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Creek Running North

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May 26, 2005


The mountains are still there, and the valley. Clouds still gather around the peaks, loose snow and rain onto the high polished granite. Spring still comes to melt the ice, to send it trickling down the near-vertical creeks that drain into the Owens River. Sky pilot and tamarack still push out new leaves cell by tiny cell.

Dust still swirls around the floor of the old lake. Winds still raise devils to waltz across the river's saline sump.

The rocks are still where Kuichiro Nishi placed them. They may have shifted an inch to the left, tilted five degrees to the east. It doesn't matter. It was planned for.

There is a phrase in Japanese - "wabi-sabi" - that resists translation into English. Wabi, roughly, means the kind of beauty conveyed by imperfections. Sabi means the kind of beauty conferred by age. Together, they stand for an aesthetic prizing a natural geometry, rough edges and apparent random simplicity. Never mind that Nishi spent months planning the rocks' placement, all of them carted from the nearby mountains. Their edges, their faces look as if a blade of mother rock has just barely pierced the desert soil, there to crumble.

All things are impermanent.
All things are imperfect.
All things are incomplete.
This is the essence of wabi-sabi.

One hundred and seventeen thousand people were removed from their homes, shipped like cargo to the camps. The litany of place names is a geography of heartbreak: Tule Lake, Topaz, Heart Mountain.


All they had worked for was stripped away, sold to neighbors for pennies on the dollar. Some held out hope that should this trouble ever end, their white friends would return the property they'd been lent. That day was far off.

They built furniture from scrap pallets, planted vegetables in the firebreaks. Kuichiro Nishi planted roses, dug a dry streambed, arranged stones around it. Young people posed for wedding photos.

The barracks, the hospital and canteen were torn down a half century ago, their weathered timbers salvaged for barns. A new building holds historical displays, a searing and thorough apology made architecture. It sits on the land, but recognizably does not belong to it. Tourists read the essays, watch the newsreels. Some weep. Others scowl. Back into the tour bus and on to Death Valley they go.

Nishi's roses are long dead. All things are impermanent. The stones grow a crop of rabbitbrush and aster now. All things are imperfect. Red brome grass fills the streambed. All things are incomplete. This is a most beautiful place. I cannot bear to walk among these stones.

Posted by Chris Clarke at May 26, 2005 10:30 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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We have a beautiful memorial park here in Portland, I had the honor to escort my daughter's 7th grade class in a visit this Spring. Have you seen it? It was interesting how some kids understood the reverence, and other's had to be coached.

Posted by: susurra at May 26, 2005 08:27 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Beautifully written. Honest and perceptive. And yet ....

Everything that was, is.
Everything contains the seed of perfection.
Everything is a part of the Whole.

How do I know this? I look, but with my heart. I listen, but with my heart. I touch, but with my heart. And then I ask myself where where “I” stop and the apple blossoms begin.

We don’t stop.

Yet the pain is real.

Posted by: tost at May 26, 2005 11:17 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

whether a trick of my mind because i know the history, or some perception of the ambience of sadness in the place itself, i felt that i was in a shrine at manzanar. my parents long ago told me of their confusion and dismay that high school friends and families were taken away. RD and i placed stones, in the jewish tradition of respect for the dead, on the stone monument there.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at May 26, 2005 11:52 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

There is an archive of government WWII photos of Manzanar available at
Just type in Manzanar as your search. The cumulative effect of viewing these photos is very moving.

Posted by: Jim McCulloch at May 26, 2005 12:15 PM
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You're right, Jim. Thank you.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 26, 2005 01:17 PM
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When I lived and worked in San Francisco, I had two friends that were born in the camps. The war ended before either was old enough to understand what was happening. The amazing thing to me is that these families went stoically back to work after the war and rebuilt their lives as best they could without asking help from anyone.

Posted by: OGeorge at May 26, 2005 05:41 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Mm. Beautiful post.

Posted by: Rana at May 27, 2005 02:14 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs