Week 35

It's Saturday morning. The sun is very clear and you can see a long way. We're up on the top of a long, flat hill. Writers like to describe hills like this as 'rolling,' but I was never really certain what sort of hills that phrase signified until I saw them in real life. The shape of the hills is probably the shape that a long-exposure photograph of an object 'tumbling' would make. If it were up to me I'd say the hills outside of Oumu Town on the Okhotsk coast tumble -- they tumble all the way down to the sea, nowhere sewn with useable crop (uneven irrigation might be the culprit), so most of the landscape is painted out here with wide planes of scruffy grass, bladed but wetly limp, like the hair on the head of a battle-jaded marine a couple of months into his first deployment. Beyond the hills is a vague strip of reddish-gray -- this is Oumu Town -- and beyond it is a big indistinct field of blue, here brighter and there darker, eking out into total non-resolution. From up on the hill it occurs to me that we can see further over the edge of the Earth than the residents of Oumu Town can; but to be honest there's really nothing out there to see. A couple of indistinct white pixels that you can't see unless you're not looking directly at them, movement on the scale of millionths of a degree that are only registering on individual rods or cones of my retinas, one -- at -- a -- time.

There's some leftover snow on the hills as well, big lumpy strips of it by the side of the road and in the shade of windbreak-trees. Something they'll never tell you about snow: when it melts, it leaves behind all of the microscopic particulate debris that accumulated throughout the winter, so by the beginning of April, when the sunny days are beginning to pile up, most of the stubborn hillocks of snow that remain are stained brown-black by sedimented automobile pollution or gravel or acid rain or whatever.

There's solace to be found, though, because every now and again you come across a big half-melted berm of snow on the side of the road that's still perfectly white, though somewhat deflated-looking. So you get out of your car to marvel at this still-white in a landscape that's slowly coming back round to browns and greens, and all through you is silence, though you're at the top of a hill and there's really nothing else around to impede sound but thick clear air, and all of a sudden it comes to you that the dirtiness of any given half-melted berm of snow on the side of the road is sort of like a low, naturalistic measuring device, metering out in color or shade how many humans have passed this way over the course of the winter, how many cars have thrown up their sooty rooster-tails across the road.

The snow outside my house is grimy and filthy, like the road at the beginning of the first rain in a while, when the dust and the dirt on the road is loosened and freed and thrown up by tires. I'd go so far as to say it looks vaguely oily, like I could catch what the snow leaves behind and use it to power my car. Burn it for warmth. But on those tumbling hills outside of Oumu Town, the white on the side of the road is pristine: no little brown specks, no icy beads of scum -- even the shadows seem to slip off like grease from Teflon. Pure white in the sun.

You'd think after a winter like this one I would be just about through with the color white, but it's good to see that under the tyrannical reign of sun and clarity and the ever-rising thermometer, little patches of winter can still cling to the side of the road. I'm not a Winter Person, but I am a big fan of the underdog, and watching the snow fail day-by-day is an exercise in heartbreak, consoled by the shorts in my bottom drawer that I haven't worn in months.

By the road we come across a couple of old cars, abandoned to the undergrowth. We inspect -- one of them, a kei van, is missing its wheels and license plate. The bottom five or six inches of the van are sunk into mud and dead reeds and leftover snow on the shadowed northern side of the vehicle, where the sun never shines. One of the doors has been pulled off its hinges, and snow has crept inside, made a little den in the seats. This snow, in the shade of the car, will probably last longer than a lot of the other snow, and when it warms up, the car will become a greenhouse and host all manner of plant life, probably. Some of it will likely depend on the chemicals used in the seating; but the other car -- a little Honda hatchback -- has a good number of plants growing from the passenger seat (and also inside the car door, sprouting from the narrow rubbered strip of windowpane), so I'm hopeful. The Honda is still decently equipped -- though the hatchback window has been entirely removed (we find it under the car, for some reason) and the tires are flat and the rims are rusted and deformed, and there's plant life growing out of, well, everything -- in spite of all of this, the tax & inspection papers are still in the glovebox, and we can read the name of the person who owned the car, once upon a time. It even still has the license plate.

Ed. note, 29/09/2023: Photos like this remind me of just how bright it gets in the springtime, when the days are getting longer but the ground is still covered in highly reflective white stuff. Many a time did I forget my sunglasses and was forced to drive with one eye closed, just to keep out all of the light.

There's something a little sad about seeing these old forgotten cars in the half-snow. The rest of the world is stuck in that slimy embryonic phase, everything wet and biologically fragrant, but these cars are dried-out (like a raisin) in the sun, chipped, peeling, rusted, sinking slowly through time into nothing. It reminds me of Konomai, of seeing all of this human labor and industry unkempt. Like as soon as humans turn their heads, Nature gets back into all of the places we've tried to keep her out. Into engine blocks and under car seats, into big barns filled with excess rubbish, piled to the rafters with kipple. Bringing down wood and steel, taking it back if it stands still too long.

In a way Nature's like quicksand, I guess. We keep moving to keep Nature away, to keep it off of us, and as soon as any part of our world stops for too long, without proper maintenance Nature gets in all of the little holes and crannies and takes it back, returns it to the basic elements. Pulls it under the sand.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme


Week 36

Tooling around Maruseppu in Penelope the AZ-Wagon.


Week 34

The first days of spring are coming to Hokkaido.