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Remembering C.W. Nicol: Country gentleman and giant of conservation in Japan

C.W. Nicol is seen surveying glaciers melted by global warming aboard a ship on an Arctic voyage in July, 2015. (Mainichi/Shinya Hagio)

TOKYO -- Writer, explorer, naturalist: C.W. Nicol, who passed away from rectal cancer and other conditions on April 3 aged 79, took on many roles throughout his life. But he himself would usually maintain he was a "country gentleman." He lived his 79 years on this planet personifying his belief to "never forget to be in awe of nature, and live in a way rooted to the earth."

The cancer was discovered in 2016. In 2019, it emerged that it had metastasized, and so followed a period in which Nicol was in and out of hospitals. At the end of March, he was able to return from a hospital in Tokyo to his home in central Japan, ensconced in the forests of Shinano, Nagano Prefecture. But from April 3 his condition took a sudden turn for the worse, and he drew his final breath at a medical facility in the city of Nagano.

On April 4, a private funeral was held among those closest to him. His coffin was carried into the forest close to his home; the Afan Woodland that Nicol and his associates devoted 18 years to restoring from the bare, deforested state they found it in. Asian fawnlilies and Primula farinosa picked in the forest were placed in his coffin, and the sound from the flute of his dear friend and musician Kitaro drifted through the air with the calls of Japanese tits.

For my part, I first made Nicol's acquaintance around 20 years ago. A group of us sailed down the Shimanto River with his friend, the canoeist Tomosuke Noda. After alighting we lit a fire and sat around it while sharing a drink, and Nicol enlightened me as to the ways humans live in connection with nature.

In 2015, I accepted his invitation to go on a voyage with him aboard a vessel traveling through the Arctic. There, we saw glaciers destroyed by global warming, and Inuit people of whom many, in the name of civilization, had given up their hunter-gatherer lifestyles and became addicted to alcohol and drugs. Under the midnight sun, Nicol ruminated, "Humans have forgotten how to live in harmony with and be thankful for the blessings nature gives. What direction is this planet heading in, I wonder."

When he was just 17, Nicol took part in an expedition to the Artic, spending his adolescence there. He would often refer to it as his "school." When he fell into depression and contemplated suicide, an Inuit elder admonished him, saying, "You have yet to leave the song of your life on this world. Live, and pass on your song." Those words stayed with Nicol for the rest of his life, and helped give meaning to his being.

After putting down his roots in Japan, Nicol and his associates took part in efforts to restore devastated forests and rivers. He would invite children affected by disasters and earthquakes, as well as those carrying burdens of the mind or body to visit the forest. There, they could take time to breathe in the natural air deeply, and gaze up at the sky full of stars.

Nicol, Noda and I promised one another two years ago that we would meet in the Afan Woodland in the autumn. But typhoons postponed this idea both years, and our plans to reunite this spring went unfulfilled.

In the will Nicol drew up before his death, he wrote that he wanted to be buried in the Afan Woodland. Going to those woods now is to be reunited with him; the place where those who knew him share their memories.

(Japanese original by Shinya Hagio, City News Department)

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