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Thursday, Aug. 4, 2005



'In a better world, I'd . . . '

I don't enjoy giving lectures to university or high school students in Japan, and my being cajoled or bullied into laying on such a performance usually ends up with me being at best grumpy, and at worst downright depressed.

News photo
The magnificent 53-meter Naena Falls on the Seki River.

Yesterday, through our woodland trust here in Kurohime, I was cornered into giving a lecture to some 400 or so high school kids. They came all the way from the Tokyo area by bus to spend a few days in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture. Before my talk, they were given material to read -- stuff I had written about bears. They were asked to write their opinions in essays that I could peruse.

One student declared that all bears should be shot as soon as they come out of their dens because they were dangerous . . . and "no use" to humans. In a better world, I'd dress him up in a seal skin and put him out on the ice off Baffin Island or somewhere. He could be an experiment in polar bear usage of human debris.

I'd rather talk to cabbages than to most students in Japan. If they don't fall asleep or start fiddling with cellphones, they just stare blankly at the speaker.

Mind you, I admit it could be my fault, dealing as I do with such boring subjects as wildlife biology; or talking about chasing bandits and poachers in Ethiopia; dog-sled trips in the Arctic; experiencing the magical presence of a "spirit bear" on the West Coast of Canada; being almost thrown out of a teacher-training college in Britain for making money on the side as a professional wrestler; sailing to the Antarctic on a whaling ship; or what we are trying to do by raising a forest in Nagano.

News photo
The useuless sabo dam on the Seki River. C.W. NICOL PHOTO; H. KASAI PHOTO

I've tried changing tack to tales of me acting as a bouncer for a famous British rock group, and even of my youthful embarrassments in different cultures. No reaction.

Haranguing officials

Even while haranguing government officials, I can usually break the tension and raise a few laughs. But with university and high school students in Japan? Forget it.

It was thus a very grouchy Old Nic who had to go out to our woods the next morning to greet some new visitors, this time young children. On the way I found some nice bolete mushrooms ("penny buns") which started to cheer me up. The kids, who had come from all over, were of primary school age. They were bright, curious, friendly and generally delightful.

Being with them in the woods improved my mood to the point that I told them of a special place where they could find thousands of tiny frogs. Later on in the evening we had a barbecue together, and the little kids were all over me, showering me with hugs, pats and questions, showing me things they'd found and even bringing me food. I can only ask in despair: What on earth are schools doing to kids in Japan?

News photo
A yama-aka-gaeru froglet from our Kurohime woods. C.W. NICOL PHOTO; H. KASAI PHOTO

But back to the woods and that froggy place . . .

Last year we dug a meandering, 480-meter-long ditch connected to a series of small ponds. This was firstly to lower the aquifer which was close to the surface in that area, causing tree roots to rot, and also to provide habitat for water creatures. This spring the new water system was alive with the tadpoles of various frogs and toads.

In the mountains around here, you can often find a hatch of thousands of tiny black toads, but in our woods this time we also got several kinds of frogs, including one which develops from a tadpole to a tiny brownish froglet, less than 1 cm long, which -- if it survives its many predators -- can eventually grow to be a handsome, reddish-colored, stripy-legged adult amphibian measuring about 6 cm from nose to tail. Though the juvenile froglets are pea-sized they can jump superbly, and I had fun chasing a few for the accompanying photographs. I was sure that the kids would enjoy them too.

Through its banks this waterway drains water out of the ground, and the aquatic plants that will grow in it will help purify and filter the flow, which is into a stream. It's a fine example of a "green dam." Even in the very dry weeks we had before the rains came this early summer, there was a constant flow of water. Before digging and banking we surveyed the place and measured a drop of 6 1/2 meters. Consequently, we put a whole series of little log dams along the waterway to create small waterfalls that would mix in oxygen and create a pleasant sound so that now, whichever way you turn, a gentle splashing and gurgling comes to your ears.

The irises, rushes and watercress so far added to this system are doing fine, and we look forward to the next couple of years and the varieties of frogs, toads, newts, small fish, dragonflies, birds and other creatures that will claim this new habitat. The 12 species of deciduous trees we planted on the banks will soon really start to grow, thus adding to the attractions for other wildlife. We find it enormous fun to work with nature this way.

News photo
The fish ladder by the sabo dam on the Seki River, which has been virtually denatured with a concrete bed and banks.

Compare this to what the government has done to the once-magnificent Seki River, which flows along the border between Nagano and Niigata prefectures. The river used to have huge boulders along the sides and in mid-stream, some as big as a house, around which pure mountain water flowed, making channels and pools that were ideal habitats for char and bullheads. Now, they have straightened the river, smashed up all the big rocks and lined the sides and the riverbed with small boulders set in concrete. As a result, there is no habitat for fish.

Just below the magnificent, 53-meter-high Naena Falls, the same authorities have overseen the construction of a massive, incredibly expensive and functionally useless sabo (erosion barrier dam) that spans more than 50 meters and rises 12 1/2 meters high.

Apparently -- as our prefectural governor once bemoaned to me personally -- officialdom does not call these monstrosities "dams" if they are less than 15 meters high.

That way they get less public attention.

Politically motivated

The result is that from the falls to the sabo dam the river is still fairly natural, but from below it there will be no fish to come up the incredibly expensive fish ladder.

According to locals who were involved in the construction (but who, of course, do not wish to be named), they all knew it was a waste of money, as well as being destructive to fish habitat. But, they said, "it couldn't be helped." In other words, it was politically motivated, wasteful construction of a type going on all over Japan.

Not long ago I visited the site with a group of politicians and accountants who are trying to start a movement to prevent more of this abuse of taxpayers' money, and to disassemble the system that plays parasite to this waste. Even though some people are working to put things right, sometimes it is still really hard to get out of the right side of the bed in the morning.

For instance, I got a desperate phone call today informing me that the Forestry Agency is once again felling great tracts of natural beech forest in the north. That will be another windmill to tilt at.

But will Japan's teachers see to it that in future the kids start caring?

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