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My Solitudes : Chapter Ten : River in Spring : Excerpts

I am definitely ‘behind schedule’ today. The glorious sunshine of this morning that triggered the decision to come today has unfortunately disappeared behind an increasingly overcast sky; there isn’t going to be a lot of time for discoveries this afternoon. But tomorrow will hopefully be fine weather, and I’ll be up early in the morning ready for it.

All along the shoreline I can see evidence of the very heavy rains that swept across this area over the past couple of days. The rain water must have brought a collection of leaves, branches and other debris when it rushed down the steep banks, and a lot of this has been deposited along the edge of the water. I can also see in the river itself that a lot of debris is being carried along by the stream; the water seems quite murky. I suppose it’ll clear up in a few days, although at the moment it doesn’t look so appetizing. But I hadn’t planned on doing any swimming anyway ...

Off at the left end of this stretch of water, above the trees at the top of the cliff, a plume of soft wood smoke is rising into the air, and I know where it is coming from. As I walked along from the station I passed a small and quite old little house, where an elderly man had sat feeding kindling and firewood into a small boiler. A pipe from the tank projected into the wall of the house, and I suppose that he was preparing his evening bath water. I wonder if he spends much time down here by the river. If my own home was this close, about 60 seconds from door to water, would I come here often, or would it be so routine after a while that I just wouldn’t bother? Perhaps though, he doesn’t need to actually come down here every day; just having it nearby may be enough. I suppose this is the attitude of most people towards nature and parks. Even if we don’t use them ourselves, we certainly want them to be there. Those of you reading these little stories - are you content to let me visit this river and ‘report back’ to you about what I see here, or will you make your own visits one day?


Although the water is flowing along quite quickly, there are places here and there along the shore where large stones in the water provide protection against the current, and the water becomes still. In one of these spots I see some flickering shadows on the surface. Moving closer, I see a gathering of water-striders, those interesting little insects that skate along on the surface on outstretched legs. I can understand why they chose this quiet place for their gathering - out on the open river they would be tossed about uncontrollably - but what are they doing? Although most of them are just sliding about doing nothing in particular, here and there in the group a few individuals are leaping into the air every few seconds. They move so quickly that it’s hard to tell for sure, but it seems that they are actually getting all their feet off the water together. They don’t get very far up into the air, perhaps 5 millimetres or so, and I can’t see that they are catching anything, although I have to admit that whatever these bugs eat must be pretty small, and I doubt whether I’d be able to see it. I’ve read about these striders, and basically understand the concept of how they walk on the water, that they are too insignificant to break the surface tension, but it is still rather unreal to watch them do it. It just goes against all that we understand of how water behaves ... I wonder also, do they drink? If so, how do they break through the tension to absorb the molecules of water?

There’s something else that also puzzles me about bugs like this. Here it is springtime, and here they are. A few months ago when I was here in the cold winter, there were almost no insects. How do they make the transition from one summer to the next? Were these bugs ‘hiding’ somewhere during the winter, waiting for the warm weather to arrive? In an environment like ours here in Tokyo I can accept that, because it doesn’t really get all that cold during the winter, but I find it difficult to believe of a place like the Canadian prairies, where there is certainly no shortage of insects, and yet where the winters are so cold that it is hard to imagine any creature at all surviving, let alone such fragile things as these insects.

Another possibility of course, is that it is eggs that survive the winter - carefully stored in a safe spot by last year’s adults before they died with the arrival of the cold weather. This I suppose may happen in some cases, but it doesn’t match what I have seen myself of the behaviour of some insects, mosquitoes for example. I use water in my printmaking work, and keep a bucket constantly by my side. I have noticed that in summer if I don’t change the water frequently, it sometimes becomes infested with mosquito larvae; mosquitoes have laid their eggs in the bucket. Well, if mosquitoes lay eggs during the summer which hatch the same season, then where do the first mosquitoes in the spring come from? Do a few hardy individuals ‘hide’ somewhere in a sheltered spot for the entire winter, and then emerge in the spring to act as ‘parents’ of the entire next season’s population of mosquitoes? That hardly seems likely, but what other explanation could there be?


The opposite shore is now just a black outline against the sky, and I can see no detail of individual trees. After stumbling over some stones in the gloom while walking along the edge of the water, I realize that my day - or at least the ‘active’ part of it - is coming to an end, and I turn to return to the tent. As I do, there is a kind of quick ‘flutter’ at the edge of my vision against the open sky. I know exactly what this is, because it is something I frequently see from my balcony at home in the evenings, and when I look up to watch more closely, see that there are quite a few small bats flying back and forth above me.

These are great fun to watch, so when I get back to the tent I pull the air mattress half in/half out of the doorway, bundle up in my sweater and jacket, and lay back so that they will be silhouetted against the faint light still present in the sky. The presence of these bats marks the close of that window of opportunity that the insects must have been enjoying since the birds were forced to their nests for the night. I kind of like bats, and - in contrast to the complete lack of knowledge I have displayed about the birds I meet on these trips - I actually know a fair bit about them. The first thing that you notice when seeing bats fly in the evening sky is the erratic and helter-skelter path they take, jerking this way and that. They are of course hunting insects with their echo-location, but the impression that I formerly had that they are flying about with mouth agape catching them that way is for the most part incorrect. It seems that bats do most of the actual catching by scooping with their wing and tail membranes. They then reach down to take the insect into their mouth. No wonder their flight patterns are erratic!

We are told that a typical bat will catch upwards of 1,000 insects per hour. At first, that figure seems unbelievable, but when you do the math, it turns out to be one every 3~4 seconds. And watching them fly quickly back and forth across the sky, that does seem quite possible. In fact, the unbelievable thing is that there can be any insects left alive after such an onslaught. There are dozens of bats in my sight just now; and this feasting goes on every day! It is a very clear demonstration of the incredible reproductive power of insects - if there were nothing keeping them in check, the planet would be overrun in days! (And speaking of insect reproductive power reminds me that before I go to bed this evening, I should go down to the rocks at the water’s edge and see how the big ‘dance’ is coming along!)

Some of the bats seem quite a bit larger than the others, but perhaps these are just flying closer; in this deep gloom, it is difficult to focus properly on the shapes flitting by so quickly. Now and then one of them swoops so close that I can practically feel the movement of air from his wings. I imagine trying to reach up quickly to touch one, but I’m sure that this would be impossible. And just then - something different catches my eye. A dark shape suddenly appears high in the sky, coming out of the darkness across the river. Soaring with beautiful soundless and smooth motion, it floats across my field of vision, passes directly over me, and then disappears into the mass of dark trees behind the tent. ...


A minute later I have arrived at the ‘office’, the large rock overlooking the river on which I spent so many hours basking in the sun during the winter visit. I find the same sloping rock ledge, arrange the sheet, and settle in place for a heavy session of ... doing nothing!

When I was first planning these trips, I of course wondered what the days would be like. My printmaking work is basically solitary, and it’s not unknown for me to go from morning to night without seeing anybody else - if it is a day without errands or shopping - so being by myself all day long is not a problem at all. But even though I may be alone all day at home, I am certainly never without ‘something to do’. Because there are so many facets to my daily work - the printmaking itself, the bookkeeping, dealing with collectors, writing stories, housework, etc. etc. - there is never a time when there is ‘nothing to do’. As a result, I spend a typical day moving from one task directly to another; once one job is ‘done’, something else is always waiting.

But surely I have had experience at doing nothing during those times when on vacation? Well actually, I have never really had a ‘do nothing’ vacation, of the ‘sit on a beach all day’ type. Now everything is relative here, and from the point of view of my neighbour - who commutes on a crowded train to an office in Tokyo every morning, and returns home late every evening - all my days are like holidays; I spend my time peacefully doing pleasurable activities, under no stress from ‘the boss’, and with absolutely no need at all to watch the clock.

Even as my days are relatively stress-free though, my daily work is work nonetheless, and it certainly keeps me completely occupied. These trips outdoors are thus kind of a vacation, and as mentioned, I had wondered if I really would be able to sit still and enjoy myself without the constant stimulation and distraction provided by the unending stream of a typical day’s activities.

Now that we are in the final segment of the seasonal cycle of these visits, I have my answer. All in all, I think I have done a pretty good job at making the adjustment between the busy routines back at home and the unplanned days here outdoors. I don’t pretend at all to have ‘mastered’ the art of doing nothing; as you have read, the days have definitely not been long ‘zen’ stretches of emptying my mind. The environments have been so stimulating, that it hasn’t really been a fair test at all. There are so many questions clamouring for answers!

But I have kept very closely to that basic rule that I set for myself back at the beginning - that I would not get caught up in exploring, in constantly moving around looking for interesting things. I would sit and wait - quietly - and see what came to me. And come it has, as we have seen over the course of the year ...