Veronica Shukla

Random Musings

The One-Straw Revolution: Part One

I first decided to read a book by Masanobu Fukuoka, because I knew that he used natural farming to raise grains, and I am interested in growing some grains. But it turns out that Fukuoka is a good author with whom to start my The Permaculture Pupil writings, because he used permacultural techniques without knowing it, before permaculture even became a word.

Before long, I realized that I had found more than I was looking for. Hidden in his words, without actually saying it, is a profound connection between farming and Buddhism. I had separately been practicing secular Buddhism and studying permaculture, not realizing, or even bothering to ponder, how they are connected. Maybe this connection is why I instantly became so enamored with permaculture.

Fukuoka opens the book discussing his “do-nothing” farming methods and what they yield. He does not till — hasn’t in 25 years. He does not fertilize and uses no machinery, no herbicides, no pesticides, and no compost. He does not hold water in his rice fields all season. He sows white clover along with his crops and allows weeds to sow themselves freely, although the ground cover fairly suppresses the weeds. He grows barley and rye alternately with rice. As soon as each grain is harvested, he throws the straw back on the field.

His yield is 22 bushels (1,300 pounds) per quarter acre. This is comparable to the best yields at a top-notch, modern agriculture-type Japanese farm.

He also has a productive citrus orchard and a vegetable garden within the orchard for his and his students’ consumption.

I’ve already discussed how he does it. It’s a simple, nature-based method that is only labor-intensive during harvest time. What he really wants to communicate is the why.

Fukuoka tells the story of his beginning adult life and how certain events lead to a severe depression. What snapped him out of the depression is a story similar to the Buddha’s.

After becoming very ill and fearing death (which he now finds to be a useless fear) he remained in a severe depression after regaining his health. After much time wondering about aimlessly, he collapsed at a tree and stayed there all night. In the morning, he was in a hazy state, when the wings of a heron snapped him out of it. His mind suddenly cleared with an epiphany.

Without thinking, words formed at his lips, “Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.”

“I could see that all the concepts to which I had been clinging, the very notion of existence itself, were empty fabrications. My spirit became light and clear.”

Not only does this epiphany sound similar to what happened to the Buddha under that Bodhi tree, but Fukuoka’s epiphany sounds quite like the Buddhist concept of emptiness, a concept that is quite difficult to grasp.

Alert and ecstatic, Fukuoka quits his job and begins his journey of spreading his new-found knowledge to the world. Only the world doesn’t want to hear it. The world thinks he is crazy.

One day, he was walking along a road and noticed healthy rice plants growing in a deserted plot out of a mess of grass and weeds. To him, it was proof of humanity knowing nothing. All of the modern science, all of the practices that were fundamental to farming looked as if they might not be necessary.

So Fukuoka moved out to his father’s farm to live primitively and test out this theory, hoping that he could use it to prove his philosophy to the world. He knew in his heart that nature does it best and that human intervention will foil her plans. He purposely neglected, and thus destroyed, his father’s citrus orchard.

He realized that the second any human intervention occurs, it needs to be maintained for the life of that plant or system, otherwise it is abandonment. Once a tree is pruned, it must always be pruned.

But if you allow nature to take her course from the beginning (in permaculture, this involves careful and intensive planning in order to create the best conditions for nature to yield us what we need) it is not neglect. It is natural farming.

Fukuoka asserts that the only reason modern agricultural techniques continue to be “necessary” is because the use of them has eliminated nature’s ability to do it.

These next few paragraphs are not from the book, but are a necessary elaboration of Fukuoka’s statement.

Insecticides kill not only the crop eating bugs, but also the beneficial insects that control them and help pollinate. Crop eating bugs are better able to recover from a spray. Some bugs will survive the spray, or more will come from elsewhere. They have plenty of food – a monocrop. Happy with all this abundance, they reproduce wildly, as any living thing does.

However, the insects that eat these crop munchers cannot recover so quickly. They have to hunt their food, and their food supply is in small numbers until it can recover. So the reproduction of the beneficial insects is much slower. They don’t want to make babies and then starve.

Before the crop eating bugs become numerous enough to create a boom in beneficial insect reproduction, the farmer comes and sprays again, further reducing the beneficial insect population and it’s food source.

There is usually little habitat for these insects at modern farms, to add insult to injury. Multispecies hedgerows and wild vegetation along creeks and back pastures are not common anymore as farmers try to squeeze yield from every inch of their land.

Eventually, the beneficial insect population diminishes to nothing and this is how you get crop loss due to insect damage that has doubled since the introduction of pesticides.

Tilling destroys soil life and leaves soil bare and wounded to be blown or washed away and to dry up. Removing all organic matter eliminates humus that holds water and feeds the soil life.

Monocultures exacerbate pest problems and prevent the benefits offered by pioneer species (i.e. weeds) which cover and hold bare soil, shading it and holding in moisture; fix nitrogen; accumulate nutrients; attract beneficial insects; and provide mulch, among other benefits.

All of these methods that were created by science to help improve yield create damage that necessitates the continued use of these methods. An expensive, deathly, damaging, and tiring cycle.

Fukuoka puts nature in the center. When we deviate from the center, we start to spin out further and further from it. At the same time, a centripetal forces tries to pull us back. But instead of going back to the center, to nature, we bounce back and forth, left to right, trying to solve each problem individually.

He says, and I agree, you cannot solve all the problems with separate solutions. Specialization only makes the solution more difficult to find. You must go back to the center. Nature is your one solution.

To conclude, I’d like to circle back to the Buddhist nature of the book. Fukuoka states, “An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.” A stalk of corn seen in isolation from nature is not the real thing, just as a human seeing herself as a separate entity from the rest of the world is not the real thing. The Buddhist concept of non-self may very well be the key not only to happiness but also to restoring the health and future of Earth.