An Adventurer’s Relics, and His Living Collection

Posted July 19, 2018 5:24 p.m. EDT

KUROHIME, Japan — The suzumebachi has a giant yellow head with five eyes, a black thorax and gold and tan stripes on its abdomen. The world’s largest hornet extends its 4-inch wings, ready to launch a stinger capable of inflicting paralysis — even death — and then a bug zapper smashes down, and the insect splatters on a novel penned by its killer.

“My son-in-law almost died from a sting,” C.W. Nicol, the bushy-bearded explorer turned author, explained. With spears, bows and pronged ninja sais within reach in his cluttered study, it’s surprising he didn’t use one on the hornet.

The office is also home to keepsakes from a vagabond life in the Arctic, Africa and these remote mountains. Late-Edo-period scrolls and woodblock prints of English soldiers, a devil-horned Japanese spirit mask, a strip of bowhead whale scrimshaw, books ranging from shipbuilding guides to his own writings, walrus ivory and soapstone carvings from Canada, coral fossils, a giant 4-foot-long seashell combed from an Okinawan beach. His first novel was “Harpoon,” and a real 19th-century one hangs on the mantel.

“It’s junk that’s collected,” he laughs.

Nicol, 77, settled in this Japanese highland hamlet in Nagano in 1980 with his wife, Mariko, a classical composer and painter. Her huge watercolor of dancing winter sparrows hangs in their living room.

Nicol, a shotokan karate expert and maker of nature specials, is most proud of his Afan Woodland Trust, a living collection and a legacy: a 150-acre forest that is his home and houses nearly 150 types of trees, rare species that includes 45 kinds of dragonflies, work horses and a stable made from reclaimed birch designed by architect Nobuaki Furuya. Some furnishings — and the firewood — are made from false acacia culled from the forest.

“We brought back a dead forest,” he says proudly. He did it without using any heavy machinery beyond two horses and elbow grease, he says, pouring a gin infused with sansho berries from his yard and chilled with what he swears is 10,000-year-old Antarctic ice.

The man has always relished extremes: leaving his native Wales to join an Arctic expedition at 17, killing two polar bears in self-defense while wintering on Baffin Island, arresting 244 suspected poachers and bandits as Ethiopia’s first game warden. Now, Nicol hopes to convince the government of the importance of protecting forests.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What’s your favorite piece in your collection?

A: The one that has the biggest story is that old kudlik oil lamp in my study. I found it on a small island in Cumberland Sound, Canada, in 1966, in a collapsed Inuit hut. In the ‘30s, there was an influenza epidemic, so the whole camp died. I was with an Inuit at the camp. He said there were ghosts there. But he told his parents, who had family there, that I was praying. That impressed them and they asked me for tea and they said “it belonged to our ancestors. Do you want it?” They told me it was over 1,000 years old. Even broken, they still used it for years, lashed together with seal leather. They let me have it, so I brought it home.

Q: Why are all of the little walrus carvings missing the tusks?

A: These are all from Cumberland Sound. I lent them to an exhibition and they lost the tusks. They’re all from Nunavut.

Q: And the 1800s photo of Commodore Perry arriving in Japan?

A: When Perry’s black ships came, they issued a three-volume report in 1854. I bought one set for $1,000. There was another set that had been damaged, so I bought that, too, and that’s one of the pictures from it.

Q: Tell me about the royal photos on your walls.

A: Prince Charles came in 2009. The next year, I was invited to his place in Britain, Highgrove. And the Emperor of Japan came in June 2016.

Q: Why establish the Afan Trust?

A: When I came here I wanted to learn these mountains, not just as a mountain hiker, but I wanted to know the legends and where the bears hibernated and so forth. I got a Japanese gun license, which is difficult, and I walked these mountains with the local hunters, learning the legends. During that time, I found so much cutting of old-growth forest by the government. So I decided, if I could leave behind even a small forest, I’d do it.