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Woodland therapy yields Tohoku school ‘dream’

by C.W. Nicol

When our Afan Woodland Trust came into being in 2002 (after 16 years of hard work to purchase the land and begin restoring abandoned forest to healthy biodiversity), we started a program to invite disadvantaged, neglected or abused children into these living woods.

Our aim was to try to open a window in those young people’s hearts to nature, in the hope they might discover a new belief in life and people. We called the program Kokoro no Mori (Woodlands of the Heart), and it is an ongoing success that attracts a very fair share of media interest and public support.

Following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu last year, we extended that program to include families and folk who had been traumatized by the disasters.

Our first guests from the devastation zone were from the small city of Higashi Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture, a near neighbor of Matsushima, which is set on a bay studded with 260 pine-topped islands and is famous for its history and scenery. My first thought on seeing the area some years ago was: “Wow ! What a great place for sea kayaking !” The bay is rich in wildlife, and renowned for its oysters and cockles.

Higashi Matsushima is much larger and more spread out, with a population in 2010 of 42,762 — 1,047 of whom are confirmed to have died on March 11 last year, with another 51 still listed as missing. When the tsunami struck, 63 percent of the city was inundated and 5,500 homes were destroyed, as well as factories, schools, hospitals, clinics, shops and all the infrastructure of a thriving town. In addition, a large section of the Senseki Railway Line linking the city to the prefectural capital of Sendai and to nearby Ishinomaki was swept away — and even a Self-Defence Forces air base was wiped out.

What can you do or say to people, old or young, who have been through such a tragedy?

Before welcoming our guests, our trust staff went to the town and explained what we do and the reasons for our invitation, which would be for stays of three days and two nights (spent in a local pension). With the municipal officials assured, I also went and gave talks and showed DVDs of our woodland in the Nagano Prefecture hills, and what we do there, to people interested in coming.

On Aug. 10, 2011, our first party of 27 guests arrived by chartered bus, accompanied on the long journey by staff and volunteer members of our trust. The weather was fine, and after myself, Mr. Matsuki (the trust’s chief forester) and other field staff greeted everybody in the entrance area of the woods — part of a plot I purchased in 1985. We then spread through the woods in small groups and the children played on swings slung with ropes from tree branches, or relaxed in hammocks, or went off on expeditions to catch frogs, or to find mushrooms and other treasures. Later some of them chased each other around and played games of hide-and-seek. Others just did all the things that curious kids can find to do in woods with lots of ponds and streams.

The second evening was set aside for a sit-down dinner for the grownups, prepared by chef Nic in the big wood-beamed hall of the new Afan Woodland Trust Centre. This hall has lovely lacquered tables and chairs made from hardwoods trimmed out of the woods, and a huge, stone-faced open fireplace.

The children, meanwhile, had a separate treat: a picnic dinner in a tepee tent in the woods, lit by candles and lamps and the fire in its central fire pit.

My idea in holding the dinner (which was endorsed by our mental-care advisers) was that if we could give these parents and grandparents a break, get them away for a few hours from their nagging post-disaster concerns and fears for their children, then they might be able to relax. And then, should they choose to do so, while their children were safe and having fun they could talk about their experiences.

Surely it is absolutely essential to give care and solace to the care-givers, especially when these people might have to constantly hide their own troubles from the children in their charge. And certainly, with the fire cheerfully blazing, large, fragrant, multi-wicked candles on the tables and a four-course meal served with wine, beer, sake, shōchū or whisky for those who wanted it, the talk and laughter came easily.

Who would have thought that these good folk had lost homes, friends, family, or that some of them had waded through icy-cold water and debris in the desperate darkness, saving the living, pulling out the dead?

On the last day, we had a picnic lunch in the woods, sharing stories. We had a birthday cake ready for one of the members, Shinji Sato, the director of reconstruction policy for the town. Sato is a strong, straightforward and immensely likeable guy who had been through some horrendous experiences. Quite taken aback by the home-baked cake, and impressed with the whole experience, he stood up and gave a speech.

Coming to these woods had given him a new dream, he said, a new confidence and strength to face the future. He then asked me if we could help them to relocate and rebuild a school.

So, that’s what our trust is doing. In Higashi Matsushima, a city that is a recent amalgamation of several communities, the worst-hit area was Nobiru. There, out of a population of 4,600, 520 people lost their lives, and nearly everybody lost their homes.

Behind the previously populated and developed area of Nobiru, some densely wooded hillocks rise up with valleys between them — slopes and peaks that are safe from the reach of any future tsunami. That is an obvious site for relocation.

We began drawing up plans for a new government school, but one with a difference. We do not want to destroy this environment to build the usual concrete box. We want to preserve and respect the terrain and the ecology and build high-quality, high-tech school buildings constructed of timber, with separate classrooms linked by walkways. Each class will have a view of woodland, of small valleys with streams, ponds and paddies — and some lucky ones could also have views of the ocean, a source of life as well as, on that day, such terror.

Research has found that children whose classrooms are constructed of natural wood are far less likely than those in ferro-concrete buildings to suffer from colds, flu and allergies. Well-designed, properly constructed timber buildings can be even safer in earthquakes than ferro-concrete ones.

Additionally, the design for the new school includes a large flat-screen monitor in each classroom that will allow the head teacher to talk to and with the children and teachers — or let any of them connect online to anywhere in Japan or the world.

Although we envisage pupils at the new school following the education curriculum laid down by the government (can’t get away from that), at least they will be doing so in an invigorating and safe environment in which even ordinary text-book lessons can be marvelously enhanced.

For example, the area is well-known for discoveries of sites and artifacts from the time of the Jomon Pottery Culture (8,000-300 B.C.); while in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), a castle was built here. What a place to study history ! Also, if you are trying to grasp the incredible miracle of photosynthesis, where better to do it than in a living forest? Living language can be learned too; there are far more names for plants and flowers in Japanese than there are in English.

We are starting to carry out careful environmental and cultural assessment research of the site and its surrounding area, and we’re combining this with the excellent data that the municipality and various educational organizations and institutes have already gathered.

Our trust is finding the money to do this, and we are demanding no funds from the city. That’s because we want to help, not just jump on the restoration bandwagon.

It will take five years to build the school, and in the meantime we have volunteered to help with providing special fieldwork and nature courses for those children who lost their schools in the tsunami, and who are now getting their education in temporary facilities.

Most of these children will not get a chance to attend the new school, but we want them to feel a part of the process, to maintain a link and to share what they have experienced with the students of the future. They need to regain their belief and pride in the future of their community.

It’s a big task.