Saturday, January 29, 2011


Out there today doing various odd jobs amidst the melting snow piles, Siberia still wailing just the other side of the mountains, I noticed that the jinchoge knows something, its bud tips barely beginning to well with hints of the color that blossoms with the fragrance of joy that is always a stunning surprise one morning in the dun of early Spring. Daphne. Sweet daphne. And each Spring when I dredge up the English name it gets me thinking about how when I was a kid there were so many autumnal women, aunts and grandmas, named Daphne or Myrtle, unlike today,when women named Myrtle are rare.

At the age of 7 or 8 I didn’t know that Daphne and Myrtle were the names of special flowers that everyone loved, so it always puzzled me why so many stately looking women had these odd and funny sounding names, so like daffy and turtle; then by the time I was twice as old, around 13, I'd learned that these were the names of beautiful fragrant plants that everyone loved and I was even more puzzled as to why these regal and rather hefty ladies were so named. It didn't deeply occur to me that they had once been my age, even younger. The first hints of Spring beget sprung thoughts from a past as long as mine.

So too the oddness of seasonal edges must have affected the panicky hiyodori (brown-eared bulbul), because as I went strolling past the garden, mulling thoughts like the above on my way to add some kitchen garbage and wood ashes to the compost pile, I heard a panicky wing beat, turned and saw that a bulbul had found a way into the netted portion of my garden (Winter is empty and Spring isn't here yet, so the big cupboard is empty except for my little cache), where he’d been enjoying a solitary repast of fresh greens until I'd come blundering along. When he saw me he leaped for safety, but straight up and into the net, there flapping like a moth at the sunlight, but unlike his usual panicky bulbul behavior he wasn't screeching all the while.

I began to think I'd have to go in there to free him and he would totally flip, maybe even die of panic, being among the more psychotic of birds. But  finally he fell back, tumbled into his secret entry hole and exited, flew up into the oak and sat here on a high branch screeching bulbulese insults at me for being such an idiot, for behaving so rudely in his presence, for coming upon him completely unannounced like that while he'd been enjoying a well-deserved banquet, this was his kingdom after all, and when he saw me  just stand there, obtusely insisting on my rights, he winged huffily away, grumbling across the air.

You know those used-up CDs that farmers hereabouts hang in their gardens to let twirl in the wind, gleaming and blinking in the sunlight like big owly or hawky eyes to scare marauding birds away, well they don’t work. There were two such CDs hanging just above the briganding bulbul, who seemed to enjoy their helpful light, perhaps he thought he was in some kind of fancy wingless-two-legger dining and dancing establishment with funky walls, had gotten in without a ticket and was enjoying the free food, the kind that tastes best. I’m not happy being a bouncer, but sometimes a guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. The nasty language comes with the job.

Soon my thoughts turned again to the sweet old names Daphne and Myrtle... Since leaving home, I don’t think I’ve ever met another lady of either name. Geez, I have to debark some of this oak... Wonder why no men are named Oak...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Not to change the subject, since there isn't one yet - only the title so far - but I'm getting to it, in my rambly fashion: lately Echo and I have been going once a week to one of our favorite free springs, one we revisited after it had dried up a few years ago and we were recently told it had started running again below Hira mountain.

We go there on Wednesdays, in preference to other days and springs we know because it gives us a chance to eat lunch at Hot Station, our favorite as-yet-uncrowded slow food restaurant around here. Located behind Hira Station on the Kosei railway line and seating maybe 16 real friendly people, Hot Station is run by local obachan (grandmas) that serve set lunches of home-made quality like grandmas used to make (and still do in some lucky households hereabouts). Small seasonal menu of excellent food, and a few items (kimpiragobo, miso, breads, rolls, cooked rice, sweet beans and bento dishes, among other things) always on sale near the vestibule.

What can be better than having a meal prepared by hands that have been preparing the same meals in the same way for 50 years or more, from ingredients grown and made by those same hands, all in the same way those hands were taught by other longlived hands, the line going back hand-in-hand over centuries, reaching back into times when food was still exactly and only food, no thought of fastness, still serving the actual basic purpose food must serve, i.e., to nourish and nurture those who are cared for? Not to kill tongue time or do a Las Vegas number for jaded taste buds, but to show a cherished body and its attendant functions that someotherbody cares about all this, cares about you, puts a pinch of love and joy in the growing and preparing, joy that does something for the flavor, love that grows it right, as those who care know it must be grown; creates it right as something so worthy deserves to be created- the miso, vinegar, tofu, rice, sauces, vegetables - cooks it right, the same care everywhere that you can view in the layout, sense in the flavor and freshness, and live in how good it makes you feel to eat it and be, your cells individually dancing and singing afterward, carrying you along for the fun, that kind of food?

We spoke to one of the busy ladies that run the place, she said it was started a few years ago by a group of 8 now-elderly ladies who sometime back in the 70s had gotten together and formed a company to create and market the miso they and their families had been making for centuries using their own locally grown soybeans. About 5 years ago in the same locally grown spirit, spurred as well by fading traditions of kitchens and foods, they started the restaurant, serving meals made the old way, using local farm products.

So if you're hungry at lunchtime in this lakeside neighborhood, be sure to drop in. Best misoshiru around, and all the other items are the fresh-best too, you could only maybe get better food if you had a couple of grandmas of your own. Barring that, Hot Station is the place to go on Wed. Sat. and Sun. between 1o and 5 (Nov-Feb, 10~4:30). They don't really want to make a full-time job or a full-fledged business out of it, just have a place to prepare and serve their locally grown produce to locally growing folk, like they've always been doing. You can tell they're in it more for love than money.

They also have a steady spring running outside, where you can fill up on your Wednesdays, if you prefer slow water.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


When I go outdoors these winter dawns, before I make big human footprints all over the snow I spend the first few minutes reading the wild news on that big white page, checking out the animal tracks there, surfing the feral net to see who's been by and gone from where to where, what they did while here-- the Baron, for one, always comes out of the night woods from the south, circles the house, checks out the compost pile, browses in his favorite spots, avoids the fence around the garden, noses up some green weeds and at last moves on up to his place of daytime repose in the forest. Monkeys don't move by night, so there's no trace of them, which is fine by me, no news is headline news in re the thieving furballs. Every once in a while there's a fox pacing through, sometimes a hoppy rabbit or a maundering dog, now and then a wild pig nosing around for acorns and earthworms.

Then a couple of dawns ago, just after I got up and went to check the snow level out the front windows, I saw the delicate tracks of a cat, of all things, that had paused in its travels through the night blizzard to look in at the big glass doors at the front of the house. Perhaps it had lived with humans once. While wandering the dark Siberian world the cat had leaped up onto the deck, walked along the front wall and stopped there, with snow blowing under its fur, to look into the darkness of the house and remember as we slept.

Yesterday morning, before getting a day's wood from one of the stacks, while checking the snow for the latest news I saw cat tracks in the deep snow, where the cat had emerged from the welcome snowlessness under a long stack of firewood. In traversing our land the cat was traveling from understack to understack, in between stacks bounding across the snow in giant leaps and minimal pinpointy-feet landings that said in silent invisible exclamation points: YEW!! YUCK!! YOW!! SNOW!! The tracks led at last to the snowless space beneath the shiitake logs and thence into the mountain bamboo. I know that cats in general hate snow: my neighbor's cats, for example, shudder at sight of the horrid white stuff outside the doors of their warm house; just a glance at it out the window makes them leap to loll under the kotatsu all day. But this also snow-hating cat was living in the stuff, even during the night!

As I loaded up with firewood I wondered what cat it might be that is out here at night in such storms; I couldn't recall an eccentric wandering feline; any self-respecting cat around here that has a human pet will be in the house at night sleeping next to the warmest thing available... Oh yeah-- there was that cat I saw hanging around the Baron one day in early autumn, when the big antlered guy was browsing on the compost pile; the black and white cat came up slowly, the way cats generally approach feral animals fifty times their size. The cat got within a meter or so of the white-tailed noble, the Baron lifting his head now and then to assess this mite entering his field of vision, but he kept on munching as the cat settled nearby. For a long time they just checked each other out, the Baron dining and the cat sitting and watching the big buck eat, till I as a gardening human house owner had some task to do.

There can't be one cat that watches bucks eat from close-up and another cat that wanders in snow at night and knows what windows are. Must be the same eccentric cat, out there in the night.

That's the wild news for this morning.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Another snowed-in day, watching my naive garden get buried, imagining my winter spinach patiently pressing its green face against the pale window of deepening snow. As for the rest, the flakey wind has had a ball with my varied anti-wind and -snow ploys. Next year I am smarter.

A couple of times a day I plunge into the storm and get some firewood at one of the stacks. This morning I uncovered one stack of 2-year-old cherry wood, split from a large trunk; the layered slabs looked to my hungry eyes like huge fillets of sun-dried wild salmon lying there, waiting to be taken in and roasted over a cherrywood fire.

That wood burns like a dream fuel: no smoke, hot, long-lasting embers. Brought armfuls back to the house to burn, some oak and beech to mix in and temper the fire, save the wood we have stacked in the rack on the deck by the door until the snow gets too deep for easy passage, at which point we start using the rackwood, a couple of week’s worth. If it snows beyond that, I’m into some serious shoveling and arm transport, but I’m ready. When you live up here, big weather is the university and the gym.

As it is for that guy out there in the whitestorm, the great spotted woodpecker, a juvenile male with his red belly, fresh and antsy even out there in a fierce blizzard, pecking hunger at one trunk of the cherry tree, the living and healthy (as far as I can tell) cherry tree, pecking like the king of beetle larvae is partying inside. Round and round he goes, pecking like mad, pausing now and then to listen: does he know what he’s doing, pecking where I’ve never seen another woodpecker peck, he’s just a teen after all, and this his first winter, he’s working really hard for lunch and nothing to show for it so far, in the 20 minutes I’ve been watching, first from the deck with arms full of wood and squinty-eyed from the blowing snow, then from the big kitchen window with the binoculars.

Sometimes it’s hard to see him for the streaks of snow across the air, as the white rush slides over the mountain from Siberia and down toward the lowlands, for a change just like the weatherman said it would... All the birds out there must be having a hard time finding meals now, even the nanten berries are gone... Every once in a while the youngster out there with the red crown stops and looks upward, turning his head and listening... how can he hear another bugsound elsewhere in that storm, with the wind rattling the naked branches, the snowclumps falling to the ground? He bounces slowly around the trunk, a natural dancer, fully dedicated to whatever may come, in mountain air now filled with diamond dust at a brief gaze from the sun...

Now time for my own lunch...


Epilog: The next morning I went out in the snowfall to see what he’d been up to hammering away in ignorance at a healthy tree like that, just a teen after all, and had one of those experiences that know-it-alls always have sooner or later, kind of a nature-knowledge karma (now hitting us all big time), in this case that a woodpecker of any age, in just one look and listen, can tell more than I ever could about the overall condition of a standing tree and whether it's worth pecking at for a beetle larva, which to be fair is not one of my personal priorities, which I guess gives him a useful edge… He’d been hammering away right at the perimeter of where that trunk was beginning to rot… Another job for me, come late winter…

Sunday, January 09, 2011


Culture changes perceptibly even over just a few years, like language does - things are no longer square or groovy and we all remember no internet - but the change seems to be accelerating lately, now that I've lived long enough to have had my childhood in the stone age.
That's how prehistoric the present era feels now for a child of the 1940s, a time that at the time was impressively current with essentials like marbles, yo-yos, trolley cars, typewriters and carbon paper, clickety-clickety standup phones with four- or even five-digit numbers, with all the young men in fedoras, the grandpas in derbys, women in odd hats and long dresses; there was penmanship with steel pens dipped in school desktop inkwells, there were stenographers and mimeographs, horse-drawn wagons delivering milk and ice, there was no tv, no everywhere plastic, and the old styles and language (don't say ain't), culture and mores, social borders-- racism, sexism, everywhere everyone smoking, heavy social drinking, normal obesity, litter, penny candy, cigars, spittoons, the list runs on like time...

I was prompted to recherche those temps perdu when I heard in a documentary film (Scorsese's No Direction Home-- Recommended) an old-school British journalist with all the attendant perceptions, blinkers, mindsets and perspectives (he may well have interviewed young Churchill), there in the mod 1960s asking the young and sassy, full of beans, off-the-wall-out-in-left-field Bob Dylan a rhetorically baroque question that meandered along a familiar old path wound with vines and blossoms framing a white picket fence before a little cottage with maybe a portrait of Disraeli above the mantel, the kind of question that even back in the 60s was so shakespeareanly orotund and sesquipedalianly circumlocutory that when confronted with it, or rather wrapped in it, Dylan oddly became so sympathetic as to not get his usual sassy, and as I listened to the question unwind I too felt sympathy for that elder statesman of journalism attempting to speak as though the past fit perfectly into the right-nowness of that moment, assuming that he could pinpoint this young musical upstart in the Victorian pantheon of marble-halled literary icons and empirical ideals, that he could understand in his horseback telegraph spittoon way what was now going on around him like lightning on vinyl. In his long professional life he himself had no doubt at last become his ideal of an Edwardian journalist, hadn't felt the need to make any serious self-adjustments since then and here he was, speaking from the distant past to the distant future. I suppose I'm much the same by now, how can one tell as one rambles on...

There is always a special preserve for the youth of the day, but the changes since the 1940s have been more radical than any before in history (I was born before the atomic bomb!) and have caught many unprepared, like that senior journalist at the peak of his game, whose name might as well have been "Mr. Jones." Used to be that small adjustments were enough-- a fancy new harness, a bustle, the latest height in a beaver hat or a new pair of spats to get one through a life, but this acceleration is new to us cutting-edge elders; we have to adjust more quickly and to greater extremes than any of our foreparents ever did. How does one adjust to extreme changes at this speed of life?

I trust the mind, though; as it always has, it will learn new ways of keeping up with the new tools it has made, especially in the coming and coming young ones-- but this need for speed of adaptation is becoming exponential, so presents a more interesting challenge than ever before to elderfolk, who no longer sit in armchairs with ashtrays beside them and read newspapers while listening to the radio in the evening; rather they dive headfirst, over and over, into the global infosea. There's no end to news now; we are living headlines.
A most exciting time to be of advanced years.

Sunday, January 02, 2011


From my morning perch before the beloved woodstove I take calm delight in the blizzard out there, all that blurry air roiling across the mountainside the way mountainsides make blizzards do, and wailing around the house the way houses make blizzards do.

Out in the deeps of the storm I observe that despite the wild roil, even the smaller birds now and then fly hellforleather through the blinding tempest in search of the odd seed or berry (bold red berries are a bright help in winter, as I see from the diminishing supply on our many nanten bushes around the house). And when, after winging across the white whirls of the open stretches, the flying featherbundles reach our tall hedge of evergreen kinmokusei trees they swoop beneath the lowest branches and swerve upward into the inner recesses as into cathedrals of calm, where they can sit and be out of the wind and the snow for a time, shiver off the rime, plan their next move across the maelstrom to wherever a stock of food might be, plot their next path through the storm.

After watching the first couple of birds do that this morning, I imagined swooping with the next few, up from out of the howl into the calm perches that the inner unleafed portions of the smooth kinmokusei branches so generously provide, perhaps for just this use by just these birds! Who knows what forms of natural "friendship" abide out there in the deeps of the real world, how far these homely allegiances go, and where they integrate like two hands clasping. Or how far back in time they reach, how they began to be-- seems as much like an interweaving of wild wisdom as a mosaic of chance that worked out well.

Plant and bird have been carrying on this way for far longer than the flash we call history, the birds over eons perhaps carrying seeds, or paying a small toll in fertilizer for the privilege of stopping to rest during the times of hardship both forms of life have ever gone through together, and there in the hearts of the trees the birds can enjoy the quiet that abides in a plant, in exchange for the motion that abides in a bird; plants seem to appreciate rhythms of all kinds-- they dance in the wind, as I observe from my cathedral of calm, up here at the fire in the heart of the storm...

It must be that in all storms there are places of calm to be found, havens in which to pause and renew, from which to prepare for advance, that in all paths of life there are ancient sanctuaries where the traveler can stop to rest, where there is calm, where there is no pain; for that is how we ourselves survive the storms of living, stage by stage, how we nourish an entire life before moving on to the next discovery.

Saturday, January 01, 2011


Wow, do grandkids want to help! Fortunately there's over a foot of snow all over the car that you would have cleared off earlier this morning but you knew the three grandgirls were coming for a visit today, so now that they're here excited outside, all dressed up for snow and wondering what fun to have first, before their curious eyes you wield the magic extendable snow brush in a fascinating way over the roof of the car and a big chunk of snow puffs to the ground in a joyous manner, when all at once a flurry of 7- and 10-year-olds are grabbing at the snowbrush, saying "Me! Me! Me! Let Me do it! I'll do it! I can do it, give me that! No, I want to! No, Me!" and so on in childy warmth at the heart of the mountain whiteness, actually fighting to help, and it just so happens that you have two other brushes at hand; the car is snow free in about 2 minutes.

After sufficient pause in admiration of such thorough work, you wander onto the large deck that has nearly 2 feet of drifted snow on it that you would have shoveled off early this morning with the big slide shovel, but you knew the grandies were coming so you waited for the high tides of energy and enthusiasm, i.e., after the car is cleaned, and before there's any mention of sledding. You reach with interest for the handle of the shovel, just to casually clear that large playful deck of so much fun snow. You give an easylooking artistic push, the snow gathers in a writhing pile as it glides across the deck and spills over the edge in a cloudy thump to the ground below as you return for more glee in this snowy wonderland, when three snowgirls as one grab the shovel handle saying "Me! Me! Me! I'll do it! Let Me do it! I can do it, give me that! No, I want to! No, Me!" and so on in wintry playfulness. And as luck would have it, there are two additional shovels right at hand and the big deck is clear in about 3 minutes, under careful direction from the head artist.

The reward for all this generous effort is the mention of major sledding, another big feature of mountainsides, where squeals of delight are right at home.