Japan: Living Journal Life In Nature Stewardship

Passing of Trees

Zelkovas through the window

In the depths of winter the desire comes to you to plant a seed and shepherd a life. You break the soil and drop in the kernel, then cover it up and wait for the world to shiver and wake. The months go by, bringing the Spring rains, the breath of the South, and the beaming face of the Sun, incubating the loam till veins stir to life. And then one day in June, while absently sticking your face out of the window, the green shoots greet you with their luminous green light, little children out to give the world a try.

And that’s what I did four years ago a year after moving into this apartment. I planted two zelkova seeds and watched them grow along the edge of the tiny garden I have. They grew quickly, almost a meter a year, last year about three meters in just three months. This year they were destined to push above the roof of the apartment building, and spread out in a great canopy of sighing leaves. The two trees shielded my window from the prying eyes of neighbors, blocked the searing summer sun to cool my studio, and entertained me with their Bali shadow puppets upon the curtain. In the midst of this Tokyo grey they were two little arms of hope and joy for me. Just the sound of the leaves rustling when I opened my window would elicit a deep sense of relief.

Zelkovas in the garden

Then, yesterday morning, my doorbell rang. It was my landlord. He’s actually quite an amiable old man, albeit with a hand-wringing, leering-about-money sense of greed about him that never lets me quite trust him. He held his hat in his hands and, bowing profusely, announced that the gardeners would be coming today and removing my trees. “You see, the leaves get stuck in the rain gutters. But don’t worry,” he amended, “They’ll just cut the trees down to their bases, leaving the stumps intact. We won’t remove the trees entirely.”

After experiencing all forms of garden outrage, this was the last straw. In sputtering Japanese (my tongue gets all clay-like when I get emotional in Japanese) I declared, “You’re cutting the trees to their stumps? Just like that? Hokaaay! I don’t know why the hell I picked this apartment with the garden if I can’t use the garden the way I’d like to. I mean if you’re just going to come stamping in here every time you feel like it and rearrange my garden any way you like, then why should I even bother making an effort to take care of the damn thing? Well, why don’t I just make it easy for you? This weekend I’ll get my shears and chop down everything in the garden. Make it totally bare. That way you won’t have to worry about anything clogging up your gutters or attracting any kind of life whatsoever. Okay?”

Needless to say this gesticulating, cross-eyed foreigner losing his cool just rendered my landlord a bit dazed. The smile was gone. “There’s no need to do that! Please don’t misunderstand, you can use the garden any way you like. It’s only the trees that we want to cut down.”

“Ah,” I replied. “Only the trees. Well, I guess cutting them down just to the stumps doesn’t really make sense, does it? I think you’d find it in your interests to get rid of the trees right down to their roots. Otherwise, next thing you know you’ll have them crawling all over the garden again.”

His eyes lit up. “Would you really go for that? To pull the trees out by their roots? That would be most helpful. I’d really appreciate it if we could go ahead and remove the trees entirely. I’ll have the gardeners drop by some time around 10:00 tomorrow morning, okay?”

Zelkova cutters

I know they’re just trees. I’m not supposed to feel anything serious about them, and most certainly not get attached to them. Dogs and cats and horses have their places in our hearts, but trees and cockroaches don’t have souls you see, and therefore their lives are forfeit to casual swiping into oblivion. That they come alive, struggle to continue, and carry out all the same purposes in their lives as you and me means nothing. In the movies people will holler bloody murder if a cat or a dog is mistreated, but no one squeaks a murmur when showing pro wrestlers chewing on worms or heroes’ boots crushing the life out of a cockroach. The same goes for trees.

But for some reason it hurts to see my beloved trees hacked to bits and hauled away. Something in myself feels the chop of the blades. And an emptiness remains.

To make matters worse, the landlord has been marching around the neighborhood chopping down all the annoying trees on his lands. Just up the street a magnificent zelkova stood next to another apartment building, already tall and splendid when I first moved here five years ago. Two years ago the landlord decided, in that typical, Draconian Japanese way with gardens, to lop off all the zelkova’s branches, leaving the poor creature standing naked throughout the years. The only concession was a tuft of sprouts capping the trunk, just enough to allow the tree to scrabble for doses of sunlight. It was but a large stick standing in a parking lot, not really a tree at all.

And after all that, yesterday the landlord ordered the tree to be chopped down and removed.

Doomed Zelkova

Five years I walked by this tree every day and not once did I fail to stop and admire it, even if only for a second. Now it is gone and no one will ever lament its passing. What a waste of a life.

15 replies on “Passing of Trees”

It’s hard to know what to say, miguel. I know I’d feel just the same in your position; I also felt the pain, as I read. Irrational as it may be, I have a love of trees too (not that I’ve ever hugged one!) Being around trees is to be *within* nature – their scale, and the way we can be amongst them, is a reminder that we’re part of nature, and they are part of life. But you knew that…


Gosh! I also can’t understand the need to “tame everything down” and shape it to within an inch of its life. My students have tolld me, when I mention it, that they have only small gardens so they need to “control” the size of their trees, but somehow I think it’s more than that. One of my students had a magnificent large tree on the corner of his lot. It had been left for a number of years to go back toward its natural shape and it was a landmark in the neighborhood. But my student belongs to a “gardening circle” and one of their main activities seems to be learning to prune trees. So he made a massive plan, got out his big ladders and guy ropes and attacked the tree. Now it is a series of rounded puffs that look like those clouds on Chinese court robes. So I think in this case, there is something of the love of “creation”, using the trees for his “sculpture”. I don’t really understand this, since I like natural trees. But I think his garden is the only place where he feels he has the freedom to control the environment. It is his Eden, if you will, and he the prime mover. He probably feels the same passionate attachment to his plants as you do to the trees you planted. The difference is, he thinks he owns them, as does your landlord.

In the case of your landlord, he is probably worried about the cost of cleaning up the leaves. Maybe the city has warned him that if the gutters are clogged he will have to pay damages or some other worries of the like. I know it must be hard to remain calm when he comes around with murder on his mind, but perhaps you could ask him why. If you knew, there might be some appeal that would make sense to him, perhaps volunteering to clean up the leaves, if that is indeed his main worry. In the meantime, I suggest you plant two more trees. Chances are he won’t get around to noticing for awhile.

As for yourself, have you considered getting out of Tokyo or maybe, if you are staying, of buying your own place where the garden would be less at the mercy of others?


Andy, your comments on your own site about going through a “Spiritual paralysis” has really hit a deep chord with me. I’ve been thinking about what you wrote ever since I read it, wondering what it is for you and me that is causing this shutting down of full engagement with the world.

It hit me the other day when I was reading an article about how Native Americans tended to see the world in their traditional philosophies. For them the everyday realities of the natural world around them, their “religion”, and their attitides about how to conduct their lives within this sphere were all one and the same. There was no separation of the land from the mindscape or from human culture. And so there was no tendancy to find fault either with the way the world was or with their own lifestyles. From all accounts almost all the Native Americans who lived their original traditional lifestyles before the coming of the Europeans seemed deeply content with the way they lived. Few of them wanted to change to the European way of living or thinking. In Mongolia, where until recently most of the people lived nomadic lives on the steppes, after about fifty years of trying to establish an urban culture, now there is a huge migration back to the steppes, to their traditional… if much tougher… way of life. They simply find it much more satisfying and whole.

If the way you have spoken on your blog until now is any indication, you, like me, seem to hold the natural world (or, as I prefer to see it, the REAL world) as the foundation for your mental and spiritual health, much as the Native Americans do. Like me, I think your own completeness is defined by how healthy the natural world is and by how closely you can live within it. The further and more “abstract” your life becomes, the more you lose a sense of who you are and how to live. To both you and me a world without living things, without trees and clean lakes and open skies and soil beneath, is oblivion. And so living our lives in cities, doing meaningless work that does nothing to contribute to the natural world and our community of living things, or even to justifying our own biological place in the habitat, perhaps is killing the lifelong sense of connection that we so desperately need and feel.

I personally have never been able to join the bandwagon of people who get giddy about “progress” and work and possessions that seem to fly toward some hazy goal of utter comfort and convenience. For what? What progress? Why is working to design and sell cars more realistic than, let’s say, an artist paintng a picture? Why is becoming an architect more respectable than say, managing a small, organic farm? So much of this modern industrialized world, while bringing lots of benefits in terms of improved health (in some ways), better housing (also in some ways), and more mobility (also in some ways), also seems to render the physical world around us into something simply inanimate and unrelated to us as living things.

E.O. Wilson talked about “biophilia”, a term which he insisted dwells intrinsic within us as a natural part of our psyche and biological makeup. For me I know that the despair of watching living things wiped out of existence and landscapes razed as if they were lines on a piece of paper has drilled right into the core of all that I am. It is so big that I don’t even know how to properly talk about it without growing either enraged or profoundly depressed. People tell me to be “zen” about it and accept the world the way it is, that life has always been this way. But I think that is an excuse to justify the way we are treating the world. Do you remember the movie “Koyaanisqaatsi” (Life Out of Balance)? I think the movie hit such a deep note in so many people is because we all recognize that what we doing, the way we are living, is profoundly wrong. We all sense that we have taken the wrong path, but have no idea how to get back on the right path.

I suggest that the Spiritual paralysis you spoke of rises out of these roots. At least it does for me. I search and search every day, in the job ads in the newspapers, in the television shows I watch, in the news, in the trains as I ride to work or the streets as I walk the neighborhood, in the blogs I read and people I speak to, for a sense of rightness about the situation, one that doesn’t feel off kilter. One that I know that when I see it, as I have on occasion in the mountains or when meeting a person with an extraordinary sense of life or when observing a wild bird preening in my garden, will hit home without words. It will just seem right. I seek to live my life that way. Somehow I know that I will never find it with the lifestyle I am pursuing now.


Inlandchi, I’ve often thought about the way Japanese today work their gardens. I think it has something to do with the way formal gardens are considered the epitome of Japanese culture and everyone wants to subscribe to the highest standards. I can’t fault them for this, and the aspirations are admirable. Traditional Japanese formal gardens are truly beautiful, when done well. Sometimes very spiritually moving.

But this assumes that all gardeners are masters at formal gardening, or that everyone knows what they are doing. Some of the great Japanese formal gardens took literally hundreds of years to develop to their present beauty. The slapdash urban topiary gardens of today have nothing in common with these great gardens.

I think most people today see traditional gardens completely out of context. Originally formal Japanese gardens existed as kinds of “ordered oases” within the tangle of the great forests of Japan. Everywhere you went 500 years ago Japan was covered in great forests, some of it quite thick and impenetrable (read Isabella Bird’s “Unbeaten Tracks In Japan”, a wonderful travel account of Meiji Era Japan). So it makes a lot of sense that formal Japanese gardens are so controlled. However, when you take it to the extreme in modern Japan, where almost none of the old forests remain, and in cities where green things are at a premium, to continue to “order” all the green things makes it all look pretty dismal. There is no longer any balance between wild and tamed. It is all “tamed”.

I’m sure the landlord has his own concerns. He is not evil, nor are the gardeners. Just very insensitive. And perhaps a tad too pragmatic. After all, ornamental gardens are pure vanity so why bother even having them at all? But I’m sure even the landlord would agree that beauty adds something more to a neighborhood. I just don’t think he would be one of the people to create this beauty; I don’t think he would even know where to begin.


It seems incredible that 500 hundred years seems to have changed everything in the world so much, not only converting much of Japan, and the world’s forests, to concrete slabs of one kind or another but bringing us to this spiritual crisis where our longing for a simpler, more sane life overrides our love of the safety and security of our lives in cities. I share with you the absolute refutation of the need for more concrete at the expense of open spaces and trees. Even down here in Shikoku almost every urban space is crowded with medium-to-high-rise “mansions” and it is becoming worse each week and month, as old houses are bought up from elderly owners who can’t maintain them any longer or who wish to retire to an apartment where the upkeep is less onerous. They pay for this by selling or building an apartment building that will pay for their future. So a space that may have been occupied by one old couple, or widow/ widower becomes the home to 10 new families and the pollution and concentration of cars increases. I know, it’s happening next door to me. Soon the air will be even more foul, and the few trees or plants that lived there will be wiped away to provide paved parking spaces.

I don’t know the answer to this, because these people are probably forced to sell, or encouraged to do so by relatives that live at a distance, having moved up to the larger cities to work. It’s much less trouble to put Mom in a new apartment, and of course it means that costly upkeep is not needed. Traditional Japanese houses may last awhile with little maintenace, but eventually they become moldy, warped, hard to live in. The tile rooves need replacing at great cost. The traditional gardens require specialist gardeners. They are expensive to heat. And so on. What, then, is the solution?

Thanks for your citation of Isabella Bird. This is a name new to me but it’s very interesting that a Victorian woman travelled all over the world and wrote about it. At first I read the biography you linked to, followed by a little gasp as I linked to the British Publishers, Ganesha, where her complete set of 12 volumes is available for a price tag of about $1400. Fortunately, a bit of of persistant web snooping brought up this e-text of her experience in Japan and I’m posting it here in case anyone else is interested. And so, with a sick day ahead of me, I’m off to read. 🙂


Miguel, I’m so sorry. We just lost the most beautiful tree on our block in vermont – the owners cut it down when they knew we were away, i think, so we wouldnt’come out and try to save it. It was a maple, about 150 years old. I can’t even imagine the mentality that would cut such a tree down. When my other neighbor wrote and told me, I wept on the phone, and wasn’t able to speak.

You really must move to a place that is consonant with your beautiful spirit.


I hate to see good trees go. They are so much more than pre-lumber. I had to remove eight Elms from my yard last Spring due to Dutch Elm disease. One was about 50 feet tall and had a spread of equal length…quite sad really, and expensive to remove.

Thanks for commenting via Andy’s blog. I’ve enjoyed reading your comments on his blog, and some of the discussions about photos and camera equipment. I’m having trouble with my comments. If you want to comment in the future, instead of left clicking on the comments, right click. And then when the popup pops up, click on open.


I’m sorry about the trees too. I wish that my first thought — planting some new ones in pots — were more practical. But it sounds like the landlord has issues with them that pots wouldn’t solve.

My current garden-musing is wondering whether, as a person renting not owning, I can do something to alter the yard semi-permanently, like planting bulbs or wildflowers. I intend to grow vegetables on the porch, but it’s hard to have an affection for the space and a desire to interact with it more deeply, when it’s not only not mine but someone else’s.


I felt your pain. I had lived so long in the “urban sprawl” that I had forgotten the simple joys of nature. I became increasingly disconnected with the natural world, as I observed humanities rapid expansion across the land. I became heart sick, soul sick, and just plain sick in body the longer I lived in the big cities. I moved back near my home about 2 years ago, and have never regreted it. I am surrounded by nature in all it’s glory, the air is cleaner, my body has become healthier, and my soul is at peace.
I used to have a strange habit of collecting wood from the trees that were slaughtered while I was living in the city. I still have them all, little bits of wood all tucked neatly in a little shoebox. a box full of memories of what was. you may not have your trees anymore, but at least you will have something tangible of their existence. A focus for your memories of those wonderful trees. Did they leave anything left over? Or were they thourough with their cleanup? There were times I had to go up and ask the workers if I could have a little bit of wood as a souvineir of sorts, many of them didn’t ask why I wanted the wood bits, they just handed a piece over to me. It sounds kinda morbid, i know, but in my opinion it’s better to have a little something to hang on to than nothing at all…..just a thought.


miguel, it is truly a world of wounds for anyone who gains their mental and spiritual health from nature. it simply does not stand a chance against ‘progress’ and money. i don’t know what we will do when the last tree, the last prairie, the last mountain, the last river…has been tamed and too late we discover that our imaginations and our hearts have been paved over as well. i’m sorry for your loss, i can relate. our house used to be surrounded by a sea of prairie. the only tree around was a lovely ancient cottonwood – every year it was home to a pair of swainsons hawks. i’ll never forget the day they hooked a chain to that old tree and literally ripped it out of the ground. i cried for days. my husband, in such a loving gesture, walked out across the field (through the mud of pre-development) and brought me a pale piece of the heartwood of that old tree. i still have it – and with it the memories of lost hawks, lost coyotes, lost open spaces. i honor those beings by remembering them. sending you thoughts of peace and hope.


Whoa! I’ve been remiss in replying to people here! Forgive me. Actually I’ve been banging my head against the wall trying to redesign the site and coming up with one small problem after another. I thought I’d be happy doing the design using a WYSIWIG editor (Freeway Pro), since I am a visual thinker, but I’m finding it is much easier to overcome problems when you do it by code. Go figure.

It’s been a while since the trees were chopped down and the garden looks very naked now. Funny how some kind of presence remains after something you’ve been looking at and loving for so long suddenly disappears. Like an arm or leg amputated. The trees were too small to take mementos from… it would have felt like hoarding someone’s arms. I’m thinking of putting in some bamboo and let them do their revenge… once bamboo gets started it’s almost impossible to stop! Hee, hee, hee, hee, hee!

The site will continue to remain a bit slow for a while until I can get the design finished. Hopefully then I can start doing regular writing again. Sorry for the long wait.


Dear – ,
I am sorry to hear about your trees. My greedy-money-grubbing landlord killed trees down to their stumps because some leaves during a rare rain clogged the gutter. He’s too cheap to trim the trees. He completely removed an old and beautiful fig tree. He then cemented over the backyard in order to rent out the parking spaces to neighbors. Three spaces at $75 each per month. He’s so greedy that he processes all his landlord mail through the postage machine at USC (University of California) where he teaches. He’s a petty theif to save 39 cents per letter. He even uses USC stationary. He is a miser. This is the mind of many landlords. I understand how painful it is to see the trees killed and I know how you feel. -Stephanie, Los Angeles


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