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  • Pruning the Past, Shaping the Future: David Mas Masumoto and Organic Nothingness
  • Shiuh-huah Serena Chou (bio)

I had acted in the belief that everything should be left to take its natural course, but . . . [t]his is abandonment, not “natural farming.”

––Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution (13)

In Epitaph for a Peach (1995), Harvest Son (1998), Four Seasons in Five Senses (2004), Letters to the Valley (2004), and Heirlooms (2007), third-generation Japanese American farmer David Mas Masumoto describes how he grows organic peaches according to principles deriving from his East Asian heritage. Masumoto first takes great pains to avoid unnecessary interference with the natural growing processes of his orchard. In rejecting chemical fertilizers and pesticides of any kind, Masumoto later adheres to the Zen Buddhist notion of wu, or “nothingness.” Working with nature for him means emulating the Buddhist nothingness practiced by Japanese organic pioneer Masanobu Fukuoka, whose “non-cultivation” method moves beyond simply avoiding the use of modern technologies to embrace nature as an autonomous realm where the human and the non-human interact to create a sustainable whole. The organic farming tradition described by Fukuoka in the 1970s and celebrated in Masumoto’s life and work in California since the 1990s demonstrates the intrinsic congruity between the Buddhist idea of nothingness and the practice of organic farming.

Masumoto’s narratives also foreground an association between the disinheritance of ethnic heritage and the loss of traditional organic methods once employed by his ancestors. Revisiting memories of his father’s farming as an impoverished ethnic American without pesticides and tracing the philosophical roots of organic cultivation to Japan, Masumoto comes to define himself as an organic farmer who sustains the past, present, and future of the land and his farming community. This essay explores how Masumoto’s nature writing expands both ecocritical and ethnic literary discussions as he embraces Fukuoka’s farming methods and unfolds the complexities and vagaries of an organic landscape once popularly conceived of as pristine, orderly, and “natural” in post-1960s America. Through analyzing Masumoto’s significance to Japanese American literature, American ethnic literatures, and ecocriticism, I demonstrate that [End Page 157] agrarian and Japanese American literature invite readers and literary critics to reconceive the relationship between “the organic” and “the man-made” that has constituted part of American nature writing.

The rite of passage Masumoto takes to becoming an organic farmer is first chronicled in Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm. Returning home to Fresno, California, with a BA from UC Berkeley, an MA from UC Davis, and experience studying in Tokyo, he discovers that his father has come to rely on chemical herbicides and pesticides. In his nature writing, Masumoto bemoans the loss of the mouthwatering but less eye-catching Sun Crest peaches that his immigrant grandparents and parents pruned, harvested, and passed on to him. He rejects agricultural practices that have created a “monster” peach variety, “fuller in color and [which] can last for weeks in storage,” through the intense use of herbicides, fertilizers, and other mass production technologies adopted since the beginning of California’s agricultural history (Epitaph 122, x).1 Disappointed to learn that consumers, too, have become indifferent to the odors and tastes of peaches and the stories of a past generation that farmed as “a way of life,” Masumoto vows to farm naturally like his forebears, “working with, and not against, nature” (229, 4).

Having grown up on a small family farm in the 1950s, Masumoto belongs to a baby-boomer generation of fruit-tree farmers who have never planted barley, rye, clover, winter field beans, and other natural fertilizers because of easy access to synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. With the simple goal of providing his wife and newborn baby a lush, colorful pasture to take walks in during the pale winter months, he first plants wildflowers as groundcover (15). He renounces the ready-made, guaranteed nitrogen that comes in bags, resuming the cover-cropping method his father abandoned in the 1950s when he could finally afford the chemical fertilizers widely promoted by post-World War II agricultural industries. In the 1970s, Masumoto’s neighbors, baby boomers like himself, are surprised to discover...


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pp. 157-174
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