A personal response to the lecture “Planting Trees in Your Heart”
This is how trees got planted in my heart. My father’s hobby was gardening. We had a very nice garden, with a big central lawn you could lie on in the summer, a vegetable patch at the back, fruit trees and flowers aplenty. As a child, I used to spend a lot of time with my dad when he was working in the garden, following him around, asking questions and learning all about growing, living things. On Sundays, he would take me to the park to feed the ducks, and as we walked under the trees together he would point out the different varieties and tell me about the birds and the animals that lived there. One day when I was not much more than four or five years old, my father showed me a wonderful thing: how to grow a tree! He took the pips from an apple, put them into a plastic bag with a little bit of water and then placed them in a warm airing cupboard to sprout. A few days later when shoots had begun to show, we planted them in pots and put them out on the windowsill so that they got lots of warmth and light. Then when they were big enough, we planted them out in the garden to fend for themselves. Somehow, these tiny trees made it through the first winter. I can still remember my father coming into the house excitedly in early spring and saying “Michael’s trees survived the snow!” And so over the years we tended them and they grew, and today they are bigger and taller than I am and carry a glorious burden of big tasty apples every autumn. My father was from Ireland and often joked that one day we would move back there together and “grow our own forest”. I think he was secretly a little disappointed that that never really happened. I suppose I’m secretly a little disappointed too.
Perhaps, that’s why the talk that I attended on Sunday had such a profound affect on me. At one point, during the slideshow, Mewby whispered to me “Are you crying?” I shook my head. No. Of course not. Then once she’d looked away again, I quickly wiped my eyes. This man, Clive Nicol, has grown his own forest! I thought. What a wonderful man!
But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s backtrack… I had heard about this event from the chaps at Kyoto Journal who have links with KUFS. The university has a brand spanking new Department of Global Affairs, and for their opening symposium they had invited the legendary, writer, naturalist and martial artist C. W. Nicol to be their guest speaker. Apparently, this was a controversial choice, as many in the university thought that the event should be more “serious” and “academic” and led by someone of higher international status, a player on the world stage, maybe a foreign ministry official or diplomat, or an international businessman or dignitary. What, they wondered, has the environment got to do with global affairs? Surely somebody with experience of international politics or economics would be more appropriate? Well, as the organizer Craig Smith, said in his opening introduction, every environmental issue has global consequences that affect us economically, politically, culturally and socially. Everything is related. At the time though, I didn’t know anything about all this controversy, (Craig Smith told me about it later) I just knew that the topic was trees. And I like trees (for reasons stated above), so I went along, and persuaded Mewby to come too.
And so on Sunday, I saw this 70 year old gentleman (he looks a lot younger) come out on the stage and tell the story of his life to an audience with an average age of 19 – and it was riveting! C. W. Nicol has led an extraordinarily full and adventurous life! In no particular order, he has been on 15 expeditions to the arctic, attained 7th dan in Shotokan Karate, published over 70 books, worked as a game warden in Ethiopia, worked as a pro-wrestler, advertised whisky on TV and become a celebrated environmental campaigner in Japan. Though he is now a Japanese citizen, he was born in Wales, and remains very much aware of his Welsh identity and heritage. In fact this seems to have played a large part in his initial love affair with Japan. On first visiting this country in the early 1960’s, he was delighted to discover that the great Celtic totemic beasts, such as bear and boar, that have long since disappeared from the island of Britain, still roam the ancient Japanese forests. It was this, the natural beauty of the Japanese wild, along with Japanese people’s kindness and courtesy that appealed to him and that he seeks to remind us of today.
Now as far as I can make out, one of the greatest threats to Japanese biodiversity, is the Japanese government. They have managed the economy with no regard for environmental issues, killed the streams with cement, dammed the rivers with concrete, and clear cut the forests to replace them with a lifeless monoculture of allergy-inducing cedar trees. C. W. Nicol has never been afraid to speak out against this wanton destruction of the land he loves, but as he says humorously, the consequences are uniquely Japanese. In some countries, if you speak out against the government, people come for you in the night and you disappear. In others they simply refuse to renew your visa. In Japan however, they put you on TV!
This is where Mr. Nicol shows his greatness though, for not content with simply speaking out for the environment he decided to put his money where his mouth is and buy his own forest. Having acquired a small fortune from those whisky ads and book royalties, he has sunk his wealth into buying up 45 acres of derelict woodland in Nagano and transforming it into a lush green biodiverse landscape. As well as constructing ponds and reintroducing a variety of tree species to the woods named Afan Argoed (“Valley of Woods” in Welsh), he has given them new life and vigor simply by thinning the trees out. The rest takes care of itself, for if there is a suitable habitat, all kinds of plants, and flowers and birds and beasties will naturally reintroduce themselves. The series of before and after slides he showed us of a sad overgrown dumping ground restored to a vibrant green natural beauty were dramatic and elicited gasps from the audience (and moist eyes from myself). Light and air, he said several times, that’s all that’s needed. Society is the same, isn’t it?
But that’s not all. Afan Argoed isn’t just an example of how things should be done. Twinned with Afan Forest Park in his homeland of Wales it’s a centre of cultural exchange. And it’s a healing ground too. Alarmed to hear of a dramatic rise in child abuse levels, C. W. Nicol has opened it up for such abused children to come and experience nature, and camp out and just play. He was good enough to show us pictures of their smiling faces among the trees. Again, I thought, what a great man! And my eyes started tearing up again.
I felt truly inspired by this lecture and by all that C.W. Nicol has achieved. Remember, this is just one man! Obviously he doesn’t work alone, but he has a tremendous energy to inspire and motivate others. What might we not achieve if we threw ourselves at life with the same passion and sense of adventure? I wondered though, how the KUFS students reacted to it and how those words and images had affected them. So I called up the organizer, Craig Smith, and asked him. Craig told me that C.W. Nicol was wonderful with the students and spent a lot of time with them both before and after the event. They also felt inspired and some even said that they had come to look at their own country in a new way and that they were now looking for places to go hiking so that they can see Japan’s woodland for themselves. But more than that, C.W. Nicol’s way of life has set an excellent example for them. The motto of the University’s Department of Global Affairs is “Take Part!”; the implied meaning being, that in every area of your life; whether working, studying, with family, or in personal relationships, you have to seek out your part, find what you can do and then take resposibility for it – and do it! Everyday studying global affairs, Craig told me, it is easy to get depressed by all the bad news and feel overwhelmed. It is important to study these negative things and then take positive action. Mr. Nicol is an excellent example; faced with the shocking truth of child abuse, he studied, and worried and analysed the problem – and then he did something about it. He gave those children an opportunity to come to his woods and play.
Many thanks to Craig Smith for taking the time out from his busy schedule to talk to me and for organizing this wonderful event. He will be organizing similar events in the future at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, which will also be open to the public. From July 5th to the 9th there will be a UNESCO week there focussing on African culture with a theme of respect for cultural diversity. I will post more about that here at a later date.
C.W. Nicol has written a piece for the Kyoto Journal special edition on biodiversity due out this autumn (KJ #75). Kyoto Journal #74 “The Silk Roads” is due out this Friday! Subscribe here!