'Wisdom of the Last Farmer': hardship and growth on a family farm
In David Mas Masumoto's "Wisdom of the Last Farmer," the California author/farmer explores the territory of his father's stroke and the changes it brings, both to the family and to the land they have cultivated for generations. Masumoto reads Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
David Mas MasumotoThe author of "Wisdom of the Last Farmer" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle. Free (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
David Mas Masumoto's "Epitaph for a Peach" and other lyrical works about the succulent summer fruit qualify him as America's Peach Laureate. A grower of organic fruit in Central California, he is also one of a dying breed of small family farmers in the country.
In his latest book, "Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land" (Free Press, 250 pp., $25), Masumoto explores new and sometimes painful territory: the onset of his father's stroke and the changes it brings. Some of these are predictable alterations to work habits and schedule. His dad had worked the farm for 50 years, and his immigrant grandfather was a farmworker in the area before that. The author returned to the family farm after college in the early 1980s. Other changes are more surprising. With no older generation working the fields, Masumoto faces the finitude of his own farming days in a chapter titled, "How Many Harvests Left."
"Wisdom" is more memoir than his previous books. Masumoto ambles purposefully through past and present, threading stories by theme instead of time. I admire the way he works in his family history, returning again and again to his ethnic roots, including the devastating impacts of war and the incarceration of Japanese Americans. His prose is contemplative, disciplined and repetitive in a pleasing way.
He gives marvelously detailed particulars about farming, especially the hard work of weeding by hand, the continual vigilance for plant diseases and pests, and the precise timing of when to pick the fruit and rush it to market. To such a keen observer, farm life is rich in metaphor, whether it be weathered work gloves or duct tape.
His father's stroke is the touchstone for Masumoto's stories and observations. He recounts the physical and emotional effects of brain injury on the old man, and how the farm itself is "injured": Four grape vines were uprooted when his father's tractor veered off track as his stroke occurred.
Masumoto describes the bodily pains of farming and the crushing blows of natural disasters: ruinous rain storms, extreme heat and cold, flooding. All of the family's experiences in overcoming adversity and hardship on the farm, he maintains, have helped them cope with dad's stroke.
The writing creaks under the burden of living up to the book's title when the author strives too hard to extract life lessons from farm stories. On occasion, he also strays far from his core material — farm and family — to topics, such as the different "Californias," that seem to come from the newspaper column he writes for The Fresno Bee.
But that's OK, because Masumoto always returns to his glorious fruit and this is the sweet reward for his readers. Like this tasty morsel: "Elberts [a peach variety] ... is a beautiful peach with a sweet, buttery flavor and smooth consistency. It nestles in your palm, its lovely soft peach fuzz as comforting as a beloved dog's velvety ears."
Comforting is as good a word as any to describe this book.
David Takami is the author of
"Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle."
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