Chinju-no-mori

October 10, 2010

In Homesteading, Tokyo Style, posted back in April, I mentioned the Japanese practice of protecting sensitive environments by giving them religious significance. At the time I didn’t realize there was actually a specific term for this, chinju-no-mori. Following is a passage by the Japanese environmentalist and reafforestation expert Akira Miyawaki that explains the idea of chinju-no-mori very well. It is from the book The Healing Power of Forests: The Philosophy behind Restoring Earth’s Balance with Native Trees by Akira Miyawaki and Elgene O. Box (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 2006).

If we liken nature to a human face, the areas comparable to the vulnerable eyes are the most sensitive spots, such as mountaintops, steep slopes and ridges, and coastal areas. It was forested areas at these sensitive spots that our ancestors set aside. There was always the chance that someone would unthinkingly wipe out these forests, however, so in order to protect them people chose them as sites for worshipping the mountain gods, Hachimann the war god, or the gods of the harvest, water, or sea. A belief was inculcated in the people that “If you destroy the gods’ forest, you will suffer divine retribution.” Thus nature’s weak spots were preserved and matured. These forests are called chinju-no-mori, the forests where the gods dwell.


In today’s climate of ‘enlightened’ scientific rationalism threats of divine retribution will likely be dismissed as silly superstitions, at best, but such ‘quaint’ customs often involve the communication of empirical knowledge. “Cut the trees on a steep slope in a high rainfall area and you will experience landslides.” We do not control the forces that come together in such a landslide. It is ‘divine’ in origin. Divine: of God, of Nature, of Gaia….

Back in May I went to a chinju-no-mori in the mountains of Hanamaki to collect magnolia leaves for making shoyu. This particular chinju-no-mori was very large, basically the whole mountain, but, unfortunately, it seems that such extensive chinju-no-mori have become the exception, not the rule. Since the second world war modernization and development have been Japan’s catch cries with an accompanying shift in religious consciousness. The view of the universe and the human place within it, developed within the context of the nature venerating traditions of Shinto and even older indigenous animist traditions, along with the Chinese influence of Daoism and Cha’an Buddhism (Zen), have gradually been usurped by the western religion of scientific rationalism. While Buddhism and Shinto are still the official religions of Japan many of the practices associated with them, such as chinju-no-mori, have become little more than thin symbolic shadows. ‘Development’ has led to many chinju-no-mori being reduced to a mere handful of trees surrounding a shrine.

The profound understanding of our ancestors of how ecosystems function has been replaced by a reductionist understanding that sees ‘resources’ that can be ‘managed’ (exploited) to fuel ‘development.’  And development is an unquestionable good! Starts to sound suspiciously like religious belief… In the face of the very scary and very large environmental problems that we are confronted with many people are trusting that science and technology will produce some wonder-solution to save us all. A bit like a messiah returning to whisk us all off to heaven. And just to push the Judeo-christian religious analogy a little further, the fact that we are expecting to be saved by the very same methodologies that have got us this deep in the shit is not too different from worshipping a vengeful God who creates, punishes, saves and damns.

While there can be no returning to some imagined golden age there is the opportunity to reconnect with the wisdom of our global ancestors and to the practices that served them so well. We may not be able to replicate them, as we no longer live in the same world, but the wisdom and foresight of past practices may inform new expressions appropriate to our contemporary context.

There is also an urgent need to start asking some very fundamental questions about where we are and where we are going. To critically assess contemporary dogmas and the assumptions on which they are based. Looking even further back to where we have been may help shed some light on the matter.

The project of civilization may not be all that it is claimed to be. That it is inevitable is certainly a fallacy (there is no solid theory or general agreement as to why civilizations first arose) as is the notion that pre-civilized life was one of drudgery and scarcity [Cf. Marshall Sahlins, The Original Affluent Society]. On the contrary, scarcity and the drudgery of work are the inventions of civilizations. Most non-civilized cultures did not bother to store food because they knew that the world was naturally abundant. Feast today for tomorrow we will feast again! The notion that the world is not naturally abundant comes into being with the rise of agriculture – the foundation of civilizations. It was something of a self-fufilling prophecy: agricultural activities required deforestation and led to the depletion of the natural fertility of the land and therefore scarcity of food became a very real threat. Add to this the population explosions brought about by the agricultural-civilizing process and a very dangerous situation arises. With the food producing forests fast disappearing and exponential increases in the number of mouths to feed a failed harvest could easily mean famine. Two consecutive failed harvests would most definitely result in disaster.

The history of European civilization is a history of famine until the colonial projects captured new supply zones all around the globe (when the threat of starvation was shifted from western Europe to her supply zones in the newly colonized lands and eastern Europe). France, for example, considered one of the “privaliged” countries, “experienced 10 general famines during the tenth century; 26 in the eleventh; 2 in the twelfth; 4 in the fourteenth; 7 in the fifteenth; 13 in the sixteenth; 11 in the seventeenth; and 16 in the eighteenth. We obviously offered this eighteenth century summary without guarantee as to its accuracy: the only risk it runs is of over-optimism, because it omits the hundreds and hundreds of local famines.” [Fernand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 39].

Historians have speculated that the earliest urban civilizations began in Egypt and Mesopotamia because the land was flat and so not subject to the same severity of soil erosion as hilly or mountainous landscapes. “They calculate that most other urban civilizations were able to pass their genes for only seventy generations before they ran out of soil.” [Manuel De Landa,  A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 1997) citing Vernon Hill Carter and Tom Dale, Top Soil and Civilization (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974)].

The deeper one looks at the history of civilizations the more it seems that many of the so-called achievements of civilizations are in fact solutions to problems that only arose within the project of civilization. First we created squalid urban environments where disease became rampant before we figured out how to keep the over-crowded cities a little more sanitary. Many, if not most, medical achievements are to cure diseases that were completely unknown to non-civilized peoples. Many of these diseases were the result of the domestication of animals which led to humans and their domestic animals living in close proximity, within the walls of early cities. Many other diseases that haunted early urban civilizations resulted from the globalized trade (or plunder) that became essential once each city-region’s own resources had been severely depleted. (Even where land was plundered there was still an ‘equitable’ trading of disease.) All ‘advancements’ in agriculture have been responses to the decline of soil fertility and the need to raise productivity to feed the ever increasing populations resulting from agricultural-urbanized civilization.

As I said earlier, it is not a matter of returning to an idyllic past – it never existed as it does in our romanticized nostalgic versions of it – and besides, we’ve gone way too far down a different path. The real value in understanding something of how pre-civilized peoples lived is in that it shows us that another world is possible. It reminds us that properly functioning ecosystems have a natural abundance that supports myriad life forms that are all dynamically connected. Humans, aware of their place within this system, in touch with the intricacies and complexities of their environment will self-regulate their populations so as not to put undue stress on the system. They will develop cultures, ways of living, that preserve that which gives them life. The ‘development’ (materialist/capitalist) path that our culture has pursued has evicted us from our real place as part of abundant and dynamic ecosystems.

In confronting the current round of impending environmental catastrophes we would do well to look further than the types of band-aid solutions that inform the debates around sustainability or climate change. For it is not just our environment that we have recklessly exploited and degraded. As we are an integral part of the environment and not separate from it, we have been recklessly exploiting and degrading ourselves.

If you get on the wrong bus you are going to end up in the wrong place…It is time to get off the bus…and confront the driver.

Wangari Maathai [from the film Taking Root]

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