In this second installment of our summer conversation, we chat about Masanobu Fukuoka’s 1978 treatise on natural farming, The One-Straw Revolution. We’ve chosen to pair it with another agricultural classic, Italian director Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that same year. We’re joined by a special guest contributor, Nicole-Ann Lobo, Commonweal’s Garvey Writing Fellow. We hope you’ll join in the conversation on Twitter.
For our next installment, in two weeks, we’ll be discussing two works about the ancient culture of Armenia, Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook and Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates. And catch up our previous discussion, on the 1947 noir classic In a Lonely Place, here.
Tony and Nicole-Ann,
You may recall that before taking up the demanding responsibilities of a Commonweal editor, I spent a short time as a Jesuit novice. Our schedule was tightly structured, the weekly ordo laying out exactly what we were expected to be doing at any given moment: mornings for prayer, afternoons for classes, evenings for study and socializing. But we also had a lot of free time, which we could use however we liked. Our novice master, a wise and compassionate man, gave us just one piece of advice: “don’t make it a project.” That is, whatever activity we pursued, we should avoid the temptation of turning it into something strenuous and burdensome, another item on our to-do list. We weren’t supposed to acquire special skills, or achieve any preordained results—the point was to simply let go, allowing God (and not ourselves) to act. Many of us found this counterintuitive: we’d all worked hard to get where we were, and now all we had to do was...nothing?
A similar imperative lies at the heart of The One-Straw Revolution, the short, visionary treatise on “do-nothing farming” written in 1978 by the Japanese farmer-scientist Masanobu Fukuoka. The book is billed as a primer on natural agriculture—Fukuoka painstakingly shows us how to grow abundant, satisfying food, all with less physical labor and without the use of modern fertilizers, pesticides, or machinery—but it’s really much more. Alternating between short autobiographical anecdotes, pointed provocations (modern science is “an illusion,” Einstein a “disturber of the peace of the human spirit”), and a few illustrations (there are two detailed “food mandalas”), Fukuoka sketches an all-encompassing philosophy of human life that is at once aligned with the insights of the world’s ancient spiritual traditions and sharply at odds with the dictates of modern-day material consumerism.
Paradoxically, this compendium of ecological know-how, built on Fukuoka’s four decades spent quietly cultivating his small mountainside plot on an island off the coast of southern Japan, begins with a dramatic moment of unknowing. Anxious, depressed, and buckling under the pressures of his career as a plant pathologist, Fukuoka, in his mid-twenties, collapses on a hill above the harbor in Yokohama. He lies there for hours, in a kind of unconscious daze, until a heron suddenly sweeps above his head:
I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt I understood just 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…. My spirit became light and clear. I was dancing wildly for joy.
What follows is Fukuoka’s happy career as a “natural” farmer, his unorthodox practices the result of a patient strategy of not acting and not knowing. Of course, Fukuoka doesn’t really mean that knowing and doing nothing is what we should aim for, in farming or in life. Indeed, his pages are full of interesting observations on everything from the behavior of weevils and nematodes in pine trees to price fluctuations of mandarin oranges. What Fukuoka wants us to adopt is instead a kind of learned ignorance, a stance of intellectual and spiritual humility that acknowledges the limits of human knowledge. It’s what we might call “beginner’s mind,” an attitude of openness and non-presumption. (Wendell Berry, in his moving introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, simply calls it “reverence.”)