The Silence of the Sages

Highland Beeches (Photos by Yoshimitsu Yagi)

A forest in late autumn is a place of silence. But if you listen hard, you can detect the chirping of birds mixed in with the low rustle of foliage--the pulse of living nature.
You can hear it in the beech forests near Mount Chausu (1,415 meters) in the northeast of Aichi Prefecture. The area is contiguous with Nagano and Gifu Prefectures, a prominent mountain district where peaks rise in succession in vast folds.

The beech, also found in mainland America and Europe, is a popular species of deciduous tree that was once seen all over Japan from Honshu to Kyushu. It does particularly well in snowy districts compared with other species, and there used to be many beautiful beech forests. But the sight of vast tracts of beech is now rare because of their replacement by plantations of cedar, cypress, and other species. In fact, the Shirakami mountain area in Aomori Prefecture, where vast tracts of natural beech have been preserved, has even been designated a World Natural Heritage site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

The beech shows a different face each season: in spring, it is freshly verdant, in summer it sports a deep green, and in autumn it gradually yellows. It is impossible to put into words the grace of these subtle changes in deciduous trees. And finally the winter winds blow, and the luxuriant canopy that hid the sky comes swirling down to earth to cover the ground underfoot. When you walk on this carpet of leaves, you can feel the vestigial warmth of undying nature. The beech trunks are often speckled with different kinds of lichen, lending them an almost human expressiveness. When you linger at the base of one of these trunks, it is as if the forest trees are all sages, silently watching you.

In earlier times, the hills near villages had forests in which beech was one of the main species, and the blessings of nature flowed in abundance. Fowl and beasts fed on acorns and other fruits of the forest. Fallen wood and dead leaves provided natural fuel. And the forest was a rich store of water resources. This ecosystem was able to produce by itself the things that humans need.

Even today the forest provides us with a place to immerse our spirits in invigorating greenery. The now-cherished beech forests of Aichi Prefecture are enthusiastically protected by the government and private groups. Rambling routes for walkers and nature-watchers have been laid, and facilities for field activities have been set up nearby.

The blossoming flowers and shrubs of the highlands color the spring, and then summer arrives, and in autumn, people flock to pick mushrooms. The forest marks the seasons like a calendar. Even though mountains cover 67% of the country, the Japanese tend to forget what blessings are to be found there. But to walk a mountain path in late autumn is to feel the urge to bow one's head in awe at the profundity of nature.