Thursday, March 02, 2006
Rice Daddy Roll Models: David Mas Masumoto
This is the first in an occasional series where we pay tribute to our role models, both real and fictional. [And yes, that does say "roll" in the title, it's not a typo, it's a bad pun, we can't all be as funny as MetroDad! Role model, roll model, rice daddy, sushi roll, get it? RolL model? Get it? Sigh. Yes, I know, I'm sad.]
I had the privilege of taking a memoir writing workshop the other night with the Central Valley's own farmer-poet David Mas Masumoto. Mas is a sansei, or third-generation Japanese American, and the third generation to work his family farm, growing peaches and grapes outside of Fresno. He has documented his experiences in a beautiful, thoughtful series of books, including Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on my Family Farm, Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil, Letters to the Valley: A Harvest of Memories, and Four Seasons in Five Senses: Things Worth Savoring. Through it all, as he writes of his struggle to renew his family farm, save his heirloom peaches in a world dominated by agribusiness, and pass on a legacy to his family and community, it becomes clear that at the intersection of all the identities from which he writes—Japanese American, farmer, writer, Valley native, husband, grandson, son—father is hardly the least among them.
Indeed, as he writes about his own father and what he learned from him and about bringing up his own children, Nikiko and Korio, on the family farm, he often makes an analogy, both spoken and unspoken, between fatherhood and farming. Early in "Epitaph for a Peach," he writes,
"I had no training to be a father, I could only hope I'd learn quickly, on the job. As I grew my first cover crop, I had a similar feeling. I hoped an enriching harvest would follow. Babies and planting seeds: they demand that you believe in the magic and mystery of life."
In "Four Seasons in Five Seasons," he writes of guiding his 10-year-old daughter through the "farm kid's rite of passage" of learning to drive a tractor:
"I remember watching watching both Niki and Kori as youngsters when they drew pictures of people. Big heads and large hands because that's how they saw the world and how it felt to them. My contribution—enlarge the feet, shrink the heads, and hope for bigger hearts. I want them to feel a lot—the 'give' in peaches and the 'chill of fog down to the bones.' I want to teach them the inexact farmer science of measuring moisture in the land by squeezing a handful of dirt.... Will my children be the last generation to know how to measure moisture in raisins by rolling them in their hand? It's like cooks who teach their children how to determine the consistency of dough by rubbing it between the thumb and fingers. Niki and Kori have grown up in a tactlie world surrounded by a growing nontactile world. But that's not totally true. Perhaps everyone's sensibility about touch has changed; after all, fast food is to be eaten with our hands, though few of us think about that.
"Nikiko knows the farm, while Korio is still learning. As she climbs back on the tractor, determined to learn this craft, I can't help but stare off into the unknown. I can't see their children learning about tractor clutches. It's not that they won't—I just can't see it."
It seems to me that, for Mas, being a farmer and a father are inextricably intertwined, and what makes him good at one makes him better at the other. Before the other night, I knew him only through his writing. But after the workshop, where he exhorted us to keep writing, to keep asking the hard questions of ourselves, to keep going after and telling the truth, I see yet another level to him, and to this thing called fatherhood. Stories are not just things we tell to pass the time or even to explain the present—our stories are who we are. And as fathers, as parents, the stories we uncover and the stories we pass on to our children will be part of them too. Mas has taught me that, just as much as a tree or a plot of land or how to drive a tractor, our stories are our legacy.