Did you go outside about 10:40 pm last Sunday night to see the perigee syzygy which coincided with a total lunar eclipse? Perigee is the closest the moon comes to earth as it follows its elliptical orbit. Syzygy is the line-up of the Earth-Moon and Sun.

Did you go outside about 10:40 pm last Sunday night to see the perigee syzygy which coincided with a total lunar eclipse? Perigee is the closest the moon comes to earth as it follows its elliptical orbit. Syzygy is the line-up of the Earth-Moon and Sun.

Or, did you think you were looking at the super wolf blood moon, awed by the intense red of our moon’s face during the eclipse? The January moon has many names. The wolf moon comes from hungry wolves howling during cold winter nights courtesy of Medieval England and the Algonquins. The Cherokee got down to business with cold moon, the Choctaw called it the cooking moon, Celts the quiet moon and Colonial America simply the winter moon.

My next trip to Japan involved the Shinto faith. I watched as Irish poet Peter MacMillan approached a shrine, bowed deeply, clapped twice and bowed again. Peter has lived in Japan 27 years and was my spiritual guide for “Munakata: The Sea and Goddesses.”

Munakata Japan is on an old trading route in the southern tail of Japan. We climbed a hill to visit the Takamiya Ceremonial site, a very peaceful and tranquil place surrounded by trees, mosses and shrubs. Ancient rituals were originally performed in open spaces like this.

Fourteen hundred year old Munakata Taisha is the head of 6,000 Shinto shrines across Japan. Here were three local shrines for the daughters, all water deities, of Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and universe. Each sister--Hetsu-gu, Nakatsu-gu and Okitsu-gu--has a shrine on a separate island. The entire Okinoshima island is the shrine for the eldest daughter but off-limits to the public. Priests are in charge of the remote island’s primeval forests and ancient sites. The islands of Oshima and mainland Kyushu are shrine sites for the younger water goddesses. These two islands are in a direct line with Okinoshima Island in the Genkai Sea. Sort of like a geological syzygy. Looking at the small volcanic islands cropping up out of the smooth Genkai Sea, I was reminded how similar Cavanal, Sugarloaf and Sleeping Maiden mountains appear as they rise majestically above the surrounding landscape in southeast Oklahoma.

The three islands were bases for oceanic worship of the female deities as sailors navigated the frightful seas. Roughly translated, the goddess names are female medium, rough water and fog. In Shinto, deities are called kami, a term for sacred power or force. Today pilgrims continue to visit each of the shrines, except Okinoshima. From a special shrine set up on Oshima, worshippers can see Okinoshima Island and pay their respects to that kami long-distance. For each goddess honored at her respective shrine a red stamp is printed in a tri-fold worship booklet.

Peter discovered the fisherman’s market at a roadside rest area. One customer exclaimed rocky reefs make great fish! At the water’s edge a man burned salt. Salt? The artisan boiled seawater throughout the day. As evaporation commenced, distinctive salt crystals shaped like snowflakes, wood shavings and pyramids formed.

Often roads would taper as they connected to other roads within villages and main streets could be very narrow. If a house had a wooden fish hanging outside, it meant the fisherman had fish for sale. Tucked into a small nook was the carefully tended ‘Nameless Memorial’ dedicated to victims of shipwrecks who had washed ashore. The guide quietly said all lost souls are treated with respect, kindness and compassion.

Shinto shrines are beautiful gardens in a nature revered by the populace. On our walk I noticed flowers similar to milkweeds with butterflies quite like our Monarchs. Japan’s largest butterfly, the Paper Kite butterfly (Idea leuconoe), has translucent white wings, black spots and veins. The caterpillar feeds on poisonous dogbane (Parsonia laevigata and other species) thus making Paper Kites toxic. Not unlike the milkweed and Monarch. Sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) grows as a shrub in southern Japan producing flowers resembling those of tropical milkweed. This pollinator plant is not poisonous, has medicinal and culinary attributes and a powerful apricot fragrance.

We stopped at the Minsuku Inn to sample the local specialty: fish hot pot. Black Conger eel, usually grilled, had been prepared with vegetables in a broth. Peter nodded and said it was chewy, tender and delicious.

My visit ended with the Miare Festival. Every autumn for 750 years the three goddesses have been honored in a unique way. Nearly 300 boats raise large brilliantly colored and patterned flags with small attached evergreens. The spectacular array of watercraft transports the portable shrine of the goddesses as they sail along the coast from Oshima Port to the mainland. Visitors can’t ride the ceremonial boats but may take the ferry to see the water ritual up close. As the rite concluded, the Miko (shrine maidens) danced holding bouquets of flowers.

Recently, trees and shrubs along roads were “trimmed.” The roadways should be maintained, but it seems plants are quite dispensable. In the climate-controlled cab sat a person who manipulated the mechanical arm to cut not only plants to the ground but extend high into the air rotating blades that twisted and macerated tree branches that in no way could have endangered nor touched any size vehicle. If those large branches were so problematic, saws to make clean cuts should have been employed. Opening up multiple wounds inside or along tree trunks and branches during winter, when healing sap is not flowing, only predisposes the tree to diseases and pests. Cutting plants to ground level impacts the insects and wildlife that have either laid eggs, made cocoons or taken winter shelter.

In “Germany’s Flying Insect Population Drops Dramatically” (Mother Earth News Feb/Mar 2019), it was stated insect numbers have fallen 76 percent in less than 3 decades. The cascading detrimental effect has been felt in food chains and ecosystems. Fewer insects mean less food in every link and subsequent declines in lizards, birds, frogs….. and this is the reason sunflowers and other plants were not removed from many plant plots at the Japanese Peace Garden. The ‘debris’ provides homes, shelter and food for wildlife. Next spring’s butterflies and bees and flowers. Looks untidy? Probably no worse than rooms inside your own homes, but that’s your problem. Tampering with plants during their dormancy or cutting and clearing plant parts and stems in gardens during winter becomes a huge problem for wildlife you’ll never see or know. They die.

“Pruning Ornamental Trees, Shrubs and Vines” (Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service Fact Sheet HLA-6409) is a great reference source. The advantages to proper pruning are many. Improper and ill-timed pruning can be devastating.

Think on this:

“Each kind of tree is a sort of musical instrument: the apple a cello, the old oak a bass viol, the cypress a harp, the willow a flute, the young pine a muted violin. Put your ear close to the whispering branch and you may catch what it is saying”. Guy Murchie, Jr, a fascinating individual. Find him in Wikipedia.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.