It was my first month in the vegetable field. Below the surface of the furrows I could already feel the garden was asking me something—what? Need water? Have enough? I am learning a new language, memorizing new vocabulary, getting better at non-human conversation. Walking over the ground, I sense the bugs looking at me, escaping as soon as they do. “Ack—here’s that guy again…” But I also know the dirt is happy to see me, and the bugs don’t regard me as a mortal enemy. They can tell I don’t want to exterminate them. Crows watch from the roof of an old shed next to the field, from the shadow of trees in the abandoned garden. Our eyes don’t meet, yet we watch each other. Pretending to focus on the field I glance at the crows. They charge over— “We know you were looking at us all along!” I wave my hand as if throwing a stone, but they sense my intent and fly off.
I step into the field and something—a sound or smell, tells me Nora Jones has come padding over from somewhere. The cat is silent for a bit. But since I appear to be absorbed in the field, she lets loose a small cry, knowing I won’t ignore her. A vinyl bag lies limp on the dirt. A hemp rope tying a homemade bamboo trellis looks as if it is trying to return to the earth. My work isn’t really work, but a cooperation between me and the rope. We’re more dexterous together. I stand on the furrows viewing what I’ve done, communicating with someone in the earth. Maybe I’m talking to roots.
I gaze at the earth that Hidaka-san, who owns the land, has been using machines to cultivate. My friend Hiromi has brought 30 kilos of compost from Fukuoka, which she made from fermenting soy pulp. Why did I suddenly decide to grow stuff? Because of the pandemic? That’s probably part of it. Anybody would feel uneasy depending solely on the supermarket. Prodded to take immediate action, I called the municipal office. They told me there were two plots of communally available farmland right near my home. One in Chikami—where I went to grade school. That seemed promising, so I called. Nobody picked up. I tend to think that if a phone call doesn’t go through, it’s a sign, so I gave up on Chikami and called the other place, in Oshima. Somebody picked up right away.
Hidaka-san: “Sure, there’s a field available here,” he said. I jumped into my Suzuki Rabbit and went to see it.
There is a mountain behind my house called Hanaokayama. It’s where my father grew up. Our family cemetery is there. In the seventh century it was called “Sunrise Mountain.” A narrow road skirts it. This is my neighborhood, but not a road I usually drive. Wild fresh greenery surrounds you as soon as you are on the other side of the mountain. Kumamoto has recently been built up with rows of multistory apartments, but this is a different world. I spot a brook, Iserigawa, “Parsley Well River.” Suddenly the sky widens. The mountain peak Kinpōzan looms in the distance. I roll down the car window and wind whooshes in. Fronds of I don’t know what—something like pampas grass—are waving. Fields line both sides of the road. Looking at the dry black earth, suddenly I think—what color would I use to paint this? With the thought, the mountain become a mélange of blue, green, black, and gray. Puffs of cloud glinting white in the sunlight cast numerous shadows. How long since I felt a desire to paint a landscape? Is this the first time?
Musing, I drive past some huge camphor trees. Three, four, five—leaves of various shades of green jiggle in the breeze. The trees change every time the wind blows. Even when it stops, it’s not like the trees return to some original state. Maybe they become totally different trees? I want to depict everything. Maybe Van Gogh thought this way? I have never been particularly interested in Impressionism, but now I want to check it out. I want to depict color as it really is. My father once gave me a box of 70 Faber-Castell polychrome pastels. This will be my medium. I imagine myself drawing small landscapes.
I am getting close to Ariake Bay. Where the Iserigawa River flows into the Tsuboi, it looks more like an ocean than a river. A gray heron spreads its wings in a flat line, slowly lifting into the air. This road goes to my parents’ home town, a village called Kawachi, deep in the boondocks near the sea. We used to drive it when I was a child, and I was totally bored. Across the levee, you can’t tell river from sea. I was always told the sea was dangerous. Don’t get too close! Later I found out my ancestors’ house had been swallowed by a monstrous tsunami in 1792, when either an earthquake or a volcano flattened the Shimabara mountains. You can see numerous mossy shrine gates along the national highway. Stone memorials, too.
On the left, past the unending levee, Mt. Unzen appears hazily in the distance. The sky is cloudless, but you can’t paint it with a single blue. A bit of purple might bring out the depth of that clear blue sky. On the right, the Kinpōzan range looks like something out of a fairy tale. The road twists and turns. The area may once have been ocean. During the 2016 earthquake I jumped into a taxi and fled here with my family. Remembering what my grandfather once said, I told the driver to take the mountain road. The national highway was totally snarled in traffic, but we sailed right into Kawachi. Even now I remember the sensation of my body becoming lighter as soon as we arrived—like escaping from an evil spirit. The ground here must be different from the city. Yamabushi wandering monks used to travel the Kinpōzan mountain paths. No question, this land is a different world.
Today this road doesn’t feel boring. Not at all. Hugged by luxuriant mountain and ocean, it’s an ideal habitat for all sorts of creatures. A billboard for the Tanaka Sweet Shop catches my eye, a pit stop for us on our way to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I stop, buy some mugwort dumplings and scarf them down. The taste of nostalgia! Here along the national highway many shops sell sweet buns. I drive along wondering why. It must be because they make people happy. How sweet to find something sweet where there’s nothing else to see or do.
After passing Oshima grade school, I see the Family Mart convenience store that Hidaka-san mentioned on the phone. I turn left and enter a street paralleling the river. Mt. Unzen looms even closer, across a field of waving pampas grass. A cloud perches on the peak like a wig. The hidden sun breaks through a gap, outlining a small rift in the clouds. You might be able to draw that light by pressing the white pencil…in my head I move my fingers. Suddenly the field appears spread out before me. In the middle stands a man in blue overalls, holding a hoe. Hidaka-san.
I go to the field every day. If it’s raining I don’t have to water, but I still go check up on things. At first I would work at home in the morning then go after lunch. But I was having trouble getting the hang of watering. The furrows would be dry the next day and make me wonder if I was watering enough. I ask Hidaka-san. “The vegetables grow at night, you know…” he said. Watering too early in the day, it seems, causes the moisture to evaporate before the plants can take it in. I thought that giving them a nice drink during the hot part of the day was good—but no. If you throw cold water on your body when it’s hot, you’ll shock your system. Same for plants. Then you worry that excess water will just sit there and simmer. This is why I started gardening in the evenings. Heading to the field at five p.m. became my daily routine.
Strong afternoon sun used to render me limp. My habit was to retreat to my studio between about 3:00 and 6:00, close the curtains and draw pictures. By avoiding intense western sun, I was able to keep my depression at bay, so I didn’t want to change this routine. But the plants modified my schedule. From 2:00 to 5:00 I did my art, and after that, fully exposed to the afternoon sun, I went to work my field.
Something has changed. I had always moved according to my own pace. But now, it’s not that I’m aligning with the plants’ time exactly—it’s the dirt. Not that I am following the dirt’s time exactly, either. I am thinking about the dirt. We are aligning our times, so together we will accomplish something. Usually when my pace is disrupted or my surroundings change suddenly, I will have a depressive episode, but amazingly enough, this time I feel fine. In fact I have reverted to some sort of natural time. Though I have never experienced this before, it doesn’t feel new. I can’t quite express it, but somehow I get it—as if the dirt is adjusting to my time and communicating through those dry furrows. That’s when I question Hidaka-san. With a few words, he always teaches me something new.
Strong winds from far beyond Mt. Unzen come blowing over the field from Ariake Bay in the west. All sorts of things come flying in. The dirt is being watched from over there, and I feel the gaze. Light birdsong echoes from across the sea. Every day I feel things come flying. Stroking the surface of the dirt, the wind dashes east toward Mt. Kinpōzan at incredible speed. When it blows, the dirt rolls over and the scenery changes. The birds get to enjoy this change of scenery from on high. They stalk their prey.
I get comfortable with western sun. I start walking over to Yōe Harbor to watch the sun set behind Mt. Unzen. The waning light shines obliquely, illuminating the surface of the ground. Finished with their daily work, the vegetables relax their leaves down into the dirt. All the colors around me return to dirt. Night is dirt color, not black. Everywhere night is dirt. This must be why vegetables grow at night.
After I started going to the field in the evenings, the edges of the furrows would still be holding moisture the following day. It might be dry around the stems, but if I poke my finger into the dirt, it’s damp. Probably won’t need to water today. Hidaka told me that planting seedlings is the time to really slosh it on, but now he is silent.
Nora Jones mews softly. Totally absorbed in the field, I forgot about her food. Typically she stays hidden behind a concrete wall, but now she comes dashing out into the field. I run back to the car to put some food in a dish. Sensitive to the smallest sound, she used to prick up her ears in alarm and run away, but not today. She waits patiently. As soon as her belly is full she disappears, and I go back to the field.
I hate sticking plastic into the dirt, so I make bamboo cages for the tomatoes and muskmelons. I decide to make nets out of hemp rope to support them. Hidaka-san says, “That’s clever, even if a bit of a bother to make. Fishermen do that, you know.” Since starting to knit sweaters, nothing seems too much of a bother to me anymore. I think this is why I started farming.
It wasn’t always like this for me.
I once kept a chipmunk as a pet, and by mistake left its cage in front of an air conditioner unit. It died. Since then I just assumed I was terrible at taking care of living things and never considered keeping a dog or cat. I never even tried to pet them. Any vegetable I tried to grow in a planter withered. Anything I touched died.
This is the same me who now comes to the field every day. I meet Nora Jones every day. I get uneasy if a day passes and I haven’t seen the soil. When I can see the dirt every day I am at ease. When dirt and time are in sync, the feel of the dirt changes—like my relationship to Nora, the stray cat. The shape of the furrows stabilizes. They stop crumbling when watered, holding their form on their own.
I know that sensation, maybe because I have worked with pottery. I put a slab of kneaded clay on the potter’s wheel and start it spinning. With my right hand I dribble water onto the lump. Like a bucking bronco, the clay wants to move out on its own with the wheel’s centrifugal force. Without trying too hard, I use both hands to press as softly as I can, supporting the clay as I feel it move. It rises up in a tube. Now if I apply light pressure to the bottom, it reverts to its original lump. This is called “killing the clay,” but as I do it over and over, gradually the clay starts to recognize my existence. Rather than trying to make the clay do my bidding, I notice how it wants to move and I adapt. “Go this way,” I indicate, and the clay obliges by chubbing up. I don’t force it. I am making a path for the clay to go where it wants.
As soon as my self disappears, the clay’s form emerges. It occurs to me that maybe I can make a pot from the clay-rich dirt in my field. Farming the dirt rekindles my interest in physical activities like pottery and knitting. The boundary between life and creativity is melting away, and the two are blending together.
Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Genesis 1:26)
I am born of dirt; nourished by dirt; and will return to dirt.
Not Light and Darkness—Light and Dirt.
I spread out inside the dirt, losing my contours. I’ve known the bugs all along. The birds, too. I thrust both hands into the furrow. Its surface may be hard, but the interior is soft. Ah, the sun is about to set. The orange sky of evening announces the start of dirt time. The wind dies down.
I say, “See you tomorrow” to Hidaka-san, turn on the headlights and go home to dinner.