One-Straw Revolutionary – Review in Permaculture Design Magazine
This review was originally published in Permaculture Design, Issue #98, “Decolonizing Permaculture,” Nov. 2015; www.PermacultureDesignMagazine.com
A Way Forward
Review by Bryan Mets
Being a pioneer is not an easy task. For Masanobu Fukuoka, being the developer of Natural Farming meant working in relative obscurity for most of his life, misunderstood by his family and government officials. Over more than half a century, he developed a technique for harmony with the surrounding ecology through agricultural practices. Pioneers themselves, Mollison and Holmgren identified Fukuoka as someone who was already developing agricultural systems based on permaculture principles while they refined their design system. Similarities between the disciplines were emphasized by permaculturists; however, this in some ways created another layer of confusion about Mr. Fukuoka’s philosophy. In One-Straw Revolutionary, the first English language treatment of Fukuoka’s life and philosophy, Larry Korn makes a valiant effort to explain the Natural Farming discipline and disentangle it from permaculture and related practices.
The book begins with an autobiographical account of Korn’s relationship with Mr. Fukuoka and how he discovered Natural Farming. After working on organic farms in America and Japan, Larry found himself at Mr. Fukuoka’s property, where he stayed to learn and practice for two years. It is in describing these years that Larry’s voice shines most vibrantly, and his respect and reverence for his sensei becomes clear. The descriptions of life in Fukuoka’s natural orchard will transport you in space and time while filling in details that one may have missed in Fukuoka’s translated works. Readers familiar with Larry Korn will know it was in great part thanks to his efforts that those translations exist, and this book provides more details on his relationship to their development.
The second half of the book describes how Natural Farming relates to other systems, including indigenous ways and traditional Japanese agriculture, as well as organic farming and permaculture. For all the space devoted to comparing and contrasting Natural Farming with other systems, it is the descriptions in the first half, about how Fukuoka lived and interacted with the world, that most directly portray the way of Natural Farming. Readers who are unfamiliar with Fukuoka will gain some benefit from this part of the book, but overall the writing is not as dynamic and imagery not as fecund as it is in the first half. It makes one wish for more anecdotes from Korn’s time with his sensei—or the meeting between Fukuoka and Mollison at the Second International Permaculture Convergence, which would better draw out the differences between the two mindsets (See Permies Podcast Episode 007: Discussion with Larry Korn about Masanobu Fukuoka).
It is possible to separate Natural Farming from permaculture design, but, because of the influence Fukuoka has had on the development of permaculture, it is not possible to separate permaculture from Natural Farming. Natural Farming is comparable to permaculture in the wanted outcome, but differs in what it considers appropriate technique and level of intervention. Both want humans to live as part of the greater ecology, and both aim to regenerate ecosystems. Mr. Korn argues on behalf of the Natural Farming philosophy that the difference is in the mindset and want or lack of want for human decisions and control to play a role in the progression of the ecosystem. But it is also not true that permaculture design is completely about controlling outcomes, outside of the development of more ecologically sound systems. Because the design system is a set of guidelines meant to be applied appropriately, one may decide what is appropriate management. In theory, this decision is based on a protracted period of observing natural processes, which may often lead to similar techniques as in the Natural Farming way.
While Natural Farming has an individual focus, permaculture as a discipline promotes accessibility to large audiences with many contexts. Thus, the definition of appropriate technology and technique is broader. In many ways, the methods of permaculture design are used to draw inexperienced people to a fuller understanding of ecology. In Natural Farming, these understandings develop through the practice itself, and when they are understood, specific technique is no longer needed. This concept is echoed by a number of permaculturists who suggest the people that understand permaculture ethics the best have never heard of them. Fukuoka himself might agree, with his own acknowledgement of the Natural Farming way of traditional Japanese farmers.
Because the goal of Natural Farming does not align itself with the dominant demands of present culture, it’s difficult for many to understand even the beginnings of how to practice the way. Korn laments this issue, but it’s also part of the reason for writing the book. Whether reading One-Straw Revolutionary is enough to spur a new group of revolutionaries to take up the way remains to be seen. Fukuoka was able to do what he did because of his circumstances. He had a large amount of background knowledge from scientific training, he had some means, and he had a captive market in nearby Tokyo for his citrus cash crop. These are elements that are not foundational to the philosophy of Natural Farming, but necessary to understand. One cannot buy land, cast seed randomly, and expect a fabulous result. Even with all he knew, it took Fukuoka years to observe what nature was telling him would be appropriate for his land. This process takes land access and stability. Notably, Korn, many years later, is only now finding himself at a point in life where he can settle in to develop a Natural Farming system, though there is little doubt he has been greatly inspired by Fukuoka.
As philosophies often are, with Natural Farming, the reality and the ideal are caught in a dance that furthers the development of the discipline while creating contradiction and nuance. Korn is faithful to Fukuoka’s Natural Farming philosophy, but this does not mean there are no flaws in the conception. Both Natural Farming and permaculture looked toward indigenous cultures for examples of ways to live in harmony with ecology, but the lessons they derived from those cultures were different. Fukuoka sought as much as possible, through Natural Farming, to emulate an indigenous way of thinking and interacting with the world. Permaculture design, on the other hand, looked to see what lessons might be derived from these cultures to develop a more regenerative one.
Where Korn is skeptical that permaculture design can prevent the same problems that have developed in our current society, one might also be skeptical that indigenous people were, as a whole, sustainable in their resource use. Although their ecological degradation may have come at a far slower pace than that observed in our current society’s land use, hunting patterns and some archaeological records suggest that early peoples had a noticeable ecological impact. It is in part because of this issue that Holmgren spends time on numeracy in Chapter 4 of Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. By quantifying resource use, one is better able to understand whether one is within the land’s carrying capacity and what activities are appropriate. At the same time, emulating an indigenous lifestyle will greatly reduce one’s resource use compared to a contemporary lifestyle, and resource quantification is not a simple task. For many people, the most appropriate approach may be to live very much with a Natural Farming mindset. With the release of Larry Korn’s One-Straw Revolutionary, there’s a good chance more folks will find inspiration and direction to do just that.
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