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Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 24/24

‘Well, that’s how it happened, bit by bit, more and more people started buying my apples. For some reason the apples at that time were very sweet. Much sweeter than now. Although it wasn’t really their sweetness. When you cut them with a knife, the apple actually stuck to the blade. I wonder why? Perhaps the apple trees were giving me just a little help. Apples like that would always sell well. But to start with the orchards hadn’t settled down and there were years when the apples weren’t that sweet. There were a lot of spoilt and insect damaged ones too. I had letters saying things like “They weren’t sweet, so we sprinkled a little salt on them”. Anyway, at the end of the day, it was thanks to my customers that I made it through those years. They gave me hope, because they’d eat them, even if they weren’t sweet or if they were marked. They supported me. Apple trees produce apples, and they are supported by nature. But I was supported by people.

When you think about it, even though it’s true that I was rejected by some people around me who said I’d let the family down, and that I was mad, at those times there were others who remained friendly. There were friends who quietly helped me out when I couldn’t pay the electricity or water bills, and I didn’t have to pay the scrap merchant either during that time.

Amongst other things, he took away an engine which was in pretty good nick. Occasionally, the manager of the bank I’d got a loan from wouldn’t take the money I’d scraped together to at least pay the interest. He said to me “If you pay over that money you’ll have nothing to live on will you?” The local tax office had issued me with red tags, but the section chief always encouraged me: “Your time will come”. Once the apples started doing their own thing, the owner of the neighbouring orchard cut down all his trees along the boundary with my orchards. That was Makoto, the son of the Ginzō Takeya who’d told me that the apples were blossoming. He said “If even a small quantity of the pesticides I’m spreading end up in his orchards, it’ll invalidate his pesticide-free status”. Ryū Yamazaki, the chef at a local French restaurant, came to my orchards thinking he might use my apples in his cooking, to help boost sales a little. Somehow I managed to survive, thanks to the help I had from various people. In the days when there were no apples, I simply didn’t have the wherewithal to think about that that sort of thing, but bit by bit things started getting better, and I gradually began to see how it could work out.

In the same way as apple trees cannot survive on their own, people don’t live in isolation. I thought I’d work it out by myself, but if there hadn’t been people around supporting me, there’s no way I’d be where I am today. My mother and father in the Kimura household died shortly after the apples revived. My father had laughed, saying “I never thought you make it this far. I reckoned you give it up after two or three years”. Honestly, it was non-stop graft.

When I read the biography of Seishū Hanaoka[1], I remember thinking that he was just the same as me. In the course of experimenting with anaesthetics, both his wife and mother made personal sacrifices. The use of anaesthesia subsequently became widespread throughout Japan, but did that make his wife and mother any happier? I often think it would have been nice if it had.’

Kimura’s orchards continued to change rapidly. He stopped planting the soy beans he’d been growing for five years since the year he climbed Mount Iwaki. The actinobacteria had stopped growing on the roots. In the first year, dense clumps of actinobacteria formed on the roots of the soy beans. As the second and third years passed, the number of nodules decreased. If there’s insufficient nitrogen in the soil, actinobacteria on the roots – in symbiosis with the soy bean – will fix nitrogen. Conversely, as nitrogen in the soil builds up through actinobacteria activity, this is suppressed. The reason no actinobacteria formed in year five was that the soil was saturated with nitrogen. Nature isn’t wasteful. This was evident in the apples which became healthier as the actinobacteria diminished.

It wasn’t just the apple trees. The orchards were healthier in every sense. The varieties of weeds and insects had increased dramatically. If you included the bacteria living on the surfaces of the soil, trunks, and leaves, there must have been thousands of different types of organisms in the orchards. Thousands of organisms, all competing, all depending on each other, the interlaced fabric of an ecosystem.

Once the soy beans had disappeared from the orchards, grasses that thrive on moisture grew strongly. Those grasses predominated for several years, and then different grasses took over.

Just as different grasses grew, patterns in the orchards changed with the season and the year, like a revolving kaleidoscope.

The same sort of thing was happening in the insect world. As in the past, when the leaves came out, leaf rollers and inchworms thrived, but now, insects which fed on the leaf rollers and inchworms were everywhere.

A little while after the trees started blossoming and producing an annual crop, a huge number of wasps appeared in the orchards. Hornets, yellow jacket wasps, paper wasps, potter wasps … Various wasps made their nests on the apple trees and the ground around the base of the trees. At certain times, dozens of wasp nests hung from a single tree, looking just like apples forming. ‘Something like avant-garde art!’, Kimura jokes, but working it out there must have been several thousand wasp nests in the orchards. It seems that at times there were so many wasps that he couldn’t get into the orchards. Knocking the nests down and opening them, he found they were jam packed with leaf rollers and inchworms.

The great proliferation of wasps lasted for three years. During this period pests vanished from the orchards. This sounds straightforward, but nature is never that simple. In the fourth year, although the number of wasps’ nests decreased to the point that there were only the odd few left here and there in the orchards, Kimura had the impression the decline in the number of leaf rollers and inchworms was not that significant. Where the balance in natural ecosystems is maintained, predators will not decimate herbivore populations.

What probably happened was a sort of tug-of-war in the natural world. Just as powerful winds spiral in to the vortex of a typhoon, something happened in the ecosystem in the orchards, and room was created for a huge number of wasps to grow and fill this void.

Just as the pressure differentials vanish and the wind drops when a typhoon tracks northwards, the void was filled by other entities, and the number of wasps decreased.

This kind of tug-of-war was almost certainly going on in less obvious places too, such as in the soil. Each time the tugs-of-war were repeated, life in the orchard grew more abundant. This was because a wide range of organisms would move into a place occupied by a single species. With a wide variety of organisms living there, the orchard ecology became more robust. If hundreds, or even thousands, of tugs-of-war, rather than just one, happen all over the orchards, the overall chances of major imbalances occurring gets correspondingly smaller. The actions of a wide variety of species were transforming the orchard ecosystem into a healthier one, like waves which endlessly pound the shore, shaping the coastline.

However, this was an orchard, not a wilderness. What Kimura observed in nature helped him grow apple trees. In a sense, he had tried to give his apple trees the vigour he’d seen in the oak tree. To achieve that, it had been necessary to balance the apple trees’ and the orchards’ ecosystems. This had been an important job for Kimura.

Take the grass cutting in autumn. Kimura says ‘I cut the grass to tell the apple trees it’s autumn’. He’d left the weeds to grow ever since returning from Mount Iwaki, but Kimura noticed that if the grass went on growing into autumn like that, the apples seemed reluctant to turn red. The weeds acted as an insulator, keeping the ground warm even when the air temperature dropped.

Thinking there was a connection, one autumn he tried cutting the grass around the trees as an experiment, and found that apple colour improved. Since then he has always cut the grass once at the beginning of autumn.

He’d started hanging buckets from the trees ever since the wasp infestation had died down. The buckets contained liquid obtained when he’d fermented apples, diluted with water. Hung from the apple trees overnight, there could be as many as a hundred or more moths floating in the liquid in the buckets in the morning. These moths were, of course, the parents of the inchworms, leaf rollers, and caterpillars. It was something he’d thought of when he’d seen clouds of moths around fermenting apples. Having studied the moths’ behaviour, he decided to use red, yellow, or other warm-coloured buckets, and hang them at about eye-level, as this seemed the most effective way to catch them. Moths normally fly at just that height. Of course it cannot eradicate pests in quite the same way as pesticides. However, he was able to significantly reduce the amount of work involved in manually removing insects and their eggs. Every year he patiently hung out the buckets, and whilst it was very gradual, the numbers of leaf rollers and inchworms were definitely decreasing.

Kimura was also using his own methods for pruning. The pruning of branches is especially important when growing fruit trees. The shape of the tree depends on how you prune it. The shape of a tree has a profound effect on fruit and leaf formation, its orientation to the sunlight, as well as the occurrence of diseases and pests. The struggles apple farmers had with disease and pests in the Meiji Period was not simply because they didn’t have pesticides: it was also because pruning techniques had not been developed.

Kimura looks at the veins on the leaves when he prunes apples. He says this is because the way the roots spread matches the orientation of the veins on the leaves. If you look at the veins on the leaves and cut the branches to match the root growth, you’ll get an ideal tree shape. This is very much a Kimura technique. Mention it to any other fruit farmer and they’d be amazed. Apples are essentially grafted. The roots are those of the rootstock, the leaves those of the grafted apple cultivar. Why align the roots and the layout of leaf veins? Ask Kimura and he’ll say it’s not his job to ask why. He observed the roots, observed the leaves, and came to this conclusion instinctively. The important point is that when he pruned in the way he felt was instinctively right, the apple tree leaves were much more abundant, and the fruit larger.

‘It’s because I’m a farmer’, says Kimura. As a neighbour had pointedly said, Kimura’s no academic. If he was an academic, then he could well have spent his entire life researching just one species of insect on his apple trees.

‘But there’s no way a farmer could do that. The word hyakushō itself means one hundred jobs. You’d be unfit to be a farmer if you couldn’t cope with a hundred jobs.’

This is not Kimura being sarcastic. Research into a single insect has contributed to the discovery of the century. By and large, however, research into a single insect species ends with research into a single insect. Such research is not a waste of time though. Just as pyramids are constructed from countless stones, the accumulation of minor discoveries no-one hears about supports the giant construct we know as civilization. Kimura is fully aware of this.

But if you took this approach, the fact remains you would be “Unfit to be a farmer”. How does the amount of water taken from the soil by an apple tree vary through the year? What nutrients do grasses growing around the trees take from the soil, and at what time of year? What sort of bacteria are there in the soil, and how do they act? How effective are mating disruption agents at halting the reproduction of moths that gather in the orchards? How is the weather this winter, and the weather next summer, related …?

If I had written them all down, the stories Kimura told me would easily fill more than a couple of books. To be honest, I consulted a number of specialists to help me with my interviews with Kimura. These included agricultural specialists and ecologists. However up-to-date the knowledge gained through such discussions, it was never a match for Kimura. When it came to apple growing there seemed to be nothing he didn’t know. Amazingly, nearly everything he knew he had learned through working in his orchards.

Kimura’s orchards were slowly becoming known to researchers. Apple orchards where pesticides are not used are a goldmine for certain types of researcher. For those studying them, for example, the orchards were a perfect spot to observe hordes of insects. Likewise for researchers studying apple diseases; Kimura’s pesticide-free orchards were an outstanding site for testing the effectiveness of man-made pheromones. These researchers and specialists helped me, but Kimura had tried and tested everything using his own eyes and hands. You might say that his orchards were his field of research, and that the research conducted by academics was overshadowed by it.

To further emphasize the differences between academics and farmers, Kimura – neither ironically, nor out of modesty – says he thinks it’s a difference of methodology.

He wants to point out that academics in the natural sciences try to understand nature by breaking it down into little pieces, whereas what he does is precisely the opposite. Nature cannot be fragmented. This was the important truth he’d realized at the foot of the oak tree. No life exists in isolation. However finely they analyze nature, people will never create a single apple. Rather than chopping it all into separate bits, we need to understand it as a linked whole. Not nature divided into its individual parts by natural scientists, but living nature as a whole faced by farmers, with an infinite number of life forms existing in an intricate web. It must make sense across all one hundred jobs.

This is not easy to express in words. We habitually analyze things when trying to understand them. Thus Kimura will do analyses using dyes to measure resistance to water flow through pathways in the trunks of trees. But he links the knowledge he gains from doing things like this to his instincts in helping apple trees. Whether or not this is right is ultimately determined not by an article published in a scholarly magazine, but by what happens in the apple orchards, and how good the fruit produced on the apple trees is.

Apples are his academic thesis, his finest achievement. Perhaps what he’s saying about being a farmer, not an academic, is more a philosophy. Being a real farmer, I think he is trying to reach beyond the limits of natural science.

In the typhoon which hit Aomori Prefecture directly in the autumn of 1991, apple farmers suffered catastrophic damage. Not only were more than half the apples knocked off the trees; trees themselves were blown over by the winds. The storm damage in Aomori Prefecture alone amounted to more than seventy four billion yen. The damage to Kimura’s orchards, however, was very limited. Even though the winds were strong enough to blow trees from other orchards across into his, more than eighty per cent of the fruit stayed on his trees. The trees stood firm. Not only were the roots denser and spread much more widely than those of normal apple trees, the stems holding the fruit to the branches were thicker than on other trees.

Whilst the orchards’ appearance changed each year, the ideal conditions were developing for apple growing. Then for some reason, after about 2000, the leaf rollers – which had previously proliferated – simply vanished entirely. This is why the buckets with fermenting apples haven’t been hung out for the last few years. Neither is there any need, naturally, for them to go around with shopping bags over their wrists collecting the insects. Alternaria blotch and scab remain, but they only blight a small quantity of fruit and far fewer leaves. Even when disease occurs, it doesn’t spread through the orchards.

How can this be when pesticides are not used? Kimura thinks that the biggest reason could be that excess nutrients do not exist in the orchards. Kimura has discovered one thing persevering with his apple growing.

Excessive fertilizer applied to apple trees, whether it’s chemical or organic, is one reason why pests congregate in numbers. Using pesticides is certainly an easy way to grow bigger apples. But, from the apple tree’s point of view, since nutrients can be easily obtained, they don’t have to spread their roots so deeply into the ground. They may not move much, but they can be overfed, just like some children.

Everyone knows that problems with the immune system are increasing among children today, but something similar is happening with apple trees which are given too much fertilizer. As a result, Kimura says, they lose their natural resistance and, without pesticides, they cannot overcome pests and diseases.

The length of the roots of the trees in other orchards is barely a few meters. It you study the apple trees in Kimura’s orchards, though, where the weeds flourish and fertilizers are not used, the roots extend to twenty meters or more. There is that much of a difference above ground in the branches and leaves, but if you look at the roots underground, they look like different creatures altogether. There is, without any doubt, a link between this and the fact that the spread of diseases and pests has stopped.

This wouldn’t necessarily happen if all you did was stop applying fertilizer. If that’s all that was needed, Kimura wouldn’t have had so much of a struggle. One thing we can say is that these aren’t simply direct causal relationships. There was no single reason for the pests disappearing or diseases not spreading.

He doesn’t spread manure or chemical fertilizers. He doesn’t allow any agricultural machinery that could damage the apple roots into the orchards. The weeds proliferate in the orchards, and the soil returns to its natural state. If there is insufficient nitrogen in the soil, he plants soy beans.

He cuts the grass once only, in autumn. He looks for signs of disease and sprays regularly with vinegar. If the insects start increasing, he hangs buckets on the apple trees with fermenting apple juice in them. He prunes the trees, observing which way the veins in the leaves are oriented … If you look for answer, Kimura points out that all that he has done to date is the answer. As a result, the apple trees have become stronger than you can imagine. And without the help of pesticides and fertilizers, the trees now produce fruit.

It would be fair to say that instead of pesticides and fertilizers, Kimura uses his own eyes and hands, and harnesses the providence of nature in the ecosystem, to grow apples. Kimura’s orchards, in other words, are a collaboration between nature, the apple trees, and the man Kimura himself. Kimura has created those orchards over a period of thirty years. Ask Kimura, though, and he would simply say that he gave the apples a helping hand.

The trees eventually produced sensationally sweet apples. They look pretty ordinary, are not that big, can be a bit lopsided, and sometimes have blemishes. Their appearance at least is not like the top grade fruit displayed in the basement food halls of departments stores. Biting into one of these non-descript apples for the first time, though, I was so overwhelmed I felt I might cry.

I have to confess to being biased of course. True, stuffing an apple into his mouth, Kimura was recalling the endless suffering he’d been through over those thirty years. But this wasn’t the reason for the tears. The apple was so incredibly delicious. This was the first time I’d been aware of how something can be so delicious it can actually make you cry! It’s no exaggeration when I say that the moment I took a mouthful, every cell in my body buzzed.

They were screaming ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’

It wasn’t a question of sweetness, sharpness, or aroma. The apple, of course, had all these, but it was overflowing with something else too. Putting that something into words is difficult. If I had to, I would say it was ‘life’. Or possibly that the apple was jam-packed with something you could describe as the ‘life energy’.

Can you imagine the expression on the face of a baby, taken from its mother, and then returned for the first time to her embrace? The baby would almost certainly be ecstatic. It would bury its face in its mother breast in bliss. This is was the image that came to mind as I munched on my apple.

The next second all I had left in my hand was the seeds. The apple was good down to the very core.

Finally, a footnote. Why are Kimura’s apples so delicious? There may be a rational explanation. What makes a good wine is something known as terroir. This may be translated as the ‘fragrance of the earth’. The nature of the geology of the area in which the grapes were grown has a profound effect on the taste and bouquet of a wine. The characteristics of a wine from a certain parcel of land is known as terroir. When it comes to terroir, rather than fertile vineyards, it is grapes grown on impoverished land that produce some of the finest wines. Finding insufficient nutrients, the roots of vines will be sent deep down into the soil. As a result, grapes will extract the minutest quantities of important elements in the soil, developing more complex and deeper aromas and tastes.

One can well imagine the same thing happening with Kimura’s apples, their long, thick roots going out into the soil, trees untouched by the typhoon. That Kimura’s apples should have more complex aromas and are sweeter than apples grown using man-made nutrients we know as fertilizers, may not be so mysterious, once you think about it. Just as the flavour of natural fish and farmed fish are different.

There is just one mystery. It happened when Kimura went around begging the dying apple trees one by one not to die. He didn’t in fact appeal to all the apple trees. The trees on the boundary with the next orchard and those lining the road were missed out. As you can imagine, Kimura didn’t want his neighbours to see him talking to trees. In the end there were quite a few apple trees which died, in spite of his pleas. They died in various parts of the orchards, but thinking about the trees Kimura realized something very strange. Some trees died whilst others didn’t, and there was no particular pattern about where they died. The stronger apples survived, the weaker ones died. But, there was one exception. Like fallen dominoes, every single tree he didn’t talk to died. Kimura feels deep regret over them to this day. Of the apple trees which Kimura did not appeal to, not one tree survived.
[1] Seishū Hanaoka (1760-1835) was a physician. He was the first to perform surgery using general anaesthesia in Japan. He researched the use of various herbs as anaesthetics, although in the process his wife – who volunteered as a participant in his experiments – lost her sight due to adverse side effects.
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