“The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”
That quote is from Matsuo Basho in Sam Hamill’s translation of “A Narrow Road to the Interior” published by Shambhala Books in 1991. Basho is one of my role models – a wandering poet in 17th century Japan. Basho’s practice at the end of every day was to make note of what he saw and heard, who he met, gossip, weather, and landscape. He used these observations to write his poems.
Basho was continuing a tradition from the 11th century maintained primarily by Japanese women—the nikki, or “day book.” Contemporary poet Andrew Schelling calls this practice a “peerless literary tradition based on the diary form.” Into it went observations of events, people, places visited, conversations overheard as well as natural history and local news.
Schelling writes that this tradition is being continued by Joanne Kyger, one of the early West Coast “Beat” poets. Kyger was the first wife of Gary Snyder and traveled with him and Allen Ginsberg to Japan and India. She has spent significant time in Mexico and calls her writing journal her “casa,” her little home when she’s on the road.
All of this will be familiar to naturalists, journalists, and anthropologists who write up their field notes ate the end of the day. Sailors keep logs as do lab scientists. And lots of writers and visual artists do their own versions.
That’s why I’m calling this column “Field Notes: A Journal of Story, Place and Ideas.” I’ll be bringing reports of my own as well as those of other writers. We’ll hear about Portugal, Newfoundland, Mexico, Sears Island and Satellite Beach. We won’t just be looking at visits to far-flung places, though, or even our own backyards. “Field Notes” will be about journeying through our days and paying attention to what we find along the way. After all, Basho said, “Every day is a journey.”
Here is a poem of mine that began its life as field notes.
Monte Alban, Oaxaca
Now that I’m here again, I remember the bees.
Thirty years ago, I was at this place and I remember
the bees, intense even then with their noisy work, swarming
us, making a life from this dry landscape: the moment
of flowering theirs.
A mere 2500 years earlier, humans built here to worship
over a wide ocean of bare mountains, leaving what we call ruins,
gods forgotten yet deeply remembered.
But the bees -
how many years for them the sweet nectar of their praisemaking?
And before that,
the hard-packed earth singing.
I’ll be coming back to Mexico, and Beat poets, and maybe bees in future columns, among other things. Today I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Joanne Kyger’s chapbook “Patzcuaro” published in 1999 by Blue Millennium. Patzcuaro is a mountain town in the Mexican state of Michoacan.
“Could be anywhere
on Earth and Time focused completely
focused on chopping
the tomatoes, chilies, and onions.”