by MIRACLE APPLES author, Takuji Ishikawa
The travel diary written by Philipp Franz von Siebold on his journey to Edo from to Dejima, in Nagasaki, contains the following description of the beauty of the rural landscape in Japan.
‘Japanese farmers work on the lower slopes of the mountains with surprising diligence, transforming rocky ground into fertile fields of grain and vegetables. On thin ridges divided by deep furrows about one foot apart they grow produce including barley, wheat, rape, cabbages, mustard, beans, peas, radishes, and onions. There is not a single weed, nor one stone to be seen… Standing on the broad highway, we gazed with undiminished interest on the fine scene. The well-maintained road passes by nurseries and vegetable gardens as it emerges from pine stands between villages, feeling more like a footpath through parkland around our towns and villages at home. Travellers are delighted at each bend in the road by new vistas that seemed to spring straight from their imagination.’ (Journey to Edo, 1826)
Though I’m neither a farmer nor someone from the Edo period, for some von Siebold’s account makes me feel proud. This is what Japan looked like for centuries. If huge stone cathedrals and fleets that controlled the world’s oceans symbolize European civilization, then surely lovingly tended rice fields and spick and span streets are the essence of Japanese civilization.
With their respect for diligence, and making a principle of cleanliness, the Japanese people have made a habit of carefully keeping every corner of these small islands neat and tidy, growing rice, and raising beans and vegetables. The apple orchards lying at the foot of Mount Iwaki, the solitary peak towering over the Tsugaru Plain, are no exception. The trees in every orchard are neatly pruned, and the grass is cut so short it looks more like a lawn. Bathed in summer sunshine, the thick canopy of green leaves gleam, as though each one has been buffed by hand. Gazing at this scene, with its meticulously kept orchards, you don’t have to be a von Siebold to be lost in admiration. For the apple farmers, creating beautiful orchards is not only essential for producing an abundant crop; it is considered a virtue.
So perhaps it comes as no surprise that the same orchard owners labelled Kimura a kamadokeshi, the worst insult in the Tsugaru dialect which literally means ‘someone who puts out the stove’ – a good-for-nothing who fails to look after their family.
It was one summer in the latter half of the 1980. The broad sweep of apple orchards, now the darker green they go once summer starts, looked like a billowing sea as millions of leaves were lifted at once by a wind blowing from Mount Iwaki.
Amongst them, however, was one orchard which stood out as strangely different. For a start, the grass in the orchard had been left to grow. In some places, the luxuriant grass grew chest high. It would be immediately obvious to anyone that the grass hadn’t been cut that year.
In this thicket, grasshoppers hopped, moths fluttered, frogs croaked, and field mice and rabbits frolicked around as if they owned the place. It looked more like an unkempt wilderness than an orchard. Holding back the long grass with your hands as you make your way forward, wading through the dense undergrowth, is known as yabukogi. To get to an apple tree in that orchard was a matter of yabukogi; you literally had to row your way through the scrub. A ladder is essential for working on the apple trees, some of which are three or four meters tall. In normal orchards, the grass is cut short and is well trodden down; the ground is flat enough to play tennis on! Moving a ladder around should be no problem at all, but moving one around those orchards was a real chore. The owner of the orchards was carrying a ladder around, chest deep in the grass, sweating profusely. This alone was quite enough to make the diligent neighbouring farmers frown, but what was far worse was the state of the all-important apple trees.
At this time in summer, the apple trees in other orchards were smothered in leaves, and the boughs bent to breaking point under the weight of unripe fruit. But there was hardly any fruit on the apple trees in that orchard. There were curiously few leaves, too. In fact, quite a few leaves were already falling, even though it was summer. Some of the few remaining leaves had brown spots on them, and others were coated in a blackish dust. Many of the leaves were covered with holes. It was the only orchard that had gone to waste, like a mangy dog with a skin disease. Why was it so desolate? There wasn’t one farmer in the neighbourhood who didn’t know the reason. It hadn’t been sprayed with pesticides.
The owner hadn’t used a single drop of chemical on his orchards for the last six years. Unsurprisingly, the apple trees had succumbed to disease and pests, and most of the leaves which came out in the early spring had fallen by the start of summer. That meant there’d been no blossom for many years either.
And there was more.
The owner’s behaviour was incomprehensible, given the dire state of his orchards. As well as going to his orchards before daybreak and picking off insects that were on the trees by hand, he would sometimes sit motionless in the grass for a whole day. To cap it all, he would even fill his sprayer with vinegar and spray the trees with it, and wash the branches with cooking oil.
He was hardly your regular apple farmer.
That day he’d been lying under the apple trees since dawn, head resting on his arms. A kamadokeshi is a good-for-nothing who fails to keep the home fires burning. Allowing the kamado – the traditional stove at the heart of family life – to go out, is tantamount to destroying the home and dragging the family into destitution. There is no disgrace worse for a farmer, but in his case the insult seemed justified.
Then again, if they’d really known what the man sitting and lying down in his orchard was doing, they wouldn’t’ just have called him akamadokeshi, they’d have thought he was mad. For this man wasn’t sleeping. Under the hot summer sun, enveloped in the scents rising from lush green grass, he was looking up at a pest eating the apple leaves. Hidden in the grass, other insects were singing. Yellowing leaves fluttered down on the breeze. A flying insect of some description droned past, brushing his face as it went. All sorts of things went on in the peaceful orchards at the foot of the mountain as he lay there. But he neither heard nor saw these things going on around him. His eyes did nothing but track the movements of an individual pest.
An infinite number of pests attack apple trees. As well as various types of leaf roller, including the dark fruit-tree tortrix and the apple tortrix which feed on the new leaves and flower buds in early spring, there are inchworms, which eat the leaves, aphids, spider mites, flat-headed apple borers which attack the fruit, scale insect- at least thirty commonly-occurring species alone.
It was an inchworm that the man was following so intently that day. Inchworms are usually three or four millimetres thick at most, but that inchworm was as thick as a little finger. It was longer than a little finger, too. He must have been stuffing himself on apple leaves.
The big, plump inchworm was moving across the back of an apple leaf right in front of his eyes, arching its body and extending it in a comical way like someone taking a measurement using the span of their thumb and forefinger. The worm’s movement was quite unhurried. Taking its time, it would eat one whole leaf before moving on to the next one to. You’d think the closest one would be good enough, but even inchworms have their preferences it seems. For a start, it didn’t touch a leaf that was diseased. But for some reason there were healthy, green leaves which the inchworm turned its nose up at, too. Inchworms move slowly from leaf to leaf in search of leaves which, presumably for reasons known only to them, are ideal. Even though they’re so absorbed in what they’re doing, they’ll sometimes stop dead in their tracks. Either they’ve been startled by a lingering whiff of something, or some whimsy has taken them. They will stay sin a frozen posture for ten or twenty minutes with their rear legs stuck to a branch and their bodies fully extended like a small twig.
With their body colour and patterns, they look just like small grey apple twigs. It’s a kind of camouflage. If you look at one carefully, you’ll see a fine filament coming out of the mouth, tethering its body to the branch.
However cunningly they mimicked a branch, however, the man could see they were inchworms. But not so, apparently, the birds. A moving insect will fall prey to a bird and be eaten in a flash, but when inchworms stop moving, they won’t be targeted. This was the sort of inchworm behaviour the man had been staring at so intently since morning, in the minutest detail. Inchworms were a hated enemy of the all-important apple trees. His plan was to familiarize himself with their habits so he could find a way of getting rid of them. But the eyes that observed them were kindly.
In a sense it was the inchworms fault that the man’s family – an-apple farming household – had had their lives turned upside down. For years the apple trees, stripped of their leaves, hadn’t produced any fruit. Years passed with no income, and the family of seven were now on the threshold of destitution. Nevertheless, picking up inchworms that dropped on him, he would stare at their faces through a magnifying glass and then return them to a leaf.
‘Don’t eat too many leaves now.’
He’d been reduced to him talking to the insects like this.
He’d even gone as far as putting up a warning sign, made of cardboard, in one corner of the orchard. On it was written “Insects beware! Any more damage to the orchards and I’ll use powerful pesticides!’
This wasn’t normal, however you looked at it. But it was precisely because it wasn’t ‘normal’ that he’d started such a crazy project in the first place. Growing apples without pesticides. Putting it simply, this was Kimura’s dream. But it was a dream which, at least in those days, was considered just a dream.