I have recently seen the statement made that hokku is not Nature verse — that instead, it is “time verse,” with its foundation in the four seasons.
The answer to that, of course, is that hokku is all of the above; it is “Nature” and “season” and “time” verse, but these things are not separate. The seasons are a part of Nature, Nature is a part of the seasons, and of course everything happens within time, and there is nothing more natural than that.
Perhaps the mistake that led to the odd notion that hokku is not “Nature verse” arose from a misunderstanding of what we mean by Nature — that by Nature in hokku we mean only the natural world at its wildest and most unspoiled, untouched by human hands. But Nature is everywhere, though of course more readily obvious in some places than in others. There is Nature in the back yard, there is Nature in the vacant lot, there is Nature in the countryside fields and forests, and there is Nature in relatively untouched wilderness.
There is even Nature in the fern sprout pushing its way out between the bricks or cracked concrete of a city building or sidewalk, though of course in concrete and asphalt cities we must look actively for Nature, something not necessary in semi-rural and rural settings.
One can write hokku about any degree of the presence of the natural world, from old-growth forests many miles from the nearest human habitation to the hedgerows and fields of farming areas, to what is happening in one’s neighborhood or flower or vegetable garden. One seldom finds hokku about “wild wilderness” simply because most people do not spend a great deal of time there. But of course those who do may write hokku about it.
As for hokku being “time verse,” well, it was always that. Transience is a fundamental aesthetic principle of hokku — the fact that all things are constantly transforming, arising and disappearing, whether it be a mayfly on a spring day or a mountain range in Australia worn down by aeons of weathering. As the old hymn has it,
Change and decay in all around I see….
That inevitable sense of transience and the passage of time and things in hokku is something it inherited from its spiritual roots, from Buddhism and from Daoism.
The problem then, in this misleading notion that hokku is “time verse” and not “Nature verse,” is that those holding that view are like the blind men examining the elephant; each knows a part, but none sees the whole. In hokku, Nature and the seasons and time are not separate things, but rather different aspects of the same reality.
The realm of hokku has seldom been untouched wilderness simply because most people do not generally experience Nature as untouched wilderness. The majority experience it with some human influence. Even Henry David Thoreau, America’s most famous “Nature” writer, is best known for his book Walden, which is named for Walden Pond, where he lived from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847. And how does he first describe it?
“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts….”
Living on a pond in Concord, a mile from a neighbor, is hardly the unspoiled wilds of Patagonia. A teacher I once had used to say that Thoreau was never far from the sound of the Emersons’ dinner bell. That in no way diminishes his great contribution; it just approaches it realistically and without romantic illusions.
The Nature of hokku, historically, is more like Thoreau’s rural Walden than William Cullen Bryant’s
Where rolls the Oregon and hears no sound
Save his own dashings…. [from Thanatopsis]
So hokku, traditionally, has been more the Shire than the Misty Mountains, more Walden Pond than trackless wilderness. its realm was “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature,” but usually manifesting as something intermediate, something between, on the one hand, the technological modern city that seemingly attempts to wipe out all traces of Nature, and on the other, untrammelled wilderness.
We see that intermediate realm in this spring verse by Shōha:
The wagon nears;
A butterfly flits up
From the grasses.