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My Solitudes : Chapter Four : The River in Autumn : Excerpts

What will I find when I arrive at the river? Will my little camping spot have changed? During the years that I have been living in Japan, I have seen any number of news reports about typhoons making their way across various parts of these islands, and have been on the fringes of large storms now and then, but this part of the Kanto area has been spared any major 'direct hits' during these years. At the end of this past summer though, we were hit by a 'biggie'. There was a huge amount of rain, one of the largest falls ever measured here, and all the rivers in the region became raging torrents for a couple of days. The Tama was no exception, and I have already seen some of the aftermath of the storm down by the river near my home: stretches of riverbank carved away by the water, and quite a number of trees fallen into the stream.

It seems to me that my 'private' camping spot on the river may have been quite affected. The river turns two sharp corners there, and the water must have really boiled through that short stretch between them. Will my pleasant little sandy beach still be there? Or will I have to search out a new spot to continue my adventures?

As I make my way down the trail between the road and the river, typhoon damage is apparent all around me. I have to clamber over a few trees that have fallen across the path, and the ground everywhere is littered with branches and boughs broken off by the storm, brown and lifeless, splintering and cracking underfoot. Looking ahead, I can see glimpses of the river down at the bottom of the slope, a deep green, speckled with yellow leaves. Whether or not my campsite has survived, the river itself of course still flows on ...

The path is very steep, and the footing is unstable, with many loose stones underfoot. I slip and grasp a tree for support, and as I stumble forward, the pack on my back pulling me off balance, there is an explosion from a bush just front of my face. A large bird bursts out, beating its wings frantically, and with a long 'whrrrrr', flies down the hill dodging the trees to disappear among the undergrowth. I get no more than a glimpse before it is gone. What was it, a pheasant? But I think they are brightly coloured, and this was a dull brownish shade. It seems amazing that there could be such a large creature living here, with housing areas not more than a few metres away. I feel a bit sorry to have disturbed him, and am also curious about his 'survival strategy'; if he had simply stayed silent, I would never have known he was there ... But I suppose that each time he hears a noise approaching, he must make a decision - "Is that 'thing' hunting me?" At some point he must switch his strategy from 'keep quiet' to 'get out of here!' If I had continued steadily down the path, he would have kept silent. It was my sudden move towards his hiding place that made him think I was a threat. He was so fast! Even if I had known he was there, and was waiting for him to come out, I don't think I'd have even had time to shoot a photo, let alone aim and fire anything more dangerous. Interestingly, he flew off in the direction of my planned camp. Perhaps we will meet again ...


The colour is now nearly all gone from the sky, and very soon it will be dark. The wind has gone, but there is still a movement of air down the valley, and I can feel it steadily pushing against me. When I slip into the tent away from its press, my body feels instantly warmer. I have my dinner sitting in there, with the stove parked on the gravel just outside the open flap. I've eaten stew on some of the previous trips, but this time, when faced with the huge selection at the camping goods store, I picked out a selection by a different maker. This was a mistake, because this one I'm eating now is not particularly tasty. Actually, that's not true; honestly speaking, it's downright awful. But I'm not not a particularly finicky eater, and the night is cool, and the stew is hot, so down it goes, helped along by some of the other items from the food bag. After the meal, a big mug of hot chocolate helps wash away the 'taste' of the stew, and then it's time to start thinking about the campfire ...

Eh? Campfire? But didn't I say in one of the previous stories that 'I will make no campfire'? Didn't I describe my reluctance to leave a black mess on the shore of this clean river? Have I changed my mind?

Well ... yes and no. When I was in the camping shop the other day picking out the food supplies, one of the clerks showed me a new product they had recently started stocking. A campfire. A small but quite heavy, tightly wrapped little package ... 'instant campfire'. It was made of thousands of tiny slivers and chips of wood, bonded together with some kind of dense slow-burning material, all encased in a stiff paper tray. The instructions stated that it was to be used by placing it on the ground and lighting the top surface with a match. For the next hour or so (there are different sizes, some longer-lasting than others) it would burn merrily, and could be used for either cooking one's dinner, or just for peaceful enjoyment. The instructions also promised that the package would consume itself entirely, leaving no unsightly residue; leaving behind, in fact, nothing at all.

'No unsightly residue ...' Hmmm ... It did look interesting. So I bought one, put it in my backpack when preparing for the trip, and now bring it out. It catches fire at the touch of a match, and sure enough there it is - instant campfire.

I have to wonder though, just what you are thinking as you read this. When talking a while ago with a friend who had read a few of these little stories, I realized that he had somehow got the impression in his mind that I was a real 'woodsman' type. After reading such things as '... just a few minutes work to put up the tent ...', or '... a moment later, dinner was ready ...', he had imagined that I must be a real expert at camping, that I was one of those people who could be dropped off in the deep Canadian wilderness with only a single match and a pocket knife, and who would triumphantly walk out a couple of weeks later, healthy, sun-tanned, and some kilograms heavier. But here I am, now talking about 'instant campfires'. It's a bit of a mismatch, isn't it, those two images. Which one is right?

Of course, neither one is. I'm definitely not the intrepid woodsman type, but I'm certainly not helpless outdoors. If I am leaving the impression in your mind that trips like the ones I describe in these stories are only for true-blue outdoor types, then I am failing. It is my intention to do exactly the reverse: to try and show you that anyone can do this, that anyone can escape from their urban surroundings for a short time and experience the peaceful serenity of the natural environment that lies close at hand.

You need no compass, no axe, no knife in a sheath on your belt ... You do need a small collection of simple gear, designed to keep you warm and comfortable during short excursions like this. Somewhere along the way during the course of this little collection of stories I will include a list of the equipment I use, and I sincerely hope that some of you, even those among you who have never in your life spent a night outdoors, will feel the impulse to try this. Instant campfire? Why not ...

But here at the riverside, with the light from the fire flickering on the underside of the tree branches overhead, I am not thinking of such things. Surrounded by the darkness which starts just a few metres away at the edge of this small circle of light, river gurgling unseen just in front of me, hot chocolate in hand, I stare into the dancing flames, 'never still for an instant, in constant motion, yet never changing', just like the river itself. I wonder what I must look like seen from a distance, from some way down the river. A tiny oasis of flickering light; a small tent, a motionless figure sitting beside it ... and all around the wide dark night ... Such a magical transformation in mood created by nothing but a tiny pile of wood chips and a single match. Yes, there's no question about it, when I get home I'm going straight back to the camping shop to stock up with a few more of these fires. 250 yen each, and no mess! Cheap magic!


Looking up into the sky like this, trying to figure out the sun's path, I see that my friend the hawk is back. (Of course he never left, it's me that is 'back'!) He's doing much the same thing as always, floating along with head down scanning this way and that to see what's taking place in his domain this morning. Does he think of me as a danger, as something to be avoided, or just as an annoyance, something that will interfere with his hunting in this particular stretch of river? When I remember that he came down to snatch those fish last summer at just a short distance from my tent, I suppose that shows that he doesn't care whether I'm here or not. I'm obviously not food for him, and these days he probably has no experience of humans being a threat to him, so I'm simply ignored. He is followed by a second bird, tracing the same route in the sky, but much smaller in size. Is this his mate?

It may be my imagination, but I think that this 'follower' is not as skilled as the larger bird. His flight is not as smooth, and he seems to be struggling somewhat to maintain his position in the shifting breezes. Could this be a younger bird, perhaps hatched during the spring or summer, and which is now preparing to move out of the nest to live independently? Perhaps what I am watching is a 'training' flight, with the younger bird learning from the older by imitation. There must be some basic level of flying ability built-in by instinct, but these birds must also possess the capability of building on that and learning all the tricks of the trade necessary to make a living at their job of 'hawk'. Without any possibility of verbal communication between the two of them, it must be just like the situation in a traditional Japanese woodblock printing workshop in the old days - the young apprentice received no formal training or explanations, but was expected to learn his craft by observation of the experienced workers as they went about their daily routines. 'Waza o nusumu', they called it - 'stealing the art'.

Well, two can play at that game! I too, study the lead bird intently ... Lift your wing just so ... twist the tip feathers just so ... Yes, I think I'm getting the hang of it!

If only!


The rocks in this valley struck me as being very interesting during my last visit, but despite good intentions, I have yet to get over to the library and find a book that will tell me more details about them. There are three main types. One is a white and relatively soft rock, which I can scratch easily. Where this is exposed to the flow of the river, it is very worn down and forms gentle rounded shapes. The little 'islands' in front of my tent are of this type, and made a wonderful place to rest last summer, the rounded surface giving me a place to sit in the warm sun, with my feet dangling in the water. Blended together with those soft rocks is a second type, black and hard, very resistant to marking. They don't lay side by side, but the darker one seems to have been injected into cracks and crevices of the white rocks. It doesn't have a smooth surface but is marked with swirls and twirls, and to me, looks very much like congealed lava. Of course, everyone is aware of the volcanic history of these islands, and I guess this is visible evidence of it. The white rock is perhaps formed from sediments laid down in a river or sea long ago, and this was then disturbed by eruptions from beneath, forming this mix I see now.

Now this is not a very complicated analysis of the geology here, and I suppose is the sort of thing that every elementary school student learns nowadays, but it does seem so obvious that it makes me curious as to how men could have missed this sort of evidence for such a long time. For it is only within the past couple of hundred years that rocks like this have been recognized for what they are: evidence of transformations and upheavals that took place in eons past. How anyone could ever have believed that our world was created in just the form in which we see it today is a mystery to me.

It's not just the static evidence of rocks like these, but the dynamic evidence of change that is apparent all around. This crag upon which I stand is another example. It is made up of the third type of rock common here, another dark hard type, but this one brittle and angular, rather than rounded and swirled. Up at the top of the crag, corners and edges where the rock has splintered and fractured are sharp and clean, but as you look lower and lower down towards the water, you see that these become rounded and more gentle, and the ones that come in constant contact with the water are completely smooth. It is so obvious that the world is a constantly changing place, how could people have ignored that?