Monday, November 26, 2007

Spirit and forests

A second opportunity to volunteer in a local forest here in Nagaokakyo has spurred thoughts of spirit in relation to the ways that humans connect to forests, mountains, and other landscapes.

My wife accompanied me to this volunteer course that took place on Saturday, November 24th. The course was held this time in the neighboring municipality of Oyamazaki 大山崎. The morning was spent sitting at a community center listening to various officials (who may have outnumbered the volunteers) speak of forests, economics, and management plans. The language was predictable: talk of watershed management, inactive landholders, and large amounts of funding from a national beverage company with a beer and whiskey factory in Oyamazaki.

The speakers maintained an air of authority as they spoke scientifically and bureaucratically about forest management. The volunteers were left to listen and shuffle through a small mountain of paper. By lunchtime all of us were itching to get outside--not so much to be in the forest (as was the supposed goal of the day)--but just out of sure boredom.

After lunch we did finally begin our small trek up to the bamboo forests at the top of what is known as Tennozan (天王山)mountain. At the foot of the mountain was a shrine whose bright orange paint managed to pierce through the blazing red of the Japanese maples. Bamboo stands also resided near the shrine and we visited a makeshift studio used by local volunteers (exclusively middle-aged men) to make various trinkets using the trees they have harvested--and also, presumably, to escape their wives and children for an afternoon.

About halfway up the mountain the bamboo forest gave way, quite starkly, to stands of akamatsu 赤松 (red pine). A few more vertical meters, followed by a sharp turn to the south, brought us back into the bamboo forest. Stands on one side off the small mountain path were clean and spaced so that someone walking with an opened umbrella could make their way through, while those on the other were crowded and strewn with deadfall. I saw several trees marked with a Japanese sa サ, which I latter learned stood for sa-n-to-ri (Suntory), the local beer brewery.

After about a half an hour's walk we gathered within the bamboo to listen to instructions from an experienced forester. The forester was an 82 year old gentleman who had lived his entire life in a house near the base of the mountain. He talked to us about the history of the forest, how bamboo had not even existed in the location until after the war, and stressed the need for thinning. As he began to discuss felling techniques, I looked around and saw the markings of wild boar that had been digging for takenoko 竹の子 (bamboo shoots)--a local delicacy for boars and humans alike. The old forester exhibited how to fell a bamboo tree, and how to use ropes in order to release it from the grasp of neighboring branches and gently slip it to the ground.

Next, each of the volunteers had a chance to fell a couple of trees. After each tree fell we stripped its branches and cut it into 2-3 meter lengths, which we stacked on existing piles. Having volunteered two weeks in a row now, I can tell you that it is great fun to fell trees. After our destructive tendencies were satiated we made our way back down the mountain, cleaned saws, and said our goodbyes.

So, how did this experience get me thinking about spirit? Partly these thoughts came as I pondered what it is I want to accomplish with my research in Otaki. However, more concretely, it came as I compared this experience to one I had in Hawai`i just before I left for Japan.

In September the Anthropology Graduate Student Association at the University of Hawai`i put together a field-trip to a farm on the Waianae coast of Oahu. The farm is called Ka`ala and it is an ongoing project to create a community center where people have a chance to reconnect with the local land through the cultivation of taro, the staple of the Hawaiian diet in the past. My description of Ka`ala intentionally simple, because I don't know that I can convey all that the place really is. The following is a link to photos of the field-trip taken by a friend that will give a sense of the place:

Though the structure of these two experiences, at Tennozan and at Ka`ala, we're similar, the content and the results were quite different. Structurally, both started with descriptions of the activity to be undertaken, and its meaning in the broader community (whether local, regional, national, or international), followed by the activity itself. However, while at Tennozan this description was rooted almost exclusively in scientific, technical, and economic terms, at Ka`ala it was based first in spiritual terms--though also included speech related to science, technical, and economic terms (though not in the sense we might usually think).

Another way to describe the difference between these two sites is to look at the focus of the activity. At Tennozan the volunteer activity was viewed as part of a larger socio-political system of which forest management was a small part, whereas at Ka`ala the activity of the volunteer itself was the focus--with the individual's connection with the land contextualized within the broader society. In other words, the focus at Ka`ala was on the individual spirit and the deep interconnection it has to the spirit of the land. The experience in Hawai`i, for example, began with the volunteers learning a chant that we would repeat at the farm site to request that the land permit us entry and to open ourselves to the teachings held there for us.

As a result, I came away from Tennozan feeling happy about what I had learned, but quite unimpressed with the meaning of the activity within the larger social and natural environment. It seems to me that, in essence, local governments are hoping to capitalize on volunteer labor to supplement managment activities in the face of dwindling government funding and absentee landowners. On the other hand, after Ka`ala I had a deep sense of my connection to the other people I had worked with, to the land I had worked on (and in), to the Hawaiian islands, and indeed to the entire cosmos. This was the frame within which Uncle Butch, our guide at Ka`ala, had painted the meaning of the work.

Ecological anthropologists, and others who investigate human-environment relations, have thought about these relations in myriad ways: social, economic, political, et cetera. However, what first brought me to studies in ecological anthropology was my desire to better understand my own spiritual connections to the Earth, to seek out such connections elsewhere, and to posit ways to cultivate these connections. It was for this reason that I enrolled at the University of Hawai`i to work with my current committee chair, and though my research has taken me along somewhat divergent paths, the essence of this research is still the pursuit of these spiritual connections.

My experience at Tennozan, with a local government effort to recruit volunteers within a culture where people have largely forgotten their connection to the forest, has revealed again that the spirit is of great importance in our relations with the Earth. Indeed spirit is the key to our continuance as a species on the Earth. The world today is full of distractions, and it is easy to forget that every breath we take connects us inseparably from the Earth. Yet each breath is the essence of spirit--each breath is the wealth of the world--each breath is the future. A breath is a breath. It is crucial to keep spirit at the center of our efforts to understand, protect, and be nourished by the Earth. Spirit keeps us connected. Otherwise it's just volunteering. . .which I don't think is sustainable.

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