trip to Moosehead Lake was one of the best memories I have of that time. I was thrilled to drive so far out into a remote area and the night was so still that the moon was reflected as clearly in the lake surface as if there were two moons. I had rented a canoe so that I could paddle along the coves in hope of photography a moose. No such luck.

    Three days later my girlfriend and I drove to the coast and spent the day exploring Isle au Haut. Wonderful place!

  5. Ernest Wilson

    The posting by ‘Numenius’ fails to understand that the original meaning of ‘awful’ was to fill with awe. This would certainly be what the early explorers meant in their description of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Our common meaning of awful only came later.
    Its certainly true that all cultures bring their cultural baggage to new places, a practice which of course continues today. The only difference is that perhaps we can be more aware of when we are doing it – or are we?

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