If you stay on a small island in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea long enough, you will become one with nature. Mainly because there is nothing else to become one with, except for maybe alcohol. Being one with nature isn’t just convening with the flowers and plants. You must also be willing to be one with snakes, insects and other nature dwellers.
With the nice weather lately, I have taken to trail running. There are many beautiful trails on our island, some of which follow an ancient pilgrimage path to 88 sacred sites, a copy of the famous 88-temple pilgrimage in Shikoku. As I run along the pilgrimage path, both sides rustle as mountain crabs jump to the side and salamanders slither away into the brush. Birds of prey take flight from the tops of trees creating downdrafts. It humors me to think that I can actually scare something! But as long as they are afraid of me, we are not one yet.
But other things are not so afraid.
As I jog along, I see something in the path ahead of me. It is long and brown. I stop dead in my tracks. His head is hanging over the side of the trail in the growth. I continue to wait, wondering what the secret word is to get through this barrier. So I guess: “I am one with snakes!” I offer. As if these are the magic words, the snake moves into the brush, allowing me to pass.
Having just seen a snake is an omen in Japan. It means that Benzaiten, the goddess of water, arts, literature and music, is present. She is also the one who protects us from the sea and natural disasters. But you may know her best as one of the Seven Lucky Gods. The islanders say that seeing a snake, because of its connections to Benzaiten, is good luck. The snake is her messenger. But what, I wonder, is her message?
While some forest dwellers such as the crabs and salamanders are on the defensive, others have a more aggressive style: they’ll eat you alive. If you stayed out in the forest for a couple of weeks, you’d have a slow death as the forest sucked you dry. But over the years, as my encounters with these offensive types have increased, I have learned to accept them.
Take the spiders who build their webs right across the trail. These spiders are the spammers of the forest — figuring if they can hook just one human, they’ll be set for food for the rest of their lives! Why do you think spiders have eight legs? For eight dinner forks, of course! It’s a good thing they don’t make chain saws for spiders.
I run carrying a tree branch so I have a tool to clear the invisible webs before I run into them. Running with a tree branch poised in one hand makes me look like a mad woman of the forest. So I prefer to think of it more as the Olympic Torch.
Even with my Olympic Spider Torch, however, I occasionally run into a web, the result being that it adheres itself like a facial mask. This morning I did just this and was confronted, face to face, with a spider. With his entire web on my face, I had to admit that it was hard to tell who had captured who. “I am one with spiders!” I said, and the spider crawled away.
Then there are the most blood-thirsty creatures of the forest: mosquitoes. They attack full on. I run through the forest with smeared mosquito guts all over my legs. Every now and then I stop and slap them dead, my own Type A blood oozing from their bellies.
I come out of the pilgrimage trail onto a narrow cement road lined with vegetable gardens. Something flapping to the right catches my eye. A net built to protect vegetables from aviary thieves has done its job. The guilty bird is helpless, the net wrapped around its legs. I fear the bird will bite me but I still try to help it. It never even tries to fight back. After many patient minutes I set the bird free. I am one with birds!
I continue on my run, the end of which takes me past Benten Island, 100 meters off the shore. This is where the goddess Benzaiten lives. She is popular among artists, musicians and writers, so I feel a connection to her too. I notice the tide is very low — low enough to walk out to her island. I invite myself over to her home.
After putting some coins in the offering box in front of her shrine, I thank her for having protected our island from recent natural disasters.
“No problem,” she says.
I look up, stunned. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘How is your book coming along?’ “
“Oh, fine, um, thank you for asking,” I said, unconsciously bowing in her presence.
“If you need any help, I am here.”
I bowed again, this time deeply and very consciously and took my leave. After all, what do you say to a goddess?
Next month the island will hold a festival in Benzaiten’s honor. The Benten Matsuri is held every year on her island, at her house. We thank her for the constant beauty she brings to us as represented by the flow of the water around her.
This, I’m sure, is what it means to be one with nature.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.