(a Japanese folktale)
Once upon a time a man named Isamu worked as a woodcutter in Japan, and though he was poor, he was a joyful man. Most of all, Isamu was gentle and kind. He wandered through the forest every day, hour upon hour, and he collected the dead branches of the trees. These he sold in the village market.
One day in the forest, Isamu happened upon a young man named Hiroshi who was studying the trees. “This is a great one!” Hiroshi said, pointing out a tall, proud pine. “This is the tree you should chop!”
Isamu shook his head. “That tree is alive,” he said. “It is just as much alive as you and I.”
Hiroshi reached to tear a branch from the tree, but Isamu stopped him. “When you tear off a branch, you are harming the tree,” he scolded the young man. “How would you like it if the trees began to tear off your limbs?”
Hiroshi shook his head. “No wonder you are a poor man, Isamu. You are too tenderhearted.”
Isamu’s heart sank, for he could see Hiroshi had not learned the important lesson. He did not understand the trees are a living, breathing part of the world around us, and he feared one day Hiroshi might do much damage.
A few days later as Isamu was, once again, walking through the forest, he heard a soft rustling in the trees around him, and then, as if borne by the wind, he heard a voice singing to him.
Here I stand, sticky with sap,
Someone has torn off my twigs with a snap.
I have been wounded, and now I cry,
Please someone help me so I won’t die.
Isamu looked around, and then he saw a majestic pine tree that seemed to be bending toward him, as if bowing. He peered more closely and saw that someone had broken twigs from the tree, and sap was running out.
“Your life’s blood!” Isamu cried, and he touched the tree’s tender limb. “I shall save you.”
He spent the next several hours carefully wrapping the pine tree’s wounds with cloth fetched from home, and after a while the sap stopped pouring out. When he had nearly finished his work, he heard someone whistling behind him.
He turned and saw Hiroshi’s father, a tall, stern man called Mikio. He was carrying a great bundle of sticks, among them the fresh limbs of the stately pine tree.
“Was this your work?” Isamu asked Mikio. “Why would you try to kill such a beautiful tree?”
Mikio laughed. “It was indeed my work!” he said proudly. “Now I shall sell my wood in the market. If you were a wise man, Isamu, you would not waste your time mending trees. You would do as I do and spend your time and energy working to earn money to feed your family.”
Isamu only shook his head, and soon Mikio had disappeared. He turned to inspect his handiwork, and as he did, something began to fall from the tree. Isamu stared in wonder at the sight — the tree was raining down gold! Isamu filled his sack with the treasure.
“Thank you,” he said, bowing to the tree.
He listened closely, but he heard only a long, satisfied sigh.
Pleased with his work, Isamu hurried home to tell his wife, Keiko, the news. When they opened the sack, Keiko cried, “Isamu, we are rich!”
Isamu smiled and understood the pine tree had brought him good luck. He felt more grateful than ever.
The next day Keiko hurried to market, eager to buy the ingredients to make a feast celebrating their good fortune. When Mikio saw her open her purse, he noticed it was filled with gold, and he went at once to her side.
“How is it that you suddenly have so much money?” he asked.
Keiko excitedly told him the tale of her husband’s good fortune.
When Mikio heard the news, he quickly said goodbye and hurried into the forest. When he found the great pine tree, he stopped before it and bowed. “I come to honor you,” he said.
He leaned in and to his amazement he too heard words.
“Woodcutter who hurt me so
See that I am whole, and know
Sticky, sticky is my blood
Touch me and ignite a flood.”
Mikio grinned. A flood of coins — that was what he imagined, and so once again he reached out to break off a branch, and as he did, he could almost feel those coins in his hand.
He snapped the branch and certainly felt a flood — but this wasn’t gold, it was sap — sticky, sticky sap, and it poured over him, wrapping him in a cocoon so thick that he could not move.
“Help!” he cried in a muffled voice, but it was market day, and there was no one in the forest to hear him. It was late at night when his son, Hiroshi, set out in search of his father. He found him trapped and exhausted, filled with remorse.
From that day on, neither Mikio nor his son nor any of their descendants ever tore a branch from a living tree. To this day, the people of the village always tell the tale of Isamu, the tenderhearted woodcutter.