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When Pines Are Divine

A six-year Japanese program preserves thousands of Shinto shrines and woodlands.

Think of Japan and you might picture futuristic, neon-lit cities, the next generation of high-tech gadgets, and sleek bullet trains. But if you could look into the island nation’s heart, you would find Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, in which forests, seas, and streams are honored as homes to countless kami, or gods.

Partnering with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a UK-based organization founded by Prince Phillip, Shinto officials have created a six-year sustainability program to preserve Japan’s 81,000 Shinto shrines and their surrounding woodlands. Emphasizing biodiversity, recycling, and community awareness, the program’s culmination coincides with this year’s rebuilding—done every 20 years—of the ancient Grand Shrine at Ise, which is dedicated to sun goddess Amaterasu-Omikami and surrounded by 19 square miles of sacred forest.

“Ecologists refer to trees as the earth’s ‘lungs,’ and I think Shinto practitioners have always understood this intuitively,” says Aidan Rankin, author of Shinto: A Celebration of Life. “Their reverence for the forest—and individual trees—has entered the modern era as a spiritual counterpart to our scientific understanding of the connections between living systems.”

The notion of Dai Shizen, Great Nature, reminds the residents of an earthquake-shaken island nation that they are “part of a natural continuum—not above or beyond the rest of nature,” says Rankin, who sees parallels between Shinto and Native American religions where spiritual practice is closely linked to the landscape, animals, and plants—which are seen as part of, rather than separate from, the human culture.

“Shinto respects nature but is not a ‘back-to-nature’ movement,” he adds, “because it sees creativity, including architectural and technological innovation, as the natural product of human intelligence.”

“Shinto has survived as an unbroken spiritual path linking preliterate with technological societies”—a rare feat, he says. “If we in the West are to change our approach to the way we interact with the rest of nature, we can learn much from a spiritual system that combines acceptance of innovation and ‘progress’ with the principle of living as if nature mattered.”


Another Reason to Hug Tree

It sounds like a fairy-tale curse, but it’s the message of a study recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

A pest known as the emerald ash borer has killed 100 million ash trees in the United States since 2002. Analyzing tree and human mortality rates, US Forest Service scientists found that more people die of heart and respiratory disease in borer-infested regions—that is, major tree-loss regions—than in other parts of the country.

These findings “suggest that the widespread death of ash trees from the emerald ash borer leads to an increase in mortality,” evincing “a causal relationship” between plentiful trees and human health, the researchers wrote.

Other studies agree: A Dutch study found that children living in “green” areas are less depressed than others. A US study found lower asthma rates in areas with abundant street trees. And Japanese studies have found that forest walking reduces cortisol levels and that seniors living near green spaces outlive other seniors.