Wisdom of the Last Farmer:
Harvesting Legacies from the Land
Excerpt from a book by David Mas Masumoto
Spring offers a reprieve from the cold, short days of winter.
I log long hours in the fields, renewing myself by working outdoors; all my senses seem to awaken with the change in weather. I connect with old friends: shovels, rakes, trowels, snipping shears that have sat quietly in the corner of the shed all winter, ignored and forgotten. I justify my neglect by believing that they, like the plants they tend, must hibernate and rest, waiting out the cold, trusting that, following harsh winters, spring will come.
I run my hands over the handles of the old farm tools, wiping off the fine layer of dust that has collected, stirring them up for work. I add a drop of oil to the pruning shears, lubricating the pivot bolt, and then warm us both up: gripping the handles, I pump with my arms, opening and closing the cutting blades. Shovels and hoes are different; their metal has browned from the winter fog and moisture and grown a light layer of rust, but they like to be prepped by being immersed in the dirt itself. With a few healthy plunges into the earth, the metal is wiped clean, the gray steel shines, the cutting edges silver and ready.
My emotional attachment to inanimate objects might seem excessive, but I do get passionate about farming-about everything having to do with farming-especially in spring. Dad would never use such language about his tools, but he, too, gets excited at the onset of this season of renewal. He sharpens and smooths his pruning shears' blade, slowly guiding the file across the cutting edge over and over, stopping to examine his work, then starting over. Whenever the handle of a favorite shovel breaks, Dad carefully measures another one, fitting it to match his relatively short height (we're both about five foot six).
Spring awakens our valley, stirring life within flora and fauna. With the sun's warmth on our cheeks, we forget that other places still have snow as well as threats of late spring frosts that stalk fresh, tender young growth. But in our valley, we are fortunate: Life starts early. Farmers and gardeners share this sensitivity to spring's calling. We all long to get outside, breathe in the air and touch the earth with our hands. We want to feel the damp soil under our fingernails, to break winter's crust and its hold on us by turning the earth, freeing a spirit in the land. Growing things seems natural, a distinctly human act, part of our desire to cultivate, grow, and create that can seem out of place in our fast paced, knowledge economy. Farms and gardens foster natural connections that follow slow timelines, much like learning.
I've often thought that all students and teachers should be required to grow something, so that they can better understand the patience it requires and the long developmental curves. We can all benefit from planting seeds and practicing the patience it takes before we see the flowers bloom. I sometimes fantasize: What if all professions required their members to know how to garden? If businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, and politicians had to pass a gardening test, a personal humility might be fostered as they experienced some humbling harvests. With spring's calling, we allow the senses back into our lives. One of my Japanese neighbors, a retired farmer, prunes a bonsai pine by feeling the needles with his hands and fingers and skillfully guiding the clipper to the unwanted growth to cut it off.
He could prune blindfolded, allowing a touch world to guide him. When I ask him how he knows which branch to cut, he doesn't respond, but simply keeps working. I wait and watch more closely. His hands massage the needles, running his palms over them, suddenly stopping, snipping, and starting his search again. He pauses just for a moment, as if a sixth sense guides him to a specific place to perform a task. His work is like that of a skilled hairdresser. Their movements gentle yet rapid, they feel for the strands that are out of place, trimming to allow the desirable growth to fall back into place, to thrive. They both create a natural appearance, their best work looking as if a craftsperson had never been there.
My neighbor simply shows me by example, much as Dad did when he and I worked over the years. Spring lessons were crucial, as the results of this season's work would be multiplied throughout the rest of the year. I've learned to watch, listen, and pay attention-spring demands that of you.
Nonetheless, as my neighbor prunes his pine, I ask one more time: "How do you know which branch to cut?"
Again, he doesn't answer, but looks up, blinks, and returns to the pine. For an instant, I think he is teaching me a Zen lesson, having me sim ply pay attention to the moment.
A few seconds pass, then my neighbor looks at me and asks, "Did you say something? I can't hear that well anymore." He smiles. I say nothing, just smile in return.
Appropriately, Dad returned to the farm in spring. Life awakens with his presence and his touch. He has recovered enough to do light farmwork-shoveling weeds, monitoring the irrigation water, helping with some tractor driving.
Standing in the sunlight, he enjoys the heat, absorbing the warmth, grinning to be here. Today Dad spades the weeds. They, too, are warmed by the sun and seek its life-giving energy. Like Dad, they find comfort in the light. In a synergy between the two, the weeds give work that Dad seeks.
Later, like Dad, I spy the first green shoots of weeds, which won't let me forget the work and the sweat to get to those lush harvests. But I also continue to enjoy their color and the moment, for these are not yet weeds, just misplaced plants. All green, the color of spring surrounds me, marking the end of winter.
To begin the spring, I rub my hands together and chant: "This is a season to get dirty."
David Mas Masumoto is an organic peach and grape farmer who works with his wife, Marcy Masumoto, and their two children, Nikiko and Korio, on their 80-acre farm just outside Del Ray, 20 miles south of Fresno, California. He has a bachelors degree in sociology from UC Berkeley and a masters degree in community development from UC Davis. He is a columnist for The Fresno Bee, has written for USA Today and The Los Angeles Times, and has been featured in Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine and New York Times. His farm has been featured Sunset, Country Living, and Glamour Magazines and on television as part of the California Heartland PBS series as well as the nationally aired program "Ripe for Change."
Masumoto has won numerous awards, including the James Clavell Japanese American National Literacy Award in 1986; the 1995 Julia Child Cookbook Award in the Literary Food Writing category, finalist for the 1996 James Beard Foundation Food Writing Award, and San Francisco Review of Books Critics' Choice Award 1995-96, all for Epitaph for a Peach; Commonwealth Club of California silver medal for the California Book Awards in 1999 and was a finalist for the Asian American Writers' Workshop award in New York for Harvest Son; and the University of California, Davis "Award of Distinction" from the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in 2003. He has been the keynote speaker at diverse conferences including International Association of Culinary Professionals, Culinary Institute of America, American Association of Museums, and many more. He also was awarded a Breadloaf Writers Conference fellowship in 1996.