Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soilby David Mas Masumoto, David Mas Masumoto
David Mas Masumoto, best-selling author of Epitaph for a Peach, returns to the same ground but digs even deeper in a new, "more ambitious book" in which "he lets
"[E]vocative and lyrical. . . . Masumoto writes with a keen sense of indebtedness and gratitude to the many individuals who make up the entity he calls his family."Publishers Weekly, starred review
David Mas Masumoto, best-selling author of Epitaph for a Peach, returns to the same ground but digs even deeper in a new, "more ambitious book" in which "he lets his philosophy about man and nature emerge from an absorbing chronicle of his life and that of his Japanese antecedents" (The Economist). This is a book about working alongside the ghosts of generations past, about the search for roots in the tragic history of internment camps and in the rural culture of Japan. It is equally about renewal-reinvigorating the farm with organic techniques, teaching his children how to carry on the work that eighty acres of peaches and grapes demand. Masumoto knits past and present to achieve a rare and essential harmony: holding on to what matters, despite the pressures of time and change. "Take your time, linger" with the book, counsels the San Diego Union-Tribune, "Masumoto's serene tales . . . are like a balm." He is a "remarkable" author, sums up The Atlantic, "with a field, and a sensibility, peculiarly his own."
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)
Read an Excerpt
GRAPEVINES DO NOT HAVE BRILLIANT AUTUMN COLORS, THEY INITIALLY turn yellow. With a freeze near Thanksgiving, a white frost dusts the fields and as it melts, the leaves become brown--life has been sucked from them with the cold. The brittle foliage clings to the canes and will not fall off until a good rainstorm pounds them to the ground. That's when I return to farmwork.
Next year's harvest will only emerge from one-year-old wood; the old canes needed to be cut, discarded, and replaced with the new. As a youngster I pruned thousands of vines, yet somehow this year is different. The vines look foreign, shrouded in the damp fog. The moisture stains the canes dark and paints the older bark a glossy black. Each twist of a gnarled trunk casts a deep shadow and creates the illusion of a cavern cut deep into the heart of the stump. Only four or five feet tall, the vines appear hunched over like old men.
Before I start pruning, I remove some of the oddly shaped vines with their contorted features. The worst ones resemble an S shape, decades ago yanked in one direction, pulled back years later, and then bent with yet another season. They're old and the canes grow weaker with each harvest. I open a folding handsaw and grip the wooden handle as I start ripping into the bark with its coarse steel teeth. The brittle wood breaks and peels off in thin strips, scattering onto the green winter weeds and the damp earth. My arms pump back and forth until the teeth finally grab and a familiar "haaack" sound establishes a cadence. The vine topples, and at the stump a white woody membrane is exposed, the living tissue remarkably only a few inches wide, protected by layers and layers of bark. A clear fluid bleeds from the opening, dripping onto the earth and creating a small mud puddle. Later, if there's a morning sun, the beads of moisture catch the light and sparkle.
Most of the time the fog masks landmarks. A hundred feet from our house I'm invisible and alone. I can hear sounds, a door slamming, an engine starting, voices of my mom asking Dad if he'll be in for lunch. I trudge to the farthermost field and start pruning. I can barely see around me--the sky is cast in a glaring gray. The only sounds are my footsteps sliding on the damp earth and fallen leaves and the dripping of dew from saturated vines.
Is this how my jiichan/grandpa first saw a grapevine--a strange creature with wild growth dangling from a dark body? The rows of vines look like a silent column of prisoners, their trunks bent and twisted, their arms held upward in surrender. The canes droop like elongated fingers with an occasional leaf clinging as a decorative ring, flapping with a slight shift in the air.
I wonder if Jiichan Masumoto, arriving in America a century ago in 1899 and having never seen a vine before, yet hungry for work, lied to get a job and told the farmer, "Yes, yes, I work," then followed the crew into the vineyard and watched the others while they whispered in Japanese, telling him what to do.
"Give me five canes and two spurs," the farmer may have told my grandfather. Five canes? Spurs? These were words he had never heard before, the language of a new world he had to learn.
Other immigrant groups arrived at a similar time in the San Joaquin Valley of California. They planted their family farm traditions from their homelands--the Germans and Portuguese brought dairies and the Italians their vineyards and wineries. But the Issei came from farming villages where rice and barley were planted each spring, followed by summer weeding and irrigation, and an early autumn harvest. During the winter, the paddies were turned and prepared for another year as they had been for centuries. Pruning vines was not natural for my grandfather.
Did he still think in Japanese? What terms did he use for things he had never seen before? Did he call a vine cane the same word he used for the branches of the wild berries in Japan? What words did he use for "to prune a vine"? It's not the same as a bonsai gardener's meticulous pruning and shaping, where a branch is carefully clipped and wired and a stem is trimmed and braced or a stone is roped to a limb, the dangling weight gradually drawing the wood downward, redirecting growth. Did Jiichan think in English? Wasn't learning English part of becoming an American? I grew up sometimes hearing the phrase Hayaku! or "Hurry up!" Farmworkers were usually paid by piecework, and the only "art" to pruning was the art of making money by working as fast as you could and racing to the next vine. Good pruners eye the thick wood and quickly hack at the rest, slashing at the mass of canes, yanking the severed limbs and tossing them in between the rows.
Grapevines last for generations; some of ours are eighty years old. The first permanent plantings on this land were in the year my grandmother, Baachan Masumoto, immigrated to America in 1918: according to records, the farmer before us planted 2,640 Thompson seedless vines that year. Jiichan may have pruned our farm's vines as a farmworker. He, along with thousands of immigrant laborers, helped to establish and maintain the lush fields of our valley. Over the decades, little has changed. Farmers still hand-prune each vine, every row needs irrigating and plowing, and the late-summer harvests demand thousands of workers to pick and dry the grapes into raisins. Technology has not replaced the human element. Vineyards still require people to care for them.
I learned to prune by watching my parents and Baachan. They'd take us kids out into the fields, bundle us up to block the winter winds and damp fog. We'd stiffly stand alongside them as they pulled and stripped the clippings from the wire trellis. Mom and Dad tackled two rows at a time, each row twelve feet apart. Most rows were less than a hundred vines long, with a single wire stretching down every column and anchored to end posts. While my older brother and sister helped my parents, I'd play and wrestle with a long branch that sometimes stretched over ten feet, first pretending it to be a snake or whip until it broke into a sword. As I grew older and bored with childish games, I was anxious to learn farmwork. I too wanted to help the family.
By ten, I was given my own pruning shears, an old set with mismatched wooden handles and a well-oiled cutting head. I was allowed to slice the center brush off from the wires, canes from the prior year that were tightly wrapped around the trellis. (Grape bunches grew and hung from these branches.)
One of the few Japanese terms I grew up with was naka-giri, meaning "cut the center." Naka-giri was a mindless, tedious task, perfectly suited for us three children. We'd slice the wood, making a series of incisions, breaking the cord into smaller sections, then pulling them from the trellis, yanking and snapping the limbs, dragging them to the spaces between the rows. Right behind us worked Mom and Dad, finishing each vine, selecting the right canes for next year.
Baachan Masumoto usually helped me, the youngest and slowest. I'm not sure if she chose to naka-giri with the kids or felt too slow and old for the tougher job of finishing a vine. Surely she had mastered the art of pruning after six decades working in the fields. But perhaps she now enjoyed a freedom from responsibility, knowing someone else would complete her work.
Winters in the Central Valley of California are cold but not harsh. Night temperatures drop to freezing but usually warm to the forties by midmorning. Fog dampens spirits with a gray, wet chill. Since vines are spaced only a few feet apart, the whole family could work next to each other, close enough to talk and prune under watchful eyes.
We worked without gloves, and our exposed cheeks and ears turned a rosy blush in the frigid air. Inevitably branches tangled. I'd tug and pull, trying to free the mess, until finally something would crack and a cane would whip loose. Quickly I'd turn and close my eyes, but often too late; a cry would escape my throat as the wood slapped my face: a sharp bite, then a raw sting shooting across my cheek as I grimaced in pain. I'd drop my shears and run my cold fingers across the flesh, feeling for blood. Rarely, though, did my skin break; instead my eyes watered and I gritted my teeth until the stabbing ache gave way to a numbness on the surface. With tears running down, I'd begin again, sniffling and wincing, trying to work despite the throbbing. Through moist eyes, I'd detect a motion and find Dad working the vine ahead of me. He said nothing as his powerful shears chopped the wood into small sections, making it easier to dislodge the old growth.
I CAN'T RECALL a specific lesson in how to prune. While other boys were learning to catch a ball or cast a line, I watched my father snip and cut, shaping his vines into a work of art. His canes were thick, spread evenly on both sides of the vine, making them easy to lash to the wire without breaking. He snipped and grabbed the end of a branch that wore the telltale gray of frostbite instead of the normal creamy tan. He bent the tip around toward his eyes. The wood crackled and stretched but did not snap. If he found the fiber brittle and dried, he'd chop the limb back until he uncovered the pale green tissue of life.
Grape bunches will emerge from the nodes three or four inches from the trunk but usually not more than four feet away. Stepping back, Dad would scan the entire vine, judging if the remaining canes were too short for a healthy crop, evaluating if skinny ones were worth leaving. On each vine, he also tried to leave three or four "spurs," short stubs from which new canes for next year would sprout, destined to bear another harvest. His eyes darted back and forth, searching and comparing, envisioning the future.
My first attempts to prune made the vines look as though they had passed through a shredder. The canes hung limp and lacked strong structure and definition; they seemed out of balance, as if the branches I had chosen to save did not belong. I sometimes forgot to check for the strangely beautiful but sterile gray hue of frostbite, which meant that later in the year, when sap and water flowed through the rest of the vine, my branches would snap when pulled. They would never again produce grapes. Occasionally I neglected to leave spurs, cleanly snipping off old growth before remembering I should have left a foundation for the future.
Eventually it dawned on me why my early years of pruning resulted in such poor craftsmanship. Some of it had to do with my poor skills, but a lot had to do with a father giving his young son a scraggly old vine to start with. Dad had forced me to learn with the hardest vines. I can hear the collective voice of all sage farmers: why sacrifice a good vine on an inexperienced son?
Now I prune by first selecting the strong and discarding the weak wood. Then I search for the thickest canes evenly spaced around the vine head, leaving spurs in open locations for next year's growth. Over the years I have learned to distinguish wood potentially damaged by frost. I go by color, feel, and sound. A hoary white hue becomes a sign of frostbite. Then, when I snip the end of a stem, healthy tissue will slice but dead wood will snap. Through my shears I can feel and hear the difference if my blade splinters and mangles the dried fibers with a flat "whack" instead of the crisp incision of steel as it severs a limb.
I make over fifty cuts per vine, fifty decisions within a few minutes. Despite the detailed work, I slip into a cadence, a pace that allows time for my thoughts to wander. My arms and hands recall the familiar rhythms; my muscles have retained their memory of farmwork. I yank and the wire stretches and pulls against the metal stakes. The steel creaks and moans. The branches hold fast and I cannot snap the bundled wood. I look for an opening to slip my rounded shear point into and snip the strands into short segments. I then grab and rip the wood free. The entire row shakes with my tug. With brute force I try to snap the remaining branches, but they resist. Older men use more center cuts to free the wood; younger pruners sever the growth by force.
After the first vines I stop struggling. There are too many to fight. I need to play farm games to combat the monotony. I have a friend who, as a child of a poor family, spent hours and hours in the fields. He developed a wild imagination, creating space invaders out of unpruned vines, monsters with tentacles waiting to coil around small boys. In his mind, a young vine next to an old, gnarled one was one of those petrified boys. So he attacked each vine, madly chopping away at the brush in order to defend himself. They'd attack him over and over and he'd chop and clip and slash until he had defeated the vine and only a manageable five canes remained. Then he'd let the branches dangle in defeat. Later the space police would arrive and tie up these prisoners, lashing them to the overhead wires.
I frequently play strategic games of controlling territory, approaching a ten-acre block of vines by attacking each row from the ends and then, over the next few days, advancing toward the middles, pretending to surround my opponent, then asking for unconditional surrender. Working one row at a time becomes overwhelming; I look up and see an entire field unpruned and feel discouraged. Completing the first few vines all along an avenue seems like progress--I can walk home at dusk bolstered with a sense of accomplishment. I think of the Japanese game of go--on a grid-patterned gameboard, opponents try to capture territory through a series of encounters, but losing a particular battle does not necessarily mean the loss of the game.
Did my father play games while he pruned? Did Jiichan? I never thought of them engaging in childhood games. I have trouble imagining them as children. As I prune, a loose cane snaps free and grabs my jacket. I whip around and slash at the tentacle, liberating myself with a triumphant "haaa!"
Many of the vines are old and I have trouble finding good canes. I feel like a geriatric nurse searching for good blood vessels in his patients. Yet considering their lengthy time of service and occasional abuse by young pruners, these vines just need to be reshaped. Perhaps I need to ask their forgiveness so that I can just slash away, severing deadwood, amputating arms growing out at odd angles, pruning "hard" to stimulate new, vigorous growth for the coming year.
Occasionally I'll stop at a vine that seems confused. The old growth spreads in all directions, dividing the crown into two or three distinct heads, each with its own scraggly family of canes. I can date most of the wood: the thin gray canes are one or two years old, the thick dark arms come from years past. The shape tells a story of the vine's expansion outward in a constant search for sunlight that results in twisted growth. Farmers try to check that exploration and redirect the vigor.
How did these vines get to be so disordered? Old pruning errors are evident: a worker left a strong cane branching away from the main trunk, creating a dual-headed vine. I try to correct the growth by pulling it back and braiding the wood together. The vine then responds by growing fat in other places with oddly positioned shoots, resisting my attempt at control.
A vine grows only by gradual accrual, punctuated by the annual rite of pruning. I now add to the living timeline, shaping and cutting, only to return next year and discover new growth with new patterns. I need to be planning on pruning years into the future. I begin to think of these old vines as badly bent, but not broken.
After an initial week of pruning, I'm working as a veteran. My shears glide though a canopy, snipping and clipping, pulling and tugging. My eyes dance from cane to cane, monitoring the growth from old spurs and crowns while identifying strong canes that will bear next year's harvest. The easiest vines grow vigorously, following the patterns established years ago with proper pruning. I pause and talk to myself about where to leave extra spurs, knowing my decisions will effect my work years from now. I also need to trust the lead of those before me, duplicating their efforts to sustain the legacy of a healthy vine.
It takes years to learn how to prune a vine, to grow accustomed to the diverse patterns and changes manifested in a contorted trunk. I can respond to history by leaving healthy wood and strategic spurs--my best pruning works with the past in order to shape the future.
Now I understand why they call these cultural practices. Good pruning is not a science, it's the art of working with a living entity, an annual sojourn to a familiar place with the intention of returning the next year and the year after that. But it goes beyond just the physical structure of a vine. The ghosts of many pruners before me live in my fields--this is a place where generations reside.
Meet the Author
David Mas Masumoto is the author of Harvest Son and Epitaph for a Peach. His organic farm is in Del Rey, California.
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