The woods are lovely dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
(Robert Frost, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening)
Ken Jones was a man of many talents. I knew him first and foremost as a Zen Buddhist and haiku poet. In that respect he was for me something of a guiding light. He died on 2nd August 2015 and this is a short memory of him in the haibun style. To know him better visit http://www.kenjoneszen.com.
Ken had suffered from prostate cancer for 12 years. It seemed that he battled on in in the same way that he would take to the hills of Wales and walk out into its wilderness, its ghosts and its history. Returning with a sack full of haiku, an empty flask of tea and a chocolate bar wrapper.
I learnt of his death from an email he sent to the mailing list of haiku prose writers to which we both belonged to, in which he asked to be taken off it. The year before at the annual gathering of the Red Thread Sangha – a group of haiku writers that followed also followed a meditative practice – there had been talk about death and he said that he had the means to end it should the pain and discomfort become too much. The remedy comprised laughing gas and something called an ‘orchid bell’.
I see the face
words carried off
on a brisk breeze
It seemed to me that Ken took his illness and imminent death as another opportunity to engage with life; take its tattered remains and fashion it into a piece of art … a last take on what it is and the suchness of things. After that gathering I saw him once more for a reading of his most recent work. Physically frail but the passion for life and the way of haiku was undiminished.
still making sandcastles
on the turning tide
It was the custom with the haiku sangha to go walking in the afternoon; the wilder the better so far as Ken was concerned. In 2013 we walked up the back of the farmhouse and on into the Woodland Trust. The grass was long, wet and uneven underfoot as we straggled and hobbled up towards the Black Road.
The party split, and I was one of a small group climbing to a lookout point; the cry of birds and the distant sea ablaze in afternoon sunshine. When we came down they were long gone and no sign nor any echo to our yodelling cries of ‘Heather’ ‘Ken’ or ‘Jane’. A broad grassy track went from left to right. Which road to travel? And then a flash of red towards the woods.
and the soft under-clump
of the travelled road
We caught up by the ruins of an old stone house and from there up to a gate that opened into the woods; a world of brown pine needles, felled tree trunks and scattered branches. There was a path of sorts but so many ways were barred. A good and generous place to sit but difficult to traverse.
All turned back save Ken and I. We paused like a couple of stubborn donkeys. And then quietly and methodically picked a way over fallen tree trunks, careful to not twist or strain our limbs, doubling back at points to find a clearer way; up and down and then along the top to reach the other side.
Deep within the gloom
the bald tree trunks post up
to a bright blue sky
At the edge of the wood, a new sheep fence, strung taut with barbed wire, and beyond a gnarled tree atop a green meadow that dropped steeply in to the valley below. Ken had talked of a special device for getting over these obstacles but alas not with him today. Instead, a fallen bough pressed down on the barbed wire proved just enough to get a leg over without snagging the marriage tackle. Soon we were sitting on the other side, munching a piece of chocolate that materialised as if by magic from Ken’s coat.
The great way
the tangled woods now clear
The sun was low and golden as we made our way back, stopping every now and then to pluck a late blackberry from the hedgerow; slightly gritty and tart so late in the year. We talked of women, their love and friendship, of sexual love and the dimming of this light with age and illness. And Ken said that for him the retreat was less about haiku and more about companionship.
Last year the retreat was held without him and on the following Monday a group set off to walk up to Ken’s ‘cave’ on Plynlimon; a wild place where he would retreat to meditate. The goal was to add the final digit to the name and dates that he had chiselled on to a slab of rock, alongside those of a Welsh shepherd from the 1800s.
After climbing for an hour, thick cloud came down and so a short ceremony was held there on the hillside. There was a reading of the sutras and a handful of Ken’s ashes were thrown into the wind. Afterwards, a few intrepid ones continued on up into the clouds but they were beaten back before reaching the summit. The plan is to return in spring time.
He’s not here, for sure!
working with his chisel
atop the mountain