I spent one autumn on a rice farm in the depths of Kyushu's "hell" valleys where the land heaves with forces from the underworld, hot springs swell from the grounds, vegetables and meat left to steam in volcanic vapour on the roadside.
Our treat at the end of each working day was a visit to the local onsen, truly a vision from the roiling underbellies of the earth, walls and piping coated in thick crusts of blood red iron, chatter of women ricocheting off these living surfaces, through thick steam rising and rich water poured. The hot springs were free for locals, who would take it in fortnightly turns to deep clean the premises. As a total outsider I felt a fraud luxuriating in the waters that belonged to the land, but not once was I made to feel this way. There was an undercurrent of understanding that we all belong to this earth. The 'right' to use them came not from simply existing, but from an attitude, of humility and gratitude.
Thank you for blessing us with these waters, to melt our stiffness so that we may serve the Earth tomorrow with renewed vitality.
My hosts were natural farmers 自然農, a Japanese take on biodynamic farming. They kept several hundred ducks who would weave between the rice plants and peck out any bugs or weeds, so they did not have to rely on chemicals.
Every morning began with chopping up piles of soft leaves we had collected at dusk the night before. Chopping with care, heavy knife falling steady upon wooden board in the kitchen, irori smoke curling through from the front room. Then mixing the leaves with handfuls of last year's milled rice husk and soy beans, relishing the myriad textures poured through my palms. Taking the care to feed the beasts well, thanking them for their existence.
The days were spent harvesting their fields and fields of rice. It was hot and hard work but not as brutal as the planting season. We built bamboo structures to hang the harvested crop to dry in the sun, binding two bunches at the base to form a triangle elegantly draped over the poles. Paddy-planting in late spring was done by hand, traditionally the work of women, doubled down the spine, creating hunched backs for life - but that's a tragedy for another story.
One day my hosts received an order for a duck, for consumption. This is something they did also. I went with otochan (おとうちゃん - that's what he liked to be called) and helped him corner a few flustered ducks, then watched as he picked one and stuffed it in a sack. As soon as the duck was in darkness, it fell calm and still. We took it to a hut where he sliced its throat open with deft hands.
Living, living, dead.
The moment I became vegetarian as a teenager came flashing back, unable to bear the guilt of taking life for selfish purpose.
But this did not feel selfish. It felt like a sacrifice, an honouring of symbiosis. Otochan had brought these lives into the world, treated them with respect and care worthy of human children. Otochan had served the duck, and the duck had served him and his crops. Now the duck made its ultimate act of service, in its death, passing on its life force in physical form, to be alchemised by the miracle of the human body.
Gratitude, and humility.
He handed me the corpse to pluck the feathers. I did so in silence, my senses in sacred attunement with the still-warm flesh. My witness to and active part in this sacrifice was a pulling together of many threads. It was warping for a mindset so embedded in notions of right and wrong. An intuitive part of me had always recoiled at the idea of murder for food, yet an even deeper embodied intuition told me that this is the way of life. We are a part of nature and in that there is sacrifice, there is loss, there is pain. There cannot not be any of these things when we are so inextricably bound to one another.
Life IS interaction. Life is exchange. The most wonderful thing we can do is to accept the light and dark both in our hearts and receive the gift of life with ultimate thanks, with awareness of our precise positioning within the multiverse. To live with respect for each moment and every being, this including the Sun and the skies and the plants that give us breath.