Last weekend I accompanied my Russian friend on her first forest bath. I had found another guide with ANFT that guides in Ekebergparken in Oslo. Two weeks earlier, I had asked the guide before what was the Scandinavian or Nordic way of forest bathing. So nature gave an answer. That weekend the first snow felt in Oslo. Read here my experiences of a forest bath filled with snowflakes and warmed by bonfire.
Forest bathing in snow
I had not experienced forest bathing in the snow. I tried to dress warmly, because I knew we would be not moving so fast, but I made a mistake with the shoes. So my feet were cold. Fortunately she went for invitations with bonfires and with wandering, and not sitting at the same spot. But the snow added something mystical to it. While the guide introduced us to the land of Ekebergparken, I felt mesmerized by the snowflakes. When we walked deeper into the forest, we shared memories about trees. The guide told us how she communicates with a tree close to her house and how it had told her that he feels sleepy. Winter is here. It is almost time for the trees to sleep and rest.
Oak hill without oaks ?
Ekeberg, the guide explained us, was once the place where political gardening were hold. The name means “oak hill” but as some of you know, oak is a very desired wood. All oaks got cut to serve the lumber industry. Some time ago, they found one oak. They planted fungi and did other measures to revive and help the tree.
The interesting first serendipity is that my friend celebrated here her marriage, because of the view on Central Oslo, where once viking ships landed and left. Later she would tell that an oak in a Russian park was very important for her. It was in the closeness of this oak that her boyfriend-now-husband took her hand for the first time. The oak seems to witness the milestones of her love life. Isn’t that beautiful?
Nordic tea and decoration
The guide shared with us a tea made from rosehips, berries and juniper and also explained the healing properties and other usages or the tea plants. She had decorated the fire with vibrant red Rowan berries. Earlier in this trip I learned these berries and tree have special meaning for Scandinavians. It is too bitter to eat, but they make jams and gin from it. My friend remarked how amazing it is that Scandinavian people can make from some simple things like pine cones and berries a setting which feels so cosy. The guide said that Scandinavia’s land has not so much to offer and is not so fertile, and has short fertile periods, so they learned to do more with less.
Vasalisa the Beautiful
In this Russian fairytale, the young girl Vasilisa is given a magical doll by her dying mother. When her father remarries, her stepmother and stepdaughter are jealous of Vasilisa’s beauty, and they force her to cook and clean all day and night. When the wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters send Vasilisa into the dark forest to Baba Yaga, a terrifying witch with a taste for human flesh, Vasilisa has no weapon to take with her but her magical doll.
According to Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book “Women Who Run with Wolves”, the story is about a young girl sharpening her female intuition. The Baba Yaga is for me a wise wild old woman, a sort of archetype, that helps woman to learn how to divide good things from bad things and other necessary skills. I do not see the guide as an antagonist. But I guess the idea that Baby Yaga is frightening for manypeople is because independent women living alonein aforest look strange. Maybe still feel strange and what society does not expect.
When imagination turns into reality
I love the story in such a way that the story was the basic for my own first fiction book (which gets published in several weeks). It was an almost mysticalexperience to follow Vasalisa and Baba Jaga, or my Russian friend and this Nordic elder woman, to a fire and a weird wooden construction along birch trees kissed bysnowflakes.
I shared this experience at the bonfire. It felt like serendipity that I share this experience with especially a Russian youngerfriend. I had not thought before I would encounter Vasalisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga in this forest bath. But yes… serendipity is something you experience often when you are in the woods 😉
I am back in Norway. Third time this year. If I have an opportunity to go there (this time a conference which I could combine with a small project in Sweden), I will take it. Sometimes I have this idea that my ancestors are Vikings which visited the Low Countries, and that these genes sing every time when I am back in the land of fjords, mountains and coldness. I will leave Norway in some days and my soul is pining already. I promised myself that I will move to Norway after Japan taught me everything what I need to know.
The big pine
I was also invited by my best Norwegian friend to stay in the cabin if his material family. He knows I love trees, and the first morning he proposed for a hike with the dog to the top of a low mountain. Everything was covered by snow. Almost halfway the easy climb, he showed me this big pine tree. She was magnificent.
When he was a child, his grandmother took him there often and this pine would be the destination of a small climb, where she rewarded him with chocolate.
She loved that tree as she used to go there when she was a kid. As a result she made the farmer who owned the land in the area promise he would not cut it down in her lifetime. My friend is happy that the owner is not interested in forestry anymore and that the tree will probably live another 50 years and carry her memory.
The grandmother died two years ago. …
The next day I was alone. He had to work. I prepared some hot tea and planned to have a sit spot next to the tree to connect with the land and the tree. I walked alone. I did not hear any sound expect my shoes in the snow.
When I arrived at the big pine, I heard birds singing. Very welcoming. I shared some tea with the tree and sat there for 20 minutes – until my ass froze 😉.
I felt very welcome there.
I imagine the tree told me to come back.
To deepen my learning journey as a forest therapy guide I started to draw again. As a child I loved it. One reason of staying in a cabin for 3 days without wifi was to rest and to make time to draw again. I decided to draw the pine tree and my friend (I used a photograph I took of them the day before) reflected about the web of interbeing. The pine tree has many branches. Just like a web. I draw it on the side of a big card I send to my elder friend in Vermont, with who I started my forest therapy guide training.
A mirror memory
Then, suddenly I realised, that a pine was also central in my own connection, or loss of my grandfather, who took me also, when I was a child, on hikes and also gave me rewards. A pine tree killed him. Almost 14 years ago I pointed to the pine tree he would fell, when he asked me which tree looked dead.
In many ways; this close friend, maybe my most favorite man in the world at the moment (as I have no boyfriend who could have claimed that) reminds me so often to my grandfather. Only when I was drawing I realised how even more connected we were… because of pine and beloved grandparent memories.
In the past 6 months, I was working at a story that would become eventually my debut roman. It is funny how things turn out. I was actually working at another manuscript for 8 years (!), but then a golden opportunity came (read: I could use a part of a grant for a communication about circulair economy). So, my story about dryads is put on a hold and in April I used all my free evenings on writing “If Furniture Could Talk“. I wrote in my mother tongue, so the title is actually “Als Meubels Konden Spreken”. I am using a lot of my knowledge about eco-psychology and ecolinguistics in this story, because I wanted to write a story with impact. This article shares some ideas about the impact of stories on sustainable transitions, and my own learning and writing process.
A small fairytale about circular economy
Once upon a time… a beautiful planet with some finite supplies of raw materials and materials, where beautiful people live. They invented beautiful things. Unfortunately, they organised their economy in a linear way. This led to a major materials and energy crisis. Some of the brainiacs preached for a more circular economy, but the old linear ways were already so firmly anchored that not many beautiful people responded to their ideas. The collegeboys came up with scientific reports full of evidence. But no… yet the rest of the population didn’t want to change. That caused a lot of frustration among those brainiacs. Why is the transition so slow? Why is it not accepted by others? Why don’t people change so quickly?
In Flanders (Belgium), there have been wonderful initiatives in the field of circular economy for years. But not all of them bear the label of circular economy – because that is still an abstract concept. Or yes, a lot of information has been written precisely for highly educated people, especially in the sustainability sector. Although… more and more you see economists at the workshops of Flanders Circular. Circular economy clashes with a glass ceiling, and according to Bold Branders, the collective of volunteers to who I belong, this is sometimes due to the communication and management of knowledge.
At Bold Branders we look at science, but we know that scientific texts and reports are not widely accepted by the general public. There is also a wealth of research that allows people to influence their choices more through emotions than reason.
This is why we are opting for the oldest form of knowledge management in which we evoke emotions: stories. For thousands of years, people have passed on knowledge, culture, norms and values from generation to generation on the basis of stories. Also recently, knowledge about sustainability and ecological and social problems has been disseminated worldwide, with perhaps Rachel Carson’s “Dead Spring” (Silent Spring) as the best known example. That’s why we, Bold Branders, decided to write a circular novel…. to live happily ever after.
Last year, during the autumn equinox, I decided to start this website and blog. It has been already one year that I posted my first blog: How the Search for Tree Spirits Started. I am starting now the third year of my PhD studies in environmental studies at Nagoya University in Japan and reflecting a bit what I learned in the last year, in Japan, but also during my two visits to Norway and Belgium. A bit more than one year ago, during a visit to my parents in Belgium, I learned about forest and nature therapy, about shin-rin yoku and felt this sudden click. This is it. Before my return to Japan, I visited London with a friend and also bought some books in Treadwell’s about sacred trees, tree alphabet and druids, which helped me to learn more about especially trees and the culture practices and relationship my ancestors had with them. In another bookstore in London, I found this amazing book “Around the World in 80 Trees“, in which expert Jonathan Drori uses plant science to illuminate how trees play a role in every part of human life, from the romantic to the regrettable. Packed with these books I returned to Japan around autumn equinox.
As a sustainability scientist, I read everyday about evidence about social and environmental issues and the treats that are coming. I know some effects come with a delay and it makes me anxious to know that the “worst is yet to come”. Sometimes I am happy I do not have children (yet), because I know the future will be tough. It makes me depressed. I think that is one reason why I did not spend that much care to myself in the last year(s), as you could read in this blog: Fireworks, Bamboo and the Height of Japanese Summer
But in the end last summer, I decided to transform the challenges into opportunities, and look more in practices and ideas which are about healing the relationships in our ecosystems. Actually some ideas I already know, because I encountered many inspiring people and did a full course in permaculture some years ago, but it did not take root in me. I was writing already stories about dryads and collecting legends about tree spirits for already some years. I also wrote a blog about Thai legends about tree spirits: Why do Thai Tree Spirits like Red Fanta ?
But the ideas were just used for fiction, not in my real life. In the last year, I looked for a balance between spending time in ‘depressive’ science and ‘uplifting’ therapy; and it helped me to get more energy to do more in the first. I got more creative, and people are asking me the whole time how I get all the ideas. Actually, many sustainability scientists do not spend that much time in the environment, but stay in laboratoriums and offices in the city. It is a bit ironic, because by actually spending more time with nature, my love became even deeper and I got more motivated; understood more why I am studying and working in the sustainability field. Before, people spent more time in nature; there were also more festivities and holidays to celebrate this relationship (more holidays than Belgians have), and I believe it is good to spend time, to restore or strengthen this reciprocal relationship.
In the end of December I decided to visit an old friend in Norway. Since I was a child I am fascinated by the folklore and culture Norwegians have. In Belgium, a lot of indigenous knowledge is lost, partly because of the Inquisition of the Church in earlier centuries, but when you go more to the north in Europe, where the Inquisition has less influence, you find many practices. It was my second trip to Norway and I realised again how much I love this place. This trip taught me a lot, partly because my friend also was very happy to share stories, his insights about living in nature and teach me some skills (or let me remember old skills that my grandfather who lived in the Belgian countryside taught me once). I wrote also some blog about winter time in Norway: Norway Spruce, a story about Shaman Claus, mushrooms and fire. Our old friendship transformed into more.
I returned to Japan. Spring came. “Holly” Devil, it’s Spring again! My family came to visit me in Japan. I am halfway my Japan adventure. The cherry blossoms reminded me again how life is so fragile. One year earlier, I lost a very close friend. He was 25. That period, some friends asked me to also write a text about his loss and I let me inspire by the cherry blossoms.
I returned also to Norway for two weeks, when it was almost Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime I was the guest of my boyfriend in his house. It was still winter, and I liked to work inside his house at writing an academic article, where I had no wifi, drinking hot tea and fuelling the stove with Norwegian Birch Bark. In his free time, he took me on road trips to remote places in nature and do little snow hikes with him.
However, the new semester was starting in Japan, and I had teaching assistant responsibilities. Also, two weeks after my return, an old friend from Belgium would arrive and we planned a trip of 6 days to Okinawa together. Okinawa: from its longevity secrets to mischievous tree trolls. After this trip, my relationship with my boyfriend ended, and we became back friends. It was difficult, but the best for us both. For instance, I learned actually that a long distance (and even intercontinental relationship with 7 or 8 hour time difference was not my cup of tea). I found healing by going hiking the lower mountains of Japan a lot. Also, our friendship was so strong that we were still communicating a lot, about Norway, Japan, and other things. He helped me to learn more about the sacred trees in the gardens of Norwegians and Swedish: Sacred “Garden” trees of Norway and Sweden I still believe he is a great, beautiful man, and am very grateful for all experiences we have, as friends and the short time also as boyfriend and girlfriend.
We explored Hokkaido together, and because of him I was confident enough to climb my first Japan’s high mountain and go camping in a national park. After a steep descend on a snow slope (where I cursed a lot), I thanked him as he guided me through, but he said with a little smile: “Why do you thank me? You did it all yourself.” It was also interesting to talk with him about Hokkaido’s indigenous people and compare a bit with the Saami in Scandinavic countries: Birch cake and the colonization of Hokkaido’s nature and Ainu
He also joined the aforementioned expedition to the forest therapy base. During our travel in Japan we talked a lot about this split between nature and the rest, about how people try to control and make all nature accessible to everyone, but also making it too easy for people who do not have respect for their limits or that of nature. Forest therapy is a nice treatment, but it is pity that nature is not more part in the lives of city dwellers. In Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath I shared some of these insights.
He left around summer solstice and we also decided to give each other more space. He was going to prepare to climb Mont Blanc and Matterhorn (spoiler: he succeeded). I needed to focus on writing a Flemish local science fiction roman, where rescued wood, maker’s culture, furniture and retrofitting old wooden houses were central. I draw a lot of inspiration from my own PhD, and all the interesting people I met in Japan, but also from my bestie. Sometimes I feel he became an important part of my life this year, because I had to remind again how valuable making things, being in nature is, and teach me some skills necessary for my comfort. Because of him, I read this book “Norwegian Wood” by Lars Mytting and got more inspiration for the project. This book project, together with my PhD, occupied my whole summer (and the launch is planned for November 23rd). But I also found time to experience and guide people in the forests and mountains. I find a lot of joy in forest therapy activities – which is also about pleasure and sensuality- while the raw therapy of the mountains confronted me with some fears and my own limits: Forests, Mountains and other therapists.
Early September, I left Japan for USA to start my training in forest and nature therapy. It was a great experience and when I am back from USA I will write about this. Now I am relaxing in the house of a Belgian friend in USA. In one week I will continue the travel to Belgium, for the book launch and some data collection for my PhD research, but also for meeting friends and family.
In the end of November I return to Japan, for the last 10 months. Expect in the coming months more blogs about USA and Belgium (I found out there is a forest in Belgium with wooden trolls which I will definitely visit and write an article about). I am also curious what I will learn, which new persons I will meet, or with which old friends I will get (re)connected and what I will learn from them.
But today, during this autumn equinox, I like focus on the now and be grateful for all the lessons and experiences, and also for all the blogs I could share in the last year with the readers of the Wood Wide Web Stories. Thank you for reading, re-blogging, commenting and sharing. Up to another year of blogging! Dankuwel :).
After Summer solstice (and my bestie from Norway left), the weather changed very dramatically in Nagoya, Japan. In the last week of June, I felt myself suffocating in the evenings. The temperature and humidity started to drop. And the noisy cicadas came and reminded us all “summer is here, take your salt tablets and stay cool”. In the end of July, it got worse. the news make the shift from 梅雨 (rainy season) to 夏本番 (height of summer) officially. Last weeks were then also filled with dealing with the heat (and humidity). Last year, I stayed inside, ate fastfood and gained quite some weight. Last summer, a friend even told me to watch out for my health, and I also realised that the weight gain and staying inside was a manifestation of some depressed thoughts I had that first year. This summer I took another way. In the second half of August last year, my focus toward health, forest therapy started (which is no surprise, according to my yoga teacher, because then it’s season of Virgo, and time for self-care and health), so now I harvest actually the fruits of one year taking more care of my relationship with myself and nature. I did not only get back the weight before I let myself go in my first year in Japan, but I have back the weight of 8 years ago, when I was a wild child exploring the Himalaya.
In this blog I want to talk about summer, the season of fire, or in Japan, also the season of fireworks (which have a shintoism origin) and bamboo. Let’s first start talking about bamboo. This unique fast-growing grass can teach us a lot about sustainability, as a renewable and natural material, but as a guide about how to deal with shocks and surprises, like the new summer temperature records that are (unfortunately) getting the normal.
Bamboo and sustainability
Some weeks ago I wondered… something I do not understand is why bamboo is not used so widely in Japan as a construction material while some species are called “vegan steel” and can withstand heavy earthquakes (at least better than not-reinforced concrete). And as usual, social media can read your thoughts, and some days later, an article called “Bamboo is everywhere, but how sustainable is it?” The takeaway of this article is:
“Bamboo is a super unique plant that has the potential to be used in many industries to lower impact. But, as with any other material, it needs to be grown and harvested responsibly in order to be truly sustainable.”
A sustainability expert from Mexico also told me why bamboo should not be considered as a sustainable construction material:
It is alien to many ecosystems. Bamboo is a living being, and its worldwide usage will entail its transportation from distant places or its introduction in local ecosystems for exploitation. Both have an ecological impact which needs to be thoroughly considered. Its utilization needs to be contrasted with such impact, as well as if it does indeed successfully replace the traditional materials qualities, or not. It is endangered in its native ecosystems. Bamboo forests are dwindling, probably not out of its utilization as a building material, but this should be a red flag on the critical analysis of Bamboo in construction.
Structural resistance is not the only thing that matters. Thermal comfort, impermeability, and fire resistance, and local availability are very important factors when choosing materials. I will use the example of Adobe as I mentioned before and compare it to bamboo. Under the scorching Mexican sun, the heat is unbearable, sometimes shadows are not enough.
Adobe is a great thermal isolator, it keeps the warmth out or in, depending on the season. In order to build with adobe, it is combined with a certain kind of cane “cañamo”, whose replacement with bamboo would hardly have an impact. Adobe is earth, which is quite available in Mexico, and although it entails the use of water, it is not much. In this specific case, I deem adobe and cañamo better materials than bamboo. Adobe is fire resistant and last very long time, some rural houses made of adobe in Mexico date from the late XVIII. This is a short and incomplete example of why I stress that bamboo is an interesting solution, but not everywhere, not for every material, and not for every social sector.
So… talking about thermal comfort…
Be like Bamboo during Japanese summers
Something I heard a lot is to be like “bamboo”, be flexible, adaptive and resilient. The summers in Japan are getting more terrible. It’s not the temperature, but the humidity makes this cocktail very dangerous. I read an article of a 28 year old Japanese guy that died after sunbathing. There will be more surprises and shocks, as we cross more and more tipping points of our ecosystem (of which the fires in Siberia, Alaska, Amazons are all warning signals). Therefore, policy makers should/do not only look into reducing the impact, but also invest in climate change adaptation strategies, and preferably strategies that combine reducing and adapting the climate change effects.
Being flexible is not only applicable to climate change. This month I had this very great talk with one of my PhD advisors about being a foreigner and doing a PhD in Japan. He also comes from another country and did his PhD in our lab. He told that after two years he was still very confused, sometimes frustrated… but then just accepted he could not know everything or be part of the hierarchical system. He said I was not there yet, in that phase of letting go so I can become more flexible as bamboo, and less “stubborn as an oak” (I am soon finishing my second year). He shared this with me, to let me realise it is ok to change opinions, views etc… When you I let go certain convictions and mental models I would have more fun. However, sometimes I wonder if I would not have more fun if I lived full time in the forest 😉
Fireworks in Japanese summer
Everyone who stayed long enough in Japan, knows about “hanabi” or the fireworks. Yesterday I got to experience something real “unique Japanese” that even most Japanese or foreigners cannot experience . Friends arranged press seats to a “handmade bamboo firework festival” in Toyokawa (Aichi prefecture, one hour driving from Nagoya), because they know the people that make and do the stunt with the handmade firework. We had to sign safety declaration, got a traditional jumper et. Some people in the audience took photographs of me and thought I was also a performer. There were thousands of people, but we got place in front.
It was impressive. I had a lot of fun. Later, at a local afterparty, one of the former firework makers told me about the origins of this festival. He asked me if I know shintoism. In earlier times, Japanese were scared of nature (it reminds me to the fear Norwegians had for the forest, and lead to the belief of creatures like trolls and other spirits). To show respect, they hold rituals, of which some of them were about sacrifice.
What they do, has a lot of risk. Your heart is pounding when you are holding the handmade firework, because of it is full of gun powder. It can go wrong and explode, but happily that did not happen this edition. Later, some of them showed me their wounds on their arms and collarbones. “It is actually a bit crazy, when you think about it,” said one of them too me.
They explained me also how they made it. One month before, they cut the bamboo and “sand” it so it is smooth (which is necessary for safety). The ropes and the gunpowder have to be bought, and a professional guides them how to put the gunpowder in it. I am now more and more in a phase I want to learn how to make, fix and repair things, so I kind of said I was interested to join them next summer. That would be an epic closure of my three year long Japanese chapter.
We will see what happens. Life is full of surprises and shocks, and I will respond to what happens. I try not to plan ahead too much. Maybe be more like fire. That is the element of following your gut feeling, of energy, of doing. However, now summer is almost finishing. The Oak king’s power is fading away and my favourite season is arriving soon; autumn, where you harvest and be grateful for all the hard work, and where the colours swirl around you.
Once upon a time, Japanese society was more a forest civilisation than nowadays. People used the wood to build castles, temples and houses, or made bowls, cutlery and furniture. Today, most Japanese no longer live in castle towns and cities surrounded by forests, but in megacities such as Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya. As a result, they no longer come into contact with the roots of their culture and nature. Especially in Tokyo, the overcrowded daily life is also a headache for millions of people.
Some have probably already seen videos about the overcrowded trains and subways, in which pushers with white gloves push the last passengers into a wagon. The Japanese call this the commuter hell or ‘tsukin jigokin’. There’s also ‘karoshi’, which means overwork suicide.
I myself also wrestle with this culture of many working hours. I only try to work for forty hours, but I also feel feelings of guilt when I leave the laboratory at seven o’clock and see that my colleagues are still at work. Most of my Japanese friends work seventy hours a week.
Japanese companies also do not indicate all hours, such as transport from the company to an assignment on the field, otherwise the statistics of overtime would be a bit too high. Since 2014, the government has been trying to change this by means of a law, but the Japanese are not getting the highest points for quick changes. What I also hear, as excuse from workers itself, is that overwork happens because to to lacking skills from their side, being “not trained” enough and need to be more familiar with the job, or because they think they are irreplaceable and cannot let their company down. Japanese people are very bad in “resting” or “quitting”, even if something seems it is not good. According to some scholars, it’s in their “culture”. There is even a story that when it was clear they would not won the second world war but they did not surrendered, a high positioned man said with a big sigh: “We do not know how to quit.”
Aokigahara is the most ‘popular’ place in Japan to commit suicide. The day before I organised the forest therapy expedition, I visited this forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, with my Norwegian and a Thai friend. Because of the volcanic soil the trees have a very strange shape, which looks like they can walk.
Along the way, we saw that someone had put a package of flowers on a rock. We stopped for a while and wondered. The site’s popularity for suicide has been attributed to Seichō Matsumoto’s 1961 novel Nami no Tō (Tower of Waves). However, the history of suicide in Aokigahara predates the novel’s publication, and the place has long been associated with death; ubasute may have been practiced there into the nineteenth century: elderly were carried in the woods to die here, a more cruel version of euthanasia. Although they do not publish numbers of how many people die here every year to stop the association with suicide (and discourage), the last recordings say they find here annually 100-200 people.
After I told the guesthouse owner that I am into forest therapy, he recommended me to visit Aokigahara. He told me that this forest is very enchanting and a walk can be very therapeutic. I was a bit surprised, because I knew this forest already, as the suicide forest, and also I have been there 2,5 years ago, during my first holiday to Japan, with my brother. Actually, my first novel (sorry, only in Dutch, will be released in couple of months), starts in Aokigahara and is based on my first visit back in the winter of 2016-2017. I still remember my brother and I had not a good feeling about this forest. There was almost no sound when we stopped walking and listened. It was very eerie and we were both sensitive to the negative energy around us. Hence, my brother and I decided to leave the forest as soon as possible.
Memories and constant change
This second time was different. Maybe because I was there with a Norwegian guy who is very cynical about these kind of things. Maybe because I was in another phase of my life. In forest therapy, not the “guide” but the forest is seen as the therapist. Often, when we look for flows in nature, to synchronise with our own flows in our body, like our blood pulse, we look into a mirror. 2,5 years ago I was still new to Asia, but now it is already 3 years ago I live (most of the time) in Asia. I found a lot of time to develop myself and deal with my anxieties. I notice it in the way how I cope with failure, broken hearts, constant changes in spaces, apartments, job projects and people around me. It is different than some years ago. Or let me quote the brilliant Hannah Arendt :
“Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time”
We walked for like 40 minutes and did not exchange many words. It was raining a bit, and I also wanted some time to think and actually find strengths and arguments to enhance my resilience. As I mentioned before, I still feel guilty that I “do not do more” in the domain of work, about actually that I have a more healthy work-life balance than most of my colleagues here. But walking here, and reflecting upon what dark things these trees have witnessed, reaffirmed that being enough time in nature is good for us.
Later, during the walk, it seemed my Norwegian friend and I were observing the same things. I had taken a pictures of birch wood that looked like they were chopped and put next to the road to rot there. Only birchwood. Later I wrote it down in my journal: It seemed all birch trees where the ones who died first. What got them killed? Why birch trees? I took also a photo, because I want to remind myself to figure out why this was the case.
I had not noticed that 2,5 years ago, but then I also did not know the title of my book was going to be “Berkensap” (In English: Birch Water). My Norwegian friend asked me if there was a Japanese custom about birchwood. Norwegians, especially rural woodsmen like him, do have a cultural connection with birch, but yes, I had to disappoint him. Afterwards I did a short search on the internet, but the search was fruitless. If you know the reason why, please let me know in a comment.
The forest has an historical reputation as a home to yūrei: ghosts of the dead in Japanese mythology. Like wisps, they lure passers-by off the path. Because of the magnetic bottom your compass doesn’t work and the density of the trees, passengers can easily get lost. My Thai friend comes also from a culture where spirits inhabit their horror stories and folklore (read this blog about Thailand for more insights), but before we entered the forest, she was not scared. Her comment:
“The ghosts talk Japanese, so it is ok. I do not understand them.”
Several weeks ago I experienced a first forest bath in one of the 62 certified forest therapy bases in Japan. You can read and see photographs in this blog: Forest therapy Taking Root. What I did not mention, was that we were… not alone.
Two days before, the facility staff of the center told us to wear long sleeves, long pants and long socks that can cover the bottoms of the pants … because there will be hill worms that suck blood. It sounds more horrible than it was. In the end, the stress hormones of most participants decreased, despite the presence of these animals. You could also see who were the city dwellers and who were more used to bugs. I also brought one of my best friends. He comes from another large forest civilization like Japan, but with a much lower population density. He was showing me as a happy child on discovery every time a worm on the top of his umbrella or shoe, while others around us were removing the worms of their shoes with sticks, as if it was a curse.
Actually, later I realised; when I reflected more with my Norwegian friend and one of the two Japanese forest therapy guides; that the worms are actually a good departure point to talk about “human control of nature”.
For a Flemish person it is striking that Japan is a real forest civilization. Even though the Japanese are twelve times as many as the Belgians, the population density is about the same. However, our country is not even 20% forested, while Japan is two-thirds forested. It may be one of the most populous countries in the world, but Japan is also one of the greenest, with a great diversity of trees. One of my research projects also regularly takes me to the countryside north of Nagoya, where I learned more about the fragrant cypress trees and forest culture and management from local experts over the past year and a half. My own professor is also interested in a “lignification” of the Japanese cities. Environmental egineers here talk about carbon storage and absorption of young trees, about the effect of trees in cities on thermal comfort and the subjective perception of temperature, the regulation of water management, reducing risk for landslides and erosion and other things. Forests are so important, and although I focus here mostly on cultural values and effects on mental health, as an environmental scientist I can give so many reasons why it is also good for the planetary health (and also for us). Trees are also central to Shintoism, their indigenous religion, and you often see how much respect they have for all their nature.
Since the 17th century there have been strict regulations on forestry and forest management. In the times of the samurai these were so strict that if you cut down certain trees in the Kiso valley (north of Nagoya) you even risked the death penalty. “A head for each felled tree, an arm for a broken branch,” that was the punishment. These trees were destined for the houses and temples of powerful families, or Buddha statues.
On the other hand, when I moved to Japan, I thought I would learn a lot about sustainable practices in environment, but how longer I am in Japan, how more confused I am. My Norwegian friend had also similar confused feelings as I had two years ago, and we found ourselves talking a lot about control of nature (and princess Mononoke).
Norwegian Outdoors vs Japanese forest bathing
In Norway it is quite normal to spend a lot of time in nature. My Norwegian friend explained to me that as early as the 19th century the urban working class in his country was encouraged to take the train to the woods every Sunday because, like the Japanese, they also had that intuitive knowledge that living in nature is good for you. But he was also a bit sceptical about all rules and procedures (for which Japanese are known) and did not like it that we were in a big group of more than 20. He is the kind of guy that enjoys the woods in silence, preferably alone. I have to agree that I also enjoy being in the forest on my own, or with people that make me feel comfortable. There is a poem of Mary Oliver which explains forest bathing how he and I enjoy it the most:
During his flight to Japan, an article in the Norwegian media about the trend of forest baths also caught his attention. The Norwegian journalist thought that forest baths meant “simply swimming in a lake”. After my explanation he already said that he already automatically takes forest bathes every week.
“But do you open all your five senses?” I asked him, because I knew from experience that he had a rather high walking pace, and when it comes to forest baths, it’s all about moving through a forest as slowly and consciously as possible.
“Yes, it’s normal for us to touch leaves, rest our backs against a tree, smell pine needles and so on… I just do not need rules like the Japanese do. ”
Why especially City dwellers should take forest baths
He did admit that forest baths are effective for urban dwellers, and that the role of nature people like him and me is to get city dwellers into the wild every week. He is pleased that Japanese city dwellers travel to the forest every week, but he also shared reflections on nature conservation and how sorry he thought it was that many places were too easily accessible for many people. He noted that too many mountains in Japan had a cable car. That day, he and I had been traveling for two weeks and did a lot of hiking, trekking and camping; from Hokkaido’s national parks to Mt Fuji. Many times he had remarked how much Japanese try “to control the mountain to make it accessible for everyone”.
He understood that access to nature must be a human right. “But not all nature should be accessible for everyone, because some places are dangerous for people who think they can climb a mountain with sandals, or who don’t realize that they need a guide or know what should be in a day backpack. This results in blogs which say that for example Mt Fuji is tough. But Mt Fuji was not a difficult mountain at all. Now I understood they just were not in good shape and, or they did not bring the right gear, because they do not take the effort to get some outdoor skills and knowledge.”
We agreed that being nature is about understanding limits. Not only of ourselves, but also of nature. We have to respect that every place has a carrying capacity, and we have to not underestimate ourselves, especially in nature.
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.
This animation movie inspired me so many years ago to visit Japan, and stay there for some time, to reflect about the relationship between nature and culture, the impact of civil and environmental engineering. For me, I got maybe too excited about these worms, or curse spirits, but partly because it closes a circle for me.
I met the worms. I saw in the past two years very confusing images of infrastructure that let me wonder… why do we keep building (especially in a country which society is shrinking?). I know jobs have to be created, that accessibility is a human right … but sometimes it is good to rest.