“On this side is the wharf. On the other side is Pier 4. If you think there is life on this side, then death is on the other. If you want to get rid of the idea of death, then you should rid yourself of the idea that there is life on this side. Life and death are one.”
So came the words, stemming from a profound and startling realization, with which young Mr. Fukuoka, a researcher-turned-farmer, addressed the gathering at his farewell party. His friends thought he had lost his mind for quitting his job as an inspector at the Yokohoma Customs Bureau in the Plants Inspection Division. They believed he was was doing well. And he was. But then came a most singular experience, just the way those life-altering ones do, where he found himself suddenly faced with the ultimate questions of life and death, and the deeply mystifying difference between the two. Calling himself, “at root an average foolish man”, he spent the next forty years of his life at his one acre farm, trying to prove or disprove the answer he found at the end of his existential quest, which he later turned into an unmissable book — The One-Straw Revolution.
“In this world there is nothing at all…” he writes of his unconditionally heart-opening experience, “I felt that I understood nothing. I could see that all concepts to which I had been clinging, the very notion of existence itself, were empty fabrications. My spirit became light and clear… Everything that had possessed me, all the agonies, disappeared like dreams and illusions, and something one might call “true nature” stood revealed.”
From that point on, completely rid of the notion of separation between life and the constant stream of nature under it all, Mr. Fukuoka’s life and his eloquent experiment acquired a remarkable kind of spontaneity. He set out to apply his new found truth directly to farming, instead of studying it via plant-diseases. And if a book can be said to be a good book, it is because the reader must entirely be unable to separate the words on the page from his own inner experience of the writer. And this is exactly what One-Straw Revolution does. It takes one along with the direct and intuitive process that Mr. Fukuoka fell into, of being guided by and moving in tune with nature By a practice of patient observation of every step and misstep that took some years, he came about the same do-nothing method that the seventeenth century wanderer-poet-mystic, Matsuo Basho, intuited to be true.
“Sitting quietly, doing nothing… Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”
Grass indeed grew through the barren red soil of the mountainside, where Mr. Fukuoka applied nothing but the minimalism of mother nature herself. He wrote of his own process:
‘The usual way to go about developing a method is to ask, “How about trying this?” or “How about trying that?” bringing in variety of techniques one upon the other. This is modern agriculture and it only results in making the farmer busier. My way was opposite. I was aiming at a pleasant, natural way of farming, which results in making the work easier instead of harder. “How about not doing this? How about not doing that?” — that was my way of thinking. I ultimately reached the conclusion that there was no need to plow, no need to apply fertilizer, no need to make compost, no need to use insecticide. When you really get right down to it, there are a few agricultural practices that are really necessary.”
Non-doing also meant leaving alone those bits of nature that man considers to be the ‘other’ and, therefore, as something to be dealt with from the outside. It meant considering the “intricacy of insect inter-relationship”. It meant watching oneself watching the dance of seasons and frogs and spiders and leaf-hoppers. It meant waiting and watching for the right time, not on the clock, but within the flow of growing and being and dying and growing again. Thus, The One-Straw Revolution brims with mesmeric events, which seem like sparkling mini-satoris in the river of learning Mr. Fukuoka found himself flowing in. One of the most gossamer-like moments described is:
“Furthermore, there are four or five different kinds of spiders in these fields. I remember a few years ago when somebody came rushing over to the house early one morning to ask me if I had covered my fields with a silk net or something. I could not imagine what he was talking about, so I hurried straight out to take a look. We had just finished harvesting the rice, and overnight the rice stubble and low-lying grasses had become completely covered with spider webs, as though with silk. Waving and sparkling with the morning mist, it was a magnificent sight.
The wonder of it is that when this happens, as it does only once in a great while, it only lasts for a day or two. If you look closely there are several spiders in every square inch. They are so thick on the field that there is hardly any space between them. In a quarter of an acre there must be how many thousands, how many millions! When you look at the field two or three days later, you see that strands of web several yards long have broken off and are waving about in the wind with five or six spiders clinging to each one. It is like when dandelion fluff or pine cone seeds are blown away in the wind. The young spiders cling to the strands are sent sailing off in the sky.”
Students, hippies, wanderers, scientists, farmers and gardeners of all ages and from all walks of life come visiting from afar, driven to the one-acre farm field like moths to the flame of naked truth. Between bursts of laughter and learning, it is not only the four principles of the cycle of farming that he talks about with them, not only the surprising gift that ordinary straw is for farmers, but a sublime way of being. He sets in motion a thoughtful process of arriving together at “what the human goal is”. For, analytical thinking, bent on resolving the parts, instead of considering the whole, arrives at half-baked solutions to a question that belongs in the realm of wholistic, spiritual change.
“If we do have a food crisis it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire,” he writes, picking up subtly the last but the most important thread of the radical conversation that this book is. The path of spiritual awareness that informs everything anyone does, including growing food. Quite like a self-effacing but sharp Zen master, Mr. Fukuoka walks the reader through the two schools of thought, Hinayana and Mahayana as applied to natural farming. When looked at as a whole, it is about man’s relationship with nature. When man regards himself as separate, he becomes self-conscious and makes attempts by organic methods to follow nature. It creates a very tentative relationship. Whereas, when he abandons his own will to the that of the great will, nature responds by providing everything.
Here’s a passage from this book smelling of a time when scattered straw, sunshine and the simple rhythm of the season were the essence of prosperity.
“The other day I was surprised to notice, while I was cleaning the little village shrine, that there were some plaques hanging on the wall. Brushing off the dust and looking at the dim and faded letters, I could make out dozens of haiku poems. Even in a little village such as this, twenty or thirty people had compose haiku and presented them as offerings. That is how much open space people had in their lives in the old days. Some of the verses must have been centuries old. Since it was that long ago they were probably poor farmers, but they still had the leisure to write haiku... “
It is much more than deeply illuminating and gratifying to read The One-Straw Revolution, where Mr. Fukuoka seems to have stirred in many hearts a restlessness that is a precursor for change, for the right questions to be asked right now. It is an unlearning that allows one to breathe more deeply and fully.