Posted by: chrismaser | October 5, 2011


It is becoming increasingly important for society to listen to what today’s children say because they are the unequivocal recipients of whatever circumstances we leave—for better or worse. Each generation must therefore be the keeper, the trustee of the next—not its judge. Hence, it’s incumbent on us, the adults, to prepare the way for all generations, which will entail changing the way we think about, teach, and practice social-environmental sustainability.

I say this because I spent time in Japan looking at the sustainability of the forests from which the Shinto priests obtain the large, old trees they use to rebuilt the Grand Shrine of Ise, located in Ise City, every twenty years. Despite the fact that the original forest of Kiso Fukushima is today a plantation does not in any way detract from the Shinto priests’ conscious efforts over the last thirteen hundred years to maintain a sustainable forest into the future for the future.

With this kind of thinking, and from my experience with the people of the Grand Shrine of Ise, I am convinced that humanity and its society can, if it so chooses, begin now to heal the forests of the world. Not only that, but it can also grow old forests for the future. To do so, however, society will need the help of its children.

In Japan, a religious system of belief has been observed ever since the founding of the country, and later generations came to call that religious system “Shinto.” Shinto gained systematic form spontaneously from within the social life of communities. As a result, it has no specific founder or clearly defined body of scripture. But since ancient times the Japanese have transmitted the legends and myths of the deities or “kami” as a genealogy of their way of life.

Shinto, in its broadest sense, refers to the entirety of native culture, which is established against a background of hydraulic rice agriculture, a form of agriculture uniquely suited to Japan’s warm, humid climate. In short, Shinto refers to indigenous Japanese spiritual culture in contrast to Buddhism and other religious systems brought in from outside Japan.

When used in the narrow sense, Shinto refers to the rites offered to deities—primarily those deities of heaven and earth listed in classical Japanese works of the ancient period. And the physical facility used for the performance of this worship of a deity is called a “jinju” or shrine.

That Nature and natural phenomena are revered as deities or “kami” is a result of the Japanese view of Nature as a kind of parent, which nurtures life and provides limitless blessings. Shinto shrines all over Japan are surrounded by luxuriant groves of trees. Backed by the Shinto belief that untouched natural scenery is itself sacred, the “forests” surrounding the shrines are themselves important elements of each shrine.

The Shinto respect for the trees is such that, in addition to the forestry plans, the priests of olden time planted cryptomeria trees within the Grand Shrine. Today, these trees have a 500-year written history.

About thirteen hundred years ago, Emperor Tenmu ordained the practice of removing each shrine and rebuilding a new, exact replica next to it every twenty years. Why Emperor Tenmu stipulated that a shrine—which includes all the buildings comprising the shrine—must be rebuilt every twenty years is not clearly known. It’s most likely, however, that twenty years was considered to be the optimum period for allowing the careful replication of a shrine, such as the Grand Shrine of Ise, considering that it has a thatched roof, wooden structures without a preservative of any kind, and is erected on posts sunk into the ground without the benefit of foundation stones.

Twenty years is perhaps also the most logical interval in terms of passing from one generation to the next the technological expertise needed for the exacting task of duplicating the shrine, which can be thought of as sacred architecture created from within the prayer and technical skills of the Japanese people themselves. Passing technical skills and the prayer embodied in the sacred architecture from generation to generation is the context within which lies the real significance of the regular rebuilding—or as the Japanese refer to it, “the removal.” In this way, the cultural knowledge has been passed forward, unchanged, for thirteen hundred years—and will continue into the future.

As I understood it, when last I visited the Grand Shrine of Ise, about ten thousand logs (not whole trees) are required each time a shrine is rebuilt, it’s therefore necessary to have a biologically sustainable supply of large, old trees to accommodate the continual rebuilding, which means the forest must be selectively logged to secure the appropriate building materials.

To maintain a sustainable supply of logs, I was told that the Shinto priests have maintain some sort of forestry plan for at least 500 years, and that their present plan extends 200 years into the future. Because I did not seen the plans, I have no way of knowing if they are ecologically sound and based on the best and latest knowledge available today. Implementing the plans, however, is another consideration.

The problem faced by the priests today is that the main “forest” at Kiso Fukushima from which they have gotten many of their trees for the Grand Shrine of Ise, is no longer a forest. It is now a carefully manicured plantation created through long-term selective cutting. The fact that the original forest of Kiso Fukushima is today a plantation does not in any way detract from the conscious efforts of the Shinto priests through the centuries to maintain a sustainable forest.

Nevertheless, as a plantation, it is missing such components of natural-forest structure as large, standing, dead trees and declining trees; large, fallen trees rotting on the ground; large wind-thrown trees; and multiple layers of vegetation. Although the plantation may appear at the moment to be in good shape, it’s headed for trouble in the future because large wood is not being reinvested into the “bank” of organic material in the soil.

The addition of such organic material allows the chemical elements in the soil to act as nutrients, and it creates and maintains the necessary soil infrastructure to make the nutrients available to the trees. In other words, more wood is being withdrawn from the soil bank account in the form of large logs than is being replaced in the form of large dead trees. Withdrawals that exceed the balance of additions can only draw down the organic material in the soil’s bank account over time and thus continue to impoverish the soil’s long-term productive capacity.

If these plantations are to produce the size and quality of logs that the Grand Shrine of Ise needs over the centuries to replace all of its associated structures every twenty years, the amount of organic material that is withdrawn from the soil must be balanced with an equal amount of organic material being allowed to return to the soil, some of which must be large, whole trees. This is not now happening, and has not happened for at least a century or more.

In addition, after conversations with Dr. Murao, Chairman, of the Resources Programme and World Forestry at the University of Ehime, Japan, it seems clear that fires were once a vital part of the forest’s cycle at Kiso Fukushima. The existence of early fires would explain the wide spacing among the ancient Japanese cypress that were so valued for the reconstruction of the Grand Shrine. It’s therefore reasonable to assume that, if the Grand Shrine is to have trees of comparable value into the future, fire must be reintroduced into the care of the plantation.

Fire does things to a forest or a plantation that caretaking without fire can never do. Thus, the role of fire cannot be replaced by any management technique, and the long-term removal of fire from a forest or plantation is ecologically devastating, as we in the western United States are now learning the hard way—after a century of suppressing forest fires.

Here, the challenge is that trained foresters think they know what a forest is, how it should look, how it should behave, and what it’s good for. Having thus lost their sense of wonder, they can only plant trees as a means to a preconceived, commodity-oriented end and call them a forest.

Thus, when the Shinto priests asked my counsel on how to heal their forest, I told them to begin by let their professional foresters plant the trees, which they would do in evenly spaced rows. This was necessary in order to reserve the foresters’ honor.

On the other hand, Children, not knowing what a forest “should be,” can imagine what a forest might be. To children, all things are possible, until adults—with narrow minds, who’ve forgotten how to dream—put fences around their imaginations.

Therefore, I suggested to the priests that, once the rows were established, they get primary-school children, give them seedlings, show them how to plant them, and turn the children loose to plant the seedlings wherever they wanted. In that way, the neat rows sown by the adult intellect would be interwoven with the freely planted imagination of the childhood heart. Moreover, the plantation at Kiso Fukushima could then begin to assume more of the characteristics of a forest if children were allowed to help take care of it. Meanwhile, Nature would mediate the forest’s design.

Whereas children plant a forest with their hearts and a beginner’s mind, adults too often plant trees with their intellect and the knowledge of an expert. Ironically, experts can’t plant a forest because they’ve forgotten what children know.

To us, the adults of the industrialized world, most things seem to have rigid limits of impossibility within the context of our industrial-conformist-materialistic society—which means beyond the production of commodities—because parents, schools, and society at large too often murdered our childhood imaginations. We’d do well, therefore, to consider carefully not only what our children and grandchildren see as possible but also what they want. The future, after all, is theirs.


Related Posts:

• Children Deserve A Voice In Their Future—Instructions for Adults

• Children Deserve A Voice In Their Future

• Notations in the Margin

• Principle 7: All relationships have one or more tradeoffs.

• The Link Between Nature’s Commons And Our Cultural Commons

Text and photos © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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