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Country Gentleman: 'Lost words'

Fallen Japanese horse chestnuts are seen in the Afan Woodland. (Photo courtesy of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

A few years ago a Welsh friend gave me a beautifully illustrated book entitled "Lost Words." It was written by the British naturalist poet Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris. Since then "Lost Words" has become a sensation in Britain, with a campaign to place a copy in every primary school in the country.

"Lost Words" certainly resonated with me. So what "lost words" are we talking about? Not words that have fallen out of use because the object or subject of that word no longer exists, like some long-gone extinct dinosaur. No. They are native British nature words, names of animals, birds and plants that still exist, still survive in Britain and many other places. It's just that British children, who soon grow up to be adults, no longer recognize or register these creatures in their consciousness, words such as acorn, dandelion, kingfisher, heron, otter, conker and so on. All of these living things also have names in Japanese, although "conker" is perhaps a very special children's word that would be otherwise referred to as "horse chestnut" in everyday English.

Almost 70% of Japan is covered with trees. Admittedly about 40% of that is comprised of single-species plantations of conifers such as the Japanese cedar (or cryptomeria), larch, cypress and so on. Only about 2% of the original old-growth forest of Japan survives. Even so, from Hokkaido in the north to Iriomote in the south, from deep valleys to high mountainside, Japan has an outstanding variety of indigenous trees, and each and every one of them has a name. Sadly though, if a graduate from a Japanese university can name and describe a total of just 10 Japanese trees then they go to the top of the class. I should point out that including small trees, such as Japanese pepper trees, we have over 140 indigenous species of Japanese trees in our little northern Nagano C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust. As for the total number of trees that have been around since the Jomon era, the number varies according to experts, between 1,300 to 1,600 species. All with names. Consider the depth and wealth of language just to encompass trees!

Even young people who are interested or curious enough to come and listen to an old blue-eyed fart pontificate about forests do not have the vocabulary they need to understand what I am trying to say.

I don't want to talk to young adults as if they were kindergarten kids because there are a few, a special few, who do have some, if not all, of the "nature words."

On the other hand, pick at random children or young adults and show them images of fantasy game characters, 'anime' characters, or mascot characters created for cities, various projects and so on and they can identify dozens, if not hundreds. They dwell in a world of illusion. Nature is alive, it is reality, but the nature I knew as a boy is fading so fast, at a pace more rapid than at any time in recorded human history. We need the magical words, the names, so that we can slow -- if not stop -- this decline.

Oh dear... I grow old and crotchety, when I come across students who can only name and describe five trees I tend to dismiss them as gormless idiots, and of course that is wrong. I'm wrong. In my defense, please allow me to point out that since the age of 22, when I first came to Japan in 1962 I have tried to learn nature words and names, yet now I feel more alien in this country than I did when I first arrived. Nowadays it feels as if I can only communicate with older people. It seems as if younger people hear the sounds I make, vaguely Japanese, but they don't get the image, culture, history. They can't feel the magic.

Let me return to the English word "conker." When it comes out from its thick, green protective shell, a conker is hard and round, as shiny as the eye of a horse. Little kids love to pick them up and play with them. In my time boys would select a conker, drill a hole in it, then thread the hole with a strong string. The game was that one boy (never girls in those days) would dangle his conker while his opponent would aim, swing and try to smash his rival's conker with his own. The surviving conker won the contest. The objective was to own a conker that could smash as many opponents as possible. Broken pieces of conker would litter school playgrounds and in time the game was mostly banned. Another factor was that a hard conker on a string made a handy weapon to whack another boy's head in a heated dispute.

Let us come back to Japan. Thirty-six years ago I planted a horse chestnut sapling, grown from seed, on land that now houses our Horse Lodge. It has grown to be a fine tree, and if nothing untoward happens it will continue to grow and flourish for a couple of hundred years after I die. Each year it produces fragrant white candelabra blossoms from which bees can make wonderful honey. Its big, green palmate leaves give cooling shade in summer, and in autumn, lots of shiny round, brown conkers.

Western references dismiss the horse chestnut (conker) as being 'inedible' but Tohoku is one of my favorite regions of Japan, so I know and like "tochimochi" and am familiar with the effort it takes to boil the horse chestnuts, take out the flesh and wash away the bitterness. Along with acorns, since Jomon times, horse chestnuts have been a staple winter food. We should not forget that, hard times may come again.

When I invite visitors to our Horse Lodge and point out this magnificent tree, tell them what it is and boast about the planting I get hardly any reaction at all.

I wish that I could be transported in a time machine and bring that skinny, gangly Welsh boy -- now grown to be a grumpy old man -- and show him the tree, the tree with Kurohime Mountain framed behind it and tell him that I, no, we had planted it. This would be especially good if it could be a time when the conkers were falling. "Look lad," I would say "this is our tree." What would the boy say? Maybe just "Wow!"

("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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