Greening the Planet, Healing the Soul

Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Restoration, and Ultimate Food Security by Masanobu Fukuoka. Translated by Larry Korn. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 216 pp., $22.50.

This newly translated book, among the last writings of the Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, serves as an urgent appeal to correct the human errors that threaten Mother Earth. For all its urgency, though, this book also offers a sensible path forward in these times of concern for the future of the planet’s ecosystems. And in a deeper sense, the book completes the circle of Fukuoka’s own life work.

The high-yielding techniques of what Fukuoka called
shizen nōhō (natural farming) had as a foundation the Buddhist concept of mu, “nothingness.” Over time, that abstract concept was translated by Fukuoka in his fields and orchards into a “do-nothing” approach to farming: no tilling or weeding of the land, no pruning, and no fertilizer or chemical spraying. In other words, respecting and working with the flow and patterns of nature instead of against them.

A revolution in the field of farming — that is what Fukuoka called his method and its bountiful results. Yet his book
Shizen Nōhō — Wara Ippon no Kakumei received relatively little attention in Japan when it was published in 1975. It was only after Larry Korn, an agricultural specialist from the United States and then-farmhand for Fukuoka in Japan, translated the book into English and had it published in the U.S. a few years later as The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming that people in and outside of Japan began to take notice. (See book review in Kyoto Journal, no. 75.) Fukuoka today remains a guru in the global organic farming movement, not least in India, a country reeling from multinational corporate control of agriculture.

This new book, a translation of a work self-published by Fukuoka in 1996, marks Korn’s reappearance as translator for Fukuoka. Their collaboration is as effective in this new publication as it was in the original
One-Straw Revolution. Fukuoka’s voice comes through clearly and purely, inspiring the reader with the episodes and broader insights he shares from the years following his international exposure as an advocate for natural farming.

The once-unknown farmer/philosopher of the coastal town of Iyo, Ehime Prefecture, had now traveled to various countries to promote his natural farming practices and encourage others overseas to join the revolution. Countries he visited included Somalia, where Fukuoka went in the hope of helping to stave off desertification and drought. During a trip to the United States, he pointed out the impending desertification of the state of California and other regions of the U.S., and even took part in guerrilla actions with his famous “seed balls” — seeds of various plants packed together in clay and flung onto various terrain as a way to replenish the diversity of the land.

The way Fukuoka saw it, his natural farming practices, if implemented by governments in earnest and on a large scale, could help turn around the degradation of the land and restore the balance of nature before it was too late. And since these problems of ecological devastation and food insecurity were mostly caused by humans in the first place, it would be up to the human race to turn back to nature for the answers. “The ultimate goal of farming,” as he put it, “is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

On a personal note: This writer, having been inspired by Korn’s translation of
The One-Straw Revolution, made a pilgrimage of sorts to the Fukuoka Natural Farm in Shikoku in 2010. Fukuoka had passed away a couple of years before, but his spirit was very much alive and well in the steep mountainside orchards that he had planted many decades earlier. Citrus fruit, kiwi fruit and mushrooms were being packed at the farm’s warehouse and shipped out across Japan, each package affixed with a label bearing a calligraphic image painted by the late Fukuoka.

The times have indeed changed: Fukuoka’s seed-ball technique is no longer being used to grow rice and other crops, his son and grandson are now heading the natural farming operations, and neighboring Japanese farmers in the area seem to have finally gotten over their suspicions of Fukuoka’s unconventional but consistently high-yielding natural practices. A guest book in the farm’s office revealed that visitors from all over the world are still making this same kind of pilgrimage to the place where Fukuoka had spent most of his 95 years, the place from which he left an indelible mark on Japan and the world.

Sowing Seeds in the Desert offers much in the way of environmental and spiritual food for thought, so to speak, for the casual reader and weekend gardener alike. For those who will go one step further and start to plant seeds in the proverbial desert of a planet in crisis, the book’s appendices are full of practical steps to take. In the end, Masanobu Fukuoka reminds us that what is good for Mother Earth is good for the living beings that inhabit it — and for the healing of the human soul as well.

—Brian Covert