Desert Rat, Planet Citizen

From Nanao or Never
Blackberry Books (2000)

How to best describe fellow wanderer, planetary poet and desert wild man, Nanao Sakaki?

After seventy-five years on the planet, Nanao is very much alive, of good health, walks with a quick, deliberate stride, is tanned and footloose. He looks and smells of the desert, skin rubbed with sage, hair washed in spring water and brushed into a ponytail, rucksack perfumed by the sweet incense of piñon coals. Equally, his presence brings the salted flavor of deep-water straits, foaming breakers, atolls and fjords hardly on the map. These geographies have merged in Nanao. He is a walking continent all of his own.

Known worldwide in small and varied circles for his embodiment of crazy wisdom and spirited non-conformism, Nanao jumps stars and rides typhoons, is a great miso-soup chef, loves moonflowers and pickled ginger, stout beer and fiddlehead fern, roaring water and Magellanic clouds. He's talked with dinosaurs, walked into volcanic craters, survived in caves, faced the Siberian wind, tasted the cool bodies of mermaids, made love under the burning sun.

At the time of this writing Nanao sports a long white beard and covers his head with a floppy Chinese fisherman's hat. Recycled Italian hiking boots, cushioned socks, zoris, t-shirt, sweater, windbreaker, a pair of tough sewn shorts and baggy cotton trousers—enough. Daypack, knife, binocs, watch, magnifying glass, notepad and fountain pen; plum extract, water, dried fruit—enough. All of these to which Nanao might add:

"Wind for mind
Just enough."

Nanao means Seventh Son. Sakaki is an evergreen tree, sacred in Japan. He was born in 1923 into a middle class family in a village on Japan's southernmost island of Kyushu. His father, in the cloth dying business, went bankrupt when Nanao was seven or eight. "My first lesson—never trust money." The family practiced Pure Land Buddhism, though religion has always roused suspicion in Nanao. "Namu Amida Buddha, Namu Amida Buddha ... from babyhood I heard this sound. Always somebody chanting. When my father was washing my body: Namu Amida Buddha. At the bus stop: Namu Amida Buddha. So tiring! Chant to be happy in another life, that's all." Once, when asked if he belonged to a particular sect, Nanao frowned, pondered and replied with sparkling eyes: "Maybe whitewater."

Nanao has lived and died a few times in this life. At age two he caught pneumonia, a case so severe that his uncle warned his mother, "Prepare the coffin, by noon tomorrow he'll be gone." His mother held him all night long until he recovered, but for many years his health was weak; he couldn't walk and run like others his age. Later, living on hardly anything, he peddled newspapers, worked odd jobs for merchants, began to take long walks and swim. His father, a writer of light verse, introduced him to Issa's haiku. Someone on his great grandmother's side translated Leaves of Grass into the first Japanese edition.

After the Second World War, Nanao tried working in iron factories but it wasn't for him. He began to wander Japan's ruined landscape, begging, sleeping outdoors, sometimes salvaging dinner from food left on shrines. He taught himself languages, read eastern and western classics, hung out in ghettos and backwoods, and generally took to the road as iconoclast scholar of trees, flowers, rivers and mountains, as well as of villagers and their songs, artists and their crafts, farmers and their soil, bards and their sake dens. In this sense he was, and is, akin to those Japanese poet-wanderers of old: Basho and Issa.

Riding out to the Zuni Shalako ceremony one winter, ice freezing the wipers, mesas whitened with snow, my seven year-old son, Joaquin, was sitting between the two of us. I was at the wheel, Nanao co-piloting with Japanese folk songs and stories. The first tale he told was about a battered Renault given to him in San Francisco. Not knowing how to drive, he simply sat in the front seat asking passer-bys if they wanted a car—until he was free of the possession. The second tale he told was about being drafted into the Japanese Navy during World War II.

As a 22 year-old, he was stationed at Izumi Air Base, a hundred miles south of Nagasaki. One day he picked up a B-29 on the radar screen: "Due north. 30,000 feet high. 300 m.p.h. Three minutes later someone shouted, 'Look, a volcanic eruption!' In the direction of Nagasaki I saw the mushroom-shaped cloud with my own eyes."

This story became part of his poem, Memorandum. But on this first telling, snow whipping across the windshield, the whole world a white out, my son's eyes widened. Nanao was graphically describing the size of the cloud, explaining how he how he and his companions had climbed out of an underground hatch, looked to the sky and thought Mt. Fuji was erupting.

"You mean you were the enemy?" Joaquin asked.
"Yes. Enemy!"

Nanao was Joaquin's buddy. How could this be possible? The absurdity of war, powerful men pitting one race against another, the stupidity of it all, was never more poignantly condensed than at this moment.

By 1959 Nanao had walked Japan extensively. His wanderings inspired others to do the same: quit the competitive neck-break up the corporate ladder, abandon the money struggle, rejoin the world, participate in the daily doings of the laboring class, learn the faces of flowers, eat from tide pools, study the soil with farmers. "But one thing," he warned those who might follow on his trail, "No matter how many kilometers one has walked, no matter how much knowledge and experience he has returned with, if he can't make a good cup of tea, then he must go back, walk again!"

In the early Sixties Nanao crossed paths with poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, with whom he would correspond, visit and maintain a lifelong friendship. He also founded The Banyan Ashram, an experimental community for young Japanese seeking an alternative lifestyle. This was on Suwanose, a tiny, tropical island in Japan's southernmost Ruyukyu Archipelago, he In 1969 he made his first trip to North America. Mountains, deserts, native peoples, and back-to-the-land communities were at the forefront of his focus. I first met him in the California Sierra Nevadas. It was in the early 70s and I was about to take residence in New Mexico.

On his world itineraries, bumming a ticket here and there via friends, organizations or an occasional university, Nanao would repeatedly visit the American Southwest. I was fortunate to be on his list of contacts, and my little house on the Rio Grande north of Albuquerque served as a good base. On one of his visits I was sitting at my desk when a crack of thunder shook my chair. At the door was Nanao wearing a big smile: "Time for spine alignment!"

Usually we would bird watch in the bosque by the river. Or head into the high desert: Chaco Canyon, Ashislepah, the Hopi mesas, Monument Valley, Cañon de Chelly. Or to the mountains: the Jemez, Sangre de Cristos, Sandias. We would set up a modest camp, tell stories, walk, climb a peak, explore a canyon, pick up fossils, eat ferns and mushrooms, swim, slap mosquitoes, watch a datura blossom slowly unspiral at dusk and fall asleep under shooting stars.

In the early 1980s I published Real Play, Nanao's first book of poems and sketches. We finalized the production in the New Mexico high desert, sipping a mild hallucinogenic tea. In his introduction to the poems, Gary Snyder wrote: "the subtropical East China Sea carpenter and spear fisherman found himself equally at home in the desert, so much so that on one occasion when an eminent Buddhist priest once boasted to Nanao of his lineage, Nanao responded, "I need no lineage, I am desert rat."

Along with Suwanose, Nanao affectionately described the arid, light-emblazoned Taos highlands as one of his favorite places on earth. "Huge desert meeting high mountain. Same feeling as wide ocean meeting volcano." Gradually, his travels took him from continent to continent, and his own poems, bound and sewn into beautiful books, slowly caught up to him. Here's one of them:

If you have time to chatter
Read books
If you have time to read
Walk into mountain, desert and ocean
If you have time to walk
sing songs and dance
If you have time to dance
Sit quietly, you Happy Lucky Idiot

Friend of bristlecone pine and salamanders, threatened rivers and taiga, snowflakes and purple gentian, kangaroos and the aurora borealis, Nanao has a few enemies too: dams, nuclear power plants, multinational logging industries, star wars proponents, thick-headed careerists. His extended family begins with trilobites, dandelions, salamander, turkey-vulture, solar flares, flying squirrels, condors, pampas grass, oriental cuckoo, grizzly bear, wild persimmons, angelica flower and fiddler crab.

Like the animists he pays due respect to very old trees, rivers that sing, stones that speak, and the ancient breath of typhoons "putting oxygen into the sea." Once, bedding down after a visit to Hopi, wrapped only in a thin blanket at the base of a scraggly juniper, Nanao peered out at the star-blanketed desert and exclaimed: "Part dream, but at the same time, part real—very solid."

Whenever he knocked, the door opened and time stopped. I was thrust into a loop of beauty brought alive by his smoke-flavored presence, his eagerness to cook, feast, drink, laugh, tell stories, catch grasshoppers, quietly write, make long-distance calls, go for berries and mushrooms, listen to Sudanese singers, Jamaican reggae, the San Juan Turtle dance, guitars from Zaire, Aboriginal didjeridoo, or the deep-down drone of Tibetan chant. He loved a good joke, appreciated down-to-earth talk, hated sentimentality, shunned awards, thought religious robes smelled of money, disliked sycophants and was invigorated by challenge.

The mountains would perpetually call. It didn't take much to pack. Nanao would buy a yam for each of us, a few packages of soba, some garlic, greens, and ginger. No tent needed. The constellations were a better covering. In New Mexico we could walk the southern ridges early in the season. The Organ Mountains, the Gila, the Manzanos were already warmed by the desert. As snows melted, we would work our way gradually north: to the Sandias, the Sangre de Cristos, the Spanish peaks, the Weminuche Wilderness, Uncompahgre Peak, the Colorado Rockies.

For awhile in the 1980s, Nanao lived in an old school bus parked high in the firs above Taos. He prepared quick, excellent Japanese cuisine over an outdoor wood fire, often supplemented by mushrooms gathered in wet mountain ravines. He was a planetary citizen, alleged to no flag but instead to the "thundering rainbow" that colors "life's beach sunshine orange." He disliked book-learned Westerners' over-romantic admiration for things Japanese, especially the tea ceremony. His own ceremony consisted of hand raking a spontaneous mat of spruce needles close to an outdoor fire. His guests would sit on them (preferably not in the lotus position) while he boiled water in a banged-up pot hung over aspen coals on a blackened tripod. Fine quality sencha tea was briefly steeped in a bamboo strainer and poured into whatever mug, cup or bowl was on hand. The rest followed naturally: slurp in silence, sharpen the senses, listen to a chattering squirrel fight off the jays. Make merry.

On one of Ginsberg's visits, Nanao created a simple appetizer which he would repeat many times over the years: shaved daikon, glistening white on a blue plate, topped with dried bonito flakes, a sprinkle of tamari, a dusting of toasted nori. This was eaten with chopsticks, washed down with nut-brown ale. Nanao, a thin-bellied creature by nature, remarked that people should be taxed by the size of their bellies. Allen, looking somewhat like an old Benares guru, harmonium along side, belly protruding from loose, white Indian cotton shirt, gave a quirky, half-surprised smile. "So where's that leave me?"

Nanao once showed me how to wear a Japanese fundoshi, a simple, one-piece loincloth. Many years later in Taos he presented me with a fundoshi of my own, asking if I remembered how to tie it. I didn't, so he had me strip and re-learn the art of wrapping. Laughingly, he suggested I wear it to the supermarket next time I went for an avocado. Leaving Nanao's schoolbus hermitage, I started down the path when—like the ghost of the 8th-century Chinese sage, Han Shan—he stuck his head from a window of the bus and waved me back.

"You forgot your footprint!"

At age sixty, Nanao had yet to ride a horse. One spring we went with Ed Black, a Navajo guide, on a three-day horseback ride into Monument Valley. Rising and falling on the back of his little Indian pony—pointed beard, knit cap, scarf, binocs, day pack, canvas jacket—Nanao looked like an ancient mariner. He compared galloping over the sand to skimming Japan's warm-water reefs on a small boat. One morning the wind turned into a fierce gale. Ed Black sniffed the air, buttoned his collar and eyed Nanao with amusement. "Okay, cowboy, let's see how well you take the wind! Let me see you roll a Bull Durham one-handed on a bronc in a blizzard!" Nanao didn't understand a word. He just rode straight into the blowing sand, saying:

"I don't mind wind. Wind feeds earth, wind feeds fish. Wind feeds my bones!"

Within a few minutes the sun had become a rusty blur. Nanao became a phantom lost in swirling dust. As his horse spooked and whinnied, his comical silhouette tilted to and fro above the saddle. Like a Mongolian shaman disappearing between worlds on his spirit journey, Nanao had become exactly what he often said of himself: "just a shadow."

At the campfire that night, Nanao expressed the sensation of his ride. "I felt my spirit being carried away." He talked about journeying in the real world. "Two good reasons for travel: strong temptation to get away from self, and strong need to evolve through change. Too many people just looking at magazines, dreaming about a future, but never making a change." He cited the American Indian and the Australian Aborigine as "original people" who looked to the stories of their ancestors for wisdom, and to their own intuition to solve problems. He talked about dreaming, one of the ongoing, effortless actions of the mammal brain. From dreaming issued reality. From dreaming came change. Dreaming could help you through the world.

Luci Tapahonso, Navajo poet and storyteller, says that her people gain strength in their daily lives from "the old stories of our ancestors that have been told since the beginning of time." The distant relatives she refers to are so far back through the various worlds of creation that one might visualize their stories as beads on a necklace wrapped around time itself.

Acoma poet, Simon Ortiz, has written: "Pueblo people are aware of their present reality because they possess and live within a cultural heritage that confirms for them everything they need to know about themselves. Passed from generation to generation through oral tradition, this knowledge ensures that existence will always be meaningful. There can be neither beginning of life, nor present actual reality, nor a continuance without the mythic."

According to Nanao, evolution implies the ability to quiet the self so that the ageless wisdom of the elders may find place. He once said evolution relies on the ability to step out of the self and help others with an unprejudiced hand. "We don't need a guru to learn compassion. We are born with it. So many people talking about empty life, meaningless world. Is the world empty? Or are they?"

In 1985 Nanao and I were sewing together 333 copies of Inch by Inch, a chapbook of his translations of Issa's haiku. One of the better-known haiku in the collection goes like this:

Just as he is
he goes to bed and gets up
—the snail

I thought the snail showed Issa how simple life could be lived. No possessions, no unnecessary baggage, no fashions to worry about. "Yes, that's a good understanding," Nanao chuckled. "But maybe Issa also wondered, Why? Why the snail is that way and I am this way? Such a moment makes life wide. Most humans miss the snail. They are too busy filling themselves, going to schools, thinking about money, trying to get experience or caught in relationships. No need to be slave of each other. Or money. Or experience. Always we can jump over experience. Many think experience, experience! But it's not true. When we are separated from our experience we wake up."

Near Monument Valley, there is a maze of stone where mountains separate from earth and dawn brings you close to heaven. The sinuous canyons of Tsegi, Dowoshiebito and Betatakin are riddled with smooth arches, flesh-colored alcoves, weeping grottos, and Anasazi ruins where past and present merge. A sandy wash leads out to the cliff dwellings of Keet Seel. Hiking that eight-mile arroyo with Nanao was one of the few times he talked about poetry. "Keep it simple. What you can't remember doesn't belong." He said he began with a thought, an image, a little story. While walking he fine-tuned its rhythm to breath counts, footsteps, a circling hawk, the careen of a swallow, the weave of lizard tracks in the sand.

Every footprint is a song
the song of life
painted on the sand
painted in the air ...

At Keet Seel we explored the stone dwellings left by those who migrated to the present-day Hopi and Rio Grande villages. "No future, no past," Nanao said. The ancient kivas of Keet Seel were exactly like the ones in use at Taos or Tesuque. At our feet were broken chips of shell no different than those adorning present-day Pueblo dancers. The songs were here too. The huge stone alcove above us held the voices of not vanished people, but singers that Nanao and I heard only a week before at the Santo Domingo corn dance.

In that ceremony, hundreds of villagers in full regalia filled the village plaza to the sound of drums and chanting. As thunderheads mounted, the music strengthened; one gave force to the other. The crowd swelled, too: European tourists chatting in their own languages, locals speaking Spanish, visitors from nearby Pueblos speaking Tewa, Towa, Keresan. And Navajos, too, in black cowboy hats, satin shirts, velveteen dresses, decked with strands of turquoise and silver. The smell of chili stew, fry bread and coffee permeated the air. A Ferris wheel and carnival rides had been set up across the irrigation ditch, near the whitewashed church. Crafts sellers from nearby Pueblos were selling pottery, jewelry, and woven blankets. Mayan people from Guatemala, a Huichol couple from Mexico, and two Quechua brothers from Otavalo had also set themselves up under plastic tarps among the locals.

As usual, there was an invitation to enter one of the village houses, a flat-roofed adobe with a pile of gnarled juniper near the door. We sat down at a huge table with a family and their assorted guests. I won't forget those faces: wrinkled grandfathers wearing scarlet headbands and turquoise earrings; young dancers in ceremonial kilts; children decorated with body paint sipping Pepsis; mothers in calico aprons. Before us, the table was spread with clay bowls of squash and beans, roasted corn, steaming vessels of red and green chili, mounds of freshly baked bread, sliced watermelon, plastic pitchers of Kool Aid, cake and coffee. Looking about me, under low ceilings, uneven walls, and a small doorway opening onto the plaza filled with dancers, I could have been hundreds of years back in Keet Seel. Likewise, standing in the ruins of Keet Seel, I could easily fast forward to the Santo Domingo corn dance.

There were a couple of rangers working at Keet Seel, living in a hogan-shaped residence. One evening they invited us to use their sweathouse, primitive but in good working order. We laid out our bedrolls, sipped miso soup, and, when we returned to sweat, noticed three horses and a pile of gear at the ranger's house. Three Washington officials had just arrived. Two of them were Park Service filmmakers, the other a federal lands administrator. They were here to light the ruins with candles and film them as if they were back in the times of the Old Ones. Rather hastily the filmmakers proceeded to unpack their cameras, boil and purify a pot of water, dig out their tuna fish sandwiches, and eat.

After our sweat, we joined them. The administrator scanned Nanao up and down with a rather baffled look and decided the safest course was to regard him as just another Japanese tourist. Trying to make conversation, he glibly inquired if Nanao had ever heard a coyote.

"Oh sure," Nanao said, "Many years ago."
"In Tokyo."
"But there are no coyotes in Tokyo."
"Yes, I heard them," Nanao reiterated. "On very good LSD."

At the end of the evening, that same official, having to be coaxed into a sweat lodge by his companions, insisted that he leave his boxer shorts on. "You can do that," the attractive young ranger smiled, "but I don't recommend it. You'll be very uncomfortable; the elastic tends to get hot. You might come out of there with a wrap-around tattoo."

Nanao last passed through New Mexico in 1998. It was a good, brief time for us. He seemed fit as ever, sinewy and strong. We hiked eleven miles into and out of the mountains on a trail that gained nearly 3000 feet as it ascended a ten-thousand-foot ridge. The altitude bothered him only a little. I asked him why some feel better as they get older. He said age settles us in. "You see more deeply, feel more deeply. So you are lighter. When you are young you are too busy escaping, holding yourself too tightly. When you are old you are not trying to run, not rebelling. You are quieter, you listen. Everything talks to you, all is alive."

We passed clusters of Apache Plume, silvery pink among gnome-like boulders. "Rocks dreaming ... maybe of becoming flowers. Me dreaming ... maybe of becoming rocks." Later, on a tough upgrade through flowering cactus and mountain mahogany, soon turning to thickets of oak and deep stands of ponderosa, Nanao bent low to wild geraniums and shooting star. "Hello, I know you. But I forget your name. So sorry. Will you tell me who you are?"

Climbing steadily, adjusting the breath, finding pace, Nanao talked about climbing Sakurajima as a boy, a very active volcano behind Kagoshima City. He talked about tangling with octopus in the East China Sea. Then he spotted more flowers. Penstemon, columbine. "Hello (bowing). I know you. You are old friend for me. I think you are called Old Man's Beard." Cresting the ridge, we met a group of hikers eating their sack lunches. Silently they munched, not knowing what to make of this strange apparition before them. Nanao—wiry, tanned, wearing shorts and floppy hat, white beard wisping in the wind—paused and looked far into the horizon.

"Oh wow! I can see New York City. I can see Wall Street. I can see Atlantic," he exclaimed, gazing over the cloud-dappled eastern plains.

A few days later, we joined a friend for a meal of shaved daikon, salad, and grilled tuna. After a few rounds of stout ale, Nanao suddenly broke out with this wild idea for "completely new language." What he proposed was a minimalist international lingo composed of no more than a thousand words; word clusters, to be exact, like the heads of wild yarrow. Each cluster would consist of "the best, most original expressions to be found in languages like "Qechua, Icelandic, Tewa, English, Japanese, French, Tibetan." Nanao proposed that the first word in this new language be taken from Bahasa Indonesia: sama sama.

"Same same, and at the same time thank you, too. We are all the same people. Shakespeare's time. Lao Tzu's time. Chaplin's time. Anasazi's time. You are my face I am your body, sama sama. I thank you, you thank me. That is the first word." On the heels of that I added a phrase given to me by a Tewa speaker on a flight out of Albuquerque, 30,000 feet over the painted caves of archaic hunters, Venus riding the wing. We were talking about love and longing. I asked her what the Tewa word for love was. "I give you my breath," she said. That is how we say "I love you."

On an end-of-June scorcher, 104 in the shade, I sit at my desk in cool-adobe seclusion. Sunflowers gasp in the blaze, a roadrunner perches stationary on the wall. Apricots are filled with delicious, sweet heat; the first jalapeños are ready for harvest. Water trickles up from the ground, through the basil, into the wells around the tomatoes and pole beans. Pink hollyhocks spire between silver chamisa. Tufts of seed float through the air. The grasshoppers are here, too, the same endlessly hungry critters that Nanao once suggested eating.

As I reread my travels with him, the moments of work and play, the nights of silence and song, the road trips full of revelation and wisdom, I wonder what closure I could possibly offer? Punctuation doesn't quite fit this pilgrim of sand and sea who compares old age to "sky blue turquoise," the friend who once doctored me through a broken heart, handing me his latest writing with an earmarked page:

Walk down the gorge
Something within the abyss
Waits for you in hiding. Go!

Perhaps the most fitting closure, other than a flake of jasper or a splinter of dinosaur bone, is a poem by Nanao himself. It was written nearly twenty years ago, a reminder that what we see, what we name, how we suppose reality to be, might just as well not be. What is a mountain? How far away? Is it all just illusory suspension of mist and sand, riptide fossilized in the mind's eye?

Why climb a mountain?
Look, a mountain there.
I don't climb mountain.
Mountain climbs me.
Mountain is myself.
I climb myself.
There is no mountain

nor myself.
moves up and down
in the air.

Sources, other than my own notebooks or casual interviews with Nanao, include:

Nanao Sakaki, Real Play, Tooth of Time Books, Santa Fe, 1981
Nanao Sakaki, Inch by Inch: 45 Haiku by Issa; Tooth of Time, 1985
Gary Snyder: introduction to Real Play; expanded for Break the Mirror: the Poems of Nanao Sakaki, Blackberry Books,1996
Rex Lee Jim, ed., Dancing Voices, Peter Pauper Press, 1994, (Luci Tapahonso)
Mary Peck, Chaco Canyon: A Center and its World, Museum of New Mexico Press, 1994 (Simon Ortiz)
Taped interview with Nanao Sakaki and Jeff Bryan, May 1998