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Oh, no: It’s not a Christmas pud

by C.W. Nicol

The Christmas season may be grinding ever closer, and the creation in the photograph below is almost the right color and shape, but it’s most certainly not a Christmas pudding.

Just now, the woods are carpeted with fallen leaves, and as there is a scent of snow in the air, I’m hoping that my hunter friends will soon bring in the venison. At the Nicol house here in Kurohime in the Nagano Prefecture hills, a roast haunch of venison, as well as a turkey, is traditional fare for Christmas. We get our Christmas pud from Britain, because I’ve never yet mastered the art of making a good one myself. Back home in Wales, making Christmas pudding used to be my Dad’s job, and what I remember most is that a very crucial ingredient was a large bottle of dark Navy rum; half for the pudding, half for him.

Back to the photograph.

From this summer on, in preparation for Prince Charles coming to our Afan Woodland Trust on Oct. 30, we had a series of visits by officials from both Britain and Japan. British Embassy people from Tokyo came first, followed by officials from the Prince of Wales’ personal staff, and from British security and foreign-affairs agencies, then from Japanese foreign affairs and security sections and the Imperial Household Agency — and last, but not least, from the Nagano police.

On the great day there were at least 100 officials, police and media people — more visitors than we’ve ever had before — and this did not include our own staff, helpers, local children, students from our ranger college, and one of my friend John Gathright’s groups of young people he instructs in tree-climbing and rappelling.

In preparation, we had laid new wood chips along the paths to be taken by the visitors, cutting back any offending thorny bits and clearing out anything along the way that might cause a Very Important Visitor to trip, stub a toe, or, Lord forbid, to bleed.

On the day, all went wonderfully well, but both Prince Charles and Princess Takamado, who accompanied him, remarked that we couldn’t hope to see much wildlife with so many people about. They were right, of course, and neither animals or birds were to be seen, other than a couple of curious crows. However, the woods glowed in glorious autumn colors and the weather was fine. I did show my guests old claw marks on a tree where a bear had climbed up to bring down a hornets’ nest in order to eat the grubs, and we talked about the other animals that we get in our woods — hares, foxes, raccoon dogs, badgers, martens, weasels, squirrels, dormice and, more recently, wild boars.

I was a little concerned that all this human activity would scare away wildlife for some time, but I am happy to report that just two days later, a couple of bears came ambling down, gorged themselves on acorns, and deposited some impressive Christmas pudding-like piles along all the fresh new paths in our woods. The bears do not mean to be rude, or to make any kind of political or social comment. I know bears. All they want to say is: “Hey folks, this is really our territory, so here’s something to remind you about it.”

City-dwellers might not appreciate my scatological focus on bears, but I assure you, it’s important. When we examine bear feces we find no evidence of sweetcorn or of the remains of food raided from farmers’ fields. The bears are consuming natural food that our woods provide for them. If we can only expand the area of diversified, natural woods, then this will be a crucial factor in the survival of bears in Japan. Christmas puddings they may not leave behind, but their natural-food offerings are just as welcome to us.

In a very different vein, but also linked to autumn in the woods, now is the time for the appearance of a very special day-flying moth. These insects flutter around close to the ground, up to about a couple of meters, and are the color of autumn leaves, while being about the size of a postage stamp.

In early summer, when fresh green leaves sprout at the top of the oak trees, there is another moth, white and about the same size, that flutters gaily in huge numbers. Very few people notice them, because most folk nowadays never look up at the tops of trees. Seeing those moths for me is a promise of summer — but seeing those little brownish-white day-flying moths in autumn is a sure sign that winter is not far away.

There are so very many species of moths in Japan, and we have done our best to identify those day-flying ones, which we now believe to be kuro suji fuyu eda shaku. Simply translated, that means “black-lined-winter-branch-inch.”

There are several species of little autumn day-moths with the “branch-inch” name. The Latin one we have come up with is Pachyerannis obliqueria. I don’t intend to go cherry-picking on the Internet, but you can find it easily, although I haven’t found an English name. Therefore, I’ll call it a “winter-herald inch-moth” and be done with it.

Our venerable forester up here in the Afan Woodland Trust, Mr. Matsuki, says that when you see these moths fluttering about, you know that snow is just around the corner.

I carry around a little notebook to jot things down in. It’s been a habit ever since I first went on an Arctic expedition with Dr. Peter Driver, when I was 17. Now, at 68, if I don’t jot a name down, I just don’t remember it.

Mr. Matsuki, who is 73, keeps everything in his head. He amazes me. I’ve never yet been able to stump him with a question about whatever tree, plant, mushroom or insect I spot in the woods. He may be making some of it up, but it’s unlikely, because so far all his wisdoms I’ve checked out through reference material have proved to be accurate. Mr. Matsuki has never been to university; he left school at 15 to go and help his father make charcoal. My ignorance delights him, but as I get older I find that I do remember the names I have given to things myself, as it is often hard — because there are so many more species of plants and animals in Japan than in Britain — to find an English name.

Whatever, here’s to the rum in your Christmas pud — with my very best wishes for the coming winter season!