The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Matsuo Bashō by Hokusai

Several times over the last thirty years, I have returned to the 17th century haiku and commentaries by Matsuo Bashō on the subject of travel:

Amid mountains of high summer,
I bowed respectfully before
The tall clogs of a statue,
Asking a blessing on my journey.

There is a quality to Bashō’s writing that makes me want to hit the road. As he wends his way through Shogunate Japan, stopping at temples along the way, I see him as the ideal traveling companion.

This grassy hermitage,
Hardly any more
Than five feet square,
I would gladly quit
But for the rain.

I think of his poem about a ruined castle:

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.

Bashō’s prose, too, has a certain quality that is worth remembering:

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one—when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural—if the object and yourself are separate—then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.

How marvelous! This is what I seek from my travels—not that I write poetry—a “hidden glimmering” that makes itself manifest when I confront it with my entire being.

The name of this post, and of Bashō’s poetic journal, was also used by Australian novelist Thomas Kavanagh in his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which tells of its physician hero’s imprisonment in World War Two Burma building the bridge on the River Kwai made famous by David Lean’s movie.

 

Just Across the River Plate

Street Sign in Colonia del Sacramento

Buenos Aires is one of the most exciting cities in the world. What makes it more bearable is that, if you need to relax a bit, you’re just a short hop across the River Plate to Colonia del Sacramento in adjacent Uruguay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Colonia, as it is known to Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires), is a small city of some 27,000 souls and 17th century walls to protect the inhabitants from incursions by the Argentinians or the Brazilians. Until 1828, Uruguay was a football kicked around between Spain and Portugal.

In our 2006 trip to Colonia via a Colonia Express ferry, Martine found the place to be one of the highlights of our vacation. The town is eminently walkable, with old cobblestones being the rule rather than the exception. The town has a handful of small museums that are fun to visit in the Barrio Historico. M favorite was the tile museum with its small collection of ceramic tiles.

The Lighhouse Is a Museum Which One Can Explore

Now that I have seen Colonia and read W. H Hudson’s idyllic The Purple Land (1885), I would like to spend some more time in Uruguay. In Colonia, we met a British couple that traveled to Fray Bentos because of memories of the canned meat that originated there and was exported to Europe. Also, I would very much like to see the capital, Montevideo.

 

The Turtle Brings Rain

Glimpse of a Turtle at Descanso Garden’s Mulberry Pond

To the American Indian, the turtle was a means by which rain can come in a dry season. Although Southern California had some rain this year, it wasn’t much; and it looks like it’s over until much later this year or early the next. Fortunately, the mountains to the north, from which we get most of our drinking water, had a fairly wet rainy season.

Here is one such ceremony for rainmaking using the image of a turtle that was documented by a surveyor who swears by it:

A Rain Turtle is a combined piece of American History from Indians & the Old West.

This is what I have been taught about them.

When I was a young man, & was taking an apprenticship in surveying, one of my teachers was a thin, OLD man that had been surveying since he was able to hold both ends of the rod off the ground. The old gent ALWAYS wore a white shirt, tie, kahaki pants, packer boots, and Fedora hat. He was in his 80’s when I met him….

He taught me that when the surveyors would survey boundaries & railroads across the old West, they often stayed with Indians, or had Indians accompany them on their long traverses across the American West.

The story goes on to say that when an area needed rain, the Indians would make the outline of a turtle in the sand, generally facing West, as that is the direction the Rain God came from…. Once the Turtle was drawn, the Indian would drive a stake of wood through the center of the Turtle. Often times, it rained instantly. The Indians took it for granted that the process worked & wondered why the “Dumb Ol’ White Eyes” would not use it when they needed the Rain God to appear!

Word of this phenominan [sic] quickly spread throughout the tight knit group of surveyors in the Old West. They quickly picked up on the trick & became apt at performing the simple cerimony [sic].

As they traveled through the West, they came across towns that severely needed rain for their crops & livestock. The surveyors were readily there to make a rain turtle & bring relief to the community…..

The communities, grateful to get the rainfall often offered to pay the surveyors for their precious gift….(which was promptly refused by the surveyors)

When the Survey Party proceeded to move on from the town, often, there had been a collection of baked goods, some money, chickens, things brought to the wagons the surveyors used, by the townspeople in appreciation for the rain.

Today, most surveyors know of the Rain Turtle…. Most of them use it to get a well deserved break in work, caused by the rain…

In my crowded little apartment, I have numerous turtles, most of which were fashioned by Indians. In the weeks to come, I will photograph them and present them in these pages. It will be my own ceremony for rain-making. Maybe it’ll work; maybe it won’t. Doesn’t matter.

 

Favorite Films: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid and James Coburn as Pat Garrett

Film is an art form that involves the work of teams of people: producers, directors, writers, crew, and actors. As a result, virtually no film is perfect. That is particularly the case when directors like Sam Peckinpah are at odds with studio heads like MGM’s James Aubrey. Aubrey didn’t give Peckinpah anywhere near the resources he requested, partly because his attention was turned to completing the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

And yet Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (PG&BK) is a wonderful film. It is certainly a violent one: Martine left the theater at the Autry Center about a half hour into the film. There is a lot of swearing, a number of characters die bloody deaths; and yet … there are scenes of such beauty that one rarely encounters. I am thinking particularly when Slim Pickens as Sheriff Baker is gut-shot, and his wife, played by the splendid Katy Jurado, throws away her rifle and follows him to the side of a pond where he has gone to die. In the background, the lovely song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is playing.

The sound track is by none other than Bob Dylan, who wrote and performed all the music—and who also had a minor part in the cast, playing the part of Alias. (It is quite evident that Dylan never acted before, but the film is great enough to encompass a host of minor flaws.)

PG&BK plays with the whole Billy the Kid legend. James Coburn as Pat Garrett is the unwitting tool of the Santa Fe politicians, led by General Lew Wallace, author of the novel Ben Hur. In the past, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) had been a lawman, and Pat Garrett the outlaw. Now the roles have been reversed.

Martine Going Down the Stairs at the Lincoln County, NM Courthouse Which Billy the Kid Used to Escape

In June, Martine and I visited the town of Lincoln, New Mexico. Pat Garrett was the sheriff of Lincoln County. Peckinpah did a wonderful job of recreating the courthouse room where Billy was held prisoner and guarded by deputies J. W. Bell and Bob Olinger, both of whom were shot during his escape. In the photo above, Martine is obscuring with her left shoulder a bullet hole which Billy may have created when he shot his way out of captivity.

There is a strange quality to PG&BK. It seems as if Billy and Pat spend most of the film avoiding each other. Only at the end does Pat seem to feel pushed to catch up with his old pal Billy at Fort Sumner and kill him. Even there, there is a certain delicacy on his part as he waits for Billy to finish making love to Maria (played by Kristofferson’s wife, Rita Coolidge) before making his presence known and killing him.

 

Together Again

Martine and I in the Coachella Valley

Martine called me this morning from Sacramento and said she was returning home. Apparently her trip was marred by a combination of a bad cold and uncomfortable travel. Whatever the reason, I am happy to welcome her back. I hope she doesn’t plan any more of these departures (this was her third).  I just got back from the Greyhound Depot in downtown L.A., so I don’t have time for any further details at this time.

 

The End?

My Most Recent Picture of Martine

This morning, I dropped Martine off at Union Station, from where she was to take a train to a destination she wouldn’t divulge to me (lest I try to stop her). My guess it was someplace in the Pacific Northwest. Starting in July, she decided she wanted to leave Los Angeles. She had been having problems with depression, and perhaps by some magical reasoning process decided changing venue would make her feel better. At no time did I ever feel she was leaving me and our relationship together as much as she was leaving a place.

I hope she comes back. She doesn’t have very much money, and she doesn’t have any friends that I know of that she would go to—not on the West Coast, at any rate.

Martine left late in October 2017, but she was hospitalized for observation in Truckee, California when she led a social worker to think that she came to Truckee to do away with herself. I personally do not think she would do that, or at least I hope she wouldn’t do that.

All I could do was to let her know that she was welcome to return, without preconditions, even though I would hope she received some care for her depression.

Martine Withdrawing Her Money from the Bank

Yes, I know she is a troubled person. I also know that she has always been sweet to me and unrelentingly honest. You see, I am used to having gone out with women before I met Martine who thought nothing of lying to me.

I hope she calls me so I can reassure her that I still feel the same way about her.

 

Beliefs—Rigid and Lite

Yes, He Certainly Looks Rigid

What is C-3PO doing in this blog? I put his picture here because the actor who played the robot in all the Star Wars films was named Anthony Daniels, but he is not to be confused with the writer Anthony Daniels. I guess the confusion was so much for the latter that he now goes by the name Theodore Dalrymple.

By now, I have read quite a few books about Guatemala, my next trip destination, and he is the first writer who checked his beliefs at the door. At first glance, I thought his sympathies lay with the hounds, in this case the dictators/army generals who were responsible for some two hundred thousand deaths in the period of the Civil War, roughly 1960-1996. But then I saw that he was giving equal ink to both sides of the war and making cogent arguments that showed he was a good listener. He spent several days in Nicaragua talking to Sandinistas and Sandinista sympathizers. As both a travel writer and a physician, he even spent a couple weeks serving as a doctor on an isolated coffee finca that could be reached only by airplane.

At one point in Sweet Waist of America: Journeys Around Guatemala, Daniels (or Dalrymple) writes:

In fact, Guatemala is not a country for those who want the world to be neatly divisible into good and evil. Perhaps such countries do not exist. But to restore my confidence in my ability to recognize evil when I encountered it, I sought an interview with General Benedicto Lucas García. I had tried to contact his brother, General Romeo Lucas García [the worst of the recent Guatemalan dictators], but he was never at home….

He also interviewed General Efrain Ríos Montt, who was one of the worst recent rulers and who is now an evangelical preacher. Naturally, he did not fess up to having authorized any massacres.

Around this time, I started getting interested in Daniels/Dalrymple. On Wikipedia, there was an interesting summary of the recurring themes in his writing. These include:

  • The cause of much contemporary misery in Western countries – criminality,domestic violence, drug addiction, aggressive youths, hooliganism, broken families – is the nihilistic, decadent and/or self-destructive behaviour of people who do not know how to live. Both the smoothing over of this behaviour, and the medicalisation of the problems that emerge as a corollary of this behaviour, are forms of indifference. Someone has to tell those people, patiently and with understanding for the particulars of the case, that they have to live differently.
  • Poverty does not explain aggressive, criminal and self-destructive behaviour. In an African slum you will find among the very poor, living in dreadful circumstances, dignity and decency in abundance, which are painfully lacking in an average English suburb, although its inhabitants are much wealthier.
  • An attitude characterised by gratefulness and having obligations towards others has been replaced – with awful consequences – by an awareness of “rights” and a sense of entitlement, without responsibilities. This leads to resentment as the rights become violated by parents, authorities, bureaucracies and others in general.
  • One of the things that make Islam attractive to young westernised Muslim men is the opportunity it gives them to dominate women.
  • Technocratic or bureaucratic solutions to the problems of mankind produce disasters in cases where the nature of man is the root cause of those problems.
  • It is a myth, when going “cold turkey” from an opiate such as heroin, that the withdrawal symptoms are virtually unbearable; they are in fact hardly worse than flu. [Remember, Daniels is a physician.]

Anthony Daniels/Theodore Dalrymple

  • Criminality is much more often the cause of drug addiction than its consequence.
  • Sentimentality, which is becoming entrenched in British society, is “the progenitor, the godparent, the midwife of brutality.”
  • High culture and refined aesthetic tastes are worth defending, and despite the protestations of non-judgmentalists who say all expression is equal, they are superior to popular culture.
  • The ideology of the Welfare State is used to diminish personal responsibility. Erosion of personal responsibility makes people dependent on institutions and favours the existence of a threatening and vulnerable underclass.
  • Moral relativism can easily be a trick of an egotistical mind to silence the voice of conscience.
  • Multiculturalism and cultural relativism are at odds with common sense. [I don’t altogether agree with this one.]
  • The decline of civilised behaviour – self-restraint, modesty, zeal, humility, irony, detachment – ruins social and personal life.
  • The root cause of our contemporary cultural poverty is intellectual dishonesty. First, the intellectuals (more specifically, left-wing ones) have destroyed the foundation of culture, and second, they refuse to acknowledge it by resorting to the caves of political correctness.

Now this is a largely conservative set of beliefs that do not coincide with mine, but I like the man’s even-handedness, especially in his Guatemala book. The man makes me think, and it helps me to understand in some way the Trumpf revolution of 2016.