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Sounds that stem from quietude — when a tree falls down

by Amy Chavez

Perhaps the best thing about living on a small island in Japan of just 583 people (258 men and 325 women) is that you can walk out your door and kiss the online world goodbye. Here, most people don’t walk around glued to their cellphones, the majority don’t even have smartphones, and very few take pictures of their food and upload them to the Internet.

People here just live — the way we all, somehow, used to. For some people, it’s hard to imagine — like trying to understand how life was before the automobile. We’ve all heard about it, but who can really imagine going out to the garage and waking up the horse, feeding it breakfast, and then riding it to work? And you complain about car expenses!

One thing I really enjoy about the island life is the tranquility of nature uninterrupted by man-made noise. I don’t mean that it is quiet here, but that the noise stems from quietude — sounds emitted not from movement, but stillness. Sometimes in the summertime, I sit in my house with the windows open and listen to the litany of the cicadas outside — and this is when I reach cicada inner peace (it does exist, really!).

It was during one of these cicada inner peace sessions, when suddenly, a tree fell down outside. It wasn’t loud, but I could hear a distinct crack and a quiet, muffled thump. I was sure someone must have cut it down, but when I went to investigate, I saw that the tree had just passed away. At 2.43 p.m. on a Tuesday!

We often see trees knocked down from strong winds or hard rains, but we seldom consider a tree that just falls, for no reason except that its time has come. And this was not an old tree.

The tree had fallen across the path that goes up to the Shinto shrine. I stood there looking at the newly fallen tree, its fresh white stump exposed, wondering what to do. Have a funeral? Surely there must be some Shinto protocol for situations like this, when nature leaves nature.

Although the tree was near the Shinto shrine, it was not a shinboku — a sacred tree such as the cedar, cypress or cryptomeria that act as antennas to the kami (Shinto gods), who descend to earth via these trees. Nor was this tree the caliber of a sakaki tree, found throughout the island. The sakaki, the most sacred of native Japanese trees used since ancient times in divine Shinto rituals, is most famous for being the type of tree from which a mirror was hung that lured Amaterasu, the Japanese Sun Goddess, out of her cave to bring light back into the world.

No, this tree was just a humble pine tree. And though the pine tree, which stays green year round and endures even the harshest winters, is a symbol of longevity in Japan, this pine tree was not a special goyomatsu (white pine) especially revered for this.

As a matter of fact, this lowly pine tree trumped the stereotype that pine trees are long-lived. You see, even the lifestyles of young pine trees are changing. The reputation of the pine tree as being strong and weathering the harshest conditions is being challenged by the new, delicate modern pine that is vulnerable to modern diseases — in this case, the scourge of the pine bark beetle.

I feel for these pine trees having their livelihoods destroyed. The pine bark beetle chokes the tree of the vital sap it needs to grow, leaving it to die a slow, painful death, until finally, the tree falls down at 2:43 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. Perhaps it made that cracking sound when it fell as a cry out for recognition, because it didn’t want a “lonely death.”

“For 3,000 years, the Japanese have believed that kami, the powers of the spiritual dimension, can make contact with human beings through trees,” says Motohisa Yamamoto in his book “The Essence of Shinto.” Oh great. I wonder what this tree is trying to “communicate” to me. Please, please, don’t tell me your secrets! I do not want to become the Pine Tree Whisperer.

In all due respect to the pine tree, since our island is national park, there was not much I could do for it. Nor did I really want to get involved with previous lives and possible ancestors who had come back to this life, via reincarnation, as trees.

So I contacted the village hall, who deals with tree deaths, to let them know. A man came out, took pictures of the tree and filed a report with the city hall. Someone would soon come and cut the tree up and leave the logs to rot away naturally, the way they do with all trees that fall in the national forest here.

It’s always sad when a living thing goes before its time. And I wish I could say that this tree, rather than being a victim of the pine bark beetle, was instead a part of some other esoteric natural phenomenon, like a gravity hot spot, where there happens to be a higher concentration of gravity that is so strong, it can pull a tree down.

But even while the pine bark beetle is ravaging the forests of Japan, we can still live in comfort knowing that “mountains, rivers, plants and trees all become Buddha” as the expression goes in Japanese Buddhism.

Witnessing the cycle of nature is a privilege. Remember to stop now and then to find your cicada inner peace. But you better do it quickly, before the cicadas upload their litanies to iTunes.

  • Michael Craig

    Which island is this?

  • VeryOldB

    Ms. Chavez, that’s a nice piece of writing. I can appreciate it thousands of miles away and would love to spend a week or two soaking in the sights and meeting the people of your island. I suspect I’d also notice a few trees.