The further Hyouchuu got from Yosen, the harder the snow came down. An hour later, he was staring into a whiteout. The frozen road underfoot, he picked up the pace as best he could.
As he trudged along, the villages and hamlets disappeared. Traces of the trails forking off from the main road still remained, so they must have existed at some point. But they led to nothing.
Along one of those trails, off in the distance, he spied a black tree. The tree was shaped like a bamboo hat, its branches hanging low to the ground. A riboku. The tree had turned ink black and now stood in the middle of an empty field. It had lost its inhabitants and withered away.
The building that should otherwise encircle it—the rishi—was gone. As were the houses that should otherwise encircle the rishi. As were the gate and barricades. Swallowed up by the frozen plains, only a few faint scars marred the undulating land.
Hyouchuu stopped for a moment in solemn silence. The withered riboku witnessed the end of hope there. A village housed twenty-four families and a rike. All lost. No way to tell whether a natural disaster or civil unrest or famine was the cause. At some point, the trunk would shatter near the ground, similar to the beech trees.
Like most people, at first Hyouchuu did not grasp the gravity of what was happening to the beech trees. They believed the phenomenon was limited to trees found deep in the mountains. The beech trees had never been highly prized. At the end of the day, they thought, a few withering beeches didn’t matter that much.
But from the start, Houkou recognized the danger. “It’s like the beech tree turned to stone. I’ve never heard of such a disease before.”
“Things like this happen,” Hyouchuu assured him. “Sooner or later, an epidemic burns itself out.”
The winter his father died, the faded, depleted beeches were appearing everywhere. Two years after that, trees began to topple. And two years after that, the number reached alarming proportions. And still, Hyouchuu and the residents of the mountains were blind to these signs of an impending disaster. If anything, they saw them as good tidings.
The trees were so desiccated that a man could practically push one over. The trees wouldn’t rot, so to save on the time and work that went into lumbering the trees, they were left where they fell until demand caught up with supply. They fetched a better price that way too.
“A welcome turn of events. The villagers are better of because of it. No matter how plentiful, there’s not much good use a mountain beech can be put to.”
Beech trees were plentiful in the northern quarter of the kingdom. They hadn’t been useful as lumber so nobody went to the trouble of felling and milling them.
Moreover, the beechnut was small and the yields unpredictable, making it useless as a staple crop or a long-term food source. A tree took from thirty to fifty years to produce its first blossoms. So nobody planted beech trees to stave off a possible famine. Tree farming beech trees was an exercise in futility.
Famine was now widespread. Villagers regularly traveled deep into the mountains to harvest nuts and berries. But the unfortunate beech by and large refused to cooperate. All the younger trees were mowed down for charcoal, leaving behind the big old trees of little value to anyone.
And then those big old trees suddenly proved their worth. The people of the mountains, not blessed with arable land, rejoiced that Heaven had smiled upon them. The villages gathered together and ventured into the wilderness and hauled down the toppled trees. Thus they managed to make ends meet.
Naturally, as the beech trees got struck down by the strange disease and suddenly shot up in value, local politicians did their best to run the villagers off the land and monopolize the lumber trade for themselves.
The mountains these speculators were attempting to control did not belong to the people but to the kingdom. So it followed that people could not simply claim whatever resources they could lay their hands on and sell them off to the highest bidder. The officials attempting to bar ordinary citizens from exploiting the riches of the mountains were nominally in the right.
Except that these same civil servants pocketed the proceeds in the name of protecting the natural resources. They secured contracts with lumber dealers under the table and charged whatever the market could bear. The profits should have gone into the coffers of the kingdom. But the money trail mostly disappeared somewhere among the local governments.
Funds that reached the Imperial Treasury were supposed to be redistributed for the good of the people. But “redistribution” meant nothing when there was nothing to redistribute.
Imperial ministers had taken notice and diligently sought to root out these corrupt local administrators. But when the primary objective was to divert those funds into their pockets instead of somebody else’s, the profits from the beech tree lumber trade still went missing.
“Word is that beech lumber on the market in An Province is simply confiscated. As a result, lumber dealers don’t pay out if there’s no delivery. For the well-meaning poachers who went to the hard work of hauling the trees down from the mountains and getting them to market in the first place, they lose coming and going. Meanwhile, the officials in An Province make themselves the middlemen and reap the reward. A handy way to realize a big profit without making any capital expenditures.”
Hyouchuu sighed. Houkou’s eyes reflected an unusual look of alarm. “Such things don’t get anywhere near the heart of the problem.”
Hyouchuu eyed his old friend with a dubious expression. Houkou, in turn, appeared highly irritated, unusual for such a gentle sort.
“Everybody says the same thing. And it’s the last thing anybody should be talking about.”
“What do you mean by that?” Hyouchuu asked.
Houkou said in a strained voice, “If things keep going on like this, the mountains will be ruined.”
I see, Hyouchuu thought, observing his solemn face. Houkou loved the mountains. He couldn’t stand to watch his beloved mountains falling apart. He loved the beech trees too. He was always saying a beech grove was the most soothing place on earth.
“I understand how you feel but it’s too late for regrets now. For the people out here, it’s life or death.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Houkou shouted, his voice ragged. “The destruction engulfing the mountains will engulf the villages and the lives of the villagers too.” He was truly desperate. “Animals eat the beechnuts. Even in a bad year, they can support a fair number. What becomes of them when that all disappears?”
The beechnuts were favored by the smaller foraging animals. Moreover, as Houkou pointed out, the beech trees supported a healthy undergrowth, a rich variety of grasses and shrubbery, which formed unique habitats for larger herbivores like deer.
Those herbivores became prey for carnivores and omnivores. The beechnuts sustained a whole circle of life that not only included the animals who lived off the beechnuts but also those that lived in and among the beech trees, and those that hunted them.
“Predators will move down from the mountains and invade human territory. Bears will attack people more frequently. Bears can be hunted. One rat is satisfied with a small amount of grain. But when hordes of rats descend, how can anyone hunt them all?”
“Huh,” said Hyouchuu.
True, the year after a rich beechnut harvest, bear attacks often increased. The portions from the previous year not being available the next, with nothing to eat, they turned on people instead.
“Now that you mention it, I’ve been hearing about a sharp increase in the rat population.”
“Definitely.” Houkou nodded.
“The number of rats in the mountains are decreasing. So the total population isn’t increasing but moving down from the mountains into the villages.”
“On top of all that, beech trees help preserve the watershed and prevent runoff. On rainy days, haven’t you seen rainwater running down the trunks of a beech tree?”
“Yeah. I’ve ducked beneath a tree for shelter and instead found myself in a deluge.”
The whole beech tree directed the flow of rain water down the trunk, feeding the lichen and mosses clinging to the bark. The water absorbed the nutrients there and transported them to the roots. In the fall, the falling yellow leaves produced a rich humus around the base of the tree. The deep, dark, and soft dirt absorbed a good amount of water. This helped stave off drought in the surrounding environment.
“If the beech groves disappear, the summers will become that much harsher. And not only that. The roots of the beech tree hold up the mountain. Alone fashioned for a large-scale task, the root crawl through the earth and knit the ground together. With the roots gone, that foundation disappears. Not a problem in the winter when the snow piles up. But in the spring, the snow melts. The melting snow slowly soaks into the ground.”
A grove of beeches stored up the water. The fallen snow collected there, melted, and soaked in. As the ground absorbed more water, it naturally grew less firm. If nothing was there to hold the earth together, the side of the mountain could suddenly collapse in a landslide.
“The mountains in these parts are rugged, the slopes steep, with villages and hamlets scattered up and down the mountain valleys. What happens to them when the mountains crumble?”
They would engulf the villages, swallow up the people living there.
“Even if such a catastrophe did not occur, landslides in the spring could inundate the rivers and the fields, making planting impossible. Any effort, however earnest, to restore the fields would delay the planting until it was too late. That means no harvest at the end of the summer. Moreover, mountains that lost their beech groves would likely run short of water. The summers are definitely dry here. The farmers who made it to harvest would end up fighting with the wild animals for what little remained. Any mistakes along the way could easily trigger a famine.”
Hyouchuu was finally able to grasp the source of Houkou’s fear, perhaps because Hyouchuu’s job brought him into the mountains as well. He grew up in a mountain village and like Houkou was deeply familiar with the environment. Lay it out for him and he got the point. And now that he thought about it, the small anomaly that foreshadowed Houkou dark prophesy had spread across the mountains. These anomalies had not yet disturbed human civilization. But once the links in the chain became clear, the worse case scenarios were not difficult to imagine.
“That all being the case, what is the next move?”
A disease of such unknown origins was attacking the beech trees. There was no known way to treat it.
“What I’d like to know,” said Houkou, holding his head. “These last few years, I’ve tried everything I can think of to stem the tide. But nothing works.”
“What about cutting down the infected trees?”
“Tried that. The effectiveness is questionable. Cutting down the trees and burning them is the best method, but we’d be destroying the beech trees as surely as the disease. And considering their sizes, the disease is spreading faster than we could possible fell and burn them all.”
“What about medicines?”
“None. I’ve tried every drug and treatment I can think of. At best they somewhat slow the advance of the disease. Nothing stops it.”
“So we’re out of options.”
“Completely out. The only thing that comes to mind is clearing away a beech tree once it’s withered and died, burning it, and then replanting at once with a different species. A broadly-rooted, fast-growing tree.”
“One that yields an edible nut. The oak or chinquapin, the nettle or camphor trees—”
“But beech trees attack other trees in their vicinity. Moreover, these new trees won’t grow faster than the disease spreads.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“Help me search for a solution.” Houkou grasped Hyouchuu by the arm. “That is our only recourse. Search the yaboku for a plant that medicines can be made from.”
Hyouchuu looked at Houkou’s face. Hyouchuu was a conservation officer in the Ministry of Earth. That was his job. He ventured into the mountains and scouted out yaboku trees for ranka that produced beneficial animals and plants.
Especially when a plant couldn’t move on its own, the fruit would take root right there. And if it did, then starting the next year, it would begin to propagate on its own. However, because foraging animals could also eradicate it in that time, somebody had to go in and select the seedling that might produce useful plants and transport them back to civilization. That was the job description of a conservation officer.
Though Hyouchuu worked in the imperial civil service, nothing qualified him to govern in any way, shape, or form. He simply got by on the stipend he received from the kingdom. The best thing he could do for the kingdom and the people was keep on living and working. Not to mention that his home town of Sei’in was located in a mountain valley covered by beech trees.
This is something I have to do, he thought, though he’d never imagined it would take so many years from that day.
Hyouchuu swallowed those cold regrets and averted his eyes from the black and withered riboku, almost hidden behind the curtain of white. Fending off the falling snow, he covered his face and trudged on as fast as his heavy feet would take him.