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Country Gentleman: A dream tree house for a very special cause

The "Tree Dragon" tree house is seen in Higashi Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

Following the 2011 disaster in Tohoku our woodland trust (The C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust) was asked by the city of Higashi Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture to help and advise them on the relocation and building of a new elementary school. Officials from the town had seen what we have done and continue to do here in Nagano and particularly wanted us to help create a light and airy woodland which would be a part of the school, and to help them bring children, some of them traumatized by the disaster, back to healing nature.

The new school would be built on high ground, way above the potential reach of a tsunami, but it wasn't just the school that would be moved, there would be a whole new infrastructure, including a railway station, a hospital, offices and homes. From the start we all knew that this would take at least five years, during which time the children would be in a state of a kind of limbo; many were living in temporary prefabricated homes, and some were being schooled in similar prefabricated classrooms.

The first thing we did was to trim out sick and spindly trees and cut back dense undergrowth, thus bringing light, flowers, and paces to play. We also cut trails, passable either on foot or by horse. Myself, our staff and volunteers worked on this and we involved local children. We turned playing in the woods into chances to learn. The children were taught all kinds of things; how to build safe fires for warmth, for cooking, and for drum-can baths. The children learned names of flowers, trees, birds and animals. It was all fun, but we felt that the children needed a very special base.

Even when small, I dreamt of living in a tree house, like Tarzan. At the age of about 10 I and some other boys had made a huge old hollow oak as our special secret den. We also made shelters out of straight, supple twigs that we cut, bent, and lashed together with string, over which we laid thick thatches of freshly cut bracken, which grows very tall and dense in Britain. We boys never got around to building a tree house so the longing was always somewhere inside me.

To build a very special tree house in Higashi Matsushima we consulted the famous Japanese guru of tree house design and construction, Takashi Kobayashi. He agreed to help us, and with his team of specialists, most of them volunteers, an incredible four-story tree house was built, all of local materials. On the ground floor what I call a "Hobbit House" was built, inside which a fireplace was carved from boulder buried into the slope. Window glass came from a destroyed school. The tree house climbed up a steeply wooded slope, enveloping but not harming a big sycamore and a mountain cherry tree.

It was such a fantastic shape that we called it the "Tree Dragon."

You should have seen the looks of happy wonder on the children's faces when we officially opened the tree house!

Since then almost five years have passed, and the children attend a fine new school. (Miya no Mori Elementary School) During that time the children used the Tree Dragon as their own base and place of shelter from which they played, learned and studied in the woods. Adults used it too. There was even a wedding held there.

Now though we must make a decision. The tree house was built of tree trunks and branches cut out of the woods, not with concrete and expensive seasoned timber. From the start we knew that it would need maintenance, that raw wood would surely decay and need to be replaced. Do we just close the tree house off and let it return to nature, or do we find money and time to maintain the tree house and the memories, dreams and hopes it gave to those children, thus keeping the dream alive and letting future children have their very own special place? Personally I'm all for keeping the dream, but we'll need help. ("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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