“A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.”
- Walt Whitman (Song of Myself, Section 6)
These two lines broaden into much more than a child’s literal question about the grass as Whitman continues in his sweeping, casual writing style. However, the basic question seemed apt this weekend as I took a trip outside the steel and concrete of Tokyo to the volcanoes, hot springs, and reds and yellows of a season-shifting Gunma prefecture (pictures below).
The weather was absolutely gorgeous. A few days of rain from a nearby taiphoon gave way to crisp, clean air, strong sunshine, and high clouds. As my friends and I looked over a lake surrounded by turning leaves and blue skies, it hit me that you really don’t realize the changing of the seasons while living and working in Tokyo. Sure, the temperature gets cooler and the occasional tree jutting from the sidewalk decides to pack it in for the winter, but the city is so obsessed with the pulse of business and busyness that a true change of seasons doesn’t register. One has to venture out of the city in order to get a panorama that is more than a sea of apartments and office buildings. Only out of the concrete jungle does the air smell like fall, trees outnumber people, and the hum of the city fades.
As we stood on the hill taking in the scene in a chilly fall breeze, my friend agreed that you don’t really know the changing seasons in Tokyo and made an additional comment that really threw me for a loop: “There is not even any of this,” he said while scratching his sneaker into the rocks and dirt on the trail that overlooked the lake. “You know, you’re absolutely right,” I said out loud. Then I started thinking about my daily commute and routine. It dawned on me that even if I walk through Hibiya Koen during lunch, my feet are strolling on one of the concrete paths that crisscross the park. On the days that I don’t go running or at least walk through the woods (because of rain) near my apartment on the way to the train station, I never come in contact with the ground. And by the ground I mean soil/grass/earth/something organic. From the apartment to the road to the station stairs and platform to the train to the station to the sidewalk to the lobby to the elevator to the office and back, all my treading is done on man made materials. It is no wonder we are so out of touch with nature – we can literally go days with out ever actually touching it.
So forget the philosophic questions about history, life, and death that may spiral out while reading Walt Whitman’s reaction to a child’s question about “What is the grass?” We have simpler yet bigger issues to deal with as we mill about our cities from day to day. Indeed, “How could I answer the child?” I may be beginning to lose the ability to explain it. What’s more, there is not even any grass around for him to fetch to me in the first place.