Daniel Hudon

Bashō and the Grebes

This is a story that ends prematurely. Once there was a diving bird that lived happily on a lake. This grebe, like grebes everywhere, had an elaborate mating ritual. Males and females faced each other, bobbed their long swan necks and preened their feathers in rhythm. They dove into the shallows, rose up breast to breast and, feet paddling furiously, waltzed around each other with a bill full of reeds as if proposing to build a floating nest together. Then they dashed side by side across the surface of the lake like fools in love before diving under.

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The great haiku poet Bashō was fond of grebes. In The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling, he relates a story of a monk who abandoned a hut near a mountain shrine, leaving it to be overgrown with brambles and bamboo grass and ultimately for foxes and badgers to make their den there. After his long journey to the north, Bashō took up residence in the same hut, calling it home for several months. He cleared out the brambles, cut the grass, mended the thatch roof and patched the holes in the fence. He drew on the grebe for inspiration when he wrote to a friend, “I am drifting by the waves of Lake Biwa. The grebe attaches its floating nest to a single strand of reed, counting on the reed to keep it from washing away in the current.”

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It is not known for how long Lake Atitlán, the volcanic lake in Guatemala, hosted the Atitlán grebe. Millennia, no doubt. A flightless waterbird, the Atitlán grebe fed on fish and crustaceans and nested in the reeds in the shallows of the lake. Locals called it the poc, after its mating call, a series of popping whoops followed by a more guttural gulping sound.

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In the rain of the fifth month
let us go and see
the nest of the grebe.
– Bashō

Though Bashō is said to have remarked that he didn’t like the diction of this poem, he liked the spirit of going to see the nest of the grebe.

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Madagascar’s Lake Alaotra, a shallow, reed-fringed lake, was home to its own grebe, the Alaotra grebe. With its short wings, the Alaotra grebe could not fly long distances and had no other home.
In the only known photo of the Alaotra grebe, the black-capped bird paddles alone on the water. Against a backdrop of reeds, it swims among the shadows leaving a small wake.

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After his trip to the north, Bashō referred more frequently to his life in the sense of wandering or “floating.” He incorporated the idea in his death poem:

Sick on my journey,
only my dreams will wander
these desolate moors

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The Columbian grebe, which lived in the wetlands outside Bogotá, was described by locals as “confiding and easy to shoot while nesting.” When disturbed, rather than hiding in the reeds, they swam out on open water. In the 1960’s, entire colonies were shot to the last individual.

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From all directions
winds bring petals of cherry
into the grebe lake
– Bashō

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The Atitlán grebe suffered habitat loss as the locals cut the reeds to make baskets and mats. Shore front was cleared to build weekend chalets. Smallmouth and largemouth bass were introduced to the lake to attract sport-fishing tourists and the carnivorous fish ate the chicks. The lake became polluted from the increased population. The last two Atitlán grebes were seen on the lake in 1989 and after they died the species was declared extinct.
The Alaotra grebe also suffered from an introduced carnivorous fish, the snakehead murrel, and from getting caught in gillnets. It was declared extinct in 2010.
The Columbia grebe, in addition to hunting, suffered predation of its chicks from introduced rainbow trout, wetland drainage as its habitat was converted to agricultural land, pesticide pollution and reed harvesting. Last seen on Lake Tota in 1977, it was declared extinct in 1994.

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Hidden
in the winter waters:
a diving grebe
– Bashō

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In the 19th century, the elegant Great Crested grebe was almost hunted to extinction in the United Kingdom for its silky breast plumage, sought for chic trimmings for muffs, collars and hats.
The flightless Junin grebe lives on Lake Junin in the highlands of west-central Peru. Declining water quality from nearby mining activities is endangering its long term prospects.

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Sometimes on moonlit nights, the Atitlán grebe’s distinctive mating call – poc poc poc poc – is said to be heard, igniting rumors of its existence.

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Bashō finishes his letter by saying, “Yet we all in the end live, do we not, in a phantom dwelling.”
Elsewhere he writes:

the little grebe
disappears… goes
into the year end sea