Last month I made the long journey back to the Tokachi Millennium Forest in Hokkaido. My annual visit, which was curtailed by the pandemic, had run to three years of absence and the impact of Covid had made the distance feel more profound than usual. In this time, isolation during lockdown, two snowbound winters and the garden closed and running on a skeletal staff for two growing seasons, brought a particular kind of quiet to the foot of the mountain.
Nature continued to run its course, uninterrupted and growing thickly in the brief northern summer. The Sasa bamboo that the garden team keep carefully in check in an orbit around the more cultivated parts of the garden, returned like an incoming tide. Cut once a year in the autumn to encourage the indigenous flora of the forest, the clearances had a dual purpose. Firstly, to recalibrate the woodland flora after the initial clearances by the 19th century settlers created an imbalance, allowing the Sasa to overwhelm the forest. Secondly to impose a managed domain. The bears that live on the mountain and use the bamboo as cover are not to be confronted, but they are also respectful of the open ground created by its removal. The garden team has been careful to only take as much ground as it could tend with available labour and a balance was struck that worked without having to erect fences. But during the pandemic the landscape took on another life and with energies pulled back to the essentials and the silence of a garden quietened by closure, the bears came back with the Sasa.
The Millennium Forest is run on the principle of satoyama, the ethos of taking only as much as you need from the land and living in harmony with your surroundings. In the past this would play out in a settlement having an influence on the land that was truly sustainable, the cultivated ripples of the hand of man becoming increasingly less impactful as they reached into the forest. Day to day cultivation was confined to the first ripple, close to the buildings, open farmland provided the next ripple and the last saw the forest being used for foraged wild foods and woodland materials on a strict rotation.
When we designed the peopled landscape at Tokachi our model was to follow suit, with the cultivated garden as the horticultural heart and the cultivated forest a woodland band of biodiversity. It is a place that echoes the systems of the past and we hope allows the people that come to the park a way in to being closer to nature. A safe place to observe it, to strike a balance and to learn to care for the environment in the process.
I returned to find the domain we had gently carved into the forest altogether wilder. To open the gardens again and to make them safe, the Sasa had once again been cleared. The cultivated gardens had been checked, for you can see where there have not been the number of hands it had become accustomed to. Head Gardener, Midori Shintani and her Assistant Head Gardener, Shintaro Sasagawa, have had to be resourceful. Not least as a support to each other in their isolation, but also in working out where and how best to use their energies to ensure the place feels nurtured.
The act of nurturing is a very tangible thing in a garden and it has been important to Midori and Shintaro that, when the visitors returned, they were welcomed by care and good feeling. With my knowledge of the place and what it takes to keep it, I was concerned that the gardens would have suffered in isolation, but I was happy to see that, at the heart of things, the gardens were very much beating. The kitchen garden brimming and the Meadow Garden, now fifteen years old, still evolving and in balance.
The park was designed with the big idea that it would be sustainable for a thousand years. Upon returning it was heartening in many ways to see how quickly nature had reclaimed its territory and to see the push and pull of our inputs so easily swayed by these more powerful forces. At this most alarming of tipping points with our climate, it could be argued that the very act of making a garden pushes against the tide of what we actually need to be doing to take better care of the world.
However, in the efforts the team make to care so humbly for the environment at the Millennium Forest, I see such potential to strike a negotiable balance that is both mindful and instructive. The gardens are the meeting place for a conversation with nature and so, Midori and Shintaro, I salute you for your efforts. For your care and consideration for this place and for judging so carefully how to expend the precious energy it takes to work in tune and authentically. Positive energy begets positive energy. It has its own momentum and the potential to carry us through adversity, to engage with the natural world and not be fearful of it. To be the responsible custodians that we need to be right now.
Words & photographs: Dan Pearson
Published 2 September 2023