Last year there were some plums and apples growing on a plot of land in Seattle that was slated for imminent development.
That might be one of the least surprising sentences you can write in Seattle. Such goings on are entirely inevitable in a city of constant construction that used to be an orchard. The fact that the fruit growing on those trees was nearly pest-free, however, was highly unusual.
Those beautiful fruits belonged to heritage varieties of apples and plums, trees that were likely planted in the late 1930s by Japantown immigrants. The trees are a living remnant of Nihonmachi, a neighborhood that thrived as the heart of Seattle’s Japanese American community until World War II. In the 1940’s, many members of the Nihonmachi community were forcibly removed and interned, leading to redevelopment, urban renewal, and the ultimate loss of much of the Nihonmachi legacy.
Seattle Green Spaces Coalition came across the apple and plum trees last fall and asked City Fruit to be involved in helping to preserve this thriving remnant of the Nihonmachi legacy. The collaboration quickly grew to include all sorts of Seattle community members, from arborists to professors, to scheme and dream up a preservation strategy.
Though there is no way to successfully transplant a nearly century-old tree, branches of apples and plums can be grafted onto new rootstock, preserving the genetic identity of the original tree. A particularly nimble local arborist climbed the gnarled trees to harvest scion wood from their supple new growths. The harvest resulted in 50 “baby” Nihonmachi tree grafts, crafted by City Fruit’s own Master Fruit Tree Stewards. These new little clones have since taken root in community spaces all around the city, focusing, of course, on parks in and around Japantown.
I’m always searching for ways to make food waste feel more real: stories that go beyond numbers and statistics to help me feel the weight of an apple being dropped into a compost bin; colors in the broader picture we paint as a city of what food waste is, what it means to us. For me, the Nihonmachi trees have provided an opportunity to reassess what it means to save Seattle’s apples.
City Fruit’s Save Seattle’s Apples campaign is an endeavor to prevent food waste in this city. We’ve looked at the food waste hierarchy, trying to plug in at every level: reducing food waste by preventing pests from making perfectly consumable fruits unsavory, feeding people by still turning those previously unappetizing, pest-y fruits into cider, feeding livestock by donating pressed apples to local chickens and goats. Lurking behind that pyramid though, is the question of how to get people (myself included) to use it, how to convince ourselves that the effort (because it often is a lot of work) is worth it. When faced with a blooming apple tree, why bother with the rigmarole of netting and bagging and pressing and finding a neighbor who’s jonesing for some chicken feed?
When that tree is a Nihonmachi apple, the reasons to prevent food waste—to eke every last drop out of those historic fruits—are suddenly so clear. Respecting and honoring the legacy of the Japantown immigrants who planted those original apples and plums makes jumping up on a ladder with an apron full of baggies and twist ties the most obvious thing in the world.