SEA OF TREES
The mind is like that. It is nighttime and the wind is blowing the giant evergreen that stands in the yard beside my apartment window. I am pausing, gazing. I am thinking about this evergreen and the way it moves. A line of verse appears, stuttering in front of my eyes: "Then he said, Go, / sit outside / until you see the trees / have throats."
This was when I had my obsession with trees. This obsession is fairly new, and with all fairly new obsessions everything that is in the slightest relation has to be bought, to be had, to be remembered.
There is the creamy white fabric shower curtain with the brown-silhouetted tree in the center.
The 16X20 black and white framed photo of Central Park that I bought though I have never actually ventured into the park myself.
A tree carved and textured out of blue styrofoam painted in black that my friend created and I rescued. I carried it through Pittsburgh Airport, on the airplane, and through O'Hare to home so it wouldn't be discarded as useless, as trash. It is almost half of my 5'3" frame.
The view of trees that line Michigan Avenue outside that certain window, the image of thin branches against gray evening and lit black lampposts.
The pictures of various trees for my computer screen, where it seems I spend the most time looking, being replaced again and again with weary looking trees, foreboding trees in shadow, grandiose trees in morning sun, trees captured in sepia, in antiquity. There they are preserved, are held as background. There they are a reminder of my longing.
It seems I have written this line of verse everywhere I would mark something as divine, for continuous retrospection, definition. I had forgotten who had said it, or where I had even heard it. The line was there and familiar in stature, the words gestating in the crevices of interpretations, re-birthed in circumstance.
I took myself back.
I flitted through memories, through first impressions and acquaintances with texts and persons studied and read, in wanting to find the source of this one verse related to my obsession. My mind finally came upon the name James Shea, to the table where I sat, listening to him speak on his book, his brown hair, to my hands, to that page, and it was then I realized that this line came from his book of poetry, Star in the Eye, that I had read two years or so prior.
This book was hiding on one of my bookshelves, so thin it's easy to miss, plain yet seductive in its appearance. I must have liked the line so much I stamped it as not just his words but also mine.
These words, these words, where were they in the book? Questioning this, I started flipping through it. I stopped on a numbered sequence poem, twelve in all. It was entitled, "Death Poems," and there it was, number 6, page 43. Shea writes,
I went to my
teacher and said,
Master, how do I
write a poem?
He said, Inside one poem
there may be
a great poem.
Inside a great poem,
there may be
many shitty poems.
Then he said, Go,
until you see the trees
Then he said, Go,
do not ask
for my death poem.
They say it started in 1960 when Seicho Matsumoto, a Japanese author, published the book Kuroi Jukai. A story of an affair, a young woman develops a relationship with a young public prosecutor. Eventually, her husband blackmails him. They say it was because in the end of this novel, the two lovers escape to the factual forest Kuroi Jukai and commit suicide together. This 32 kilometer forest sits at the base of Mt. Fuji and is so dense with trees that, when looking at it from an aerial view, you would think it was a dark green body of water.
The forest is the number one place to commit suicide in Japan. It is the second most popular place for suicides in the world.
This forest is known by many names other than Kuroi Jukai. It is known as Aokigahara, Aokigahara Jukai, The Sad Sea of Trees, (signifying the mourning, how the branches weep), The Black Sea of Trees or, simply translated from the title of the book Kuroi Jukai, Sea of Trees.
Looked at as a place of desolation, surrendering, or redemption, it is not just a rumor, a simple setting in a story about two lovers, a Romeo and a Juliet. However, I could be lying. Is there a romantic notion about two lovers, or anyone, going to an intended place to commit suicide together or alone, where it's open, foreign, forgotten? How death surrounds, envelops the air that is breathed?
Trees are not just an obsession here, not just an interest in what nature can look like, can reproduce. This is a place where the trees are turned into a base for a noose, a branch for a stepping stool. Where a forest floor is not only moss and branch and trunk, but also the place of last steps, an epitaph, where breathing with the living means also breathing among the dead.
Wataru Tsurumui is the author of a self-help book called The Complete Manual of Suicide. It's written in a matter-of-fact style that explains in detail a wide range of suicide methods, such as slashing wrists or arteries, overdosing, drowning, gas poisoning or self-immolation. These methods are rated by skulls, five the highest. He talks about the effort of preparation, appearance of the body, how the certain method will affect the dying process, how painful it will or won't be.
He writes in this 1993 bestselling book, that the Sea of Trees "is the perfect place to die." Tsurumi includes directions to the forest from many urban areas in Japan, hotel recommendations near the forest, a map of the grounds, and advice on evading police and local residents. "Your body will not be found," Tsurumui writes. "You will become a missing person and slowly disappear from people's memory." This book has sold over a million copies.
When researching this in relation to the Sea of Trees, many believe this book is a curse. CNN wrote an article in April 2010 about how local residents near the Sea of Trees say that when the book came out, more suicides started to happen. Sometimes, the book is found on the forest floor next to a body, but it's rarely picked up. When walking around the forest, it's very common to see materials abandoned on the ground. Materials like belts and ropes for hanging, for hanging in the forest is the method of choice. In fact, ropes are still tied to trees, even when a body is absent. When I researched pictures of the forest, I found ones that showed worn sneakers, dress shoes, and wallets. Skulls and femurs lay askew in homemade tents made of tarp and duct tape. There are backpacks, duffle bags, hairspray, hair mousse, combs, scissors, sunglasses, receipts, plastic bags, and soda cans still on the forest floor.
As I turn to "Death Poems" in Shea's book, I can't help but to connect his notions of death and nature to Aokigahara in a number of lines. I read number 11, in which Shea writes, ". . . he should burn out / like a fire / and thereby leave no trace." The bodies of Aokigahara are left untouched, some never found. Bodies are still hanging in the forest, decomposing, their belongings are now a part of the forest, a part of the myth. The only visible sign that they were ever there is from the materials of the world they leave behind. To walk into a forest and never be seen again, like the bodies are entrapped in the trunks of the trees.
I was watching video footage of the Sea of Trees on Youtube. Visitors come and capture the forest firsthand. I also read firsthand accounts on visitor's blogs and articles. There are many forums discussing how haunted the Sea of Trees is. One visitor of Aokigahara in a forum says that they didn't go to the forest to commit suicide, but they "understand why people go to the forest to die. It's [the forest] mysterious, sad and beautiful all at once." Beauty is a factor with my obsession with trees. I have been intrigued with a quote that Rilke wrote about trees in general. Rilke writes, "These trees are magnificent, but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them, as though with their growth it too increased." It is not just the beauty of the branches, but also the beauty between them. The negative space in which the branches control, but ultimately it is decided up to nature exactly how they curve, falter, weave. It is mysterious, this space, how the branches seem to have their own movement, their own choice of physical display.
In Aokigahara, those who come are caught in the between, say spirits reside in the trees. Spiritualists believe it's the purgatory for ancient ghosts— I witnessed in the videos and blogs that local residents will not go off the main paths in the forest for fear of never returning. The trees become a living monument for the Japanese; they say the air is full of suffering. It's like the trees are losing themselves in this never-ending nightmare. Or perhaps, it is not their nightmare after all.
Some say it started even before the 1960 novel. This time, it is said to be a ritual called nyujoh. It is the first recorded suicide in Aokigahara Jukai. A Buddhist monk named Shohkai in 1340 walked through the forest and found a cave. Inside this cave, he performed nyujoh: to fast, to purify, to cleanse the body, and to eventually kill oneself from starvation. Other monks started to follow his example. I find that the ideology of these rituals can be related to a line in Shea's poem. He writes in number 7, "Maybe the prayer comes / in the form of an order." To cleanse oneself among the trees, to let them bear your sorrows, your desires of death. The prayer is in the ritual. Can we find our order amongst the seemingly disorganized branches of a tree?
The grounding. This is why I stare at them. I stare at them in longing from the elevated train, a window overlooking the park, I stare while I wait to cross the street. Why must I feel so rootless? When looking at trees I find myself thinking that I can somehow understand the satisfaction of living among them; I try to find something I can give to them (a part of me that's deserving), for they bare everything. Their stoic manner teases me into thinking that I have to look at them, like it's a necessity: to stare as long as I can, to admire. Karen Joy Fowler writes, "Trees are as close to immortality as the rest of us ever come."
What is this immortality that we think is in the roots of trees? In Aokigahara, to die means to die among the trees, to be comforted by the trees, to be reminded that when you die the trees are still living, still there, still as beautiful even as your eyes are closing, struggling for breath, the trees are calm.
The forest floor of the Sea of Trees can be blamed on an eruption of Mount Fuji in the year 864 AD. The lava ran northeast downhill and into the lake at the base. Its seemingly continuous forest floor is now volcanic rock. The floor of the forest is rocky. Number 10 in Shea's "Death Poems" has only one line: "As for death, / stone exists." Existence is in the monument, in the physical display. This lake is now a volcanic plateau, where trees such as beech, alder, and evergreen are ensnared and multiple, where moss covers the rock, where the ground randomly opens, where if you do not watch your step, you are likely to fall into the earth's black mouth. What look like black holes, are really underground ice caverns, letting nothing escape beyond black chasm. Shea writes in Number 7 that "Not for the ground to recede / before him forever." For a person trying to find their way out, it is seemingly hopeless because of magnetic materials in the woodland's igneous rocks. Compasses are futile.
What calls the Japanese to this forest? What enchantments lay in the thick brush of pine furs? This idea of the earth swallowing us whole, the ground being a mechanism for the lost.
The videos that I watch are essentially all the same in the way each visitor feels. "The ground is relatively unstable when you walk. It's like the Blair Witch Project come to life. I'm scared. I don't want to be in here right now," whispers a visitor that's walking through the forest. His camera shakes as it slowly pans over the trees. I have never seen the Blair Witch Project, but I feel this is his way of telling his audience how unreal it seems, how much he probably wishes it was a hoax, that the forest isn't known for accidently stumbling into the dead bodies hanging in trees.
The video is also eerie because the trees block the wind, so we see no branches swaying, no leaves stirring. It is like this in all the videos I watch. The wildlife is completely absent. The forest is known to be strangely quiet. There is no sign of living. There is nothing alive in this forest, except for the trees, continually entangling each other, continually growing without an awareness of anything thriving but themselves. If you go further into the forest, about 3 kilometers researchers say, the canopy of trees blocks sunlight, so that it's pitch black.
Each person that enters the forest is receding, each body absent like the birds.
Already lost in the nothingness.
Starting in 1970, the police and forest workers started a yearly body search, scanning the first few kilometers of the forest, and housing the bodies in the local station. Forest workers have to stay with the corpses in this special "suicide room," because they believe if left alone, the body will move itself on its own. Sylvia Plath writes in The Bell Jar, "My favorite tree was the Weeping Scholar Tree. I thought it might come from Japan. They understood things of the spirit in Japan." The bodies hanging are souls captured between branches; maybe this is the silence that moves through the trees. The Japanese understand what it means to be without rest, constantly searching for stability, the essence of a tree.
Those intending to die when walking into the forest read signs that are put in the ground. They are written in white lettering engraved on brown signs in English and Japanese: Think of your loved ones! Life is precious! Please reconsider! These are the only communication from officials, from police to stop the growing number of suicides. There is no law that prohibits killing oneself in the forest, but the rate of suicide is so high that they urge those who go to kill themselves to find help.
What if Shea's Number 12 were written on a sign outside of the forest?
"You are dead. The Void / welcomes you. You have been here / all along anyway. Your corpse / will get a haircut. The wind / makes a mold of your body..."
Would they stop if they knew they were already dead? Would they stop when considering that life beyond the tree line is not a place to end, but it is only a place where life begins, starting with the trees themselves?
I understand now, this need for affirmation. How many hours, days, do people sit and wait before tying the rope around branch, before reconciling themselves within the forest? Do they touch the bark and run the dirt between hands to feel a part of something, engrossed in the silence, feeling more content among the souls still lost, no— yet to be found? Maybe, maybe this is the part of the myth, the order, the prayer. What if the prayer is that they do not want their bodies to be found, to be left in nature, be in death? Is the forest another reminder of something they do not wish to feel or is the silence a reminder of what they felt they were a part of all along?
To obsess means to wander in the significant. I am riptide and sway, catching instances of myself in the where and when of my obsession with trees. What's lost is the way to bring myself back hidden in the belly of trunks and flight like the autumn leaf. I glean my mind to what is necessary; carry myself as if lifted by a branch. What would it be like to have the earth as a prominent resting place, a suicide room where no one would leave me, trees that held the weight of my body, a forest that coalesces breath.
If you were to sit long enough in the forest of Aokigahara to see if the trees had throats, do you think the throats would be barely whispering or screaming amongst the hanging dead in their branches? The answer is found in the bodies.