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Sunday, May 2, 2010

OLD NIC'S NOTEBOOK

Sweet and sour amid the late snow of spring


Two days ago I was in the woods, generally looking around and gathering a few butterburs — the first of the spring sansai (wild mountain vegetables), which I love to serve as tempura.

News photo
Nature's bounty: An angler snapped from my study window (left) casts his line into the Torii River, which is dwarfed in this corner of Nagano Prefecture by mighty Mount Kurohime as it rushes on its way to the Sea of Japan. C.W. NICOL PHOTOS

I was enjoying the sunshine and the bird song; the snow had almost all gone and construction of the Afan Centre here in the grounds of our Afan Woodland Trust in the hills of Nagano Prefecture had resumed after the long winter.

Then this morning, I woke to snow covering the ground and piled inches deep on every twig and branch; and here we are into the middle of April.

I was in my study, starting to write this article, wondering what to say and, indeed, what was worth saying, when the phone rang from the house and I was told I had a guest. I put on my boots and toddled up to meet Mr. Sato, an old friend who had dropped by with some bread freshly baked by his wife. We had a pot of tea and tucked into the bread, which had a unique, delicate taste because it was made using silver-birch sap, not plain water. Mr. Sato had brought homemade jam too, but this bread didn't need jam.

We talked for a while about many things, including tree sap. Around about the time that rings of thawed-out ground appear in spring among the trees in the woods, our forester Mr. Matsuki starts collecting sap from a fairly common native maple tree. In Japanese, this tree's name is uri hada kaede ("melon-skin maple"); its Latin name is Acer rufinerve, and in English it's known as snake-bark maple.

When Mr. Matsuki was a boy, store- bought candy was a very rare treat indeed, but he learned that, in winter, the sap of this tree, leaking from a wound or a broken branch, made sweet-tasting icicles. After being given a bottle of Canadian maple syrup by my eldest daughter when she visited from Vancouver, he got the idea of gathering sap from these local maples and making syrup from it.

Mr. Matsuki boils the sap in a big pot set on the woodstove in his hut. To get a sweet syrup, at least 80 percent of the colorless liquid has to be boiled off, leaving a sweet, golden-brown ambrosia that has to be treated carefully to prevent too much of the sugar turning to caramel. Mr. Matsuki's maple syrup is wonderful!

As I still have a couple of jars left, I think I'll now treat myself, and anybody else who passes through, to French toast made with birch-sap bread topped off with Mr. Matsuki's syrup. I n my late teens and back from my second Arctic expedition, I was wont to rant upon seeing so much that I perceived to be wrong in the world. My old Dad, a retired Royal Navy chief petty officer, used to shake his head wisely and warn me to stop, er . . . urinating . . . into the wind. (Except he used a "p" word that rhymes with "hissing.")

Well, I'll very soon be 70, and I still see a lot wrong with the world, but I try to restrict my rants to subjects of which I have some personal experience. This includes topics such as the need to trim and use the badly neglected and crowded conifer plantations and mixed secondary- growth woodland in Japan; the need to bring our Japanese rivers back to life and to tear out so much wasteful concrete; the need not to let valuable farmland be overrun with invasive weeds . . . and then there is the horror of the annual Taiji dolphin kill.

I saw the kill for myself back in 1979 when I lived in that small Wakayama Prefecture fishing village for a year. I protested to the fishermen, to the Town Hall, and to the Fisheries Agency. Some years ago I published a book in Japan, with a chapter devoted to that slaughter and its extreme cruelty. I met the prefectural governor and warned him that the media would spread the Taiji kill all over the globe — and that Japan would be despised for it. And now, this year's Academy Award-winning documentary, "The Cove," is bringing it home to the whole world. But will the government listen to what the world is saying? And will Japanese audiences have a chance to see it?

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A plate of fresh river char caught by our forester, Mr. Matsuki, who kindly presented the fish to me.

I sailed to the Antarctic in 1980 and observed the whaling there. There were indeed lots and lots of minke whales. I am not against whaling as a traditional source of food, but for the past few years I have spoken out and written about my belief that its Antarctic whaling is not in the interest of Japan as a nation, and only provides the militant conservationists of Sea Shepherd with ammunition. And anyway, how many ordinary Japanese have any idea of what the whaling research is all about?

Speaking in general defence of traditional whaling for food, but against the annual Antarctic circus, puts me in the middle — the ham in the sandwich. It's not fun.

Then came the recent furore about Atlantic blue-fin tuna and the desperate need to protect the species from hurtling into extinction — thanks, it would seem, to "greedy Japan."

Yet no matter what I say or write, pleading for Japan to take the lead in fisheries conservation, I get no reaction other than veiled hostility. Hey, my original expertise was in fisheries! I'm not just parroting foreign propaganda! Most Japanese don't know the difference between one species of tuna and the next, and seem to believe that the whole world is against us and wants us to stop eating tuna altogether! For crying out loud!

So I remember my old Dad's advice — but lordy, lordy, when a man's got to go he's got to go, so I guess it will be a contest between the force of the stream and the strength of the wind. D espite unseasonal snowfalls, it is so nice to be back home in Kurohime, walking in the woods and talking with friends about simple things.

When I sit in my study my ears are always filled with the sounds of the Torii River on its way to join the Chikuma River, which joins the Shinano River that flows into the Sea of Japan. Before they built so many dams and poured so much chemical junk on the surrounding fields and paddies, the Torii River ran with salmon. The salmon no longer come, but the river survived as a swift, natural mountain stream shaded by wooded banks, the home of wild char and bullheads, kingfishers and herons.

In the summer of 1995 (I remember the time well, because that was when I got Japanese citizenship), the Torii River had the worst floods in recorded history, causing immense amounts of damage. My house, protected by the trees along its bank, was unharmed, but after the floods I knew that river construction was inevitable — especially as they began cutting down the trees along the banks.

I alone in this town fought tooth and nail to prevent the construction becoming the usual "two sides and a bottom" concrete job. It was a hell of a battle, but I won some great people over to my side and we managed to change the proposed construction to a method using natural boulders, willows and so on.

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Sap tap: Mr. Matsuki's simple but effective way of collecting the sweet sap from a native maple, from which he then brews up superb syrup.

Since then, 15 years have passed, and once in a while the Torii goes into a rage. However, the construction was a success and there has been no more serious flooding. Even better, in summertime children play in the river outside my study, and in season I can see the anglers who come to fish for char.

I doubt if any of them know that it was Old Nic who fought for the survival of the char in the river they now all enjoy so much.

Mr. Matsuki knows. When he fishes in the Torii River, he always brings me my share. So all the fuss and facing into the wind was worthwhile after all.



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