I read The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka not long after becoming aware of permaculture, a branch of ecological engineering that draws inspiration from natural ecosystems. His little green book forced me to reexamine my own assumptions on how I came to know the world around me. At times radical, counterintuitive, and unsettling, The One Straw Revolution is a fascinating account of one man’s physical, spiritual, and philosophical journey through life.
A plant pathologist by training, Fukuoka was confronted with his own mortality as a young man after surviving an acute bout of pneumonia. Recognizing the meaningless of life and living, he decided to walk away from his career, seeking instead answers to life’s big questions by cultivating a relationship with the living world on his family farm. In the ensuing decades, he utilized his powers of observation to learn from nature, refining a successful technique of “do-nothing” farming that defied many traditional and modern agricultural conventions.
The One Straw Revolution is difficult to categorize; the book jumps from personal anecdotes, to esoteric reflections, to technical advice on food, farming, and living. Kentucky author and poet Wendell Berry notes that perhaps it is this eclectic fusion of seemingly disparate topics that gives the book its power:
“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.” (Preface, p. xi)
The Limits of Knowledge
One of the recurring themes of The One Straw Revolution is Fukuoka’s exploration of the limits of human knowledge. He believes that most of what we define as knowledge can only provide a vague interpretation of the world:
“People think they understand things because they become familiar with them. This is only superficial knowledge. It is the knowledge of the astronomer who knows the names of the stars, the botanist who knows the classification of the leaves and flowers, the artist who knows the aesthetics of green and red. This is not to know nature itself – the earth and sky, green and red. Astronomer, botanist, and artist have done no more than grasp impressions and interpret them, each within the vault of his own mind. The more involved they become with the activity of the intellect, the more they set themselves apart and the more difficult it becomes to live naturally.” (p. 154)
To Fukuoka, the first step towards true understanding begins with the acceptance that humanity knows very little. Mirroring the words of Socrates, he recognizes that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” He does not suggest that we abandon the pursuit of, in his words, “superficial knowledge”, but instead asks the reader to realize that this singular pursuit to characterize, categorize, and define does not and can never capture the entirety of existence; it is only able to describe one reality out of many. American author George Steinbeck shares similar musings in The Log From the Sea of Cortez:
“For example: the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being – an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D. XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed – probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.
It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way.”
Problems occur when action is taken on the sole basis of the “least important reality”. Certainty and conviction in its rightness can render us dismissive of other truths that operate on different planes. In doing so, we can become unwittingly surrounded by “many lies”. We can come to believe that context, ethics, and other perspectives don’t matter or can be dealt with later, piecemeal, by other people from other disciplines. When we begins to act upon the assumption that what is unknown can safely be ignored, when we believe too much in our own cleverness, unintended consequences can ensue. Chemicals that poison our world, systems that breed poverty and inequality, the diminishment of food into a formless commodity: these are the logical end results of actions without forethought.
Too Much Doing
“How about not doing this? How about not doing that?”- that was my way of thinking” (p.15).
Fukuoka’s worldview is strongly rooted in Zen Buddhism and Taoism; he believes that the core problems seen in modern farming and of society in general is caused by too much doing:
“I believe that even “returning to nature” and anti-pollution activities, no matter how commendable, are not moving toward a genuine solution if they are carried out solely in reaction to the overdevelopment of the present age.” (p.21)
Fukuoka states that intentions matter. His advice to us is that instead of busying ourselves to devise new ways to dig ourselves into a deeper hole, we should stop and question why we are in the hole in the first place. In his opinion, since doing resulted in the mess we’re in, more doing resulting in band-aid solutions will not save us. Only through slowing down, reflection, and walking a different path does he believe we will find a way out of the ecological crisis. Only when we begin to channel our intelligence and energies towards engaging with things that really matter will we find meaning and lasting joy. For him, this journey begins with cultivating a healthy relationship with food and working with nature in ways that nourishes the body and the soul.
Body and Mind: Principles of Permaculture
Throughout the book, Fukuoka speaks of his farming technique as a “non-doing” method. This does not mean he simply lies about and leaves farming completely to the whims of nature. (He attempts to leave nature be on with his father’s orchard early on and returns to catastrophe). He understands that work must be done, but objects to doing unnecessary and thoughtless work. He rejects the top-down imposed solutions of modern agribusiness as well as the backbreaking practices associated with traditional agriculture. Instead, he turns to nature to shoulder much of the burden of producing food. Through deep appreciation and observation, Fukuoka constantly seeks to reduce and simplify the process of farming until only the critical tasks remain. By understanding when to let nature do its work and when to intervene, he is able to achieve equivalent or superior yields of food production with little external input and without depleting soil fertility. By adopting an agroecological approach that engages both body and mind, Fukuoka is able to find fulfillment in the meaningful tasks while having enough time left over to live a modest, comfortable, and stimulating life.
This mindset to farming is one of the major tenets of permaculture. Bill Mollison, one of the founders of the movement, describes Fukuoka’s approach as foundational to the discipline:
“Fukuoka, in his book the One Straw Revolution, has perhaps best stated the basic philosophy of permaculture. In brief, it is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating elements as a single-product system. I have spoken, on a more mundane level, of using aikido on the landscape, of rolling with the blows, turning adversity into strength, and using everything positively. The other approach is to karate the landscape, to try to make it yield by using our strength, and striking many hard blows. But if we attack nature we attack (and ultimately destroy) ourselves.” (Introduction to Permaculture, p. 1)
Through lived experience and deep observation, Fukuoka sought to understand and optimize the connections between individual organisms and the overall agricultural system. To him, a chicken is not only an end product, but a living organism with its own characteristics, tendencies, needs, and behaviour that should be fully integrated into a greater living system:
Being The Change
What I admire about Fukuoka is that he fully embraces the cliché that environmentalists so often espouse but do not practice: Being the change we wish to see in the world. He stepped away from his scientific career in order to practice what he preached. Throughout The One Straw Revolution, he honestly recounts his experiences, from tremendous successes to crushing failures, all the while attempting to refine his farming methods and his worldview, understanding that learning from nature is a process that will never be finished. It is because of this lifelong dedication to the pursuit of meaning and purpose that he speaks to me from a position of authority.
For me, The One Straw Revolution is also a powerful story because both hope and solutions are found within its pages. In an age of fear and cynicism, Fukuoka’s ruminations offer an alternative way of negotiating with the world. By embodying the change he wished to see and wrestling with difficult truths, he discovers an enriching and fulfilling life through the cultivation of a more harmonious relationship with the living world. Author Frances Moore Lappé speaks of the importance of such a hopeful story:
“So my wish is that the reissue and rediscovery of this little, hopeful, almost playful book will help us in the twenty-first century shed our fear of lack, fear that has fueled the drive for control over nature through formulaic answers. My wish is that Fukuoka’s insights live on, perhaps more potent now, as part of an ecology of liberation, not only of the earth but of our fear-clutched psyches as well.” (Introduction, p. x)
There are many more thought-provoking passages contained within this thin tome. For me, the power of One Straw Revolution lies in Fukuoka’s ability to convey both insightful knowledge and lived experience, speaking as a farmer and a philosopher. Practical and mysterious, amusing and meditative, written with wonder and joy, sadness and pain, The One Straw Revolution speaks honestly and deeply to me, even if I may not agree with some of the assumptions and assertions of the author. I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes from the book that sheds light on his personal mantra of “Right food, right awareness, right action”:
“When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings” (p.119).
Fukuoka, Masanobu. (1978). The One-Straw Revolution. Translated from Japanese by Larry Korn, Chris Pearce, and Tsune Kurosawa. USA: The New York Review of Books, 2009.
Mollison, Bill and Mia Slay, Rena. (1991). Introduction to Permaculture. Australia: Tagari Publications, 2002.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2006.
Steinbeck, John. (1941). The Log from the Sea of Cortez. New York: Penguin Group (USA), 1995.