Breathing Slow, Breathing Fast

Like mountain climbers who take a little time to limber up at higher elevations before pushing on to the summit, I feel that over the last few days we have somewhat re-acclimatised ourselves to the altitude we were working at last year. Although not yet up to our earlier pace, we are getting better at arriving, establishing what is going on with the weather, with the planes and with the farmers and organising ourselves accordingly. Certainly, as I listen again to the files in the evenings, I’m getting more and more pleased with what lies on the various memory cards that get ejected from the recorders. If the working practices on the farm continue to lack some of the frenetic lick at which things proceeded during the harvest season, activity at the airport appears to have picked up again after the lull that coincided with the start of the Golden Week holiday. We are once again seeing planes stacked up in a South-North line from nearest to furthest as they ready themselves for the descent into Runway B.

Talking to Shimamura-san and Fujiko-san around the low table in the Egg House in the Autumn, I remember them mentioning the ‘red dust’ that came with the Spring. There is certainly dust here now and a wind to get it going as a cold front crosses over Narita. Fine residue lifts up and swirls from the fields, blows through the courtyard of the farm, has you turning your head and pulling your eye-lids down if a gust comes your way and puffs up behind you as you walk – causing me irresistibly to call up Saturday afternoon TV memories of dusty leather boots coming to a dramatic halt in a Spaghetti Western.

We have not only been filming and recording. Two days ago, we visited the Mayor and council officials in a nearby farming district threatened by a potential extension to the runway and sat round a long table in a wood-panelled room looking at maps showing noise contours, the Mayor pointing out relevant features on a large laminated satellite photograph with an extendible stainless steel and chrome pointer. Yesterday we drove up to Chiba City to the Prefecture Museum to talk to a curator there. Our original intention had been to ask for help identifying the bird calls and song that we had recorded and to discuss how changes in habitat forced by the concrete and steel impositions of the airport and changes in soundscape by the roaring planes might affect the avian population. In an ironic twist, given that the precious parabolic microphone still lies inert and broken, we found ourselves in a beautifully designed nature centre in an artificial wood created from what had once been grassland. The irony was to found in the fact that Rupert, Professor Hiramastu and myself were armed with little parabolic reflectors that incorporated monocular viewers and were connected to a computer that parsed the signal coming through the mic in order to recognise particular species. Hayashi-san, who somehow avoided getting a parabolic himself, found the whole thing particularly amusing, doubtless logging the episode alongside the various other gaffes I have committed – the insect bites, the washing powder in the tumble dryer, the toilet slippers accidentally worn in the living area, the predilection for karē raisu (curry rice), the crawling on the dusty ground or adopting ungainly postures to get a recording, the refusal to give the police my date of birth …

The Museum turned out to provide very interesting background material on how agriculture had developed in this province. For example, the cedar woods that I had understood as ‘wilderness’ remnants from before, were more-than-likely to have been as cultivated as the farmed fields and rice paddies. The Museum exhibition dioramas, in particular, were rendered with compelling appeal. The curator, an expert in avian biology, took us down into the basement of the museum where, after two slipper changes and the unlocking of an airtight steel door, we saw the conservation archives that included individual bequests of insect recordings and, excitingly, recordings from the Narita area made in 1991 by the curator herself.

This afternoon we met with the artist Kaori who also works at the Quignon bakery. Kaori’s work adorns the side Shimamura family’s main Nissan truck and she also contributed artwork to the cover and the inner pages of the Shimamuras’ book Live With The Soil. Rupert and I really like her illustrations. Our recordings and video work has a certain distance, a hardness in its frame and, perhaps, something cold about it, a low temperature that derives from the static perspective we have been adopting. Kaori’s illustrations, on the other hand, bring warmth and softness have an ‘organic’ quality that finds a parallel scale to the Slow Life commitments of the farm. We sat around yet another table, this time in the lobby of the hotel, and discussed whether we could commission her to contribute to the project.

Our tea at the hotel this evening was going to be the standard karē raisu fare. But Hayashi-san’s wife had prepared some exquisite pickled vegetables for us, contained in small glass pots, and supplied with white ceramic dishes and shards of paper-wrapped bamboo with which to spear the food, all wrapped up in a piece of green patterned fabric. In the photo, you can see my sorry attempt to re-create the original presentation.

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