A poem of Wendell Berry begins:
Beyond this final house
I’ll make no journeys …
Berry is a farmer (and poet, teacher, essayist) — this sentiment is close to the heart of the farmer, for it affirms the permanence (to the degree that anything has) of land, of soil that returns labor with harvest, that preserves health and bounty, that stretches the spirit into nature itself. (Here land has the “permanence” that the ancient Chinese ascribed to “heaven and earth.”)
Like the farmer, too, a house well-made, overlooking fine land, nourishing to creatures, blessed with clean water, vistas to the surrounding mountains and forest, sky and stars, complements the farmer’s sense of perpetuity and identification with nature and the grand cycles of existence. In this regard one can conjure the images of villages and farms depicted in Lao-tzu (Tao te ching, 80) when he describes the inhabitants of an ideal society in conformity with the Tao:
They truly love their homes,
so they have no interest in travel.
There may be some carts or boats,
but these don’t go anywhere.
Everything is ordered and predictable, and that is what the farmer in Berry would seek in his final house. But as the poem continues, the “house” is more complex.
Beyond this final house
I’ll make no journeys, that is
the nature of this place,
I came here old; the house contains
the shade of its walls,
a fire in winter; I know
from what direction to expect the wind;
I move in the descent
of days from what was dreamed
to what remains.
In the stillness of this single place
where I’m resigned to die
I’m not free of journeys:
one eye watches while the other sleeps
— every day is a day’s remove
from what I know.
The house is the container of poet’s mind and spirit. The poet is now old and realizes that this will be his last house, that his journeying will end here, though one ultimate journey remains, and every day brings him closer to it, one step removed from the familiar.
Yet as a farmer, as one close to nature in all its vicissitudes, the poet knows that he can be reconciled to the journeying, having recognized the patterns of nature. In that house which is the temple of his spirit, in that body and mind that gives life yet, will he come to the last journey in peace because he is already reconciled, because he already lives in conformity to that grand cycle that Lao-tzu would have called the Tao. The poet is old, “came here old,” perhaps because it has taken a lifetime to recognize the principles which can now give him peace of mind, that give him a “fire in winter,” and a strength that he had not when younger, and a discernment he lacked but now has, sufficient to “know from what direction to expect the wind.”
Now, Berry may not have been thinking about Lao-tzu in any line of this poem, but he affirms the instinct for conformity to nature as approximating that which defines and gives value to life, that which harmonizes human experience and reconciles the self to the cycles of life. In this is the universality of poetry — that is, when it addresses vital questions from a deep and strong place, not from a fleeting emotion or from a misapprehension of modern whim, but from a place rooted in nature, where observations are bound to have richness and resonance.
Houses or dwelling places will capture the aspect of location within nature in writings on the simple life, for dwellings come to reflect or project the mentality of their resident. Compare four different personalities in the little compilation by Bruce Watson titled Four Huts. The four disparate writers are Po Chu-i, Yasutane, Kamo no-Chomei, and Basho. In brief one may say that they represent an esthete, an idler, a pessimist, and a wanderer, each nevertheless enduring, each retaining the strength of articulate writing and the pursuit of solitude. To one degree or another they each understand the dwelling as reflection of self. Thus, Po Chu-i thinks of retiring to his wonderful thatched hall on which he has been working for years, not without an admitted boastfulness and pride at his accomplishment. Is he speaking only of his dwelling, or of his own persona?
Yasutane was still writing in Chinese and under China’s cultural influence. His pond pavilion, as he calls it, his final dwelling, embarrassingly not modest, is the object of much attention over years of dreaming. He repeats the ominous old saying that the builder does not live long enough to live in what he builds. This discourages him, being along in years. This place will have to do, he says. It is, however, a little gaudy and graced with excess, no less than himself; even the attention expended on it cannot but contrast with Yasutane’s own assessment of himself:
I’m like a traveler who’s found an inn along the road, an old silkworm who’s made himself a solitary cocoon. How long will I be able to live here?
Kamo knows better than his Chinese counterparts, reflecting on life and circumstances more forcefully and intelligently than the previous two authors. Kamo has seen Japan suffer great upheavals, natural disasters, and knows the fragility of life and circumstances beyond the vicissitudes of his own personal preferences. The opening lines of his celebrated Hojoki are full of vigor:
The river flows on unceasingly, but the water is never the same water as before. Bubbles that bob on the surface of the still places disappear one moment, to reappear again the next, but they seldom endure for long. And so it is with the people of this world, and of the houses they live in.
Kamo is a genuine hermit in crafting his dwelling to conform to his philosophy and mind, his sense of impermanence — even to noting that in a pinch he can disassemble his hut and transport it with him. Kamo lives (to paraphrase Berry) in the shadow of the walls of his dwelling and knows from where to expect the wind. Yet his simplicity, while not rooted in the soil, is firmly a part of it as part of the earth of “heaven and earth,” presented as an offering to the whims of time and change. This paring of thought and possessions allows Kamo to be a trenchant philosopher as well as a successful hermit.
The disposition of Kamo also suits Basho, who was a traveler and wanderer, yet dearly loved the tiny dwellings in which he resided, however long or short. His very name derives from the banana tree, for a tree he carefully tended against winter winds, not always successfully (but bananas always grow back). When he left his first hut he hoped friends would save the banana tree, thus providing him a continuity with the past.
Basho wrote his poems while traveling, and his self-imposed exile from a happy dwelling must have shadowed his writing. Within his hut or “phantom dwelling,” Basho conceives of a perfection that awaits his ripening within it, deliberately simple a hut and deliberately simple his own mind and heart. But the poet’s transparency is fragile. He wonders if he is cut out for solitude, or is it just that “weary of dealing with people, I’ve come to dislike society.” He wonders if his devotion to poetry is excessive, as it was with Po Chu-i and Tu Fu, whom he cannot match for intelligence or quality of writing. And he scruples about the purity of his practice. But though his hut is his mind and spirit, Basho concludes philosophically, “Do we not, in the end, all live in a phantom dwelling?”