It’s not very often that I have the privilege of collaborating with photojournalist and documentary photographer Ilana Panich-Linsman, aka beloved daughter (http://www.ilanapl.com). Ditto working with Elizabeth Barlow-Rogers, founder of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, and editor of the Foundation’s publication, Site/Lines. Betsy asked me to write an essay about the Desert Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens for the twentieth issue of the publication and the tenth anniversary of the Foundation. I was honored to do so. The theme of the issue is the landscape of the West. Here is a link to the issue with many provocative and interesting articles. Mine is on page twelve.
In 1873, this powerful painting by Alfred Bierstadt, “Donner Lake from the Summit,” was unveiled to public acclaim in San Francisco. Here’s my essay, for the Foundation for Landscape Studies, telling the tale of how this painting came to be.
My two years living in London changed everything. This was before you could listen to the BBC on NPR or online. The BBC plus the British Library plus the Hampstead Heath plus all the Nineteenth Century novels I hadn’t read — well, opened up my mind and heart. This essay came out of that time, and lives within me yet.
Here is a link to my essay, “Three Elizabeths,” which appeared in Alimentum in April:
A bitter wind had blown somewhere else that morning, and sun bounced off remnant glaciers hanging in the valleys across Kachemak Bay.
Pectin makes it all possible. Pectin is one of God’s best ideas, purveyed in fruity packages. No question: God intended us to have jellies and jams and marmalade. This is why I take my marmalade straight, by the spoonful . . .
NB: Reprinted (so to speak) from the Summer 2013 Eden, the quarterly journal of California Garden and Landscape History Society, www.cglhs.org. Photo: Staci Valentine, from: David Mas Masumoto, Marcy Masumoto, and Nikiko Masumoto, The Perfect Peach: Recipes and Stories from the Masumoto Family Farm (10 Speed Press, 2013)
The Perfection of the Peach: An Interview with Mas Masumoto
(Note: David Mas Masumoto’s replies to my questions during a May 7, 2013, telephone interview; the following are not direct quotations. Rather, they are summarized responses, as per Mr. Masumoto’s request.)
Paula M. Panich: “I farm stories; my main story is about trying to grow the perfect peach,” you write in Wisdom of the Last Farmer.
Mas Masumoto: It’s almost a mantra for small, sustainable organic farmers. We don’t do it for money. Farming stories means you bring in the entire complex—working with nature, the land, the family, the larger social issue of the history of the farmworkers, their wages, and one’s own personal legacy, the history of my grandparents coming from Japan . . .
Q. Was it difficult to publish your first book (Epitaph for a Peach)? That is, making an essentially private act of writing in a journal suddenly public?
A. It was a huge decision. Farmers work independently, individually, privately. You’re surrounded by hundreds of plants, not people. To allow a personal and private life to go public was a big decision for me and for the family. We are, after all, a family farm.
As a writer, though, you want to strike a nerve with personal thoughts and interests, and you do that by revealing yourself. You want to connect with your audience, your readers.
As farmers, you don’t really connect except vicariously through your produce . . . but the whole story of farming has evolved. There’s transparency now. People are interested in food safety. More and more consumers are interested in the backstory of food. The small family farm is well positioned for this.
Q. You have written in Wisdom of the Last Farmer: “[Our farm] stands for the relationship between good food, good stewardship of the land, great love for the natural world and the continuity of life.” And I would add great generosity.
A. There’s a constant and terrifying and wonderful dichotomy in our world: the notion of change. Part of me wants to keep this land exactly the same as it has come down to me. But, for example, the path of the high-speed rail line will cut through the heart of the Central Valley. This will happen. Accepting this is a part of change. The high-speed rail will connect rural and urban California, for good and for bad. It’s good to have this pair of opposites.
People will see a very different kind of agriculture from what they see on Interstate 5. They’ll see smaller farms and far more diverse agriculture. The train will provide a window with a new view of the work we do.
The train will be about ten miles west of those of us in Del Rey. Of course if the path of the train was proposed to cross through the heart of my farm, I would feel differently! But it will come close enough.
It was interesting two years ago when I went to Japan. A high-speed rail line now connects its southernmost island, Kyushu, a very agrarian place not unlike the Central Valley of California, to the mainland. It creates an interesting dynamic, this island now connected to the rest of Japan.
Now we will have rural California—this “other” California—connected by train.
Q. A sad, poignant note from your book Four Seasons in Five Senses describes how you remember a twenty-pound box of peaches selling for two dollars in 1961 and for two dollars in 2001.
A. We must recognize the challenges of the economic forces of what we do. At the same time, that’s not why we do it. It’s a paradox, a dilemma, two forces not working together. But it’s this very interface of life that brings action. If I farmed just for money, or just for aesthetics—that would be one thing. But it’s the median point—the in-between place—that brings the most flavor to life, the dynamic. And from this place I get energy and passion. It’s a challenge and a curse, but at the same time, it brings fantastic joy.
Q. Please tell us about your latest book, The Perfect Peach: Recipes and Stories from the Masumoto Family Farm, written with your wife, Marcy Masumoto, and your daughter, Nikiko Masumoto.
A. It’s a peach cookbook, with twenty essays and fifty recipes, along with photographs. My wife and daughter wrote the headnotes and so forth to the recipes, and I wrote the essays.
It’s a literary cookbook about the farm and our peaches connected to recipes. So it’s not just about peaches in recipes, but also about the relationship of the recipes to death, sweat—and much else. How will all of that add flavor to a recipe for peach preserves?
We make all sides come together. We cannot separate the flavors: They are in all of our stories.
* * *
He’s often compared to Thoreau and John Muir.
Words describe him: scientist, professor, environmentalist, forester, ecologist.
But his writing — and his astonishing ideas — rise above all description.
Aldo Leopold was born in Iowa in 1887 and died fighting a grass fire on a neighboring farm, in Wisconsin. 1948. He had just become an advisor to the United Nations on conservation.
(There will be more on Aldo Leopold, when in July I will visit the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, in Monona, Wisconsin.)
I will never forget when I was introduced to his work, in 2000. I had never heard of him. Now his best-known book is a holy text to me — and to millions of others.
This is the book, published just after his death. In it is an essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain.” I will never forget this line:
Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.
John Fowles, the great English novelist, published, in 1979, a complicated essay called “The Tree.” It was reissued in 2010, in this country anyway, with an introduction by Barry Lopez. I will refer to it as The Tree, as it is a pretty little book.
If you don’t recall the novels of John Fowles, you will surely recall the movie made from one of them—“The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.
The essay that forms this book is the kind that few readers tackle anymore: It is discursive, multi-layered, redolent with subtext, and the language exquisite.
The pretext of the Fowles essay is a contrasting of the kinds of trees favored by the author’s father, and those of the author himself. The father cosseted, debranched, pruned, forced, crammed in, espaliered and otherwise controlled his fruit trees, and produced wonderful fruit. The grown son favored an “ . . . unkempt, unmanaged, and unmanageable garden.” And it follows naturally that the son contrasts his own life with that of the father. “What he abhorred, I adored, “ writes the grown man.
That’s the nut of it, and one might stop here.
But that would be a mistake.
There’s the subtext, the kernel, of this astonishing work, and the reader swims in its salty translucence according to her (or his) awareness of life. I think we are like fish. How would a fish begin to describe the sea? You can begin to see the challenge.
Before we know it, halfway through this essay we are paddling in a vast sea ourselves of science, art, and the natural world. The ending of the essay is a virtuoso set piece about visiting a storied, ancient wood. Fowles makes the point, early on:
Telling people why, how and when they ought to feel this or that—whether it be with regard to the enjoyment of nature, of food, of sex, or anything else—may, undoubtedly sometimes does, have a useful function in dispelling various kinds of socially harmful ignorance. But what this instruction cannot give is this deepest benefit of any art, be it of making, or of knowing, or of experiencing: which is self expression and self discovery.
I realize I am guilty of this just by framing my own thoughts about this book.
But I can tell you I’ve spent good bits of time in the woods in the last seven years and thought I’d write a book about it. I took a huge sheet of paper and wrote the chapter headings. Notes and research piled up. I gave the book a title: First There Was a Mountain. The title, written on a three-by-five card, was pinned to the window wall above my desk, in a tiny cabin on a mountain surrounded by woods bounded by a musical creek. Dust gathered on that card. Meanwhile, I walked in those woods, drank in those woods, inhaled those woods.
Not everything can be expressed. It’s a big mistake, Fowles tells us, to think it can. Amen.
The is the seventh in the series Mountain Stories. This essay was originally published earlier this month in Eden, the quarterly journal of the California Garden and Landscape History Society, www.cglhs.org.
My column began in February, 2016. Below please find a few of them:
Fueled by frustration and a manuscript of unpublished culinary essays with recipes, I spent two years writing letters to agents.
Only one wrote back with regrets: She hadn’t heard of M.F.K. Fisher.
Fit to be tied, I swore I’d never write again. Then I thought: The literary magazines! Why not make a game of getting published?
A Recent Talk to the Piedmont, Calif. Garden Club:
My husband said just as we were seated in a restaurant: I heard someone on NPR talking about M.F.K Fisher.
He had that slightly surprised look he gets when there’s news from my world that didn’t come from me.
Yes – he said – the guy mentioned something about a picnic, and something she ate she would never forget. I can’t remember what it was.
A pie, I said. A peach pie.
He looked at me, and ordered his tuna steak, rare.
How – and why – did I know about that peach pie?
What is my 36-year connection to MFK Fisher?
And how did the California landscape affect her life and work?
This is the subject of my one-hour talk.