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My Solitudes : Chapter Eleven : Forest in Spring : Excerpts

I make the trip from home to my campsite completely on foot, and for a bit of a change, I use a different route to get up into the woods. This particular path is very steep; I have to pause part-way up to catch my breath. Leaning my pack against a tree to support it for a minute, I look around the mountainside. This is a bit of an unusual place - it is a typical area of cultured cedar trees, as we see on all the mountains in this area, but this particular plantation is quite carefully maintained: the undergrowth has been cleared, the trees are well-trimmed, and they are well-spaced, with everything between the best trees having been culled. I suppose this is what all these mountainsides must have looked like a generation ago, but Japan has switched to using imported wood for most construction, and the forests are in decline. Further along today's walk, once I enter the forest proper, I will see many examples of what has become more typical - plantations abandoned and overgrown.

The route gradually becomes less steep as I get near the top, and it widens out into a more broad path, with side routes branching off at every change in the topography, and survey markers visible in the earth here and there, indicating the boundaries of each owner's property. The path is well-trodden and easy to navigate, but even at this time of day - early afternoon - it is still festooned with spider webs stretching between the bushes on each side. I am apparently the first person to pass along here today, and I suppose I will be the only one.

When I arrive near 'my' spot, I enjoy a tinge of homecoming feeling - it's good to be back here again! I step off the path and make my way through the underbrush to the place where I usually pitch the tent. It seems pretty much unchanged, but even so, I make the mandatory check for possibly dangerous branches overhead, and then start to clear away the detritus that has accumulated since last time I was here. There is a rotting branch right in the middle of the clear space; I know it couldn't have been here last time, because I would have kicked it away. But when I do so now, I disturb a million ants and grubs who are feasting on the decaying wood. Sorry guys, but I would like to use this space for a while!

The impulse is to get busy - put the tent up right away, and get the gear all unpacked and stowed inside. After long weeks down in the city, it's always difficult to remember that there is no reason for haste. I have to specifically remind myself to take it easy, slow down, and relax. So I try and 'flip my switch', by leaving the pack and tent untouched. I just slip my groundsheet out of its pocket, lay it down next to my favourite 'resting tree', and sit back to unwind. A moment later my boots are off, my toes are wiggling in the dappled sunshine, and my holiday has begun!


The next actor comes from below, not above. I see movement down among the dried leaves next to my groundsheet, and see a piece of torn green leaf waving in the air. A closer inspection reveals that it is being carried along by an ant - an ant far smaller than the leaf scrap itself. Now we have all seen this, and we all know what he is doing - he is returning to the colony with a piece of forage that he has either found, or trimmed himself. How does he find his way home? That too, seems obvious - he is following some kind of scent trail, perhaps the same path he used on his 'outward' trip. But what happens next leaves me wondering about this; he runs up against my ground sheet - which is a quite new addition to the landscape - and instead of running back and forth in confusion, forges right ahead over the sheet. And then, when he finds a very large blue-jeaned obstacle in his path, he simply climbs right over it!

I can't believe what I see ... he climbs up onto my legs, and while I sit perfectly still, he clambers up and down over all the creases and folds of the fabric of my clothing, makes his way completely across my body, down the other side, across the sheet, and back out onto the forest floor, all the while dragging this huge burden with him.

I think this clarifies the navigation question - there is no way he could be following a scent trail; perhaps he is getting his direction from the angle of the sun in the sky, perhaps he can sense the earth's magnetic field, or perhaps he just 'knows' where he is. In any case, if something is in his way, he doesn't fool around with long detours, he just goes over it!

He was in terrible danger though - didn't he care? Although I had absolutely no intention of harming him, I suspect that many people would have crushed him or just flicked him aside. But he obviously had no idea that such a thing could be about to befall him, and just trusted to fate as he made his perilous journey.

But actually, now that I think about it a bit more carefully, why should I assume that he didn't know what he was doing? After all, he was obviously very intelligent about direction finding, perhaps - like some other animals such as dogs - he could sense that he wouldn't be harmed by this person. If so, he sure got it right!


What a wonderfully 'livable' place this forest is today! Seen like this, on a dry and warm day, it's almost possible to believe that one could actually survive unaided in an environment like this. I don't mean by myself of course, but given some kind of social structure that would enable food gathering and cultivation, wouldn't this forest make a wonderful home for humans? Constructing shelter would be relatively simple, there must be any number of edible plants and berries here, and I suppose we could learn how to trap larger game animals ...

But of course, that is not an imaginary situation - that is actually what life on these islands was like, so many thousands of years ago. And not just here in Japan; all across Europe and North America, early peoples lived in forests just like this one. I wonder if they ever had a chance to appreciate and enjoy their habitat on a peaceful day like today, or if they were just so buried in the endless work of staying alive that they were blind to it. And I suppose that 'perfect' days were few and far between ... No, I don't think I'll seriously consider moving to a forest; I'll be content to enjoy it on a temporary basis, on trips like this one. I do realize though, that because I am such a short-term visitor here - just four days in all this year! - I will never really be able to feel as though I know it very well.


Something is outside the tent. Not right up against it, but off in the forest somewhere; I have no idea how close, or how far away. Something quite heavy is scrambling along, and making a lot of noise among the dried leaves that litter the ground everywhere. It's obviously not a human - as it isn't a step, step, step kind of sound; it's presumably some kind of animal. I sit up inside the dark tent, and quietly unzip the flap on one side so I can peek outside. This does nothing to help solve the mystery though, as it is completely, totally dark. Although the sound seems quite loud, and would thus seem to indicate the presence of a fairly large animal, I am familiar with that quirk of the senses that distorts our impression of these things. If the sounds seem to be coming from a huge animal like a bear, it's probably only a wild pig; if it sounds like a pig, it'll be a tanuki. A tanuki? Actually a mouse. And if you guess that it's a mouse that is scrambling past in the leaves, it will almost certainly turn out to be a little beetle ...

So going by that scale, all I can think is that it must be something like a tanuki moving past in the forest. I would have thought it would move more quietly though; surely most forest animals know how to move without giving away their presence to possible hunters. Anyway, there's nothing to do but sit and wait to see what happens, and after a few minutes more of scrambling around in the undergrowth, it decides to move on, and the sound gradually fades away in the distance.


The connection with the book I mentioned? The author had been given the job of clearing and thinning a wooded area in England that had been abandoned for nearly two decades, bringing order to the chaos into which the forest had fallen. His book is a record, not so much of 'how' he did it - the techniques of forest maintenance - but of his thoughts and feelings during the time he was occupied in the project. He worked alone, in all weathers, and used nothing more than a small collection of hand tools. He found the work immensely satisfying, and this is transmitted clearly to us in his writing, in which he tells us about matters both great and small - of the massive oak tree against which he sat to eat and nap, and of the tiny caterpillar that descends to his hand on an invisible thread from a tree branch far above ...

He wrote about the animals living in the woods, the flowers that came and went in waves as the seasons passed by, and about the different moods of the forest in various weathers. There was nobody to tell him how to arrange his schedule, and he enjoyed complete freedom to organize the work as he felt suitable, at times cutting and chopping for hours on end, at times taking extended naps in the sunshine at the base of his oak tree. He obviously took great pleasure in being totally absorbed in a physically demanding job, and also in the fact that his work had immediate and obvious benefits - the transformation of an abandoned forest into a productive, and beautiful, woodland.

Now I'm not quite so naive as to fall into the trap of thinking that his months of long labour were a 'picnic'. As a matter of course, he wrote mostly about the pleasures he took in his work, but it must also have entailed a huge amount of back-breaking effort. Who though among us would not envy him for his situation - to be able to work to the full extent of one's abilities, and to so clearly see the result, easily measured in day-to-day progress through the wood! And one sentence in particular from his book refuses to leave my mind. Near the end of his story, when reviewing the job he had done, he tells us, “Nothing that I have ever done has given me more satisfaction than this, nor shall I hope to find again so great a happiness.”