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Hailing the sensual night crawler

by Hiroaki Sato

EAST WIND MELTS THE ICE: A Memoir through the Seasons, by Liza Dalby. University of California Press, 2007, 346 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

“Earthworms twist” — “Prunella flourishes” — “Load up fertilizers” — “Moss glows green.” What are these?

Well, in ancient China, around the time of Confucius, the notion took hold that the ruler must honor seasonal change exactly or else he would court disaster. The Chinese in those days (if not now) perceived subtle but vital shifts in the air, water, and earth every five days, so that became the minimal seasonal division (hou). A total of 72 such divisions, then, made up the whole year, by solar reckoning.

By the time of the father of the First Chinese Emperor (259-210 B.C.), each such division had acquired a succinct phrase describing the most notable phenomenon: “east wind melts the ice,” “fish jump out of the cracks of the ice,” “the otter offers prayers to the fish” (before devouring it), and so forth. So, the phrase “earthworms twist” (to turn themselves into knots deep in the earth) pointed to the five-day period of the winter solstice.

In the second half of the 17th century, when the Japanese decided to adopt the 72 calendar divisions, they saw that their clime was somewhat at variance with China’s. So they modified many of the phrases, among them “earthworms twist.” Japan has similar critters, yes, but the calendar adopters, all desk-bound scholars unable to imagine what these worms did underground perhaps, replaced it with “Prunella flourishes.” Later, in one of a number of modern variations it became “Load up fertilizers.”

Then, Liza Dalby, the American anthropologist-cum-gardener, worked out a whole new set of 72 descriptions for Berkeley, California, where she has lived for quite some time. As a result, you have “moss glows green” as the most distinguishing natural shift in today’s Berkeley for the 5-day period in December where ancient Chinese saw “earthworms twist.”

But Dalby, having written “Geisha,” “Kimono,” and “The Tale of Murasaki,” was not content to simply devise descriptions of seasonal changes. She wrote a saijiki, “seasonal account,” for each — in the manner of zuihitsu, “following (the dictates of) the brush.” The result is “East Wind Melts the Ice.” It is a pleasurable amalgam of natural observation and memoir.

So, thinking of earthworms twisting themselves into knots deep underground, Dalby imagines “copulatory ecstasies,” then remembers the “wonderful worm-metaphored sex” she had in Japan.

Since she studied geisha in Kyoto for her Ph.D. thesis in the 1970s, she has often visited that country. The first time she went back for further study, it was to a tiny island in the Inland Sea. The eldest son of the family that took her in turned out to be a night crawler — no, not one of those “big, baitworthy, nocturnally active earthworms,” but a practitioner of yobai, “night-crawling” — a young man sneaking into the room of a girl unspoken for, on all fours, we imagine, in the darkness of night. It is an ancient custom in Japan. It is first described in Japan’s oldest extant book, the “Kojiki,” compiled in 710. Prince Okuninushi yobau Princess Nunakawa.

Several years later, Dalby went back to Japan, this time to Tokyo, for more study. She decided to hone her skill with the shamisen, the instrument whose “history is intertwined with that of the geisha.” The teacher she found was a young man, “a second son from an important Nagauta musical dynasty.” He could casually slip out of elegant kimono into jeans to roar off “on an impressively large motorcycle.”

Naturally, she and he ended up spending “a large part of the following six months together, some of which was music lessons.” And he taught her “a lot of intimate Japanese language during this time, including the best phrase for female orgasm I have ever come across:” mimizu-senbiki, a thousand earthworms. “The quaking and wriggling of a thousand worms twisting together. Exactly.”

There is another seasonal division in which earthworms make their appearance: “Worms come forth,” for the 5-day period from May 12 through 16. It is in her essay here that Dalby tells us that she had, from childhood, “a soft spot for worms that probably could have predicted my future destiny as a gardener.” And she reminds us: Charles Darwin observed that “the earthworm has played a most important part in the history of the world,” and “Cleopatra considered them sacred animals, essential to the fertility of the Nile Valley.”

Now, if you think of earthworms and seasonal change with a Japanese perspective in mind, you can’t help noticing the haiku term, mimizu naku, “earthworms sing.” Do they? Dalby thought that was a mere haiku conceit, until she came upon C. Merker. The German naturalist avowed that they do, in chorus, and he could actually hear them. So, worms are blessed with both copulatory and choral abilities. No wonder Dalby exclaims, “like Cleopatra, I worship worms.”

True to form, her choice for Berkeley for this seasonal division is “Worms flourish.”

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato’s most recent book is “Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology.”