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A-Bombs, a Tsunami and a Hackberry Tree Define Art

The Stones of the Golden Women: A-Bombs, a Tsunami and a Hackberry Tree Define Art at P.E.N. in Tokyo

By Georgianne Nienaber

On August 6, 1945 at 8:15 am the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. One kilometre from ground zero, a hackberry tree in the gardens of the Hiroshima Army Hospital was seared by radiation from the blast and half of the tree vaporized. The tree was a favourite of patients at the hospital, who would sit under its sheltering branches as they recovered from the wounds of war and life. The Hackberry miraculously survived the vaporous hell and stood as a silent witness to the horror of Hiroshima until 1984, when it suffered a direct hit from a typhoon, produced a few leaves the following spring, and finally died in 1988.

It is February 2008. My friend, Americana singer/songwriter Susan Cowsill, and I are attending the final wrap party for a conference on Culture and Natural Disaster in Tokyo. “Screamed, Survived, Start Anew,” is the theme of the Japan P.E.N. club’s sponsored event, which has attracted writers and musicians from around the world. They have just spent five days presenting their work and discussing human responses to the fury of nature. Every participant at the conference has produced a body of work that speaks to the essence of humanity in the face of the unspeakable.

The memory is indelible. My hand is on my friend’s shoulder while I struggle to keep my knees from shaking as the remnants of the Hiroshima hackberry tree become an instrument, and the haunting notes of Amazing Grace fill the banquet room. It is a private concert, composed of an audience of two. We are both literally leaning into the tones” a sound that seems to suspend reality into a moment when all time and suffering and redemption are distilled into the purest strains of music one can imagine.

Famed Japanese musician Kurotaro Kurosaka had graciously responded to my request to please play the kokarina (flute) he carved from the hackberry that survived the A-Bomb. The sound is clear, beautiful, indescribable, but filled with power. It shreds the heart and cuts to the soul and to hear it is to never, ever, forget it. I am like a greedy lover and ask him to play it again”and he immediately obliges. Bowing, smiling, he puts the wood of the ancient hackberry to his lips again, his unruly shock of hair falling across eyes that are closed, absorbed in the beauty, the moment. Eyes filled with tears, because the release from the beauty, the power” was required.

Listen here.

The soul of Kurotaro consumed every room he entered, and certainly the concert hall, known as “Space Zero,” where the bulk of the P.E.N. presentations unfolded like beautiful, complicated origami. Kurotaro is an unassuming man, and his face will never grace the cover of a celebrity magazine, but that concept is born in American definitions of culture and art which are bastardizations of truth and beauty.

The International P.E.N. conference has reaffirmed an unexpressed feeling that Americans have been consumed by monotonous “art” that fills the galleries of uncounted seaside tourist traps, music stores, and honky-tonk strips that pollute the vast American coastline and interior lake country resorts. Art in the United States has been reduced to a concept of Americana that is self-serving at best and a monetary rip-off at worst. Throw some paint on a can as, write sloppy music, find an agent or a well-heeled sponsor who thinks they can make a buck, and you are well on your way to American celebrity and artistry.

Kurotaro’s hackberry tree kokarina supported a literary presentation, “Stones of the Golden Women” at the P.E.N. forum and defined the essence of truth and beauty—the expression of which is the duty of the writer and artist. Fraud, shape shifting, celebrity narcissism, the quest for money, and deception—all have no place in art.

Novelist Khwaiyun Lukjan of Thailand narrated his description of the tsunami of December 26, 2004, when the Adaman Sea devoured the landscape of Thailand in Phang Nga Province on the island of Phuket. The tsunami surged numerous times as set after set of waves ebbed and flowed a distance of over two kilometers inland. Not a building, not a tree survived.

“When people meet with major catastrophe, we throw away the self-image that has been created to protect ourselves in our regular lives and lay bare the self essence residing in the deepest recesses of our hearts,” Lukjan narrated.

“There was only one thing on my mind at the time. To live. No matter what happened I had to overcome it without fail. To survive was the only thing I was thinking about.”

He described himself as “a small ant—drifting in a giant sea,” and from this perspective the story of the “Stones of the Golden Women” was born.

The title of the work describes a devastated Moken Village, Hin Nang Thong, and the quest of a man (Lin) to find the body of his wife and mother of his child, so that he may put her spirit to rest.

The Moken are known as the “people of the sea, or sea gypsies.” Their ancestors arrived in Thailand thousands of years ago from southeastern China, entering the ocean from Indochina. The Moken numbered only 3,000 in the American-dominated tourist areas of Thailand before the tsunami, and their history and culture was literally overrun and ignored. They were truly œan invisible people, in the words of Lukjan.

The Stones of the Golden Women is a place name that describes a wide stretch of coastline where rocks and stones littered the beach and shellfish were once bountiful in the shallow coastal waters—shallow waters that by their very nature gave lift and power to the tsunami. Shellfish are an important food for the Moken, and Moken women inhabited the beach for this reason. No one standing there survived the 2004 tsunami.

Lin’s wife, Sonporn, whose name means “wishes come true,” left their home on the morning of December 26, 2004 to gather shellfish at the place of the Stones of the Golden Women and never returned. Lin was reduced to bitterness and alcoholism and his relationship with Sonporn’s father was destroyed—“violent waves still battering their respective hearts.

Finally, Lin tells the narrator that his wife appeared to him in a dream.

“I went to Khao Lak and got lost, and now I can’t find my way home,” she said.

Lin says, “She was looking for me to help her. I want to look for my wife. I want to find her body. I want to bring home her bones.”

During the recitation of this story, the pure tones of the A-bomb hackberry tree filled the auditorium at Space Zero. So did the heart and soul of the musician and flute-carver Kurotaro as the narrator continued.

The narrator described how the pain of loss seared Lin’s heart as surely as radiation seared the hackberry tree. Lin lost his emotions as well as his will to live. Lin became like the shellfish clinging to the shores and stones at Stones of the Golden Women. The shellfish were dislodged and upturned during the tsunami and left to die and burn under the South Seas sun” irradiated and demolished.

I came to believe that we are all Moka. The word means “human beings.”

How many of us have stood ancient and strong in spirit through incredible challenges, only to be felled by an unexpected typhoon of physical or emotional assaults or betrayal? The challenge comes when we pick ourselves up and whittle away to find the core of our existence, shape it, reform our lives and go on to make beautiful music that originates in our core--the soul. Sometimes we can accomplish this on our own, sometimes it takes an angel or two to salvage what is left of us after we experience our personal disasters, and sometimes love is all we need and love is forever elusive.

The expression of that struggle and triumph is the true stuff of art. And true art is also elusive. Beware the individual who calls himself/herself an “artist.” At the P.E.N. conference, all contributors were known simply as “participants.”

There were six Americans at the P.E.N. conference in Tokyo. “Music” and “art” conferences are a billion dollar business in America and attract hundreds of thousands of participants. What have we Americans contributed that is of any real value, when we are defined in the rest of the world by celebrity culture? It is an audacity, irony, and affront to the human spirit that some art in the United States is known as Americana; especially when one considers that the American A-bomb almost destroyed the essence of the hackberry tree that now fills auditoriums with the strains of Amazing Grace.

Scream. Cry. Start Anew.



Georgianne Nienaber is a writer, author, and investigative journalist. She lives in the world. Her articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, Rwanda's New Times, India's TerraGreen, COA News, ZNET, OpEdNews, The Journal of the International Primate Protection League, Africa Front, The United Nations Publication, A Civil Society Observer, and Zimbabwe's The Daily Mirror Her fiction exposé of insurance fraud in the horse industry, Horse Sense, was re-released in early 2006. Gorilla Dreams: The Legacy of Dian Fossey was also released in 2006. Nienaber spent much of 2007 doing research in South Africa, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was in DRC as a MONUC-accredited journalist, and recently spent six weeks in Southern Louisiana investigating hurricane reconstruction.

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