In national parks, gardens, woodlands and any other places where people frequently walk in natural settings, the pathways and places where they gather pose many problems to owners, managers and anybody who is concerned with the comfort and safety of the visitors and also the integrity of the habitat.

Root systems can suffer serious damage from being walked over repeatedly, while trampled ground loses its green cover, easily erodes, and gets boggy when wet. Also, when paths turn muddy, people walk around the edges, thus increasing the problem.

Our Afan Woodland Trust here in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture, is zoned into areas which are untouched, areas which are researched but otherwise pretty well left alone, areas in which the dense brush and sickly, spindly trees are trimmed out, and areas to which visitors are frequently taken on guided tours or where they gather for talks and to listen to stories.

Over the years, I have considered various solutions to the trampling problem, including building boardwalks or laying gravel pathways. Finally, I decided that the best solution for us was woodchips.

The trees and branches that we trim out from our woods are graded for use as firewood or for turning into charcoal. In the last year, however, the trees have grown and improved enough for us to also do some trimming that produces quality hardwood timber for the furniture we plan to use in our new center (which we will start building next month). The rest of our surplus timber we turn into woodchips by renting a large, very noisy tracked machine from a local contractor for a couple of days.

We started laying down chips in our woods five years ago, which was when we began our programs for handicapped children and for children who, for various reasons, are in the care of institutions.

We normally invite about 20 of these youngsters at a time, for three days, five times a year. With them come their carers or parents, accompanied by our staff and volunteers. So, depending on the program, we could have as many as 40 humans in our woods at one time, gathering here and there at specified points for talks, to hear stories or music or to engage in various other activities. Consequently, we found that over these three-day visits, the woodland gathering places became so badly trampled that fine young tree roots were exposed. We had to do something.

We are never lacking in advice, most of which is greatly appreciated and very often acted upon. However, we also get a lot of advice from folk who read a lot or sit for hours in front of computers, but spend little time in the field — traits that so often seem to assure them of their own expertise and righteousness.

We have been told by such “experts” that laying down woodchip walkways takes too much nitrogen from the soil and will thus inhibit the growth of trees. This is not what we observe.

We do note that not only humans, but animals such as bears, wild boar, foxes and martens also seem to enjoy walking on a woodchip path, where they often deposit dung as a sign of their appreciation. Another bonus is that people (who aren’t apparently moved to show their appreciation in quite the same way) also tend to stay on the paths and not wander off, which is much better for the woods. Moreover, the ground of the story-telling and picnic places are undamaged and pleasant to be on.

But there are still more plus points from laying woodchip woodland paths. After a few months, for instance, we get a profusion of mushrooms growing around the edges of these paths, and after a year or so the paths are often dug up by wild boar and moles searching for the earthworms and beetle grubs that proliferate under the bottom layer as it begins to decay. If a woodchip path is not used, it quickly reverts to green nature.

It would be cheaper to just bring in woodchips by the truckload, but I have ruled against this, as we would not really know where the stuff came from or what might be in it. That is why we always use trimmings for our own woods. However, I should point out that we always leave trees or limbs that have fallen naturally where they lay.

Last year we trimmed out one very tangled area, in which there were no really strong, healthy trees, and we stacked about two-thirds of the timber ready for the chipper. The area has now been replanted with a mixture of oaks, beech and other hardwoods. We ended up with a little hill of woodchips that we needed to spread by hand over several hundred meters of pathways — some of which need to be 2 meters wide to allow passage for our major woodland workhorse, the 4WD “K Truck.”

One of the companies who support our programs is Amway, which has a large network of distributors throughout Japan. Every year these good people volunteer to come and work for a day in our woods, and this year we had two groups of about 20 each who turned up to spread the woodchips.

There had been some rain, and the mound of chips was fermenting, making it steam and give off a woody, alcoholic fragrance reminding me of whisky barrels. No wonder earthworms and grubs gather under the stuff! Undeterred, though, our eager workers pushed wheelbarrows and wielded bamboo “bear-claw” rakes, hoes and shovels, while our chief forester, Mr. Matsuki, drove load after load in his little K tip-up truck — a marvellous vehicle that uses very little gasoline and which I would seriously recommend to ever-frugal country folk in North America and Europe.

While the others were working, two volunteers were selected to go off with one of our staff to gather the new green shoots of tara no me — the thorny Japanese angelica, otherwise known as “the Devil’s walking stick”; koshi abura — a tree for which I could find no English name but which has the hideous Latin appellation of Acanthopanax sciadophlloides; and the young leaves of the haragiri tree, which can grow up to 25 meters high and has thorny branches and leaves rather like a sycamore named Kalopanax pictus in Latin and Castor aralia in English dictionaries.

The new shoots or leaves of all three of these make excellent tempura, and are traditional late-spring food here in northern Nagano. Freshly fried tempura and box lunches of local food and rice, washed down with lots of our Kurohime “Enmei” tea were served for lunch.

For this simple service we got new, fresh, fragrant pathways that are a delight to walk upon — and a great convenience for wildlife, too.

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