Tuesday, 5 December 2017

In Japan

Now where the hell is the lift?! We’re struggling with our suitcases to get down to the platform at Kanayama Station in Nagoya, Japan. There’s usually a lift but we don’t know the station. Out of nowhere, a woman points us in the right direction. No request from us: she just reads the situation and throws us a little help in the middle of her daily commute.

I’m in Japan for the First International Landcare Conference. The formal courtesy of the Japanese makes an immediate impression. Endless hellos and goodbyes, thank yous. Surprising at first, then charming, then a little tiring, until I give up and go with it and bow. Behind this formality lies a sensitivity to social space: a stranger reads a traveller’s predicament and helps. She’s not a stranger of course - this is her home, and her social duty is to help.

Travelling with seven Australians and one Kiwi on the preconference tour, I am struck by the way we address the space between. We don’t temper our noisy outgoing natures. We’re friendly and well-meaning, but blunt, lumbering about in a culture where the first move is to bow out of respect not just for the other, but for the business of negotiating a shared social life.

We’re visiting Shinshiro, a rural area 100 kms out of Nagoya, to meet with Akira Takahashi, a forester supporting the local community make more of its timber resources. Planted post-war, the cypress pine in these steep valleys made good money until international supply in the 1980s brought the price right down. People took jobs in neighbouring manufacturing areas, and gave up looking after their lots. Families have forgotten what they own, and children don’t think much of owning a bit of rural land. The few who still work the forests are in heading into their 80s.

A well-tended Cypress Pine lot

Akira introduces himself as a forest detective, tracking down who owns what in the forests, and showing the locals how they might go back to using local timber for heating houses and greenhouses. We head into the forest to see the pines, well-managed lots climbing up the slopes and those that have been left to grow untended. The afternoon light catches the shift to autumn in the deciduous trees.

Akira Takahashi, Shinshiro
Next morning at the community centre, we find that Akira has a couple more strings to his bow. Timber harvested locally buys a sum in a local currency that can be used to buy services from local businesses, or cashed in (if people choose) for hard cash. The 30 or so timber harvesters gather monthly to hear what has been harvested and what has been spent locally. Keeping track of the local currency brings them together and strengthens their commitment to harvesting. It builds the motivation to bring other families and their forgotten forest lots into the scheme.

He’s an outsider, Akira says. It has taken time for people to trust him. I’m struck by his vision and his patience. He’s using a local currency to make the value of logging visible in the community. The scheme is leverage too to bring local government in with a subsidy added to what the market will pay for local timber. He senses the space between himself and others, and what it will allow. As we put forward our questions and suggestions, I watch him attending to the space we make together. That’s the learning I take with me as we pile onto the bus, rowdy Antipodeans, for the next leg of our tour.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare, ross.colliver@bigpond.com

By the fire

All those months of cold, waiting for warm days, and now I’m sad. It’s the fire, you see. I need the fire less and less, and I miss it already. The summer I moved to Riddells, Fred Barlow helped get my wiring in shape. He was solicitous but insistent - I must set myself up with adequate heating. ‘We have long winters here,’ he said. ‘You don’t want to get cold.’

I settled on a modest steel box from New Zealand, just enough to heat my small house, with a window that would let me see the fire. Eight years on, we have formed a close relationship. When people ask me if I have a dog, I say, no I don’t, but I’ve got a fire. They seem similar to me: I tend the fire through the day and the evenings, and it gives me companionship. Warmth, yes, but more than that, it demands my attention and care. The fire responds precisely to my care or lack of it.

There’s the work of fetching wood, stacking in a load for the week ahead, getting a range of sizes ready, from great lumps through to smaller pieces good for instant flame. This year’s firewood was not fully dry (I had words with my supplier), but the stack from last year is bone dry and good to mix in with the damp wood to get it going, and I’ve played them off against each other.

Then I must understand where the fire is in its cycles of arising and falling away, and think ahead to what I and the fire will need. Is the evening coming on cold? An extra log then, so that all is well-established before I tamp it down in an hour’s time and head for bed. Or, the house is warm now from the morning sun falling through the windows, but it’s still cold and there’s cloud around. I’ll keep the fire ticking over low, so I can stir it up if the day closes over.

I must read the fire’s state precisely, and make good decisions. Which pieces are right to take it from its dawn slumber to morning warmth? And now, at the start of the evening, I have loaded in a broad meaty chunk of red gum to carry me into the night. I know the fire has the body for it, a glowing bed of coals and half-consumed pieces, ready to wrap themselves around this old tree from up along the Murray River, bringing its next transformation. The flue settings too require artful attention. I must let just the right amount of air through to let the fire offer up the heat the house needs at each point of the day and night.

There’s a way of thinking that we have, when we switch on the light or fill up the car or go online, that these basics will be available to us as a constant stream. Uninterrupted. At our command. For us. When the constant supply is broken for some reason (the power fails, Telstra is down or overloaded), we are disturbed, unsettled, indignant. Our servants have deserted us, and our anger speaks of our sudden vulnerability. It points to our hubris too: we assume that the world should be on tap for us.

Relying on a wood fire, the starting point is my vulnerability and my dependence. I must care for the fire if the fire is to care for me. The same reciprocity applied when we grew our food, grains and vegetables, digging yams, hunting the roo, slaughtering a sheep. We have lived like this for so many generations, it must have entered our genetic code. We need to wake this reciprocity up, for the denial of our dependence on the natural world is at the root of our indifference to its present anguish. We are earthly creatures. If we care for the land, the land will care for us.

A couple of years before her death, my Aunt Beth replaced her fire with a gas fire: too much work she said. As my hands get weaker, I can understand that, but I fear the day I can’t tend the fire. I would lose this intimacy with another living being, my constant through winter. I give, and the fire gives back. Coming out at night, awake for no good reason, to sit beside its deep glow in the dark of the night, no lights on, just the lick of flame around the dark wood, the tick of coals falling slightly apart: what better company can a human have?

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare, ross.colliver@bigpond.com