Apart from a few experimental trees, it is not our policy to grow non-native plants in our woodland trust here in the hills of Nagano Prefecture.
However, when I first came to live in Kurohime (which is the name of the nearest station and the “Black Princess” mountain overlooking us all), I was delighted after a long hard winter of heavy snows to see so many non-native daffodils blooming, not only in local gardens, but in profusion in the meadows and along the borders of fields.
When I asked, local folk said daffodils had been a part of the scenery for as long as they could remember. I am Welsh born, from Neath in Glamorganshire, and the daffodil is the more fragrant symbol of my native land — the other being the leek. So you will understand that seeing so many daffodils here in the Japanese countryside really touched my heart.
Nearly 25 years ago I was inspired by the efforts being made to restore woodland in Afan Argoed, an area in South Wales whose natural beauty had been devastated by the coal-mining industry. It made me decide to put all my money and efforts into salvaging and restoring badly abused and neglected woodlands here in Kurohime.
I eventually gained Japanese citizenship, and then was able to donate the woodlands I’d bought and nurtured to a woodland trust. Establishing a trust in Japan takes a lot of effort and money, which I earned and donated myself. Since then the trust has been growing marvelously.
In the spring, the entrance to our trust woodlands is glorious with daffodils. I planted them when I bought the first plot of woodland — as a tribute to Wales. Some folk might object to a non-native plant in Japanese woods, but as I said, daffodils were already common here, and they certainly do no harm.
I also named the woods here after those wonderful Afan Argoed woods in Wales. I didn’t like the existing local name at all, which was Yurei Mori, meaning Ghost Woods — so-called because they were so overgrown with tangled brush that you couldn’t see more than 3 or 4 meters in front of you when you were in them.
Another unattractive local name was Aka Yachi (Red Bog). No doubt long before modern humans altered the nature of the area there were other, more attractive names, but they are now lost.
When the trust was established in 2002, we “twinned” our woods with the Afan Argoed Forest Park in South Wales, and we have been keeping up an exchange of information, people and goodwill ever since. The Nagano prefectural government wanted my name on the trust, so our woods are now known as the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust.
Last summer, I was visited here by the former British Ambassador to Japan, Sir Graham Fry, and his charming wife, both of whom are avid bird-watchers. During that meeting he confided to me that a visit to Japan was being planned for the Prince of Wales, and that he would like to put forward our woodland trust as a possible venue for Prince Charles to visit. I had to promise to keep quiet about it, and in the months that followed officials from both Britain and Japan turned up several times to work out details of timing, of what could be seen and done, and of protocol and security.
As a hands-on conservationist, fervently believing in mankind’s responsibility not only to protect but also to restore nature, I have been a lifelong fan of Prince Charles. I would dare to say that nobody in Britain or elsewhere has done more than His Highness to actively promote and encourage nature conservation, education, health care, traditional arts and crafts, sustainable organic farming — not to mention the preservation of ancient and invaluable species of ancient domestic food plants, birds and animals, including working species such as the magnificent Suffolk Punch horses, creatures that had been nurtured and improved over centuries, only to be discarded and ignored in the late 20th century.
I quote from the Prince’s introduction to his book “The Elements of Organic Gardening,” produced and written with Stephanie Donaldson: “Discovering through the organic approach that you can start to ‘close the loop’ and create, as it were, a virtuous cycle in terms of reducing unnecessary waste and pollution and, indeed, conserving water is enormously heartening. We have, I suppose, become so used to the advantage of convenience in so many aspects of life that we have failed to realize how much we have abused Nature in the process. To go on doing so regardless cannot conceivably be sustainable in the long term. If we are looking for technological ‘fixes,’ then I happen to think that they must be in harmony with the natural processes and, indeed, natural ‘laws’ — for organic gardening does teach you that there are certain ‘laws’ that need to be respected.
“The law of cause and effect is one of them. If we can reduce the causes — whether of pollution, waste, or whatever — then we will reduce the effect they produce on us, on our garden, on the wider environment and, ultimately, on the entire planet. All is interconnected and interwoven; but we seem to have lost sight of this essential truth and have become ever more separated from the inherent rhythms that lie at the heart of Nature. We have been dancing out of time with the music . . . “
Oct. 30, 2008 was probably the proudest day of my life, because the visit to our woodland here in Nagano by the Prince of Wales actually came to pass. Prince Charles was accompanied by Princess Hisako Takamado, a very dear and special friend of mine for whom this was her third visit.
The day was a glorious one. The day before it had pelted down with icy rain, the mountains had been all shrouded in dense, dark, gray clouds. We had spent so much time in preparing, involved so many people, that for a while I despaired. However, on the morning of the visit the sky was clear, the air was cold and crisp, the autumn colors were all ablaze and the great Black Princess — Kurohime Mountain — was all decked out with a new silver shawl of fresh snow.
Prince Charles was absolutely charming, and gave so much more back to us with his informed questions and opinions, an infectious and very British sense of humor and an unbridled enthusiasm. I had been so nervous that I had not touched a drop of alcohol for a whole month. When the police motorcycle outriders came roaring along the country road ahead of the motorcade, there I was at the entrance to our woods, with an amused Japanese special-police officer telling me where exactly to stand, me squirming inside like a little kitten, all agog with excitement and trying to hide it with a silly grin.
The Prince soon set me at ease, and an hour and a quarter passed in a moment. The hordes of police and attendants almost went unnoticed, thanks to my staff and all the work they had put into the preparations. Finally we were sipping tea sweetened with wild honey in front of a cheerful log fire in our open-fronted sound shelter chatting like old friends. My only regret was that I had not readied a bottle of Laphroaig single-malt whisky with which to spike the tea.
Yes indeed, Oct. 30, 2008 was one of the best days in my life. It made me really glad that I had come to Japan, had settled here in Kurohime, and had devoted my life to raising a woodland. Thank you and bless you Prince Charles, Princess Takamodo, all my family, friends — and especially my woodland staff. You made a dream come true and an old Welshman very, very happy.
Reading and watching the news can be so damned depressing. I am sure that many of you, like me, are sick to death of hearing about plummeting economies and useless, senseless wars. It is much more fun to nurture woodlands, land and streams, to collect delicious mushrooms by the bucketful, to gather firewood and make charcoal to render harsh winter more comfortable, and from our own little fields to harvest potatoes and parsnips, cabbages, broccoli and brussel sprouts, leeks, turnips, carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, egg plants and what-have-you — all to be shared and enjoyed and to bring nothing but good to the land.
I am a simple man, and many indeed would call me stupid. I have tried to understand nature through research in the Arctic and many other places. I have defended nature by physical force and by all kinds of other persuasions, all the time sincerely believing in what I was trying to do. However, nothing gives so much simple joy and satisfaction as trying to “close the loop” and endeavoring to be a part of the “virtuous circle.”
And, by God, when the visit was all over, that first gin and tonic, the wine brought by a friend, the chilled shochu and the single-malt whisky were the best ever!