Can Hole Diggers and Acorn Gatherers Save the Earth?

It takes patience to save the earth.  It’s not glamorous, and most times its downright dull.

Japan’s Tree Guru, Akira Miyawaki.

Back in 1958, a young Japanese researcher working on a German nature preserve complained to his mentor about the tedium. His words fell on unsympathetic ears, and he was firmly instructed to dig more holes. The researcher, Akira Miyawaki, is now referred to as Japan’s “tree guru”; well into his 80’s, he is currently heading the project to redesign the coastline of the city of Sendai (Miyagi Prefecture), creating a forest-covered embankment to protect the heart of the city from future tsunamis. He’s developed a new theory of forestry that bears his name, travelled the globe (visited 17,000 places, according to one estimate), and single-handedly planted 40 million trees. Yet he got his start studying the humble weed (majored in “Weed Ecology” at Hiroshima University), and digging holes in Germany….for two long years.

So what was all the hole digging about?  Basically, it was about studying the soil of the nature preserve, which was actually a non-productive wasteland at the time, searching for

Luneburg Heath Wildlife Park in Germany, where Miyawaki got his start digging holes (photo by Micheal Gabler, 2012).

clues. What was the forest like in its original state, hundreds of years ago?  What traces remained of the flourishing ecosystem that had once existed?  Miyawaki slogged on digging his holes, testing the soil, recording his findings, and beginning to understand nature in a new way.  He learned that, with patience, what man has destroyed can be rediscovered and reconstructed.  To be more specific: careful study of damaged environments reveals much about the ecosystem as it once was.  It is possible to then “re-generate” the area’s natural vegetation by planting a mixture of the same species that existed in the past, which are perfectly suited to the soil and climate of the area.  No longer absorbed by weeds, the young researcher became obsessed with re-creating entire forests.

Armed with his new ideas, Miyawaki returned to Japan from Germany.  To his dismay, he was promptly ignored.  This was Japan in the 1960’s, and business was booming.  No-one was interested in saving the environment, the forest, or even a single tree.  With no audience for his research, the Weed-Man-turned-Tree-Guru went back to slogging away on his own.  He began walking across the country compiling data, making vegetation maps,

Example of what Miyawaki-san considers a “fake” forest: all trees same height, same species, carefully pruned, and ramrod straight (taken here in Hadano City).

and maps of potential new forests based on former species that had once flourished.  Very few remnants of Japan’s ancient forests existed, as most had either burned, or been converted to arable land or real estate.  What remained were manmade forests (“fakes” as he referred to them) , often consisting of only one or two species and thus lacking in biodiversity.  Methodically, he studied the forests as he had in Germany, testing the soil and searching for clues as to what trees had once flourished in these areas.  He kept at it for ten years.

At last, in the early 70’s, the realization that Japan’s natural environment was in dire straits began to set in.  Suddenly, Miyawaki was “popular”, and his idea for creating “authentic” forests of densely planted species indigenous to their environment was given a name: the Miyawaki Method.  Miyawaki advocated planting a mixture of appropriate species at random, which would ultimately result in forests with trees of tall, medium, and low height, serving as barriers to both fire and flood, and supporting a diversity of plant and animal life.  These native trees would be rooted deeply and firmly in the soil, thus preventing erosion.  Weeding and management would be required for the first three years, but thereafter the forests would fend for themselves and

Remnant of one of Japan’s fast-disappearing ancient forests, the “authentic” kind. Miyawaki estimated that only .06 % of Japan’s sacred groves are still in existence (photo of forest on Yakushima).

continue to flourish.  These forests would be known as multi-layer “community forests”, and serve as havens of biodiversity.  The first such forest in Japan was created in 1971, through the joint efforts of local residents who gathered acorns, grew trees from seedlings, and held a ceremony to mark the planting of the seedlings.  Their efforts  eventually resulted in a spacious forest boasting a canopy of over twenty meters in height.

Miyawaki went on to organize and oversee the planting of many more “authentic” forests, both in Japan and abroad.  He became a noted scholar and director of the Japan Center for International Studies in Ecology, and is currently Professor Emeritus at Yokohama University, as well as a recipient of the Blue Planet Prize for environmental conservation.  A quick Google search reveals photos of a small man with a twinkle in his eye and a good-humored grin, planting seedlings in China, Malaysia, Borneo, Kenya and other countries desperate to restore health to land damaged by industrialization.  He was, in fact, abroad in Indonesia when the Great East Japan Quake struck. Deeply disturbed by the tsunami coverage of coastal destruction, he rushed back to his own country to put his expertise to work in Northern Japan.

Miyawaki arrived in Tohoku shortly after the quake, and was dismayed to realize that

A full year after the tsunami, uprooted pine trees still littered the shores of Rikuzentakata.

entire forests had been swept away by the tsunami.  These forests bordering the shoreline were largely made up of pine trees, whose roots had not penetrated deep into the sandy shore; they were uprooted in their entirety, not only having failed to serve as tsunami barriers, but having caused secondary damage as they were washed inland.  Of course, the most famous of these coastal forests was in Rikuzentakata, where only a single pine remained standing in what was a grove of 70,000 trees which had been planted over two centuries before.

Wasting no time, Miyawaki and  Doryu Hioki, a Buddhist priest from Sendai’s Rinno Temple, began surveying the ravaged coastline of Miyagi.

The Tabunoki, or Machilus, flourishes throughout Japan. Its resilience was proven in last year’s tsunami

Their purpose?  A thorough assessment of the remaining trees along the shore, to discover which species had stood firm and provided protection from the force of the tsunami, and which species were unable to withstand the raging waters. After touring several of the most severely damaged areas,  Miyawaki and Doryu were encouraged to note “green walls” of Tabunoki (Machilus) which remained standing.  Houses directly behind the thick-bodied, pliant, firmly-rooted trees were also standing.  In one case, a Tabunoki remained standing, its roots partly exposed, although most of the surrounding soil had been washed away.  Clearly, the Tabunoki would be central in the reconstruction of Sendai’s coastline, and Miyawaki’s plan for a Green Tide Embankment began to take shape.

Miyawaki’s project, an “authentic forest of life”, will serve as a memorial to lives lost and as a symbol of new beginnings.  The forest will be planted over a mound, in which processed debris from the quake and tsunami will be buried.  The mound will form an embankment stretching along the coastline, protecting human lives and property and weakening the force of future tsunamis.  Tabunoki will be the main species, supported by other native species of varying heights.  After the first three years, the forest will not need tending, and will continue to flourish for…..9,000 years!  Now that’s smart long-term planning.  The forest will come to fruition through the efforts of ordinary citizens, who have been gathering seeds from the Tabunoki, planting them, and tending to the seedlings.  Private enterprises and NPOs will fund the project.  Miyawaki’s goal?  To transform the coast of Sendai into an authentic forest of 40 million trees within 20 years.

Long ago, Japan’s forests were sacred places, dedicated to the gods and protected from

Shinto ropes mark this tree as part of a “sacred grove”. (photo by Ray Kinnane)

destruction by unspoken taboos.  Spirits dwelled in the rocks, plants, and trees, and men were forbidden to intrude.  Even today, my friend Misao only cuts trees from the forest on a certain day of the year (in February), when it is said that the spirits will not be angered.  These days, sacred groves such as those made famous in Miyazaki Hayao’s  “Mononoke Hime” are nearly extinct.  Forests are man-made rather than “authentic”; they are vulnerable to disaster, and are no longer sacred.  One could  say that the image of the sacred grove has been further profaned since last March, when the forests of Tohoku were poisoned by cesium.  Men dare not enter these forests, children are forbidden to play in them, and their bounty goes unharvested.  Miyawaki Akira dreams of creating new sacred groves in Japan, and has dedicated his life to this end.  In his own words, “Forests are life itself. Humans have survived until today supported by forests. The life for surviving tomorrow begins with creating true ‘forests of life’ by planting trees today.”

Miyawaki Akira and other respected and knowledgable figures such as C.W. Nichol have made significant progress in repairing the damage done to the environment due to a combination of greed, thoughtlessness, and lack of vision.  They have also become popular and well-loved educators, spreading their message of conservation and care to Japanese

Japanese citizens protesting on June 15th, outside the Prime Minister’s headquarters in Kasumigaseki.

citizens and foreigners living in Asia as well.  As long as the Japanese government insists on following a nuclear agenda, their entire life’s work is at risk.  I am deeply saddened and disappointed at Prime Minister Noda’s announcement that the Oi Nuclear Power Plant will re-start two of its reactors this summer, in spite of citizen protests, lack of proper and timely safety precautions, continued delay in establishing a nuclear watchdog committee free from inside influence, and new and irrefutable evidence of large quakes yet to come. While the nuclear industry and the central government think ahead as far as September, risking everything on the fallacy that they have made adequate preparations to withstand anything that might befall from hereon in (my guess is that no-one believes this now) , Miyawaki and other unsung heros are thinking in terms of thousands of years.  They fight the good fight to preserve the earth, which is the true source of our life and nourishment.  As Rinno Temple priest Doryu Hioki states in the video below,

“Until now, it has been considered right to change and adapt nature for human convenience using power and technology.  The Great East Japan Earthquake taught us this lesson: Science and technology are not meant to control nature, but to be used as pieces of wisdom making it possible for us to coexist with nature…..Now is a turning point of history. We have to shift from the age when materialism was central to an age where every life and soul will be loved tenderly. The Green Tide Embankment that protects life is a wisdom for living with nature.”

It is my hope that my children and grandchildren will be able to visit, or even live near, one of the new authentic forests being created.  As their generation will be responsible for the decommissioning of Japan’s remaining nuclear power plants and finding a storage solution for decades of accumulated nuclear waste products, it does not seem too much to hope that they might also enjoy the benefits of the forest as well.  I hope against hope that the Green Tide Embankment and other similar projects come to fruition.  Take a look at the video, and see what comes of patiently digging holes and gathering acorns.


3 thoughts on “Can Hole Diggers and Acorn Gatherers Save the Earth?

  1. Intersting posts! I love the way you use images in your layout — but I think your blog would benefit greatly from better hyphenation (to avoid the “ragged right” as text wraps around images).

    I’m not sure, but it appears you can “simply” install a plugin:

    (I have no idea how much of a technical inclination you have — personally I do (web)development for a living — but partly for that very reason — I stay away from wordpress — so I’m unsure how well (random) plugins match with (random) themes. YMMV).


    • Hmmmm…..I am not at all technically inclined, but I am concerned with the aesthetics of my blog posts. I’m not so pleased with the “ragged right”, but had no idea there was a possible solution. I will give the plugin a try this weekend, and see what comes of it. Thanks, again! I’m open to any other techie advice you might have as well….

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