Monday, April 30, 2012

Stars Crossing Over Town

If I had a town, if I was starting my own town, I'd call it Stars-Crossing-Over, and turn off all lights.
If I had a town, if I was making my own town, I'd call it Stars-Crossing-Over and fill it with weed lots and swales.
If I had a town, if I was resurrecting a town, I'd ban all fake siding to create a religion worshipping wood.
If I had a town called Stars-Crossing-Over, I'd people it with kids and not-so-serious others, monkeys, butterflies and birds.
If I had a town called Stars-Crossing-Over, I'd ring all the doorbells to make everyone come out and play.
If I had a town called Stars-Crossing-Over.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Look Back at Leek House

The first time I lived in Japan, a world away in Chiba, I used frequently to go to Yokohama, or Sakuragicho more precisely, to the excellent Yurindo bookstore there. They carried lots of English books on all sorts of topics, not just the linguistics and language learning that you found at so many of the Tokyo area shops.

I remember flipping through an architectural magazine there one day and pausing on a spread of the work of Terunobu Fujimori and his Leek House, a building constructed out of Douglas fir logs and stucco, the roof having hundreds of holes punched in the boards for growing leeks. I remember being pleased by the seeming simplicity of the design as well as the incorporation of greenery into the structure.

Interestingly enough, my mother, on the other side of the world, came across the same or a different magazine featuring the Leek House and cut out the article and sent it to me. (I probably still have it in storage somewhere.)

I did recently come across an old article in Axis magazine (November, December 2001) entitled Parasitism and the Control of Greenery, highlighting both the Leek House and the samurai-looking (and misnamed) Dandelion House. In the article the author wanted to see how the houses and architect (and his thought) were faring four or five years on.

There does seem something outlandish, even foolish in trying to incorporate plants into the very structure of a dwelling. Plants are never just plants. They are communities of organisms that grow and change and die. To maintain a discrete distance between dwelling and nature seems not only to be sensible, but depending on what kinds of critters might be showing up, indispensable.

The architect himself seemed to be a bit confused by the role plants should play. For on the one hand he takes aim at his fellow Japanese for being "afraid of greenery" and wanting to "half kill" the very plants they nurture; he himself makes sure in both Dandelion House and Leek House to seal off the plants entirely from the inside, relegating them to tiny boxes. However much the architect wanted to incorporate plants into the design, in the end he had to make sure to control plant growth by hanging boxes out away from the actual structure of the house (in the case of Dandelion House) and having a second roof under the leek roof to keep out the elements he's trying so hard to promote.

二ラハウス or Leek House 1997 (Axis 94)
There is a growing movement toward something called living architecture in which designers attempt to use some of nature's tricks in creating more responsive, less energy consumptive dwellings.

But I don't really know exactly what's happening right now in the field. Maybe some of my readers can educate me. I do think though that in fifty or a hundred years, Fujimori's building will appear quaint and not quite so radical as when they first arrived on the scene.


Postscript: The other day I was in the local bookstore here in Niihama and came across a recently published Collected Works of Terunobu Fujimori. It seemed that his more recent work has been quite a departure from the above pictured. Much more whimsical, almost cartoonish. Perhaps I'll take some time to look at it a little more closely in the coming days and let you know what I think.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Still Waiting

Towards the end of last summer, on one of those laze-about-down-by-the river-on-the-hammock days, I came across a beautifully patterned black and white cocoon pasted onto a cherry twig. In that day's post, Waiting, I merely labeled the cocoon "cocoon" and the spider "crab spider," not knowing much more about either one. But both were clearly waiting. The former for its occupant to emerge; the latter for me to leave it the hell alone.

And I didn't know it at the time — but would soon after — that I too was entering a period of waiting, for my own moth to emerge, a dragon baby, whom I wait for still.

And today, at the library — my interest in insects recently aroused by an entomology blog that I stumbled across called Beetles in the Bush — I picked up a couple of gorgeous insect photography books which I carted home. Later flipping through one of them leisurely (Insects: On the Move for 400 Million Years) I came across my cocoon, the little black and white watermelon pasted onto a notch on a twig.

The waiting was over, I had a positive ID: iraga, or Monema flavescens, a species of slug moth in the Limacodidae family, who, from what I can gather, is a bit of a pest in its larval form.

In addition to being found in Japan, Korean, China, and Taiwan, it is also native to Umur, Ussuri, Askold and Quelpart (delightfully obscure places all — none of which I have ever heard.)

So I'll keep waiting, and maybe someday soon I'll find the little yellow moth, the bottom of whose brown wings mimic the veins of leaves.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

All Right. I Admit It.

I'm trapped. But for so long I believed you'd come down out of the hills and present yourself to me, resplendent in your pre-dawn golds and reds.

I've been ready for ages — too ready you might say — yet even still it seems you mock my chief virtue, patience, freezing me in some eagerness to hunt you down.

Still I sit here. But that's not wire you see — rather my twisted, honeycombed cage of mind.

Nor am I sad. It's just my mustache frames my mouth in a downward slope and the eyebrows I've had painted on point inward to a stare you do know well.

The accumulated dust of time and decay is nothing. I can shake it off. But I think not yet. I prefer to wait. Just a little longer. You're coming. I can sense it. Just outside my field of vision. Your scent.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Admit it. You're Trapped.

Admit it. You're trapped. It's bad enough if you're left to roam free in a one or even two mile square enclosure. But shrink that down to a room or a mere window display and we start to understand your reticence for self reflection. After all, you're naked; anyone can peer in at you; anyone can say how you're not looking quite yourself these days.

And it gets worse — for if you are not you, but rather a representation of what you could be, frozen, mottled, eucalyptus-barked, trapped even further back in your head, or floating in a tiny space above the ears, a dirty mote perched upon antler fuzz or lying unnoticed under hoof or balls — then what is that to me?

That's hell. Or a version of it anyways. So leave this place. Fly. I'll cut the cage. Come back at midnight. Set your mottled, lonely ass free. Don't worry. The earth's polarity is about to change. You're scales are not falling off. Not really. You're not trapped. Not a beautiful representation of yourself. You only think you are.

You're young. Or youngish. Or young enough anyway. At least not old. Drunk on so many coming summers. Or springs. And all of those colors. Be — all of those colors. Cavorting. Go now. Please go out. I'm cutting now. You've done your time.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dog Shrine Explained

Last week, in a post titled A New Dog on the Block, I wrote about my experience buying a new camera, sharing some of the first shots I had taken with it.

This morning I dumped a few of those photos into Dropbox and carried them to Japanese class on my iPad to show sensei.

I was surprised to learn how straightforward the pictures seemed to her. Where I saw shades of Marwencol, she saw only someone's shrine to a dead dog. When I asked her if she thought that perhaps a homeless person or some other idler living near the beach had constructed the little rottweiler grave, she said that most likely no, it was simply a decent, no cost burial for a beloved pet.

I thought back to half a year ago when I was a regular beachcomber on a stretch of sand not too far from the dog shrine. In the tide wrack there was a poor bloated creature, its skin burnt red and black, its hair almost totally worn off (a little tuft left at the midriff) its tongue spilling out like an overripe plantain; its yellow collar which in life had marked and controlled him, in death served only to remind one of an absent master and walks not taken.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


A plethora of what are being called 3.11 books, about the tsunami and its aftermath, have been published in Japan this year. Associé magazine in its Now, What You Should be Reading May 2012 edition has all of the titles in one place:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Strange Living Creatures

Yesterday, on a ramble, I came across a beautifully iridescent giant night crawler called mimizu in Japanese. It was sliding down a mossy green culvert which was plastered in fallen cherry blossoms, with more blossoms falling like snow all around me.

Not knowing the crawler's name in Japanese, earlier today I went to our neighborhood bookstore to do a little investigation. I headed over to the zoology section where I found this interesting hand-drawn section marker:
"Strange Living Creatures," it says. And below it: "Please don't read before eating. You'll lose your appetite. (Unless you're on an eyeball diet...)"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Moorhen is Not a Duck

Gallinula chloropus
For the past couple of days I've been trying to work out why it bothered me so for someone whom I don't know all that well to call a moorhen a duck. To a baby no less.

Now I understand that babies have limited repertoires as to what they can say — and this particular baby's utterances are limited to probably twenty words, half of which are Japanese, so I know the mother meant well and was just trying to reinforce to her kid a word she was probably already familiar with.

But still, it was as if to the mother all birds on the water of a certain size were ducks, even if they didn't have webbed feet, or even if their feeding and breeding habits were quite different from aforesaid quacking bird.

This, then, was how our "conversation" went:

Me to the mother, opening iPhoto: "Look at the Moorhens. They're doing a dance."

Mother to baby: "Look at the ducks. Can you say duck. Duck!"

Me (under my breath): "They're moorhens."

She (louder): "Duck!"

But it's not like the word is hard in Japanese, though I doubt that many people know it: ban (バン). I guess it was the lack of curiosity in the mother to even find out how or why a moorhen wasn't a duck that bothered me; that she didn't give me wink to say "yeah, you and I know that's a moorhen, but for now, for her, it's a duck."


The ornithologist Ernst Mayr, one of the leaders of the so-called modern evolutionary synthesis which brought together Mendelian genetics, Darwinian evolution, and systematics, wrote that attentive peoples everywhere, not just scientists, are able to divide groups of animals into species:
I was all alone with a very primitive tribe of mountain Papuans, who were excellent hunters. I sent them out every morning with their guns, and for every specimen they brought back I asked, "What do you call this one?" I recorded the scientific name in one column, and the native one in another. Finally, when I had everything in the area, and when I had compared the list of scientific names and the list of native names, there were 137 native names for 138 species. There were just two little greenish bush warblers for which they had a single name (Mayr, 1955, p 5. taken from James C. King's The Biology of Race, 1981.)
The biological species concept, put forward by Mayr, states that "species are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which are reproductively isolated from other such groups." Literally hundreds of alternate species definitions have been proposed in the past forty years, but I think we can take Mayr's definition as a good starting point, especially since I doubt many of my readers are biologists.

To recap then: Ducks and moorhens are separate species, because ducks and moorhens don't interbreed. They don't even hang out together, mitigating the risk of a mistake. I'm pretty sure they know their own kind.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A New Dog on the Block

I've been meaning to get a new camera for some time now. My old dog of a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot treated me well, but even early on it had it problems, the first being a cranky lens cover that had to pried open with fingers after someone (Echosquirrel?) spilled a bottle of kombucha on it in her purse.

But even that was a step up for me whose only other camera (if one didn't include two or three disposable cameras I purchased on trips in Japan and India) had been a hand-me-down manual film camera from my sister which languished for ages in the bottom of a drawer which itself has long been cleared out.

What exactly was my bias against photography? Well, first of all, I was a writer and that meant using words to tell a story or paint a picture, one tinged with emotion or imbued with a depth of personal or local history that a click of a machine just couldn't capture. For me photographs had a suspicious way of superimposing themselves over memory; and instead of augmenting or jostling it, they had a queer way of intruding upon it and freezing it, not letting the poor captured soul change or evolve.

I must confess too that I'm enamored with simplicity and elegance — especially when it comes to gadgets — and my eyes start glazing over when I'm presented with technical specifications. Shutter speeds, apertures, and white balances are like a foreign language to me.

So when Echosquirrel suggested we head down to the mall and get a new camera for me for my birthday, I agreed as long as I didn't have to do any research or be barraged with the minutiae of why camera X was superior to Y or Z.

Armed with a short list of three cameras, we made the short trip to DeoDeo where, after much handling and clicking and scrolling through Japanese menus and changing them to English, I settled on a Nikon Coolpix S8200 which just happened to be on sale as the good company had decided that the newer model just had to be equipped with GPS. The only problem was the store only had white left — or, if I wanted a little further discount — the black floor model.

Now for the most part, prices in Japan are fixed. One would never think of asking for a lower price in most situations, but in electronics stores that rule goes out the window. So, in my broken-ass Japanese I got the clerk to discount it even further, noting the finger smudges on its screen (Echosquirrel and I had put them there ourselves in our handling of it) as well as the hypothetical possibility that something we couldn't see had been damaged or weakened.

Sorry to bore you with these preliminaries — we're getting to the good part! This morning, ignoring Echosquirel's advice that I spend some time learning the camera's functions before actually using it, I went out for a test run to see if the CoolPix really delivered what its name so uncooly proclaimed.

I was not disappointed. The new camera in its shiny fake leather case (which I snipped all advertising from with sewing scissors) made me venture to a new place, a strange corner of a strange dump of a littered beach where I enjoyed a coffee and an egg and bacon breakfast bread sitting on top of a half-buried busted wooden box with fish jumping out of the water in front of me in the brackish estuary.

When I had finished the delicious lukewarm coffee and bread, I started snapping away, picking my way past smashed fiberglass hulls and driftwood.

And then, after not more than a hundred paces, at the far end of the little ragged beach, I came upon this strange scene:
Was it supposed to be playful? ironic? serious? I wanted it to be one of the former, but its shrine-like aspect with the fake flowers and plastic beads and creepy alien Buddha-like creature seemed to be the devotion of someone serious and maybe just a little off.
Or maybe it was just a memorial to someone's pet buried beneath or lost at sea?
I don't know. Some mysteries are better alone.

I am happy with my new camera though. I like the sharpness of the color even in such harsh light.

But I'll have to look into how to use it better. I might even learn some of the technical jargon.

What do you think dog?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Year Ago at This Time

I went for a long run today, but not having my camera I couldn't document the ridiculous riot of color and blossoms everywhere around me. So I'll give you a peek of what it looked like last year here around this time.
This picture was taken heading up toward Minetopia Besshi, a copper mining museum hard against the river a little ways out of town.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Animals and Beggars

The British writer Will Self recently made his inaugural lecture as Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University. (You can read an edited version here.) In it he argued that the walker, or more specifically the flâneur, is a "a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control."

But the impending extinction of that very walker — defined by Self as someone moving across a cityscape free orienting/disorienting electronic impedimenta and/or gas or other powered conveyances — leaves us a nation of, or nations of, corporate or state controlled zombies, under constant or random surveillance, moving from cash machine to cash machine down empty corridors unrelieved only by Koolhaus's "junkspace."

Like in Borges's On Exactitude in Science, the only ones left navigating the physical geography of the world, living among the Tattered Ruins of the Map, are animals and beggars.

There's no doubt some truth to Self's argument — especially if you are reading this post from Tokyo or L.A. — but here in the outskirts of nowhere, in the shadow of the Henro-no-Michi, and with a bicycle trail constructed out of an old mining railroad running past my house, I have a decidedly different view of the movement of people across the landscape. I'm sure the residents of Copenhagen or Kathmandu have equally divergent views.

It is worrying though that, according to Wired, the NSA is currently constructing a mammoth "data center" in the desert of Utah, ostensibly to collect information from people in other countries (as if that in itself is okay — as long as it falls under the rubric "counter-terrorism") but more than likely a facility to spy on anyone on the planet who makes any kind of electronic utterance or transaction (i.e. has any "digital pocket litter".)

So if you heading out for a walk and don't want to be traced by the NSA, or accused by Will Self of being one of "the majority of urbanites, who.....neither know where they are, nor are capable of getting somewhere else under their own power," you'd better make sure you leave your smart phone at home.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Weiwei Still Getting Whacked

Back in November I did post here about the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in which I urged readers to make origami birds out of money and toss them over the wall of his house in Beijing to help him pay for the privilege of contesting a "tax evasion" penalty of 15 million yuan ($2.4 million). While I doubt I have any readership in China, it did feel good to support, in some small way, a protest against tyranny and injustice.

And Weiwei did manage to collect the equivalent of $1.3 million from 30,000 supporters, without which, it has been said, his wife would have been jailed.

Last week The Authorities denied a request by Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. (Weiwei's company, registered in his wife's name) for a public trial to contest the penalty, instead offering him a written hearing — whatever that is.

While Weiwei gets lots of exposure in the rest of the world — a new film by freelance journalist Alison Klayman "Ai Weiwei, Never Sorry" will open in New York this summer — in China, I fear, mostly everything on the internet by or about him gets scrubbed clean.

If you click on his website Fake, you get an image of a fly. Click on "Works" and you get three images of mostly noncontroversial, non-subversive works of his. Click on "Editorial" and you get — nothing. Indeed, there is nothing here. He is being eviscerated, wiped off the record in China.

I tried entering the Chinese characters of his name — maybe I made a mistake, but I don't think so — again, nothing. His blog, which was shut down in 2009 by guess who?, can only still be accessed in book form, available from MIT Press: Writing, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006-2009.

At least we have that.

Update 2/19/2016: I don't know if the situation for Weiwei in China has changed, but here in the U.S., the website Artsy has a dedicated Ai Weiwei page which includes his bio, pictures of over 120 of his works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date exhibition listings. 

You may also want to follow Ai Weiwei on Instagram @aiww where he has been chronicling the plight of refugees coming into Greece by boat.