Living

ROOTED IN FAMILY

DEL REY -- As a teen-ager, David Mas Masumoto rejected the farming life in which he had grown up in this small community. He eventually returned to the crop-covered 80-acre farm when he realized how much farming meant to him in terms of family and as a writer.

In his latest nonfiction book, "Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land" (Free Press: $25), the author looks at the stroke of his father, Joe, in 1997 and explores its effect on him as a son, farmer, writer and man.

The title reflects Masumoto's father's views about the future of farming. Once, Joe was certain his would be the last generation of farmers, especially when a young and brash Masumoto told his parents in 1972 that when he completed his studies at the University of California at Berkeley he would not be returning to farming.

Masumoto realized he was fighting his career destiny on a 1975 trip to Japan to visit family working as small farmers. He discovered how much he loved farming while he worked in the rice paddies .

He returned to the family's Valley home and his father gave him more responsibilities. The work took up most of Masumoto's life, but he did manage to carve out a few early morning minutes to write several books, including "Epitaph for a Peach" and "Letters to the Valley, A Harvest of Memories."

Masumoto says he started writing "Wisdom of the Last Farmer" right after his father had his stroke.

"I came home immediately and started to write everything down in a journal," Masumoto says during a break from the farmwork that always calls. "The book is a metaphor for a much larger, more universal story of everything from watching our parents become old and break to also people who have businesses -- farms, an auto shop, whatever -- where the whole dynamic of generations involved with a family enterprise, watching that break in many ways. It is also the dynamic of family, one generation passing along information to the next."

The writing continued as Masumoto pushed his father to fight back from the damage caused by the stroke. The frustrating part was that unlike other medical conditions that can be cured with surgery or medicine, stroke recovery is a long and slow fight back.

Masumoto was struck by the description by a therapist of a stroke as being "an insult" to the patient. That, as he writes in the book, became the key to helping his father.

"How do you respond to this insult? I had seen a few times in his life when he was insulted and saw where this quiet, stoic man became enraged by an insult. I needed to use that rage to make him deal with the stroke," Masumoto says.

As a third-generation farmer, Masumoto knew if his father didn't relearn how to walk on uneven ground or use his right hand, that he would never be able to work again. That would be like signing a death sentence for his father.

It was when his father finally wiggled his little finger that Masumoto knew there was hope his father would be able to return to the soil that has defined his life.

That moment became the seed for the book.

Masumoto keeps a small stack of white index cards from his workshirt pocket. Scribbled on the cards are what could be seeds of ideas for future writing.

"I often write ideas down. Then I will move them to the computer. Some ideas work and some don't. The big problem I had with this book was how far I would drill down. At some points you stop and say 'Is this getting too personal?' or you slip down to this self-centered story rather than something that resonates," Masumoto says.

So as he sat for months in the basement of the modest farm home, a place where he can write without distractions, Masumoto wrote and rewrote his new book to find the right tone for his very personal story.

There is no hard line between Masumoto the writer and Masumoto the farmer. He talks about writing as if he were trying to nurse along an ailing grapevine. A book is nurtured, protected from pests (i.e. bad writing days, editors), taken to full maturity and then sent out for consumption.

The big difference between the organic crops grown on his farm and his writings is that once his peaches and grapes have been sold, he doesn't have to promote the crops. Books take more work after they're published.

"The publisher really wanted a big push for the release of the book, sort of like a Hollywood premiere," Masumoto says. Instead of a whirlwind book tour to major cities, Masumoto suggested shorter trips. He's appeared at restaurants where the chef has incorporated his peaches into the menu to create a theme night.

Other attention has come from Reader's Digest, which reprinted a chapter of his book about dealing with his father's stroke. Part of the book is also in the current issue of the US Airways in-flight magazine.

This kind of promotion allows Masumoto to stay near the soil that came to mean so much to him and continues to feed his creative soul.

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