Book Jacket cover of Seasons of Life by John Kotre & Elizabeth Hall

Seasons of Life 
Our Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death

University of Michigan Press Paperback, 1997
Little, Brown and Company Hardcover, 1990

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This book is the companion volume to the PBS television series Seasons of Life, which first aired in 1990. Like the series, it follows three "clocks" (biological, social, and psychological) as it explores the course of human development from the first day of life to the last. Individuals from each season of life tell their stories, and the authors (Elizabeth Hall and myself) present related research on growth and change throughout the life cycle.

"The reader is certain to be enriched... Seasons of Life is filled with valuable information." 
-- Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D., Harvard Medical School, 
Co-Author of Faith of Our Fathers and Black Genius

"The portrait of human life depicted here is a powerful one that transcends its sources and offers a new view of the ways in which Western man's evolution sometimes hinders and occasionally enhances his environmental reality. A thoughtful, thought-provoking work, and a credit to the series."
-- Kirkus Reviews

Table of Contents

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Prologue: A Time for Stories


I. Infancy

    One: The Biological Clock
    Two: The Social Clock
    Three: The Psychological Clock


II. Childhood

    Four: No Longer "In-fans"
    Five: The First Day
    Six: "How To" Time


III. Adolescence

    Seven: Changing Bodies
    Eight: A Ten-Year Lag
    Nine: The Story Is the Self


IV. Early Adulthood

    Ten: The Season of Fertility
    Eleven: Two Families
    Twelve: From Dream to Reality


V. Middle Adulthood

    Thirteen: The Midpoint
    Fourteen: The Baby Boom Is Forty
    Fifteen: Time Lived, Time Left


VI. Late Adulthood

    Sixteen: Twenty-five Extra Years
    Seventeen: Pioneers of Aging
    Eighteen: How the Story Ends



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Excerpt from Chapter 18

The Soul of a Tree

Sometimes the journey through life takes us around the world and ends in something simple -- as simple as a tree. At eighty-two, George Nakashima of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, has carved his integrity out of the tradition of wood. His work is known internationally -- furniture with butterfly joints and undulating edges that preserve the character of the original timber, furniture with holes and cracks turned to artistic advantage, furniture in which the soul of the wood comes through. "I'm interested in furniture because I think it's the closest relationship to wood that most people have. Each piece of wood that I have I use to its utmost utility and utmost beauty," he says. The wood may become the back of a sofa, a captain's chair, a desk, or a boardroom table. Special trees have special destinies. Once, says George, "I came across this great tree that I felt could have no other end but to be made into a symbol of peace." It is now the altar at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.


George's hair is thinning and his mustache is gray. He has a round, well preserved face and his posture is slightly hunched. He presents an air of peace and detachment -- a serenity that comes from knowing his place in a tradition far older than himself. "It's sort of in your genes, this love of wood. I remember as a kid I used to chop quite a bit of wood because we burned wood for heat in our house in Seattle. When I would run into a very fine piece of wood, even though it was firewood, I'd put it aside to find a use for it later. This feeling toward wood is something that developed as I grew."


George's grandfather was a samurai warrior, and his father was "something of an adventurer," a man who emigrated to the United States and became a labor contractor for western railroads. George's mother came to this country as his father's "picture bride." They settled in Spokane, where George was born in 1905.

George Nakashima
George Nakashima, eighty-two.
"One arrives at simplicity."

By the time George was fifteen, he was working summers on the railroad, laying ties and carrying rails in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. "Have you ever heard of a gandy dancer ? It's a kind of dancing movement that you do with a shovel to get the gravel underneath the ties. I made the handsome sum of twenty-seven cents an hour, as I remember. Which at that time wasn't bad. And I was able to save enough to more or less put myself through college."


During those summers, George's love of the forest grew. "On weekends I used to hike in the mountains, and very often fish for my food and stay overnight under a ledge or a tree. I used to hike rather long distances, crossing the foothills of Mount Olympus and seeing the glacier there. It was very hard going, and if you ever got your foot or leg caught in a rock, well, you'd probably be a goner. Nobody would ever find you. But the thrill of crossing a pass and looking down at deer grazing all over the place! Magnificent olympic elk -- sometimes you'd scare them, and they'd rear up on their legs. They must have been at least ten feet tall. I guess they weren't that tall, but they seemed awfully tall to me."


In college, George studied forestry for two years, then switched to architecture. He did graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began to practice his profession, and then, in 1933, went to Paris to see "what was going on." He was twenty-eight and searching for something.


"Everybody was poor. Nobody had any money. And it was a wonderful, creative life. But gradually I felt that was not the answer. There'd be times when I would turn a corner in the crooked streets of Paris, and I'd have an overwhelming feeling of death. So I felt that I had to go on, to seek something else. I went to Japan, the land of my ancestors, and I spent five years there, working as an architect. I learned the traditions and appreciation of Japanese art and architecture.


"I remember designing some houses and becoming so interested in the construction that I would spend half a day just watching the men work. There would be people who were more skilled than others. When someone would get a piece of work done, with the joints fitted perfectly and the proportions just right, he'd put it someplace where it could be seen. And everybody would gather around and praise him for his work. There was that sort of attitude. There wasn't any jealousy. It was just an appreciation of fine work.


"In 1936, I had an opportunity to do a design for the main building for the ashram of Sri Aurobindo in south India. I went there and I soon made friends and I became a follower of Sri Aurobindo. I became very much attached to his teachings, which are very simple and very profound. There's a type of life there that had a beauty and creativity that really didn't exist anyplace else in the world. And in my building I was given almost a free hand. I think everything I recommended was accepted.


"Well, I almost stayed for good, but I finally decided that I really should relate to the world. So I came out of India. At several points I almost didn't make it. Japan and China were at war, and I had to go through China to get back to Japan. I finally got to Shanghai, where I got on almost the last Japanese refugee ship out of Shanghai into Nagasaki, and made it back to Japan."


Once in Tokyo, George returned to architecture. In December 1939, he met his future wife at a party -- Marion, a Japanese-American woman from Seattle who had spent the previous year in Australia and was teaching English in Tokyo. After dating for a few months, George asked her to marry him. He was thirty-five.


When the Nakashimas came back to the United States in 1940, modem architecture was in a period of exciting experimentation. "A friend and I decided to take a survey trip up and down the West Coast to see what was really being done. We saw this house by Frank Lloyd Wright under construction. I was used to the finest type of craftsmanship in Japan, and I was appalled by the crudity of the framework. The bones of the structure were just banged together with nails. There was hardly any exposition of the wood. And then the whole thing was covered up by what's called 'finished carpentry.' And it was actually a kind of stage set. I thought, if this was architecture as practiced by one of the greatest architects in this country, I'd better start all over again.


"So I gave up my profession and got into the construction of little things with wood. That's how I got into furniture work. A priest let me use the basement of a church-owned building in Seattle. He let me use it free of charge and even helped me buy my first piece of machinery. But it was a hard beginning."


Things got even harder. Within weeks, the United States and Japan were at war. Although they had been born in America, George, Marion, and their six-week-old daughter were sent to a Japanese internment camp. "Right after Pearl Harbor, it was clear that something was going to happen," George recalls, "and there wasn't anything much we could do. It happened very swiftly. We were given, I think, about two weeks' notice that we should get out of our homes and just take what we could carry and gather at a certain point. "We were put into these camps in the desert of Idaho. It was a very rough life. It gets thirty degrees below zero there. I think I had shoes, but sometimes I would wear wooden clogs even in mid-winter. It was much more difficult for my wife. She was very much concerned about whether she could feed our daughter properly.


"But we made the best use of our time. I found a very fine Japanese carpenter trained in the traditional manner. And he and I pooled our forces. I did the designing and became his apprentice as far as carpentry went. I learned a great deal from him. He would sometimes decide that the teeth in the saw weren't quite right. So he would remove all the teeth and then file them back in again. And then there were so many facets of fine woodworking that aren't even thought of in Western carpentry. For instance, you can spend a whole day dressing down a wood post. You take a bit and put it in a plane and get it adjusted perfectly and then you start from one end of the timber and go to the other. You come out with a perfect shaving. It has no skips, no thickness and thinness. You get a finish that shines like a mirror, just from the planing. It never requires any sanding to smooth it off. And then if you take this one stroke, you have to take your plane bit out and sharpen it again. And this is done for the whole post."


The Nakashimas left the internment camp the only way they could -- under the sponsorship of an American. A Czech-American architect whom George had worked for in Tokyo offered him farm work in Pennsylvania. In 1944, the Nakashimas came to Bucks County, where they still live today. "I enjoyed the area. I enjoyed the people. At that time, it was a series of sleepy little towns and farms and very beautiful stone houses that the early Quakers built. The stone houses are a marvel. They've been here for 200 years, some of them. Sometimes the walls are gone, but the stonework is as true as the day it was made."


George worked as a farm hand for a year and gradually got back into woodworking. At forty, his inner searching was done, and though he would continue to travel the world, he always came back to Bucks County -- to his wife, to his daughter and son, and to the tradition of wood. Now, forty years later, the end of his life is in sight. "Mentally, I'm not quite sure I am where I was before. But my aspirations and hopes are virtually the same. I have absolutely no interest in sitting on a beach or sitting in a rocking chair. I'm more interested in life than I am in death. I feel that I have things to do in this world that are necessary. Essentially, I'm interested in creating beauty. I'm still buying a lot of lumber, which I will probably never use. But I hope that my son and my daughter might use it. In a nice way, they're both interested in continuing on our work. Which is rather unusual in our society, because most young people like to get as far away from their parents as possible. If we can pass on our traditions and our skills and our knowledge to our children, I think the whole thing would be very much worthwhile.


"My son and daughter see things from quite a different angle than I do. But that's their prerogative -- to tie the tradition together with their own lives. You can only reach a certain depth of influence with other people, and I don't think there's any use in trying to do more. I have no intentions of doing that, even to my own family. If they understand me and accept my beliefs, well, I think that's fine. But I don't think I should press it.

"There's an ultimate truth that's very important, and if one searches for it, one arrives at simplicity. And to search for this truth, one has to seek inwardly. There are no complications. There's no dogma. There are no rules. There's no necessity for great intelligence. Actually, intelligence is overrated anyway. In the Hindu concept, intellectual consciousness is one of the lowest forms. From it, one develops a very high form of consciousness of the spirit. It's something that can be developed by anyone.

"With a tree, you can read its whole history --
if you have the eyes to see."
Tree from Seasons of Life

"Good things flow inwardly, in an integrated way, so that you find the nicest things in simplicity, in directness. I have a one-man war against modem art, for instance. It's the predominance of a personal ego that bothers me. My ideal is that a craftsman should be unknown rather than known. He doesn't have to throw his ego around. This goes back to other civilizations. For instance, in the Sung Dynasty in China, the craftsman never signed his pieces. I think that's indicative of a healthy civilization. Everything that they produced was worthy, artful, beautiful. In the thirteenth century, many of the northern European cathedrals were anonymous; there was no architect. They just evolved. I would venture to say that every little guy, say, in the town of Chartres, contributed to that cathedral -- perhaps did one of the gargoyles or put up a stone. It's a wonderful, inspired piece of work. And that's what we need today. And I think that's why I got into the sort of work I'm doing. I wanted to come as close to the spirit of Chartres as I could.


"Until a few years ago, I completely disregarded getting old. But I'm afraid that there are certain things happening in my body that I can't deny anymore. I'm certainly curtailed physically. It was only four, maybe five years ago that I climbed a mountain in Japan, but I don't think I could climb it anymore. We were looking for the great cedar. Did I ever tell you?


"There's a great cedar in Japan, which they say is around seven thousand years of age. I think it's considerably older than the bristlecone pine, which for quite a while was considered the oldest inhabitant on earth. I've always been interested in this cedar, for ever since I was in Japan, I've heard about it. But only recently did I have the chance to go there.


"We arranged this safari -- friends of mine and myself. The lower part one could do in an automobile. And then we went on a little logging cart to the base of the mountain. From there it was all on foot -- pretty much a half-day climb. And I was determined to see this tree. Every once in a while the younger fellows asked me if I wanted to continue. And I'd say, 'Yes, we go on!' Parts of the mountain were almost vertical. We couldn't even climb up the rocks -- we had to go on ladders. But we finally made it. And it was a great sight, to see a spectacle like that. And actually going up to it and touching it was something else again."


Back in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a huge oak stands near George's home. It's not nearly as old as the great cedar in Japan, but it's equally majestic. George has touched it often. "I feel that trees have a soul. In my work, I have to find the living spirit in a tree, explore it, and develop it. With a tree, you can read its whole history -- if you have the eyes to see. You can tell when there was a great drought. You can tell where there was an injury that was healed over. You can tell when there's great happiness in a tree -- a joy that expresses itself in its grains and its bark and its fibers. Trees have their problems, too. They have their bad moments. They have joy and they have sorrow, just like human beings. Some trees have character and others end up in something that's almost futile.


"The great oak down below, I think, is a tree that has tremendous character. How it's going to end up is a little hard to say. It will die, eventually. And one of our jobs is to take these great living things that have died or will die and give them, well, a second life. If I can bring the nature and the spirit of a tree back, the tree lives again. It's the continuity of life that sparks from one thing to another. It's a great, great feeling to be a part of that -- to be a part of nature and to be a part of life itself."


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