Tag Archives: sustainability

Trolls in a magical forest in Belgium

A few months ago, I read you can find trolls in a magical forest in Belgium. Of course I looked up and read that Thomas Dambo, a Danish artist, made rolls with old palettes, recycled wood, fallen trees and branches – with the help of volunteers from the region. On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of Tomorrowland, a famous festival in and from Belgium. Of course this was on my to-visit-list as soon as I would be back in Belgium. Trolls, rescued wood and a forest setting… this is so… me.

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This week, when I came back from the “country of trolls” and had experienced also some forest bathing there, I had some time to go “hunting” for trolls in this Belgian forest with my dad. The place of the municipality is “Boom” and could be translated freely as “Tree.” The golden yellow birch leaves sparkled in the evening sun. I also noticed that we were not the only ones who went looking for the trolls on a late rainy Wednesday evening. It feels encouraging when you notice art full of magic and mysticism gets people to nature.

Apparently, Thomas Dambo has made trolls all over the world and calls himself a recycle art activist. Did you see Thomas’ trolls somewhere?

Here are some pictures to let you smile.

By coincidence, I heard later that a young man in my parents’ street is also a sort of recycling art activist who is building a viking construction in the same forest where I will organise a forest bath this weekend (topic for the next post!).

It feels almost serendipity that I am encountering so many art works inspired by Nordic culture and using rescued wood…

Perhaps, as my trainers and mentors of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) said in some way, … that from the moment you take the journey of the guide, and deepen your connection with the land, the other beings… that “the right things” come to you… the things which are meant to you.

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.

Fireworks, Bamboo and the Height of Japanese Summer

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.
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5 minutes walking from my home I took this photograph of this “grass”. 

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 😉

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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.

Wood weaving & forest bathing in Nagano, Japan

Last weekend, I co-organised a trilingual forest retreat weekend in Nagano, Japan I helped to organize. Yes, trilingual 😃. At some point I was mixing Japanese, Spanish and English 😅. On the program we had wood weaving, yoga, core tuning, hot bath (onsen) and the forest therapy session – which I guided. We stayed in a 200 year old wooden house. Japanese style in the countryside. It has an irori, a sunk fire pit in the wooden floor. In this blog I will share some impressions about wood weaving and forest bathing.

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This forest weekend retreat was hosted by the yoga studio Mind Body Space in Nagoya.

Wood weaving

Hinoki is one of the most elegant types of wood in Japan. This tree is a type of cypress that is considered sacred and only grows in this part of the world. Hinoki has been used since ancient times in Japan as a construction material to build temples and shrines and is considered as one of the 5 “forbidden woods” in the time of samurai. You could lose your hand or head if you cut down this wood. In other blogs I wrote (indirectly) about hinoki wood and the sustainable silviculture practices introduced by samurai in the 17th century:

It is not only the durability that makes this wood amazing. Yes, some constructions made from this wood are more than thousand years old, like the Horyuji temple, the oldest wooden structure in the world. What I like the most about hinoki, is the scent. Even after some years you can smell the scent. Another application is to make strips of it, and weave it according to some patterns into hats, baskets and other useful stuff. Last Saturday afternoon, somewhere in Tsumago (Nagano), with the help of patient professionals, we made coasters. It was quite therapeutic, to use your hands, and focus on the patterns for 1,5 hour.

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Forest bathing in a gorge

On Sunday morning it was my task to wake up everyone at 05.30 to do a silent walk next to the river. I asked them to leave their phones and cameras (but I took mine to take some photographs in the end, although I also felt difficulty in the beginning to not take my camera and look for “good pictures” instead of looking for the nature in myself).

First we sat in a circle at the entrance of a path, and I explained them some differences between Japanese forest bathing and western school of forest therapy. I told them that for me forest bathing is not the same as meditation, but more about finding pleasure. We will open up our senses to feel sensuality. I told them to listen -like elephants- and observe – as owls- for five minutes, and then to share one thing they  noticed and how it made them feel inside. After this exercise I asked them to be silent from the moment we will enter the forest. It felt like we entered one of the magical forests depicted in the Japanese popular anime movies from Miyazaki, like “My Neighbour Totoro”.

Some people expressed they felt very nostalgic to a connection they had with nature when they were a child. Someone admired the resilience of trees, even in a landslide we passed, and that she wants to be more like this. Another participant felt the suffer of a tree when she touched its trunk. Forest therapy is not always about getting “good feelings”. It is about restoring the relationship between nature outside us and the nature in ourselves. And then we see we have been bad to trees, rivers and nature. For me, forest bathing is also a way of environmental activism.

At 07.00am we were back in the 200 year old house where we stayed, to share corn tea from a Mexican friend who stayed behind to put away the futons and prepare the meal. After a breakfast, I hold a second session where the participants were invited to go back into nature and create art, like a collage of things they found, a haiku or a song. Our youngest participant made a haiku about how the moon and the stars became friends.

It was a beautiful weekend. I am grateful.

This is the poem I wrote during my own forest therapy:

When the sun invites the moon,

I hear the drums of the forest.

The colours start to dance to it’s swan song .

Shades hug trees and rocks like old lovers,

too busy during the day. Only time for an embrace,

when the sun invites the moon.

The colours fade away. My heart beat stops.

The moon arrives. A new journey begins.

I only breathe when I listen.

Interested to participate?

I will leave soon Japan for three months, for a training in Colorado and data collection and other projects in Belgium and Sweden.

However, in late autumn, when the trees in Kyoto color deep red, I will return and plan more moments of forest therapy. If you are in Central-Japan, and like to hang out with international company (trees and humans), send me a message of contact me through Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wereldwoude_verhalen/.

Ha en god dag! 

Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath

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.

 

Hill Worms

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.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

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”.

Forest civilisations

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.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

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:

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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. ”

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

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.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Princess Mononoke

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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Screenshot of the animation movie “princess Mononoke”

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.

What do you think?