Closer to the Ground: An Outdoor Family’s Year on the Water, in the Woods, and at the Table
By Dylan Tomine (Reno, Nev.: Patagonia Books, 2012, $29.95, 228 pp., hardcover)
Once a upon a time, Dylan Tomine, like the majority of us, was just another cog in the corporate wheel. He got up before dawn, rode an elevator down from his condo to an underground parking lot, and drove to his office through neon-lit lights.
Then, he parked his car in an underground parking lot, rode an elevator up to his office, spent nine hours pushing papers in a neon-lit room and drove home in the dark.
But one day, Tomine, his wife, Stacy and two children did what most people daydream about. They moved out to the countryside. More specifically, they moved out of Seattle and onto Bainbridge Island.
“Closer to the Ground” chronicles the family’s move to a rural setting where they grow their own vegetables and live off the land, or try to live as much as possible off the land by picking wild berries and mushrooms, fishing for salmon and digging for clams.
But the Tomine family aren’t eco-Nazis. They don’t condemn city dwellers. They aren’t even off the grid (the electronic one); they drive a gas-powered car; and if they don’t harvest enough food, they go to the local grocery store.
The most interesting aspect of Tomine’s family chronicles is that it gives a glimpse into what pre-World War II life was like for the Issei and Nisei — minus the rampant anti-Japanese racism.
Granted, Tomine’s family has it a little easier. They aren’t foraging for food for survival. Plus, winter clothes have come a long ways with all sorts of micro-fibers this and that. But the lifestyle of pre-war rural Japanese America comes through. The only thing missing is the self-built ofuro (Japanese bath) and an outhouse.
In Tomine’s case, the family goes hunting for wild chanterelles (anzutake), whereas the Issei and Nisei in the Pacific Northwest went hunting for matsutake and other non-mushroom plants such as warabi (fiddleheads) and even dandelions. But no matter what sort of wild mushrooms are being foraged, it seems human nature hasn’t changed. Oral history interviews have revealed that some Issei made an inconspicuous mark if he found a good matsutake growing spot and fiercely guarded the location, even from his own family members. Tomine and his friends seem to be practicing something similar.
When Tomine describes his family getting cold and dirty digging for oysters or geoducks, he’s also describing what the Issei and Nisei did before the war. The only difference is that the Tomine family uses what is described as a clam gun, a hollow metal tube with a handle on top.
Once the Tomine family brings the hard-earned oysters home, they eat some raw and prepare the remainder into the mouth-watering kaki furai or fried oysters, something a lot of readers may be familiar with since kaki furai is on the menu of a lot of local Japanese restaurants.
Since salmon is a huge industry in the Pacific Northwest, Tomine writes about the different types of salmons and the time of year they are the oiliest, something the Issei and Nisei would have known as well. He also describes how his daughter enjoys eating the salmon’s oiliest part, the kama or collar, an area mostly unknown to hakujin. Salmon collars, however, are commonly sold in Japanese stores.
Tomine, however, doesn’t romanticize this lifestyle. He shares about how his back hurts from chopping wood, how his hands go numb with cold from washing down the boat or how hernia-inducing it can be to patch a gravel road after a rain fall.
One of the biggest differences between pre-war life to that of today seems to be the increase in human-produced pollution, which have had an enormously negative impact on the natural environment.
Tomine, however, doesn’t condemn human intrusion. Instead, Tomine makes the reader care about our relationship with the natural world by describing such things as the joy of fishing with his children on their boat as they encounter seals and porpoises or the experience of eating thick, fat meat of freshly caught salmon.
Tomine juxtaposes these descriptions with incidents such as a project Seattle school children had done in trying to restore an urban stream for coho salmon. After the first rainfall, all the salmon that entered the restored stream bed went into convulsion and died. Water tests later revealed that run off from lawn chemicals and toxic metals from car brake dust had poisoned the water.
Tomine also shares about how wild king salmon are on the verge of extinction, and as a result, the law requires the release of wild salmon. Instead, they catch hatchery-bred salmon, which have been genetically modified so they are missing an adipose fin. A side effect is that these aqua-farm bred salmon are also genetically weaker.
The message, thus, becomes clear: The future of our children and our world will depend upon what humans do today.
“I can only hope that somehow through participating in the natural world, our need to protect it becomes more urgent,” Tomine writes. “Maybe understanding what we have, what we’ve lost, and what we stand to lose can spur us to action.”
Once in a while, Tomine also tosses in references to his Japanese American background when he writes about his grandparents and parents imprisoned in United States concentration camps during the war.
But Tomine does not dwell on being Japanese American or about the pre-war Nikkei community on Bainbridge Island. Rather, the larger, natural world, with the myriad of people who share it, makes Tomine a citizen of the world.