Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 21/24

Fri 03 Dec 2010 · 3 comments

There are hints of spring, even in the depths of winter.

Change in nature happens little by little, and in places we cannot see. Like the tide coming in and lapping against things all around you. Something was clearly changing now. People may sense these things subconsciously. Changes he was not aware of were changing Kimura. They also had an effect on the relationship between Kimura and the people around him.

Kimura told me the following story. The owner of a neighbouring orchard, no longer able to tolerate them, came over to complain about Kimura’s which now looked more like a jungle.

‘At least cut the weeds.’

He was clearly exasperated. What he said was short and to the point, but Kimura knew only too well the huge significance of his neighbour’s message. He was not about to put up with any further nonsense about being pesticide-free. The man was mad, but he hadn’t said anything because, at least up until then, he’d always told himself that at least the orchards had been tended. Kimura had then given up cutting the grass. The weeds grew out of control; the soybeans he sowed everywhere grew waist high; you had to wade waist deep through the orchards. There were all sorts of insects humming around the wilds of the orchards. You could hardly call them orchards any more. Getting crazy dreams into your head, failing to grow apples for years, getting poorer; these were all Kimura’s problems. He urged him not to cause any more trouble for other farmers in the area. What was he going to do when the insects flew their way? There’s no way they were going to put up with any more.

A year ago he would probably have argued with his neighbour. Now, however, he listened to him in silence. Then, quietly, he said this.

‘Could you come over again tomorrow evening?’

The following evening, the man stood with Kimura on the boundary between their orchards. Moths fluttered around. Moths produce the insects that devour apple leaves. The man had an expression of incredulity. He couldn’t see any insects at all emerging from Kimura’s orchards. The moths were flying in ones and twos, as if escaping from something, from the neighbouring orchards into Kimura’s. Far from being the source of the pests, Kimura’s orchards seemed to be where they congregated. This was clear, once they transformed into insects. The orchards where pesticides had not been sprayed felt decidedly more comfortable. If you were an insect you’d understand. It seems the fact that there were so many moths in his orchards, where pesticides were used, came as a shock to the owner of the neighbouring orchards. He couldn’t eradicate the insects. That’s why he had to spray pesticides every year, but he was shocked to see the reality. Not only did he never come and complain again, he also told all the local farmers the story.

This was not because Kimura was an eccentric; it was because his neighbour had noticed that he was on to something. Looking around the orchards he noticed deep holes had been dug here and there. Kimura said he was measuring temperatures under the ground. He started by saying that the temperatures of the soil on the mountain and the soil in the orchards were different, and then went on to explain why he allowed the weeds to grow. He explained it all with great passion.

‘Not that you’re an academic.’

The sarcasm was unintentional; inside they seemed to be genuinely interested. They’d hitherto given no thought to how well the apple roots were growing in the soil. At least they were forced to concede that he’d not just let the weeds grow rampant for no reason at all. It may have been their imagination, but compared to what they used to look like the apple leaves did indeed seem healthier. The apples aside, the vegetables Kimura was growing in the orchards looked amazing. The stems of some tomato plants grew to nearly three meters, and were laden with fruit. They’d never seen tomatoes growing taller than apple trees. Kimura may have been considered eccentric in some respects, but he could justly be regarded as a gifted farmer. Of course they didn’t acknowledge Kimura without some reservation. For one thing, the orchards were still full of insects. But if the insects didn’t damage their orchards, they’d be prepared to follow Kimura’s efforts more closely. The attitudes of the people around Kimura slowly started to change.

There’s something I should explain to the reader here. The story of what happened that evening is based entirely on what Kimura told me during an interview. I didn’t talk to the neighbouring farmer who had come over to ask if Kimura would ‘At least cut the weeds’. Kimura didn’t want who it was made public.

I’d probably have found out if I’d gone round all the orchards that surround Kimura’s orchards, but that was something I really didn’t want to do. This all happened more than twenty years ago, and many of the farmers who were in the prime of their lives then will already have made way for the next generation. More significantly, it was his problem, and the last thing he wanted to do was cause the neighbouring farmers any more grief.

So what is written here is what Kimura recalls and is purely subjective. Of course Kimura himself didn’t stand on the boundary of his orchards all day, observing where the moths came from and where they went. Neither does he claim that not a single moth from the masses that were produced in his orchards flew to someone else’s orchards. Hence we cannot be absolutely certain about whether the man who complained to Kimura was entirely convinced by what Kimura said. Even today, not all the apple farmers in the Tsugaru region accept Kimura. The majority may still be critical of him.

Aspiring to grow apples without using pesticides is probably viewed as an act tantamount to denying apple growing. If you put yourself in their position, you can understand the feelings of the farmers who feel their use of chemicals is being condemned when you can grow apples without them.

Kimura himself didn’t feel that way at all. All he was interested in was growing his own apples without using pesticides. This is why he was afraid, more than anything, of interfering with the surrounding orchards. It was the main reason he went around, all day long from morning to night, removing the pests by hand.

One young man, someone who watched Kimura closely, understood what he was up to. His name was Makoto Takeya. His father, Ginzō Takeya, had orchards adjacent to Kimura’s on the lower slopes of Mount Iwaki. At about the time he started helping out in his father’s orchards, Makoto – who was a graduate of the local agricultural high school – says that the apples in Kimura’s orchards were still blossoming out of season every year, so he must have been watching him from the start. He would also have known, of course, about the diseases and proliferating pests, and the intolerable conditions which prevailed.

Being younger, he doesn’t remember having talked to him, but Makoto Takeya relates how he can imagine what the grown-ups at the time thought of Kimura.

‘Agrichemical spraying methods are better these days, so that even if diseases and pests increase in a neighbouring orchard, there’s no need to get too nervous about it. If you spread the right pesticide at the right time your trees shouldn’t be hit by pests or disease. But twenty years ago, at that time, technology wasn’t so advanced. After all, it’d only been forty years since new the new pesticides had been introduced after the war.

Even if you sprayed pesticides, pest damage quite often happened anyway. It could’ve been that our methods weren’t up to scratch, but it’s a bit strange that some people suspected it was because of Kimura’s orchards. One thing I can say, as someone who watched him constantly from next door, was that at least far we were concerned I’ve no memory of hordes of pests flying over from Kimura’s orchards. The really amazing thing was orchards in such a bad state gradually getting better. Watching him, we knew better than anyone that Kimura wasn’t using pesticides. It may be embarrassing to say so, but Kimura began to be seen in a new light when the opinions of the surrounding farmers, including my father, slowly started changing. They saw the conditions in his orchards and realized what an amazing thing he was doing. They were actually looking at them rather than relying on hearsay. I believe all apple farmers would feel the same if they took the trouble to look at Kimura’s orchards.’

Just as the views of Kimura amongst the locals farmers were slowly changing, changes were happening in the way Kimura viewed pests. Something he’d not seen during the time he’d regarded them as a despised enemy which devoured his leaves gradually dawned on him.

‘I suddenly wondered, in the middle of catching the pests, what sort of faces they had. So I started studying the faces of the insects I’d caught with a magnifying glass.

You know, their faces are so adorable. They stared at me with those big, round eyes. Looking at their faces, you can’t hate them. Being a softy, I couldn’t bring myself to kill them, so put them back on the leaves. Even though they were my sworn enemy. Because although I thought of them as pests, when I looked at them closely they looked really cute. It occurred to me that nature could be interesting, so the next thing I did was to try looking at faces of useful insects. They help us out by eating pests. But they had frightening faces. The lacewing has a face just like a monster from the movies. For their own convenience, people label them ‘harmful’ insects or ‘beneficial’ insects, but caterpillars which eat leaves are herbivores, and so have peaceful faces. The useful insects which eat them are carnivores, and so it’s only natural that they have savage faces.

I knew nothing about insects, even though I’d been catching them every day. Various insects lay their eggs on apple trees, but thinking about it, I’d no idea which insects hatched from which eggs, nor did I know what adults an insect would grow into. That’s why I gradually started observing insects. How they went about eating leaves; I watched them all day long. When I discovered their eggs, I used to get rid of them all, but then I began to leave a few and make a daily record. I adopted various insects, and tried raising them indoors. It didn’t always work. If I accidentally forgot to watch them for a few days they’d all turn into moths and I’d find dozens of them flying around the room. Ha ha ha. I hadn’t really been observing them properly. And males and the females of the same species of moth flew differently. Another thing I didn’t know.

The insect world is an amazing one. The pests’ eggs laid on the trunks of Kimura’s trees, for example, are the colour of the trunk. It’s camouflage. They form a clump about five millimetres in diameter, and a clump will be made up of about fifty eggs. About ten centimetres away from that clump of eggs, there may be two other eggs. These might be ladybird eggs. They’re beneficial insects, and they’re waiting for the pests to hatch. But it’s not just that the pests are eaten. The fifty or so eggs don’t all hatch at once. Half of them hatch and head for the apple leaves to feed. When they reach about one centimetre, the other half hatch. The ladybirds hatch at precisely this moment. As they are small when they hatch, they feed on the second lot of pests’ eggs that have just hatched. The lot that hatched first continue devouring the leaves and growing quickly. In other words, the half that hatched later are destined to be eaten by the ladybirds. They are sacrificed so that the eggs that hatch first will thrive. Seeing that amazed me. I began to wonder about the sort of world insects inhabit. It was a mysterious feeling wondering who created all this. I realized how finely tuned nature is. It may be an exaggeration, but it felt like the existence of the world itself may be down to insects.’

It dawned on Kimura that in nature there is no such thing as harmful or beneficial insects. There are insects that we deem ‘harmful’, and this gives rise to others being regarded as ‘beneficial’. A natural balance is maintained as some will eat, whilst others will be eaten. There is nothing either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about it.

From the time he noticed how fertile the earth in the forest was, and allowing the weeds to grow, the apple trees slowly started reviving. The apple tree roots were spreading healthily in the orchards, and there was a remarkable decrease in the number of wobbly trees. This was due neither to the disappearance of insects, nor to the decline of fungi and bacteria which caused disease. Talking about what is and isn’t natural, it is unnatural for apple trees – which originated in the Caucasus Mountains – to be in Japan in the first place. The oak trees being where they were was because nature intended it that way. It was the result of the relationship between the amount of rain that fell that year, the humidity, the temperature, and other plants in the area. Those conditions suited the acorns which fell to the ground, and they were able to grow there. Nature selected the oak tree, and the reason it was there was because it was natural. If the conditions change, then the oak trees would quietly wither and die.

Apple trees are different. Man planted apple trees and, at the end of the day, it is man who needs apple trees. Left to the providence of nature, they would probably die. It is for our benefit that we use various means to keep apple trees alive. It’s agriculture. Whether or not we use pesticides makes no difference. So another problem which Kimura had been grappling with was the extent to which he could reconcile nature with what was convenient for man. The irreconcilable took the form of insects and disease.

Pesticides allow this problem to be resolved effortlessly. If insects appear, kill them. If disease spreads, disinfect. This results in the natural balance being damaged at a very profound level. This much is patently clear if you compare the mountain soil and soil in the orchards. To put it bluntly, agriculture today survives as an epitaph to the natural balance. Kimura failed in his search to find something that could replace pesticides. It was good that he failed. If he’d found a food that was as effective against insects and disease as pesticides, this would end up being used, however harmful it was to humans, in the same way as agrichemicals. It would mean he wouldn’t have mistaken the oak tree for an apple tree, and he certainly wouldn’t have realized the vital importance of the soil.

The lesson he learned on Mount Iwaki was the surprising complexity of nature. It had been a fundamental mistake to simply try and reach a compromise with something so complex. In nature there are neither harmful nor beneficial insects. For that very reason, even the boundary between inanimate and animate is vague. Earth, water, air, sunlight, and wind. Nature is the intermingling of all creatures great and small, from the non-living to bacteria and other minute organisms, insects, weeds, trees and animals. Kimura realized he would have to partner the whole of nature. He concluded that his job was to harmoniously integrate his apple trees into the fabric of the natural ecosystem.

‘It was something I understood when I stopped using pesticides. Using pesticides I was depleting the strength of the apple trees to fight disease and insects. Having had it so easy, they couldn’t survive. If you ride around in vehicles the whole time, your legs will just get weaker.

The same thing happens. And it isn’t just the apple trees. People using pesticides become more vulnerable to disease and insects. They begin to understand less about diseases and insects. All you’ve got to do is spray pesticides, so you don’t need to watch disease and insects properly any more. I include myself now. I explained that the eggs of pests are a camouflage. They’re small, and go the colour of the branches, leaves, or whatever they’re born on. You really can’t see them. But because I had no idea which insects were going to emerge from which eggs, I’d end up taking the eggs of the ladybirds which were next to the pests’ eggs. The eggs of the ladybird are orange, so they’re a little easier to distinguish, but as I was totally absorbed in catching the harmful insects, my sworn enemies, I didn’t even notice myself doing it. Once I looked more calmly at the insects, I eventually learned all sorts of things.’

One day, for example, Kimura noticed that the camouflaged, and hence more difficult to spot, pests’ eggs, were turning white. Previously, Kimura would have squashed the eggs without a moment’s thought for such things as the reason for this. But now he didn’t do that. Observing them every day, the eggs hatched, and the larvae appeared. It was one week since they’d turned white. Just in case, he made a note for the next time he found the same type of eggs. But it turned out to be the same for all the eggs. One week before they hatched, the eggs turned white. Eradicating the eggs of pests became more straightforward after that. The eggs never hatched until they had changed colour. All he needed to do was remove the eggs which had gone white.

Curiously, when he scraped the eggs off the bark, insects such as moths and spiders on the ground would immediately home in and devour the lot. It was almost as if they were waiting for Kimura to drop them.

How do moths and spiders know that the white clumps are eggs, and that they are packed with larvae that will imminently hatch? It took me years before I noticed that the eggs turned white. It was the same with the ladybirds. Ladybirds know where to lay their eggs as they know where the pests eggs are. If they didn’t, there is no way they could lay their eggs so precisely, right next to the pests’ eggs. When you think about it, nature abounds with such mysteries. Unless people take the time to patiently observe them, they will know even less about nature than the insects which have just hatched.

Kimura remarks that it is only now, after working with apple trees for thirty years, that he knows instinctively an insect will lay its eggs in a particular place just by looking at a tree. Following his instincts, he will look at a certain spot and, sure enough, there’ll be eggs there. There’s no chance the pests’ eggs will escape Kimura’s eye, however well camouflaged or small they are. If they aren’t there, then no eggs will have been laid on that tree. He understands so much about insects he can be that certain.

It may sound strange, but he’s one of only a handful of people not to be outdone by ladybirds.

‘But it took many years until I got to that point. It was the same with measures to prevent disease. Vinegar seemed promising so I kept using it, but got no results. That was only because I was looking in the wrong places. Density and timing are important when spraying pesticides, but they are even more critical with vinegar. Unlike pesticides, with vinegar you don’t completely eradicate fungus and bacteria. Vinegar is specified as an agrichemical in the regulations, but is in fact completely different to pesticides. No-one tries to commit suicide by drinking vinegar! Vinegar has anti-bacterial properties which make it a popular health food, but it’s very weak. Its weak antibacterial properties supplement a tree’s natural resistance to withstand disease. You have to grasp the initiative by understanding the ecology of bacteria and fungus. It’s no good just spraying vinegar around. I didn’t realize this. I was just looking at it and trying to do something focused on a particular disease.’

Diseases are a part of nature. We get heavy rain in early spring some years, and in others it doesn’t get warmer in the rainy season. Nature changes every year. The timing and manner in which diseases occur, likewise, varies with the year. Disease and climate are intimately related. The vinegar started working once he understood the relationship.

That year, the second since he’d planted soy beans and allowed the weeds to grow, conditions in the orchards were visibly improving. The leaves that had appeared in spring hadn’t fallen by autumn. About one third of the leaves remained. Enough to make Kimura want to dance he was so happy. Most of the leaves had dropped by summer in the years prior to that. This was not simply down to the vinegar however. The soil in the orchards had become softer, more like the soil on the mountain. The apple roots were spreading and the trees were stronger. The vinegar may have started working. Kimura believes that this was the result of several conditions. He had been spreading vinegar around aimlessly, so it certainly wasn’t due to that. The vinegar became effective once he began to understand nature as a whole better.

‘Now, of course, all that makes sense. I can predict when diseases are going to occur if I know when the rainy season will start that year, or it seems like the summer temperatures won’t rise that high, or rain will fall from the weekend. If I spray vinegar just before fungi and bacteria become active, it can be quite effective. I learned how to predict the weather, because the weather forecasts can be wrong. At least I tend to be more accurate than the weather forecasts. That’s a difference between pesticides and vinegar. They’re like bombs and swords. They both kill people, but all you have to do with bombs is press a button and boom, anyone can wipe out a thousand people just like that.

But it’s different with swords. Unless you’re trained in swordsmanship, killing even one person is a challenge. You’ve got to know how to use it. Otherwise it’s just an ornament. Ha ha ha. Not such a good comparison perhaps.

In other words, for vinegar to work human experience and skill are needed. To put it another way, the more you know about nature, the more effectively you can use vinegar. I said that in autumn about a third of the leaves were left, but compared to the surrounding orchards this was pretty feeble. Because you don’t expect the leaves to fall do you? Looking at the leaves that were just about hanging on to the trees, it felt to me like the trees were imploring me to observe nature even more carefully, to put into practice what I learned.’

If you keep spreading the same density of vinegar, the resistance of the fungi and bacteria builds up and the vinegar stops working. To prevent this, the method that worked for Kimura was altering the density of the vinegar very slightly. He started getting hold of barrel-fermented vinegar that was a little more acidic than the vinegar he normally used. He was certain that the vinegar became more effective as the apple trees grew healthier. Kimura’s vinegar application methods were improving, too. That one third of the leaves clung on until the autumn was, as Kimura says, the result of a combination of factors. Natural phenomena, like phenomena in a laboratory, do not have a single cause. Behind changes which may appear subtle to us are infinite webs of interrelated causes. As small waves build and form giant waves, an infinite number of small changes combine and can, occasionally, bring about inconceivably big changes.

They may have been feeble, but the third of the leaves that were left were bringing about considerable changes in the trees. Early the following spring, the topmost branches of the trees grew about ten centimetres. The apple trees, which had been dormant for years, were starting to grow again. Whilst you’d certainly have missed it unless you were looking very hard, one apple tree at the entrance to the orchards blossomed. Of the eight hundred trees he had when he stopped using pesticides, more than half had died. One out of these four hundred or so apple trees produced at most seven blossoms. But it had been such a long time since he’d seen flowers blossoming in his orchards. It was spring of the third year since he’d sown soy beans, and the eighth year since he’d completely stopped using pesticides. Seven blossoms in the orchards. Of the seven, two produced fruit. A crop of just two apples. He placed the apples on the Shinto altar in the house, and later shared them with the whole family. They tasted surprisingly good. They’d eaten apples for as long as they could remember, but it was the first time they’d eaten apples like that. And it wasn’t just their imagination.

Nutrients produced by the leaves of one apple tree had been taken up by just two fruits, so they couldn’t be anything but delicious. That year, at least two thirds of the leaves on the apple trees hung on until the fall in late autumn. Kimura’s bitter struggle was finally coming to an end.


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