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REACHING OUT

Have-nots put elite twits to shame

by C.W. Nicol

Right now, on one side of my house there is a profusion of green growing things and golden daffodils; on the other side there’s the remnants of a huge bank made by the snow that fell off our roof. In the sunshine, that will vanish today.

From my study window I see the blossoms and delicate new leaves of a mountain cherry tree, with Kurohime Mountain streaked with snow behind and the rushing white Torii River between.

Now is the time to enjoy various wild mountain vegetables. Today for lunch we had the new shoots called tara no me in Japanese. Tara is the tall, straight, pithy, thorny plant called angelica tree or Hercules club in English — although I confess that I don’t recall seeing it growing anywhere else other than in Japan. The spring shoots are very popular here, usually cooked as tempura, and hordes of amateur and professional gatherers go marauding through the countryside at this time of year harvesting all they can get.

At this season, though, I really want to stay home, do some writing, work out a bit, potter around in the woods and then relax in the sauna — instead of bobbing in an out like a demented yo-yo, going all over the country giving talks and lectures on stuff I’d far rather be doing than nattering about.

Some lecture audiences are fun, especially when they are young children or older folk, but others can really make me feel depressed.

I’ve been doing this stuff in Japanese for more than 25 years now, but my very worst experience with an audience was just a few days ago, in Tokyo. I was commissioned to talk, for 90 minutes with a 30-minute question period, to a group of about 200 new Ministry of Finance bureaucrats. I’ll swear that 90 percent of them were either brain dead or their minds were off somewhere on another planet. There was absolutely no reaction (other than those who fell asleep immediately). It was like talking to rows and rows of fish lined up on a fishmonger’s counter. Can you picture it? All those dead eyes staring . . . makes me shudder to remember.

I was talking, and with a lot of passion I might say, not only about conservation, but about the need for — and the trials, tribulations and triumphs of — forest, river and wetland restoration, and what a healthy and vibrant ecology can do for a nation’s economy in the long run.

These fledgling bureaucrats simply were not interested, and many did not have the vocabulary to follow even my simple Japanese. These are supposed to be the elite of the Japanese education system. God help us! I swear that, for a few seconds during that session, I would have sold my soul to His Satanic Nibs, the original Old Nic, to have ranted and raved and called down thunderbolts to blast some life into the whole complacent crew. Mind you, my manager would not have approved.

On the other hand, when I was in Canada earlier this spring, a dear friend, Shelley Jones, who is originally from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, had returned from teaching in Uganda and brought me 24 delightful letters from young students there. Shelley had been teaching at a school in Masaka, a little town on the western shores of Lake Victoria, south of the capital of Kampala. She had taught English to these students, girls and boys, and was desperate for material.

I donated a box of 24 mint copies of my Arctic novel, “The Raven’s Tale,” illustrated by a very talented Inuk artist named Germaine Arnaktauyok (1993; Harbour Publishing, Canada). It is the story of a young Arctic fox that is caught in a leg-hold trap. The fox chews off his front paw to escape (yes, they often do that), and forms an unlikely friendship with a wolf. The two set off to find food, joined in their joyous and terrible adventure by other animals of the Arctic — birds, hares, walruses, seals, caribou, polar bears — all of whom tell their own stories in their own words. An old raven watches over them as touchstone, storyteller and myth-maker.

This Arctic world was absolutely new to those Ugandan students, most of whom had never even seen a new storybook before, let alone owned one. But from their letters, and faces (a photo of which I really wanted to share with you), this new world clearly enthralled them.

What a contrast this was to those pampered, unimaginative twits that Japan is producing and selecting to watch over the nation’s finances!

I have found this out before — that children in so-called poor countries react with genuine enthusiasm to new ideas and stories. Indeed, in Japan too, it is the children from the institutions that take in kids who, for some reason or other, are unable to live with their parents, or children with physical handicaps, who are the easiest and most rewarding to work and play with.

With such children very much in mind, this spring — with the help of hard-working volunteers — we began to start repairing the damage that heavy snows and bark-chomping hares have done to our young trees. We trimmed, and planted and also extended our pathways of wood chips. These chips are made from logs and branches trimmed out from the woods to let in light and promote new, healthy growth.

After the chips were made, we had some heavy rain. While spreading these dampened chips we enjoyed some marvelous fragrances from the sugars in the fresh wood that had fermented. I’ve no doubt the bears, racoon dogs and civet cats will enjoy these paths as much as the children will. Wood chips protect the soil and the fine sapling roots, and also help to retain moisture. Then, as they gradually decompose, they add nutrients and humus to the soil. As pathways, they are pleasant and easy to walk on (with or without alcohol). Another advantage is that people tend to keep to the well-laid paths, and not wander off and trample the wild plants around.

For the volunteers, I prepared a special lunchtime stew. In our deep-freeze chest in the basement, I had a big bag of the vertebrae and hip bones of a young deer that I butchered last winter. These I boiled in a large pot with laurel and other herbs. Into this venison broth I added wild boar meat after cutting it into small chunks and searing it in hot oil in a wok. Then in went well-soaked beans, carrots, onions, garlic, Japanese turnips, potatoes, various mushrooms, sage, thyme, rosemary, salt, pepper — and lots of sake.

After I simmered it to cook for a few hours, this rich stew — eaten outside around a wood fire — was very well received. Even those older volunteers who said that they always thought that venison and wild boar were “smelly” had at least two helpings.

Isn’t it great to work, or play, with people who respond to what you try to do?