Ancient Trees

There is, I'm told, an ancient Greek proverb, that is most likely much more ancient than the Greeks, that adores the man who plants a tree in which shadow he will never sit.

I have been to Yakushima three times, and there are some very old cedar trees there, but also many stubs, as temples had to be built in Kyoto and such places. There is even the memory of a certain Buddhist monk who educated the islanders that felling ancient trees was not a sin. I wonder what he personally gained from such advice. How tragic for the ancient trees, but, perhaps the monk was more concerned about the welfare of the human souls trying to survive on that remote Satsuma island.

I got a small bonzai peach tree on a visit to Mito, in Ibaraki prefecture. It is a famous site, and I was happy to have the tiny tree in its Mito pot in my garden. Then I planted it and it took root, and by now several years later, the tree has grown to about three meters tall. What a joy for that tiny bonzai plant. I cut some branches earlier this winter, I'm looking forward to its pretty flowers that signal the early event of spring. But really, I wish I had more fruit trees, and what we Westerners tend to think of as useful, rather than poetic, or make that something connected to the ancient lust for lyrics...

I loved this story over at the Mainichi, about some 800 year old orange trees that still "produce" ie the live their lives to the fullest. Great reporting and I may even go and try to get a mikan or two in Ginza (nope, can't afford it!)

'Miraculous' 859-year-old mandarin trees still producing bumper crops in Oita Pref.

TSUKUMI, Oita -- The mandarin orange trees standing on a gentle slope in this city's Kamiaoe neighborhood have survived a lot in their lives, now in their 859th year. In that time, the oldest "ko-mikan" (small mandarin) trees have been assaulted and nearly killed repeatedly by winds and storms, but some deep vitality always pulls the venerable old trees back from the brink to live and thrive again.

Today, their owner treats them with the loving care of a doting parent, and the oranges are sold at a high-end fruit shop in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district as charms for longevity and a healthy line of descendants.

There are 11 of the old trees in the orchard, each a few meters tall, and they are known familiarly as "Ozaki's ancestor trees," based on the name of a local district. Owner Naoyuki Kawano, 65, told the Mainichi Shimbun that the trees had been passed down in the family with the instruction never to cut them down or sell them, even if the family sold their home. He added that he treats "protecting the ancestor trees as a life mission."

According to the book "Tsukumi kankitsu-shi" (a history of Tsukumi citrus fruit) written by a group of local ancient historians and published in 1943, among other sources, the orange trees were first planted by Fujiwara Nizaemon in 740 A.D., while he was under house arrest in Tsukumi following a serious military defeat. The trees were then allegedly transplanted to their current location in 1157. They withered after being badly damaged in a major storm in 1612, but some of the branches touching the ground actually took root. The trees grew new buds, and survived.

"Ko-mikan" mandarin oranges from trees said to be more than 800 years old are seen on sale in the Ginza Sembikiya fruit shop in Tokyo. (Mainichi)

Around 1935, there were 48 trees in the orchard, producing 3 metric tons of fruit in good years. They were designated a national natural monument in 1937, but their numbers were thinned badly by bad storms between 1945 and 1949.

Ko-mikan trees usually grow weak after 40 to 50 years, and it's considered very nearly miraculous that this bunch have been producing oranges for more than eight centuries. The closest comparable tree was a specimen in the town of Tsunagi, Kumamoto Prefecture, which had stood for 350-plus years. However, it apparently died more than 10 years ago due to insect damage and other problems.

The Tsukumi trees, too, had a relatively recent close brush with the arboreal Grim Reaper when, about 40 years ago, they were essentially abandoned. Tadashi Mimata, from the prefectural citrus fruit research center, took stewardship of the trees and restored them to health. There was no precedent for tending to such ancient trees, so the work was a hit-and-miss affair. The bark was coated with locally produced milk of lime to protect it from direct sunlight, and holes were dug near the trees and filled with a compost mix to allow them to grow deep, healthy roots. Mimata, now 83, still visits the orchard and tends to the trees.

"These things are far older than me, but they're like my kids," he says. "I won't let them die as long as I am alive to tend to them." Mimata says that he can tell right away if the trees are malnourished just by looking at the bark and leaves. If they're well cared for, the trees can produce 1-1.5 tons of fruit per year, all with a hallmark concentrated sweetness.

Tokyo's Ginza Sembikiya, a high-end fruit shop founded in 1894, has been selling the "mikan from an 800-year-old tree" close to the end of the year for about 80 years. They sell out most years, and "there are a lot of people who really look forward to them and buy them every year. They're a popular item," a shop representative said. 

More ancient trees, anyone?

I published a food book back in 2009 and back around then had a very serious change of thought. If I could not do what I told others to do... Well, I had better give it a try. I started looking around for land to grow vegetables on, and surprise, surprise, one thing led to another. I also started to notice that there were others here who had similar ideas. Not only in rural Japan.

The Keyboard and The Spade is the story of a man who tries to plant trees, or slit-planting. From The New Statesman, I give you:

In the overdeveloped West, technology is making us forget what it truly means to be human.

Slit-planting is the easiest way to plant a bare root tree. It needs to be done in winter, when both the tree and the soil are dormant. We planted ours in February, and it was hard work: harder than I realised at the time. I am writing this in June, and my body still hasn’t recovered. My left arm is partly crippled by tendonitis, and my lower back is bad on some days and not so bad on others. My fingers and wrists begin to ache and tingle if I demand too much from them. This means that the acres of grass I have to scythe on my land are going uncut, and the place is running wild. I think I’m going to need to ask our neighbour to graze his horses in our field again, because I can’t do much else with it this year. My hands and my arms are currently not suited to serious physical work, as a direct result of my winter toils with the trees. That, and over twenty years of typing words like this into computers, which has frazzled the tendons and the nerves in my forearms possibly beyond repair. The spade and the keyboard are very different tools, but one thing they have in common is their ability to break the human body.

We planted around five hundred small trees here on our couple of acres in the west of Ireland. Most of them will end up in our woodstove: the idea is to be self-sufficient in heating as soon as possible. For this purpose, we’ve planted several blocks of birch, poplar and willow, which should have a coppice cycle of six or seven years. On top of that, we’ve put in about a hundred sticks of basket willow, in differing colours. We’ve also planted three hedges of native trees – rowan, more birch, spindle, holly, wild cherry, hazel, oak – to create windbreaks, shield us from the lane in front of the house and make some kind of offering for the birds around here. Perhaps it will distract their attention from our vegetable garden, which they are currently digging up daily.

The real work was in clearing the ground, most of which was covered thickly with a deep tangle of brambles and suckering blackthorns. When we moved to this little patch of land, we came with ideals, and one of them was to do our work by hand, with as little impact as possible. So we laid into the thorns and brambles, which must have been growing for decades, with scythes and mattocks and spades and machetes. It took weeks and weeks. The scratches were deep. The industrial-strength gloves we bought were torn to shreds. More than one mattock handle was broken. I have never seen suckers so thick or long, nor root balls so deep and woody. Even after weeks of clearing the ground by hand, we still had to hire a digger for a day to tear out the deepest of the roots and make the ground fit for planting.

After that, the planting itself was a doddle. To slit-plant a tree, you just push your spade into the ground up to the end of the blade, wiggle it back and forth until you have a wide enough slit and then drop the tree root into it. You cover the ground around the tree with newspaper, and then pile wet straw on top of that to mulch it. Finally, if your land attracts both rabbits and hares, which ours does, you wind a plastic spiral tree guard around the tiny trunk, and fortify it with a garden cane against the Atlantic winds.

Do that five hundred times, and you have a little forest. Better, you have a forest planted in a low-impact and ecological way. You have an endless supply of sustainable fuel for your sustainable household, and you have used minimal dirty fossil fuels in order to create it. You have taken some wasteland and made it into a diverse ecosystem. You have created a closed-loop system, and a mini carbon sink. You have also crippled yourself. But it was worth it.

At least, that’s what I thought I would be telling myself at this stage. But I’m not so sure any more.


Pandabonium said…
We have a not-ancient mikan tree. Some years, like 2014, it barely provides 12 fruit. Other years, like 2015, we get hundreds. They are almost always juicy and flavorful.
Martin J Frid said…
Hundreds of fruit from one tree, isn't that amazing. I guess the people owning stock or bonds wish they had that kind of return! What you have is something of real value.
Unknown said…
As I learnt while at a certain temple/farm on the edge of Tokyo, Kaki/Persimmon trees only produce (numerous) fruit every two years.

And as you say, as the saying goes, money doesn't grow on trees!

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