There’s a tiny spark, a potent intelligence that lies dormant, indestructible, despite all logic. It lies patiently coiled until the awakened moment when the serpent springs forth. I witnessed this phenomenon this spring – a lesson taught firsthand by an umeboshi.
Late winter-early spring 2017 erupted in chaos as the teeter-totter of extremes rebalanced. The past 5 years here in Northern California have been a period of extreme drought. Lake Oroville, that normally holds 3 ½ million cubic acres of water, had wasted to practically nothing. Then the drought ended with record rainfall. The 800-foot deep lake swelled to overfull, and the world’s 2nd largest earthen dam (2nd only to the Aswan Dam in Egypt) became compromised. The force of water released at 100,00 cubic feet per second tore loose the lower half of the aged main spillway. The lake filled beyond capacity and water gushed over a second, auxiliary, spillway (a non-reinforced hillside), washing away soil and threatening to unleash a 60-foot wall of water over the town below where we live.
Mandatory evacuation was ordered. Folks had a frantic one-hour notice to locate family members, load up pets, valuables and emergency supplies. Evacuation routes were clogged with crawling traffic. Some poor souls were walking, carrying a few belongings in plastic grocery bags. No government plan was in place to assist elderly or disabled persons to leave. Emergency information was disorganized, unreliable and incomplete. The town once full of activity emptied. There was a palpable, eerie atmosphere of apocalyptic abandonment. A few bewildered cats left behind meowed in alleyways. Even the sound of birds was silenced. Folks clung to any local news conferences for information as to whether their homes would be safe or not. You could leave town, but not return, as incoming roads were blocked. It was an atmosphere of fear and shock.
Unbeknownst to me, at the same time we were all caught up in the evacuation, a contrasting story of nature’s order and quiet strength was at play. Amid all the chaos, umeboshi pits were calmly swelling and sprouting, breaking free from their hard shells, in our backyard garden. These were no ordinary seeds. They had been pickled in 18% salt by weight and preserved since 1999!
…to be continued in part 2
The Seed of a Seed, Part 2
Life lessons taught by an umeboshi pit
by Cynthia Briscoe
For those readers who have never heard of an umeboshi, let me briefly explain. Umeboshi is the very salty, very sour pickled fruit from an ume tree. Ume trees are highly respected and cherished in Eastern cultures. The trees flowering in spring are celebrated with the same admiration as we view the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC.
The small apricot-looking fruit never becomes juicy or sweet. Even at its ripest, ume fruit remains very sour. Ume is harvested while still green, before it turns a blushing yellow. To make umeboshi, the fruit is layered with a whopping proportion of 18% sea salt to ume by weight for a minimum of 2 years.
The resulting pickle, called umeboshi, holds great healing power. I sometimes refer to it as a “macrobiotic medicine cabinet”, as umeboshi remedies such a broad spectrum of ailments such as indigestion, diarrhea, hangovers, arthritis, headaches, shortens cold and flu cycles, sore throats, bladder infection, insomnia – the list goes on and on. George Ohsawa called the umeboshi “the King of Alkaline” and that perhaps is one of the main chemistry factors of an umeboshi’s outstanding healing capability.
At the Vega Study Center, we had an u
me orchard. Every year Cornellia Aihara and the staff would pickle a hundred pounds or so of umeboshi. At two stages in the two-year process of making umeboshi, the umeboshi are removed from the crock and spread single layer across flat baskets or bamboo mats for three days. Each individual umeboshi is hand-turned daily to further dry and concentrate the salt before returning to the crock. If some of the fruit used was a little overripe, the umeboshi meat slides off the pit. Those pits were discarded into the garden. Even though these pits were heavily salted for anywhere from 3 months to a year, we had umeboshi seedlings coming up around the perimeter of the property that escaped the lawnmower.
Cornellia told me that these seedlings had grown from the discarded umeboshi pits. I was skeptical and cautiously withheld amazement. Was this really possible for the salty pits to sti
ll be viable? Experience has proved this to be true on two additional occasions.
I dug one of the Vega saplings and planted it at our home to honor the birth of our youngest daughter, Ana, in 1991. Cornellia told me that an ume tree grown from seed would take 15 years to bear fruit, while a grafted tree would take 8 years. I waited patiently as the years passed. The tree produced beautiful dark pink blossoms each year in early January, but has only produced a single ume fruit in 26 years.
In 2008, I began making my own umeboshi. I too, discarded the salty pits from damaged umeboshi into the compost bin. The next year after distributing the compost in various flower beds and flowerpots, many ume seedlings began to grow. Even though I had my doubts whether any of these saplings would ever produce fruit, however I gave them free reign to grow wherever they chose. This was the second time I had witnessed pickled umeboshi pits sprouting.
This year, to my great excitement, one of these 9 year-old trees flowered for the first time: a dancing petticoat of abundant white blossoms. I marveled and then forgot about it as the urgency of a flood evacuation took my attention away from ume blossoms.
Sometime after returning home, I passed by the ume tree. It was now bare of blossoms. Wait! What? Can it be true? Yes! Tiny ume fruit had formed! I was beside myself after waiting 26 years for “Ana’s ume tree” to set fruit. Yet here it was. Finally I had my own fruit-bearing ume tree. Somehow, even with all the constant rain, the bees had managed to pollinate the flowers and at last there were fruit!
I bubbled, danced and immediately called David, who was working in Texas. I sent pictures as proof. I texted group announcements to our kids like a proud parent who had just given birth, as if I had anything to do with it.
Then I noticed something else. What was that? Is it possible?
There were about a dozen baby ume sprouts. To me, they looked strong and very proud of themselves. In my imagination they were ‘flexing their muscles’ after laboring to crack open the thick, hard shell in order to be born. Half shell casings littered the ground around the small trees. The smooth interiors of their half cradles now lay like empty sockets looking up to the sky. Each tiny tree stood with half an almond-like ‘placenta’ still attached on either side like saddlebags on a Harley.
Then it dawned on me. These seedlings hatched from umeboshi made by Cornellia in 1999! Those were the only umeboshi we had eaten for the past 6 years. Someone had tossed the contents of the kitchen compost bucket over the garden fence rather than walking a few extra steps to empty the bucket into the main compost bin. This area of the garden had not been turned or worked for a few years. These particular umeboshi pits had sunbathed and baked in the hot sun during the drought.
How could it be that 18-year old umeboshi pits hold their vitality and still sprout? What is the potency of a “seed within a seed” that brings forth new life?
To be continued in Part 3.
The Seed of a Seed, Part 3
Life lessons taught by an umeboshi pit
by Cynthia Briscoe
If you have ever cracked open the hard pit from an umeboshi and eaten the small almond-like kernel inside, you know the kernel tastes salty. The salt does penetrate the hard shell casing. Evidently salt does not inhibit the fertility of the seed as these pickled pits still birthed baby ume trees.
Once Cornellia and I were in the Vega Study Center basement, arm-deep in a 20-gallon crock, coaxing out umeboshi to transport to the kitchen. This task took some care and patience as the umeboshi were pressed tightly together. One had to “tickle” them out of the crock such that the individual umeboshi remained unbroken.
Cornellia held one umeboshi up to admire it. She stated in a half whisper, “The Education God lives inside the ume pit.” For that reason, or perhaps out of respect, she advised, “That’s why we don’t eat the kernel inside the pit”.
“Oops!” I thought to myself, “Uh oh. I have cannibalized the Education God many times!”
Often I had cracked through the pit, purposefully to unlock the treasure chest secreting the tasty little jewel inside. (Which by the way, I don’t advise just for the practical reason that the shell may be harder than your tooth and you might crack a tooth!) “Besides,” I had reasoned, “Eating the pit followed Cornellia’s Golden Rule of ‘no wasting’.” So even though I had not become a close acquaintance of the Education God, I now had been introduced. Just to be on the safe side, I stopped eating the inside of the umeboshi pit.
Cornellia offered no further explanation regarding the Education God. She was never one to waste anything, including words. However, most likely at this moment, speech was impossible because the fat umeboshi she’d popped into her mouth blocked all word flow. Her puckered lips fought determinably to dam the swelling pool of saliva that a sour umeboshi draws forth. She promptly returned to fishing out more umeboshi.
What? Huh? Education God? It made absolutely no sense to me, but it did pique my curiosity. Who was this guy living inside an umeboshi pit? Why would he want to live there? And how did he get in there?
An Education God living inside an umeboshi pit was a foreign concept washed up on foreign soil. There was no match in my native cultural files. So I asked my Japanese friend, Keiko, if she knew anything about this Education God. She did a little research and said, “Yes, there is something, but I’m not sure.”
I assessed that Cornellia was certainly sincere in her statement. The intensity on her face and the focused reverent way she handled the umeboshi housing the Education God, left me with a question mark that I filed in my memory bank for pondering later.
Then this spring when I discovered the tiny ume tree sprouted in the back yard from 18-year old umeboshi pits, I met the Education God face-to-face. I shook his hand when I touched the newborn leaves. It was an experience similar to staring at a newborn baby, being captivated by the simple rhythm of its breath, and marveling at the miracle of its pure existence.
“Ah!” I said, “Finally. It’s so nice to meet you!”
And then the question mark that had been stored in my brain, not unlike the living force encapsulated within an ume pit, began to shake and rumble and split.
One big thought wave crested and then broke upon the shore. As the water pulled back to sea, there was an inundation of memory debris cast upon the beach: Cornellia’s face and her voice, baskets of umeboshi drying, salt and pickle crocks, white blossoms and fallen-petal-snowy-ground, cracked umeboshi pit casings, tiny green fruit and the sound of children running through the ume orchard during picking time. There was an inundation of memory debris cast widely upon the beach.
The Education God participated in my thoughts. With even less words than Cornellia, in fact with no words at all, he taught. He paused my student mind to simply breathe – to arrest thought in a single inhalation of awe followed by a single exhalation of gratitude.
The Education God was my only witness as I stood rooted to the ground. The earth’s generosity swelled upward, reaching upward toward cloud barges floating above, laden with sunlight and rain. The two forces danced together.
The Education God was chuckling inside and outside at the cognizance of Intelligent Movement. I smiled back into the face of this Intelligent Being, the same who directed the encoded life spark within an 18-year-old umeboshi pit to awaken in perfect communication with the elements.
Education God, you have well-studied that invisible spark, the seed within a seed; that life force that weathers difficulty and quietly perseveres, resting within life’s cycles. Such Wisdom remains steady and fearless amid human chaos. Its patience weathers drought years, flooding and evacuation only to ignite and burst forth according to a timely intelligent plan.
Education God, you rested collecting strength from many cycles of seasons and elemental forces: the wind, the rain, the sun, soil and water all having nourished your will to express life as you travel from the infinite to my back yard. You have gained wisdom during your travels and from the generations of your ‘ume people’.
Thank you for your lesson.
Since writing this article, an updated internet search revealed the historic origin of the ‘Education God’. Sugawara no Michizane lived from 845-903AD . He died in exile. He is revered as a renowned scholar, poet, teacher and politician who was politically maligned and thus fell out of favor with the emperor and was stripped of his titles.
He is associated with the ume tree through poetry and legend. It is said that his favorite ume tree uprooted itself and flew to him in exile. Upon his death, his body was being transported by oxcart to Kyoto and the ox stopped at Tsukushi (now Hakata), refusing to travel further. This was taken as a sign that he desired to be buried there. A shrine was erected at this location to honor him as a Shinto kami, or deity, also known as Tenjin. Many students petition him for success in their studies and to pass exams.