FOUR SEASONS IN FIVE SENSES
Things Worth Savoring
By David Mas Masumoto
Norton. 273 pp. $24.95
News flash: Reports of the death of the American family farmer are slightly -- if only slightly -- exaggerated. In 1900, one out of 10 Americans operated a farm. These days, fewer than one in a hundred Americans are Thomas Jefferson's "chosen people of God." Luckily, David Mas Masumoto, who farms 80 acres of grapes and peaches in California's San Joaquin Valley with his family, is one of the chosen ones.
That's not only lucky for Masumoto, who is passionate about farming. It's lucky for his customers, who relish the prospect of biting into one of his organically grown peaches. And it's also lucky for readers, because Masumo translates his passion into books of lucid and eloquent prose. Four Season in Five Senses, his fourth book about farm life in the San Joaquin, continues the story of three generations of Japanese-American farmers working the same hallowed ground. It's a gentler, less ambitious book than Epitaph for a Peach or Harvest Son, his two best previous works, and it repeats numerous themes and even some information. But its ground-level observations are still vivid and compelling.
Chronicles of American farm life have been with us since at least Jefferson's The Garden and Farm Books. What's different about Masumoto, though, is that the writer is himself a serious farmer. Here we have a year-round, footprints-in-the orchard perspective that reportorial prose can't duplicate. Masumoto himself sits in the anxious seat with which all farmers are familiar, and much of his latest book's charm is in his perspective on life from there.
Consider, for example, the problem that peaches are a notoriously perishable fruit. Once they're fully ripe, decay and rot are never far behind. Like all peach farmers, Masumoto faces years when supply exceeds demand, when ripe peaches without a home must somehow be sold quickly or lost altogether. "Sell it or smell it," as peach farmers call this predicament. "The feeling," Masumoto writes, "sickens a farmer; we're so poor we have to bury our own dead." At times like these, he observes, brokers who know how to move his peaches are critical, despite their stress-busting jokes, which "remain crude, archaic, politically incorrect, and very human." Always practical in his assessments, Masumoto concludes simply, "Give me crude jokes, solid sales, and 'movement.' "
Insider perspectives like this one add spice to the book, which time and again traces the threads of Masumoto's connection with the end point of his labors: the consumer, or, as he prefers, the "audience." "I like the term 'audience' for my peaches," he writes, "something alive, with feelings on everyone's behalf. . . . The audience for my peaches pay attention to their foods. They care about meaning and, given a choice, are interested in difference. . . . I grow the way an actor performs -- looking for an emotional response."
Unlike his grapes, which are sold to make raisins, most of Masumoto's peaches enter the marketplace individually stickered with his "Masumoto Family Farm" label. His niche in the troubled American peach industry has changed little during the period he has been writing his books. A relatively small peach farmer, he still peddles those rarest of qualities: peach flavor and ripeness. In his exuberance for both, he can soar endearingly over the top, like a salesman in a rhapsodic trance, as he does in the chapter "How to Eat a Peach": "My mouth waters in anticipation. I find myself almost drooling -- years of enchanting flavors have trained me well. I feel my teeth sink into the succulent flesh, and juice breaks into my mouth as I seal my lips on the skin and suck the meat. I roll the first bite in my mouth, coating my tongue, bathing it in the nectar and fibers. My taste buds pucker slightly, excited with the natural blend of sugars and acids." Would you buy a ripe peach from this man?
As its title implies, Four Seasons in Five Senses takes us through the farm-year seasons in the hoary convention of "nature books," and celebrates the senses. Indeed, the experience of growing, harvesting, selling and tasting fruit becomes the central metaphor for a kind of philosophy of sense-celebration, which, like much of Walt Whitman's poetry, becomes a catalogue of affirmation. "Simple Pleasures," Masamuto might well have called this book.
Despite the anxieties of farming, this is the self-portrait of a contented man, at ease with himself, his home, his work. One wonders where -- as a writer -- Masamuto will go from here. Perhaps to the next generation of Masamutos -- his children. Will they, too, follow the farming life? Therein lies the tale of the future of family farms. *
Wanda Urbanska, co-author of "Simple Living," is producing a television series of the same name for PBS.