On the Boy Scout Trail, in the Redwood National Forest, 12 miles from coastal Crescent City, California, and 27 from the Oregon border, an informational sign at the 6 meter wide base of a fallen tree explains that the Redwoods are gregarious trees. Their shallow root system, relative to their massive hundred meter heights, requires them to live in groves. Their long roots grow shallow but reach out to neighboring roots, wrapping and coiling, and eventually growing together in order to support the upright weight of a community of trees which average 600 years old. In May, when Emmett and I crossed the country to meet these trees, I imagined them holding hands underground, fully aware of their reliance on each other.
It’s easy to anthropomorphize the coast redwoods as groves of co-ops working together to sustain their majestic community through a gesture that looks little bit like love. In fact, it’s hard not to. Humans agree the world over; nature is rife with good lessons and good characters. A great intersection of Aesopic, Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Shamanist, and Native American fables is the personification of nature to make clear these lessons of social code and moral conduct. From the West: Persevere like the tortoise and don’t flaunt like the hare, be industrious like the ant and not lazy like the grasshopper; don’t listen to snakes; share your food; respect your food; times of plenty won’t last long, and on it goes in easily understood illustrations staring animals and other staples of the natural world.
The Eastern lessons, however, do not appear as intuitively to the Western mind. The oni (demons) who guard the entrances of Buddhist temples here in Japan take brawny human forms for the gods of wind and lightning. Seeing these red bodied, audaciously clawed figures wearing gold hoop earrings like pirates perched in front of the Zuiryū-ji Temple here in Takaoka made me wonder why demons are the protectors of temples. Again, at the Buddhist Wat Sisaket in Laos, I saw a demonic protector in the fearsome seven-headed naga (snake) who wraps the perimeter of the building and rears up facing the entrance, all seven mouths gasping at pedestrians on the foot of the stairs.
These naga protect the Buddha.The dialectic reasoning we see in the fables from Shinto and Buddhist thought, that the opposite of truth is also truth, finds its way into the very language of these cultures, where a single term can hold a story and a contradiction.
Today, instead of trees, I learned from snow. This morning, with cherry blossoms expected on the weekend and the alternating temperate and chilly days heralding spring, Takaoka woke up to snow. When one feels winter has gone on long enough, one begins to dress passive aggressively. I could not bring myself to put on the waterproof down jacket that has saved my skin all winter. It was put into retirement two weeks ago having, in its good service, already accumulated a season’s worth of bad bike commute memories. The smell of wet feathers alone recalls the misery. In denial, I rode to school dressed as I had the day before. I walked into the staffroom looking more weathered than usual and, since there were only seven or so people there all watching me and palming their coffees, I peeled off my wet coat and gasped, “Yuki!” Some laughed and some repeated me and we all regarded the windows. For a minute we watched snow rolling off the convex roof of the gymnasium.
Nakagawa-sensei, whom I knew spoke a little English because he had told me where to sit during a graduation ceremony, came over to me as I settled into my desk. We shared this dialogue:
Nakagawa-sensei: What is your hometown state?
N: Oh. I see. So you never see nagori yuki.
m: No, not much snow in Texas. Now it is probably 20 degrees.
N: Ah, so. So you must learn about nagori yuki. Snow in spring is nagori yuki. It is late arrival snow. Nagori means when a person leaves their heart or soul behind.
N: So the snow is lonely. It is a sadness to snow for the spring to come. So it has left its heart in winter. Nagori yuki comes back when it is lonely.
m: Wow. That’s a really lovely name for yuki.
N: Maybe we can be patient with the snow one last time if we see it is nagori.
m: Your English is awesome! **thumbs up**
N: No, no. It is not much opportunity for me, so I am disappoint with my vocabulary. But you can understand me?
m: Yes, of course! Thank you for telling me about nagori yuki. I was not patient with it this morning on my bike.
N: Ah so! **bows** Thank you, thank you. **walks away**
By noon all the blinds were still drawn. Out of the windows to my left the yuki continued to roll off the gym, and to my right, the newly arrived sun glinted off the rooftops across the street. In the afternoon, the snow stopped and melted. Not the sky nor the nearness of April nor the shrinking caps on the mountains suggest it will come again. Nagori yuki is less a lesson on making friends with enemies but rather, like Buddhism does with the oni, on making a place for that which seems not to belong.