Wednesday, April 20, 2022

I leave my door open when spring days get longer


I've discussed Red Pine's translations from Chinese poetry before (see 'No Trace of Cold Mountain' and 'A terrace of incense lit by the dawn'). His enthusiasm for tracking down and exploring the landscapes experienced by the ancient poets is particularly relevant to this blog. In 1991 Red Pine visited the mountain on which the Zen monk and poet Stonehouse (Shihwu, 1272-1352) had lived. Five years earlier he had self-published a set of translations, having discovered this relatively obscure poet whilst working on Han Shan. Now he and a couple of friends were heading up Hsiamushan in a battered Skoda, having stopped on the way at a temple Stonehouse knew that had been almost completely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Near the summit of the mountain they encountered soldiers at a radar station. The commander kindly cut a path through the bamboo and they reached a farm that had once been a temple. This was where Stonehouse had made his home in a simple hut - the spring he mentions in his poems was still there, along with slopes of tea and bamboo, although the pines had disappeared. Twenty years later Red Pine returned and found better roads, a water bottling plant in place of the military blockhouses, and the farmhouse replaced by a new temple. Stonehouse's stupa must be somewhere in the mountain cemetery, where the inscriptions are no longer legible. His memorial stone has now merged into the hillside.

To give a sense of this place through poetry, I've chosen ten elements of the landscape. First I'll quote couplets from Stonehouse's poems, then in italics some information from Red Pine's explanatory notes. 

 

Bamboo

'a trail through green mist red clouds and bamboo / to a hut that stays cold and dark all day'

Bamboo grows so thick on Hsiamushan, trails don't last long. When I first visited the mountain in 1991, the army officer who led me to the area where Stonehouse first lived needed a machete to reach it.

Drifting clouds

'As soon as a drifting cloud starts to linger / the wind blows it past the vines.'

Clouds are often used as metaphors for thoughts, while vines represent convoluted logic. Drifting clouds can also refer to monks.

Flat-topped rock

'sometimes I sit on a flat-topped rock / late cloudless nights once a month'

The flat-topped rock is still there, just up the slope from the water-bottling plant. Local farmers call it "chess-playing rock".

Gibbon howls

'gibbons howl at night when the moon goes down / few visitors get past the moss by the cliffs'

Gibbons and their eerie howls were once common throughout the Yangtze watershed but are now found in the wild only in a few nature reserves in the extreme south.

Hibiscus

'a winding muddy trail / a hedge of purple hibiscus'

The hibiscus is found throughout the southern half of China, where it is often grown to form a hedge.

Orange tree

'down by the stream I rake leaves for my stove / after a frost I wrap a mat around my orange tree.'

The Yangtze watershed is the earliest known home of not only the orange but also such citrus fruits as the tangerine, the kumquat, and the pomelo. Apparently Stonehouse's orange tree (or "trees," as Chinese is ambiguous when it comes to number) didn't make it. He never mentions it again.

Paulownia

'I leave my door open when spring days get longer / when paulownias bloom and thrushes call'

The paulownia is one of China's most fragrant trees. It blooms in late March and early April and is the only tree on which the phoenix will alight - should a phoenix be flying by.

 

Pine pollen

'when Solomon's seal is gone there is still pine pollen / and one square inch free of care.'

The root of Solomon's seal, or Polygonatum cirrhiflium, contains a significant amount of starch. It is usually dug up in early spring. Pine pollen is slightly sweet and also has nutritional value. It is gathered in late spring by placing a sheet under a pine tree and knocking the branches with a bamboo pole. The "square inch" refers to the mind.

 

Thatch

'mist soaks through my thatch roof / moss covers up the steps on the trail'

A thatched covering of grass or rushes is still the most common roofing in the mountains. However, hermits who can afford them use fired clay tiles. 

Tiger tracks

'dried snail shells on rock walls / fresh tiger tracks in the mud' 

Until recently, hermits in China often reported encounters with the South China tiger, which is much smaller than its Siberian and Bengali cousins but still dangerous.

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