Wolf Oak

Tetsuro Yoshida notes in his The Japanese House and Garden, The Architectural Press, London, 1955,

“The Buddhist religion, which is such an intimate part of the Japanese, teaches the transience of life, that this world is only a temporary home. Hence the inclination to trust fate rather than go in search of happiness. It is quite possible that this pessimistic Buddhist doctrine has also had a share in determining the peculiar attitude of the Japanese to his home, and so he accepts as inevitable its ultimate decay or destruction by fire.”

We know that the thirteenth century Buddhist hermit, Kamo-no-Chomei, believed that it is superficial or even sinful to live a materialistic and princely life or to care if one’s house is consumed by flames. He is after all, an ascetic (Primitive Hut). But as I discussed in Phantom Dwelling, the Japanese, historically, had a trick or two up their voluminous sleeves.

Despite frequent and devastating fires, the kura or storehouse tradition has resulted in Japan having an extraordinarily intact history of cultural artifacts. As far back as the eighth century, kura were constructed by Buddhist and Shinto temples to store their religious treasures and sutras. Later they were built by noble families, the warrior class and tea-masters, and from the seventeenth century on, they proliferated as status symbols of the merchant class. All the while, the public and private dwellings of those with access to a storehouse were presented as sparsely furnished spaces of a refined and minimalist sensibility – their chodo, or stuff safely tucked away in the kura, a museum quality, fire-resistive building where both humidity and temperature were passively controlled.

Kura also functioned as pre-industrial warehouses, factories and storehouses for pawn-brokers. These commercial kura were collectively known as doso or dozo – literally clay storehouses – the most fire-proof of all. (Kura, Design and Tradition of the Japanese Storehouse, Teiji Itoh, Tankosha Ltd., Kyoto, 1973)

Dotted through the cities, towns and villages of Japan these buildings with their minimal openings, heavy shutters and thick walls presented a forbidding appearance. Their function was quite simply to keep their contents safe from moisture, rats, fire, theft and earthquakes – your typical concerns of the Southern California wildland/urban interface dweller!

The closed, affectless facades of these buildings, battened down as they were to fend off environmental and societal dangers led to their becoming associated with mysterious and sinister events: many were considered to be haunted. Truth-to-tell, the Japanese like their material possessions as much as anyone and they are often reluctant to let go of them even after death.

In the Buddhist tradition, the mind takes over after death and travels through the world in the ‘mental body’. This is the Bardo of Becoming, a way station on the path to re-incarnation. Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1994,

“……We do not realize we are dead. We return home to be with our loved ones. Fruitlessly we try to make use of our belongings…….”


“…the mental body is ceaselessly on the move. It can go wherever it wishes unobstructedly, just by thinking. Because the mental body has no physical basis, it can pass through solid barriers such as walls…”

Some claim to see these spectral beings or feel their presence lurking during their 49 days (and occasionally longer) of the Bardo of Becoming, and the folk tradition seems to suggest that the kura is a favorite place for those days in limbo. They are the haunted houses of Japan (obake yashiki). During the midsummer Buddhist festival of Obon the souls of dead ancestors are supposed to return home for three days, some to rummage through their erstwhile possessions in kura.

I was enthralled by ghost stories as a young teenager, and consumed anthologies of the same: one I remember in particular was called (as I believed) The Man who Loved Trees, by Algernon Blackwood. On finding it on the web, I discovered that its true title is The Man whom Trees Loved – a fabulous man-bites-dog turnabout with the title immediately telegraphing the theme of vegetal sentience (how, you ask, could I have forgotten?)

On re-reading it, it is apparent that it is a contender for being the first of a now popular genre, Eco-Horror. It was published in 1912. An old married couple lives at the wilderness/urban interface, in a cottage abutting England’s New Forest. She is a devout Christian; he is enamored of the forest and is called into the woods where his soul merges with the tree spirits –he makes a cosmic biological connection with the wildlands (initiated by the trees) while she stares into the abyss of loss, loneliness and spiritual doubt.

Blackwood came of age during that late nineteenth and early twentieth century resurgence of spiritualism and interest in the occult, of which Madame Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, Annie Besant and her protégé Krishnamurti were also products and was a member, along with W.B. Yeats of the secret society, The Golden Dawn. The Man whom Trees Loved, however, draws both on Celtic Druidism and the roughly contemporaneous traditions of animism exhibited in Japan’s nature religion Shinto which predates Buddhism in that country by about a thousand years.

Shinto gods are called kami. They are sacred spirits which take the form of natural elements such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and life processes such as fertility. Humans become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami. The Japanese are adept at juggling the alternative theologies of Buddhism and Shinto and each is honored in their everyday lives.

If transcience is the Buddhist conceptual contribution to the feather-light, flammable tradition of historic Japanese houses, then it is Shinto that animates much of their interior spaces and their relationship to the garden – which serves as an idealized representation of nature in the raw; a humanized vision of the wilderness. The Japanese garden tradition pays homage to the picturesque grotesqueries of the natural world. It celebrates the individual genius of each plant, rock, faux stream-bed and fallen leaf and in such gardens the Shinto spirits can play and radiate their beneficence toward the human soul.

In Blackwood’s tale, it is the elemental, raw primal power of the wild that casts its spell: a character muses,

"behind a great forest, for instance, may stand a rather splendid Entity that manifests through all the thousand individual trees—some huge collective life, quite as minutely and delicately organized as our own. It might merge and blend with ours under certain conditions, so that we could understand it by being it, for a time at least. It might even engulf human vitality into the immense whirlpool of its own vast dreaming life. The pull of a big forest on a man can be tremendous and utterly overwhelming."

This is the impact of The New Forest on Blackwood’s protagonist, David Bittacy. Around the house he views “the prim garden with its formal beds of flowers as an impertinence”. He is drawn to “the great encircling mass of gloom”. It is ultimately, perhaps, a Druidic vision - dark, dependent on density, on an entanglement of trunks and an engulfing canopy of leaves. In this primal forest he believes,

“Evil tends to separation, dissolution, death. The comradeship of trees, their instinct to run together, is a vital symbol. Trees in a mass are good; alone, you may take it generally, are--well, dangerous.”

Come Samhain (the Druidic precursor to Halloween), Beware the Wolf Oak…………