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Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004

OLD NIC'S NOTEBOOK

BIRD WATCHING FOR THE BLIND

Woodland beauty there for all to sense


Just about the time when the wild wood irises burst into glorious purple around early July up here in Nagano Prefecture, high in the treetops there is a dancing, fluttering ballet of countless white-winged creatures.

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From top: A girl with impaired sight feels a carved wooden bird; a kin mon ga moth on my notebook; a visually impaired boy delights in nature with his guide; wild wood irises in bloom; a blind boy with his woodland guide; storytelling in our "sound shelter." PHOTOS BY: ATSUSHI ISHI; C.W. NICOL; HIROSHI SUGA; KENJI MINAMI;and HIROSHI SUGA

For a few years after I first saw them, I assumed they were butterflies. They never seemed to come to earth, and their almost frantic movements continued all day from early morning. Then somebody told me that they are, in fact, a day-flying moth. Their name in Japanese is kin mon ga, but for the life of me I can't find it in English. The caterpillars, I am told, prefer the leaves of the ryobu, a small tree that has white flowers and which can grow up to 6 meters in height, and whose polished trunks are often used as decorative pillars in traditional tatami-room alcoves.

Even when I asked my friend Kenji, who is a professional, to photograph these moths for me last year, he found they moved so quickly, and so erratically, that the task was well-nigh impossible. This year, though, I managed to catch one that was entangled in a large spider web, so for the first time I was able to get a close look.

The moth, it turns out, is a bit smaller than a cabbage white butterfly, with four very delicate white wings. The body is white, speckled with black, and the forelegs are yellow, as if the insect were wearing socks. Its eyes also are black, as are the lyre-shaped, feathered antennae.

Constant pageant

A lot of people hate moths, but I find many of them beautiful, and every year I look forward to this summer spectacle way up in the green of the high tree branches as the irises burst into purple bloom.

Living with the woods is a constant joy, for they are always changing, and I feel sorry for the majority of folk, who have to live with the ugliness and noise of modern cities. For me, it would be a great loss not to be able to see this constant pageant of colors, forms and movement.

Which reminds me of when I was a small boy in South Wales and I met a wonderful old man who had gone blind. He was a superb storyteller, and liked to take walks in the countryside.

"I'm as blind as a bat," he said to me once, "but it's not as bad as all that. You know how bats fly about at night, don't you? They do it with their ears." Then he laughed. "That doesn't mean they flap their ears, lad; it means they can really hear, like me."

Perhaps it was because of my boyhood liking for that wonderful old man that for years I have had a notion that I wanted our woods to be open for people who were blind, or "visually impaired" as we are supposed to say now. I was convinced that it would be a good experience, especially for children who did not have normal sight, to be able to move in the woods, with hardly any intrusive or frightening unnatural sounds, and to hear birds, frogs, insects, streams and the wind.

Here at our Afan Woodland Trust in Kurohime, we sought the advice of experts, then put out a questionnaire for visually impaired people.

Would they like to come to the woods? The overwhelming reply was an enthusiastic "yes."

What would they most like to do in the woods? To this, one common reply surprised us all -- because it was "bird watching"!

As I have written before in this column, with the support of the Amway company we have started a program to bring abused or orphaned children into our woods, together with various experts. So we decided to expand the program, which we call One by One, to include visually impaired children. But how could we help them in "bird watching"?

Of course, we could take them to places where they could hear birds, feel the trees, the bushes and the bamboo grass. We could tell them how the birds lived, what they ate, where they built nests and raised their young. With support from local bird-carvers, who made us lifesize wooden models, the children could handle these beautiful replica birds to feel their shapes and weight. We also had feathers, from the tiny feathers of a kingfisher to the long tail feathers of a cock pheasant, and the big downy feathers of owls.

We all got together and started on this new adventure. Each child would be separated from their parent or guardian, and would have their own forest guide. At times they would all gather at designated spots to have storytelling sessions, sometimes with the crackling comfort of a fire.

Babbles and chuckles

They could hear the difference between naturally flowing streams and a concrete conduit. A natural stream babbles and chuckles, while the concrete sluices do not, and it is in the natural streams that fish, frogs, freshwater crabs and other creatures live. For most of these kids, the only running water they had been allowed to touch had been from a tap. In the woods, though, they could also smell and even taste certain plants and flowers.

Despite my bulky size and weight, I can move very quietly through the woods, so I took it upon myself to observe how the guides and children were doing, without letting them be aware of my presence. Partly, I also wanted to find out how the birds and other creatures were reacting.

It was a delight to watch, listen and sense. The children were rapt, and filled with awe, curiosity and adventure. They wanted to go everywhere. Moreover, the birds were not frightened or alarmed by their presence at all.

Later, when we gathered in a big, round tepee that has a firepit in the middle, and where I sometimes talk to visitors and students, the children crowded around me, wanting to be close. As with the other children with unfortunate circumstances, these children were a delight to be with, and walking in the living, gentle woods made them open up, laugh and ask questions.

Our woodland here is small, and we can only invite a limited number of people. We do not want to damage it by too much tramping, or scare off nesting birds and feeding animals. However, we will continue with our limited program, and study what else can be done to bring children into contact with the healing powers in nature. I only wish that such programs would start all over Japan, nurturing both woods and children.

Having seen the wonder in children's faces has given this old bear so much joy. And you know something? Most of those "visually impaired" children have the loveliest of eyes -- eyes that seem to look deep into your soul.



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