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John- December 2005 668

The woodcutters also starving,
firewood disappeared.

With nothing else
some tore down their homes
and took the wood to market.

It was said the value
of this wood
was not enough to live on
for one day.

Then, I was baffled
finding kindling painted red
and catching glimpses
of gold leaf.

I have heard
that in the distant past,
this nation was governed
with compassion
by certain wise rulers.

The palace was thatched
with common reeds,
the eaves left ragged.

When the emperor saw
smoke rise thinly
from the people’s hearths
he waived already modest taxes.

This was
an act of mercy,
a desire to help
his people.

To understand
the world of today,
hold it up
to the world
of long ago.


From the first section of Hōjōki (The Ten Foot Square Hut) by the Japanese ascetic writer Kamo no Chōmei.

Written in 1212, this poetic essay concerns the 50-year-old Kamo no Chōmei’s decision to renounce his status and material prosperity and withdraw from the capital city of Kyoto following a fire and famine. He would spend the remainder of his life on Mount Hiro, living in a simple, hand-built hut, where he discovered, among other revelations, that in man’s quest to disengage from the world, he may become attached (even obsessed) with detachment. Chōmei’s literary and philosophical shadow lingers large over later writers like Thoreau; just as his work, like the final stanza above, is a stark reminder that the history of man and society isn’t just linear, but cyclical.

I snapped the picture on the other side of the world, in Houston, Texas.