Saturday, April 12, 2014

Blowin' in the Wind: Akatonbo, or, The Red Dragonfly (赤とんぼ)

(Blowin’ in the Wind is a regular feature on my blog consisting of an assortment of nature writings – hymns, songs, excerpts, prayers, Bible readings, poems or other things – pieces I may not have written but that inspire me. I trust they will do the same for you.)

(photography by Gail and Rick Mylander)
In an unexpected turn of events last month Gail and I made a trip to Japan, where I had been asked to speak for a Covenant missionary conference. Always paying attention to the natural world around us, and seeking to understand that culture’s understanding of natural beauty, we engaged several missionary friends on the topic, and found that the Japanese on the whole seem to be even more attuned to nature than most westerners, especially older persons.

Somehow one day, though, a conversation turned to dragonflies, a subject in which Gail has taken keen interest in recent years. (Now, the world of darters, darners, skimmers, chasers and hawktails is new to us, and we are finding it interesting and surprising. Did you know there are nearly 6,000 species and that they can fly up to sixty miles per hour?!?) Our mission friend Gary told us of a lovely old folksong called Akatonbo, or, Red Dragonfly. Its popular lyric is a nostalgic poem, in which a person remembers an image of a dragonfly while a child that causes them to long for the home, simplicity and family of their youth. Here’s the poem, in a couple translations:

          Oh, red dragonfly, red dragonfly at twilight...
          I saw you for the first time while still a baby being carried on my sister's back.

          Could it be so long ago, picking mulberries from the mountain field?
          And our little baskets... Was that all a dream?

          My sister got married when she was fifteen and moved far, far away.
          She no longer sends news to our village.

          Oh, red dragonfly, red dragonfly at twilight...
          I see you resting there on the tip of the bamboo reed.


          Red dragonfly in the sunset sky, in the orange sunset sky...
          Being carried on her back, I saw it at one time.

          In the mountain's fields we picked mulberry fruits
          And put them in a small basket. Is that a mirage?

          At fifteen the young girl married
          And letters, too, ceased to come.

          Red dragonfly in the red sunset sky, in the orange sunset sky...
          It's stopped on the tip of my fishing pole.

If you’re interested in hearing the song done in a folksy Japanese style, hit this YouTube link. The visuals are truly random, but the song is quite nice. Here’s another, less Japanese in style though still sung in the language.

It’s easy to feel the pathos expressed by the writer of this little poem, one for whom the simple encounter with a dragonfly brings him or her back to a childhood memory and the loss of a sister: nostalgic poems or songs that call up a longing for one’s home place are a part of every culture. In fact, it doesn’t take me long at all to think of some quick, popular examples myself from the songs of my own youth -- Gladys Knight's “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Fats Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans” and Billy Grammer’s “I Wanna Go Home” come to mind. Many of you could come up with others fairly easily.

So it is no surprise that the Bible even possesses such a thing. In Psalm 127, a displaced person wistfully relates to another:
Beside the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem. We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees. For our captors demanded a song from us. Our tormenters insisted on a joyful hymn, saying, “Sing us one of those songs from Jerusalem!” But how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a pagan land?
 For this singer, there was no point to the music if it was not possible to be in one’s home place.

I don’t think I agree with that. Neither do many others, apparently, as the Christian tradition has example after example of songs that sing of our real homeland, heaven. And rather than feeling there’s no point to singing them, we sing them with a sense of anticipation that is not necessarily grounded in nostalgia but in expectancy.

This simple and beautiful Japanese song about a red dragonfly touched me. Yes, we, too, have a home. Curiously, this is not it. In truth, we were not made only for this world.

~~RGM, April 11, 2014

P.S. My entomologist friend Bill tells me the dragonfly shown is called a Calico Pennant!

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