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.