Tag Archives: Novel

Changing the Stories We Live By #2: The Forest Sees You.

In the past weeks I am studying forest therapy and ecolinguistics, as part of my journey these days which I can call the Way of the Guide, but also to see if the Flemish circular economy fiction book I am writing is not reproducing the hierarchical system that is letting some people exploit other beings (including other humans).

During a forest bath in Colorado’s Rockies

We can share knowledge, but as long people believe some stories are fixed (like that people are selfish and greedy) this knowledge will not turn into action. Therefore it is important to think about the impact of the (hidden) stories we create and share.

One example is to acknowledge the more-than-human-world and recognize that we, as most humans, can witness, but that we can also be witnessed, not only by humans but also by other beings. Instead of writing “she passes a tree” I wrote “the tree saw her walking”. Did you see what I did there? I changed the interaction between the she-character and a tree and made the tree more “alive”, which it is. But often in stories trees and other beings are depicted as “dead materials” or “objects”.

During the forest therapy guide training I heard the guides/ trainers also use sentences like “the forest sees you”. I think it powerful and that it feels very true. It fueled my confidence to even use these kind of “descriptions” more in the stories I write.

Although I am not Latina and do not have magical realism running through my veins, I also decided to introduce a doll as a character that communicates and influences the thinking and behavior of my main character.

Writing this down, I wonder if Latin-American magical realists are already better ecolinguists than so called “western” writers. Feel invited to share your ideas and stories 😉

To access a free online course about ecolinguistics: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

One Year of Wood Wide Web Stories

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.

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That lead to my first experiences with DIY Forest Therapy 森林浴, and 9 months later let me organise a group expedition to one of the Japanese certified forest therapy base camps, of which Forest Therapy Taking Root is a report.

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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 ?

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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.

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In November I got some blues, and I decided to not stay, but tae a break from city life and explore the beautiful colours of autumn in the Japanese nature. Vitamin Ginkgo for your November Depression. Also, after a visit to Japan’s most famous spot for suicide, it became again clear why we should spend more time with ourselves in nature, or with family, and less in work. What did a visit to Japan’s suicide forest teach me about forest therapy?

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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 10.59.41 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.

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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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 11.11.04However, 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.

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In June he came also to Japan, for 3 weeks, but as my bestie. First, I took him for a day hike to Nakansendo and realised that we do not always need ‘new’ spaces to experience something new: Nakansendo’s whispers – or different interpretations of Silence

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

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At the summit of Hokkaido’s highest mountain and volcano (2291m).

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.

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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.

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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 :). 

Changing the Stories We Live by #1: Appreciating Rain

Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories that individuals or nations live by and you change the individuals and nations themselves (Ben Okri).

A friend recommended me the free on-line course Ecolinguistics, which you can access here: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk – and I totally love it. As someone who studied storytelling and environment, and thinks about language often (I come from Belgium which has three official language and work in a multilingual team in quite monolingual Japan) , this course helped me to understand even more how storytelling can be a tool to bring change.

As the website describes, this course tells …

how the everyday language used in society encodes particular ways of seeing the world: the stories we live by. It defines ecolinguistics in terms of these stories, as an active form of research that aims to reveal the stories we live by, question them from an ecological perspective, and contribute to the search for new stories to live by.

I read the course in 2-3 hours, so it is not a lot of material you have to digest. After the introduction, the course explains eight different sorts of stories. In this blog I want to talk briefly about the story of “evaluation”, which are …

Stories in people’s minds about whether an area of life is good or bad.

I recommend to visit the website and read (and watch) the whole course. But let me explain evaluation with the example of rain.

I enjoy rain a lot. Some weeks ago I said to someone too I liked some clouds during the hikes, because I would not get sunburned, cannot deal the hot temperature, and it hinders the sun of casting strong shadows which do not look nice on your photographs. I also love the smell of nature after rain and how the colors also become sharper. I feel I also get more energized and that my face gets “cleansed” when I walk in some more rainy weather. Some friends did not look to rainy or cloudy days like this. However, when you analyse western advertisement of travel agencies, you see they use the story that “sunny weather is good weather”. They try to convince us to only love sunny weather and take a flight (preferably arranged by the mentioned travel agency) to escape “gloomy weather” to enjoy sunshine holidays.

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I took the photo during a visit at one of the forest therapy bases in Japan, when there was a bit of rain

What I like about Japan is the appreciation for “ordinary” nature, which is an idea you can find back in the legendary haiku poems. When I read the explanation of how haiku is actually a good example of “evaluation” from an ecolinguistics perspective, I was nodding a lot and realizing that Japanese art and the appreciation of all four seasons was something that I really loved about living here. I remembered that rain was also nice weather. Actually all weather is nice.

Hence, I agree with these 5 haiku poets, that there is a lot of beauty, joy and wisdom to be found in rain too.

夜はうれしく/昼は静かや/春の雨
Joyful at night / tranquil during the day / spring rain (Chora).

五月雨/ある夜ひそかに/松の月
Summer rains / secretly one evening / moon in the pines (Ryōta).

春なれや/名もなき山の/朝霞
Spring is here / morning mist / on a nameless mountain (Bashō).

梅の樹の/かたちづくりす/初時雨
Sculpting the shape / of the plum tree / first winter rain (Kitō).

三たびないて/聞こえずなりぬ/雨の鹿
Calling three times / then no more to be heard / the deer in the rain (Buson).

I got these five haiku translations from an online course in ecolinguistics, part 5: evaluations. In the next months, I will share some more blogs about ecolinguistics. I feel as a forest therapy guide that ecolinguistics and storytelling could be tool for the activism to improve, or even restore, the relationship between the nature in us and outside our bodies.

What did a visit to Japan’s suicide forest teach me about forest therapy?

Unbalanced society

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.

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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.”

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Suicide Forest

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.

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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.

Forest therapy

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.

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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.

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Birch wood

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.

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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.

Ghost stories

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.”  

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Parts of this blog come from my article for a Belgian magazine. I translated and adapted them: https://www.mo.be/zeronaut/bosbaden-op-samoeraipaden