Sometimes you have to cut down trees to save a forest. That is what Takeshi Maeda, a passionate conversationalist and woodcutter does.
Most days, you can find Maeda in Tenryu Birin (“beautiful forest”), a man-made cedar and cypress forest established by activist Meizen Kinpara during the Meiji period to prevent flooding. “When I lie down in the forest after eating my lunch, leaves whiffle above my head,” Maeda says at TEDxHamamatsu. “I’m really satisfied with this work; forestry is wonderful work,” he says. “If we don’t cut trees, forests go bad and landslides happen.”
The problem? Forestry is also a business — and a lot of resources are wasted. “A lot of trees which aren’t profitable are just cut and dumped in the mountains,” he says. “We dump trees meaninglessly to save forests; I could never accept this as natural.”
Maeda realized that only people working in the forest realized how many trees were being dumped, and most of these people saw it as inevitable. He couldn’t accept that.
“I thought if I told this story to people living in cities, something could be changed. I decided to leave the mountain and go out to cities. I wanted to tell people living in the cities what we do in forests; I wanted to tell them about the problems, realities, and, of course, the beautiful parts of forests. I would be a ‘face-to-face lumberjack.’”
He started by hosting woodworking classes for students and giving lectures about forests in schools; soon he was inviting people to come visit him in his office — the forest — and showing them how things like forest thinning, seedling planting, pruning, and managing undergrowth. “In a well-maintained forest, undergrowth grows when light reaches the ground,” Maeda told the Creative City Hamamatsu blog. “You could call a woodcutter a light coordinator.”
He created a program called Kicoroの森 (heart of the forest) that takes people out into Tenryu Birin and shows the ins-and-outs of forest maintenance and the journey of wood after it leaves its home.
The government of Japan caught on — launching wood education courses (Mokuiku) for young students — and even a traveling wood education caravan. The program aims to encourage Japanese children to connect with the forest at a young age and understand “the cycle of tree planting, cultivation, logging and timber use in Japanese planted forests.”
As part of his crusade to not let any tree go to waste, Maeda has made a blend of tea from the leaves of a small evergreen (Lindera umbellata) that clusters in the underbrush. The plant often “gets in the way,” he says, but has an incredible smell.
“Whenever I picked up a branch of it and let visitors sniff, almost all of them were surprised and said, ‘It smells good!’ … I realized could use the leaves of tree for tea. Now you can take the tea at a café in Hamamatsu city.”
The tea is an invitation for people to think about the forests of Japan, Maeda says. “I think that seeing forests as familiar places is an important step for the future of forests,” he says. “People don’t only need cedars or cypresses. They need other plants, environments, and the forests themselves.”
Maeda also works as the lead lumberjack for Fujimock Fes, an event that is part maker faire/part woodworking workshop/part forestry course. Participants head into the forest below Mount Fuiji with professional foresters like Maeda and learn to cut their own wood. They then use this wood in the Kamakura Fab Lab to make forest-inspired tech creations.
Amazing things have come out of the festival, Maeda says, from a clock to plates to speakers to a phone charging station. One participant quit his job to start making wood products. “He was attracted to the charm of the woods very much,” Maeda says. “He said to me, laughing, ‘My life was disturbed by the woods!’” Maedas says he understands the feeling.
Designer Kotaro Abe was inspired by Maeda and his fellow foresters to create The Tenryu Project, an effort to make chairs from the wood discarded at Tenryu sawmills. “The Tenryu Project aims to discover the new distribution system for woods; in this case, between wood-workers and creators,” Abe writes of the project. “Recently, the use of [wood is] getting to be replaced by the other resources such as petroleum, and it causes the destruction of ecosystems.”
“Forestry is a kind of relay,” Maeda says. “Each generation passes the forests like a baton. My grandfather planted, my father grew and I cut the trees. I want the forest that I would like to create to be passed on to the next generations.”
To learn more, watch Maeda’s entire talk below: