Earth from Space

I do not like to talk about politics here unless they affect the environment or free speech or freedom of and from religion.  But I listened to the Romney speech last night and was appalled to hear no mention of concern for the endangered world environment, but also appalled to hear this backward-facing part of the “Romney Plan”:

First, by 2020, North America will be energy independent by taking full advantage of our oil and coal and gas and nuclear and renewables.

We can see where the emphasis comes in that and what it means:  a planned huge expansion of the extraction and use of the fossil fuels (with consequent huge amounts in the coffers of the oil, coal, and gas companies) that are already destroying huge tracts of land, polluting our air, and damaging and poisoning the water table.  And of course there is nuclear energy with its deadly radiation lasting thousands of years, a toxin which humans do not have either the infallibility or the life span to keep under control; and, as we saw from the Fukushima disaster, humans can be expected to make mistakes — disastrous mistakes — and the world should be moving away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy as quickly as possible, given what is happening to the worldwide climate.

The second appalling thing I heard was this:

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise . . . is to help you and your family.”

What Romney fails to recognize is that slowing the rise of the oceans and healing the planet are critical to the future of all humanity — to all families — and we see with each passing year the great danger into which global warming due to excessive use of fossil fuels, etc., has thrust us (and certainly we have not heard nearly enough on that topic from the present administration, let alone the necessary practical actions).    It threatens not only our food sources due to drastic climate and weather changes, but it also has the potential to alter ocean currents and dry glacier-fed rivers, with disastrous results for massive numbers of humans.

In this election campaign so far, I have heard almost nothing of real substance from either side about global warming, the coming water crisis, or increasing pollution of our air, soil, and waters.  And of course that pollution is not coming from the U.S. alone.  I do not think one can find a river in the western part of the United States that is not polluted with traces of air-borne mercury from the burning of low-grade coal in China.

Where is any talk in either party, this election season, of cutting down on driving and use of gas?  Where is any talk about increasing the use of bicycles and yes, walking?  Where is serious talk about the urgency of taking practical action on climate change before it reaches the point where nothing can be done at all to modify the severity of the coming changes?

Quite honestly, I am disgusted with both parties.  I grant that the Democrats may at present be the (slightly) lesser of two evils, but on the whole the American people, in modern election campaigns, are astonishingly subject to the most foolish and often dishonest propaganda, and have let politicians get away with sound bites and spin and avoiding dealing with facts and the truth for so long that it has become the nature of American politics.  It is a rare TV journalist who will doggedly insist that a politician answer the question asked, rather than allowing him to veer off into prepared, irrelevant verbiage that has as its only purpose the evasion of answering a question directly.

The writing of hokku is based on Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  If there is no concern for Nature — no realistic view of it, no genuine love for it, no seeing it as the fountain and enabler of life, no desire to protect it, then not only will hokku die out completely, but the prospects for continuing human civilization do not look much better.  There have been previous great extinctions of life.  Given that Americans seem to want to use the last drop of oil rather than changing their lifestyles, the prospect for another mass extinction is looking more and more possible.



Today there seems a great pause in the air, a quiet sense that we have come to a change:

Summer’s end;
Crows stalking about

Every year I like to post this article again to mark that time when one feels the change in the air that marks the beginning of summer’s wane into autumn. It is a day when one palpably feels that suddenly the energies of the season have weakened, that the active Yang energy of summer has begun to give way to the growing Yin energies that will take us first into autumn, then winter. It happens at different times in different places. I never know ahead of time on what day in August it will come, but I certainly felt it this morning. The Wheel of the Year has turned; the decline into Fall has begun.

In her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.”

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite. And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year. The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst of August. Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave. And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of hokku. We express all of Nature in a single, small thing-event. And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in a hokku. In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in hokku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things.

Returning to harmony, here is a hokku I wrote:

The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
Summer’s end.

When you read it, see it, feel it. Can you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood? Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of hokku. It is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, everything changes, nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing. It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in his book The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma MèreMy Mother’s Castle:

Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.”

Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.”

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes. Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins. Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.”

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows. It is not necessary to tell that to the children.

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer is coming to an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku.



IMG_1303 Big Ant
Big Ant (Photo credit: kainr)

If one does not have an understanding of the basic principles of hokku, it is often difficult to appreciate a verse because one simply does not “get” it.  This was a major factor in the rise of modern haiku in the west, which began largely as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku.

I often talk about this or that principle of hokku here, because without an understanding of those principles it is difficult to fully appreciate hokku.

One of those principles is internal reflection.  Internal reflection means that the quality or character of one thing in a hokku is reflected in the quality or character of another thing.  Internal reflection is very common in hokku, and gives it a certain depth.

Take for example this summer verse by Shirō:

A huge ant
Walks across the floor;
The heat!

This is a very obvious example of internal reflection, so obvious that some people are likely to “get” it without realizing just why.

Put very simply, the magnitude of the present heat is reflected in the hugeness of the ant. The writer (and the understanding reader) perceives the “bigness” of the oppressive heat in the “bigness” of the ant.

R. H. Blyth attempted to to explain this by saying,

It will do no harm to say that the ant is a symbol of the heat, provided we remember that it is so because it is felt to be so, and in as much as it has no rationally explicable connection with that heat.”

Well, it can do harm.  Blyth obviously knew, even while writing the sentence, that the ant is not really a symbol of the heat, and that his attempt to explain the matter is potentially misleading.  And there is a connection that can be explained rationally and simply, and without the potential confusion inherent in Blyth’s attempt.

In hokku one thing does not symbolize another.   Each thing has its own value and significance, but that value or significance can be enhanced or deepened through internal reflection, which is actually what happens in this verse.  The unusual size of the ant reflects the unusual “size” of the heat.  The quality or character of one thing is reflected in the quality or character of another.

While Blyth was without question the most perceptive of the writers on hokku, unfortunately he did not present the nature and fundamentals of writing hokku in a simple and systematic fashion, which has led to much of what he had to say being either overlooked or ignored or forgotten today.  And of course there is his regrettable anachronistic use of the term “haiku” for what was and is really hokku.  Nonetheless, there is still much to be learned from Blyth, though one must work at it, and few are willing to put forth the effort.

But we need not go into all of that.  What we do need to remember is the principle of internal reflection and how it works in hokku, because it is very often used.

And by the way, in the original verse, what I have translated as “floor” is tatami — those woven mats of grass on a wooden framework that together formed the floor in the traditional Japanese home.  But for us, in English, “floor” does the job.



The windbell silent;
The heat
Of the clock.

This summer hokku by Yayū is somewhat unusual, first because it includes a clock.  We already know that “modern technology” is not a part of hokku, and if we allow ourselves to become very literalistic about that limitation, instead of understanding its spirit, we might think that Yayū made a mistake in including a clock.  But clocks are very old, and belong to a kind of simpler technology that preceded the Industrial Revolution and is still within the realm of things worked and molded and cast, like iron pots and door hinges, in spite of a clock being somewhat more complex.  So they are not entirely out of place in hokku, and as we shall see, Yayū included a clock for a specific reason.

Most hokku are about things that are present — rain, sunlight, a spider, the wind.  But it is an important characteristic of hokku that things NOT present are just as important.  Things not present are absent, so we may speak of two kinds of hokku:  hokku of presence and hokku of absence.

Yayū’s hokku is again unusual in that it is a hokku of both absence and presence.  When Yayū writes:

The windbell silent;

what he is really presenting to us is the absence of sound.  The windbell is not moving, not making its customary, pleasant sound.  That means there is no wind.  The absence of sound equals the absence of wind here.  So what this first line is actually telling us is that it is a hot, completely windless day in summer.  That is the “absence” part of the hokku.

wind bell
(Photo credit: koizumi)

Now for the presence:  In that absence of the sound of the windbell that would indicate a cooling breeze, there is instead another sound — the regular, dry, mechanical ticking of a clock.  But Yayū, just as he presented us with the absence of wind indirectly by making us notice the silence of the windbell, now presents us with something else through this ticking:

The heat
Of the clock.

Now of course rationally we may ask what is hot about a clock?  But then we should remember that in hokku, perception is what counts.  The world is not viewed as an accumulation of isolated objects and events.  Instead, everything relates to everything else.

We have already seen that demonstrated in the silence of the windbell, which means not simply silence but also the absence of wind.  Now we see another relationship in the ticking of the clock on a summer’s day.  That ticking — like the absence of wind — is not mentioned at all, yet just as we know the wind is absent because the windbell is silent, we also know the clock is ticking because of the heat.

When Yayu speaks of the heat of the clock, we hear the dry, mechanical, regular ticking, and in that metallic regularity, so unlike the randomness of a windbell moved by a breath of air, we feel the oppressive heat of the day, and we feel it magnified by the absent ringing of the windbell:

The heat
Of the clock.

It really is a remarkable hokku, and if one did not understand how hokku work (and most do not, until someone tells them), it would be very easy to overlook or dismiss such a verse.

When a hokku is read, it must be with the premise of the universe as many things all interrelated. So in this verse, the silence of the windbell and the absence of a breeze are one thing; the clock and that heat and the ticking are one thing; and when we have finished the verse, what is absent and what is present together become one experience, each element giving significance to the other.