This is a book that is a lot about food, food chains and agriculture, but more about how we live on the earth and the nature of knowledge. It owes much to Buddhism, here is the moment of Masanobu Fukuoka’s initial enlightenment:
One night as I wandered, I collapsed in exhaustion on a hill overlooking the harbor, finally dozing against the trunk of a large tree. I lay there, neither asleep nor awake, until dawn. I can still remember that it was the morning of the 15th of May. In a daze I watched the harbor grow light, seeing the sunrise and yet somehow not seeing it. As the breeze blew up from below the bluff, the morning mist suddenly disappeared. Just at that moment a night heron appeared, gave a sharp cry, and flew away into the distance. I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of mu confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth: “In this world there is nothing at all….” I felt that I understood nothing. (8)
Nothing as a positive thing. The thing you reach when you realise how insufficient intellectual knowledge is, and struggle to see everything for what it, learn again. This moment so prized in so many cultures apart from the western, European one — and even then it is well know to some of the meditative strands of Christianity.
He left home to further this insight, share it.
At one stop, I saw a small sign which read, “Utopia.” I got off the bus and set out in search of it. …. (12)
Even in Utopia no one would listen to his ideas of nothingness, so he returned to his father’s farm to practice them. I remember reading about this book many years ago when I was in LA, trying to get it, not being able to afford it given its rarity. It’s affordable now, and quite awesome.
Over thirty years he has worked immensely hard to perfect a system that works with nature to grow as much food as any other farm with immensely less effort.
I fucking love that. You still work dann hard because it’s a farm of course, but the goal is always to work less, to have leisure, to enjoy life and live well and to leave the earth you farm better than when you started.
Masanobu Fukuoka notes that in the traditional farming year, the New Year’s holiday was three months long (though did women ever experience such a thing I wonder?). He talks about the village shrine, and the many faded haiku villagers had composed and offered. Because they had some leisure. Over time and ‘improvements’ the holiday became two months, and then two days. Poetry is no longer written.
Modernised agriculture has always taken a different route, an arrogant route that demands ever longer hours of work for those who can still make a living through farming, and in solving one problem caused a cascading set of others. And now?
The reason that man’s improved techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them. (15)
Ivan Illich could have written some of what follows, both books contain the same insight that beyond a certain point there are limits on how technology and specialist knowledge can improve our lives, and many points at which it can become damaging. Modern agricultural methods of mass production, mechanization, monoculture and chemicals must be among the best examples:
The path I have followed, this natural way of farming…was first interpreted as a reaction against the advance and reckless development of science. But all I have been doing…is trying to show that humanity knows nothing.
During the past few years the number of people interested in natural farming has grown considerably. It seems that the limit of scientific development has even reached, misgivings have begun to be felt, and the time for reappraisal has arrived. (19)
For those of who who research and write, we know that this should always be true and rarely is:
Before researchers becomes researchers they should become philosophers. They should consider what the human goal is, what it is that humanity should create. (74)
He writes too:
I think an understanding of nature lies beyond the reach of human intelligence. (25)
In the West natural science developed from discriminating knowledge; in the East the philosophy of yin-yang and of the I-Ching developed from the same source. But scientific truth can never reach absolute truth, and philosophies, after all, are nothing more than interpretations of the world. Nature as grasped by scientific knowledge is a nature which has been destroyed; it is a ghost possessing a skeleton, but no soul. Nature as grasped by philosophical knowledge is a theory created out of human speculation, a ghost with a soul, but no structure. (125)
The argument is not that we should stop trying to understand it or work with it, more that we respect its intricacies, approach learning from it with humility, never assume we can untangle all of the symbiotic relationships developed over millenia, and so tread lightly.
An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.
The difference in the results of respecting, observing and working with nature, and not:
Make your way carefully through these fields. Dragonflies and moths fly up in a flurry. Honeybees buzz from blossom to blossom. Part the leaves and you will see Insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, and many other small animals bustling about in the cool shade. Moles and earthworms burrow beneath the surface. This is a balanced ricefield ecosystem. Insect and plant communities maintain a stable relationship here. It is not uncommon for a plant disease to sweep through this region and leave the crops in my fields unaffected.
And now look over at the neighbor’s field for a moment. The weeds have all been wiped out by herbicides and cultivation. The soil animals and insects have been exterminated by poison. The earth has been burned clean of organic matter and micro-organisms by chemical fertilizers. In the summer you see farmers at work in the fields…wearing gas masks and long rubber gloves. These rice fields—which have been farmed continuously for over 1,500 years—have now been laid waste by the exploitive farming practices of a single generation. (33)
It is the same picture as that laid out by Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire and his other works, by permaculture and organic farming experts. It’s crazy and the toll on the earth, the agricultural workers and those who consume this produce is still not fully known. Except that it is deadly, especially for workers, the soil and the multiple layers of life that once abounded here — those things least valued by capital.
The Four Principles of Natural Farming:
- No Cultivation — no plowing, or turning over of the soil.
- No chemical fertilizer or prepared compost
- No weeding by tillage or herbicides
- No dependence on chemicals (33-34)
A rhythm of growing and planting that allows desired crops to establish themselves without need for weeding, grown amongst cycles of clover or other such plants grown to keep down weeds and the use of the straw after the harvest to build the soil and protect the new crop. Companion planting. Allowing monsoon rains to sit for just over a week to kill unwanted weeds, weaken the clover, strengthen the rice. The use of hardy plants without fertilizer other than compost (or ducks loose and nibbling the fields) to grow strong and compact and thus resistant to pests. Allowing the natural ecosystem to flourish that ensures where pests exist their predators do also. Careful attention to weather and soil and plants native to the site. Trial and error.
Instead we kill the earth and everything in it dead, and pour chemicals into it. We eat them on our food, lacking in flavour and vitality, often dyed and waxed and grown only for perfection of form. Its medicinal power is completely lost. The chemicals run off into our waterways and oceans causing blooms of algea, doing god knows what else. Compare these two ways and you wonder what the fuck we were thinking.
Not that Masanobu Fukuoka’s system to grow food with little effort has come easily — like all good things it has taken a long time:
It involves little more than broadcasting seed and spreading straw, but it has taken me over thirty years to reach this simplicity. (45)
And of course, he understands that all of this challenges power and wealth. He describes going to conferences and speaking about it and always and immediately being shut down – ‘To do away with machinery and chemicals would bring about a complete change in the economic and social structures.’ (81)
A problem cannot be solved by people who are concerned with only one or another of its parts.
To the extent that the consciousness of everyone is not fundamentally transformed, pollution will not cease. (82)
Much of the philosophy comes at the end, along with some of the most powerful statements. My favourite was: ‘they trapped themselves in the endless hell of the intellect.” (165).
All too familiar, and funny for that reason. The other two are just true and deep:
If we do have a food crisis it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire. (104)
It is said that there is no creature as wise as the human being. By applying this wisdom, people have become the only animals capable of nuclear war. (156)
Depressing. So I will end with an offhand report of a true wonder:
In southern Shikoku there was a kind of chicken that would eat worms and insects on the vegetables without scratching the roots or damaging the plants. (65)
I once accidentally let two chickens in our vegetable garden and they had destroyed the whole of it in about 2 minutes, so this seems to me a most mythical creature.
For more about no-dig agriculture, food chains and permaculture…