Changing the stories we live by #6: from Princess Mononoke’s Curse Spirits to the Corona virus

Last June, I got to know the curse spirits of princess Mononoke in real life.  I organised a group excursion to one of the certified forest therapy bases in Japan. Now I see some similarities between the ‘story’ of the curse spirits and the corona virus. But first we need to talk about the concept of …

Satoyama

We had to travel quite a distance to get ‘deeper into the wild’. I remember my companion telling me a bit irritated that he does not understand why we have to go so far. I took the comment too personal (as a critique on my idea), but later I realised he made a very good point that ‘for reconnecting with nature’ we do not have to ‘invade the wild world’. It was a comment about the satoyama, the land between the wild and the tamed world, and how far it is (while it shouldn’t be). Satoyama is a term used by ANFT, the association that trained me to be a forest therapy guide. Satoyama is a Japanese term applied to the border zone or area between mountain foothills and arable flat land. Literally, sato means arable and libable land or home land, and yama means hill or mountain.  However, I had encountered the term already earlier. I had seen it.

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Some pictures I took in May-August 2018 during the on-site research in Japanese mountainous and hilly areas. Although I love these areas for recreation, there are indeed many new awarenesses, like hornets, vipers (‘mamushi’), boars, bears and other beings. 

What I learned from on-site environmental research in the Japanese mountainous areas, was the conflict between mostly farmers and animals, like boars and deers, who roam their fields and eat their crops. Then you’ve also other awarenesses, like vipers and hornets which make the life in the Japanese mountainous areas quite challenging. You need to be very aware and in tune with what is around us to reduce the risks. I notice this too, when I go there hiking, sometimes alone.  The year before our team did research in this area of Japan, other doctoral students had looked for animal-friendly measures to keep the animals away… but the question that lingered was…  did animals also not have right to the land? Why did they come to the fields of the farmers? Satoyama is also a place of conflict of interests. And the region seems in decay. In one of the 10 books I try to read simultaneously, I highlighted a paragraph that captured what kind of ambiguity I felt about satoyama.

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Curse Spirits

There we encountered hill worms which suck your blood. Let me copypaste a paragraph of the blog I wrote last year: Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath

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“Nowadays, these worms are there almost whole year, one of the forest therapy guides told us. During the allocation of this forest therapy base, these worms were not there, but then this was also a godforsaken place. Now animals from higher up bring these leeches when to go down; to this place in search of food, because man has reduced their territory. “There is a reason why Ghibli Studio choose these worms for princess Mononoke. It are always animals from higher up, from more remote areas, losing territory, that bring this curse to the human world.”

For those who have seen the popular animated film “Princess Mononoke”, recognizes that animals also came from the mountains and were possessed by these demonic worms squirming over their whole body. In this movie, the toxic used by some colonising humans causes the curse. In the beginning of the movie, one of the main characters get infected by this curse when he protects his village against a possessed animal. The movie is about his search to find a cure, but in the meantime he also learns more about forest spirits, wolves and the impact of the colonisation of nature.”

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The roots of corona

Earlier today I read an article in Belgian newsmagazine knack with this paragraph which stroke me:

“Due to changes in land use, such as deforestation, the habitat of wild animals shrinks to such an extent that they have to resort to human settlements, if they can survive there at all. Like humans, these animals carry a wide variety of microorganisms, and together they have evolved into specific ecological systems. But a microorganism that is useful or harmless for one species can be pathogenic or even deadly for another. Proximity between wildlife and humans inevitably leads to transfer of microorganisms, including pathogens. 70 to 75 percent of infectious diseases that have appeared over the last 30 years are of animal origin, the majority of wild animals.” (Myriam Dumortier, 27 March 2020, translated)

Do you see what strikes me? I already knew that Miyazaki, the creator of princess Mononoke, is a visionary man, who is different from many Japanese people I know. He saw the troubles of land use changes and deforestation and how nature would ‘strike’ back. Perhaps it’s time to watch ‘princess Mononoke’ (now available on Netflix) and see what we could learn from that movie to find a cure, like the main character eventually did. To get through this crisis (and the next that follow), we might not only combat the symptoms, but look at the roots, and heal some broken ties with the more-than-human-world and remember our place in this woodwide web of interbeing.

Training more guides for satoyama and reducing the tamed world

I think we have to also think about how much land we should give back to the wild world, and consider how far we expand our tamed and satoyama or ‘between’ zone. The ‘between zone’ will always be a place of conflicts, especially as we make the wild world smaller, but we need this satoyama zone. We have to reduce the tamed zone, which means, to reconsider our consumption of land, which means the size of our houses and other lifestyle choices…  and we should monitor the satoyama zone, and train more guides (including forest therapy guides) to take care the conflicts in satoyama are managed respectfully. What do you think?