If you drive around here, especially on a weekday
, you won't see anything. The places frequented by the spirits of nature
are kept carefully hidden from the view of a casual observer
by great walls of brick
and by forest
s of refined swamp
, both giving the impression that they grow from a point deep below the surface of the earth
Truthfully, nothing here is more than a hundred and fifty years old. No cows have ever grazed on the union lawn, the center of the Shinto clique that fights off the suit wearers, the caffeine sloshers, the defilers of reality. Sometimes, I can lie there, when it's so thankfully warm and dry, and drink of the nectar of life that lives with the flesh-eating insects of the Florida topsoil.
This part is concealed from reality in every direction by drab buildings of all shapes and sizes, whose main function is to keep the undesirables from the black hole in the center, where people live free of due dates and grant applications and parenthetical citations. The university fails to exist there, and its many slaves become independent people for the few moments they spend passing through, until they hit another building and suddenly find a rigid world crashing around them again.
I hate to pass through so quickly when what lies beyond is so horribly human.
Some days, I leave the gods' domain through Geology. Technically, I don't have to do this. I don't have to walk by signs advertising electron microscopy and organic stasis and nuclear infundibulae. The sight is uninspiring, because a state university can't match the kami when it comes to architecture. Its school was founded well after Adam and Eve, during periods of war and utilitarianism, when a clique of overly socialist planners decided that a tan-colored hallway lit by decaying amber was the perfect place to hang a feces-brown chalkboard.
I'm not really a part of Shinto, although sometimes I tell the wandering missionaries
that I am.
There are few real Shintoists left in the world. Some old men dress up in white and offer bowls of rice to old altars in the midst of older urban sprawl, but they belabor the point.
The kami have long since left those places.
It's afternoon now, and I can hear the bell tower
ringing its music through a sprawl of specially designed rainforest
concealing this pedestrian road
from above. The ground here is brick and concrete, and the bits of it not covered in pit-fired rock are sculpted by landscape architect
s into kami house
I call them kami houses because the trees are meant to trap the kami. There are kami sitting in the canopy now. I watch them. One of them looks like a vine, but he's not acting like a vine. That's what gives him away. Kami make lousy actors.
I wouldn't mind being in his shoes. Nobody goes up there. Cycle cops, delivery trucks, joggers, sorority girls -- the kami get to relax well above them.
Kami may not be able to act, but I wouldn't underestimate their intelligence. They don't need bubble sheets and thousand-page dissertations to prove their power. Their power is in the color of the wind, the sound of the mountain, the shape of the sky, the flavor of the river, the smell of the desert. People rarely, if ever, get to perceive the very nuances the kami grant them.
And as I write this, the wind tugs at the paper. Guess the kami know.
You may be able to tell that I have a soft spot for the kami.
Once upon a time, I lived in Japan, a chain of highly volcanic islands located between the Pacific Ocean and the world. There are supposedly lots of kami there, since that"s where they all come from, although many of them apparently moved to Brazil because Emperor Showa's people came up with the questionable idea of nationalizing them. It may have seemed prudent at the time, although ultimately we would all be forced to admit that it was a rather stupid thing to do, because, after all, the kami had already been protecting the islands below the sun.
In Japanese, they call God "kamisama," the Lord Kami. But God can't be defined as a kami. He lives in Heaven with angels and the ghosts of good boys and girls, lots of clouds and lots of harp music. Kami don't get that luxury -- they can complain a lot, but they have to live among us, and we ultimately hurt ourselves by deciding not to live in peace alongside them. After all, once you get to know them, they're nice. They make the sun shine on good days so you'll feel better, and they make it rain on bad days so you'll feel justified. They stick together, and try to make the world beautiful. Like I said, they're smarter than we are.
We can't disrespect Jesus or Mohammed or anyone, of course, because they had the sort of miraculous gift and far-seeing eyes that kami possess. But most people don't think like kami. They go on waging their holy wars, poisoning each other's water supply, having undue relations with each other's wives, and tossing what they don't want into wormholes that turn right around and dump it all back on them.
Kami know how stupid and corrupt we are in numbers. That's why they hide in mountains, forests, swamps, and oceans, going incognito for their own sake. If people saw them, heaven forbid, they would eventually be enslaved, imprisoned, eaten, axed, or put on leashes.
So this story is largely paleontology. We can't see the dinosaurs, so we visualize them from what they leave behind. Likewise, we can't talk to the kami, so we understand them from the fossils they have drawn in the dirt.
There is no pleasure in life greater than being near the kami. They know how to decorate.
Now, every thesis has an antithesis
, and if people are the thesis
to the world (as we so often like to imagine), the kami are the antithesis
, the Yin
to our Yang
. This doesn't mean that the kami are fighting us, because they'd honestly prefer to live alongside us. They unleash their wrath on their enemies, and give supreme joy to their allies. You don't have to worship them, but you do have to mind them, and you have to let them live.
The only English word descended from kami is kamikaze -- the Wind of the Kami. We use the term to describe suicide pilots, but its real meaning stems from the days of Genghis Khan, when one of his unstoppable Mongol fleets was on the verge of annihilating Japan and, suddenly, a typhoon appeared and wiped it out. Ever since, the Japanese believed that another Wind of the Kami would come whenever their country was attacked, and save them from their trespassers.
Of course, then they messed things up for themselves, and we all know what happened. Such are the mistakes that the nearsighted make.
Kami don't want to fight us unless we encroach on them. If we leave them to their territory, they can actually help us. Nowadays, there are trees in every city and warriors in every jungle, and it's easy to say that man and kami can, indeed, mix.
But are our Tarzans really people in the modern sense? And do the kami live in scraggly ginkgoes growing from the sidewalk?
The kami still live. I know this because I saw them.
How did I see them, you ask? Anyone can see them, if they have the mind to do so.
It was in a forest of bamboo, not too far from where an old general had been buried for a few centuries. The kami don't like generals. They live near the graves of killers, and I guess it's because they like to reassure themselves that the killers always die spectacularly. Maybe they're rejoicing in being free. Death is part of their domain, but murder certainly isn't.
Once place the kami stay away from is Hiroshima. Mute grass, mute water. No kami there. And I suppose they wouldn't be there. Their memories, after all, are longer than ours.
The skies in the cities stay gray, and the buildings drab. The kami hide in forests of bamboo, celebrating the death of murderers, and let capitalists bathe in their own utilitarian decay.
Kami work like that.
Don't get me wrong -- the human race isn't all that bad. We have cascading
power that lets us, at least in theory, shape the earth however we want to. We can make steel
that let us fly and swim, and that will maybe, someday, let us leave Earth entirely and move along.
The kami have their own cities, and they have a lot of space for them, too—wherever we are not, they are. They can hide from the growing predominance of humans.
Unfortunately for us, the kamikaze still exists. Even today, we can blame our global warming problem on CFC emissions and ozone depletion and all sorts of nifty-sounding chemical terms, but could it be the work of the kami? Could they be striking back for all the napalm in Vietnam, all the burning oil in Kuwait? Do they see all mankind as their enemy now?
Maybe the growing forces of capitalism and socialism and racism and sexism and criticism will meet and destroy us, so the kami won't have to.
In the meantime, we can see them packing their suitcases and moving down south, where they still get respect and breathing space. I don't blame them, myself. It saddens me to think, though, that even we humans in a modern society can't find a way to live in peace with beings of such beauty.
So I'm on the lawn, with my back to the brown building where people measure rocks. Here in the grass, there's a big, dead stripe, a few feet wide, quite long. I can tell that they have abandoned it.
The trees, if I let my eyes look past them, fade into the sort of lollipops our kindergarten art teacher expressly told us never to draw. They are all the same shade of Crayola green, and their roots grow against ribbons of concrete, separating the people from the earth. At some point in time, their ancestors lived freely in a forest, as the habitat of that special race.
A Florida winter is coming, cold in the shade, warm in the sun. Where those poor trees stand, the air is cold and the light is gone. Where I sit, among ruins of the kami, the breeze tugging at the grass is the only hint that the seasons are changing.
I wonder if the kami know to escape when the mowers come.
And this green hole, hidden from automobiles and casual bystanders, is one of the many ways humans have found to emulate what the kami have. At first glance, they have done a good job. But to me -- and, perhaps, to many others -- the details so representative of the real spirits, the spirits that give us the greatest breath of life in the world, are lost when men and women attempt to photocopy them with genetic engineering and wires and fertilizers.
That night, I sit in the woods, and try to listen to the kami. But their voices are quiet, only an inaudible hum below horns, engines, shouting, the sounds of a society on the constant brink of explosion.
I wonder if they're even here. And if they aren't, I wonder how we can be. They keep the mystery alive.
Written for a Shinto essay contest. I never entered it because it wasn't "hard" Shinto, and in many ways it is critical or plainly ignorant of the real religion. This is just how I like to conceptualize the kami—Princess Mononoke style.