Letting laughter flow in our woods


Two years ago, we started running programs specially designed for visually challenged children in our forest near Kurohime among the Nagano Prefecture hills. Before getting started, our Afan Woodland Trust sent out a questionnaire asking the children what they would most like to do in the woods. The overwhelming answer was “bird watching.” This really made us think, and we consulted many experts who came up with many ideas — a collection of real feathers, bird carvings, taking the children to habitats where they could hear birds and so on.

Water is a vital part of bird habitat, so we took the children to sit by ponds or small streams. Between our trust’s woodland and the neighboring national forest is a waterway, part of it dating from the 19th century and part of it constructed in more modern times. The older section is made with rocks and clay, and with its little pools and rifles making it a fine habitat for char and aquatic insects, it is sometimes visited by dippers and kingfishers. The modern part is just a concrete sluice, a nasty, dangerous construction that supports no life and which will kill any small creature that falls in. I once saw a snake that was at least 1 1/2 meters long being swept hopelessly down.

Hark to the laughing

I let the children listen to the waterway that had life, and told them to hark to its laughing. The concrete sluice just shushed, no giggles, no babbles. The children understood immediately, and so I took them to a larger river. There we listened to all kinds of water sounds and together figured out what they meant.

Three years ago, our trust acquired an additional patch of just over 10 hectares of land that we spent two years assessing as a wildlife habitat.

The whole area was covered with dense, scrubby, tangled brush and spindly trees. Because of a road built further down, the flow of water beneath the surface was interrupted, and much of the land was boggy, without being a proper wetland. I went over the place with a dowsing rod — I use a thin, forked and freshly cut willow branch — then dug down in the places where I got the strongest pull and found that the water was only half a meter below the surface. Most of the trees were sickly because their roots were drowning.

During the war a few pits had been dug to extract iron-rich soil, and after the war drainage ditches had been dug in a haphazard attempt to turn it into farmland. This was done without a proper survey and the effort failed. Afterward the area was left to become an overcrowded and unhealthy woodland.

When we decided to treat the land so that it could grow healthy trees and support wildlife, we surveyed and found an uneven slope with a fall of almost 7 meters. Our forester Mr. Matsuki and I designed a waterway, 480 meters in length, linking four small new ponds. We cut a deep, curving and banked ditch to lower the water in the ground to at least 1 1/2 meters below the surface — deep enough to enable the trees we planted to root properly. With the underground water no longer stagnating, it could flow instead into the ponds and ditches.

Remembering how delighted those children were to hear water “laughing,” and also to mix oxygen into the water, we made a series of little cascades designed so that wherever you stand you can hear the chuckling of water — with the sounds all changing slightly as you move through different sections.

We cut most of the trees, leaving just a few that were fit enough to regain their health and vigor in the improved environment. Those that were felled were used in constructing the cascades, bridges and bank reinforcements, while the branches and spindly trunks we had left over were turned into chips.

Chips spread on a woodland path or in areas where people gather, such as camp sites, protect tree roots and stop the ground from compacting. The chips themselves also gradually turn into humus, enriching the forest, and new chips are easy to re-spread from time to time. Wood-chip pathways are distinctive and attractive. Even a person who can’t see can easily feel where to walk. These paths are safe, too, with nothing to trip over — and they smell nice as well.

Construction was finished in October 2004, and the following spring we transplanted several hundred saplings of a dozen species, including mountain cherry, horse chestnut, Japanese maple, silver birch, beech and oak. The few elms, pines and magnolia we had left standing would soon seed open patches, which were already growing green by that first spring with plants such as horsetails and coltsfoot. By the end of the summer there were dozens of native species seeding themselves between the young trees.

Thousands of tadpoles

Mr. Matsuki planted irises along parts of the waterways, and I put in some watercress. Bulrushes came to the ponds all by themselves, as did willows on the banks.

As soon as the waterways and ponds filled and started running, late-summer dragonflies began dipping down to lay eggs, and in that first spring we had thousands of tadpoles. The new “water garden” was colonized by newts, and for the first time in our woods, by salamanders too. Thousands of small crucian carp added to the invasion, their eggs probably clinging to feet of visiting ducks and blue herons. These fish in turn have attracted kingfishers.

As the water plants grow, they will take out a lot of the iron and generally purify the water — which now runs into a little stream. Lo! We created a tributary!

I was surprised at the number of dragonfly nymphs we found when we scooped out a section of waterway that had got a bit clogged by mud (a problem we expected, but which will clear up as vegetation stabilizes the banks), so I asked Minoru Numata, the chief field instructor at a nature wardens’ college I helped set up, to do a survey and tell us just which aquatic invertebrates had joined us.

I already knew about the dragonfly and caddies nymphs, tiny freshwater shrimp, aquatic mantises, water skaters and beetles, but I wanted to know more precisely so we had an accurate record of how this new biotope was developing. Mr. Numata got so many specimens from just a few hours of sampling that it took him quite some time to identify them all. However, he eventually determined that that first sampling had yielded no fewer than 26 species of water insects, including three species of dragonflies.

In our woodland work up to now, we have mostly been patching up the damage and neglect, but with this new “water garden” we have been able to start from the beginning. Of course one purpose is to grow good trees and enhance wildlife, but just as importantly, our aim is to create a habitat of delightful sounds.

We have already had some of those very special children visit, and we know that the place makes them happy. Yet we can still only imagine what it will be like as the trees grow and blossom, attracting more birds, bees and cicadas, and then as they spread a cooling shade in the summer and carpet the paths and banks with rustling fallen leaves in autumn.

Can’t you hear it? Woods alive with the sounds of water and with the songs of birds, frogs and insects! Perhaps even better, we look forward to the laughter of children.