As I write this it is 4 in the afternoon of a mid-November day, a fine, clear, crisp day, with the sun now gone down behind Iizuna mountain to leave the massive bulk of Kurohime looming black against a sky of blazing silver, its peak lightly brushed by misty cloud.
About half the leaves have fallen, the rest are in shades of bright and pale yellows, reds and browns.
I can see all this from the two large windows in my study, and if I look over my shoulder I can see the Torii River, reflecting the sky, running straight toward this building from the mountains before veering off to flow by 10 meters away.
The sounds of the river are always with me, whether I work, or shirk. This stretch of the river is full of rocky rapids, and the banks are now thick with young willows. The Torii runs into the Chikuma, which becomes the Shinano, which enters the Sea of Japan at Niigata. The Torii is part of the longest river system in Japan, and until they built hydro-electric dams further down, salmon and char used to return in great numbers from the ocean.
When I first came to build my house here in this lovely part of Nagano Prefecture, and then my dojo-study, a nice old grandfather told me how he used to snag the occasional, and illegal, salmon with a sickle. The salmon would even enter shallow streams to spawn. Now they cannot return to the sea, so we just have riverine char, bullheads and introduced rainbow trout.
To look at the river you would think it natural, but on closer inspection you can just see the concrete between the boulders on the banks. If it hadn’t been for me it would have been all concrete.
On July 10, 1995 I received Japanese citizenship. Two of my best friends, Adrian Duncan and Fred Koch, had come from Canada to join me in a few concerts. Adrian was a senior engineer with the Environmental Protection Service in Vancouver, where I was an EPS Emergency Officer in the early 1970s. Fred did some part-time research with the department and now continues his research in retrieving phosphates from sewage.
We three and a few others had a love of music in common, and we even set up a little recording studio in Vancouver. Music, the environment and a taste for fine whisky have been the base of our friendship ever since.
Adrian and Fred were staying with me in Kurohime when torrential rains began to fall during the afternoon of July 11. Even in Africa, I’d never seen rains like it. That evening we went out to dinner at a friend’s pension. When we got back just past 11, it was still raining, and I had to get out of our van and walk ahead, prodding with a stick to make sure we didn’t lose the road, which by then was covered with 40 cm of water.
When we got to my house the gravel road we laid when we first moved here was flowing like a river. The Torii was a raging, rumbling, roaring monster, with water sloshing over its banks.
Even so, I wasn’t much worried, because our buildings stand on foundations of huge buried boulders, with a raised concrete “basement” more than 2 meters high. Moreover, the thick wooded banks of the river were also protecting us, letting water past, but not the boulders, uprooted trees and stumps that were being swept down in the torrent.
I knew we were safe, but I obeyed the official order to evacuate when it came, and instead of going to doss down with our neighbors in the village hall, I took Adrian and Fred to the cottage I had built higher up in the woods. I knew that was safe, because even if they were in spate, I knew the little streams there would do us no harm.
Actually, as the rains continued all night, the Torii River swept away some concrete facing on the river bank 100 meters further down from my dojo-study. Then it swept aside the road, trout ponds and paddy fields. Further downstream the damage was horrendous, with bridges, railway lines, roads, homes and other buildings destroyed. There were also terrible landslides. Our place was fine. I was convinced that the trees saved us.
It took a long time before they began river construction, and the first thing they did was to cut down most of the trees that had protected us. The plan was to straighten and widen the river, to face both banks with concrete, and to raise a series of ugly concrete breakwaters all the way down.
Old Nic went berserk.
Yelling loud and long
My place was the closest to the river, I was now a Japanese citizen and, by the way, at that time the largest individual tax-payer in the town. I was the only one there making a fuss — but I sure as hell yelled loud and long and made them bloody well listen.
Eventually I called a dear friend from Kochi in Shikoku, a river and construction expert named Shubun Fukutome. At my own expense I brought him to see our river and meet the local river-construction folk, who also called in some of their big guns from the Ministry of Construction in Tokyo. Sixteen or more people crowded into my house, while I made the television cameras wait outside.
To my astonishment, after our meeting the senior official went outside and made a statement for television. He said that up until now too much emphasis had been placed on concrete in rivers in Japan, and that we would make a great new experiment with the Torii River, using artfully placed boulders and planting willow trees to make it both safe from flooding and suitable as a fish and wildlife habitat. This would be the first time in Japan that an individual had altered construction plans. It would also be the first time Mr. Fukutome would work his boulder magic on such rapids.
I was asked to be on a Torii River Committee that sat for two years, and comprised construction officials, various biologists and representatives of the angling and fishing association. Eventually, the local construction company that did the job got a prize from the Environment Ministry, as did Mr. Fukutome. (I didn’t.) They were also asked to do a lot more work.
In order to get the heavy equipment needed to move around the boulders down to the riverbed, a gentle slope was made, just 30 meters from my study window, and there the river has since formed a little beach of sand and gravel. This place is now a favorite summer picnic spot, especially for young families with children.
It didn’t take long for the fish and birds to come back either.
This year’s Typhoon No. 23 on Oct. 20 brought the heaviest rains we’ve had for years — not as heavy as those in July 1995, but enough to do a lot of damage elsewhere. Here, even though the river raged, none of the boulder constructions shifted, and none of the young willows whose roots are anchored in and around the boulders and the sediments deposited between them were swept away.
So you see, there are other ways of river construction that don’t involve plastering everywhere with concrete and ruining wildlife habitat. And if you as an individual mean it, and really try, you can really make a difference.