Go is an ancient game of strategy with which I became fascinated during a sabbatical in Japan. Players try to surround certain areas of the board, taking turns to place one stone at a time on an intersection. With so many intersections, the range of possible moves is much vaster than that offered by the sixty-four squares of a chessboard. Thus, at the beginning of a game, one can feel as if several more or less separate contests are going on in the different corners. Gradually, though, the scatters of stones join and coalesce into a comprehensive pattern. This is the phase of a game when one begins to find certain small groups of one color more or less surrounded by larger groups of the other color. Isolated and out-numbered, they seem to have forfeited any future. But as the tides of play swirl round and round the board, reinforcements may arrive for these outriders. Or sometimes the surrounding stones are themselves overtaken and cut off. This surprising potential for apparently dead stones to spring back to life and influence is referred to by Go players as aji, a Japanese word meaning “a lingering taste.”
I love this game in which the mutual enclosures of black and white stones, set against the subtle patterns of the wood, create a design more intricate than either player’s single intention. It feels like the principle of plenitude at work, introducing appropriate inhabitants to each niche of a fertile ecosystem and establishing a larger order that encompasses the individual agendas of every organism. Aji is an important factor in biological succession and in Go alike. Dominance shifts back and forth. Relics of old engagements germinate, suddenly looking forward as well as back. Such ebbs and flows within wholeness define, among other things, the surprising reemergence of wilderness from the cutover landscape of Vermont, where I live. While there might have seemed to be an opposition between nature and civilization, or even a total domination of one by the other, the possibility has remained all along for a larger balance to be reasserted. I find consolation in witnessing these tides of loss and recovery, both on the Go board and in the mountains around our family’s home. They help me understand my own experiences as a teacher, writer, and family person, here at the cusp of my fifty-fourth year. I can begin to see the extent to which all my own plans have been provisional, with their fulfillment coming not in ways I might have anticipated but rather through being gathered into a more comprehensive, if not quite accountable, swirl. ▼
From The Frog Run: Words and Wildness in the Vermont Woods, © 2001 by John Elder. Reprinted with permission of Milkweed Editions, www.milkweed.org.