Thursday, February 19, 2009

One-Straw - Preface


Readers who expect this to be a book only about farming will be surprised to find that it is also a book about diet, about health, about cultural values, about the limits of human knowledge. Others, led to it by hearsay of its philosophy, will be surprised to find it full of practical knowhow about growing rice and winter grain, citrus fruit, and garden vegetables on a Japanese farm.

It is exactly because of such habitual expectations— because we have learned to expect people to be specialists and books to have only one subject—that we are in need of The One-Straw Revolution. This book is valuable to us because it is at once practical and philosophical. It is an inspiring, necessary book about agriculture because it is not just about agriculture.

Knowledgeable readers will be aware that Mr. Fukuoka's techniques will not be directly applicable to most American farms. But it would be a mistake to assume that the practical passages of this book are worthless to us for that reason. They deserve our attention because they provide an excellent example of what can be done when land, climate, and crops are studied with fresh interest, clear eyes, and the right kind of concern. They are valuable to us also because they are suggestive and inspiring. Any farmer who reads them will find his thoughts lured repeatedly from the page to his own fields, and from there, making connections, to the entire system of American agriculture.

Like many in this country, and sooner than most, Mr. Fukuoka has understood that we cannot isolate one aspect of life from another. When we change the way we grow our food, we change our food, we change society, we change our values. And so this book is about paying attention to relationships, to causes and effects, and it is about being responsible for what one knows.

Those who are familiar with the literature of organic farming will see the similarities between Mr. Fukuoka's career and that of Sir Albert Howard, the founder of the science of organic agriculture in the West. Like Howard, Mr. Fukuoka started as a laboratory scientist, and, like him, soon saw the limitations of the laboratory. Howard moved his work from the laboratory to the farm, and so changed his life, when he realized that responsibility required him to take his own advice before offering it to other people. Mr. Fukuoka determined his own course in the same way: "Eventually I decided to give my thoughts a form, to put them into practice, and so to determine whether my understanding was right or wrong. To spend my life farming . . . this was the course upon which I settled." And he says: "Instead of offering a hundred explanations, would not practicing this philosophy be the best way?" When the specialist decides to take his own advice, and begins to do as he says, he breaks down the walls of his specialization. We listen to him then as we could not before, because he speaks with authority—not out of knowledge only, but out of knowledge and experience together.

When Mr. Fukuoka speaks of what he calls his "do-nothing" methods of farming, a Westerner might appropriately be reminded of St. Matthew 6:26: "Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." The purpose in both instances, I take it, is to warn us of our proper place in the order of things: we did not make either the world or ourselves; we live by using life, not by creating it. But of course a farmer cannot farm without work any more than a bird can find food without searching for it, a fact that Mr. Fukuoka acknowledges with characteristic good humor: "I advocate 'do-nothing' farming, and so many people come, thinking they will find a Utopia where one can live without ever having to get out of bed. These people are in for a big surprise." The argument here is not against work; it is against unnecessary work. People sometimes work more than they need to for the things that they desire, and some things that they desire they do not need.

And "do-nothing" also refers to the stance that common sense is apt to take in response to expert authority: '"How about not doing this? How about not doing that?'—that was my way of thinking." This is the instructive contrariness of children and certain old people, who rightly distrust the "sophistication" that goes ahead without asking "What for?"

Mr. Fukuoka is a scientist who is suspicious of science—or of what too often passes for science. This does not mean that he is either impractical or contemptuous of knowledge. His suspicion, indeed, comes from his practicality and from what he knows. Like Sir Albert Howard, Mr. Fukuoka condemns the piecemealing of knowledge by specialization. Like Howard, he wishes to pursue his subject in its wholeness, and he never forgets that its wholeness includes both what he knows and what he does not know. What he fears in modern applied science is its disdain for mystery, its willingness to reduce life to what is known about it and to act on the assumption that what it does not know can safely be ignored. "Nature as grasped by scientific knowledge," he says, "is a nature which has been destroyed; it is a ghost possessing a skeleton, but no soul." Such a passage will recall the similar mistrust voiced in our own tradition in these lines by Wordsworth:

Our meddling intellect

Misshapes the beauteous forms of things—

We murder to dissect.

Mr. Fukuoka's is a science that begins and ends in reverence—in awareness that the human grasp necessarily diminishes whatever it holds. It is not knowledge, he seems to say, that gives us the sense of the whole, but joy, which we may have only by not grasping. We find this corrroborated in certain passages in the Gospels, and in William Blake:

He who binds to himself a joy

Doth the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity's sunrise.

It is this grace that is the origin of Mr. Fukuoka's agricultural insights: "When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the effort to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized."

And this "natural" farming that has its source and end in reverence is everywhere human and humane. Humans work best when they work for human good, not for the "higher production" or "increased efficiency" which have been the nearly exclusive goals of industrial agriculture. "The ultimate goal of farming," Mr. Fukuoka says, "is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection- of human beings." And he speaks of agriculture as a way: "To be here, caring for a small field, in full possession of the freedom and plentitude of each day, every day—this must have been the original way of agriculture. An agriculture that is whole nourishes the whole person, body and soul. We do not live by bread alone.

- Wendell Berry

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