Tuesday, March 22, 2011


 “There you stand, but a mountain may be there.

Instead: it is not unlikely that the earth

May be yourself.         
                                                  Matsuo Basho

Perhaps it is nostalgia, a feeling I was sure I’d never know or have, but I’ve become aware of my body’s love for land as I age. I must admit that for a long time I never much cared for artists or writers who waxed on and on about nature or painters who would stand before an easel and paint scenes. Learning that Cezanne painted the same mountain over a hundred times (Mount St. Victoire in Provence) or Thoreau making a big to do about walking about the outskirts of Concord, Mass., I could never quite get it. How quaint and anachronistic, I thought.

It might be due to the environment in which I was seeded—the flat, farmlands of central Indiana, where I could climb up in a tree and see nothing but manipulated land for miles, every acre cleared, tilled, drained and put to good use. Like everything else—plants, animals, people, machines— the value of land depended on how much you could squeeze out of it.

Walking began to shift my perspective on landscape, slowly though. As I have tried to understand and write about what happens to the body and the mind when we spend long days wandering through landscapes, I have noticed that it’s the land itself that gives us our sense of wonder.

Even in Chicago and along the southern shore of Lake Michigan where I walked last summer, walking over asphalt and concrete and through industrial lands of Northern Indiana with its tank farms and brown fields, I began to feel something I’d not felt before—the land as a force that is shaping us even as we pretend that it is us that is shaping it.

Nostalgia actually comes from the Greek root “nostos” (a return home), and “algia” (the suffix meaning pain), hence the word often has a connotation that implies a bittersweet feeling for something lost from the past. Another clue to its origins might be from the Old English or Norse, which gives us the word “nest” from a related root “nes.” These derivations made me wonder: do we feel nostalgia when we sense we’ve lost our nest, our sense of home?

Watching the earthquake and the tsunami that has shaken Japan and the world, I feel the loss and fear generated by the images and horrific sounds of raw footage. The children and older people, the lost family members, the loss of homes and life and cities all sickened me. But it was the nuclear disaster that triggered some other form of loss that I’ve been feeling since walking through the industrial landscape of Northern Indiana this past summer. It reminded me, too, of the losses suffered in Katrina and Haiti as well as the man-made disasters of BP’s oil spill and the sludge spills of coal wastewater and destruction of mountains I’ve seen in West Virginia. The loss is everywhere if you look. For those who live in Illinois, don’t forget over 7,000 tons of nuclear waste sits in similar cooling pools. (No state has more.) The world is awash with tsunamis slowly rolling in all around us, particularly for people who live in vulnerable places. My friend, the environmental writer, Rob Nixon calls these slow forming environmental disasters aptly “slow violence.”

I turned to Basho, the 16th century Japanese poet and nature writer, the morning I read of the Japanese quake. And I thought of him, the older man walking with his paper rain coat and satchel of ink pad and paper to write his gifts of 17 syllable haiku as he wandered through the same areas that were affected in the Far North of Japan.

Here he is describing the bay of Matsushima along the same coast where the tsunami hit:        
                          "Tall islands point to the sky and lvel ones 
                           prostrate themselves before the surges of water.
                           Islands are piled above islands, and islands are
                           joined to islands, so that they look exactly like
                           parents caressing their children or walking with
                           them arm in arm."  from The Narrow Road to The Deep North

 And reading him, I was reminded of the humility he taught as he walked so lightly on the earth, observing and marveling at all forms of nature before him along his path through his beloved island home of Japan.

This sense of nostalgia is not despair or sentimentality. In fact, it’s a sign of life in us, a vibration that is there if we listen.

Spider, are you


or the Autumn wind?  

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