Monday, October 27, 2008

Read Up On It

My answer for everything is – read up on it! Hey, I was one of those kids who curled up on the couch with the World Book encyclopedia for fun, not a homework assignment. So it’s natural that my way into the green world is through the written word. The issues are many and each is complex. As I find a blog, website or a retro hold-in-your-hand book that offers information, understanding and community, I’ll share my finds with you.

I’ve just finished a memoir entitled “Epitaph for a Peach, Four Seasons on My Family Farm” by David Mas Masumoto and winner of the 1995 Julian Child Cookbook Award in the literary food writing category.

That’s right. It’s not a recent book and he’s written numerous other books before and since. Check out his website. But I am in a frugal/eco mode, as I get up-to-speed, reading what’s available on the library shelf or through the library system when I can. Plus I would consider this a classic-in-the-making, or as the LA Times said, “Masumoto uses his farm as Thoreau did his Walden Pond.”

The author, a Japanese-American, has returned to his family’s farm in the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Valley as we also call it, in California. So for me, reading the book is different than someone in say, Minnesota. I can picture the fields and the surrounding mountains. I can feel the oven-like heat and low humidity on my skin as I read. And I can bone up on my California history as well.

Masumoto, an organic peach and grape farmer, wants to continue growing Sun Crest peaches, a variety that tastes like the essence of peach but doesn’t travel well, which of course is the essence of produce marketing. Should he give up on the peach and bulldoze the trees down? Or should he give it a go for one more year?

This primer on a year of growing the quintessential summer fruit is also the story of Japanese-American family farming in California in the 20th century. Masumoto explains the importance of tradition, of families working the land and chores together, of communities where kids grow up on the farm, leave for college returning only like a visitor before the final move to the big city. Some never come back, while some, like Masumoto, return because these few acres are where home and the meaning of life truly is.

How do you prune a fruit tree so it will live a full productive life, how do you manage a crew that knows more about harvesting than you, if all farming is wrestling with nature, how can you win without ultimately damaging the land. These are a few questions Masumoto, the poet-farmer, attempts to answer. I say ‘attempts’ because for this farmer, everything is about the journey, not the arrival.

I call the book an ‘ode to an orchard’ because it’s not a how-to, rather it’s a why. Why salvage old machinery parts rather than purchasing shiny new ones, why plant cover crops, why walk the farm day after day to get feedback from the land itself. Why breaking even may be enough if the farm and its way of life can be saved.

I’m a suburban girl who loves big cities and can’t wait to leave the exburbs for a walkable, mass transit life. What am I doing reading a book about a Japanese-American peach farmer? I guess the reason I can recommend this book, especially if you want to get up to learn about saving family farms and community building, is because it’s the story of someone who cares about quality over quantity, people over product, authenticity over the consumer-driven life. How much more real can you get than the food you put in your mouth and the soil it comes from.

Or maybe I’m just bone deep tired of multi-tasking amid a mountain of electronic gizmos, skimming websites and calling my emails, even from work colleagues, a community. In any case, “Epitaph for a Peach” is how one man tries to live an attentive life.

Now I’m off to the library website to see which of his other books they have so I can curl up with them.

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