There are no wild blueberries here in Hokkaido — much as it seems there should be. But I’ll call the place I’m going to tell you about Blueberry Pond, so that you’ll know this isn’t its real name, and so you won’t go looking for it on a map. The real name has a similar ring, but I won’t say it here. This is not only because it sometimes hurts such places to advertise them and make them known. For in fact they need to be looked on and visited at times. It’s more because these places need to be allowed lives of their own. They need to be discovered and cared for through the heart. It’s through the heart that these places grow best. That’s what keeps them alive. That’s the way I’d like to keep this one.
I say it seems there should be blueberries here — because it feels so much like Maine. Mt. Katahdin might be just over the next ridge. The land feels the same. If, that is, I ignore the dwarf bamboo all about. And if I ignore the fact that the mountains here are younger; sharp-shaped from new volcanoes, in contrast to the round-ribbed, glacier-sculpted mountains of New England. But it’s in the air. The air feels the same. And it’s bear country, as in Maine. Somehow, despite all the roads and development, there are quite a lot of them left here. Even on my brief visits, I find their marks. The last time I saw a couple in the flesh. The bears in Maine go crazy over blueberries about this time of year as they prepare for winter’s sleep. I imagine the Hokkaido bears too might go crazy for some good blueberries — if they could just taste them. But I see lots of low-lying, dark-colored berries which look to be something like cousins of the blueberries and huckleberries. I also see a spread of small crimson berries which look like the bearberries that cover the wind- and sun-blasted upper slopes of New England’s mountains. And the dwarf pine trees, and the lichen and moss feel the same. But most important — the air feels the same. Crisp, fragrant, pine-of-the-north.
The bears are bigger here in Hokkaido than in Maine. And there are no moose. There never were, it seems. And wolves — they’re long gone, as in New England. And it’s unlikely they’ll return here for a much longer time. It stays pretty quiet at night here. Not much calls out through the dark, beside an occasional owl, a late-season cricket, or a few dragonflies clattering their wings. And the slight ping , pling . . . of the volcanic rocks all about, cooling after sundown. And the wind.
Hokkaido’s bears are not-so-distant cousins of the grizzlies. They’re a different breed from the black bears I used to watch in Maine, or those down south on the main island of Honshu. They are of a different geological drift altogether—as is the whole island of Hokkaido itself. These brown bears, or higuma as they are called, are a little smaller than the grizzlies, but they show of grizzly right down to their very genetic core. Though higuma are termed “brown bears”, the few I’ve seen have appeared to be mostly jet black, except for some brown markings on their heads and shoulders. And strangely — when I’ve seen them across the valley in the distance gathering their fill of autumn pine cones and berries — they appear like great black amoebas floating in a vast green sea. Amidst the surging green liquid medium of the dwarf pine trees, their heads, shoulders and rear haunches move with a curious independence. They are viscid black forms, slowly separating, combining and re-combining in ever-unpredictable ways. Sometimes it seems you’re watching several of them when in fact you’re seeing only one. And if you watch those black spots long enough, they can play tricks on you. They hypnotize. As you watch, gradually the greens and grays of the surrounding mountain dissolve into a faint, swirling, tea-green blur held together only by that last remaining point of black solid reality. The black holds the mountain about it and sucks it in like a black hole, while the universe swirls about. Only when you release the spell does the normal world slip back into its accustomed solidity once again.
So much for the bears. Except — I can’t help but wonder how they get by here without any blueberries. I suppose the other berries substitute. I sample some black berries hanging from small plants covering the ground. They don’t have much sweetness or taste to me.
As in Maine, the names of the land around here have a different ring to them. They are far older than the new settlers and the towns around them. They come from a language which belongs to a different culture from that which has taken them over. As much as Katahdin, Mahoosuk, Massachusetts, Allagash, and Penobscott differ in sound and roots from Mt. Washington, Hudson River, New York, Boston and Maine, so also do names like Niseko Nuppuri, Shokanbetsu, Kuttchan, Kuneppu and Sapporo differ from Fuji-san, Asahi-dake, Kyoto and Tokyo. The old names resonate with faint guttural tones, suspended chords and inner rhythms of ancient nations and ancient dreams. Unlike in the rest of Japan, many of the mountains here are named in the native Ainu tongue, —nuppuri, rather than in the Japanese —san, or —dake. This is still Ainu land, and its ancient spirit holds — even as the bears and the Ainu people struggle to hold out. The land remains different up here and it holds its character, despite the incoming rush of countries, cultures and construction.
This is also the land upon which the Yankee Professor William Clark of Amherst, Massachusetts — the honored Kura—ku sensei, the first Western advisor to Hokkaido—left his mark, and his challenge. “Boys be ambitious,” he exhorted his students in his farewell message at the newly established agricultural college in Sapporo, after a visit of less than a year. Fateful words these proved to be. Words that changed the land. For his boys proved famously ambitious. They went about doing their best to transform this newly-appropriated “wasteland” of wilds, salmon, bears, and Ainu into the pastoral model of efficient farmland envisioned by their Yankee sensei.
“Boys be ambitious.” It’s hardly a catchy phrase to Westerners’ ears. Nor does it seem a gem of lasting wisdom. Yet this immortal motto left by William Clark has become probably the best-known Western quotation among Japanese school children and adults alike. It seemed to uncork the secret of the West. Its message: It’s all right to be ambitious. With Clark’s teaching, backed by good New England Christian theology, the formerly dirty word ambition took on a new, almost sacred, patriotic significance in Japan. And so, good old samurai perseverance and stoicism were wedded to good old Yankee perseverance and stoicism, and the mixture was then wedded to an ambitious new capitalist vision. And in less than a century the result has come to challenge its own prototype.
“By God,” William must have exclaimed on first perusing Hokkaido, “this is good land for dairy farming.” Let it be so. Be ambitious — boys. And thus, with new-found ambition planted in their hearts, a strange mixture of disbanded samurai, poor pioneers and forced refugees — there were also girls among them — transformed the wild mountains and rich plains of Hokkaido into Japan’s modern dairy land.
Milky Girl—Hokkaido, and Milky Dreams, is what the omiyage souvenir T-shirts worn by the tourists proclaim. Today there’s plenty of milk and butter, and beef and corn in Hokkaido. Too bad about the salmon. But then, of late, some ambitious people are trying to fix this too. Our campaign to shape nature to our dreams continues apace.
As I reach the top of a ridge, the view of the lowlands stretches off into pale violet seas for miles into the distance. Amber and golden fields of rice, corn and rye checker the foreground. The flanks of the mountains rise in gradual volcanic grace from the valleys. Where the trees start to replace farmland on the steeper slopes there are geometrical bands of forested cedar and larch, in monocultural uniformity. And then higher into the uplands the order breaks down into a scattered patchwork of mixed trees and shrubs, coming into fall colors. Higher still, the mountains look as if they have been given neat green crew-cuts. Just a few white-skinned birch and gray beech show here and there amidst the uniform sweep of dwarf bamboo. Dwarf, it’s called — and yet much of it rises ten feet or more tall, forming an almost impenetrable jungle of stalks. Only a very sharp machete, wielded with lots of muscle will get a person through it. Fifty some years ago these lands were abruptly shorn of their trees to serve the war effort. The forest is now coming back slowly, breaking the grip of the dwarf bamboo here and there. But at higher elevations, with the heavy wind and snow, it takes a long time for trees to regain their lost foothold. Finally, in the alpine altitudes the bamboo gives way to scattered low plants like bearberry, lichens, alpine fir, grasses and wildflowers.
As I pass along the trail, there’s poison ivy afoot, reddening and yellowing in the early fall sun. I step respectfully around it. I have a sixth sense for it, developed through the tutelage of poison ivy, and schooled in a childhood of experiencing it. The poison ivy here looks about the same as in New England. And its itch, I’ve found, feels about the same.
Hydrangea are growing all through the woods, even amidst the dwarf bamboo. These are not the opulent pom-pom, cosmetic puff ball-shaped ones I was familiar with back home, but all kinds of delicate and wild varieties. They grow both on bushes and vines. Some climb fifty feet in the air and sprinkle petals down from their hidden blossoms above. Especially beautiful are the “framed-hydrangeas”, the gaku ajisai, with their tiny purple-azure-madder-white dots of color in the center, surrounded by frames of larger, light-azured petals.
From a day of no wind, the silence becomes mingled with slight wisps of breezes building from the south. And then — what is that distant tinkling from the north and bristling in the breeze? Bird, or beast? The approach of the ubiquitous transistor radio. And with it, a bouncing family of five. They all appear to be talking at once, amidst the chatter of the radio. But then — who says people have to be silent on a mountain? Who has the last say on the correct way to pleasure? This family seems to be in fine spirits. Most folks love radios. In the woods too. And their sounds make good bear protection too.
Silence returns. And yet as I listen, I realize there are sounds within. There are those little tunes within which pop up spontaneously, uninvited even, as I walk along. Devilish even, at times. Yet most of them are pleasant enough, upbeat little melodic ditties. Others strike a more military, march-like note. The act of walking long distances seems to write march music at will; dum-da-da-dum-da-da-rum-pa-tum-tum- . . . and its universal variations. The tune starts out in rhythm with my feet. But as the rocks become more scattered underfoot as the trail grows rougher, it grows more complex. Jazz, Bartok and who knows what emerge. The origin of rhythm and music must be in walking.
I never know what tune will appear as I walk. It might be Bach or Beethoven, Beatles or Sinatra. Fine; but then there are those less invited ones—those inane tunes and insidious advertising jingles, subliminally lodged in the recesses of the mind. Even here in the midst of this mountain I find TV and radio memorabilia embroidered about the silence, hiding in my synapses.
I wonder if I am alone in hearing such tunes. I don’t always welcome them, and yet they persist. I don’t need them—I think. Yet perhaps, does a part of me need them in some strange subliminally operating way? Perhaps the mind is so unaccustomed to silence, so shocked by it, that it craves sound—and if possible, patterned sound. And in walking, beat and rhythm are already supplied, naturally.
But just now I want just to listen to the mountain sounds. And especially, to the silence. Yet I hear competition bubbling from within. Maybe it’s not only silence which brings out these hidden tunes. Perhaps they have been with me all along in the city, in my busy life — only I didn’t hear them amidst the din of my busy-ness and unnoticed noise. Sometimes I find these rogue tunes hanging around me for days, even weeks. I can still remember from high school that old Wrigley’s gum jingle; “You’ll love Doublemint gum, Doublemint Doublemint, Doublemint gum . . . ” Dum-da-da-dum-da-da-dumpty-dumb-gum. A broken record, it went on and on. I remember how it would wrestle for my attention as I studied for tests, for college entrance exams and such. Insidious invader. How did it get in, and stay? Those ad men certainly knew what they were doing. I wonder if they ever got a bonus for that one. I never bought their gum though. Small revenge. But they got a hold on me, just the same.
These days it’s not usually ads I hear, but new tunes, curiously calling out music within. And the beat of footsteps in hiking helps to start them up. I hear one now. Will I be humming it all afternoon?
Taking out my map, I find a small pond that looks promising as a place to spend the night. From the topo lines it looks to be an alpine pond with a decent-sized field at one end, and hills on the sides. It must be a half mile or more from the main trail, and hidden by a ridge. I imagine it to be filled with berries, moss, water, rock and sky. Just over that ridge, another two or three miles. I can easily make it there in an hour or so.
Over a crest, and the land changes. At first the change is most noticeable under foot, as the spongy earth gives way to boulders, crags and crevices. All of a sudden I am back to my twelve years-old summer, climbing the wild boulder-strewn top of Mt. Washington. It was my first introduction to rock dancing. Now, a bit rusty, at first I step with some care over the craggy rocks. But it’s quite amazing how quickly I regain my sure-footed step and start to dance over the impossible array of rocks and crags. Only once do I catch my boot in a crevice and have to work it out. But in my entire life up to now, how many times have my feet ever made missteps or failed me? Perhaps one or two sprained ankles. Once a bum knee for a few months from over-training for a marathon. But that’s about it for problems. How many millions — or billions — of steps have I taken? Just on this short trip, how many tens of thousands of steps will I take? Each one involves infinite micro-adjustments. And over this rock and crag-strewn landscape — how is it that my feet can see and adjust at the last instant for all the hidden variables? All the angles and conditions of slipperiness are accounted for and adjusted for — instantly. I don’t have to watch my feet. What kind of eyes do I have on my feet that can see and manage all this? I have often wondered how birds are able to see and adjust their flight in milliseconds — how they can all be aware of each other’s presence in group flight and react so flawlessly and in unison. Now I realize that my feet share a similar gift. They understand, and see — beyond, and in different ways from what my head can comprehend.
Walking on these stones, I feel the life of the mountain sinking into me — as I plant my own life into it. These rocks feel young under foot. In walking, I feel the mountain slowly inhabiting my muscles and bones. Insinuating itself within me. I feel the mountain aging. I feel how in millions of years, all its sediment, leaves, humus, and loam will build up and fill in these holes and crevices. How winds will scour and glaciers will pass. And how eventually these lava rocks will be grated and smoothed into rich black farm land and carried off to the seas and reformed and reborn. I realize that this geological sense of time — partly physical, and partly abstract — is something I didn’t feel when I walked the New Hampshire mountains as a boy. But then, how could a child have such an abstract sense of time? And, of what use is it to me now? Does it connect me to the rhythms of the land? Does its long-range view humble me more in my seeing? If so, then perhaps this growing sense of time within me has creative value. But if it just leaves me impatiently time-conscious and beating out the measured beats of Wrigley’s gum tunes, then perhaps I have lost more than I’ve gained.
And speaking of phantoms of the past, I hear that old Wrigley’s jingle calling once again — drumming away within on automatic repeat. That’s what I get for ruminating on the mysteries of silence and the past. I try humming the Shaker hymn “’tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free . . . ” That’s a little better.
I tramp on through the rock piles, where birches, mountain ash and beech are making mighty efforts to reclaim the mountain. They hug the crags, poke up above the rocks and then bend and spread out sideways. Some have grown to over a foot-and-a-half in girth at the trunk, yet all are bent horizontally to the land, hovering just a few feet above the level of the rocks, splayed out laterally by the force of wind and heavy snow, instead of reaching upward. One may run twenty to thirty feet over the rocky surface in a web of branches. It will take a long persistent effort, but a forest of tall trees will one day emerge as they develop the critical mass to buffet each other against the shocks of wind and weather. First, one or two in the core, and then gradually, a few more will rise straight up, and then a few more. If these were boys we might say to them, “Be ambitious!” But trees respond and speak with different voices; voices to which we rarely listen, or attempt to speak.
Rounding a bend I enter a sheltered pocket where already a small forest is gaining momentum. And then through the grove and up over another ridge—there it lies. For over ten years in Japan I have looked for such a place. In Japan, despite an abundance of water, it is surprisingly hard to find ponds — and more so, undisturbed ones. The mountains are so young, unglaciated, and sharp, that there are few pockets to collect water before it runs off to the sea. Japan’s terrain is of ravines and rivers. Most of its few low-land ponds have long since been built around. An undisturbed pond like this is a rare gift.
Climbing down into the valley, I find that the pond is encircled by a small meadow; rocky and rimmed with deep moss, bell flowers in bloom, and a spiky-leafed plant similar to spartina grass. A coal black-bottomed volcanic lake. Crystal clear water. It lies cupped by mountains, yet they dip at the west end, opening onto a clear view of blue sky and cloud. Despite the heat which draws my sweat, there are vapors rising at the far end of the lake, suggesting cold currents below.
Irreverent perhaps, but the inner churning of the raisins and nuts from my lunch gives vent to a prodigious flatus which cuts across the lake, resounds, and fills the stone-lined valley. No one else is here to notice, or to care. Only the company of dragonflies hovers about me. The incessant clatter of their wings.
I will sleep here tonight. I wonder if there is any rule against it — more and more we have to hesitate in touching and using such places. Our wild lands are in danger of becoming museums. Out of bounds. I can see that this is fragile alpine vegetation. It can’t take much walking on. It needs care. But I walk carefully on stones. I caress the moss when I must step on it. I leave no marks. I feel my feet becoming alive. Even if there should be a rule — mustn’t there be exceptions to even the best of them?
Sitting by the pond, I let my eyes and ears drink it in slowly. Odd-shaped lava rocks lie all about me. Young rocks. Filled with volcanic bubbles and holes. Ping, ping, pling . . . they crackle and tremble in their constant heating and cooling. Expansion and contraction. Breathing in. Breathing out.
Soon the faint music of the rocks is broken by another crowd of hikers. How did they find their way here too? Now 3, 4, 6, 8, they come. A noisy lot they are. Yet, am I being too possessive in wanting silence and solitude? What is the balance point in using these places? “Using”—or should I say, respecting? I am worried about how we use these places, as I realize how rapidly our chance to experience them, especially alone, is waning. What would I and we be without these wild, solitary places? How can we share them and still help them thrive?
I’ll take a walk and explore around the 200 meter lake. The group should be gone by the time I get back. I skip across black lava stones — so young they hardly look like stones yet. Fresh out of the volcanic oven. Hardly rounded or smoothed yet. A slag pile of dusty green and bright orange lichen-fringed rocks butts up against a field of dwarf pines; all blown, twisted, and shorn by wind and snow. By the water’s edge, deep sphagnum moss — its green stars floating amidst a red-brown-black bed. In this weather-twisted, miniaturized world I see the essence and origin of bonsai.
The lake’s bottom is covered with black lava rocks. Clear, clear water. But no fish. The mountain is still too young to have crawled its way to the rivers and seas to gather them. Nor have the seas come to fetch the pond yet. But movement stirs everywhere within. At first I take the scurrying forms to be crayfish. But looking closer, they prove to be the nymphal forms of dragonflies. Already their great insectoid eyes are bulging. Yearning for the winged world of sky. They scurry about everywhere, feverishly gorging on aquatic treats to launch their imminent metamorphoses into the airy world above.
Suddenly an acrobat, I dance and leap across the stones. Pling, Pling . . . their igneous cores resound across the lake. Or is this a pond? I have never quite understood the difference. Coming to a section of the shore so overgrown with dwarf beech trees that my passage by land is blocked, I take off my boots, tie the laces together, and loop them over my neck. I brace myself and prepare for an icy plunge. But — it’s not icy at all. It’s warm — almost hot. So much for my imagination of icy mountain pools. The shallow, black-bottomed pond has been working away all summer as a solar collector. Squoosh, the bottom here is deep black muck which oozes up around my legs, almost to my knees. I can see that a pond like this wouldn’t stay clear for long if crowds started to tramp through it or swim in it. Do I have special rights here? Who does, and by what authority?
Suddenly, a light fog sweeps across the pond, and a shiver creeps over my back. The mountains change character so quickly. I have prepared for cold — yet I hope the forecast of fair weather will hold true this time. I’d rather not trade today’s calm warmth for a mountain storm and have to test my mettle. A fog — yet in the high mountains is a fog a cloud? Or a cloud a fog?
Returning to where I left my pack, the hikers have gone. The valley has returned to near-absolute silence. The only sound is the buzzing of a few fat black flies. But not quite — I can hear that faint ringing in my ears. Is this sound always in me, but normally unheard because of the surrounding noise? What is it? Is it the music of my inner body—of my blood pulsing and flowing through the capillaries of my ears? The sound of my brain humming away deep within?
Praise be to the heavens — the fog, or cloud lifts as suddenly as it came. All is clear again, as the light begins to settle and flush with pinks and golds, inflaming the already crimson colors of the mountain ash all about. This lake and valley are situated perfectly; running east to west, with openings in the mountain at each end so I will have views of both sunset and sunrise, if the weather holds. Now with the people gone, I quickly set up my tent and, feeling a chill, change my clothes for the night.
Stillness at sundown. No wind. Absolute silence — perhaps as close as I may ever approach it in a whole lifetime. So deep it might be fearful if I slipped into that frame of mind. I don’t claim to be above fear. I know how quickly the tables can turn in the mountains — or in cities too. But for now, I sit and drink in the fading sunlight, which is cast at acute angles now, seeming to come from below, under-lighting the rocks, grass, and lake. Colors deepen. Shapes sharpen.
Nothing to cook for dinner — just a variation on my lunch of nuts, dried fruit, cheese, French bread, apple, a carrot, some dried salmon sticks. How good this water tastes. How pure. How it brings taste to this food. After dinner I engage in an ancient rite in which I rarely indulge. By chance, a friend has sent me off with a present of a fine imported cigar. Though its metal case is now well-dented from my climb, I find that the gift within has survived. If the gods meant for the smoking of tobacco to belong in this world, no doubt it was this kind of place and time for which they intended it. This place invokes the spirit from which the custom of taking the smoke of leaves into the body of humans must have originated. Watching the sun’s afterglow settle slowly on the lake, I touch a flame to the pressed dried leaves of the cigar, light it, draw its smoke into my mouth, swirl it about, taste its bitter earthiness, exhale, and watch the silver-gray cloud expand over the lake.
For ten or fifteen minutes I sit on a rock and watch my mirrored image grow on the darkening lake. The faint glow of the ash grows as the last light about me fades. Then I stand for another ten minutes watching the smoke barely floating along, drifting with the slightest hint of a breeze — one so slight it doesn’t even register on my cheek. Suddenly, the lengthening ash breaks, sending a brief hiss into the depths; a faint echo of the pond’s volcanic past.
Again I sit on the rock. I have sometimes imagined the voices of stones. Tonight I want to listen for them. This particular rock is several times longer than my body; flat and inclined at an angle such that it faces the last afterglow of the sun. Perfect for lying on my back, watching and listening. The afterglow continues for well over an hour. It seems to last so much longer in the mountains. The stone feels strangely soft on my back. It receives my body. It has dips to accommodate the bumps of my buttocks, shoulders, and head.
The cigar burns on. Holding it upright, its gray ash grows longer. The rock, still warm from the day, radiates a slight heat into my back. My hands and ears finally grow chilled. I try to imagine I am not cold. I feel a slight shiver of energy shooting through my body. I tell myself it is a ripple of warmth.
Listening to the stones — I hear mostly the faint gurgles and rumbles of the food digesting in my belly. Be quiet — I’m listening for the stones. But this too is a part of the music of the night. In time, I hear slight crinkling sounds. I think this is from the stones — one of their voices — but I have to be careful to distinguish this sound from the mere crinkling of my own clothes. I roll over on my side and place my ear tightly against the stone. More new sounds. But some of this is likely the rhythmic coursing of blood through my ear lobes pressed hard into the rock. And the sounds of my heart beating. So I listen harder. The stones are crinkling and clicking faintly within. My rational mind immediately suggests that this is from the quick cooling and shrinking of the porous rocks after sundown. A reasonable enough explanation perhaps, yet it seems spiritually incomplete. But enough—this too is part of the chorus of the mountain. The song of the stones. I will listen for more.
The last flowing of the colors of the sun passes—almost precisely with the last glowing of my cigar. Even the bitter aftertaste of smoke is good here.
Stars rise. Constellations form and spin slowly about the north star. The long-lost North Star. The Big Dipper, the Milky Way and all. All those constellations I have almost forgotten about from living so long in the star-poor city. I realize that I am part of the increasing majority of people who are largely cut-off from the constellations, the heavens and the night sky. Surely our loss is profound.
Standing, I drink in the evening chill and let it play about with my inner rhythms. The night deepens and blackens. Yet there is indigo and rose here too. Flash — a shooting star drops from deep in the womb of the Perseids. Two minutes later — and another. This one is a great white and blue split-tailed giant whose particles glow across the eastern sky for five seconds. Count, slowly, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – . A brief eternity. The cold deepens. I pull the hood over my head.
From low in the east another bright star rises. Quickly — no, much too quickly for a star. And much too steadily for a meteor. A satellite. A few minutes pass — and another. And then yet another. Another damned satellite, I catch myself saying, inwardly. But how can I be saying this? I still remember the wonder, the near-reverence, with which I looked up on my first satellite, years ago. The world’s very first one. I was standing on the lawn at Cape Cod with my grandparents. We had checked the papers and prepared for it. We felt a thrill — almost of majesty it seemed — to watch it pass. What hath man wrought. That tiny point of light, derived from us, out there, and playing amidst the stars. And precisely, as predicted, it came, just on time. Every last time.
For many this sight, this experience of awe, took on divine implications. Whether this was Man’s hand, or God’s, or some combination thereof, it spoke of a new connection to the heavens — perhaps even, a connection reaching close to the heaven. Few of us questioned whether it might tamper with any celestial designs. We shared in the new faith. And we trusted in the guidance of its spirit. The spirit embodied in those tiny points of light tracing across the skies gave fire to our highest aspirations. Aspirations to build and launch more. A quest. A race. Advancement. Perhaps, if needs be, even a fight. But we joined in the faith, for in it we saw something lofty, noble and transcendent.
But that first one — it wasn’t even ours! It was Russian!
Time and perspective have changed how I feel about these formerly awe-filling points of light which now peer down on me. Some may beam down my telephone calls and speed my communications with my family across the oceans. Some are relaying the news in split seconds so that I can watch the falling of empires on the other side of the world, live, as it occurs. And then, the vast majority of them are there for — I know not what. Secrets. Spy stars, protecting me against star wars, and I know not what else. Intelligence gathering. Trust. Data.
The facts, please, just the facts. In facts we trust.
Sadly, these points of light have become symbols of our twisted awe. Our substituted wonder. Our channeled patriotism. They disturb me now. They are, I want to say — unnatural. And yet, I must face the fact that they too are as much a part of the skies — perhaps even of nature itself — as the traces of any human activity we cast about the universe. Even on this deserted night mountain, I must include this too in my world, and in my thoughts. I did not come here to escape from it. I came hoping to see it a little better.
Thoreau once wrote of patriots in whom “patriotism is a maggot in their heads.” In this, I suspect old Henry held a rather greater esteem for the life-recycling maggot than for the kind of patriot who feeds greedily on the corpse of civilization. But, as Thoreau wanted to know, what does an essential, healthy patriotism look like? Where does it exist? In the longer view we come to look on those trouble-makers like Thoreau, Gandhi, Mandela and Saro-Wiwa as our true patriots. To what nation, and to what land do they owe their allegiance? Their allegiance and their patriotism must be to nations beyond boundaries, and beyond traditional nationalism. It must be to an overreaching caring; one which joins all living things, and the earth itself.
The word “patriot” is defined as “one who loves and loyally or zealously supports one’s own country.” The zealous part is a somewhat troublesome one, to be sure. Yet might it also be necessary for us to zealously support the land? What land and what nation might I support? Might this land and this nation exist wherever I am, even if I am never granted legal citizenship to it? I wonder about this even more pointedly as I live as an expatriate, in a land to which I can claim no legal citizenship, yet wish to love and to support.
The word “patriot” also derives from the words patriotes, pater, patris — fatherland and father. But might there also be something fundamentally missing in this — in where we have started out? Might we need our “matriots”, and “matriotism” too? I suspect that somehow we will need to bring these two longings together if we are to ever find the integrity, strength, and peace for which we have been searching for so long.
The sun rises in an apricot dawn. Gradually it bathes the leaves of the mountain ash in still-darker russets and reds. With the frost, the season has advanced a week over night. I gather my things and climb to the top of the nearby peak to watch the early morning valley, still laden in low clouds and fog.
From this early morning mountain, the scene brings me back to New England landscapes. Rugged farm land, woods and hills are all swirling in and out of the low, lifting fog. It is a constantly changing landscape of forces and dreams. Along the mountain slopes I see trees rising back into forests. Some of the land is healing, some is producing crops, some has gone fallow, some is being developed, and some has gone wild. I cannot help but imagine William Clark looking over these valleys and dreaming of what was to come. His ambition too, helped shape and build this land. But whose land is this? To whose nation does it belong? Where do my country, and my nation lie? How might I belong, and love? I stand on the mountain and search for hints. I dream. I sink myself into the rock and land, that I might be reborn in it, and that it might be reborn in me.