Chestnut Tribbles

In the past five years, I’ve developed a sense of familiarity with changes that accompany the seasons, not only because I’ve adapted to my new home, but also because it brings the most surprising parts of me to the surface.

For example in autumn, burs on chestnut trees all over town start to turn brown. Growing up, I’d never seen this before, but now when I see these porcupine like fruits weighing down branches or accumulating in communities on the street or in the grass at the foot of the trees, I feel an odd sense of nostalgia. 

Green, they belong to the scenery as any other fruit or plant part or weed, but when they turn brown, the chestnuts look a world apart from the trees that created them, animal like yet alien.

Only gradually did I realize why they seemed familiar. From a distance they look as furry and warm as Star Trek tribbles-seemingly unable to move and without hint of how they got there. Yet they are always mysteriously procreating, becoming a danger by their sheer number alone. They’re but slightly useful (certain dishes use them), yet consoling. I can almost imagine them purring.





The Promise of Rebirth

The bare soil in the rectangular plots of rice fields is a sign that autumn is underway, and these pockets of open space make two contrasting predications of the future.

One is about the bleakness of the winter ahead. The stooping, gold rice, for so long a major part of the landscape, disappears like a light turned off. The vibrant plant life is reduced, and the mud that remains turns the town a darker color.

Leaves fall from trees and mix with the straw remains of rice. This is the second predication, for as the soil is overturned and nutrients return to the earth, there is a promise of rebirth. The structure of the fields is almost unchanging, the soil is consistently fertile, and the townspeople prepare for the bleak days ahead with practiced motions. They know how to survive Shiwa’s winter. Watching it all, you can believe the spring will come again.






A Green Hue

The new houses around town try to reshape the ecosphere by making it rock and concrete for the simplest of reasons: if the wild plants are given the chance to grow they will do so with verve. Fighting them sounds evil until you think about keeping the area around your house clear, reducing the number of insects, or seeing over weeds blocking the corner of the driveway when leaving in a car. This fight is so difficult denying them a foothold can seem a better alternative.

Around the older buildings and houses the balance tilts more to the plants. They are not given free rein, but no attempt is made to eradicate them. As a result, these structures have a green hue. Trees surround them, and weeds sprout up from various places. But nothing speaks to the balance more than the moss you often see. The existence of this vulnerable living carpet in the midst of a battle for space hints at the tolerance that seems to come with age.




A Beautiful Wash of Vicious Green

I grew up in a dry place hostile to plants, so when I see the forests and unkept plots of land around town, I see a wall of green made up of parts that are hard to differentiate. I feel I lack the familiarity required to discern the varieties of plant-life, but I get the sense that all of Shiwa’s nature is in a struggle.

The vines, of which there seem to be several kinds, are best suited for this environment. They climb anything that isn’t moving and conquer more secure structures-both human made and natural. They climb old trees, large stumps, rocks, fences, power lines, and even sheds. On their own, they build nothing upward, but by twisting and strangling, they remake the landscape–the forest and everything humanity has forgotten–until it becomes the same, a beautiful wash of vicious green.




A Better Place

On an early autumn day in Shiwa, you can see cosmos flowers growing in gardens and fields, wild in the forgotten lots of abandoned houses, and stubbornly in cracks in the sidewalk. They are almost everywhere, and they bloom in purple, pink, yellow, and orange.

A man from Shiwa bred an orange variety called “Sunset” and won the prestigious All American Selection award for his efforts in 1966. Now they grow in abundance, low like ground fog on which orange flowers float.

Other varieties can grow taller than people and would look like the worst kind of weeds with spidery leaves and reddish stalks but for their flowers. The flowers seem as thin and weak as paper, like they wouldn’t survive the wind of a typhoon or even the rain. Yet they grow in difficult places, in cracks, between rocks, and along chain link fences.

This is what I love about them. They don’t choose where they grow, but they survive, and in so doing they make it, no matter where it is, a better place.







Close Enough, Far Enough

Shiwa is geographically big, and it has nine districts, each with subdivisions. Some are flung far from the center of town, and people there live in relative isolation. Yamaya is one example. It’s a small community in the Kitakami Mountain Range, where the nature around the houses and shrines seems untouched.

The roads often seem built on cliffs with views of tall cypress trees standing over blue tin roofs. These roads can be convoluted as if  old village roads grew together and were eventually paved. Maps are provided on the road to help, but the one I saw had two places marked as “You are here.” The roads, terrain, and distance create a labyrinth that’s best overcome by familiarity.

Perhaps that’s why the people in Yamaya seem proud of their community. They work hard to keep old traditions and festivals alive. Every spring they invite people from neighboring communities to visit their “Mizubasho Festival,” and in fall to their “Yamaya Furusato Festival.” Certainly, they often hear, “What a beautiful place,” and “I had tough time finding you.”

Plus their isolation isn’t complete. The people work in Morioka, the nearest big city, or in the central part of town. Their children go to school there. Families shop there. The distance isn’t unassailable. The people are as much a part of town as others. They just happen to be located close enough to town to enjoy its comforts and far enough to enjoy nature.






Slow Motion Change

Shiwa is in a state of change, but it’s a slow motion change. One that’s been going on for more than a generation. The agricultural sector is shrinking, and in the central part of town, the part sprawled along national highway Route 4, fields are being replaced with housing developments. Given the difficulty of freeing land resources and the established tradition of close quarter living, these new neighborhoods are as packed as the old business district.

The houses are nothing like the suburbs from my childhood in Colorado. They have just enough space between them for a car or two and no yards. Asphalt and gravel cover the ground from the street to the doors. The soil beneath is so fertile that despite these efforts weeds still push up in unlikely places.

This may be ideal for commuters who use Shiwa for a bedroom, but the newly confined space reduces the green and shrinks the sky.





Autumn Chills

Today the autumn chills were strong even in the afternoon. The sun shone, and warmed things up enough, but undoubtedly the season’s equator has been crossed. Warm weather will soon be gone.

The weather also meant that summer’s pale, overcast sky changed to deep blue. It stretched over terraced rice fields in every direction. Giant clouds looked small. The immense forests were reduced to dark shades, the inverse of the colors all around.

All over town rice was being harvested, the grains hung to dry, and straw left standing in bunches in the fields. They represent humanity’s efforts to survive winter and another year while the next crop grows. Yet beneath the blue of a magical jewel sky, such concerns would seem trifle if not for the chill reminding us how real they will soon become.