May I wish all our readers, in Japan and abroad, a very happy New Year. After 2011, I think we need one.

The year 2012 is the Year of the Dragon in the Chinese and Japanese 12-year cycle. I’ve always been rather fond of dragons, what with having been born in Wales, whose national flag centers on a red dragon.

Since 1980, though, I have made my home in northern Nagano Prefecture, at the foot of a mountain whose name is Kurohime, which means “black princess” in Japanese. As legend has it, this dormant volcano is home to a black dragon, a shape-changer who, in the form of a handsome young lord, once won the heart of a princess.

The story goes thus: The fair maid’s father sets this suitor many cruel tasks, and though he completes all of them, mean old dad still denies the dragon his daughter’s hand. At this, the young lord reverts to his dragon-self and wreaks havoc with fire and water across the land. Distraught, the princess pleads with the dragon to save her people — and as the price of their salvation she is taken away to the mountain today named in her honor as Kurohime.

It was in October 1962 that I first set foot in Japan, when I landed in Haneda Airport in Tokyo — so 2012 will mark my 50th year since originally arriving in this country. Over those 50 years, I have celebrated New Year’s about 40 times in Japan — and that’s a lot of mochi (rice cakes) and sake, I can tell you!

New Year’s celebrations are very much a family affair in this country, with all kinds of food treats set out in special boxes so that nobody really has to cook. People visit each other, have snacks and drinks, and give children little envelopes with money in them. It’s all rather quiet, actually.

Apart from the few times I’ve gone back to Wales, I have celebrated Christmas here in Kurohime — and it’s always me who cooks Christmas dinner. However, on Dec. 23, the eve of Christmas Eve just gone, I was in the city of Higashimatsushima, about 25 km northeast of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. I’d gone there to be Santa Claus to children who had lost family members and homes in the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011, and so I was only just back home in time to ensure the turkey thawed out properly and there was enough bedding and toilet paper for the guests.

Since 1986, I have been nurturing a woodland here in Kurohime, one which became a trust (the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust, actually) in 2002. Over the last 10 years I have been conducting my own special New Year’s Day ritual. So, when the traditional Japanese exchanges of greetings and sippings of sake are done and the New Year’s cards have been read, I take a short walk in the woods. And there I greet and thank the trees.

A tree-hugger? Sure, I’ve been known to hug a tree or two, but this division of people who profess to love nature and people such as loggers, who need jobs; between airy-fairy idealists and pragmatic realists is more destructive than all the insults and epithets they have thrown at each other. I know plenty of environmentalists who are very practical and pragmatic, as well as loggers and foresters who are idealistic and love nature.

Just as a rethink of issues like that is overdue, here in Japan we must really change our course.

It’s reckoned that 67 percent of the country is covered in trees, most of which are neglected, secondary-growth mixed woodland or single-species plantations of conifers — and here in Nagano Prefecture it’s almost 80 percent woodland and forest. Yet despite such abundance, Japan imports 80 percent of its lumber and employs only 50,000 people in the forestry business. Germany, whose roughly 36,000-sq.-km area is just slightly smaller than Japan’s, employs 20 times that number.

So, with such a wonderful natural and employment resource, we must obviously revive the forestry industry here in Japan — but in a way that is sustainable and respectful to wildlife, biodiversity and local culture.

We don’t need huge concrete logging roads, we need well-built but simple working trails, wide enough and strong enough for a two-ton truck with a small crane to pass. Logging for the most part should be done selectively, not by clear cuts that leave mountain slopes bare and prone to erosion and landslides. And when the trails are not being used for logging, they can be opened up so people can use them when they go gathering mushrooms and wild mountain vegetables, for hunting deer or wild boar or for any number of other activities and recreations.

As well, caring and careful forestry will also restore ecological health to mountain streams, which in turn — by delivering more oxygen and eco-heathy nutrients — can help to heal the serious wounds we have inflicted on our coastlines. But all of this has been said and written so many times before . . .

But there are those spiritul dimensions, too. Although I went into the Canadian Arctic at the age of 17 as an assistant to a scientist, and despite the fact that almost all the work I have done in nature has been scientifically orientated, my contact with the original and now minority peoples of the world makes me more spiritual inside as each year passes.

Nonetheless, in our small woodland trust we do more scientific field studies, backed with laboratory work, than do any of the Japanese national parks. I was raised to believe in scientific thought and method. But simply and honestly, what are we looking for in science? I think that we want answers to things we wonder about, to seek to discover the unknown and the new, and to confirm or deny beliefs or opinions we have made or which have been passed on to us by others.

When I go through the woods on New Year’s Day, I feel genuinely grateful to the trees, and so should I be, for they give us warmth in winter, cooling beauty in summer and all kinds of good things to eat. When I lay my cheek against the bark of a tree, even when there’s snow and ice all around, the tree feels warm; there is no doubt that it is alive.

And if you think that’s mere tree-hugging sentiment, then I can say with confidence that our data, taken automatically in the woods, confirms that in summer they are on average about 2 degrees cooler than a gravel parking lot outside (and 10 degrees cooler, or more, on a hot day) — and in winter they’re on average 2 degrees warmer. Are tree trunks absorbing radiation from the sun, or is this something we don’t know yet?

Speaking of great unknowns, though I was raised as a Christian and enjoyed singing carols in the church choir as a boy, I feel no deep sense of reverence in a church, a cathedral or a Buddhist temple. I’ve never been inside a mosque, so I don’t know about that. However, in a great, ancient forest, I feel a deep sense of awe and wonder. In our woodlands I feel gratitude and a confirmation of life.

I’ve spent a lot of time with the Canadian Inuit, and learned more from their elders than I ever have from any vicar, bishop, preacher or priest. So when I first heard about Ainu beliefs from the great Ainu leader and linguist Shigeru Kayano (1926-2006), Inuit chords were strummed in my heart. I felt that here in Japan, there also still lived a vibrant and genuine respect and reverence for sustaining nature.

Twenty-five years ago, on a freezing winter day in Hokkaido, I sat around a fire outside going through an Ainu ritual with a group of elders who had urged me to take part. Not long after, a photograph of us all garbed in Ainu robes and headdresses appeared in The Japan Times — with a caption indicating that I was one of the Ainu elders. Oh, how my head swelled! I was proud.

In traveling many times to Hokkaido, and having made several documentaries there, I have taken part in many Ainu rituals. However, it was particularly special for me when, at his home in Nibutani on Jan. 17, 2006, Shigeru Kayano declared that I was an “honorary Ainu,” and handed me an Ainu kimono his wife — who’d prepared a delicious venison stew — had made and embroidered for me.

It was the last time I would meet and talk and laugh with that wonderful elder. In the evening, when I gave a public lecture, the Kayano family told me to wear the kimono, and ever since I’ve started going into our woods on New Year’s Day, I’ve worn it. With the kimono I remember him.

I never forget that the woods, the streams, the lakes, the shores and all life are a part of us and that we are a part of them. This is, as far as I am concerned, an indisputable truth. Therefore, are we to be a healthy, renewing part of the body of life — or a cancer destroying it?

The choice must be made by each and every one of us. The planet itself is not endangered; Earth has gone through many trials before and has immense time on its side. But we humans, and everything altered or created by us, could easily wither and vanish.

Let’s not keep on doing the same old things, challenging and presenting futile barriers to nature. Let this Year of the Dragon be the year of a happy dragon, not a rejected and angry one.

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