A tale of two Afans reborn


Two thousand years ago, my native Wales had 98 percent forest cover. By 1950, when I was a little lad, woodland in Wales was down to 5 percent. I was born in Neath, where coal-mining wasn’t particularly heavy, and where there were still wooded parks and groves of wild trees so I didn’t really feel the loss as a child. However, we did not have to go far into the valleys to see the devastation caused by industry and mining.

Just over the hill from where I was born is Afan Argoed. “Afan” has been translated for me by various experts as “a place where the wind passes,” “a place of tranquillity,” and even as “wild strawberries.” There is no doubt about “Argoed,” though — everybody agrees it means “of the forest.”

As I remember it then, Afan Argoed was more like the far side of the moon — certainly there was no forest. Instead it was scarred with industry and pollution, littered with slag heaps from the mines, and sad and grimy, neglected buildings. There were, too, an increasing number of good men getting fired from their jobs as the government closed the collieries.

In 1947, Britain’s Forestry Commission began reforestation of the despoiled Afan valley and various other areas of the country. I still remember truckloads of whistling, waving, yelling Italian prisoners of war going up past my Auntie Peg’s cottage, while I and her pretty daughter stood outside and waved back.

Forest education

“Goin’ on over to plant trees they are, keep them out of mischief,” said Auntie Peg. The war was over, of course, and even a little boy like me wondered when they would be going home.

Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, back then the Forestry Commission still seemed to think the coal industry would go on needing pit props, and so they planted conifers, mostly larches and firs that grow straight and quickly and are reckoned to be easily harvested and milled. Japan’s Forestry Agency did pretty much the same, planting larches, cedar and cypress. Both now have similar problems.

In Wales, though, in 1948, when education was severely stressed after the war, local teachers pressed for forest land to be used educationally. They succeeded, and some 4 hectares were set aside in Afan Argoed as a lumber station and Forest Education Centre.

Since then, oil has replaced coal, the mines have closed, and the dramatic increase in the use of private motor vehicles has resulted in the demise of many local railways. Over the 50-odd years that have passed since that first, 4-hectare woodland project was initiated by devoted foresters and teachers, Afan has now grown into a 64-sq.-km forest park.

I saw and studied the efforts to bring back forest, clean water, and wildlife in Wales for the first time in 1984. Afan Argoed inspired me to begin buying up badly abused and neglected land here where I live in in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture, with the objective of restoring it to a diverse, healthy woodland that would be a haven for many species of creatures as well as a place for experiments in woodland management and education.

In other words, how can we improve damaged environment? Can people go into the wild areas to research and study without degrading and disrupting? What levels of human activity are permissible or advisable?

Inspired by the efforts in Wales, I named this woodland in Kurohime “Afan.” In spring last year, our woodland was accepted by Nagano Prefecture as a trust, with the official name of The C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust (I would like to mention that it was the prefectural authorities who insisted on my name being included.) We donated nearly all our land and most of the assets left in the bank to establish this trust.

On Aug. 25, 2002, we had a small but moving ceremony at Kurohime. Richard Wagstaff, chief warden of the Afan Argoed Forest Park and I signed a document agreeing to “twin” our two forests, with the British Ambassador, Sir Stephen Gomersall, as our witness. We had a kilted piper as well as music played sweetly on harp, guitar and flute, which echoed wonderfully in the trees. Many kind folk attended, including our mayor and councilors, forestry and various government officials, television and other journalists as well as many friends (including the long-suffering editor of this column).

As far as I know, this is the first time that forests have been officially twinned. What does it mean? Well, to us it means we can easily exchange information on all manner of subjects, but especially on forestry, ethnobotany, outdoor education, wildlife and people management, equipment, techniques and policies. Not only will we exchange information and facilitate connections between schools and colleges; we eventually plan to exchange personnel as well.

Koto and Masai

On June 30, 2003, another twinning ceremony was held in Afan Argoed, Wales. This document was signed by myself and by Alun Pugh, Minister for Culture, Welsh Language and Sport, and was witnessed by H.E. Masaki Orita, the Japanese Ambassador to Britain and by Councillor P.G. Lloyd, Mayor of Neath and Port Talbot. Top British forestry officials came down from Scotland, together with officials dealing with tourism and other aspects of forest use. There were journalists, TV crews, locals, friends from Japan, a lady playing koto, a quartet playing classical music — as well as a group of Masai students in full regalia (no kidding). But for me, the most important person there was my Aunt Gwen, now 80 years old, my mother’s youngest sister, sitting there beside the outdoor podium.

It was a wonderful 10 days I spent in Wales, and I came back to Kurohime inspired. Our Afan is a tiny woodland — about 18 hectares in all — but just before I left for Wales, The Tokyo Technical College for Environmental Studies — which I helped set up 10 years ago, and which runs a two-year course to train young park rangers and environmental fieldworkers, and which has been using our woods for field work from the very begining — signed an agreement with the Forestry Agency to begin jointly tending and improving the neglected cedar plantations adjacent to the trust woods. That, and donations from both individuals and companies, has enabled us — just one year after becoming a trust — to double the woodland area we have to study and nurture.

When I am asked, “What can I do for the environment?” my answer is to start in your own backyard, just do what you can, and no matter how small or insignificant it may seem to you at the time, if you are sincere, it will be like tossing a pebble into a pond. The circles will grow and come back to you.

I now confess to an increasingly serious problem in dealing with the Japanese media. I get the same dumb questions, whether it be while doing fieldwork, or showing somebody through the woods, or even attending a moving ceremony such as the dedication of a woodland garden of Japanese trees, planted in honor of Japan in the Afan Argoed Park.

These questions invariably run along the lines of: “Why do you like nature?”; or perhaps, “Why do you live in the countryside?”; “What is the attraction of trees?”; or — very often — “What is interesting about forests . . . wild animals, birds, flowers, the ocean . . . “

To me it’s like being asked “Why did you fall in love with that woman?” “Where’s the pleasure in making kids?” “What’s so tasty about cold, pure, crystal-clear mountain water?”

Those questions don’t get asked in Wales, except by visiting Japanese journalists. If you really need to know, find out for yourself — don’t bother me. I’m too busy having fun.