Earth Kanji

Earth Kanji

Kanji with black seaweed by Greg Karpain

Kanji: a Japanese system of writing that utilizes characters borrowed or adapted from Chinese writing also: a single character in the kanji system – Merriam Webster Dictionary

What is “Earth Kanji” and what does that have to do with our beautiful Gaviota Coast? This is a blog post inspired by my adventures and explorations on the Gaviota Coast.  I’ve been up in the otherworldly rock and manzanita formations on top of the coast range, all over the Naples ocean bluff, and all the way down along the beach and streams of the coast itself. Every outing brings a thousand new things.

I started viewing and appreciating the Gaviota Coast from both the big vista point of view as well as the “micro” vista point of view.  Every big vista is made up of countless micro bits, very like the strokes of paint on a work of art. 

One day, walking along the beaches, I noticed that the last tide had washed up and “arranged” many different “pictures” consisting of twigs, or seaweed, or a combination of seaweed and colored stones, etc.  When looking at some of these arrangements, I noticed that many of them resembled Japanese and Chinese kanji characters.  A kanji character, in a nutshell, is a language character that has a unique meaning in both Japanese and Chinese. I suddenly had fun thinking that each of these arrangements I found on the beach was, perhaps, a way the earth was speaking to me with its own “Earth Kanji” characters.  So, I began calling them “Earth Kanji” and taking photos of them.  I also noticed that many of these micro arrangements I saw all around me made some of the most beautiful abstracts I had ever seen. 

My Introduction to Kanji

On my 14th birthday, my Mother gave me a copy of a book called the Tao Te Ching written by Lao Tzu. It’s a book of ancient Chinese wisdom. This book was full of lovely old Chinese drawings with these beautiful kanji characters written on the page. The English translation of these fascinating kanji characters was on the facing page. I was so impressed with the “art” of each kanji, that I even made up fake kanji characters on some of my early attempts at painting. Some of my friends asked me where I had learned to write Chinese.  Ha!

As I looked down at these arrangements, those old kanji images came to mind.  What I was actually looking at was a small group of ocean-worn sticks in an arrangement, one that looked like someone put it together that way on purpose. Then I realized that each of those sticks originated up at the top of the range, fallen from a manzanita, or oak, and washed down one of many streams during a storm, and then was bounced around and cleaned and bleached by the ocean, and then put together by the tide and washed up where I happened to walk that day on the Gaviota Coast. A message just for me – right?

Since then, I have had a LOT of fun, noticing wherever I walk, all different varieties of Earth Kanji and taking photos of them.  Of course, there’s no seaweed up on top of the bluffs, or up a hiking trail, but the same kinds of arrangements can be found literally anywhere one looks.  Perhaps a kanji photo could consist of colored stones in the bottom of a clear stream pool, or the colored algae on a weathered orange and brown sandstone boulder, or in the nook of a burned manzanita which is half brilliant Indian red, and the other half black and charred from a fire.

A fun fact: Unlike our alphabet that has 26 letters, the Japanese and Chinese kanji systems have 50,000 kanjis! Just imagine a spelling B using kanji. 50,000 separate characters is admittedly a lot to learn, but we all know that the earth has a lot more than 50,000 kanjis. So far, I haven’t run across the same arrangement twice, and I don’t think I ever will. But I have discovered that there is amazing beauty in all the little Earth Kanji bits that make up every large vista on the coast.

To help you visualize an actual Japanese kanji, here is a chart of some common kanji symbols:

Exercising Our Appreciation Muscles

I continually exercise and expand my “appreciation muscles” by appreciating the ten thousand little bits that make up each “big picture” on the Gaviota Coast. It’s like picking out a favorite painting in a museum and then slowly walking up to it, until my eyes are about 5 inches away from the canvas. The big picture disappears and all I can see is a marvelous and intricate scrabbling and scribbling of magic little lines and colors that are fascinating designs in and of themselves. Each of these little scrabbles and scribbles I think of as kanji.

One day, as I was looking at these mini parts that make up the Gaviota Coast, I thought that perhaps the Earth also is using a kind of Earth Kanji to say things to me, unerring and unassailable things of beauty and love and life. As I “read” the kanji below, this is what is said to me:


The moon makes its own meaning,
perhaps, by not asking.

I have asked,
and then, years later,
learned to listen:

Leaves don’t merely rustle
on a still, hot day
full of raucous light,
they say things,
like the moon,
unerring and unassailable,
simply, by not asking.

With the idea of Earth Kanji now firmly set in mind, I went a-hunting and gathering for some more Earth Kanji to “read.” What was the Earth saying to me today, I wondered?

Below is the next Earth Kanji message I found. I’m still working on the translation. Remember, a kanji isn’t just a letter, it’s a thing, or a concept. Maybe you can figure it out?


After a bit of contemplation, I sensed that the first kanji of this message, the kanji made up of the tar and the rock, was the Earth telling me something about slowing down to “smell the beauty”. Slowing down helped me see the rest of the kanji in this particular message of three. After some time quietly sitting on a boulder cradled by a manzanita, I finally deciphered what it was saying to me:

as this vast peace
consumed me, i turned.
i felt your presence,
as if you were a standing oak,
as if the stream,
singing and giving life
was your love, and my love,
as if the single cry of a bird
was all i have ever known of you

I had my lunch and pondered this new way of hearing and seeing the Earth speak to me.  Then I remembered that magic trick I learned at the museum, that if I simply walk back a few feet, the big picture, which is made out of all the ten thousand little bits, can be seen.  This is what I saw:

the endless going and return;
when the days are this hot,
when the wild grasses are as
much their scent as their form,
we all do reap as we sow.

father, mother, small birds in the sky:
help me to sow myself,
grow me and cut me and grow me
until I am nothing but this red earth
from which I came.

this is my desire.

Returning Home

As it was getting late, and the hot August days were shortening the light, I started back toward home. But I wanted to listen to the Earth tell me one more kanji story before I left.  So, I slowly meandered, randomly peeking here and there, until I saw the next kanji message.


Filled with this final message for the day, I drove home to Carpinteria.  I felt this particular Earth Kanji message keep circulating and refining itself inside me. This one merged itself into me, telling me something I knew I wanted and needed to hear.  But I wanted to be sure I got this one right.  I slept on it.  First light cleared away the marine layer in my mind:

If you place yourself
exactly who and when you are,
as rain blossoms earth,
love will find itself to you.

Be still as sagebrush,
river, stone, and sky.
Think like them.
Open your eyes to moon
until outside comes in.
It will find itself to you.

No matter if you pray,
or not, speak from heart.
Yearn and live in love.
Become a prayer.
It will find itself to you.

Love finds itself to God,
blood flows through veins,
and tears bloom hearts.
Reside inside of love,
and It will bind itself to you.

A Gaviota Coast Conservancy Invitation

I’m pretty sure that many of you reading this have noticed all of the above on your travels. If so, you know how fun it is, and how it fills you up with beauty. I invite you to pass this great way of listening to, and hearing what the earth has to say to us, to your kids on hikes. Photos with phones are fun, but just seeing these Earth Kanjis is as much fun as taking photos. No camera needed. Maybe you, and / or your children would like to send in a blogpost to the GCC website too.  Of course, the Gaviota Coast is a great place to explore. But these days, if it’s too far, don’t let that stop you.  After all, the beauty found on the Gaviota Coast can, and should, be found everywhere around us.  

Finding Earth Kanjis can be as much fun as searching for shells or driftwood on the beach. And now I look for messages wherever I go.  The Earth always answers me.