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Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 19/24

‘That was it. That was the answer. I felt like dancing right there and then on the mountain. I’d been so stupid, I even forgot why I’d climbed the mountain, not to mention forgetting entirely about the rope. I ran back down the mountain as I wanted to check the condition of the soil in my orchards and think about what I was going to do as quickly as I could. It was all downhill so it only took just over an hour to get to the orchards at the foot of the mountain. By then it was nearly midnight. I was so late coming home that Michiko had come out to the orchards with the children to look for me. She was worried, but I was ecstatic.

The next morning, Kimura climbed the mountain again. He wanted to study the soil around the oak trees more closely. In daylight, the oak tree looked thinner than he remembered. The trunk must have been fifteen centimetres thick at most. But its roots were surprisingly sturdy. He dug around and found that they went everywhere. It was a young tree, but the roots were thick and long, and it had a mass of finer roots too.

Thinking how soft the soil was, Kimura dug the earth in several spots nearby. The impression he’d had last night wasn’t wrong. The soil was faintly warm, and had a distinct, pungent smell. It was completely different to the soil in his orchards.

‘Sure enough the soil was different. I’d taken some paper and a pencil to try and sketch the structure of the soil, but I couldn’t draw it well. I put some soil in a nylon bag and carried it home over my shoulder. I tied the mouth of the bag securely so that the intense smell of the soil couldn’t escape. When I got back to the orchards I dug up some more soil and compared them. The earth in my orchards didn’t smell like that, and was hard. It was so solid that the roots snapped off when I tugged up some grass. The roots of the apple trees were miserable. They were neither thick nor long, and were blackish, not the creamy white roots should be. The oak had put those roots down in ground that was smothered in weeds. The roots of the apple trees in my orchards, where I’d cut the weeds as closely as a monk’s shaved head, were like that. I’d always thought of weeds as enemies. I’d cut the weeds to help the apples. However much I’d cut the weeds, though, the apple trees had not improved. In fact, they were wasting away because I’d cut the weeds.

Thinking that there was nothing more I could do turned out to be wrong. I believed I couldn’t do anything because there was nothing I could see to do. I was too focused on the visible; I’d lost the energy to look beyond the things I could see.’

He discovered that the pungent smell of the soil he’d dug up from around the oak tree was caused by an actinobacteria. Actinobacteria fix nitrogen in the atmosphere and store it as a nutrient in the soil. Rhizobium, which binds with the roots of soya beans and other legumes, is one well-known actinobacteria which fixes nitrogen.

Nitrogen, phosphates, and potash, are the three fertilizers vital for growing crops. It says so in the text books. But mountain soil knows nothing of those textbooks. Without applying one gram of fertilizer, it provides the sort of conditions in which an oak tree like that can thrive. There is no need for fertilizer. Whether they are chemical fertilizers or manure, nutrients used by man only work for a short time. Thus they have to be applied every year. Yet the apple trees he’d grown like that in his orchards, which were treated with nutrients as though they were children being indulged with as many sweets as they want, lost the strength to spread their roots in the soil.

Kimura continued digging and observing the soil. He dug wherever he could, under the oak tree – now the ultimate textbook – in his own orchards, as well as in various parts of the mountain, and in waste land at the foot of the mountain. He’d never really thought about it, but even walking over the ground in the orchard felt different to walking over the ground on the mountain. First and foremost, though, the temperatures differed. At that time, Kimura always went out carrying a large thermometer, stuffed into a cardboard casing to make sure it didn’t break, so he could measure soil temperatures whilst digging.

However deep he dug, the temperature of the soil on the mountain hardly varied. The temperature on the surface was about the same as the temperatures up to one or two feet down. In the orchards, on the other hand, the temperature dropped significantly, even after he’d only dug down four or five inches.

‘To be honest, I’d previously argued about weeds with my father. He told me not to remove the weeds. He had experience of seeing how well certain crops grew in the Southern Islands in places where there were weeds. I found it hard to believe. The Southern Islands and Aomori are so different. On top of which the apple trees were deteriorating. I reckoned that if the weeds increased, they’d take all the nutrients and the trees would be even worse off. But it was as my father-in-law had said. Weeds break up the soil. Weeds were weeds, doing what they were supposed to. I hadn’t been able to see what my father-in-law could see. I was so short-sighted. It was as though I’d been squinting at apple trees through the eye of a needle. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. I was only looking at the apple trees in front of me.

An apple tree does not live in isolation. Its life is sustained by the environment it lives in. Human beings are the same. People are forgetting this and believe they are independent. At some point I realized that this was true for the crops I was growing too. This is the main problem, in fact, when it comes to using pesticides. Spreading pesticides effectively means isolating apple trees from the nature around them.

The reason for the mountain soil being warm was healthy microorganism activity. This explained the constant temperature, however deep I dug. Low levels of microorganism activity in the soil explained why the temperature in the orchards decreased every ten centimetre I dug down. To prove this, I dug the soil in various places and found the temperatures, but it was the same some distance from the orchards as it was close by. The deeper you go the cooler it gets. The soil ecology must have been altered by pesticides and chemicals fertilizers. My orchards were the same. The numbers of microorganisms living in the soil was much smaller than on the mountain. Six years had passed since I’d stopped spraying pesticides, but I’d done it continuously before that, so I imagine the soil ecology had been destroyed. What’s worse, I was regularly cutting the grass, so the microorganisms never had a chance to recover. An ecosystem is built up by the actions of innumerable living creatures.

Anyway, I figured that to develop more robust apple tree roots, all I could do was try and reproduce the mountain soil, so I tried letting the grasses grow. I knew that the soft mountain soil was full of life, and that the roots grew in soil which, however deep you dig, had a constant temperature. I’d cut the grass in the orchards so, although it was unseasonal, I sowed soya beans in place of weeds. They were low grade soybeans I bought cheap. I’m not sure how much I sowed. I’d no idea how much to sow, in fact, so I used the lot. We were invaded by turtle doves. Doves everywhere you looked. This wasn’t exactly crows digging around for seeds Farmer Giles had sowed; the doves were following me around eating the soybeans from where I’d just scattered them. Ha ha ha, that was funny. The doves made their nests in the orchards at some point. It was dove heaven.’

When he pulled up the soybeans after they’d grown, he found many small nodules on the roots. Nodule bacteria colonies. It was just as he’d thought. They were acting in the same way as the actinobacteria in the mountain soil.

The following year, he sowed soybeans from the spring. They grew waist high, turning the orchards into a jungle. He stopped his monthly grass cutting completely, weeds flourished under the soybeans, and insects sang in the shade. Frogs followed the insects, then snakes which were going after the frogs appeared. They started seeing mice and rabbits running around too. Before he knew it, Kimura’s orchards were bustling with life. Curiously, however, there were fewer soybean nodule bacteria than the previous year.

The apple trees looked slightly healthier. Alternaria blotch and leaf rollers were still rampant but, to Kimura’s eyes, it seemed as though the apple trees’ fight against prolonged disease was over, and they might just be on the road to recovery.
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