Commune With Nature
interview with Shogo Shimizu | Hokkaido, japan
owner of Satoyama forest, on self-logging
What is self-logging?
Self-logging is also called eco-friendly logging. Different from traditional business model in which forest owners commission a landscape company to log with heavy machinery, in self-logging, forest owners manage and log the forest themselves according to needs and permaculture principles.
In Asahigawa, Hokkaido. Surrounded by mountains and bathed in the sunlight, the rice field was glowing with golden glimmers. I was here to interview Shōgo Shimizu, a man who owns a piece of forest in Totsushosan, east of Asahigawa. He calls this place “Satoyama”, which means “nostalgic and memorable scenery of the mountain forests” in Japanese. Satoyama also implies the coexistence between mankind and nature.
On our way to the center of Satoyama, the road was rough, bumpy and barely discernible. Our car was shaking all over; branches and twigs assaulted our windshield in the wind. Any one who visited for the first time would think they were riding into an unexplored wild land.
I was cheerful heading for Satoyama. Here, I was blessed with a most intimate and harmonious conversation with the mother nature. Without the artificial and the additive, I could feel everything on this land in the most simple and primitive way.
An figure in orange was shuffling in the woods. It was Mr. Shimizu chopping up some firewood. Smoke gently rose, and the special scent of burning birch wood came out. I sat down by the campfire, tossed a few blocks of wood into it, and hang up the kettle that had been laid aside. In Satoyama, there’s no need to worry lumber being product of deforestation or exploitation.
“I have responsibility over every tree growing in Satoyama. The firewood you see here are not logged blindly and willfully. Only the ones that are sick, not growing well, nearly dead, or having malnutrition due to disadvantaged geological locations are sawed by me. And even for the ones that are cut off, I have the responsibility to find them a right place to go.”
“I will only give out the lumber after I know for what purpose and by whom it will be used. Maybe it will end up in some houses’ fireplace, or hung as a store sign, or become an Ema (a small board on which visitors of shrines can write down their wishes and hang up in the shrine). Even after they die, wood still lives in our life in different forms. As you can see, each and every single tree here has lived longer than us. They are our ancestors! How can we just chop them down as we like it?” Mr. Shimizu laid down his hand on the piece of wood beside him. His eyes teemed with tenderness and sadness.
Then, I finally raised the question that had been lurking in my mind for a long time. “What is the current situation of logging industry in Japan?” Mr. Shimizu shook his head and began the tale of the present and past of Japanese forestry.
“After World War II, the demand for wood and charcoal in Japan skyrocketed due to economic revival and energy revolution. However, the timber supply had been insufficient for many years because of the long war. To solve the problem, the government implemented an afforestation policy, cleaning out the original forests and slow-growing trees for the more economically efficient coniferous forests––these trees have a faster growing speed and a shorter lifespan of around fifty years.
Nevertheless, the domestic lumber yielded from these planned forests was of so high a price that the prosperity last only for approximately twenty years. The amount of lumber imported from foreign country at a relatively low price was constantly growing, and the domestic lumber supply dropped below fifty percent. What’s even worse, the only forests that were left then were the artificial ones. The price of these fast-growing and low-quality woods dropped to the bottom. Forestry went into a hard situation and is still degrading. These planned forests were not attended to, and their shallow roots could lead to mudslides during stormy weather. Japan was then full of timber woods that no one would use.”
“In order to revitalize the industry and deal with the unattended forests, the Japanese government introduced a subsidy for logging–– eight-hundred yen is granted for every tree chopped down. Given the stagnated market (according to the official statistics, a cypress timber that once worths 76,400 yen only worths 18,200 yen now), rising labor and equipment cost, as well as fuel consumption(3.96 gallons per hour), the logging companies have to chop down a massive amount to profit. Massive-chopping leads to reforesting the same kinds of trees that are of high economic efficiency(fast-growing) but little benefit to the environment. Eventually this leads to the vicious circle of decreasing demand, over-chopping, and disposal of the surplus. These trees are lives that have survived for decades, and now they are treated lightly. The logging companies cannot help it either, since they can only make money when we chop.”
By meantime listening to Mr. Shimizu, if my mind and finger didn’t follow quickly enough to search onto the Internet for statistics and news coverages; the more I listen, the more unbelievable I could to accept all these to be true. Seems the reality turned out that the cheerful greens I saw everyday in the mountains were merely products of unconscious reforesting, and the vast open meadows in between are the result of massive logging.
“The logging industry in Japan needs to be reformed! We are hoping that self-logging can help change the situation. We want to do something for the environment and the forests. You can not just chop down trees for money and replant for more chopping. You have to put ecology into consideration — plant more perennial plants with stronger root that are more suitable to the local environment. When we chop, we should only chop the needed amount with consideration of the prospect of the whole forest. We should also replace heavy equipments with chainsaw so that we consume less gasoline and prevent damages they can cause.”
“Aside from an inactive market, there is also another problem in Japanese forestry: the owners of the forests are not taking responsibility. During the prosperity, forest owners usually leave the management to the logging company. But after the depression, the number of logging companies decreased, and forest owners didn’t have enough knowledge to manage a forest, so forests were abandoned.
Their successor also felt helpless. The younger generations don’t expect to make a living with forestry, and they have no way to learn even if they want to. At the same time, with the development of the society, our life parts further and further from the nature and forests. The woods have become somehow strange and even terrifying to us.”
I kept nodding to Mr. Shimizu. Meanwhile, the kettle on the fire started to whistle.
I plucked out some wild bamboo leaves, washed them and added them in. A serving of Satoyama-exclusive Sasa tea is ready.
The sweetness of Satoyama fountain water is mixed with the fragrance of birch, the smoke of the fire, and some light smell from the bamboo leaves. In the chilling wind of the 20-degree temperature weather, I sipped from my cup. The purity in my mouth was finally able to calm my soul after learning the overwhelming realities.
True. Maybe we are taking too much and giving so little.
What we really need is far less from what we want. Before we can coexist with the nature, we have to find a balance between taking and giving. But before we can reach the balance, isn’t it more essential that we know more about the land we are stepping on?
“Therefore, as an owner of the forest, I think I should shoulder the responsibility of building the bridge between human and mother nature. I want to pass on this property to the next generation, to the one after that, or even to the ones after hundreds of years. No more blind chopping and replanting. I hope I can inspire people through my action –– about the possibility of a versatile forestry. We are offering an open space for people who are interested in the forests and the nature. This is somewhere they can feel and understand the charm of the land, somewhere they can explore the balance between themselves and the nature. Eventually, we will bring the nature back to people’s life.”
As we spoke, two young men who lived nearby visited. They are said to come quite often to Satoyama to check on the yams they had planted, and to hear about Mr. Shimizu’s recent logging sites, challenges, and other knowledge about logging.
That’s it! This is what Shimizu was talking about! Getting people know about nature and the implication of self-logging! Fused with the feeling of surprise and happiness to seeing that the forest taken care of by Shimizu has started to inspire young people to think and innovate.
THIS is a life with the forest, I figure.
The aim of self logging is to connect the forests with people. Shōgo Shimizu wishes that people can show more tenderness to the nature, engage themselves with the land, and find a way to coexist with it. Be it commuting with bicycles, minding one’s diet, reducing waste, recycling, or re-evaluating the impact of one’s lifestyle on the environment… No matter what way you choose –– as long as it is something you are glad to accept and begin doing –– it is a great leap in coexisting with the nature.