On certain days, when the sun is highest and the air feels temperate, I throw open the glass doors and let the house drink in a deep fresh breath of noticeably warmer air. For as long as I can remember I’ve been drawn to the homestead. It may run in my blood as I was born on a commune in Vermont in the seventies. I have no memories of those days except those forged by looking at old photographs, like the one of me as a bald baby snuggled into a carrier resting in a patch of cabbages. Perhaps it was inevitable that living close to the land and growing and collecting its bounties would appeal to me. Even as my parents independently drifted towards more mainstream lifestyles, I watched them pass New England summers tending great gardens full of vegetables and herbs and flowers and I often imagined I would do the same. When I arrived in Mirukashi I tried to garden in the hard, red clay earth to little avail and so instead turned my attention to the small orchard behind Kuniko’s house with 12 Japanese plum trees alongside a few citrus trees. A lemon tree offered thick, gnarly skinned sour yellow fruits until we lost it one winter to the weight of heavy snow that broke its branches and hungry boars that unearthed the roots in their search for grubs.
In a zealous effort to expand beyond the orchard I planted too many saplings around the property, often at an unreasonably close proximity. I have moved so many trees so many times that I have, at times, lost track of them. When I would occasionally rediscover one it was like running into a long lost friend. The nashi pear tree offers delicate white flowers in spring and after many years the persimmon has finally started bearing fruit while the yuzu, sudachi, and kabosu give us a steady offering of charming citruses for flavoring soups and vegetables and fatty winter fish. I love to visit the orchard, if for no other reason than to take stock and measure the state of things. Today the pink skins of plump buds are splitting and the first handful of ume blossoms have opened. Thick rows of petit daffodils are waking and furry silver catkins line the branches of a pussy willow shrub. I’ll gather a few stems of each to take up the hill. It’s been so long since we had fresh arrangements in the house.
The daidai trees are still dotted with a few orange orbs. While much of nature’s bounty is fleeting, the daidai trees are somewhat forgiving. The name itself means across generations and if left unpicked its fruit does not easily fall. These trees were planted for the sour juice squeezed from their unripe green fruits in early winter to use in ponzu, a dressing made of their juice mixed with soy and stock. But there is only so much ponzu one requires and inevitably many remain on the tree and ripen. Takashi is of the mind that once they turn orange they are uselessly sweet. But being bitter oranges by nature, they only sweeten to a point. They are a cheerful sight on winter days, the bright orange globes huddled under snow capped glossy green leaves. Daidai is simply another name for Seville and in late winter I’ll gather as many as I can and spend a day or two making marmalade from their thick rinds. But as winter withers and a few fruits remain, the trees look somewhat burdened, as though encumbered by the reminder of winter against the buds, blossoms, and warmer air, emerging markers of spring bursting forth all around.
Mottainai, says Kuniko, looking at the trees. It is her refrain, repeated often, a word and concept that eludes precise translation. It is a phrase imbued with context and emotion far beyond its denotation. To utter mottainai is to lament a perceived waste of valuable resources, tangible or intangible. A girl in war who came of age during the reconstruction of a nation, the notion of mottainai courses through her veins. I imagine my grandmother, a daughter of the great depression, would understand this feeling well, but my generation just does not grasp the notion of scarcity and value with the same acuity. How many times has Kuniko schooled me when I questioned the worth of her drawer full of vintage wine corks and pencil stubs dating back decades. This is why I can buy nice things, she says, wearing a cashmere sweater bought before I was born. She scolds me with wise truths: waste not, want not; a penny saved is a penny earned.
And so with heavy legs, an aching back, and clippers in her hand, she’ll trudge into the orchard one morning propelled by the spirit of mottainai and cut as many daidai as she can reach. I’ll pass by and note the citrusy aroma wafting from her kitchen vent and wonder what she’s up to this year. Some years she makes her own version of marmalade or jam. Other years she’ll preserve the juice with salt to use in cooking and candy the peels for an afternoon treat to have with tea.
Living in the country brings us close to the source, to the crops that feed us at the mercy of natural systems. Measuring the annual cycle in our orchard, and in the fields in the valley below, I see how precarious it all is. As with our lemon tree, too much snow breaks branches and pushes wild boars to desperation while too little brings spring draught and dry stream beds. Without rain tender leaves curl and wither while a deluge could flood a field and rot the roots. I marvel at the perilous balance that determines what survives and what thrives and have come to better understand mottainai as a visceral apprehension that abundance cannot be taken for granted.
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