Natural farming: less is more and the value of complexity

Masanobu Fukuoka

“Lately I’ve been thinking that the point must be reached when scientists, politicians, artists, philosophers, men of religion, and all those who work in the fields should gather here, gaze out over these fields, and talk things over together. I think this is the kind of thing that must happen if people are to see beyond their specialties.”

-Masanobu Fukuoka,The One Straw Revololution

I’m reading the above book right now. It’s about “do-nothing” farming, more commonly referred to as natural farming. While mainstream agriculture employs methods of controlling the land, i.e. tilling, fertilizer, herbicides, and mono-cropping, natural farming is a method of allowing the land to develop a natural, balanced ecosystem in which it can thrive on its own. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a role; rather we have a more minimal role and can increasingly step back after we’ve recovered the land from the ravages of mainstream land management. See this video for the whole story.

Fukuoka, a former researcher of plant pathology, left his career after going through a period of depression to the point of despair and aimless wandering. When he finally returned home to take over his father’s rice and tangerine plantation, he had a thought that changed everything:

“In this world there is nothing at all. To understand nothing, in this sense, is to realise the insufficiency of intellectual knowledge.”

He goes onto say is that in western society, we seek specialisation, particularly in science. Take medical science: when people have something more complex than the common cold, they get shuffled around between the pathologist-radiologist-endocrinologist-urologist-neurologist-cardiologist-gastro-interoologist, etc. Despite the fact that the body is completely interdependent (most if not all organs are required to maintain a healthy organism), my observation is that we treat them as truncated mechanisms, generally speaking. Maybe not because we see it that way nowadays, but our systems for training medical professionals still look to be structured that way.

I’m thankful for medical science, and hyper-concentration on particular things has helped us better understand the natural world. However, it also limits us because the minute we figure something out under certain criteria, nature throws in a curve ball, especially in the less controlled criteria of Earth’s diverse environments. The things we study in the real world are ever-changing, but science is slow and methodical to respond, like looking at grains of sand under a magnifying glass for hours instead of just gazing at the entire beach and ocean. We also miss out on the wonderment of how complex it all is…

One of the main principles of “permaculture”, literally permanent agriculture or permanent culture, is observation without manipulation. It is recommended that in order to really create a truly effective land design, one must first observe the land through at least a full rotation of seasons, taking in patterns in their entirety, both small and large; animal and plant. By observing, we take in the big picture and start to intuit the interconnected system that makes the entire area thrive without misguided manipulation.

I’m reminded of another book I read on the true nature of economy called The Black Swan. The author postulates that predicting the economy based on controlled set of criteria (referred to as the bell curve) is pointless because the world is always changing. Wars, weather and what not have a major impact on economies.

“…but when (people) think that they are beginning to understand nature, they are on the wrong track. Why is it impossible to know nature? That which is conceived to be nature is only the idea of nature arising in each person’s mind.”

Observing nature is a very challenging thing to do, because we always get ideas. We’re clever in finding the easiest way to do things, but we don’t take into consideration that we don’t understand the entire picture, nor may we ever. By acknowledging that we really don’t know, we open our eyes as a child would see and observe what is actually happening right now, not what we proved over and over through scientific experiment conducted yesteryear.

Might want to ease up on the tilling..

I once watched a documentary of the American Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. The price of wheat during that time was more valuable than gold, and there was a rush to get rich from growing it. Many did get rich. Problem was, periodic drought occur in this region. When their crops failed due to no rain, the farmers kept re-tilling and replanting until the top soil literally lifted off the ground. Not good. I guess that’s what happens when we get carried away with a methods that work under particular circumstances, in this case drought-free weather. That same thought process could be applied to chemical fertilizers, which I’ve heard are increasingly ineffective. Same goes for antibiotics and flu shots, I guess.

I’ve really been into observing and not judging or drawing too many conclusions, but it’s difficult. My brain wants to analyse and make educated guesses about things. By acknowledging that I just don’t know opens me up to a world of ever-changing. Life is a film strip running forever. Our existence plays out on a film strip, never one second the same as the last.

The Edge
Fukuoka says that we have to intermingle our expertises and focus on the larger picture. Coincidentally, another concept of permaculture is observing “the edge”. The edge is the boundary where one particular environment that meets another. The edge is where a lot of activity occurs. When I was in England recently, I realized one night that I was on the edge of very different groups of people. While my edge is between those in tailored suits and those in vintage suits, it’s these sorts of combo’s that help me see the big picture. A bunch of microbiologists in a room will accomplish a lot, of course, but what if a philosopher walks in and takes a stab at a problem they can’t solve?

Complexity of nature and a complexity of people seems to make the world go ’round. We should listen to Fukuoka.


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