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How Homer got its own Peace Tree

Homer's Peace Tree, growing in the Homer Public Library.
Kevin Co
Homer's Peace Tree, growing in the Homer Public Library.

On August 30, 2019 former Homer resident Steve Yoshida, US Heiwa made the announcement “we now have a new Heiwa nursery in Homer, Alaska!” Kevin Co, who works at the Homer Public Library, created a Sadako display and agreed then to serve as the nursery curator. “Heiwa” is the Japanese word for peace.

I’m not sure what it was about this little tree that caught my attention for story this week. I’ve talked to Kevin about it before, months earlier but somehow this is the time for it to come up. Almost exactly two years since Mr. Yoshida gifted it to the library. I pulled out some of the books from the display and was reminded of some of the first literary lines from Eleanor Coerr’s Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, “Sadako was always looking for good signs.”

On August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber dropped the world’s first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the explosion destroying 90 percent of the city, killing 80,000 people. Amazingly, some of the trees in the city survived, the seeds from those survivors beginning a journey around the world many years later to be planted to serve as resilient reminders of the destructive power of weapons of mass destruction, and as reminders of the resilience of mankind and nature.

Mr. Yoshida was born right at this time and his heritage put him into early life in an internment camp. In his words, “Pearl Harbor happened and my family was interned. I was born in an internment camp. I didn’t have any memory of that, I was well cared for. So, I didn’t realize what had occurred until later on to see my parents struggling and suffering because they lost everything when they came out. Even after the war, they thought, “Let’s go back to Japan, we don’t want to stay in a country that has treated us like this.” But, they discovered they had no place to go back to.

After that early experience, he developed the perception that this really never should happen again and found service and support opportunities through the Rotary Club with a model of both service of self and world peace. He talks about what brought him to Homer, working on NOAA ships, considering the ports as relatively safe havens. He explains his misperception, that Alaska’s proximity to Russia in era of nuclear weapons made it the closest and most vulnerable target.

“This was no safe haven! We (Alaska) would be the first to be hit if there was an exchange. I discovered there’s no place to hide. And now, with the proliferation and the mega-tonnage of bombs, not only does it affect targets; it affects the whole world. It will have an effect on the atmosphere and any kind of a confrontation or exchange of bombs will be a disaster for the whole planet,” Yoshida says.

He goes on to talk about nuclear weapons and humanities in general. “Why do we have to have such terror? When we’re all just ordinary people, we’re like you, you’re like us?” What do we need these weapons for?” he says while explaining the kinds of conversations he had with friends made while working with the Rotary Club. So, out of these questions he tried to think of ways to develop a more peaceful conversation around the topic of nuclear weapons to develop a foreign policy that could be more passive. One of the places some of these topics came up were in the Rotary Peace conferences in both Honolulu and Hiroshima. Yoshida started to consider how to bring some of these ideas home to Homer, Alaska. It started with an introduction to seeds.

“After the bomb, everyone had predicted that there’d be nothing. That no life would come back for decades, most likely. The victims of the bombs would eventually die in short order from radiation; but in a few months, plants started to come back! Trees started to grow! There was hope for us, maybe we’re not doomed because of the A-bomb. It gave them a spirit of hope and survival and they started to bring back their city. They did it miraculously,” he says.

So, the Rotary Club, a coalition of Japanese and American Clubs started a similar project that they named “Heiwa,” it means peace. Yoshida started to help distribute these seeds in both Russia and Alaska, they had one group recently planting trees in Soldotna. That’s how the Homer Library got to be part of the story, Yoshida saw the exhibit that Kevin Co had put together in the library and introduced the seeds to Kevin.

Here’s where Kevin talks about his own history in the larger story.

“I think for me it all starts in third grade with Ms. Vixie in English class. She had a book called Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. The book is about a survivor, a little girl, just like any of us that had lived through it and got sick. The custom is that if you can fold a thousand paper cranes your wish will be granted so she decided to fold a thousand paper cranes to heal herself. So, all throughout my life, one of the things I have always thought about has been these cranes,” Co says.

He used that information to help teach Homer residents to fold paper cranes in the library. Also, while setting up the display he went into the stacks and looked for material not just about the war, but also healing and a way to make it real for people through art.

“It must have resonated with some people! This is how we met Steve,” Co laughs.

Here, Co talks a little bit about his own family heritage, Filipino, and that has contributed to transitions since the war. It has also included some time in Hiroshima and a visit there.

“At a certain point, my father was able to get a job in Japan so I spent my time with grandfather who had suffered greatly during the war in the Philippines. We went on a tour of Japan and went to Hiroshima. As a middle schooler, it left a really deep impression to be able to visit there and I hope we can continue spreading this message of peace through human stories,” Co says.

Steve enters the story again to talk about cultural diversity and culture sharing, to help people understand our own culture is not the only culture. One of the ways he’s found to do that is through the Sister City Program, he, and his wife Noko helped establish something similar for Homer with both Japan and Kamchatka in Russia.

“Noko and I were involved with the same idea “our worst enemies can be our best friends” if you come with us, we exchange our ideas, exchange your kids you can see how much we have to offer in culture, why did we ever have a war with people like this?” Yoshida preposes. “We had an Alaska Airlines Flight from Anchorage to Kamchatka at one time and we formed a sister city with the city of Lisava (sp).”

We turn back to discussion of the tree as a possible symbol for healthy conversation, conversation inspired by something positive rather than vulnerable, the role in general of what arts and humanities can offer not only in general but this tree for the Homer Public Library and what the library can offer our local community.

“I think of the tree as a survivor. It survived the worst that humanity could throw at it. It’s just a little thing that we nurture along. I think that’s the message the tree says to me and to share it is to show that we can survive this. If we can just nurture each other along, just a little bit. Just a little bit of water! All of us are here because of the direct sacrifices of our ancestors. We need to find places where we can plant these seeds and grow something better. I’m so happy the tree is big enough that we can put it out there where people can come see it. We’ve put it right on the compass rose of our map table to guide us a little bit and now all our book displays kind of radiate around that,” Co says.

Steve still enjoys his connections to Homer and an awareness of connections worldwide. Several times in the conversation, in the middle of it and in the end provides several ideas for keeping conversations going: youth groups, for one. We could start the educational process and see what happens in a couple years.

“Homer, to me, is an ecosystem that can teach the world about how fragile nature is. Homer, with glaciers and all the sealife is a great school to teach people that! It has all the ingredients to teach people about peace. Why it is so necessary to teach people preserve such a fabulous place! It involves not just the local efforts but global efforts because those will affect us, in time,” Yoshida concludes.

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