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'My Solitudes'


A number of years ago, before I became a father, I was an enthusiastic, if somewhat irregular, hiker and backpacker. Any number of times each year, either alone, or together with friends, I would take trips into the mountains that surrounded the Canadian city where I lived. Over the years, the enthusiasm waxed and waned as I passed through various stages of life, but it was a rare year during which I didn't make at least one overnight trip 'out there'.

Becoming a family man changed all that. It wasn't that I couldn't say to my family "I'm off to the mountains for a while. See you in a few days," it was that I just never thought of saying it. There was never any conscious decision that my backpacking days were over, it was simply that family and job filled my life completely.

Moving to Japan put even more distance between me and the outdoors. I went for the occasional walk into the hills (I can't call them 'mountains') near the town where I lived, but what I saw there stirred no desire in me to explore much further. The hand of man was everywhere; paths led this way and that, empty cans and cigarette packages littered the ground wherever one looked, and even the very trees themselves lined up in obedient neat rows, having been planted that way. It just didn't seem like nature. After the magnificent wildness of Canada that I was used to, the Japanese environment had no attraction for me at all.

The years went by. My work simplified; instead of the frantic mix of teaching English, making wooden toys, and re-writing translations that had made up my work in the first few years in Japan, I settled into a quiet routine of woodblock printmaking. And then, when my two daughters moved to Canada to continue their schooling over there, I found myself in a situation - for the first time in many years - where I actually had time to myself. And so my thoughts began to turn to the outdoors; was it now possible to enjoy some hiking again?

One idea that came up was to take a special trip back to Canada for a hiking holiday, but I put this aside; it wasn't a 'special' holiday that I wanted ... I simply wanted to start living again the way I once had, making frequent short trips out of the city to find mental and physical refreshment in the open air. But where to go? Hiking on the scruffy and crowded trails I had seen here in Japan? No way ...

During the time that these thoughts were coming together in my mind, I fell into the habit of taking quite a long walk a couple of evenings each week. Starting from my home, I would walk for three or four hours, trying to avoid the noisiest and most built-up areas, and then with darkness falling, make my way to the nearest train station to return home. One of these walks took me along the Tama River, upstream from my home. The river passes through deep valleys before it comes out onto the Kanto plain, and I scrambled up and down trails that fishermen had made for access to their favourite casting spots. At one point I found myself looking around in some amazement. I knew I was actually not too far away from an urban area, but not only were there no visible traces of human presence, I couldn't hear anything either. The valley was so deep, the greenery so thick, and the river so spiritedly splashing along, that all sounds of civilization were muted or erased.

I sat on a rock by the side of the stream. It was hard to believe that such a place could exist so near my Tokyo home. What a wonderful place to relax! I wanted to stay longer, but it was getting late, the air was getting chilly, and I had to move on. A few minutes later, I was on a crowded train heading home.

After returning to my home and work, the vision of that peaceful riverbank wouldn't leave my mind. On my next walk a few days later, I returned to the same spot. I sat there again, entranced by the peacefulness of the place, and as I did, an idea came to me for an interesting way to get involved with backpacking again. Instead of trying to repeat the wilderness adventures that I had experienced in Canada years ago, try a different approach. Rather than long-distance hiking, try simply sitting still somewhere. Here. Bring a tent and some basic camping equipment, and stay for say, a 24-hour period, with no objective other than to sit quietly and learn what this place was like. Sit still, quietly absorbing the peaceful atmosphere and character of this spot, seeing something of the creatures that live here, and learning what 'happens' in the course of a day.

And then a real inspiration struck - come not just a single time, but return for a matching 24-hour period in each of the seasons; see how this place changes through the course of a year. I was seeing it now in early summer, but when the leaves turned colours and started to fall, I felt sure that I would get a completely different perspective. Then again in winter ... then in spring ...

I found the idea irresistible, and a few days later started my preparations. I found a huge outdoor shop near my home, one with a vast range of equipment for backpacking, and selected some simple gear: a small tent, a sleeping bag, and some basic cooking equipment.

It was while this preparation was underway that another inspiration came. I had no doubt that I would discover many interesting things during the days spent on the riverbank, but why not broaden the scope to include some quite different environments? I could search out similar 'private' spots in other types of environment - in a mountain forest or on a beach on the seacoast. Surely the rhythm of the passing hours would be quite different in those places, and the passing seasons would bring quite marked changes. If I were to take along a notebook and jot down some of the things that I saw, and some of the things that I felt ... might this not help me to 'see' the things around me just a bit better, and perhaps make interesting reading?

So that was the genesis of this 'My Solitudes' project. In addition to that riverbank near my home, I was indeed able to locate a peaceful forest grove and a quiet cove on the seacoast that fit my criteria - they are of course not 'wilderness'; but none of these places take more than a short journey to reach, they are completely insulated from the urban areas that surround them, and they provide a completely private 'nature' experience.

To each of these three spots I will return four times, roughly in line with the seasons. What will I see, and what will I find - boredom, or treasure? This book will be the record of my discoveries during the hours I spend in these quiet places. It is now mid-June, and soon the sunny summer weather will be here, the perfect season for starting this adventure. My preparations are nearly finished, and my private corner of the river awaits ...