Paula Panich

Bearing Fruit: Mas Masumoto, Peach Farmer, Writer

NB: Reprinted (so to speak) from the Summer 2013 Eden, the quarterly journal of California Garden and Landscape History Society, 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)

Bearing Fruit: David Mas Masumoto

Do you dare eat a peach?

Yes, yes. Especially if it’s from the Masumoto Family Farm,

If such a luscious fruit is not at hand, well, then, don’t despair. The pleasures of mind and palate (can you imagine one without the other?) await when you pick up a book by David Mas Masumoto, the organic peach farmer who plows his stories on eighty hard-worked acres in Del Rey, California.

The Masumoto Family Farm in the San Joaquin Valley was founded by Mas Masumoto’s grandfather after World War II, when the family was liberated from its internment camp in Arizona.

The San Joaquin Valley was a very different place then.

In April the writer Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of the editorial board of the New York Times, drove Interstate 5 through this valley but couldn’t see the Masumoto Family Farm or any of the other farms on the intimate Masumoto scale, as they are east of this mighty freeway. What Klinkenborg did see: “Every human imperfection linked to the word ‘farming’ has been erased. The rows are machined. The earth is molded . . . This is no longer soil. It is infrastructure . . . The vast regiments of nut and fruit trees . . . seem to defy the word ‘orchard’ . . . The entire valley has sunk in on itself over the years as the aquifer beneath it has been siphoned off.”

No wonder that Mas Masumoto titled his 2009 book (the first was Epitaph for a Peach, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) Wisdom of the Last Farmer. He often feels he will be the last, and not only the last on his few acres.

The three Masumoto books I have read for this review are about the same “things” that life and work on eighty acres brings forth: trees, vines, weeds, tractors, shovels, storms, heat, cold, water, frost, sweat, dust, physical pain, labor, laborers, sunlight, starlight, soil, junk, plows, wildflowers, manure, mud, pruners, pruning, pests, perfectly timed harvests, plummeting prices, fruit brokers, the produce aisles, the lifelong search for the perfect peach.

Ten minutes of hail: destruction of the year’s labor.

Twenty-pound box of peaches: Worth two dollars in 1961; worth two dollars in 2001.

So what would you do?

The Masumoto books are also about the other “things” that bear fruit on the farm: hope, luck, family, love, risk, faith, pleasure, awareness, gratitude, fear, the exquisite calibration of the five senses, and, most of all, intimacy. Intimacy with the physical world, intimacy with family and neighbors, intimacy I would venture to guess that few of his American readers have ever known.

David Mas Masumoto is often described by his reviewers and readers as a lyrical writer, as a poet-philosopher, and as “zen-like.” All of these are true, I suppose, although “zen-like” (without the bother of the capital letter) is troubling, as in this country the word Zen is applied equally to uncluttered decor, whitewashed walls, cucumber face cream, and restaurants trafficking in raw fish.

The Masumoto family is Buddhist, but to label the Mas Masumoto mind is to constrain it and in consequence limit our own experience of it as his sensibility unfolds through his writing.

He can see. It’s a simple as that. He can see himself seeing, and can see when he’s not seeing. From Four Seasons in Five Senses: “Panning the field, I can identify the familiar: trees, limbs, leaves, grasses, weeds, bare soil, wildflowers. I know I’m biased  and at first see what I expect. I quickly want to assign names, limiting what I see to what I can identify.”

This is the mark of a contemplative mind.

But a realistic one: “The things we valued on the farm—hard work, right effort, simple honesty—didn’t seem to be worth much and didn’t help sell peaches or raisins.”

Of a summer in the early 1980s, he writes, “We all suffered terrible prices. I was angry and broken, wanting to get our damn peaches out of my sight. If I picked ripe—ten cents a pound to me. If I picked green—ten cents a pound to me. That summer I worked hard just to cover harvest expenses and offset a portion of the production costs of pruning, thinning, fertilizing, controlling pests, and irrigating. My year’s labor was donated . . . I did learn that at times you had to accept market conditions and move on, because the most important thing was to survive so that you could have another harvest.”

Four Seasons in Five Senses is about the careful calibration, the fine-tuning of a life spent very much alive and laboring. Laboring. The greatest works of art in any medium change us. This book is no exception. Peaches, like great art, don’t meet the demands of “fast farming, fast turnover, fast profits and results.”

Wisdom of the Last Farmer is in the deepest human traditions of storytelling, the elevation of the what-happened to reveal meaning and love. Its main storyline revolves around the strokes of Mas Masumoto’s father, the lifelong farmer. His illnesses bring to the forefront questions of Mas Masumoto’s own survival and the survival of the farm.

How well can one know and love the land, one’s most intimate place? And how well can one know and love the father, one’s second most intimate starting place?

Mas Masumoto was writing of his sansei generation of Japanese Americans when he wrote this—but isn’t it the story of many other Americans? “We created our own diaspora. We [have] lost the language of home and heritage,” he writes.

However, it appears that Nikiko Masumoto, coauthor with her parents of the latest written labor of the Masumoto family, The Perfect Peach: Recipes and Stories from the Masumoto Family Farm (June 2013), may well be the fourth-generation Masumoto farmer on their eighty acres.

Now in her late twenties, Nikiko labors with her father, who has written about her inheritance: “In spite of the financial uncertainties and insecurities, it seems she has also inherited our love—love of the farm, love of work, love of peaches, and even the real price of their perfection.”

~Paula Panich

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Note: Mas Masumoto’s piece in 2006 for the New York Times Magazine, “Eat, Memory: Family Heirloom,” was reworked into a chapter for Wisdom of the Last Farmer. A few of Marcy Masumoto’s recipes are included:

Veryln Kinkenborg’s editorial essay on the San Joaquin Valley:

To read the US Geological Survey’s study “San Joaquin Valley, California: Largest Human Alteration of the Earth’s Surface”:





Frau Fiber at CAFAM in Los Angeles!

N.B.: This is a post by guest blogger William Linsman, his first  post ever. Story and photos copyright William Linsman, 2013.


Yesterday, May 1st, was International Workers Day

Remember when the Soviets used to parade their tanks and missiles through Red Square?

Near my office is L.A.’s Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) and outside, on the sidewalk, was Frau Fiber, a performance artist with a strong green message.


People are urged to bring to Frau Fiber a worn or torn garment. She sits at a contraption of her design (the third generation of this device), which looks like what it is:  A bicycle hooked up to a sewing machine. She asks you to sit on the bike; she analyzes the repair she will make, and then asks you to peddle. The bike is connected mechanically to the machine (no electricity involved). When you peddle, the machine runs. She repairs your garment. What a trip!



Frau Fiber has been doing this for years, and is serious about it. But she clearly has fun with all her co-participants. She’s wears an outfit she made that reminds me of those Soviet days, but she has a smile underneath her stern persona. She told me that, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she drove with her machine from Chicago to New Orleans. Her intention was to repair the same number of garments as the 146 people killed in the New York Shirtwaist factory fire


This brings to mind the recent tragedies in Bangladesh (fires and collapses now totaling over 1000 deaths) and the importance of working conditions and the creation of organized labor; see’_Garment_Workers’_Union


The slogan for the ILGU was “Look for the Union Label”; it meant a lot to workers for many years. (Now, unfortunately, we look for a label in Chinese that means, “Wash with garments of similar color”).


And check out ; it’s worth your time. The event gave us the 8-hour workday; without it, you’d probably be working about twice that.


The energetic frau’s co-participant provides the energy to make something (the garment) last longer in the world. Brava, Frau Fiber!




Mountain Stories: Aldo Leopold: Thinking Like a Mountain

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.

Mountain Stories: Tahquitz Rumbles, Earth Trembles

“The rocks are alive,” Cahuilla Jo May Modesto said in an oral history a few years ago. “The rocks have power and you can use that, good or bad. You can use them as a source of power.”

So the mighty Tahquitz, the spirit responsible for meteors, thunder, lightening, and earthquakes according to traditional lore, rumbled around in his mountain cave exactly at noon on Thursday, April 25. The result was a 3.2 quake centered in Hemet, about 23 miles south of Idyllwild.

The land did roar up here. Shook the windows and timbers of my rented cabin.

Tahquitz  has a peak named for him, but also a rock, which has made Idyllwild famous — it’s our version, at 8,000 feet, though smaller in bulk, than Yosemite’s Half Dome (8,835 feet).

Here it is:




Not only the Cahuilla, but most of the Southern California Native peoples feared the power of Tahquitz. Up in Strawberry Valley, where Idyllwild is located, the Cahuillas of Palm Canyon (now adjacent to Palm Springs) came up during pre-conquest times to hunt game and to gather food. But never to dwell. Evidence points to seasonal villages and camps, but not settlements. Not with Tahquitz so close. He could be an eater of souls, some thought. A demon.

Today people climb on his face. Snap his photo again and again. My own thought:  This rock is indeed alive —its energy can’t be missed. You can use it for good; Idyllwild is full of artists, and a lot of goodwill.

There is evidence of the ancient Cahuilla up in Fern Valley. Pictographs. I’ve not come across any interpretation of them, but they are moving and beautiful. We don’t have to have the words to understand the reverence the Cahuilla people feel and felt for their beautiful, giving, native land. The centerpiece of that long ago message:



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This is the 14th in the series Mountain Stories. Text and bottom photograph copyright Paula Panich, 2013. Photo credit,  Tahquitz R0ck:



Mountain Stories: On the Mid-Morning Mountain, the Names for Blue

“Eddie, tell me the names for blue, All the ones you know.

“Sky blue. Navy blue,” he says. “Baby blue.”   (….)

“Indamine. Aquamarine. Thunderstorm blue. Quilted blue.  Listening blue,” Meg says.

This is from the opening of my novella, Missing Meg.

I thought of it  yesterday morning on a walk here in Idyllwild, in the San Jacinto Mountains,  because I saw this:



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The 13th of a series, Mountain Stories. Text and photo copyright Paula Panich, 2013.

N.B.: This photo was not filtered or altered in any way. Missing Meg, the novella, will likely show up in the world as an e-book. Soon. Really.

Mountain Stories: In a Dry Spring, Chasing Wildflowers Anyway


We gardeners are generally passionate, generous, respectful — and envious. Maybe worse. Ok, competitive too.  Ever since I read Scott Calhoun’s book, Chasing Wildfowers: A Mad Search for Wild Gardens I’ve wanted to find some of Southern California’s goldfields.


This is my year.

Fields of gold is the small annual herb of California; it’s at peak RIGHT NOW. When a friend said they were perfect and prolific LAST year, I’m fell into a brief funk.

Last year, you see, there was a late, heavy snowfall in early April up here in the San Jacinto Mountains and in the Garner Valley (only 12 miles from Idyllwild, south on Route 74). The moisture was perfect, the bloom was perfect, and the fields were indeed gold as far as the eye could see. (Or so I imagine.)

But it’s been a dry winter and spring. Here’s what the Garner Valley goldfields looked like late yesterday afternoon:

I wouldn’t even know about fields of gold had I not read Scott Calhoun. (See his fascinating Website, and his other books: I can assure you, that whatever his topic, he brings such passion to it you can’t resist wanting whatever he is having that instant.

Lasthenia californica. At least in the Garner Valley, the plants are only about two inches tall this year, alas, alas. (They grow four inches or more — when well-watered by nature.)

The shadows were lengthening. It was almost time to leave. Another good quality of most gardeners: patience. I’ll try again next year.

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This is the 12th in the series, Mountain Stories. Text and photos copyright Paula Panich, 2013

Mountain Stories: So What’s Changed in So. Calif. in the Last Century? Everything.

Mary Hunter Austin was a real California girl. She was born in Illinois, came to California at twenty, lived for years in New York, and died in New Mexico. But her literary mark on the California landscape is indelible. Her first book, Land of Little Rain (1903) was the first real (and really beautiful) praise of the natural world and the Native people of California. She was writing about the Owens River Valley before the small town of Los Angeles took its water. The rest is history, of course.  (A few more details:

In 1914, MacMillan published a beauty of a book, called California: The Land of the Sun. “Painted by Sutton Palmer, and Described by Mary Austin.” Sutton Palmer (1854-1933) was an English landscape watercolor painter and illustrator. He lived in London but painted throughout his country, and in Scotland. How did he get here to paint the places of Mary Austin’s book? I don’t know. But I hope to find out.

Here is the cover of the American edition of the book:

Oh, I wish you could see this embossed cover. It is actually much more of a sage green, with the title and so forth embossed in gold. The oranges to the left and right of the panel are gold too; the rest of the oranges are true to their name. There are 32 separately printed watercolor images in the book, tipped in, and a small fold-out map at the end. The image of Glendale, Calif. is just stunning, and heartbreaking; herein you can see what has been lost in the last century:

Mary Austin was a poet of the landscape. Here’s part of what she wrote about Southern California mountains:

Sometimes the mere mechanics of the land, the pull of the wind up the narrow gorges as you pass, advises the open mind of the power and immensity residing in the thinly forested bulks.

She did value the open mind. And most of all, she valued beauty. This is what she had to say about the San Jacinto Mountains, from which I write today:

San Jacinto —St. Hyacinth—was he ever anything but a Christianized memory of a Grecian myth — or does it matter at all so long as there are men to see, in the deep purple light that dies along the heights, the colour of blood that is shed for love? Perhaps the best thing beauty can say to Greek or Christian is that there are still things worth dying for.

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This is the 11th post of the series, Mountain Stories. Copyright Paula Panich, 2013.


Mountain Stories: Almost All the News — Part of the Time

In 1947, Dior introduced the “New Look” in Paris; Al Capone died; the first Volkswagen Beetle arrived in the U.S.; and the Allies were still signing peace treaties with Italy, Hungary and Romania.  The Polaroid Land camera was introduced, and the U.S. Congress was televised for the first time. The Voice of America beamed into Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union as the Truman Doctrine was proclaimed. Plenty of disasters too: Train wreck in Japan, Illinois coal mine explosion, industrial blast in Los Angeles, dance hall fire in Berlin. Poland fell to the Soviets. “Best Years of Our Lives” won an Oscar for Best Picture.

And this was all in the first ninety days of the year.


But up here in Idyllwild, Calif. in 1947, Ernie (Emax) Maxwell offers his wife, Betty (Emax) an acorn biscuit at a ceremony, which she accepts, as he wrote years later, “suspiciously.”

A few months earlier, these two had started an 11 by 16 weekly mimeographed sheet they called the Idyllwild Town Crier, which is still, almost 67 years later, the glue that holds together this little mountain town of three to four thousand intrepid souls. (It’s possible the Census Bureau counted, in 2010, a few squirrels too.)

Almost all the news — part of the time. The mimeographed sheet is long gone, but not the Sturm und Drang of small town life or the motto of this truly local still-weekly paper —  now owned by Tindle Newspaper Group of Farnham, Surrey, U.K. * Such is our modern life. But the masthead still carries the motto, and Ernie’s two illustrations: the sun coming up over these mountains, and an open-mouthed little character, the town crier himself.

The above photograph (squirrel at table) was published by Ernie Maxwell in 1984, in a booklet called The Emax 1984 Almanac: Fact & Fancy, Lore & Legend, Wit & Wisdom of the San Jacinto Mountains and Its Hillfolks . . . Betty had died in 1977, at 71.

To give you an idea of Idyllwild around the time of the founding of its newspaper, I turn to the Almanac for the following information:

  • The Idyllwild Community Building was dedicated on July 10, 1947. (N.B.: It’s now called Town Hall, but, there’s no town. Idyllwild is not incorporated. It’s only “law” so to speak, is Riverside County and its sheriff’s deputies.)
  • The Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce was incorporated on February 6, 1946 (And has been contentious to this day. See photograph below.)
  • The 1950 census revealed 475 year-round residents in Pine Cove, Idyllwild, and Mountain Center.
  • In 1954 the town was battling over zoning. “With so many people operating businesses out of their homes and on side streets, the job was a complicated one.” A zoning plan was adopted.
  • “The Banning-Idyllwild highway was dedicated three times before it was paved and officially opened for traffic in 1951.”

Much more to be said about Ernie and Betty Maxwell later. But Ernie hand-lettered the Town Crier’s main headline even long after the Maxwells sold the paper, in 1972, to Luther and Marilyn Weare.

But for now, here is the front page of the current Town Crier (

Ernie Maxwell died in 1994.

In 1988, when the old Scenic Trail was renamed the “Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail,” Emax told a reporter at the  Los Angeles Times he was still writing about what Maxwell “wryly calls the ‘urban-wildlands interface issue. That’s the one that deals with more people moving to the hills.'” Maxwell also added, “We’ve made our own rules here for so long that compliance with those of inspectors’ comes hard. There was a time when it was every man for himself, but there were so few of us it didn’t matter.'”


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*July update: The Town Crier was recently purchased by its former editor, Becky Clark.

This is the tenth in the series, Mountain Stories.