BOOK DETAILS

Whisper of the Land

Whisper of the Land

by Edward Levinson

ISBN: 9780473305758

Publisher Fine Line Press

Published in Nonfiction

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Book Description

Best known as a photographer, Edward Levinson has composed a series of essays, reflections on his life in Japan, where he has been resident for thirty-five years. These autobiographical writings offer the reader insights into day-to-day life in Tokyo and in the Japanese countryside. For Ed the camera is a bridge between heaven and earth. He explores light in two ways: literally in his photography and figuratively in prose and poetry.

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Sample Chapter

 

Morning Meditation

      

 gingko leaf    銀杏の葉

floats to the ground      地上に散りて

homecoming     里帰り

 

ichō no ha, chijō ni chirite, satogaeri

 

                                                    *****

I fell in love easily. There it was, an old grand Japanese farmhouse, half hidden, yet half open to the surrounding country landscape. The first time I saw it, I knew I wanted it. It was flirting with my soul. This was exactly what I had been looking for: a new home in the countryside. In my mind I had seen the image several times. Now, here it was for real. Friends were living there fixing it up, and had started a garden as well. I was smitten and jealous.

“If you ever move out, I want this house,” I told them emphatically, as I helped pull weeds and rake cut grass. It was the end of 1987 and I was ready for a change.

A few months later, my friends suddenly moved back to the States and the house was mine to rent.

In spring 1988 it was a relief to get out of Tokyo and back to nature, a positive step forward for my being. Moving to the Boso Peninsula, two hours southeast of Tokyo, somehow felt like coming home. As I worked to remodel the interior, enlarge the vegetable garden, and immerse myself in nature, the romance intensified.

Extravagant by Japanese country standards, the spacious rooms and high ceilings of the farmhouse complemented the richness of nature surrounding it.  Although I was just renting at the time, I would have been more than happy to “bury my bones” there, as the Japanese say.

        The farmhouse had natural air-conditioning.  In summer we caught the night breeze, sleeping with all the windows open. The raucous voices of country crows would wake me at dawn, before the hot sun rose.

“We’ll have eaten all your tomatoes if you don’t get up soon!” they seemed to screech, obviously enjoying their breakfast party. It was only 4.30 a.m. but I would run out half-naked and chase them away. This was my field.

To mark my territory, I created a meditation circle in the middle of it. I tried to be there every morning to claim my place in the universe, but to tell the truth I didn’t always make it. I thank the crows for waking me when they did.

This circle in the place I christened Meadow Garden became my power spot. A path appeared from my feet pacing rhythmically around it in meditation. In the winter, walking kept me from getting cold; in the summer, the movement kept away the mosquitoes. It also kept me from feeling sleepy or getting stiff while sitting. Walking means you have to keep your eyes open. All the senses are engaged. As in any kind of meditation, to concentrate takes effort. Yet, just simply walking in a circle is enough to get you high and attune you to the universe.

Strangely, the roots of my walking meditation go back to my commuting days in Tokyo, when I lived in the suburbs. I wasn’t a salary man, but a day laborer, a gardener; I liked to think this was a bit more fashionable and further up the labor ladder. My commute started at 6.30 a.m. For most of the first year, I managed to get up at 5.00 a.m. to do a sitting meditation in the house, and eat a proper breakfast before going off to work. However, the more Japanese I became, the longer and harder I worked, and the later my wake up times became.

One morning I overslept, so I decided to squeeze in my meditation while walking to the station. The walk began with a packed black dirt footpath along the edge of Tamagawa Josui canal. I could see and hear water. Sunlight filtered through the high canopy of the zelkova trees. At that hour the air was clean and fresh.

“I should do this every day,” I thought. Out of necessity, a natural progression to my Nature Meditation practices was born.

I walked at a medium pace, somewhere between the leisurely dog walkers and the rushing commuters. The walk to the station, however, only took ten minutes, just enough time to do the first part of my meditation, the breathing practices. Inside the crowded, clammy train I’d already learned that I should hold my breath as long as possible rather than continue deep breathing. I always stood by the door so I could breathe in fresh air at each stop, a survival rather than a meditation technique. I found I could, however, say my prayers silently on the train and it was a fruitful way to pass the time on the Chuo Line.

One day, as I silently said one of my favorite lines from a daily prayer, “Pour upon us thy love and the light,” I realized that I was saying it for all the people crushed around me on the train. It was an odd place for an awakening. Human beings were the only natural elements around. Standing surrounded by bodies, it wasn’t exactly a walking meditation. But there was movement, the rattling train speeding through time and space.

I thought of the story of Jelaluddin Rumi, the mystic poet who inspired the Whirling Dervishes of Konya, Turkey. Legend has it that Rumi was walking down the street in the marketplace, repeating the name of God with each step and each breath, when he heard the rhythmic sound of a craftsmen’s hammer beating metal in a workshop. The combination of Rumi’s inner attunement to the Divine blended with the sounds in his surroundings. Something clicked within him and in the ecstasy of the moment he started to whirl in the middle of the street, at one with everything.

Although I didn’t physically whirl in the train, the insight changed my attitude towards the crowds. When I saw the man I had nicknamed Smokestack, smoke puffing out of his ears seconds before he stepped on the train, I started to grin. The pale-looking, hyper guy in the stained white shirt serving me at the platform coffee stand, started to look handsome, his speedy movements becoming a rhythmic performance. In the railway carriage, I tried to enjoy the odd Japanese feeling of skinship with perfect strangers, the smell of men’s oily hair tonics filling my nostrils. The morning meditation walk, combined with contemplation on the train, somehow set the mood for the day.

Living in Tokyo, I attempted to find nature and the sacred in everyday city life, as well as in the gardens where I worked. Sometimes it was heaven and sometimes hell. More often things just didn’t make sense.

On the walk to Takanodai station there was a big old cherry tree at the edge of what was then a natural park. Every day on the way to work I would walk under it. One day, they chopped it down.  They were remodeling the facilities. It was there in the morning and gone in the evening when I came home. “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, ” as Joni Mitchell sings. Every time I hear that song, I think of that tree; every time I see misplaced development, I sing it.

                                                ***

As adults we seem to lose that feeling of oneness with nature and it apparently takes an effort to get it back. I once saw a young Japanese boy, four or five years old, marching merrily in the rain with no coat, no umbrella, and no cares. His palms were open towards the sky. He was totally immersed in the moment – innocence, simplicity, and joy in a natural walking meditation.

I remember a similar moment when I was fourteen, on the cusp of losing that innocence. My buddies and I were walking home from a friend’s house after our Saturday night ritual of watching science fiction movies on late night TV. At 1 a.m. we were hoofing it down the center of a wide suburban street with no sidewalks or streetlights, when a strong wind came rolling down the street. Oak trees lining the road rustled their leaves in agitation and a huge thunderstorm struck. Flashes of lightning illuminated the landscape, wet asphalt glistening. We danced, jumped, and hooted to the drumbeat of thunder, before sprinting exhilarated all the way home, on a natural high.

                                                            ***

These days my commute is approximately five meters, about six steps, and takes a mere ten seconds. My studio workplace is just across the deck from our living quarters. It takes me longer to brew my first cup of strong black tea than to get to work. My favorite place for the morning meditation is about 30 seconds away, under the cherry tree I planted in the garden. I like to think we “took paradise and we made it better.”

The terraced garden at Solo Hill where I live now makes it difficult to do the circular walking meditation. It works well enough for the dog; he loves making his morning rounds, hopping up steps and marking his territory as he goes. But trying to walk a circle on land that isn’t round (our land is actually heart shaped) and going up and down steps makes it harder to concentrate. I now break the meditation into sections.

First, standing under the cherry tree, I do breathing practices centered on the four elements, followed by prayers. In winter, the winds from the north hit me in the face; in summer the tree provides shade. I prefer to do my mantras walking. It took a while to get used to walking up and down the garden path we named Edogawa[1], instead of walking in a circle. 

Like life, this path is not perfectly straight, but meanders like a stream. I walk it with a measured step end to end, one step per syllable of mantra, making slow U-turns at the border of my property. To anyone who is watching, it probably looks ridiculous.  “Edo-san getting a little senile, eh?” someone might say.

Life is not easy; things are seldom perfect. Heaven above, paradise on Earth – a vision in our minds; I’ll accept whatever I can get.

 

wind on face  顔に風

sun in eyes  目に太陽

birds in ears  耳に鳥

body standing からだ立ち

mind spacing  心くつろぐ 

 

warm sunlight melting heart  暖かい日差しに心溶

warm breeze relaxing thought      暖かいそよ風に思い安らう

warm feeling spreading, I depart     暖かい心地が広がり、ぼくは

morning meditation                         朝の瞑想に立つ

 

kao ni kaze, me ni taiyō, mimi ni tori, karada tachi, kokoro kutsurogu,atatakai hizashi ni kokoro toke, atatakai soyokaze ni omoi yasurau, atatakai kokochi ga hirogari, boku wa, asa no meisō ni tatsu

 

Excerpted from "Whisper of the Land" by Edward Levinson. Copyright © 0 by Edward Levinson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Edward Levinson

Edward Levinson

Edward Levinson is an American fine art and editorial photographer. His most recent book is "Whisper of the Land", published by Fine Line Press/ He has lived in Japan since 1979 and has published two books of essays in Japanese: “My Way of Planting – Cultivating a Life in Japan” (2011) and “Edo’s Lessons in Pinhole Photography – Photography for Slow Life” (2007) both by Iwanami Shoten. His photo book “Timescapes Japan” (Nippon Camera-sha, 2006) received a category First Prize Award in the “Prix de la Photographie Paris, 2007”. His short film "Tokyo Story" has won several awards.

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