Natori "Trees that have been planted for one hundred years have all gone. We took them for granted and now that they are gone, they are missed," said Hideo Otomo with a faraway look in her eyes, as if searching for some remains of the greenery that had laced the area for decades. Her voice was soft and came across almost in a murmur.
"I want your help," she pleaded in a muffled voice soaked in desperation, her face wet with tears streaming down her face.
Otomo was speaking to a group of foreign journalists who were on a tour to the tsunami zone in Japan: the Natori city which is part of Miyagi prefecture, located in the north-east of the country.
Geared up with black rubber boots and layers of clothes to keep her warm for a long day of work, Otomo only had a few minutes to spare for she had a farm to attend to.
The trees that Otomo was referring to are black pines. They were in their millions and had shielded the north-eastern coastline for decades. But the rolling tsunami waves took them in their grip, destroying their very existence.
Talking about these trees evokes deep sorrow in the people who call Natori city home. They are the precious jewels that have single-handedly stood as the only natural resource whose existence had a direct impact on people's livelihood.
Perhaps the most heart-breaking scene of all was the heap of black pine trunks and branches stacked on one side of a small road near the sea which was once used for cycling. Bulldozers had moved all that was left of the trees, so many branches, some of which still had a few dried pines hanging and pieces of a green fishing net that looked absolutely out of place.
Now, the long coastline that once boasted endless lines of green sea stands barren, deserted, and empty, as if this natural eco-guardian had never existed. As far as the eye can see, there is nothing except for the waves of the sea, thundering and carrying a harsh cold wind across the shore.
Coming down the road to the shoreline of Natori was walking through a destruction zone. Vast areas that once were populated neighbourhoods are now open lands.
A few of the surviving buildings were standing like ghost houses — severely damaged with no roofs, doors or windows. Mountains of rubble were scattered in a number of places waiting to be separated and cleared. "We need 6 million saplings for the entire coastline," said Tadashi Watanabe, vice-chairman of the Organisation for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement — International (OISCA), a non profit group focusing on the forestation effort.
OISCA is responsible for the Coastal Forest Restoration Project in Natori and the only entity that is involved in such a project.
Full of confidence
Watanabe speaks with faith of a mission that cannot end with failure or disappointment. His tone of voice beams with confidence.
"We identified 100 hectares of affected areas to be rehabilitated. A total of 300 hectares have been damaged by the tsunami," he said. Watanabe admits that this is an uphill task and one that faces many difficulties.
The government he says, cannot decide how to go about such a difficult and long-term process. Hence, OISCA stepped in.
"We decided to support Natori for ten years though it may not be enough," said Watanabe.
For one thing, it takes three years for a seedling to be ready for planting. In addition, only about six farmers in the Natori area have the full knowledge of the trade.
Currently, there are no seedlings available, "because no one expected they would disappear", said Watanabe.
This is why Otomo and her husband have been recruited with a group of other farmers to work in a nursery especially created by OISCA to plant the seedlings required.
Funding is another problem faced by OISCA, says Watanabe. The organisation is aiming to raise $12 million (Dh43 million) mainly from the private sector but also from the local people to support the project.
Watanabe realises the gravity of the situation. His organisation has been involved in other plantation and forestation projects worldwide including in Fiji and Brazil. Hence, the importance of the Natori project could not be emphasised more as the absence of the black pines is very much felt by the local residents.
The trees were a protective shield against the salt spray and soil salt coming from the sea. They also functioned as a wind screen against the strong cold gusts coming from the Pacific Ocean. This was ideal protection for homes close to the shoreline as well as to the hundreds of rice paddies which constitute a main source of livelihood for the local communities.
Now, with vast areas exposed to the wind and sea, many items get rusty very quickly and the level of mist at the nearby Natori Airport is reportedly on the rise. "People in the main cities don't know about the importance of pine trees. People here know," said Otomo.
In fact, this sense of isolation, or being on a different wave length to those who live in big cities such as Tokyo, starkly differentiates the way people feel in these parts of the country. The nature of their trade, work and area of living made the people of Natori more affectionate for and closer to their surrounding — especially their farms and trees.
And it is because of this close relationship with these trees that Otomo and her husband came forward to be part of OISCA's project. They are among the few farmers who have the expertise and knowledge of growing black pines.
And as long as they have the images of the 1,000 trees standing tall etched in their memories, they will ensure this project sees the light.