Summer Readings & Screenings

‘One-Straw Revolution’ & ‘Tree of Wooden Clogs’
A still from ‘The Tree of Wooden Clogs’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

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.”)

Masanobu Fukuoka (Courtesy of NYRB Classics)

Though he often speaks in the playful tone of a wise fool, Fukuoka is, in the end, writing a manifesto—a statement of first principles upon which a new paradigm of life (the “one-straw revolution”) can be built. From his vantage point in the mid-1970s, he’s darkly cognizant that the world is living under the “shadow of a big tree”—that is, the risk of nuclear war and the disastrous environmental consequences wrought by the technocratic ethos of modern industrial nations. Lightning, Fukuoka prophetically warns, could strike at any moment. And the decades since have only proved him right: the time for meaningful action on climate change is almost gone, and, as Pope Francis reminded us in Laudato Si’, our world needs immediate ecological conversion.

Tony and Nicole-Ann, I’m eager to hear your thoughts. Did you find Fukuoka’s call to action inspiring, or were his constant polemics off-putting? Sure, there’s a beautiful simplicity in his rustic, back-to-the-earth way of life (the green grass swaying in the fields, the orange sun setting over the blue bay, those warm meals of wild rice and cooked vegetables), but he also warns that such close proximity to nature means hard work, and dealing with the bruises, blisters, aches, and pains that come with it. Did Fukuoka’s no-nonsense prose (and those striking photographs of him scattered throughout the book) make you want to grab a sickle and run off to inhabit your own mountain hut? 

***

Hi Griffin, Tony here. You’ve identified the most interesting, and philosophically provocative, aspects of The One-Straw Revolution. Throughout, Fukuoka praises “non-discriminating understanding”—an approach that refuses to parcel the world out into discrete categories (nature versus humanity, predator versus prey). Instead, it sees reality as an integrated whole best understood through intuition and instinct. Fukuoka admits that the discriminating mind—roughly speaking, modern science—has important things to contribute. But it doesn’t have a monopoly on truth, and it certainly can’t tell us how we should live our lives. Science can give us techne, a way of doing things. But it can’t offer us telos, the end towards which we do these things.

Fukuoka describes humanity’s instrumental relationship to nature: “People find something out, learn how it works, and put nature to use, thinking this will be for the good of humankind. The result of all this…is that the planet has become polluted, people have become confused, and we have invited in the chaos of modern times.” That was true in 1978. It’s even truer now. As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’, “Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.” Francis calls for a revolution in perception, a sacramental vision that sees the world as gift and treats it as such. Fukuoka calls for a similar revolution—not just in how we farm but in how we see.  

This all makes The One-Straw Revolution sound exhilarating—and it is. But it’s fair to say that, for stretches, it also can be boring. Because as much as this is an ecological-spiritual manifesto, it’s also a practical guide to do-nothing farming: what to do with straw before you lay it down in your rice field (don’t cut it!); how to prepare compost (don’t!); how often to weed (pretty much never!).

The writing is often dry: “Potatoes and taros are very strong plants. Once planted they will come up in the same place every year and never be overgrown by weeds. Just leave a few in the ground when you harvest.” When I got to a chapter beginning, “Extravagance of desire is the fundamental cause which has led the world into its present predicament,” my ears perked up. When another opened, “Next let us talk about growing vegetables,” I knew I had a difficult row to hoe. At such points, the philosophical harvest gets lost in the technical weeds—and I know I’m supposed to accept the weeds but boy, they get pretty thick.

If I found Fukuoka’s descriptions of farming occasionally dull, why did I find the farming scenes in Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs—an older peasant lovingly planting tomatoes; a man tossing hay into a barn—so beautiful? Partly because of the visual medium. Olmi composes shots so perfectly, uses natural light in such a painterly fashion, that he could make anything seem miraculous. 

Watching this film for the first time, I got the same sense I got from reading War and Peace for the first time: this isn’t art; this is life.

But it also has something to do with the film’s leisurely pacing. The Tree of Wooden Clogs follows a group of nineteenth-century Italian peasants as they work the land of a largely absent landlord over the course of a year. Plot-wise, things do happen in the film’s three-plus hours. A young couple court and eventually marry. Babies are born, men get drunk and fight, carnivals and peddlers and sickness come to the countryside. Most consequentially, a peasant illegally cuts down a tree in order to fashion a new pair of clogs for his son. The landlord finds out and evicts the entire family.

But dramatic events don’t make The Tree of Wooden Clogs a singular work of art. Rather, it’s the seemingly undramatic time we spend in its world and with its characters (played by nonprofessional actors from Bergamo speaking not Italian but their native Bergamasco dialect). We don’t just see that elderly peasant plant a tomato. First, we see him collect chicken dung for fertilizer; then, much later, we see him prepare the seedlings in a stable; then, later still, we see him plant the tomatoes (the camera focuses in on his dirt-stained fingers as he plants one, then two, then three); finally, we see him proudly bring the fruit to market.

Spending so much time in this world habituates us to its rhythms and textures: the songs the peasants sing while harvesting, the polenta they eat for dinner, the prayers they pray before bed and while working and when in distress. Watching this film for the first time, I got the same sense I got from reading War and Peace for the first time: this isn’t art; this is life.

There’s much to admire besides the film’s deep, patient realism: namely, its attentiveness both to the lives of poor humans and to the lives of poor animals—the cows and geese and pigs that sustain human life, often through their own deaths; its delicate treatment of politics (Marxist agitation exists on the periphery but never really enters the lives or consciousnesses of the film’s main characters); its complicated depiction of the Catholic church, which is sometimes a witness to truth (“We wouldn’t be here without miracles,” the village priest says during a homily), sometimes a cog in an unjust social system.

Nicole-Ann, were you as enchanted by The Tree of Wooden Clogs as I was? And is it even useful to compare a work of art like that to a manifesto like The One-Straw Revolution?

***

Tony and Griffin,

I also found The Tree of Wooden Clogs mesmerizing, and was drawn to its affecting depictions of peasant life. That cliché that the best art imitates life rang true here: the sense of pastoral verité made it hard to look away, and the film’s meandering pace, softly lit and painterly compositions, and endearing depictions of children all added to its charm. At the same time, though, I wondered whether Olmi treated his subjects with too much resignation, a defeatist acceptance of their strife. Tony, you write of Marxist agitation on the film’s periphery, and that class struggle itself does not enter the main characters’ consciousness. That’s true, but part of me wished that the peasants had staged some sort of revolution, an uprising against the daily injustices they face (the eviction scene was particularly haunting, and also maddening: a family loses everything—“the bread from their mouths,” another peasant calls it—all because a father dares to make his son a pair of clogs!)

Still from ‘The Tree of Wooden Clogs’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

This was on my mind as I contemplated how The Tree of Wooden Clogs and The One Straw Revolution work in dialogue with each other. Olmi’s film (at least on the surface) seems to indulge a depoliticized realism. In Fukuoka’s work, though, there’s a clear political dimension, a call to action modeled by the farmer’s life and words. Fukuoka stands up to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture in defense of his farming practices; he criticizes the government’s apathy about pollution; and he refuses to alter his crops according to the Ministry of Agriculture’s standards. Thus Fukuoka’s civil disobedience and outspoken resistance to a culture of material consumerism appears at odds, at least initially, with the peasants’ passivity in the face of oppressive power structures in The Tree of Wooden Clogs.

Still, you’re right, Tony: Fukuoka has his own blind spots. “The one who goes about his own business, eats and sleeps well, the one with nothing to worry about, would seem to me to be living in the most satisfactory manner,” he writes. But this leisurely lifestyle isn’t readily available to everyone, a point Olmi forcefully makes. (The long, slow scene on the river boat bound for Milan, where well-dressed bourgeois Italians eat sumptuous meals and lament the disturbance wrought by off-screen Marxist agitation, comes to mind). Fukuoka’s argument is more fundamentally anti-capitalist: the desire to reap maximum profits comes at immense human and environmental cost, destroying both nature and the human soul. But he often feels a little too taken with his own rhetoric and do-nothing lifestyle, risking moral complacency.

Griffin and Tony, you both mention Laudato Si’, and I think that’s definitely relevant here. Francis offers hope for a humanity lingering on the brink of environmental defeatism and despair: “All is not lost,” Francis writes. “Human beings are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” Olmi and Fukuoka have this in common: both are aware of the seductions of money and power, and both want a new start, less according to human willfulness and more in line with nature’s calendar. In different ways, each identifies a path of healing. For Fukuoka, it’s a return to natural farming, ridding even the most damaged soil of harmful chemicals; for Olmi, it’s something more—transcendent, or even miraculous, as you point out, Tony.

Yes, I longed for revolution in the film, an active class consciousness in The Tree of Wooden Clogs—without realizing that this sort of response might too have been counterproductive. After all, Olmi doesn’t downplay the presence of suffering and injustice—rather, indirectly, he asks us to reckon with the ways in which suffering is simply part of the fabric of human life. (The brutal slaughter of a pig, however difficult to watch, provides nourishment for the peasants.)  It’s only natural to long for utopia, a place where there’s no pain or injustice. But that’s exactly where the problem lies: our desire to control the world, to maximize profits, to cling to our own comfort and happiness, even to engender change on our own terms does more harm than good. Olmi makes clear that all life—even life full of pain and injustice—contains beauty, and is worth living. It’s when we try to possess it that we fail. And that’s what Fukuoka calls the true goal of farming: not growing crops but “the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” Revolution, then, starts with how we look at the world, and at our own place within it. Both of these works made me question mine.   

The One-Straw Revolution
Masanobu Fukuoka
NYRB Classics, $15.95, 224 pp.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs
Ermanno Olmi
Criterion Collection, $23.96, 186 min.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal. Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a columnist at Commonweal. Nicole-Ann Lobo is the Garvey Writing Fellow at Commonweal.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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