Just as Basho was an anthropologist observing humanity, he also studied the nature and activity of our mammalian cousins, and we can learn much about humanity from his sketches of animals.
(also see the DEER ALIVE in article F-14, CATS AND DOGS in article F-15, HORSES in F-16 and the whale in LIFE UNDERWATER F-19).
Spring, in Japanese tradition, begins in early February when it is still is very cold and most trees barren, a month before any other tree blossoms, reddish buds swell on leafless plum branches and open to neat white petal clusters with a clear refreshing fragrance. At the same cold time, the bush warbler, or Japanese nightingale, sings her lovely “first song” Basho has some fun with the traditions; as he so often does, he focuses on the female, the ox cow.
The ox, who has stayed alive all winter on hay, wanders about the farm searching for new green growth so he can put some muscle on those bones and pull the plow through the mud before rice planting. While their sisters inside the house spin yarn and weave fabric, the little boys do what boys in villages worldwide do: watch after animals (as in Kunta Kinte’s village in Roots). The little rascals—with complete and utter disregard for the thousand years of elegant Chinese and Japanese poems on plum blossoms—have broken off the slender, young branches, covered with buds and blossoms, to swat the ox’s butt to make him go where they want. Weird kids. Basho is concerned that they will take ALL the branches for this purpose so we can view no blossoms this year. Weird Basho. There must be hundreds of branches on each tree.
A bunch of young boys, who rarely leave their village in the shadow of a mountain, are off on a quest one morning, ready for adventure: this is when they see the ox peeing. An adult samurai carries his sword in an elegantly lacquered sheath which hangs from his waist. These are little boys with short legs and stick-of-wood swords, so the “lacquer” on the bottom of the “sheath” brushes against the dewy grass. Notice the similarity between stream of piss from ox to wet ground and line of sword from boy to wet ground.
The farmer takes a break from guiding the ox-drawn plow through thick mud to pull blood-sucking leeches from the animal’s body. Everything in this stanza is dirty, dark, backward, and infested. Basho switches to the perfectly clean environment of a Buddhist temple. This man was given to the temple as a child, but did not have what it takes to become a monk, so he stayed on as a servant. He wears black robes, follows all the rules of a monk, works as hard as any slave, and is at the bottom of the pecking order. When he takes a rest from work, his thoughts are dark, heavy, and grumbling – like leeches draining his energy.
“Chinese-style” suggests elegance. The blossoms scattering on his head suggest his wild, unrestrained consciousness; he must be an eccentric poet-sage, so Basho puts him on an ox which suggests the greatest sage of them all, Lao Tzu, famous for riding an ox -- however Basho mixes things up further by having the elegant but crazy sage so drunk he falls from the animal’s back. I like the way the cherry petals fall onto his hood and stop there; then, as he falls, they complete their journey to the ground.
The City of Edo supplied water through bamboo pipes to all residents, however Basho’s hut was outside city limits, so he had to buy water and store it in his hut. His haiku suggests a passage in the ancient Taoist of parables, the Chuang Tzu: A sewer rat drinks from the river, just enough to quench his thirstThe ancient passage means that we should learn to be satisfied with what we have. Basho’s verse, although it comes from Chuang Tzu, has a different meaning. The word “bitter” and the cold of “ice” steep the verse in misery. The haiku was written in 1681, when he was studying Chuang Tzu with the Zen priest Butcho, and it expresses the lonely desolate feeling of Chinese recluse poetry.
The nest of sparrows is built outside the wall under the eaves, and the nest of mice are inside that wall, so the two kinds of babies are very close and can cheep to each other. Adult mice and sparrows are too ‘grown up’ to learn each other’s language, but maybe through their young, the two species can communicate.
Basho writes about three men on a journey to Kashima: his friend Sora, the Zen monk Soha, and himself.
Basho separated from society to wander about in monk’s robes, but he did not go so far as to become a monk. Somewhere in between, he is like a rodent with membranes stretched like sails between fingers and body, no match for the muscular wings of birds. Bats hibernate in caves until warm weather wakes them:
Basho gave this verse to a monk leaving on a journey, telling him to “lighten up” -- all Buddhism and no play makes a dull monk. Come out of that cave and fly about. Get high on Springtime, man.
The road is dark and in the cold moonlight even familiar things become fearsome shadows. Foxes in Japanese folklore bewitch people and make them do evil. The years have taught Basho that the fox’s howl is only the cry of another being lonely in the night – but how can a child know this? When things get scary, every child needs someone bigger who can be trusted.
Wild boars is a heavy, clumsy beast with sharp tusks he uses to tear about leaves to get at the edible roots underneath. Tough and relentless he is, but here loses out to an autumn typhoon. We see the male, out in the open, fighting against the forces of nature. In a 1690 letter to two followers,Basho offers this haiku as an example of his new style of Lightness which he declared this springsaid,
People have one-track minds with no lane for a new style to grow. They do not appreciate a verse because, instead of seeing and hearing the words for what they mean in this particular context, they respond to them within some old context. The reader may think the verse is “brusque” because the animal is such a wild, ferocious beast – however the verse is not really about wild boars. It rather expresses the human experience of being in a furious autumn typhoon: as the savage winds blast my body, as if to blow me away or rip my clothes to shreds, I fantasize a wild boar in the same experience. This imaginary wild boar brings me a chuckle as I struggle against the wind – and so EVEN WILD BOARS is a verse of Lightness. The alliteration of “b” and “w” sounds adds to that light feeling. .
The tuber taro grows underneath patches of enormous flappy leaves shaped like elephant-ears. The boar really wants the underground starchy corms – however the leaves get in the way. The mess of ragged and torn elephant-ear leaves suggests, to Basho, the turmoil in the heart of one who waits in vain for love.
Basho gets us the opportunity to stretch our minds: to build a bridge of thoughts across the gap between wild boar in taro patch and a youth waiting for a lover who does not come. It’s a long way to stretch, but if we are flexible, we can do it.
It’s perfectly okay to ignore the wild boar stanza and focus only on Basho’s stanza. These three short lines -- with or without the wild boar one -- goes out to all impoverished youths who learn to wait for love in a thin jacket that does not stop the chill wind from passing through. Basho is your poet. He speaks for you.
The wild boar is a fierce brute with a heavy stout body and sharp tusks he uses to tear up taro patches and so forth – but Basho also feminizes the testosterone-charged image of wild boar.
A pine in the semi-tropics needs no “fat” to keep warm, but has grown fat anyway. The wild boar wife also is “fat” which here means healthy and full of nourishment for her infant boars. Instead of going out to ravage fields or fight typhoons, she presses down the delicate bush clover where she can lie in relative safety and fulfil her evolutionary destiny to nourish and hide her infants till they can care of themselves. We never hear much about her – which is just fine for her and baby hidden among bush clover
The altogether ungentle wild boar produces a baby so small and round that it has a cute name of its own, urabou, separate from the adult inoshishi. The mother gathers dirt, grass and twigs to build a mound where she sleeps with and nurses her baby.
The arrow penetrates the flesh and the baby screams in agony while the mother screams, like a storm battering the trees, in grief and rage at her inability to help her child. Basho crams so much life and activity in a stanza.
Rabbits living in Japan are a sub-species of the northern European snow-rabbit, so have evolved the enormous snowshoe-like feet and powerful legs they need to run fast and leap through the air on snow. They are ‘field rabbits’, not burrow-rabbits; adults live singly and do not dig underground for shelter. During the day they rest in the bushes, and at night they search around for grass. The babies are born able to see and move about (whereas newborn burrow-rabbits are blind and helpless). Unlike squirrels who use their paws to bring food to the mouth, rabbits move the mouth to the food. Whiskers on the side of the face enable the rabbit to feel more than the mouth can reach.
The next haiku has a headnote:
The poet is in his hometown with those 40 years younger. these are the hills where Basho played as a child.
Joyful in the year’s first snow, the kids go bounding about like rabbits, so Uncle Basho suggests they find some real rabbits somewhere, pull off some fur, and stick it on their faces between nose and mouth, to complete the picture.
Basho’s disciple Kyorai pointed out that we should not be surprised when we notice that the verse “makes no sense” -- it is not supposed to be logical or make sense. It’s a joke shouted by one child to another as they run about in the snow. Adults may not find the joke funny, but if it amuses children, it has achieved its purpose.
Japanese monkeys, the only ones in the world whose native habitat is so far north, live in packs of about ten in mountain forests. In autumn they eat all the fruits, berries, seeds, leaves, insects, and crabs they can find, so they grow fat with the thick fur needed to survive winter in a mountain forest.
When it starts to rain, Basho hurriedly puts on his mino, a cape woven of straw and waterproofed with persimmon juice. He then sees a monkey shivering beside the road and simply presents his immediate child-like compassionate thought -- compassion expressed in that word “too”. Basho always thinks the simple way. This is what he teaches us – to go back to the beginnings of thought, the thoughts in childhood that begin the development of Compassion.
To the ancient poets who sang of the pathetic cries of monkeys
At a New Year’s show, a monkey’s mask worn by a monkey changes nothing – so we repeat the same foolishness every year. Basho wrote quite a few verses about women pounding cloth to soften and smooth it after washing; always the sound of pounding cloth is an expression of the constant and eternal labor of women. Here is a man doing this work:
He pounds the cloth of his monkey’s fancy jacket to make it shine and appeal to an audience. The achievements of men seem so paltry and meagre compared to the work of women.
He makes a meager living giving performances for tips from passersby. He is all alone except for his monkey; when travelling, he carries the monkey on his back. Such is his destiny under the moon. The season being autumn, he looks forward to six months of cold – although at New Year’s he will pull in the most tips in the year; maybe he will even be able to afford something for his and the monkey's comfort.