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From The Asian Reporter, V19, #36 (September 15, 2009), page 13.
Cultivating memory and history on the family farm
Wisdom of the Last Farmer:
Harvesting Legacies from the Land
By David Mas Masumoto
Free Press, 2009
Hardcover, 238 pages, $25.00
By Marie Lo
In front of a packed audience at Powell’s Books last month, writer and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto read from his newest work, Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land.
Masumoto is best known for his critically acclaimed memoir Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm, which chronicles his attempts to save the luscious but delicate Sun Crest heirloom peach in an economy that values durable and transportable peaches. The peach becomes a symbol of a fading cultural icon — the family farm — and the importance of preserving it in an era of corporate agribusiness.
In Wisdom of the Last Farmer, Masumoto again explores life on the Masumoto family farm, and in the same lyrical, sensual, and evocative prose, renders the landscape inseparable from family history, identity, and cultural legacy. The new work centers on his father’s stroke and how it transforms their relationship, reconnecting them to each other and to the farm in new ways.
According to Masumoto, "Farming is a cultural act ... Food should embody a sense of history and manifest the terroir — the taste of the place where it grows, its elemental nature. It should also embody the human element that nurtures it and gives it life through our farmwork. All who eat participate in the culture of farming."
This intimate circuitry between the landscape, the farmer, the food, and the consumer is at the heart of Masumoto’s literary vision. Masumoto is a third-generation Japanese-American farmer. His organic peach and grape farm in the California Central Valley is a mesmerizing and animated character in all his books, which also include Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil, Four Seasons in Five Senses: Things Worth Savoring, Letters to the Valley: A Harvest of Memories, and Heirlooms: Letters from a Peach Farmer.
According to Masumoto, one of the themes of Wisdom of the Last Farmer is "looking at the food we eat in context" — from its global and political ramifications to "thinking about the physical price that is paid." For farmers who spend their days working the land under unpredictable and difficult conditions, the physical price is an enormous one. And for Masumoto’s father, whose identity is intertwined with being a farmer, a debilitating stroke forces him to redefine himself in a new way and to relearn the basic skills of farming.
The stroke also transforms Masumoto’s relationship with his father. Growing up, he had been the student, his father the teacher. Now, their relationship inverts, and Masumoto must teach his father how to farm again.
"A stroke insults the body, the mind, the survivor, the family … a stroke is lonely and isolating, recovery slow and uncertain. Little can be done once the stroke has done its damage — recovery has no magic pill or quick treatment to fix the brain. Rarely do you get back what you lost; rarely are you ever as good as you once were."
Using the language of strokes as a framing device, the insult of the stroke resonates beyond just the body. For his father, the insult of a stroke was one of a number of insults he had to endure — from the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the legacy of the alien land laws that prevented first-generation Japanese Americans like his father before him from owning land.
His father’s resiliency in the face of the insults parallels the Masumoto family farm’s adaptation and survival in an era of agribusiness and farm subsidies, and the memoir eloquently weaves together immigration, personal memory, family legacies, and regional history.
For fans of Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, Masumoto’s work deepens the conversation about sustainable and organic farming practices and the politics and ethics of eating locally. It reminds us that the food we eat can connect us to a larger collective history of immigration, struggle, and endurance.