Green Reads: One-Straw Revolution
Masanobu Fukuoka takes readers on a journey through the processes of nature and explains the world through the lens of agriculture. It’s not just farming; it’s exploring, discovering, and losing oneself in the abundance and richness of Mother Nature. She has so much to offer, and this book only illuminates that, too often, forgotten fact. Fukuoka makes it forever more clear how little humankind, including himself, knows about nature, and how modern farming is steering society in a fruitless direction. He brings into question all efforts made by humanity.
Through the union of practical and philosophical analysis, this book has the potential to make anybody pause, reevaluate life, and rediscover where they, or where they want to, stand in the limit of human understanding. Fukuoka unveils the impossibility of complete comprehension of the processes of both humans and nature. All in existence is interconnected to such a degree that one cannot holistically describe a phenomenon of life, except by recognition of the impossibility. Life is essentially discovered as an endless gestalt, which orients Fukuoka’s conviction in a favorable light, the belief that all efforts made by humanity are futile and meaningless.
Fukuoka, nonetheless, in his youth contributed to these efforts as a plant pathologist. It was only until a life-changing realization, in the span of one morning, that the course of his life took an unexpected turn; he discovered humanity and its labors to be inherently fruitless. Being fed up with the direction of society, Fukuoka devoted himself to a life of agriculture; he concluded the best way to protest was to literally grow his message to the world. Some of the biggest names in the food movement today (including Frances Moore Lappe, Wendell Barry, and Michael Pollan) have acknowledged his book with admiration. Consequently, the one straw Fukuoka held in the name of Mother Nature has been,and continues to be, answered.
Shifting from books to bushels, 25-year-old Fukuoka practiced agriculture for the remaining 70 years of his life. He invented a form of farming he entitled “natural farming.” It is an organic farming technique as groundbreaking as his life is distinct. Through circumventing thousands of years of progress, Fukuoka has learned that the traditional and modern knowledge of agriculture is unproductive. His approach leaves the knowledge to nature, as it evidently has more experience with growing plants. He positioned himself as the student to the spectacle of natural processes occurring before and around him. Patient and observing, Fukuoka knew that he knew nothing, and let nature guide his course. He would ask nature in which direction to go by means of his agricultural experiments. Whether or not they were a success or a failure was unimportant; he would be happy because either way nature answered. It is by this process that Fukuoka realized natural farming. This type of farming does not spring from the limited knowledge of man, but by the infinite wisdom of nature.
Enraptured by Fukuoka’s story, philosophy, and technique, I am compelled to pursue natural farming. I looked into permaculture to discover if it is the same. Though some may say so, they are mistaken. While it is true that permaculture and natural farming share similar definitions, their underlying intentions are different. Permaculture is practiced with a human in command, with an attempt to fit nature into a desired shape or form. Natural farming is a confident surrender to nature through which the human is servant to its bestowed wisdom and crops. On the outside, permaculture may be mistaken for natural farming, but on the inside, they are of complete separate purposes. Fukuoka makes this distinction clear as he asserts, “[I]t is not the growing technique which is the most important factor [as it would be in permaculture], but rather the state of mind of the farmer.” Natural farming’s purpose is therefore to perfect the farmer. The natural farm that follows is just a result of his or her communication with nature through a pure state of mind.
As one’s mind purifies, unique, original farming techniques will unmask themselves. Fukuoka discovered that ducks can be used to control weeds and fertilize land. He had 10 ducks that would roam free in his rice fields, and by means of their meandering, weeds would be stomped, and through arbitrary defecation, manure would be proportionately scattered. This technique removed the burden of spreading fertilizer from the farmer. Even better, through spreading straw over the fields, and growing cover crops, Fukuoka was also able to remove the need to make compost, as the decomposition of the straw and cover crops became its natural source. The deeper into the book one reads, the simpler and easier the practices of natural farming appear. “Do-nothing” farming was coined as his method for this reason. Though it becomes clear that there is still a lot to “do,” when compared to conventional and traditional farming, natural farming reduces months’ worth of effort.
The yields of natural farming can also be much greater thanks to the fertility of the soil. Fukuoka mentioned, “If the harvest reaches 29 bushels [of winter grain per quarter acre], as it sometimes does, you may not be able to find a greater harvest if you search the whole country.” Opposed to modern agriculture, which reduces fertility of the soil, and traditional agriculture, which leaves it stagnant, natural farming in fact increases its fertility with each year. As we have witnessed in every forest, jungle, and valley, Fukuoka reiterates, “If nature is left to itself, fertility increases.” In this regard, the notion of applying chemicals, fertilizers, and the use of mechanized farming practices seems unnecessary. Nature knows what it is doing.
Every piece of land is unique, and has hidden its own equilibrium of natural processes. It will undoubtedly take many years to discover the equilibrium, but once elucidated, the farming workload becomes perpetually easier as one matures their methods. Natural farming is more of a long-term investment, rather than a short-term fix. Since we live in a society contingent on the instant gratification and endless want for satisfaction by its constituents, the long-term investment of natural farming may appear unappealing; people’s desires run rampant. Fukuoka says, “People nowadays eat with their minds, not with their bodies.” He mentions this disposition as a shortcoming to society, and builds on the need for a change in values. If people were able to part with the need to eat anything at any time, processes of society could begin to regress in a favorable direction. People could begin to eat a natural diet again.
The seasons need to be remembered. Eating local food in season provides for the most nutritious and healthy meals that could be attained. Our bodies have been on a path, evolving with nature and the foods gifted to us. We have disrupted this pattern with modern agricultural practices, and thus have jeopardized our health. Fukuoka elucidates the need for the whole foods nature provides. The alterations made to these foods have essentially disrupted the natural process of the joint evolution between people and their food. By making food more easily digestible (from brown rice to white rice, or grain bread to white bread), Fukuoka states, “The water wheel and the milling factory are doing the work of the stomach and the intestines, and their consequence is to make these organs lazy.” It is not only best for our health to eat a natural diet, but is necessary to maintain strong, active internal organs. The need for supplements sprung from the lack of nutrition provided by conventional diets. Through a natural diet, one could circumvent this need; eating whole foods in season can fulfill our nutritional needs.
Society is beginning to come to this realization, and with the growth of the food movement, there is hope to establish natural farming as a regular practice, and the natural diet as convention. The revolution Fukuoka began with this book will continue, though it will take time. Just as natural farming is slow and patient, the one-straw revolution may take decades to be realized. Still, as people continue to vicariously experience the revelation of Masanobu Fukuoka, and learn about the unparalleled potential of natural farming, they will join the movement. We are moving toward a healthy, more equitable future for humans and nature. Organic was one step, fair trade another; natural farming is the next.