One-Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka

review by Bob Banning

This book is well worth your while. It is likely to teach and delight you, and may sometimes provoke you.

As many readers of The Natural Farmer no doubt know, in 1975 Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka (1913–2008) published a book that would become an international best-seller and change how many people thought about and practiced farming. The book acquired much of its influence through the English translation made of it by Larry Korn with the assistance of Korn’s friend Chris Pearce and of Wendell Berry (1978); eventually it was translated into 25 languages. The book was entitled The One-Straw Revolution.

According to Korn, although he and Berry did their best to render Fukuoka’s ideas accessible to English speakers, through the years many have still stumbled because the act of translation alone was not enough to bridge the deep differences between Japanese and U.S. culture that are reflected in The One-Straw Revolution. In One-Straw Revolutionary, Korn aims to help readers better understand Fukuoka’s philosophy and his way, first by telling Fukuoka’s story and then by comparing his way—called natural farming—with several other, similar ways of farming.

Korn is well qualified for this task not only because he translated The One-Straw Revolution but also because he was a student and friend of Fukuoka who worked and studied on the sage’s farm, accompanied him on two speaking tours in the United States, and stayed in touch with him for 35 years. As a friend, Korn has drawn a compelling portrait of Fukuoka and his farm; as a devoted student, he has supported his explanation of the principles of natural farming with many vivid examples.
In chapter 1, “Mr. Fukuoka’s Story,” Korn narrates how his teacher’s upbringing and early studies led him to his discovery of natural farming. Like many of his contemporaries, he grew up working on his family’s farm. Wanting to learn more about farming, he studied agriculture in college and eventually got a govern-ment job inspecting plants and produce coming into Japan. Around the age of twenty-two he had an epiphany showing him “that nature was ideally arranged and perfectly abundant just as it was” and that people’s efforts “to improve on nature” did more harm than good. “Fukuoka believed that people would be better off doing nothing at all from the beginning”.

As it turns out, “doing nothing” doesn’t exactly mean doing nothing. Natural farming actually involves a lot of doing, in terms of having a very intimate con-versation with nature, which in its own way is very hard work, but a true labor of love (think of a good marriage). The doing that needs to be refrained from consists of analyzing (literally, “breaking up”) nature, addressing the members of its communities as if they can be understood apart from their communities, and then imposing our will on nature to get what we want through tilling, weeding, pruning, fertilizing, and actively killing “pest” organisms.

Fukuoka’s conversation with the nature on his farm involved “offering” many kinds of seeds to his land to see what the nature there preferred to grow. When nature answered, then he did exercise a kind of rhetoric, but only of a modest sort, so as “to tilt conditions slightly in favor of his crops”. In the meantime, a lot of nature’s answer was what his neighbors would have called weeds, as well as a wondrous diversity of wildlife, bugs, and microbes; to these he was happy to listen, without insisting on having the last word.

Fukuoka’s way of farming was, says Korn, not a method or set of techniques but rather a spiritual path, a path that reflects a number of principles of “basic Asian spirituality.” In Asian spiritualities, one sees all existence as one, sees all things as connected, seeks to become one with all things, and refrains from an-alyzing things and from discriminating, judging, or otherwise imposing one’s intellect and will on the world. When you see the world this way, then when you farm, you tend to be always asking what you can be not doing, because most kinds of doing quickly become imposing your intellect and will on the world, thereby alienating you from it.

In chapter 2 Korn tells how he traveled to Japan at age twenty-three, learned about the culture, came back to the United States and studied soil science, re-turned to Japan at the invitation of friends he’d made on his earlier visit, and eventually happened on the village where Fukuoka’s farm was.

In chapter 3, the author relates how, in 1974, he asked the veteran farmer’s permission to stay at the farm in order to work and study under him, was given permission, and ended up living and working on the farm for two years. Near the end of this time, he and Chris Pearce, a friend who was fluent in both English and Japanese, prepared a draft translation of Fukuoka’s book that would become The One-Straw Revolution.

In chapter 4 we learn how the book got published and led to widespread demand for Fukuoka as a speaker in the United States. Korn first showed his transla-tion to poet-activist Gary Snyder, Snyder sent him to Wendell Berry, and Berry helped Korn polish and clarify the writing. Rodale agreed to publish it.
Fukuoka had been known by hardly anyone outside his farm, but “after the book’s publication he was suddenly known and respected throughout the world.” The rest of chapter 4 narrates many of the places where Fukuoka visited and spoke in the United States. Everywhere he went, he listened and observed respect-fully as well as spoke. He observed from an airplane that much of California seemed to be a desert, and he developed a passion for desert restoration.

Chapter 4 concludes Korn’s telling of Fukuoka’s story. Chapter 5, “Indigenous Ways,” begins his comparison of natural farming with other, similar ways of farming. According to Korn, pre-plow, indigenous peoples (a few of whom still remain) were committed to community, balance, harmony, listening to and learning from nature, and sustainability and resilience. These were exactly the values Fukuoka was committed to, but he had to learn them as an adult on his own rather than as a child picking them up from his culture, and he had to use them to restore damage before he could practice them as maintenance.

In chapter 6 we learn that traditional Japanese farming, as practiced from about 1600 to 1945, shared with indigenous farming a commitment to protect and care for nature, but it still involved imposing human will on the land and still required a lot more work than natural/indigenous farming.

Chapter 7 assesses organic farming and permaculture and finds them more democratic than traditional Japanese farming, which was practiced under a totalitar-ian political system; nevertheless, they still involve a lot of work and the imposition of human will and intellect on nature.

The thesis of chapter 8 is its title, a quotation from Fukuoka: “Without Natural People, There Can Be No Natural Farming.” Many who are initially interested in natural farming, according to Korn, don’t really get it “because their interior landscapes have . . . been groomed to serve the objectives of modern society” including accomplishing great things” and accumulating unlimited material wealth in order to feel that one’s life is worthwhile. If you are in the grip of that kind of thinking, then you will mistakenly hope that natural farming will provide another set of techniques to help you do what you already want to do, whereas natural farming is not a set of techniques but really a spiritual path that leads you to want something different.

I keenly enjoyed getting acquainted with Korn and Fukuoka through their stories as represented in One-Straw Revolutionary. These stories and Korn’s many details about the beauty of nature on Fukuoka’s farm and elsewhere renewed my own sense of the goodness of spending time in nature’s company, which I don’t do often enough. Some of Korn’s assertions seem self-contradictory or distorted, but for me the takeaway is still this reaffirmation of the goodness of re-lationship.

What I found self-contradictory was Korn’s representation of Asian spirituality as reflected in Fukuoka’s farm. On the one hand, apparently, Fukuoka affirmed the need to see all things as connected, to see all existence as one, and to become part of that one, losing oneself as an individual in the One. But on the other hand, this seemed to contradict all the terminology of conversation that pervades the book. Repeatedly Korn represents his teacher as urging people to “ask” nature what it needs and then “listen” to nature’s answer; nature will “tell you” what you need to do to thrive together with it. But a conversation by definition requires two; it is an engagement of a One with an Other. Maybe Korn means that the conversation is only a means to serve the purpose of becoming one with nature, and when you become one then you no longer need the conversation; you just have wordless meditation.

I suspect that with more study and perhaps through conversations with adherents of Asian spiritualities (I am a Christian), I would understand this many-one dynamic better; as presented in One-Straw Revolutionary, however, it doesn’t make sense to me. Nor do I want to become one with nature any more than I want to be, literally, one with my wife. I want her to keep on being an Other with whom I can keep on having conversations that surprise and delight and teach me. Why would I want anything else from either my wife or nature?

What I found somewhat distorted were Korn’s accounts of all the nature-friendly ways of farming that are not natural farming as practiced by Fukuoka. I sus-pect that the nature with which “indigenous” farmers interacted was a bit more red in tooth and claw than Korn’s picture. I also believe that his representation of organic farming and permaculture is a bit simplistic. He claims that both of these farming ways entail an insistence on control. In my understanding, how-ever, both organic and permaculture involve a lot of respectful, affectionate listening to nature and asking what nature needs—as in a good conversation, friendship, marriage.

Furthermore, if we want to affirm “nature,” it seems worth noting that human nature is part of that. To me, to exercise one’s intellect so as to distinguish parts of things and better understand their relationships is a fundamental human impulse and not intrinsically evil or unhealthy. If such analysis is made to serve abstraction and control—if it becomes a monologue rather than a dialogue and one thus acts as a “dictator”—then no doubt the analysis has borne evil fruit. But dictatorship doesn’t seem a necessary fruit of analysis. What if I try to discern my beloved’s patterns of behavior and interpret her character so as to love her better? Wouldn’t that be both a kind of listening and a kind of intellection—and a pretty wholesome one?

And by the way, Wendell Berry has said some things a lot like that.

But read One-Straw Revolutionary for yourself so you can have your own friendly conversation with Korn and Fukuoka.