MEETING THE GOD: BUSON’S SUMMER GROVE

There is a hokku by Buson that may easily be misunderstood.  R. H. Blyth presents it as

(Summer)

Not a leaf stirring:
How awesometrees
The summer grove!

The problem is the word rendered as “awesome.” We might think it means “very pleasant” or something similar. But using “awesome” in that sense is very recent in English. Buson’s term osoroshiki, which has the underlying sense of “fear-inspiring” — is much like the older usage of “awesome,” which similarly included an undertone of fear and dread.

The vast grove of old trees, completely still and silent on a summer’s day, with not one leaf moving, was experienced as overwhelming and intimidating.

That may initially seem odd, but it makes sense to me because of an experience I had when I was a very young boy.

In those days, my best friend and I liked to go hiking and roaming all over the rural countryside.  One day we went beyond our usual territory, and came to the edge of an old forest.  In retrospect, it was likely the first untouched old-growth forest I had ever seen.

We left the sunny field that bordered it, and entered the wood.  At once everything changed.  We were surrounded by huge trees whose tops we could not see, and haphazardly lying among them were massive fallen and decaying logs.  Everything — ground and fallen trees — was covered in a thick layer of soft, green moss several inches deep, and the light of the wood about us was a shadowy green.

We had gone some distance into this ancient, silent and still wood when we stopped and looked all around.  Then suddenly, inexplicably, we were both seized with panic, and hurriedly turned and rushed out of the forest as quickly as we could, back into the sunlight.  We never returned there again.

If you had asked either of us what in that ancient wood had filled us with sudden dread, I doubt we could have answered.  It was only later that I learned our fear was nothing new, that the ancient Greeks had felt it too.

Their explanation was Pan, the god of forests and shepherds.  They said that if a wanderer were suddenly to stumble across Pan, the embodiment of everything wild and natural, the god would fill him with an immediate, irrational, overwhelming fear —panic — a word derived from the god’s name.  It seems my friend and I, coming upon that untouched primeval forest for the first time, were so struck by its sense of otherness — of tremendous wildness — that we too were overwhelmed with panic.

masque_1

As for the hokku itself, I don’t think it works very well because it is so easy to misunderstand.  One would have to experience it, as I did, to “get” it.  So it does not make a good model for writing in English, and I include it here only because it helps to show both the difficulty in translating some hokku and the role experience plays in reading them.

 

David

 

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