The One-Straw Revolution
New York Review Books, New York, 2009, 184 pp.
Reviewer: Peter Musolf
I’m not sure what books, or how many, farmers read. Even if they’re headphoning East of Eden in the cockpit of the giga reaper or Faust at the crank of the biodynamic churn, probably not as many as they would like. The One-Straw Revolution has a good deal to say to any agriculturalist, but it makes plain most farmers are too busy farming for any pleasure as bucolic as the quiet contemplation of print. For the most part, then, it is Michael Pollan readers and knee-chair agrarians who will find their fodder in this green movement bible, which first appeared in 1978. Nevertheless, Fukuoka’s notion of natural farming has always exerted an inextinguishable fascination for a small but feisty group of unorthodox farmers around the world, and his farm has even become a Mecca of sorts for them. Our readers will be interested to hear that a good number of organic or biodynamic grapegrowers and winemakers know Fukuoka and are adapting his ideas. Chewing is required, but ultimately this timely eco-pastoral is a goji berry of nutritious ideas on low-input farming and spiritual well-being.
By the time The One-Straw Revolution was first published modern farming had already grown madly complex. In Japan and the West alike, for each new hybrid a new protocol of fertilization and disease and pest control evolved. Expenses ballooned, the waxing mass of a farmer’s tractor a rough gauge of the ever more staggering burden of a farmer’s debt. Get big or get out became the mantra of survival, self-delusion on a stick, as it turned out, with family farms plummeting to oblivion and labor efficiency as elusive as ever. In Fukuoka’s words, the farmer had become the samurai of many strokes, countering the enemy not with finesse but with a spasmodic flurry of badly aimed slash and poke. This book’s surprising, Zen-influenced response, however, is not to drill farmers into one-stroke mastery (conventional organics) but, instead, to teach them to drop the combat stance entirely and become farmers of no strokes at all. What is this? How did Fukuoka arrive at this idea?
Leaving a career as a microbiologist in Yokohama and returning to his father’s farm in Shikoku in 1938, Fukuoka (1913–2008) did not plan to reform farming. His purpose was to express through agriculture a crushing realization that had come upon him during an acute illness: “In this world there is nothing at all.” His turn to farming was coincidental, a means, he tells us, to practice what he had been fruitlessly preaching, the message that human action is useless, without meaning, to prove, in other words, that by doing nothing, he could be at least as productive a farmer as those wearying themselves to the bone. And thus unconsciously sprouted the seeds of Do-Nothing Agriculture.
His green laboratory was an orchard of tangerine trees and a double-cropped field of rice and barley. After decades of work and frequent, severe setbacks, Fukuoka ultimately had good reason to believe: “When you get right down to it, there are few agricultural practices that are really necessary.” True to his words, Fukuoka did not cultivate (it stirs up weed seeds), and used neither chemical fertilizer, prepared compost, or any chemical means of weed, pest, or disease control. In this way, he eliminated most of the moneyand labor-hogging practices of his farm. Aeration was achieved through cover crops and microorganisms. Mulch, short-term flooding, and careful timing of seeding to give his rice and barley a headstart were the foundation of his weed strategy, a program of avoidance and toleration, not eradication.
Natural farming, however, is not abandonment, and there are some unavoidable dosomethings that must occur. Sowing takes place by making and scattering homemade orbs of dirtcovered seeds, unpalatable to birds. These are strewn by hand into a field spread with the straw of the preceding harvest, another barrier to feathered marauders. (This worthless straw, which Fukuoka wished would cover every barren winter field, is the source of his book’s title.) For fertilizer, a thin layer of chicken manure. Fukuoka had much patience for smallish problems, relying on strong crops and a healthy, harmoniously balanced natural environment to solve the bigger ones. There was no tractor on his farm, and his fields have not felt the plow in over thirty years. With time, things became easier, and he achieved top yields. Odd to say, but his success was not the result of farming but of creating and restoring or, perhaps most accurately, of standing back and watching his land’s inherent natural balance reveal its healthy, verdant face.
Fukuoka was an inveterate experimenter, and he was a competent, experienced specialist in plant diseases. Yet despite this familiarity with scientific habit, his ideas run in the opposite direction: “all I have been doing, farming out here in the country, is trying to show that humanity knows nothing.” His glowing tangerines, his brimming bushels of grain were something like the coincidental product of a strange, negative epistemology, demanding as a prerequisite for success the admission of ignorance, the jettisoning of any thought of conquest or improving on nature. The spiritual yield of such thinking is also rich. “No matter how the harvest will turn out, whether or not there will be enough food to eat, in simply sowing seed and caring tenderly for plants under nature’s guidance there is joy.” Can you eat joy? No, but if you are not content, Fukuoka makes us question, are you truly alive? “Living is no more than the result of being born,” he writes memorably. “[W]hatever people think they must eat to live is nothing more than something they have thought up. The world is set up in such a way that if people will set aside their human will and be guided instead by nature there is no reason to expect to starve.”
Why isn’t contemporary small-scale, organic farming, or its more radical sibling biodynamics, the fulfillment of Fukuoka’s ideal? Despite the admirable aims of sustainable farmers, the returning health of their land, the flavor and nutrition of their produce, their farming is technical, task heavy, and to differing degrees interventionist, knowledge-based rather than intuitive. Some committed biodynamists, including an Oregon farming acquaintance, admit feeling harrassed by the relentless demands of the cosmic clock. My friend’s lusty wine grape vineyards are as demanding as any zombified Central Valley raisin factory. Fukuoka’s challenge was originally an inspiration to green farmers. Today it also reads as if it were a criticism of them.
One farmer who does manage to squeeze in some reading is Anselme Selosse, the leading light of the grower-maker group in Champagne. In the transition to an individualized, less mechanistically applied biodynamics, Fukuoka has been Selosse’s guide. Speaking with a Japanese wine writer, Selosse summarized Fukuoka’s philosophy this way: “Know what you should not do before you know what you should do.”
Selosse’s vineyards stand out from those of his neighbors because of their between-row cover crop. He does not compost, having developed in the wake of reading The One-Straw Revolution a vision of his vineyards as small forests, each complete into itself and needing nothing from the outside to thrive. Nor does he use the conventional biodynamic preparations, favoring an unusual application of snail excretion to the standard horn silica, silica being a mineral strange to the local environment. He has also stopped following the biodynamic calendar, observing the vineyard with his own eyes and accordingly acting … or not. “L’homme doit accompagner sans imposer,” he says.
Similarly, Selosse’s cellar practice is noninterventionist, depending on long, patient fermentation in barriques, a vivid image of Fukuoka’s contemplative doing and the very model of the hidden development of the inner life, the unconscious of the wine. Riddling and disgorgement are by hand. For Selosse, the identity of the wine is created in the vineyard. “En vinification,” he says, “on peut que perdre, cacher ou détruire.” This is a rebellious stance in a wine region famous for the precise order of its fields, and for micromanaging its product from grape to glass. But the upshot of Selosse’s approach is wines alive with a rare, delicious mojo.
Selosse’s passion for Fukuoka culminated in a visit to Fukuoka’s home in Japan in 2006. Fukuoka was ill, having lost the use of his legs, and the ninety-minute meeting took place with the master on his futon and the visitor listening on folded knees. A translator did his utmost to allow the two to interact. Fukuoka spoke of the poems he’d been writing for the past year and the photos he’d taken to go with them. He told of the success his seedballs have had in India. The entire time, though, he was really just sowing ideas in Selosse’s head, who left the meeting deeply moved. People, he had realized “are just a part of nature, and we should think about what we can do within nature. Fukuoka’s death was approaching. But I could feel something from him. It might have been something like Zen enlightenment. I felt as if I had received a mission.”
Absent from this new printing is 無, the Chinese character for nothingness embossed on the cover of the original. This is too bad because mu, as it is read in Japanese, is the sharpest summary of Fukuoka’s thought, in which humanity and nature are equally without meaning. It is an important precept, one which the great French poet Mallarmé, in a Fukuokan mood, once applied to champagne, to life: “Rien cette écume, vierge vers; À ne désigner que la coupe.” (This foam is nothing, virginal verse, designating nothing but the cup.) And it is one worth contemplating when we sip the liquid joy of Anselme Selosse’s beautifully pointless wine.