thinking with pictures

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Exercises to see the past, present and possibly the future

Hiyoshi shrine in west Echizen city along the Yoshino River

It takes some practice to see people and places longitudinally (down the long stream of time) instead of looking only at the present moment, a sort-of cross-section of events of varying length that are concurrent to our own lifetimes. On my late January bike ride in the full but weak winter sun of a cloudless afternoon, I was looking for traces of times gone by, Temps Perdus. My first year in this rural part of the main Japanese island was 33 years ago, for some people an entire lifetime ago. In 1984 the work of consolidating the irregular small paddies and complicated paths of water access gave way to larger rectangles more suited the the pace and capacities of mechanized farming powered by petroleum products and chemical fertilizers. shrines atop the hill, west Takefu 915 japan

While most fields are now large rectilinear spaces with efficient ways to distribute and regulate water levels according to growing season and cycles, there are still hints of earlier times in the form of rusted machinery and decrepit vehicles, abandoned buildings from the 1920s, some earlier, many from the postwar years built in haste but somehow still standing.
To travel back to those times of smaller consumer expectations, more human-powered livelihoods unaided by computers, and the pace of news gathering and what constituted “current” events, the most direct route is the focus on the calendar of activity dictated by rice-growing, the king of the cash crops from hundreds of years ago. Today there are few who are tied to a field or the cycles of farming. But until the 1940s or 1950s it was a sizable minority or even majority whose livelihoods came from forest, field, or fisheries. And so, by looking around at the cultural and physical landscape that meets the eye in 2017, there are some traces or hints of before, and then perhaps some clues to the next generation to come, as well as the present-day functions and features that dominate the scene.

green steel, gray granite marker

Afternoon light on narrow lane, cemetery wall and nextdoor building, Takefu 915 Japan

The habit of looking for the legacies of earlier people, places, language, events and practices takes some effort since there is so much about today that attracts attention to itself, as if it were brand new and has no connection to the previous way of doing things, seeing things, and the dreams that follow from those worlds. But one can make an effort to sniff out those reminders of a different time and earlier sense of what was important and remarkable versus what was not significant or not worthy of respect. By developing a detective’s powers of observation and linking the scattered clues into an inductive vision, there is great satisfaction. One’s mind can travel not only to different points of view in the present, but also get a glimpse of experiences and realities of times long ago, and even ones not too long ago at the time of one’s youth or before that during childhood, for example.
With the habit of seeing longitudinally well established, one can then turn to photos or objects as a starting place to travel back to another time and the frame of reference that shaped people’s lives then. Collecting several glimpses of another time or place is one way to escape the present moment, connecting the reference points into a fully formed picture of another way of seeing.panorama Hiyoshi shinto shrine


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Old tree near harbor of Leland, Michigan – a trace of long ago

This tree is a time traveler, standing still among the passers by.

This tree is a time traveler, standing still among the passers by.

The tree rings would reveal the number of years from seedling to the time the tree trunk was cut down to the present size. But judging from the girth, it well may have stood on that spot for 150 or more years, around the time of the U.S. Civil War that ended in 1865. In a brief history of the village of Leland, the county’s first capital thanks to the convenience of water transportation compared to land travel, one of the first enterprises by settlers crowding the Native Odawa who valued the river’s outlet into the big lake as a trading location was to form the iron smelting business from ore taken from the Upper Peninsula, hence its name, the Leland-Lake Superior Iron Company, founded in 1870 and active for about 20 years. Then other sites overtook them and lumbering was raging nearby. Once the trees were all cut it was commercial fishing for Whitefish and Lake Trout that employed local hands for a few generations. Today it is the short season of summer and early fall tourists who motor to the peninsula for diversion and relaxation far from their ordinary responsibilities. This tree witnessed all these changes and now boldly stands from long ago as a reminder. UPDATE 10-2015: brass plaque faces the lake beyond with a full story of this “champion” tree designated by state organization: felled in 2011 after 110 years, and after it’s buds were used to create 60 clones of this 100 foot cottonwood.