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Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 14/24

Kimura wondered whether he’d lost the plot. It was like his brain was splitting in two. Someone inside his head was screaming ‘Give up!’ The voice woke him at night. The next thing he knew he’d have slipped out of bed and be slumped on an apple box in the shed, staring into his conflict-torn mind. Part of him insisting that he could do it, the other saying it was impossible. Which was the voice of the angel? Which the voice of the devil? Finding no answers, in desperation he’d clung on to pursuing pesticide-free methods. But it was no longer a question of which was right and which was wrong. Wasn’t he just being stubborn? Plain selfish?

The more he’d stuck to pesticide-free apple growing, the harder life had become, and the more strongly others had criticized him.

He’d eventually had to let go of the rice fields, which had yielded about nine sacks of rice, in order to repay his loans. Without the means of providing themselves with rice, life had become even harder. He planted an orchard with dry rice, but the yields had been negligible. Eventually there was scarcely enough rice to eat. The pittance they got at the market for the vegetables grown in the orchard was used to buy rice. As you could only buy rice from rice shops in rural areas in five kilo bags, Michiko used to go down to a vending machine, which sold rice by the kilo, clutching a one thousand yen note.

Seven of them quickly got through a kilo of rice. They would eke it out by making rice gruel. Even then there was hardly enough rice gruel left over for Kimura and Michiko. Their growing children came first. To fill their bellies they would consume bowl after bowl of miso soup. The vegetables grown in the orchard which could be sold were sold; the vegetables which ended up in the miso soup were the spoilt ones that wouldn’t sell. When there weren’t enough, weeds from the fields went into the soup. Most of the weeds were too tough to eat, but some were edible as long as you boiled them.

‘During the winter when we couldn’t grow crops, I’d go and work in Tokyo. There was a park near the company where I used to work in Kawasaki, and I knew that casual labourers went there in the mornings, so that’s where I lived for a time. I had no money for a room, so I slept in the park. I didn’t want to be seen by people I knew at work, so I wrapped a towel around my head. The money I got I put in a purse I used as a pillow at night, but I woke up one morning to find it’d vanished.

So I sewed a pocket into my underpants and stuck my purse in there. I wore the same pants for one or two months. I didn’t take baths either, so my hair and beard grew really long; I must have stunk to high heaven by the time I got home to Aomori in the spring! Among other things, I worked on the construction site for a dam, and collected cardboards boxes in Kanda. Some men I worked with foraged through rubbish for a living. There was no way I could do that, but doing seasonal work you live like a vagrant. It was during the bubble years and people were living it up, but it meant nothing to me. I worked like crazy, but didn’t make much at all.’

To help make ends meet, his father-in-law collected Japanese knotweed stems from the mountains. If you split the stems, you sometimes find itadori insects growing in them. The larvae of the knotweed borer moth are used as bait when fishing in mountain streams. A fishing tackle shop would buy them from him. His father-in-law did this to help, even though it only brought in a tiny bit of cash.

It was his father-in-law who defended him against the relatives who were saying ‘Get rid of that son-in-law’. His father-in-law never once told him to stop pesticide-free farming, even though it was so hard on his daughter and grandchildren.

Once, when leaving for the orchards at dawn, Kimura found some rice and miso at the front door. His own parents had probably left them there during the night. He was virtually cut off from them. When he did visit, they would lock the door and pretend to be out. His own parents were the ones who opposed him stopping pesticide spraying most fiercely. The son they’d given in marriage was turning the Kimura family life upside-down.

Somehow we’ve got to make it up to the Kimuras, his mother cried. His father offered advice when he saw him, but his son turned a deaf ear. As parents, the only course open to them was to do the honourable thing and cease having anything to do with him. Yet they secretly took rice to him out of parental concern for his wellbeing. It distressed him to imagine how his mother must have felt trudging along the road at night, bringing him a bag of rice and some miso.

What on earth was he doing? What was the point in carrying on?

He hadn’t been certain of anything right from the start. All there had ever been was a shaky optimism. There must be a way to grow apples without using pesticides.

When all this started five years earlier, his optimism had shone like the evening star, but now it was a feeble glimmer, more like a star peeping from between the clouds on a stormy night. There one minute, gone the next. It was probably just an illusion. It was unbearable to think his wife and children were caught up in all this. It was like putting the seven of them in a small boat and setting them adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They may still have had faith in him, but he himself no longer had the faintest idea which direction to go in.

There was no land in sight.

He’d tried absolutely everything he could think of, but had achieved nothing. Now he’d run out of ideas. He was at the end of his tether. A paralyzing sense of frustration was welling up inside him. He was desperate to do something, but didn’t know where to turn. Nothing he did worked. He knew for sure, though, that however long he sat on the apple box and thought, he wasn’t going to find a way out of this. The answer had passed him by. His pesticide-free apple growing had failed. The clearest evidence of this was that the apple trees were now withering. He should start using pesticides without further delay.

This is what logic dictated, but something inside Kimura persistently denied it. Yet there was no ray of hope. It felt as though he was alone in total darkness, surrounded by an insurmountably high wall. It had taken five years and he’d reached a dead end.

Forget it all and use pesticides. Kimura knew better than anyone, and certainly didn’t need telling, that this was the only way out.

Yet he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Why couldn’t he give up, even though he’d lost all hope and any dreams he had? Why couldn’t he quit? He sat on the apple crate until the sky began to lighten, racking his brains, but there was no answer.

Racking your brains for an answer to a question that has none. For practising monks of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, this is an important training technique for clearing the mind of worldly thoughts. They call it a kōan [1]. The apples were Kimura’s kōan. It was as though he’d been doing zazen sitting meditation in front of the apple trees for years. But even if he achieved enlightenment, it would be meaningless if the apple trees didn’t bear fruit. In that sense, Kimura’s training was probably more severe than a Zen monk’s.

He’d had hallucinations too. Sitting at the top of the tripod ladder he was using to removing pests from the higher branches, he’d start daydreaming. Looking down from his perch, deep in thought, the ground would seem miles away. Sitting at what he imagined was the very edge of a precipice, the earth below would seem to open, and whilst he may have realized he was hallucinating, he couldn’t take his eyes off the yawning abyss.

He saw himself falling into this crack and down towards the very centre of the earth. But he wasn’t afraid. He imagined it must be like this diving to the bottom of the ocean and peering into the Japan Trench [2]. Returning to himself and looking around, all he saw in the bright sunshine was the apple orchards, ravaged by disease and pests. Reality was far bleaker.[1] kōan A Zen Buddhist conundrum to meditate on, kōan are designed to encourage self-awareness and a state of no-mind.

[2] Japan Trench The Japan Trench is an oceanic trench, about 9,000 meters deep, on the floor of the northern Pacific Ocean off northeast Japan.
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