The Maule River estuary outfalls at Constitución, one of the hardest hit communities following the tsunami in 2010. Extreme pulses of inundation are common to estuarine environments where marine sand meets river silt. At present, many estuaries along the Chilean coast are infilled by coastal concretization that intervenes between marine and terrestrial realms. The wave action following an earthquake brought silty inundation, erosion, and deposition to the estuarine coast, a disturbance that is neither unprecedented nor particularly unique. The lineage of estuary formation across time is described by paleo-geological analysis which confirms that the southwest coast of Chile is a remarkably active area o
There is a difference between growing trees and planting trees, a distinction that deserves notice. While planting trees is an easy way to count carbon credits, or offset other activities; it disregards the stewardship between the plant and the planter. It creates a dependency, unlike those trees that grow of their own accord. When trees are planted by humankind, location presents itself as a design challenge. More often than not, this puts the plant in a situation that requires stewardship: the care of protecting them from predators, watering the roots, and otherwise defending its position. Planting trees requires community, and will not thrive by decree. As Yamada-sensei reminds:
Things changed one day when Hirotaka was checking on his trees and noticed a few had been deliberately cut down. He immediately summoned the entire village and found the culprit. Legend has it that the guilty villager explained how cold his family was and how desperate he had been one night to burn wood for their well-being, and survival. He pleaded with Hirotaka to spare his life. Then, the unexpected dimension arises: Hirotaka let him free! The villagers were taken by surprise at his sympathy. Soon, belief shifted, and the village saw their lord as a genuine, and generous soul. They vowed to do everything to support his vision because of this act of true kindness. This is why we have the most beautiful coastal forest in all of Japan, because we still admire the vision of our lord, and the concern he showed for his people. It’s not his forest, it’s our forest.5
Nijinomatsubara falls outside the realm of consumption and greed because it was defended from development for over 400 years. Despite Hirotaka’s mandate to plant a coastal forest, he greedily aimed to create the largest, most impressive one. This ambition was borne of reductionist and hierarchical trends that oriented the village away from creating a tradition. In the process, an alternative was stimulated. It is a pleasure to describe alternatives, especially in a case where making history took the ambitions of an esoteric community across centuries and without significant interruption. Not only are the adjacent villagers still planting trees, but they are also still taking care of almost a million individual specimens that are thriving across the site. The potency of legacy is made durable, as the accumulation of relationships between plant and human life close the gap between the landscape of risk and the trends of human settlement.
We are surrounded by the vast machinery of everyday reality convincing us that development will eventually be promoted. A forest like Nijinomatsubara would inevitably be replaced by a more lucrative land-base—how can a public landscape hold up against privatized tourism? There are few precedents that would convince us otherwise. We are led to believe there is no alternative.
“The meanings landscapes hold are not just metaphorical and metaphysical, but real, their messages practical; understanding may spell survival or extinction.”
Anne Whiston Spirn, The Language of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 11.
— Anne Whiston Spirn, The Language of Landscape
Walking through Nijinomatsubara is nothing short of magical. Upon crossing into the forest from the village side or along the beach, an immediate change in temperature couples with silence, as the wind dissipates. In this threshold, the abundance of black pine increases as shade accumulates. Stillness is cast in shadows as twisted trunks and drooping dark branches form columns against the horizon. The foliage turns to needles, clustered high overhead, which opens the path and releases the view ahead. Now we are amongst the pines where the smell is characteristic of pine needles and sticky resin. But it is the sound that mutes as the ground turns soft and spongy, mingled only with the sound of cicidas. The sound of adjacent waves are almost entirely muted.
Under the Pines
Under the Pines
I wish to write about the acceptance of change, the most pressing amendatory practice offered by retreat. In Nijinomatsubara, there is a subset of change expressed between human caregivers that “weed out” broadleaf trees, and the expression of ecological succession. This is a culture-versus-nature narrative, that positions the historically contingent and culturally embedded image of a black pine forest, in relation to the forest underfoot—the dormant collection of seeds under the pines.
In the forests’ rhizosphere, leafy trees are germinating, and colonizing the ground plane. Each sprout is visible as individual silhouettes of elegantly spontaneous saplings framed by carpets of coniferous needles. Of note, is that one of the most impressive volunteers is black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) a plant that enriches the soil because it is a legume. Leguminous plants develop nodules on their roots, and each nodule contains symbiotic bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen. Black locust is opportunistic, and grows rapidly in degraded soils. The succession worth noting is the advance of black locust in the gaps created when black pine suffers from layers of disturbance, including a community hand weeding black locust sprouts. Slowly, and noticeably, this century is bringing a less visible risk ashore, as the black pine forest of Nijinomatsubara is giving way to a more deciduous future due to the effects of a plant disease that attacks the pines, not the locusts.
Ernest Henry Wilson (1876–1930) was a plant hunter who traveled the world in search of unique specimens, collecting seeds, root stock, and plant pressings. Thousands of specimens persist from his episodes along with glass-plate photographs that individually record the value of plant life to the culture, a testament to turn of the century optimism for natural history and the emerging fields of botany and ecology. Multiple expeditions to Japan between 1914–1919 provide a record of his expeditions, including these photographs of coastal forests. Wilson notes the abundance of pines planted as windbreaks to shield agricultural land from salt spray and restrain mobile sand. But Wilson was more interested in the morphology of black pine, due to the persistence of upland species in bottomland environments.
When a pine tree suffers from Pine Wilt Disease (PWD) it tends to deteriorate in two waves. First, the needles discolor changing from green to yellow-gray to a reddish brown. But this is just a symptom. The overall effect makes the tree seem to wilt from the outside because the trunk remains strong and sturdy as each shoot tip transforms. The transformation occurs at the tip and travels back through entangled threads, as its branches become less active and more brittle, desiccated. Although black pine is a tough evergreen because it tolerates both salt spray and extended drought periods, it struggles through this disease. While this struggle inevitably affects memory it also produces possibility. The pines’ understory shifts when global climate disturbances land, when airborne and atmospheric pathogens touch ground. Change guides us and guides the story of Nijinomatsubara.
The second wave of the disease hits the wilted twigs, as the otherwise lifeless needles become brittle and cause the tips of each shoot to whither, eventually breaking entire branches.
7This is how it appears from the ground, a significant transformation of the canopy that eventually leaves behind a dramatic silhouette.
For more on pine wilt disease, and how it affects plants see for instance: Kazuyoshi Futai, Pine Wilt Disease and the Decline of Pine Forests (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2021).
Pine wilt disease cannot be blamed on one single pathogen or insect. Rather, the disease reiterates the relationship between a little worm called a nematode (or roundworm) and a beetle called a pine sawyer. The nematode is known scientifically as Bursaphelenchus xylophilus and the pine sawyer is referred to as Monochamus alternatus. First, the nematode finds its way into the resin canals of branches. It eats away at the canal causing ruptures and air pockets that make it very difficult and eventually impossible for the tree to transport water to its branches. This does not kill but weakens the tree. What kills the tree is the communication from the worm to the beetle, using the invitation of a sick tree, an exchange described to us by Akira Tanaka, a local ecologist. Tanaka-sensei explained that the beetles emerge in the spring to feast on young shoots, and overwhelm already wilted, weakened trees.
8As they move from the tips of each canopy to other trees, they carry with them just enough of the nematode to transmit it to otherwise unaffected trees.
This story was transcribed by Naoko Asano from our conversation with Akira Tanaka, 14 May 2019.
A true mark of entering a landscape is the readiness to accept uncertainty, whether you hold long acquaintance with it or arrive as a visitor. What Nijinomatsubara taught me is that you must find your own way, and there is always the surprise of more awareness—“to see the earth as it sees itself.”
The effects of the disease are typically studied for their impact on forest resources—reduced ecology is tallied for its effects on economy. But in the town of Karatsu, the reduction of forest cover was described to us as a cultural loss. The forest was not ecology, it was history. Somehow the beauty of the pines was a key to the identity of place, despite it being entirely an artificial landscape, wholly designed and managed. Talking with forest keepers made it clear that the forest takes care of the people just as the people take care of the forest. This is a detour in the landscape of retreat worth pursuing because it creates an interplay of multispecies imagination. If there is no alternative configuration, then the black pine ecosystem will not adapt, or evolve. Perhaps to become fully versed in change, and to learn to design with—not against—change means that pathogens must also be allowed to show us the richness of the world.
Planting coastal tsunami-protection forests is a multigenerational project that endures; some forests were planted as early as 1592, and the tradition was sustained until late in the nineteenth century. Most forests relied on planting single species. Like most monocultures, the forest is unable to represent the complexity of a forest and stand vulnerability to attacks from one, or pairs of pathogens and pests such as the Pine Sawyer pictured here. The beetle is relatively harmless on its own, but its vector accumulates rapidly within the high concentration of food presented by the forest.
A rupture twenty-five kilometers deep beneath the Nazca plate, produced the earthquake, triggering a tsunami that traveled along the fault at tectonic junctions. The magnitudinous waves spread beneath the coast until making landfall along the shores between Constitución and Concepción. Magnitude is relative power, and its measurement takes into account the energy released at the source. By comparison, intensity is the strength of the shaking produced by the magnitude.