Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Ishmael and the trees

Yes, mate, I know exactly how you feel

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off  - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." 
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

In my case, it's the hills I need to get to, at a run. And if the mood of the day answers my own all the better. All drawbacks to anthropomorphising nature aside, without metaphor we could have no romantic connection with landscape, and then where would we be?  In a valley with a wet thing going through it, and greenish lumps on the side, that's where. We need a grand setting for the playing out of our petty woes and triumphs, to enlarge and reflect them, to thrash them out. And at the last, to scale them back down to a wry, chastened smile at the end of a walk or run. Anyway, it actually is a damp, drizzly November, soul or otherwise.

I did not grow up in an animist tradition like Shinto, where every rock and plant has it's spirit, it's ki to be respected and honoured. But anyone can feel that life-force at play. There are trees that demand to be reckoned with. They have a personality, a form, a history that stops you in your tracks. Not like people, no, like trees. They are unutterably different, and yet somehow they teach you something useful, they speak.

We like to think of ourselves as individuals. OK, our friends are individuals too, like us, but not as real.... our families certainly (well, most of them), and a few neighbours and colleagues perhaps. After that it gets a bit sketchy, shading into lumpen groups of one kind or another. There is a comfort in generalising others. As Charles M. Shulz said, 'I love humanity; it's people I can't stand.'

Depending on their cuteness - the more we know we can dominate something, the cuter we find it- we treat some animals as individuals. We don't usually allow it for plants however, barring the odd talked-to pot plant. Moving through these wooded hills, though, it begins to feel different. There are trees that were alive at the beginning of the Edo period five hundred years ago.

With their seedling delicacies, their intertwined dependencies and blasted old age it requires an effort not to call trees into play in your own human dramas while you are among them. And this is not an invention of the urban being, projecting wildly on...well, the wild, or of a few Lake District poets. Our deepest folk-memories and fables the world over are peopled with trees.

And in Oku-Aizu the houses and many tools are made of wood; special trees are lovingly protected, or grown for their associations by shrines and temples.  Graves, kept near, are nevertheless often placed under trees, under the skirts of the forest. Perhaps it is this unsentimental but symbiotic relationship that explains why there are more patches of virgin forest in this area than you would expect to find in a modern country.

Melville understood very well that whales (or trees), are at the same time unknowably themselves, amazing biological machines, and handy mythical players in our penny dreadfuls. Moby Dick is a wonderful binding of these three in a mash-up of literary forms, and a great answer to the miserabalism that attends so much post Darwinian polemic.

Whether I make play with their borrowed shapes or not, trees are more truly inhabitants of this valley than me. If I stayed the rest of my wing-beat of a life I would still be just passing through as far as they are concerned. My feet bite into the leaf mould, leaping off down the hill, back to my life. The hats of my neighbours are safe upon their heads once again - I'd rather be Ishmael than Ahab any day of the week, when I have the choice.