Our woodland’s magic is a joy to behold


A very kind Japanese man who has served for more than 30 years in children’s homes told me recently that 70 percent of the youngsters in his care nowadays have been abused or seriously neglected by their parents. Early in his career, he said, such abuse was very rare indeed. And, he assured me sadly, though we see media reports of horrible things done to children, those are just the tip of the iceberg.

Why? I don’t know, but it reminded me of an observation we made while studying harp seals pupping on the ice off Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island in Canada.

We technicians were required to tag the young seal pups. We found that most seal mothers would bark and threaten us, then slip off into the water and watch from a distance as we dealt with the pup. Some mothers would actually attack us and, as we worked in pairs, one would then have to distract her while the other quickly tagged the pup. However, a few of the young seal mothers seemed to not know whether to flee or attack. Then they seemed to go crazy and would brutally bite and shake their own offspring. These, we left alone.

Can it be that the pressures and uncertainty of modern society bearing down on unprepared young human parents leads to the same kind of aberrant behavior as in those seals that attacked their own?

Goose bumps

I have read and observed a lot of good work being done in Wales using woodlands for education and for healing. As the work we do in our Afan Woodland Trust here where I live in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture, is mostly about the healing of a complex ecosystem — trying to bring abused and neglected secondary growth woods, or similarly neglected plantations of spindly conifers back to healthy biodiversity — I was very interested in how this healing process might help humans.

For a long time, I had a dream of bringing visually impaired people into the woods, and when we had specialists in the field ask young visually impaired folk what they would most like to do in a forest, the overwhelming answer was “bird watching.” This gave me, and no pun intended, goose bumps.

As I and the staff of our trust consulted widely with such specialists and teachers, we came to feel strongly that it was important to try to see if woodlands could help disadvantaged children. As well, I was astounded to discover how poorly funded most of these children’s care institutions are, and how, despite the increasing need, many are having their funding cut. Surely a society that cannot take care of its own weak, small and defenseless young is not a truly mature or admirable society — no matter how many troops it sends to Iraq.

For the past 10 years, we have been using our woods to train young people from a college I helped establish. Its two-year course covers biological fieldwork, ecotourism and other nature-related subjects. We have graduated around 1,000 people so far, and many are doing good work not only in Japan, but all over the world.

In addition to these students visiting regularly, we constantly get requests to take parties of children into the woods. But our woods are not a playground, and I almost always decline. However, together with the U.S.-based international distribution giant Amway Co., we began to design a five-year program that would enable us to take children with various special needs into the woods, and in numbers that would not trouble the other creatures or overly trample delicate places. Then in March this year, together with a team of dedicated outdoor experts, we began welcoming children from care homes and visually impaired kids to our woods.

People who know me, friends and enemies alike, will know that I am not really a “do-gooder” at all — it’s just that there is something inside me that, having met some of these kids, makes me want to try to do something. So, if a love and wonder for nature can be communicated, and give a few young folk the excitement and tranquillity it gives me, then let’s try!

One of the people I was very keen to have in the program is a longtime resident of Japan, a wonderful Canadian called John Gathright who set up an organization called Tree Climbing Japan. Based at Jyokoji Seto outside Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture, TCJ and John have been featured many times in magazines, newspapers and on television, and I had seen how much confidence and happiness he and his staff can inspire in children and the disabled.

Unflinching trust

We have made and will make mistakes, but we will learn from them. It was heart-warming to see shy and nervous kids open up, laugh, ask countless questions, give people hugs. My heart almost burst when a timid little girl of 8 came up to me and, without saying anything, slipped her hand in mine. This little thing had, I was later told, been beaten half to death by adults, and would usually flinch if an adult raised a hand anywhere near her.

Three young warriors, unable to contain themselves, started threatening and waving sticks. Rather than just order them to stop, though, I got them lined up and practicing bo-jitsu (Okinawan stick-fighting), teaching them some rules and etiquette. I carved a stick for one of them, and that little lad took it all the way back to Tokyo with him. And no, none of the three tried to hit or threaten another child or a teacher after that. Similarly, when the children — and the adults too, for that matter — got a little inattentive, I had them doing karate-style deep breathing. Deep breathing in the woods makes you feel so invigorated and refreshed. If you haven’t already, try it sometime! Anyway, we did all kinds of programs, and we will try many others — always ensuring we don’t hurt or threaten the woods.

To enrich these visitors’ experience, we have built big three-sided wooden lean-tos — what I call “sound shelters” — that act like giant ear trumpets, and bird carvers have donated many works so the kids can feel the shape and size of the birds they hear. We will now also start to have storytelling and woodsmen’s campfires (not bonfires that waste wood, but little fires big enough to boil tea or cook on).

And do you know something? Even this early in the program I begin to sense that the woods themselves are responding. I feel a magic in the air that heals this old red-faced, wrinkled ogre as much, or more, than any other. I think the birds, the frogs, the animals and even the trees feel it too.