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My Solitudes : Chapter Five : Forest in Autumn : Excerpts

When travelling to my camping spot at the seaside I have no option but to go by train, and for my private river-side spot the train is also the best choice for getting there. When I came to this mountainside a couple of months ago it was by bicycle. These methods are all very well, and can save a lot of time, but there is an interesting problem that arises when using mechanical transportation to reach my camping place; I get off the train or bicycle, shoulder my pack, and then in a matter of just a few minutes, have arrived at my camping spot. The transition is too abrupt; my body stands there in a quiet, peaceful and natural environment, but my mind, my mood, is far from being either quiet or peaceful. It takes quite some time before my mental state settles down to match my surroundings.

So this time, for my trip to the woods in autumn, I am trying a different approach. I am 'hiking' from home to the campsite, loaded pack on my back, good boots on my feet, in a trip that will take just about an hour. The first half of the journey is through an urban area, but once I have crossed the Tama River and enter the forest on the other side, the mood changes. The traffic noise gradually fades away behind me, and the swish of the cars passing on the highway is replaced by the swish of the tree branches swaying in the wind.

Today is a very windy day, and the trees all around are swaying back and forth in the vigorous breeze. The air is full of flying leaves, yellow, brown and red. Fallen debris carpets the forest floor all around me. Perhaps there is more of this than usual this year because of the typhoon last month, as many of these fallen trees and branches look 'fresh', the jagged broken portions still showing quite a light colour.

The forest track starts with a steep climb to the top of the hill. My backpack is a bit heavier than last time, as not only have I brought plenty of food, but I have also included more heavy clothing, as the night may be quite cold. Even though there are so many leaves on the ground, the trees are still well clothed, and the colours stand out sharply against the blue of the sky. It won't remain blue for much longer though, because I have made quite a late start today, having been tied up with affairs back in the city until well after lunchtime. There won't be much time to sit and relax this afternoon, and I'll have to get busy setting up the tent as soon as I arrive. But the forecast for tomorrow is clear, and no obligations await, none that is, except that of sitting still and absorbing the forest ambience.

Even though the air is quite cool, not much of today's chilly wind reaches down to the ground beneath all these trees, and I am soon forced to stop for a moment and strip off some of the heavy clothing which was necessary out in the open streets of the city. Even so, by the time I get to the top of the slope I am sweating ... But once the elevation is gained, the next half hour is a peaceful stroll along the ridge to the area where I will be camping.

This is the way to enter the natural world, not suddenly 'parachuted' into place by mechanical transportation, but slowly, step by step. I am sure that a person with extensive trekking experience would laugh at my 'one hour' transition to a campsite where I will stay for only a single day; he spends many days slowly acclimatizing to an environment where he will spend many weeks. But it is the perception that is important - the idea that one must approach the woods in a different frame of mind from that in which one lives down in the city.

My new approach is working well today. As I walk along the ridge, boots firmly 'clomping' onto the compact yet soft earth of the path, I feel regret that in a few minutes this hike will come to an end. I'm not even warmed up yet! The two kilometers or so that separate my campsite from the main road pass all too quickly ...


The colours around me seem to have changed with the onset of evening. The leaves I saw while walking through the forest earlier in the day seemed mostly to be brown and red colours, but in this more delicate light, those colours have faded into the background, and it is the yellows that now stand out.

I'm still in no hurry to set up the tent. I have a good lantern in the pack if it gets too dark to see what I'm doing, and it is pleasant to be sitting here slowly 'winding down' as the drink fills my body with warmth. I'm also enjoying the sensation of being out here in dark evening woods without the tent being there. Although it is made from nothing but a couple of thin nylon sheets and a few thin poles, and can't possibly be compared to an actual building, it still provides a kind of psychological security. Wherever I may be, in these woods, in my river camp, or by the seaside, the presence of the tent gives an illusion (is it an illusion?) of protected space ... of 'home'.

This evening I want to try and escape from that protection for at least a few minutes. After all, one of the main ideas behind these trips is to experience what it feels like to be out in nature. If I constantly huddle inside that 'protected' environment, then how can I possibly understand what surrounds me? Perhaps it would be better if I didn't use the tent tonight, but just slept out in the open, with my sleeping bag spread out on the ground sheet. I mull these thoughts around for a while in my head, but my mug is soon empty, the air temperature drops yet another few degrees ... Hmmm, let's save that experiment for another time. I get to work and in a few minutes the tent is up, the gear is stowed inside, and my warm 'home' is ready. After all, even the squirrels and birds prepare themselves a snug place for the night, don't they?


I wonder how many of you who read this can really understand what I see tonight in these woods? In the nearly half a century that I have been on this earth, I have read any number of descriptions of moonlit nights, nodding my head in 'understanding' of what I was reading, but I see now that I understood nothing at all. How could I have understood, when I had never before seen such a sight? Words can only have meaning for us when they relate to things that we have had some experience of. When I told you about the river gurgling past my campsite in previous stories, I think you could probably form a pretty good concept in your mind of what I was hearing; you have no doubt had experience standing by the side of a stream, and my words thus trigger memories and images in your own mind, giving shape and form to the image I am trying to create there.

But have you ever sat in a silent forest under an autumn full moon at two o'clock in the morning? Have you heard the sound of a tiny twig dropping from a tree many metres away? Have you walked along paths covered with fallen leaves, each one a glowing white shadow underfoot? Walked through a world brightly lit, but yet still 'dark', the light apparently coming from 'everywhere', but with no shadows showing its source? If you have never done these things, can you really 'see' what I see in this forest?


It is these things I am pondering as I move along the ridge trail up the valley, when my thoughts are interrupted by a sound from some distance up ahead of me. It is an irregular sound, stopping and starting at intervals; something or somebody is in the bushes up there. I move forward as quietly as I can, trying not to step on anything that will make an obvious sound. A minute later I can see movement in the undergrowth off to the right, and then a flash of red clothing tells me that no, I won't be seeing a tanuki or a bear today ... It's a man, quite an elderly man, with a small sickle in his hand. He is cutting branches from some of the bushes that are thriving in this particular spot, where the trees are thin and more sunlight can reach the ground.

Out here in the woods it's completely impossible to just walk by somebody without speaking, as we do in the city, so I stop to greet him. He tells me that these are sakaki bushes, and he will sell these branches to a florist shop down in the city. He has already amassed quite a large pile of trimmed branches, all stacked up at the side of the path. He is quite friendly, interested in what I am doing up here, and when he hears a little bit about my activity starts to pour forth information about this valley, the paths, and the animals that are to be found in this neighbourhood. Or I should perhaps say, 'were to be found', because his story is mostly about how things used to be.

The most common animal here, he tells me, was a kind of rabbit, the no-usagi, and preying on them were many foxes, kitsune. It was apparently impossible to walk along these trails without seeing the rabbits bounding off the path into the bushes ahead of you as you move along. He knows that there are none at all left now because he never sees their droppings anywhere any more. I hadn't thought of this, but realize as I listen to him that of course this would be one of the best signs to indicate what creatures live in any area. I have seen absolutely no droppings at all anywhere in these woods; a very clear indication that I am wasting my time if I expect to see any sizable animals ...


The afternoon passes, and sun starts to get close to the hills. This is about the hour that I arrived yesterday, and signals time to start thinking about breaking camp. But as I stand there in the glade, a new idea takes root. That moonlight last night was so beautiful ... maybe I should stay another night. The moon won't be exactly full again, but surely it'll be close enough. I have enough food with me, so that won't be a problem, but there is another consideration. It has become a sort of custom for a friend to phone me on the evenings when I return from these trips, checking to see that I have arrived home safely. If I'm not there when the call comes ... No, I think it's better that I stick to the announced plan, and return home.

But there's certainly no rush. The sun will be setting soon, and the moon will be rising not too long after that. If I pack up my gear around nightfall, then sit quietly waiting for moonrise, I will be able to enjoy the return hike through the woods in the bright moonlight. I'll still be home in plenty of time to catch the phone call.

This plan is no sooner thought of, than the decision is made. I pack the things into the backpack in a slightly different fashion than usual; this time I leave the stove at the top, where I can easily pull it out to make a hot drink after it gets chilly. I relax in the now empty tent for a while, and then as night falls, pack it up and tie it on top of the backpack.

It feels a bit strange to be sitting here with no tent by my side. With the disappearance of the sun, all traces of breeze have faded away, and there is not a breath of wind at all. No leaves fall, and no birds sing. My stove makes only a faint hiss as it heats up my last drink, and then when it is extinguished, taking with it that faint blue light, absolute stillness again falls over the woods. I cannot yet see the silvery glow coming from the eastern horizon, but I assume that this is because of the daily variation in sunset/moonrise times. Sunrise and sunset I understand, with the days lengthening and shortening with the passage of the seasons, but by how much does the time of moonrise vary each day? I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't know ...

So I sit and wait for it, sipping the warm drink. The forest seems very dark indeed with neither sun nor moon in the sky. I can make out the vague shapes of nearby trees against the faint glow in the sky, and can just barely see the position of the path on the forest floor, by the slightly different tone of the leaves that cover it. I'm sure glad there's a nice moon coming in a few minutes, because I'd sure hate to have to make the hike through the forest in pitch blackness like this! ...