Every year I like to post this article again, with slight variation, to mark that time when one senses the change in the air that marks the beginning of summer’s wane into autumn. It is a time 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 it will come, but I certainly felt it recently. 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 some time ago:
The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
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, that everything changes, that 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 Mère — My 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 moves toward 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.