The Daily Telegraph, London

April 26, 2007

'Let yourself be open' 

Louise Carpenter reviews East Wind Melts the Ice: a Memoir Through the Seasons by Liza Dalby

Liza Dalby is the author of Geisha (1983), a book born from her postgraduate anthropological thesis, which led her to become, as far as we know, Japan's first and only Western geisha. What kind of woman does it take to do this? To wear kimonos so heavy and elaborate that she returned to the US hunched over like an old crow, to whiten her face and blacken her teeth?

The answer lies deep within the pages of East Wind Melts the Ice, which at first glance presents itself as a book about gardening. It is not only for gardeners (although they will adore its unapologetic passion). Through her musings on the natural world, a picture comes into focus, almost by accident, of an extraordinary woman: anthropologist, wife, mother, writer. Dalby offers no explanation for the sometimes extraordinary ways in which she has led her life, but reveals much of her inspiring character through her love of horticulture and people.

I have never come across a book so eccentric, elegiac and yet still compulsive. It calms, quietens, transports and, ultimately, restores hope that true beauty does not lie in wealth, material acquisition or celebrity, but in the natural world. The book contains no "message", only a series of observations backed up with recollections and experiences.

Its peculiarity lies in its format, which has its roots in a Japanese literary genre. This is called saijiki, a "year's journal" which entwines personal experience, natural phenomena and seasonal categories. It is written in the Japanese prose style of zuihitsu, which translates literally as "following the brush".

Unlike the English term "essay", in which we try by the end to nail an idea or an argument, the zuihitsu encourages writers to follow their inspiration; or as Dalby puts it, "you let yourself be open to following a meander in which one subject calls to mind another, and that in turn may lead to something unexpected".

Dalby uses the structure of the 72 seasonal units of an ancient Chinese almanac. This almanac influenced Japanese notions of calendrical time and poetic imagery. This leads Dalby back and forth between her past and present in 72 short pieces, each one headed by the poetic titles given to the five-day units: "East Wind Melts the Ice (February 5-9)", "Golden Orioles Sing (March 11-15)", "Little Frogs Peep (May 7-11)", "Sparrows Enter the Water and Turn into Clams (October 11-15)" and "Earthworms Twist (December 21-25)".

This sounds bizarre, and it is. Take, for example, "Earthworms Twist". Dalby tells us that in autumn, worms sing, but that now, in the middle of winter, they move deep underground "twisting into knots". She writes about the struggle of ying and yang, before recounting the riveting story of her first encounter with "night crawling" in Japan, when young unmarried men secretly visit their sweethearts under the cover of darkness. She had a night crawler of her own back then who eventually asked her to marry him (she turned him down).

She then moves onto her shamisen teacher. This man roared about on a large motorcycle wearing a sleek black helmet. He eventually became her boyfriend - at least she implies he did - and introduced her to the geisha world.

The zuihitsu of "Earthworms Twist" ends with Dalby recalling how the geishas taught her their term for the female orgasm - "a thousand worms" (mimizu senbiki ), which, she concludes, "is the best phrase for female orgasm I have ever come across... worms - gardening, singing, climbing trees and writhing in ecstasy".

The book is full of wonderful haiku from Japanese masters such as Matsua Basho (1687): "Beard hairs sprouting/from a green-pale face/rainy season". As well as the poetry of ancient masters, we meet the characters who have peopled Dalby's life, such as a high-school principal who, after retirement, found himself pondering the meaning of life. In response to this question, he spent the next 10 years seeking out, photographing and meditating on 72 grand old trees. It is not just people such as this who command Dalby's respect. The creatures and plants living in her lovingly tended Californian garden are given equal weight.

Dalby's relationship with Japan first began 50 years ago, when she was 16. In the 1960s, she returned, along with thousands of Western students, to seek Zen enlightenment. She was disappointed to discover that in the pursuit of shedding their egos, many of her peers revealed themselves to be more self-obsessed than ever. I've never really grasped how to achieve true Zen enlightenment; but I'd say Dalby, as well as being a fine writer, would be a fine first teacher in how to reach a state of spiritual fulfilment.