Reading landscapes for the poetry of time

As a mostly non-fiction reader and writer, the lands of literature and poetry are foreign places I have not visited very much. On the other hand, living in a foreign place and language I have done more than many of my peers, family, and friends. Getting outside one’s own language and landscape can lead to all kinds of views. Things at home that were once taken for granted now become visible. Things in the foreign country invisible to residents stand out from one’s standpoint as an outsider looking in. Among the sensibilities that may wake up from the dislocation to an unfamiliar setting is a heightened awareness of time’s passing slower or faster than normal; normal as referenced to life before traveling to the new place. “Stopping the smell the roses” in a figurative sense of pausing to appreciate things that normally are taken for granted, but also in a literal sense or placing one’s nose close to an unfamiliar bloom is one illustration of the new-born sense of wonder and enhanced attention to time’s passing.

A good deal of poetry seems to hinge on loss, long-ago relationships, and events larger than one’s own control proceeding inexorably. In other words, changes in seasons, in one’s own condition, or the circumstances of the community in which one lives all depend on the passage of time, but moreover on the awareness that time is slipping past. Among the many triggers for emotional response in poetry, time is perhaps the most fundamental and all encompassing; something as inescapable as mortality itself. Therefore, turning to the cultural landscape of one’s home ground or in a distant land, the experience of exploring the surfaces in search of clues to earlier events, historical phases, and ancestral routines of livelihood is a form of reading the landscape which hinges on amplifying one’s sense of time gone by, as well as the present fleeting moment, and possible hints of what may be coming in the generation to follow.

Beginning at the end of 2016 for the next 10 or 11 months I worked at a friend’s consulting company headquartered in rural west Japan. During weekends, holidays, and free time around daybreak and the evenings after work I would venture on bicycle or foot to see the surrounding hamlets, factories, rice paddies and greenhouses that dotted the valley floor and the foothills of nearby mountains. Almost always I carried a camera and posted pictures, clips, and commentary at flickr.com/photos/anthroview in groups of albums. More than a year after returning to the USA these postings formed the basis of volume 1 and 2 of ebooks to present sights and thoughts prompted by the cultural landscape and my curiosity about the historical periods represented by both operational and abandoned buildings, fields, and other traces visible on the land, in a few cases going back to the earth mounds and stone-lined tombs from the 500 and 600s on some hilltops.

screenshot of 2 ebook covers about rural Japan by the author
reading the rural Japanese landscape in pictures and words (G. P. Witteveen)

A life-long resident and native speaker of Japanese would probably not seize upon the same photo subjects to capture, nor reflect on them anthropologically as I have done with my academic training and habits of seeing. Nor would a complete stranger newly arrived be in a position to navigate all around the valley, villages, and the cities in the same way that I did after stints of work in and around the area during several years across the space of three decades. In other words, reading the cultural landscape can be done in many ways according to one’s relationship to the place. But being too familiar (local residents) or too unfamiliar (complete outsider) does not usually produce very wide or deep reading.

Locating oneself between these positions seems the most fruitful; not informed as much as a scholarly expert of history, but yet alert to some of the signs and traces of the larger forces of past decades and the outline of events in centuries gone by. Apart from this intermediate position for one’s relationship to the landscape and people whose livelihoods are played out there, what else contributes to the hunt for clues to things that happened in a place before one lays eyes on it? And once those factors come to light, can a similar reading of landscape abroad also be productive back in one’s home country, too? Looking more closely at a forthcoming project in parts of Japan outside this valley should suggest answers to these questions.

One source of pleasure when scrutinizing the view that presents itself comes from the spark of recognition; a mild “a-ha” sense of discovery or revelation, joined with the reverberation of recognizing an artifact, event, or name associated with a location. Like meeting an old friend or even a recent acquaintance unexpectedly, there is a mild shock of becoming alert and then knowing what it is that stands out in plain view for all to see, but for only a few to notice and acknowledge in its significance.

Another source of satisfaction comes from a sense of rare privilege in viewing a trace of another time and other lives; of knowing the value has faded and the skills for using the thing may be lost. And yet by one’s own recognition of the subject in view on the landscape, there is a jolt from knowing what is there waiting to be discovered.

Thirdly, there is a slight feeling of completion that comes from solving a riddle or watching a detective story play out. One puzzle piece after another comes up and gradually a picture in one’s mind forms; a subtle synthesis to fill in the context and long-ago meanings that could have once been known by everyone, but now have been forgotten by residents and which never were known at all by total outsiders.

Finally, there is the heightened sense of time marching on, leaving behind one generation after another. Leaving generation gaps between those whose world differed so much (and yet changed so little in some ways) from the youngest residents now of the locale. As the opening lines of this essay suggest, where there is change and the awareness of time fleeting, an overall poetry flavors the experience. And so, when it comes to reading the foreign landscape of rural Japan, or indeed of one’s own native land, the vision enhanced by hunting for old traces and knowing a little of the way of life where these traces did once fit now produces strong awareness of time speeding along, and by extension a certain poetic frame of mind as a result.

Concluding with the last question, “can one also read the cultural landscape at home, a place once too familiar to be seen clearly,” the answer seems to be yes, it should be possible. One can go away from home to sharpen the habits of hunting for historical traces of lives and livelihoods, then use that same method back at home. The caveat is that some effort is needed to escape from the routine way of seeing things that one’s neighbors are accustomed to. Rather than to look around as someone born-and-raised there, yet careful not to be removed from local meanings like a foreign visitor would be, the key is to create an intermediate vantage point: no longer a life-long local resident, and not a total outsider, either. Taking the position of a distant insider or a close-up outsider is the way to see the cultural landscape well enough to read some of its stories and share them with others.

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