Spring is making a phlegmatic start this year. For the last few weeks we have had pseudo-blizzards, which look lovely as you sit cozy in your office chair, but are really quite anti-climatic as you walk into the night with anticipation of glazed mountains and rivers only to find everything really as dowdy as before the torrent passed though.
It might be said every year (and it is), but this year it seems particularly appropriate to say that the students are more restless than ever and looking forward to next weeks spring break. When I quizzed them on what they would do for the holiday they excitedly said “nothing!” and truly looked thrilled.
As a way of jump-staring spring, I asked Ono-sensei if it was possible to get hold of a neglected plot of land that I might poke around in (I can already see some of you shaking your heads!). He seemed surprised by my request and sort of stood there processing it for some time before he jumped up from his chair and cried “for the flowers and vegetables” (which really sounded more like “for the love of God!) but I knew what he meant.
I was staring wistfully out the window a couple of weeks later when Ono came into the office and fairly stumbled over the desks between the door and my desk before saying (breathlessly) “I have found you some land!”
No man’s eagerness could have been greater! Not only had he found a plot of land (about a 15 minute walk from my house, and really neglected, just like I had asked) but he was taking me there RIGHT NOW.
I can’t remember the last time I wanted to cry over an untamed patch of weeds and loam, but cry I did (in a local and private sort of way) as I gazed upon my very own garden-to-be. We stood reflecting on the land for sometime until the reverie was broken (a freak blizzard was setting in again) and I was taken to meet the mayor of Niyodogawa, “so that I might ask for a hoe.”
It’s true. The mayor of Niyodogawa had not only secured the land for me, but with much enthusiasm he implored me to use his trowel and his plow.
“And you must come and wash your hands at my house,” Ono said, gesturing enthusiastically to a house not far away. “And take the tools at any time! And use a tractor to toss the earth! And we will show you how to plant the Japanese vegetables! And you must have the help of students, who at any time will be willing! And grow many many things. But mostly spinach, we we love most. The mayor loves most. And to sell the ripe vegetables at the market! And-“
. . . .
“You do realize that you are probably the mot unusual foreigner these people have ever met,” my friend says to me a few days later when I tell him of my beloved new plot of land.
“What! How so?”
“Well, besides the obvious,” he chortles a bit, “think about what majority of the population takes up farming.”
I think for a bit and answer wisely, “The old people?”
“Exactly. And they do it because no one else in Japan wants to do it.”
It is true. Farming is primarily the employment of the elderly and the retired. As young people move onto more exciting cities and white-collar jobs, the time old tradition of rice, tea, fruit and vegetable planting and harvesting falls to those seemingly too advanced in years to be doing such laborious work. One in ten of my students want to be farmers. The others dream of being bakers and teachers and airline-stewardesses (this is the ultimate dream).
And so, along comes not only a foreigner, but a young foreigner whose idea of Sunday fun is toiling the earth. It is either the greatest mockery of Japanese culture (many people do in fact think that a source of derision) or the greatest impression yet to be made. I hope, truly, that it is the latter.
For Ono and the mayor, at least, it is a source of unending amusement.
The idea of my garden, though, has shocked my students more than anyone. I was diligently weeding away when the first of these students happened to pass by. About eight or so, he stopped and stared at me with unbelieving eyes. His mouth dropped open and the words "ego-no-sensei!" (my English teacher! ) were barely audible. And even as I waved and said hello he stared and stared. At last, regaining consciousness, he sort of stumbled backwards and walked crab-like up the hill, watching me all the while with disbelief and wonder.
About an hour later, one of my more silent and sullen students walked by. There is a scene in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas where Cindy Lu spies old grinchie stuffing the tree up the chimney and cires "ahhh!"
I cannot more accurately liken the shocked little cry that came from her lips when she saw me there.
“Hi Natsumi,” I smiled and held up my trowel by way of explanation. She stared at me for a moment, and then (like a small little miracle, for I never, never see this poor girl smile), a grin breaks out on her face and she says “sensei! Taihen!” which really says it all: Teacher: awful (alternatively: dreadful, terrible!).
I nodded solemnly to her, which seemed the only appropriate thing to do in response to such a proclamation, and then I beamed ridiculously and said, “kite!” Oh yes, join me in my folly!
Peas, and carrots and corn; potatoes, parsley and sunflowers. I will show them all! Feeling a little like Chicken Little, but also willing to share my bread, I have the distinct impression that my Tales of a Garden have only just begun.