16th April 2019, by Jamie Rhodes
It is the height of Summer in Tokyo, 2017. Outside, cicada pierce the sultry air under the sweltering heat of the midday sun. Inside, I am sat comfortably reading within an air-conditioned cafeteria on one of the upper floors of a newly built high-rise office building. The book in my hand is Feral by George Monbiot. Completely enraptured, the chapter I am reading is about a charity that is trying to restore the Caledonian Forest – Trees for Life.
I am filled with a sense of loss for a landscape I did not realise had existed. However, this is quickly replaced by a surge of hope for the future and excitement about what people with a common vision can achieve. I put the book down and look out across the tangled maze of buildings and advertising hoardings that is central Tokyo. Pre-recorded bird song fizzles out of speakers hidden amongst the plastic foliage of the cafeteria. Something has changed within me, and I will never be the same.
I left Japan with a refreshed feeling of purpose, but also with questions. For several years I had worked in sterile corporate environments in Tokyo while plotting my weekend escapes to wilder surroundings at every opportunity. Wandering amongst the dense forests which are hemmed in by Japan's central mountains had first provoked the central question that led to me picking up Feral and, consequently, volunteering for Trees for Life - why isn't Scotland this forested?
I get the sense that something has changed within each person sitting beside me, and that we will never be the same.
Fast forward nearly two years. It is ostensibly Spring in Dundreggan. Following my return to the UK in the Autumn of 2017, I have just completed my second week of volunteering with Trees for Life. Outside, a buzzard cries as it surveys the glen below, soaring high upon the biting wind. Inside, logs crack and split in the fireplace as I sit listening to my fellow volunteers share their thoughts on the past week. This is one of my favourite parts of the experience - hearing the impact that the simple act of planting of trees has had upon each individual. I get the sense that something has changed within each person sitting beside me, and that we will never be the same.
I am still just as passionate about the project of rewilding as an end in itself - it is hard not to be willingly swept up by the long-term vision that Trees for Life has painted for the restoration of a truly rewilded Caledonian Forest. Before I returned to the UK, on a trip to the Shiretoko Peninsula on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, I saw uninterrupted vistas of native forest, brown bears fishing for salmon along the river's edge and white-tailed eagles hunting along the wooded shore - all within the same day. Sometimes, when planting trees at Dundreggan which I sincerely hope will grow up to become the vanguard of the forest's triumphant return, I like to close my eyes and remember what I saw that day. However, in my mind’s eye I'm not in Japan anymore. This is Scotland, long after we have come and gone, and our trees now stretch far and wide, stopping only below the natural treeline of the tallest peaks. And somewhere out of sight a brown bear is feeding its cubs on freshly caught salmon while above an eagle surveys the forest scene below.
However, lost in such visions (however pleasing), it would be easy to completely overlook some of the most important consequences of participating in a Conservation Week - the feelings of camaraderie, shared endeavour, and collective achievement which are created as a result. Of course, the goal of the week is to plant native trees that will grow to propagate and maintain a restored Caledonian Forest. Many people volunteer, naturally, with this goal in the forefront of their minds - as I did and still do. Yet a week away from phone signals, sedentary activities and the din of the city can have a strange effect on people. They begin to talk and share how they are feeling. They begin to help and teach one another. They begin to laugh, and smile.
To me, volunteering at Trees for Life is an amalgamation of the two things described above: the satisfaction of knowing that I am contributing to a long-term vision much, much larger than myself and, equally as important, the act of just simply connecting with and creating shared experiences with other like-minded volunteers.
I have planted many trees at Dundreggan. However, I have planted in my mind just as many precious memories created together with my fellow volunteers. I hope that, just as the trees will grow and become part of a mutually self-sustaining ecosystem, so too will those memories be nurtured, enriching our lives within the fertile soil of our collective imaginations.
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