While It Lasts

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Sunset off Cape Erimo, Hokkaido, Japan, 1997

Lately I can’t shake the feeling that we are witnessing the end of our world. Too much seems to be unhinging and the very fragility of the mechanism kicking into play. Look at the strange weather, the nutty lopsidedness of our world politics, the unscrupulousness of big business, the obliteration of other creatures, the greater and greater focus on having more and more, and the constant, constant bad news. CNN seems to think the world consists of the American election campaign… For a four-year presidency, doesn’t it seem a little counterproductive and not a little dangerous to be spending a whole year exclusively focusing on winning the next election? Isn’t the leader supposed to be working on more important issues?

When I heard the report about the Pentagon predicting that by 2006 the first big effects of global warming will cause massive worldwide environmental catastrophes, all I could think was that the American government is weighing the wrong dangers. Iraq is nothing compared to the peril of our planet’s environmental collapse. What are we thinking? Why is it so hard for us to pay heed to the health and stability of our world? Is it the very nature of our inhabiting the sphere rather than looking down at it that makes it impossible for us to see it other than immensely big and inexhaustible? If so, then we are no different from mice in an overcrowded box.

On my way by train to a one day hike of Takao Mountain west of Tokyo yesterday, I watched a mentally handicapped young man shuttle back and forth between train doors, excitedly pointing at passing trains and views of the scenery flicking by. His clear enjoyment of the world he was witnessing drew my attention throughout the 50 minute ride, and no one else on the train payed so much homage to the wonder and beauty of existing in this jewel of a world we live in. I wondered why it was that a man who supposedly understood less than the rest of us, could appreciate without prejudice what all of us are blessed with. Why is wonder necessarily the domain of the childlike?

It is what we are taught and the way we learn to see that instills the kernel of insight into our world and how we choose to interact with it. On my way home from the mountain, stepping up to the ticket vending machine at the train station, a Japanese boy of about 5 or 6 was sitting on the counter in front of the machine. I leaned in to buy a ticket and he, suddenly realizing that I was a foreigner appearing right beside to him, almost toppled off the counter. His eyes went wide as he exclaimed, “Whoa!”, an involuntary, ingrained reaction to foreigners that everyone around him has always taught him is the only reaction to foreigners that a Japanese should have. It was his education of the world and likely to follow him throughout his life. I laughed at the sheer irony of this boy and the earlier young man, that they should both carry such young minds, but be so different in their clarity.

Such a prejudice toward the world grows in many forms. Without being able to distinguish the structure and mechanism that keeps it all running there is no way for us to overcome our folly in destroying the very thing that sustains us.

I look out my window and it is all there, the world, our home, the mirage of our existence. The picture is getting cloudy, though. Soon there may be no more eyes to see it all.

10 Responses

  1. Curiosity in some cultures is a sign of impoliteness. “Don’t stare!” It gets knocked out of most people by the age of eight probably. Having some city kids whom I love to stay with me in Yorkshire is initially a trying experience. Fortunately they are still young enough to find themselves enjoying the natural world around them after a few days. Adult city visitors like to talk a great deal on walks. Non-stop. As it not talking defeats the purpose of the exercise! I often interupt to say “Listen to the silence” or point out a bird, a footprint. Even in the city, it is enjoyable to notice old and new, high and low. But so many are focused on route alone, getting “there”, everything being a means to an end. Few people can conceptualise the kind of long term end to which you are referring.

  2. According to the Pentagon report, I will be dead within three years if I stay in my village in the Netherlands. Drowned.
    I just wonder why they bring out such alarming reports but refuse to sign an agreement to do anything about the global warming threat as a country, like so many other countries have done. Indeed, as you say; instead they give their main attention to the election of a new most powerful person in the world. America scares me. To me it seems a game of power. Just Power and the Ego. A fantasy world.

  3. I was just thinking about – have been thinking about often, in fact, this very topic. Andd you said it so much more poignantly than I ever could have. I agree. With Anne, as well. I am an American, but this is not the country I grew up in. This is no longer a country I trust, and I am afraid for its people. For the world. We’re moving to Canada, but we leave our family and friends behind to do it. It’s a choice I never thought I’d have to make, not like this.

  4. I remember the movie “On the Beach” when I was young–and, so many people built bomb shelters back then. Every generation thinks that this might be the end. This is where the old addage a day at a time makes all the difference in the quality of life.

    Your photograph is absolutely spectacular.

  5. I think there is a difference between the threat of nuclear war (which is still very real, in fact more likely with all the “lost” nuclear weapons that have disappeared in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union) and the actual, daily occurance of environmental destruction. It isn’t some imagined event. I think it is often easy to forget just how badly the natural world is faring these days when you live in a prosperous place like the States, which is so big and so seemingly lush (though if you know the natural history of North America you will realize that very little of what was originally there is left). You have to actually go to places like Brazil or, in my case, the Philippines, and walk around in the areas where the rainforests used to be. Or to see the complete disappearance of animals I used to watch daily when I was young and now replaced by concrete and silence.

    Anyone who refuses to acknowledge that what the scientists, who are actually out there looking at the problems, say about global warming and mass extinction, can only be said to be in denial about what is happening to the planet. We can’t afford to put off being responsible about the way we live.

    I am not a doomsayer who talks about the end without looking for a way to redeem ourselves. I believe that we need to care for what we have and stop living as if the future doesn’t matter. It is all very nice to live day to day and not have a care in the world, but that is the same thing people did in Great Britain so that now almost all the old forests are gone (those beautiful hills were once covered in great forests… Robin Hood’s Sherwood is now just s legend), or the Great Dust Bowl of the Midwest in the U.S., or the once great Cod fisheries in the North Atlantic (gone, fished out), or the spread of the Sahara or the enormous plague of mice in Australia or the melting of the permagfrost in Russia and the Ross Ice Shelf in Antartica, or frightening human population of 6 billion now (it was 3 billion just 30 years ago!) which is predicted to grow to 10 billion in the next 10 years.

    Who is going to feed all those people? The U.S.? Out of the goodness of their hearts, without asking for a penny from the desperately poor countries that harbor the people? What happens when, as Anne has voiced, from a country that has already almost suffered catastrphic inundation, the sea begins to rise in earnest, as is already beginning to happen? It isn’t just some freak occurance that the weather for the last ten years has been steadily growing more and more unpredictable and cataclysmic. Every year now there are record hurricanes and typhoons. The great drought in Ethiopia right now is an international disaster that the president of Ethiopia announced last year would dwarf the great drought of the eighties.

    People are still debating the whole thing, by those who never venture out into the places where all the destruction is occurring, who shy away from even getting their feet wet and can’t pretend to know anything about the delicate structure of ecosystems. But it is happening everywhere, right under our noses. If we continue to deny what is right there there really is no hope.

  6. Yes, it could all be lost. Much of it has been vanishing all along for decades. The fact that we spend billions of dollars sending probes to Mars while we’re still relatively ignorant about our own atmosphere and oceans is proof that we live in primitive times. To gaze upon nature’s wonders with adoration is a lot like saying hello and goodbye at the same time.

  7. Your photos are always so beautiful……the effect is calming after a busy, hectic workday…….

  8. I’ve seen some of what you’ve described, Butuki. When I was a child, and we’d go up to Cameron Highlands (in Malaysia) for our ‘mountain holidays’, the air was crisp and cool. It was almost temperate, and we would wear jackets and sip our steaming mugs of tea while watching the sunset over the tea plantations. Now it’s warm, and the comfortable simplicity of those old chalets has been replaced by bigger commercial sights…

    In Malaysia I’ve seen mountain slopes denuded so that condominiums for the rich can sprout like mushrooms after a rain. I’ve watched downpours sweep mud and soil down those barren slopes. And I’ve read about the landslides that have, in some cases, swept buildings down with them.

    I believe, though, that there are solutions. There are solutions if we have the courage to see it clearly, swayed neither by doomsayers or those who would deny that there are problems.

  9. lorene fredrick

    Ohio gozimus!! Genki Des Ka? Watashi wa Lorene des. I am an American who lived in Japan for two years. Your writing and pictures are lovely. I speak Japanese too. Anata wa Nihingo? Strongly recommend you learing one of the most beautiful language in the World. Ooh the blessed memories…how I miss Japan.
    Have you seen Dove mountain? Very beautiful where doves can live in peace. Here in MI they will soon be killing them.

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