In the spring of 1689, the Japanese poet Basho mended his cotton pants, sewed a new strap on his bamboo hat, rubbed herbs on his legs, and embarked on a walking tour. He walked 1,500 miles throughout Honshu, the largest of the Japanese islands. He memorialized this journey in Narrow Road to the Interior, a travel journal in prose and poetry.
On leaving his friends, Basho writes:
and the birds cry out – tears
in the eyes of fishes
Basho is best known as a writer of haiku, the short verse of 5-7-5 syllables. Sam Hamill, the translator, does not always replicate the 5-7-5 pattern in English.
Basho’s trek took him to sites of natural beauty, historic significance and religious import. He was a Zen adherent but also admired Confucianism and Shintoism.
Reading between the lines, I sense that Basho also wanted to “get out of Dodge,” in this case, Edo (now Tokyo). He had itchy feet – he called it “the wanderer spirit” – despite reasons to stay home. He was old (OK, forty-five, but he died five years later.) He had health problems. And he had just gotten back from a trip.
I am not someone compelled by wanderlust, but, in mid-March 2020, I started walking. Every day. For five miles. In my neighborhood. The main reason was to exercise safely during Covid. I suspect, though, that this time apart from Bill also gives us emotional elbow room during the lockdown. It’s almost a ritual now. He greets my “I’m home,” with a cheerful “I’m here!”
I charted a route that, though not as spectacular as Basho’s beautiful Matsushima – off-shore islands dotted with pine trees – or as dangerous as the mountain narrows with names like Lost Children, Send-Back-the-Dog and Turn-Back-the-Horse, does have distinct sections. I stride through the snooty “Nottingham Under the Trees” subdivision, wind my way around the apartments of the Lake District, patrol St. Monica’s schoolyard and cemetery, and trudge up Heartbreak Hill.
Like everybody else, I figured I’d be doing this for a month or two. Now, ten months on, I too have put in 1,500 miles. And I keep a journal.
Spring is my favorite season because of the flowering trees. Redbuds burst out from tree trunks like the baby in the Alien movie. Magnolia blossoms dance overhead as numerous as stars. Cherry branches droop with pink blooms. Basho would have appreciated this swirl of color and petals.
My diary reads: Thursday April 2, 2020 – Corona: over 5,000 dead; over 200,000 infected.
One month later: Saturday May 2, 2020 – 65,800 deaths; 1,128,000 cases.
The trees leaf out. Shrubs like azaleas, lilacs, and tea roses blaze color now, with their purple, yellow, red, pink, white. And the irises, of course. Oceans of them. In the heart of the lockdown, I feel a duty to take in the beauty and bounty of nature for everyone else.
I explore the small cemetery attached to the church. Founded in 1872, it has the graves of people who were born in the early 1800s, two hundred years ago. A lot of German names. Stones that read “Mutter” (mother) and one carved for “Wilhelm and Wilhelmina.”
Turning the corner from the rolling, shaded lane of Nottingham, I come to what I call the Lake District. The lakes are the focal points of a couple of apartment complexes. In late spring, I eagerly follow the progress of the baby ducks and geese. They start as little fuzz balls and grow and change by the day. From little cuties to awkward adolescents in a matter of weeks.
As obnoxious as grown-up geese can be, they are the best parents. Both mom and dad rear the goslings. Parents sometimes join their broods to form large flotillas.
Mama mallard ducks are on their own, their mottled offspring darting around them like wind-up toys. I am struck by how perilous life is for the young ones when four ducklings somehow lost their mother. They are literal sitting ducks. Their stubby wings are so small compared to what they need for actual flight. They remind me of Raphael’s “putti,” those fat little angels whose wings could never lift their pudgy bodies off the ground. I throw stones at a big turtle that is eyeing them hungrily.
Hydrangeas, mimosa tree blossoms, bee balm and mallow radiate in the summer heat. I switch from hot coffee to iced coffee in my thermos.
My journal: May 30, 2020 – George Floyd protests, both peaceful and violent, everywhere! St. Louis had hundreds of people in Clayton and Ferguson.
June 1 – 105,000 deaths, 1.8 mil cases.
Monday, July 13, 2020 – hot and humid again. Also, the oak tree itch mites are back. Even my eyeballs itch!
Fall comes, breaking up the uniform green of grass and trees. Leaves turn yellow, then orange and red. The kids are back in school. They spill out onto the schoolyard and chase each other down the hill to the soccer field. They are not impeded at all by their masks.
Friday September 18, 2020 – Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead.
Saturday Oct 3, 2020 – 208,000 dead. 7 plus millions infected, including Chris Christie.
So, winter comes. Bare branches reach up to the sky. On my walk, I check out Christmas decorations. My favorite is the reindeer wearing surgical masks.
And Covid continues.
Today, Monday, January 18, 2021, Martin Luther King Day, 400,000 Americans have died of Coronavirus. The United States, with 4% of the world’s population, can claim 20% of the world’s Covid deaths. I keep walking.
Basho’s observations and poetry are imbued with mono no aware, a centuries-old Japanese sensibility. It is a feeling that combines appreciation of beauty with the realization that beauty is fleeting. It’s a delicate combination of happy and sad emotions. This is the meaning of cherry blossom viewing in Japan.
My thoughts are darker than mono no aware. I wonder if our civilization will hold. I pass by mown lawns, trimmed trees and mulched flower beds. But I wonder, how long did it take the Romans to realize that they had slipped into the Dark Ages?
Sentiment aside, Basho’s attention often goes to his personal comfort on this long, long trek.
Having to spend three nights in a guard shack, pelted by rain and wind, Basho wrote:
Eaten alive by
lice and fleas – now the horse
beside my pillow pees
Me? I bought a foot massager.
Tell me: What do you hope to do as the earth wobbles toward Spring and the vaccine?