Unique ‘twin’ woods branch out


Our little Afan Woodland Trust here in Kurohime in Nagano Prefecture is twinned with the Afan Forest Park in South Wales. Most folk have heard of twinned cities (though I believe that Americans call them “sister cities”), but as far as I know, our twinning of forests is unique, and — as sometimes happens when I have a few tots of really good single-malt whisky — the brilliant idea was mine.

So far, we have exchanged many ideas and much information on forest research and management between Nagano and South Wales, and in the future we intend to exchange personnel as well.

One particularly successful consequence of our twinning has been the creation of the Woodpeckers Club at Afan Forest Park, aimed mainly at getting the Japanese community involved.

When I was a boy growing up in Britain, we burned coal in an open fireplace in the living room. Larger houses even had coal fires in bedrooms, and nearly every big building had coal-fired boilers for their heating radiators or pipes.

‘Pea soup’ smog

Small wonder then that coal smoke and fog created the infamous “pea soup” smog that so often cloaked Britain’s cities with a dense, choking, eye-watering — and in many cases, fatal — blanket of yellow air.

When the burning of coal in urban areas was made illegal in the 1960s, and then Thatcher’s governments through the 1980s killed off the coal pits, Britain switched from coal to oil and other supposedly cleaner sources of energy. This had a drastic effect on employment in South Wales, where mining had been the main industry and thousands lost their jobs. But then, as Japan rose from the ashes of the Pacific War to become a global economic giant, many major Japanese companies opened factories in South Wales, which brought welcome employment to the folks there.

I’ve been back to Wales many times in the last 25 years, and with my blue eyes and ruddy complexion it has been easy to get people to tell me honestly how they feel about the Japanese, and what it’s like to work for them. Their opinions have been very favorable. People in South Wales told me that the Japanese were very fair bosses. They eat in the same canteen as the workers, drive ordinary cars, use the same parking lot, wear work clothes and stay late to pitch in when there’s overtime.

However, my own experience was that there was little social exchange between resident Japanese families and the Welsh.

So, when our two forests were twinned, one delightful result was the resurrection of the Woodpeckers Club, which had originally been formed to bring local children into the woods. This time round, the Woodpeckers came together because of a plan to make a Japanese woodland garden within the Afan Forest Park. At that time, my Cardiff-resident friends Christian and Natsuyo Searle, who are frequent visitors to Japan, approached the local Japanese community to see if they would be interested in helping.

The result has been most gratifying.

The Woodpeckers Club in South Wales is small, with, so far, a total of about 80 “members.” There are no rules for membership, though the Woodpeckers gather at least four times a year and are always made welcome in the park and at the visitor center.

The club’s members comprise resident Japanese families and local Welsh people, who go on forest walks with the rangers, trim trees and weeds, and exchange all kinds of information, whether it be forest lore and local history, or the best ways to leach out the bitterness from bracken tips and how to make blackberry jam. Schoolchildren can get credits for their forest work, and the woods have been a wonderful place to make friendships between resident Japanese and locals.

Club rules are simple. There are no duties. Everybody is welcome. Work, family and school come first. You come when you can and you are supposed to have fun.

Japanese enthusiasm

Chief Ranger Richard Wagstaff, who came to Japan for the “twinning” ceremony in our Kurohime woods, and who has worked in the Welsh woods for more than 30 years, told me that he was amazed how enthusiastic and hard-working the Japanese volunteers were.

“These are the first volunteers we’ve ever had who complain when you don’t give them enough work to do!” he said gleefully.

The park staff lay on tea, coffee, juice and homemade cakes and sandwiches at the visitor center, and the Woodpeckers have a permanent display there, too. As well as their time and labor, Japanese Woodpeckers have contributed funds for saplings and tools, too.

In February, I made a visit to the Afan Forest Park. One purpose was to take part in a tree-planting on a gentle hill above the visitor center that has recently been cleared of dense bracken. We planted numerous species of apple tree there, including some Japanese varieties, to mingle with some native British ones.

Much of the park occupies land restored from terrain devastated by the coal industry, primarily by slag heaps (small mountains, actually) of excavated soil and rock. Forestry on such land is important for timber, but it is at least equally as important in partnership with forests for education, leisure and healing. Apple trees are beautiful, grow quickly, bear blossoms that delight bees, and give fruit as well.

As the forest began to bring back life to the Afan valley, deer numbers dramatically increased, so we used deer-proof fences to protect the young trees.

Later in the week, the mayor of the nearby towns of Neath and Port Talbot came to a small ceremony at Afan Forest Park — along with municipal councilors, park staff and foresty and education officials — to present the Japanese Woodpeckers with certificates honoring them for their efforts. After that we had a major British-Japanese brainstorming session to talk about forestry, education, health and the recreational use of woodlands. One result was that we agreed that Wales and our trust in Kurohime would exchange staff, as well as information.

I am really happy with all this. It started out just as an idea, with Chief Ranger Richard Wagstaff and my friends Christian and Natsuyo hashing it over and bringing the concept together. Now we can see that forests are a wonderful means of bringing people together.

Confidence in the future

In 1947, three young Welsh schoolteachers, home from the war, persuaded the government to let them use 10 hectares of land to plant trees and to teach children about the woods. This, those young teachers believed, was the best way for youngsters to learn about the importance of life and to rebuild some confidence in the future. Those 10 hectares have now become 10,000, and communities and towns have been incorporated into Afan Forest Park. Last year, 42,872 mountain bikers visited the park and used the 200-odd-km of bike trails, and one automatic counter on a footbridge logged 12,000 hikers.

Meanwhile, forest cover used to be a meager 5 percent in that area, now it leads Britain with a 60 percent covering of woods. This has enhanced biodiversity, cleaned the rivers so that salmon and char can now spawn, and of course has boosted the local economy through tourism.

Additionally, the woods help cement friendships, such as between the local Japanese and Welsh communities.

I was there in Cardiff when Wales beat world-champions England at rugby (haha), and all the Japanese I knew were cheering for Wales. Some even rallied to stand and belt out “Land of my Fathers” in Welsh as they waved the red dragon flag. “God Save the Queen” was wimpish in comparison. Peck on, woody Woodpeckers, peck on!