Finding Peace in a Dandelion - jwardenphotography
This article was originally published in the Spring 2013 edition of Nature Alberta Magazine.
By John Warden

It didn't seem likely that I would ever write an article or focus my photography around the themes of loneliness and sorrow. So I struck those topics off my list of ideas.

It was a few years ago that I had made the list, possible topics that might inspire an idea for my photography or a story for my writing. Many of those ideas came from Patricia Donegan’s book, Haiku Mind , which is a wonderful book for nature lovers. Donegan describes the haiku form of poetry as an apparently simple, yet deeply poetic way of expressing “a crystalline moment of heightened awareness”. Interesting, that’s exactly how I think of nature photography. Haiku and nature photography might be thought of as parallel streams of consciousness, presented in slightly different formats. Haiku presents the crystalline moment through the poetic imagery of words. Photography presents that same moment of heightened awareness as a digital visualization. 

The poems presented in Donegan’s book are full of imagery and feelings. I made a list of the 108 topics presented in her book, along with some of my own thoughts, as an idea catalogue. Fighting the doldrums of winter one day and looking for inspiration, I was going through the list and saw the words loneliness and sorrow. That’s when I hit the delete key. The very next day I read Meghan Power’s book The History of Jasper. In her book, Power talks about the World War Two internment camps located west of the Jasper town site in Jasper National Park. Japanese men had been re-located from the west coast to work on the Yellowhead – Blue River Highway and Power mentions that: When not working, the men passed the time playing baseball, planting traditional Japanese gardens and writing Haiku poems.

Now there was an idea, an inspiration even. Could I find one of these poems? In fact, I found much more than I was looking for. I found the elegant imagery of Takeo Ujo Nakano , and his wonderful descriptions of ‘crystalline moments’. I also discovered how the powerful emotions of loneliness and sorrow can be the catalysts of resolve. 

Separated from his wife and daughter in 1942 by the act of re-location, Nakano was first assigned to the Yellowhead Road Camp, just across the Alberta border in B.C., in the shadow of Mount Robson. Though facing adversity, he was inspired and excited even about the challenge of creating beautiful poems to reflect his surroundings stating that ‘[his] poetry would serve to both give order to [his] perception of nature and to give expression to that perception’. It’s not just his poetry though, I found his prose to be equally evocative:

Suddenly, bright lights broke through the clouds. To my surprise I found that I was witnessing the forming of a rainbow. It grew and grew until it had erected a great arch to span the crests of seven mountains. The splendour spread out before my eyes permeated my being until I felt first filled to satiety, then strangely subdued. It was though my personality had been engulfed by something much larger. I was left numbed. Looking around to the west, I saw that the sun had started to descend towards the edge of the mountains. As it did so the glaciers on the peaks changed colour moment by moment – now pink, then mauve, then deep purple and finally grey. There in that vast classroom of nature, the compelling power sought by my spirit had been found. I had been writing (poetry) for years, but here, my spirit first learned the excitement of the poetic urge.

This is a wonderful example of a ‘crystalline moment of heightened awareness’ captured using the words of feeling and emotion that seem to come so naturally to the poet.

After three weeks at the Yellowhead Camp, Nakano was transferred to the nearby Road Camp at Decoigne, near Jasper, Alberta. Moving from the familiarity of the Yellowhead Camp, to the unknown of Decoigne was at first blush, another adversity, but, he also understood that:

A change of surroundings would supply new objects for my curiosity and thus would stimulate fresh thought.

Nakano’s time at Decoigne was filled with his observations of the wildlife and wildflowers that abounded around the camp. He talks of the beavers and bears he observed in the adjacent river and describes the flowers:

Dandelions bloomed like stars. Growing at our feet were the wild roses of Alberta. I picked some, then added daisies, buttercups, violets and other flowers from the abundance around us. Even today, several decades later, the names of these pretty flowers remind me of the peace of those days.

To find peace in a Dandelion, I like that idea. It’s through the words and ideas of Donegan and Nakano that I've come to think of heightened awareness as a bridge between the physical, the mental and the spiritual. With heightened awareness, the poet and the artist are able to cross over into the deeper realms of aesthetic feelings. They are able to go beyond the ordinary to explore and experience feelings of majesty, solitude and tranquility, of the mysterious and the subtle.

Internment wasn't all peacefulness and tranquility though for Takeo Nakano. The separation from his family and his re-location affected him deeply and there was often an aching loneliness to his words:

At those times when my loneliness was particularly acute, I went to stand under the night sky. It seemed to rain something sympathetic upon me. As I gently closed my eyes to feel the moonlight on their lids, the present misery seemed to dissipate and I was back with my wife and child. There at that distant camp, I looked up to moonlit peaks to the west and sent my thought over to them, my family, on the other side (of the mountains).

Loneliness and sorrow were not to be his only adversaries. The hopelessness of despair was also waiting for him. Told that the Decoigne camp was closing and that he would be sent back to the interior of B.C. where he would be re-united with his family, he was, at the last minute, sent to another camp. Then, because he protested this arbitrary and unfair treatment, he was sent to the prisoner of war camp at Angler Ontario.  Yet still, even from behind the wire at Angler, Nakano persevered:

I was conscious of a strong will to live life fully. Mere existence would not do. I resolved to think and to act positively, to prepare for a happier future with my family. If only I opened my eyes I was free to see around me such dear objects of delight as a dew-studded web across the grass, or the faintest pulsation of a butterfly that had just alighted. If I were responsive, these were constantly ready to fire me to poetic composition. I came to realize that if I observed subjects carefully, I could, as it were, simply bring forth the poetry that grew within me, one by one.

If only we were all to open our eyes and see the things around us, that are dear to us. 

Nakano was eventually released from Angler and was re-united with his wife and daughter in Toronto, where they made their new home. He continued to write poetry and, in 1964, was one of twelve winners in Japan’s annual Imperial Poetry Contest, that year attracting nearly 47,000 entries. His poem, not a three line haiku, but a five line ‘tanka’ is worth repeating here:

As final resting place,

Canada is chosen.

On citizenship paper,


Hand trembles.

In the face of separation, loneliness, sorrow and despair, Takeo Nakano was able to open his eyes and see the beauty of the natural world around him. It’s through the gift of his words and his poetry though that we can discover the spirit of a fine man, a man of heightened awareness and resolve, who chose - to be Canadian.

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