Literary forms are always with us, but they come and go, returning like perennials rather than ever-present like evergreens.
Take pastoral for example. A classic Greek and Latin genre, it reached such evocative heights in Virgil’s “The Eclogues” that it charmed generations of European and American writers, and has been reappearing ever since, putting out new growth at times of discontent. When things go awry in the great world of cities and governments, pastoral entices with its praise of the simple country life.
In earlier centuries, it was peopled with shepherds piping, sheep grazing and milkmaids prettily tripping around and providing love interest. “Arcadia,” written by Sir Philip Sydney, a man who well knew the sordid intrigues of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, is an archetypal example. Later, romantic writers in Britain and America lauded the rewards and pleasures of rustic life at a time when the Industrial Revolution was darkening cities and reshaping society in alarming ways.
Pastoral is back with us today. The cities are largely cleaned up and even in the country, the shepherds and milkmaids are no more.
But for urbanites, the pace of life is hectic; they spend too much time commuting to work or ferrying kids to their myriad activities. Families have little time to get together, even for something as basic as supper. This life costs money: for fast food, for gasoline, for the more prestigious car or house. And it causes anxieties: in this time of economic gloom will breadwinners lose their jobs? Will global warming cause hazardous storms and heat waves? Is polluted city air making us sick? Is everything spinning out of control?
Over the last two or three decades, many have worked out their anxieties by focusing on food. With nutritionists lambasting the wrong sort of fats and carbohydrates, organic farmers raising alarms about pesticides and artificial fertilizers, and animal lovers publicizing the cruelty of intensive rearing of livestock. One solution has been to return to the country and older ways of producing what we eat. The literary effect has been a stream of books that explain why or how to do this, with perhaps the most notable being Barbara Kingsolver’s 2008 “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” which describes the year Ms. Kingsolver and her family lived on their own crops.
David Mas Masumoto, who grows peaches and grapes in California, has contributed much to this latest version of the pastoral. His prize-winning “Epitaph for a Peach” (1995) and his subsequent books and articles have focused on farming and food. Now, “The Wisdom of the Last Farmer” describes the grueling work and the risks of poor harvests and low prices that bedevil small farmers.
Mr. Masumoto and his family have found answers in farming organically, specializing in heirloom varieties of peaches and in grapes grown to make raisins.
Their family’s Central Valley land is baked by the sun, though it can also be raked by cold in winter, and while some of the land is good soil, when David Mas Masumoto’s father bought it in the early 1950s, much was hardpan. He dug it out, bulldozed it, even dynamited it to make it productive. For more than 40 years he worked incessantly to make his trees and vines thrive, to educate his children, only one of whom, the author of this book, returned to the land. His degree was in sociology, so his father became his teacher when they began to farm together.
Then in 1997, he had a stroke that robbed him of most of his speech and the use of his right arm. Now the roles were reversed: the son had to teach his father to drive the tractor with his left hand. Slowly, he was able to tackle many of the tasks that had shaped his days. And slowly David Mas Masumoto realized he was next in line. He was now in charge of the farm. Would his children follow him? And if he plants a new orchard, how many harvests will he live to see?
As the title suggests, “The Wisdom of the Last Farmer,” raises questions about mortality. Mr. Masumoto suggests that the cycle of growth and harvest is a metaphor for human life with its progress from inexperienced youth, to skilled adult, and eventually, to spent age. In a sense then, his book is an anti-pastoral — featuring not the idealized life of the traditional pastoral but the inevitability of death. Yet the title also suggests that farmers garner wisdom as well as crops, and they pass it on. Thus, as he faces his father’s death, Mr. Masumoto looks back on the history that brought his Japanese grandfather to California as a migrant farm laborer and his grandmother as the teenage bride of a man she had never met.
Interned during World War II, they were sustained, as always, by Japanese philosophies of life. One traditional saying translates as ‘the pot is always boiling,’ which means something is always happening. Coping with this requires the persistence and perseverance connoted by the Japanese word gaman — innate drive.
Mr. Masumoto’s version of pastoral is no country idyll. His recasts pastoral as a heroic effort to persist through arduous labor and maddening frustrations to the spiritual links that reward farmers and tie to the land. He writes about this well, conveying both the beauty of orchards and vineyards and the demands they make before they yield their best. Like all farmers, he goes over his ground many times, sometimes seemingly repetitively, but generally winning new insights into life. “The Wisdom of the Last Farmer” is thus a distinguished contribution to the current spate of books that grapple with the problems inherent in America’s current methods of farming and food production.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.