Blooming rapeseed plants along the edge of the Noh River, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan 2004
It’s been a week of shuffling through the dungeons. I guess the fatigue of too much work, weeks and weeks with no other people to just talk to, little time outdoors (let alone amidst anything green), a cough that won’t let up, and news so bad that it’s hard to come up with words any more, have combined to bring on this enormous sinking feeling.
Chris from Creek Running North had recommended David James Duncan’s “My Story As Told By Water” so at the beginning of the week I started reading it on the train commutes to and from my evening work. The writing is sublime and gritty, and has a way of shaking up perceptions like low rumbles of the earth deep beneath me. Duncan writes about connection to place and how these places and their inhabitants shape you. The metaphors he uses strike with such concrete immediacy that numerous times on the train I felt myself mentally reeling, and had to close the book to regain my balance.
What I didn’t expect was the book’s impact on my emotions. Duncan relates a childhood that seemed almost to recreate my own, offering a world of rivers and intimate forays into the bushes and creature-laden hideaways that reflected the wandering among rice paddies and through the woods, hunting for insects and birds, that took over my whole understanding about what the world is about when I was a boy. Like Duncan I have never been able to square the mindless paving over of the forests and mountains and rivers, the cavalier attitude about such precious treasures as water and air, and the apathy and fear towards other creatures, with our grand hope of “civilization”. To me the world is dying. Our monotony and sterility, our cruelty and utter stupidity have turned the world into a gray playground and cesspool, and all that I love so much has gradually gone silent. Living in the heart of Tokyo doesn’t help, of course. I dwell in the midst of all that I despise most, far, far from that green tendril and the “sphere of eyes” that Duncan talks about, that never fail to awaken love and joy and all the other states of vitality, like fear and wonder, that make you feel alive.
The book slipped, like a needle, so surreptitiously under my skin that I found myself knocked to the edge of control all week. When one of the train lines I take to work was delayed by an hour due to an accident and the platform grew so crowded with commuters heading home like me that one man was pushed over the edge down to the tracks, I had to grit my teeth and find a nook within my mind in which to take a deep breath. I kept repeating, “Damn it, I hate this! Damn it, I hate this! Damn it, I hate this!”, over and over again, like a litany to the devil. “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here. This is madness!”
Or yesterday, while heading to have a quick dinner up the street from my school, when I noticed a pair of barn swallows alight upon the telephone wire above my head… I looked up and there they were, taking a brief respite across from their nest hidden under the eaves of a building. But it was just them, in the middle of this tumult of concrete and human waste, not another visible living creature around. All I could think of was memory and how these two creatures connected to a time long before, when this very location must have harbored trees and fields and rivers and glades full of insects. I paused in my walk and stared at them. When the male momentarily lifted his scissors-like wings, and like a weightless dancer lifted from and let down to the telephone wire, with such precision and effortlessness that it came across like a caress, I nearly broke down weeping.
It felt the same as seeing the homeless old man, while thousands of commuters scurried by, kneeling down on a piece of cardboard, carefully placing to one side the shoes he had removed.
The same as the young toad that had been crushed to death by a passing bicycle, its tongue lolling out and innards glued to the pavement, that I lifted and carried to a nearby bush.
The same as the jolt of pain I felt the other day when I came across the empty lot near my house, and found that its grizzled old flowering dogwood had been chopped down, an asphalt parking lot in its place.
These days it seems as if nothing but pain and loss and carelessness have taken over the whole world. As if nothing mattered but a human agenda. As if the world, when it finally succumbs to our desire to build it in our image, would only then find completion.
If it is true that the body finds expression and wholeness by participating in the ebb and flow of the diversity of living things, then I no longer know who I am. Or where I am. It is strange living disembodied from the very circle of earth that I tread upon day in and day out.