Excerpt from Chapter Ten
Leaving a Legacy
It was a perfect midsummer evening on Vashon Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle, and Mount Rainier was glowing a beautiful pink to the southeast of our farm. This was the best time of the year for Mama-san and me to savor the beauty of the fields.
“I am so grateful that the harvest went well this year,” Mama-san said in her formal Japanese. “Do you remember how hard the four of us worked this spring?”
My family’s farm was originally an old growth forest with towering Douglas fir, cedar and hemlock trees. When my mother and father bought it in 1929, it was an unproductive apple orchard that had been abandoned for some time. They cleared the land and planted berries, earning enough money to sustain themselves and raise me and my older brother, Yoneichi. My parents were immigrants from Japan who had labored and saved for decades, finally achieving their American dream of owning a farm.
As a child, I had plenty of time to explore every square inch of our property, and got to know it in all of its seasons. The land slept in winter, changing little from day to day. I liked spring the best, when even the weeds were pretty and everything grew fast during the light-filled summer days in the Northwest. This was also the busiest time. It took all four of us to fertilize, weed, and care for the plants in preparation for the annual harvest.
However, history disrupted our American dream. On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, marking the beginning of the United States’ involvement with World War II. As a Japanese family, we were suddenly seen as a security risk. In May 1942, we were forced from our farm and sent to an internment camp along with 120,000 other people of Japanese descent.
I was only seventeen years old at the time. At first, my reaction was shock. I went from the normal life of a teenager in a small town, to a desolate desert camp surrounded by barbed wire fences, and guard towers with machine guns and searchlights.
My family worried about what would happen to our home and farm, especially when we failed to get any word from the people who had promised to take care of them for us. Constantly, I wondered, Will we lose our family land?
Of all the hard times we had in camp, none was worse than having to send my only brother off to war. Many American families faced this challenge, but only Japanese- American parents sent their sons to war from behind barbed wire fences. The day that Yoneichi got his draft notice was the worst day of my life. He was my protector, my trailblazer, an anchor in my life. No amount of tears could wash from my imagination the thought of him dead on a battlefield.
A few days later, Mama-san obtained a small piece of cloth. She began marking a series of tiny dots on it, precisely measured. As I moved closer for a better look, Mama-san explained her curious behavior.
“Yoneichi-san is doing a very brave thing,” she said, in Japanese. “We must do our part to provide him with encouragement and ho-pu (hope).” She moved the ruler and started a second row. “From a long time ago, women in Japan have sent their men into battle with protections from the senninbari, a thousand-stitch belt.” She was silent for several minutes as she completed more rows, and then she turned to me with a pensive look.
“You and I, we together cannot make this for him by ourselves. The senninbari can only be protecting him if we get help from a thousand women and girls to make our knots in this little cloth. They must all pray for him to return safely from the war. That is the only way we can protect him from the bullets of the enemy.”
When Mama-san finished, there were twenty rows of fifty dots each, making a total of 1,000 dots. Then she fitted an embroidery hoop over the fabric and cut off a length of black thread, which she poked through the eye of a sewing needle. Then she knotted the opposite end of the thread. She chose a dot in the very corner of the fabric and inserted the needle from below, pulling it tight. She made a tiny, perfect French knot by laying the needle next to the dot, wrapping the thread three times around the needle, inserting the needle back through the fabric, and pulling the thread tight.
When she was done, she looked up at me and held out the fabric, the needle and thread still attached. “Now it is your turn,” she said.
We were fortunate. Not only did Yoneichi survive the war uninjured, but our land was waiting for us when my parents were released from the camp after the war. After our three-year absence, the farm was run down but otherwise in good shape.
When my brother returned from Europe nine months later, the land became his responsibility, and for decades he worked tirelessly to make the best use of it. As opportunities arose, he gradually expanded the farm, eventually owning 52 acres and two houses in the heart of the island. Each summer, he managed the harvest of the third largest berry farm on Vashon. He also taught at a Seattle high school, grading papers and tests as he rode the ferry each morning and evening.
As Yoneichi neared 60 years of age and his daughters began growing up and moving out, he started preparing for his retirement. Eventually, he plowed under all of his remaining crops and planted hay. The land that my family was indebted to for so many years was at last allowed to rest, with only the annual hay harvest to keep the property in productive use.
Shortly before retiring, Yoneichi visited his in-laws in Vancouver, British Columbia. He returned with a bag full of acorns from their oak tree, which he planted in his garden. He must have thought that only a few would sprout, but he was wrong. Up popped an entire row of Red Oak trees, crowded shoulder to shoulder, threatening to become a solid wood wall in a few years’ time.
At Thanksgiving dinner that year, Yoneichi chatted with my son David about his project. “Those acorns really surprised me,” he laughed. “But I’m not sure that other trees would grow so easily.” When David asked if he was going to plant any more, Yoneichi looked thoughtful and replied “I think it would be fun to visit the forests of the Midwest or the Eastern seaboard and gather seeds, and see if I could get some of those hardwoods to grow out here.” With a smile, he called it his “one-hundred and fifty year plan.”
My brother died suddenly from a heart attack less than a year later, without realizing his dream. Before Yoneichi’s death, he managed to transplant a single oak to its permanent location, while the remaining seedlings were dug out before they took over the vegetable garden. That oak tree is now twenty-five years old and twenty feet tall. It stands near a number of other much older and larger trees, including several majestic big leaf Maples, a cedar, and an ancient Black Walnut. But his vision, I am sure, was much grander.
As it turned out, his idea would be revived two decades later. In 1970, when Papa-san died, I inherited half of my parents’ original 10-acre farm. I was 45 years old. For many years, I gave this land little thought. It was always treated as just another part of Yoneichi’s farm, for which I was paid a small rental fee.
But then a letter from the county arrived. My property was at risk of losing its tax-advantaged status. In order for a piece of property that size to qualify as farmland, it had to earn a minimum dollar amount per acre each year. Now that the value of the hay crop had dropped below that threshold, the letter asked what I planned to do.
Reading the letter made my head spin. I was faced with having to make a big decision—and soon.
Not too long before, I had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. As I turned 81, my lungs were losing their ability to absorb oxygen, a condition that was likely to worsen over time. The doctor was compassionate but professional as she gave me the news. “Given the current condition of your lungs,” she said, “there is a 50% chance that you may die within three years from this disease.”
It took me a minute or two to absorb this pronouncement. As a nurse, I had noticed that I became somewhat winded on my daily walks through the neighborhood. I assumed that this was just the natural effects of aging. But now, the doctor’s diagnosis neither surprised nor frightened me. I had lived a good long life already, and was somehow comforted knowing what my fate might be.
With the understanding I might not be around much longer, I realized that I needed to get my affairs in order, which included figuring out what to do with my five acres of land.
It was Ray, my youngest son, who came up with a solution. He had always been interested in nature, and when he was only ten years old he began a long career as a gardener, raising a variety of vegetables for the family dinner table.
One evening he sat down with me and his life partner, Jim, at the dinner table and said, “I have an idea about the farm.” I looked up from my plate with interest.
“I’ve always wanted to plant my own forest,” he continued. “I read about it once when I was a kid, and I thought it would be really great to watch my own trees grow for the rest of my life. It would be a lot of work, and I don’t know if it makes financial sense, but I’d like to give it a try. What do you think?”
Suddenly, my head was filled with images of trees reaching for the sky, birds building nests in branches and deer sleeping on the forest floor – my brother’s dream of a family forest. I looked over at my son, now a middle aged man. I couldn’t have been prouder. “That’s a wonderful idea!” I exclaimed. “Let’s do it.”
With the decision made, the reality of my illness began to fade into the background. I could already feel myself breathing easier. All the time my family was detained, the thought of one day returning to our farm was what helped to keep us going. Now, I could give back to the land that had provided for my family for all those years.
Ray sprang into action. He attended a quarter-long forestry class offered by the county. We wrote and submitted an official forest plan, which helped us obtain approval for certain tax benefits and a limited amount of funding for the project. Part of our agreement was that we would plant only trees native to the area, which was also Ray’s preference. We located a source for tree seedlings, ordered some forestry supplies, and hired a surveyor to mark the boundaries of the property. Finally, we found a man who could plow the land for us, making it much easier to plant the trees.
It was a gray but comfortable November day when we arrived at the freshly plowed field. “Wow!” Ray said. “Look at how beautifully it was tilled. You can’t even tell that it used to be grass!”
He was right. The sod was disked in very finely, and the bare dirt was smooth and even on the gently rolling surface. Ray brought with him a spool of twine. He had carefully measured the twine and tied knots every ten feet, and attached a piece of pink surveyor’s ribbon to each knot.
We started at the northeast corner of the property. Ray found the surveyor’s mark, carefully measured in a few feet in from the corner, and put in a single bamboo stake. Jim held the end of the twine at that mark while Ray unrolled the spool halfway across the northern boundary of the plot. When he reached the end, the two of them pulled it tight, while I stood in the middle and helped line it up. We laid the twine down on the soil. “OK, that looks good,” Ray called out. “Let’s get some stakes and put them in wherever there’s a ribbon.” After doing so, we carefully walked the whole length of twine over to the west and repeated the process, forming a row of bamboo stakes 660 feet long.
Several hours later, we finished and stepped back to admire our work. The property was now a sea of evenly-spaced bamboo stakes covering the fabric of the land. Ray had a look of satisfaction on his face. “I like it already!” he exclaimed. I smiled to myself, knowing Yoneichi would be pleased that we had begun to fulfill the dream of his “150 year plan.”
On December 27, 2008, I found myself standing ankle-deep in mud, huffing and puffing as I tried to dig a hole for a seedling. My grown children led an eager group of volunteers. Because it had been an especially rainy winter, we all found ourselves struggling to find places dry enough to plant trees.
A number of long brown bags lay on the ground nearby. Each contained 200 bare-root seedlings, waiting to be planted. More than a hundred potted plants were grouped by species. Ray circulated among the different groups, giving advice and instructions, reminding me very much of my older brother, Yoneichi.
Despite the mud, “Planting Day” was a success, with over 1,000 trees getting planted under difficult conditions. The weather was much better for a second work party a few weeks later, when the majority of the remaining spots were filled in.
I walk through the growing forest whenever I get the chance, noticing the changes that happen from year to year. We planted more than twenty-five different species. Most of the trees are long-lived conifers, which to me look prettier than any fully-decorated Christmas tree. The maples and cottonwoods are deciduous and grow fast. The slower growing and somewhat rare Garry Oak trees have a special place on the southern edge, where they will get the sunlight they need to survive.
Although a few of the recently planted trees are still only knee-high, each year more and more trees tower over me. When they get that tall, I feel a sense that they have “made it,” that they are guaranteed to reach maturity and live on for generations. I find great comfort in knowing these trees will be here, growing strongly, long after I am gone.
One type of tree is already reproducing. We have found over a dozen “wild” seedlings of the beautiful Pacific Madrone, apparently started from seeds brought in by birds from nearby mature trees. Like my family, the forest has not forgotten how to recreate itself.
At the age of 84, I sat down with my doctor for my semi-annual checkup. “Well, your condition has stabilized,” she said. She allowed herself a slight smile. “Your test results show little or no change over the past three years. And your pulmonary function test actually shows slight improvement compared to last time.”
Relieved, I smiled to myself. The doctor had confirmed what I already knew intuitively. She continued, “I don’t think I need to see you again for another year. But you can always call me if you notice anything unusual.”
I had used the three years I was given wisely, and now the future held continued good health and my legacy. In my will, I arranged to have my five acres of land pass on to my son, who will ultimately deed them over the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, along with a sizeable donation to ensure that the forest can be maintained in perpetuity.
The property cannot easily be seen from any road, and few will ever visit the trees there. But the wildlife already knows that a forest is growing, and it really belongs to them. A doe recently raised a fawn on the property. Several kinds of forest songbirds have already started moving in, awaiting the day when the trees are large and dense enough to support their nests.
On a recent summer visit to our family forest, I stood with my son surveying our land. I was 85 and still breathing strong. We stopped in front of an elegant dark green tree with lighter green needles on the new growth at the end of each branch. Ray reached in, plucked several of the older needles, and crushed them with his fingertips. “This is the largest and most beautiful Grand Fir on the property,” he said. He held the needles under his nose and smelled them. “One of nature’s finest perfumes,” he said, as he extended his hand toward my face.
I inhaled deeply of the wonderful pine-like, fruity aroma, settling into a deep contentment. Before us, we could see a thousand family trees, planted by many different hands. They were lined up in neat rows and columns, breathing oxygen back into the air for my lungs to inhale. They formed a living senninbari that would nourish me and the planet, and protect me from disease.
My son remarked, “I wish Yoneichi could have seen what we did here. I think he would have approved.”
I smiled, then responded. “I think he does approve. And so do Mama-san and Papa-san. Their spirit with me every time I come here. They have returned to offer their blessings.”
I was sure this was right. I took a deep breath.
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