There is no big or small on the earth,
no fast or slow in the blue sky.
– Masanobu Fukuoka
In June 2019 I was invited to spend a month at CACiS, a centre for contemporary art and sustainability in Catalonia, Spain, to research and develop new work inspired by the thinking of natural farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka.
I had come here with a lot of plans but the first day I let go of them. They would come back if they made sense here. In the next weeks or next year or somewhere in the far future. Like seeds carried in the wind. Landing and sprouting, growing and flowering, or simply vanishing. But even when disappearing, they would still become part of the soil and nurture it.
Doing nothing isn’t as easy as it sounds. And it doesn’t really mean doing nothing. You only do nothing when you are dead. Until then, at least you breathe. Your blood flows through your veins. Your hair grows. You shed your skin. You see, you hear, you smell. You think. You dream. You empty your mind and you fill it up again. You make space. And when the space is there, things happen.
One of my favourite lines from the book The One-Straw Revolution is ‘The best planning is no planning.’ This doesn’t mean to just sit back and refrain from taking any action. It means creating the right conditions for things to come into being. For the world to unfold. Its author, Masanobu Fukuoka, was a farmer who trained as a microbiologist and plant pathologist. He worked at the Agricultural Customs Office in Yokohama, enjoying his laboratory work, until at the age of 25 a life–changing experience made him decide to abandon science and city life. He almost died after being struck with acute pneumonia and when he came out of hospital, still recovering physically and mentally from being face-to-face with death, he wandered aimlessly through the hills. One night, after many hours of rambling, he collapsed at the foot of a tree overlooking the harbour, drifting in and out of sleep as dawn approached. The cry of a night heron woke him up and with the disappearance of the morning mist, his head became clear. He looked around in joyful amazement and thought: ‘There is really nothing at all’. Shortly after he returned to his father’s farm to work with nature in a different way.
Mr. Fukuoka’s way was to let nature decide what was the right thing to do instead of trying to control it and intervene. The first thing he did when he returned to the land he grew up in was to stop pruning the citrus trees. The next year most of the trees died. But instead of seeing this as a failure, he realised he had learned something important. If trees or plants have been controlled by people, you cannot then just abandon them and expect them to thrive. It needed more than he had realised. More time and observation. By coincidence he discovered some rice plants in an old field which had been unused and unploughed for a long time. In between the grasses and weeds he noticed healthy rice seedlings. The ‘normal’ way to grow rice is to plough the land in early spring, then sow the seeds and flood the fields. It is a great deal of work. Farmers have been growing rice like that for centuries so of course people believed there was no other way of working.
But Mr. Fukuoka decided to stop flooding his rice fields, he planted a specific mix of weeds to keep others down and allow the rice he would sow in autumn – when it would naturally fall to the ground – to grow through. This also made it possible to grow a different crop in autumn. The straw of the winter grain could be left on the fields, where it became perfect mulch for the rice and the rice straw became mulch for the winter grain. It made perfect sense and it was far less labour intensive.
His yields were high. Not in the beginning, when his efforts – or staying away from specific efforts – failed. But once he had learned what not to do they slowly increased. And as time passed, he could compete with even the most productive farms in Japan. Still his neighbours looked at him with suspicion as people always do when you do things differently.
After a week I took action. I started collecting the seeds from as many plants as possible. I tried to identify them as well but sometimes it was hard. I knew that the amount of different plant species on even a square metre could be vast but just sitting down on the ground and looking at all the different plants around my feet, big ones, small ones, tiny ones, overwhelmed me. The reason for wanting to name them, to make a list, was not entirely clear to me: ‘Just in case,’ I thought. But in case of what? In case I had to prove that I indeed collected 100, 200, 500 different kinds of seeds? To prove the great variety present here? And prove it to whom?
One day I worked on a different plan. It involved walking a shape in the meadow in front of the limestone ovens. It was important that the amount of steps that were needed to walk it again and again was exact, so I took my tape measure and marked the corner points with some big rocks in order to know where I had to turn. When it was all set and I turned around and let my gaze wander over the landscape, Trufa the dog was there suddenly. One of her favourite pastimes was to pick up rocks and carry them around. She had one in her mouth and wanted to play. I looked at the rectangular parcourse I had set up, saw that a stone was missing, cursed, took it from her, measured again, and put it back where it should be, but in the meantime Trufa had taken another one already and this continued for a while until I gave up and took her for a walk, or she took me for a walk. When we reached the river, she dropped the rock. We looked at our shadows in the moving water. At the frogs leaping. The tiny larvae swimming. The dragonflies mating.
Fukuoka once wrote:
I do not particularly like the word “work”. Human beings are the only animals who have to work. Other animals make their livings by living, but people work like crazy, thinking that they have to in order to stay alive. The bigger the job, the greater the challenge, the more wonderful they think it is. It would be good to give up that way of thinking and live an easy, comfortable life with plenty of free time.
Although Natural Farming is also called ‘no-till’ or ’do-nothing farming’, it doesn’t mean you can just sit back and relax. It means questioning yourself. It means thinking about what not to do. It means staying away from chemicals, fertilisers, even compost. Doing as little as possible with a maximum result, so there is a good supply of healthy food and time to enjoy life. In the Japanese countryside you can still find poems written by farmers on old walls and stone bridges but in modern agriculture there is hardly any time for a farmer to make music or read a book. It is no different in the Western World.
‘No-till’ or ’do-nothing farming’ doesn’t mean you can just sit back and relax. It means questioning yourself. It means thinking about what not to do. It means staying away from chemicals, fertilisers, even compost.
In Mr. Fukuoka’s orchards, trees grew alongside vegetables and weeds. He would randomly spread different seeds around, not thinking about what was the best place for each seed to develop into a plant but being convinced that nature would know best what would grow where. To grow plants on a bigger scale, such as rice, barley, vegetables, he made clay seed balls. The seeds were protected by a layer of clay, so that animals wouldn’t eat them, and nutrients were added. After successfully reviving this old technique he started dreaming about ways to regreen the desert in the same way. The clay balls should contain seeds of more than one hundred varieties – trees, fruit trees, shrubs, vegetables, grains, useful fungi – and could be broadcast from aeroplanes to revegetate large areas.
After his book The One-Straw Revolution became a success he started to travel the world to talk with farmers, policy makers and politicians about sustainable farming methods and fighting desertification. He carried his art supplies everywhere he went during his travels. He sometimes drew to explain his philosophies, always combining them with words and poetry, Japanese symbols that look like drawings in themselves. Usually they depicted anonymous people as representatives of humankind. However once, at an international permaculture conference, he shared a platform with Bill Mollison, co-creator of permaculture, and Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute in Kansas, giving a talk that intended to find common ground from three distinctive viewpoints. Lacking the words he drew the three of them: a picture of Don Quixote’s donkey with a blind Bill and a deaf Wes riding backwards while he himself was hanging desperately from the donkey’s swishing tail. Three Don Quixotes, trying to return to nature, trying to stop the donkey from rushing wildly toward the brink of disaster. When the audience asked what was going to happen he drew President Reagan sitting comfortably on the donkey’s back facing frontward, dangling a carrot in front of the donkey’s nose.
The farmer-philosopher didn’t believe in religious practices, meditation, yoga, or required reading. He didn’t believe in books, not even his own. ‘ I think people would be better off without words altogether,’ he wrote in one of them. He didn’t see any purpose in modern science, apart from showing how small human knowledge really is. His daily farming was his spiritual practice. He considered nature as sacred and impossible to understand. The key was not trying to understand it but just being in it. Being it. Few people are capable of this, he noted. Only those ‘who have the heart and mind of a child’ and lack the obstructive blocks of desire, philosophy or religion.
In the daytime I kept collecting seeds. I made ink from oak galls and plant parts. At night I watched the stars. Although I had a comfortable apartment, I sometimes slept in one of the restored dry stone wall huts in one of the neighbouring fields. Those huts, still existing everywhere in the Catalan countryside, were built when people started clearing the land in order to use it to grow crops. The big stones in the soil were turned into simple structures, which were used afterwards by farmers and shepherds. These days they’re not in use anymore, they are only a reminder of life in past centuries. You get a glimpse of it sometimes when you wake up inside in the middle of the night in complete darkness, embraced by the same old stones that kept those farmers and shepherds safe and dry.
In the stone quarry behind the limestone ovens, where big rocks were once extracted to be turned into calcium, now plants were growing sparsely. The ground was dry. It was one of my favourite places. I felt at home there, sitting on a rock in the middle of the open space or high up on the wall to catch the last rays of sunlight in the early evening. I started walking lines in the middle of the quarry. In squares. The exact ground plan of my apartment in the city where I lived, Barcelona, 75 kilometres away. I walked it again and again, my steps forming lines in the hard soil; I walked it 100 times a day sometimes, not thinking too much. I kept the first principle of Natural Farming in the back of my head: no cultivation, no ploughing or turning of the soil because the earth knows best how to stay in good shape. Plant and tree roots penetrate the soil. Microorganisms and animals work on it in their own ways.
Sometimes I wondered if what I was doing was in line with the first principle. I thought that if I were to walk the same path again and again, the soil would open up and be a less hostile environment for the flower seeds I was planning to sow: Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Daydream’. I imagined them growing side to side in the lines I had walked, so that in a few months walls made out of flowers would copy the stone walls of my city apartment and you would be able to walk from room to room here in the same way as you could in my other home. But was I disturbing the soil by my actions or was I just an artist doing what an artist does? Like a worm does what a worm does? Was I overthinking after all?
Larry Korn observed in his book about Fukuoka’s work, One-Straw Revolutionary: ’In the West we believe that there is some permanent identity inside of us. This sense of self is most closely associated with our mental process – our rational, analytical faculties. That is summed up in Descartes’ celebrated “I think, therefore I am,” sometimes translated as “I am thinking, therefore I exist.” But it is precisely this assumption that alienates us from the world.’
I switched off my thinking and continued in my own way. I walk, therefore I am.
When I finally finished walking and distributed the seeds it was the end of June and temperatures were close to 40 degrees. I waited for a day when an evening storm was forecast so the seeds would have some help. I sowed them in the morning but I hadn’t taken the ants into account. When I came back to the corner where I had started dropping the seeds I saw a long line of them, following the lines I had walked, all carrying a seed in their front legs, on their way to their nest that was situated right in the middle of what represented my bedroom.
I stored the seeds I had been collecting from all the different plants growing in the CACiS area in paper boxes so they could dry and be turned into seed balls after the winter, with water from the river and clay from the river banks, and then be spread in vacant lots in cities, every clay ball containing the full potential of the beauty and serenity of the place where I had been daydreaming for a month.
Then I walked home, back to Barcelona, through mountains and villages, 75 kilometres, following winding roads, sleeping under the open sky, leaving a trail of Cosmos Daydream seeds behind me When you walk, time doesn’t exist. Not if you don’t have to be somewhere at a certain time. First it slows down and then it disappears all together. Mr. Fukuoka believed that time is only what is present, an ever-changing continuum of the present moment with the past and the future embedded within it. One of the reasons why Natural Farming hasn’t been applied more widely is because it is a slow process. It asks for a leap of faith. And since it is hard to do it on a big scale, it can only have a big impact when many people not only believe in it but put it into practice. It seems that the idea to regenerate dry areas by distributing clay seed balls by planes has been embraced, although not to the extent that it makes a big enough difference. In Asia experiments are being done with drones as well. You could question whether this is a proper way to reconnect with nature but it is no different from what Mr. Fukuoka concluded after his fruit trees died when he stopped pruning them. Before you can recreate the proper balance that has been destroyed by human beings, you might have to use the products of their intelligence, the ones that might not be in line with your philosophy but will help to not need them in the long run.
When I came home to the city four days later I wondered if my research had taken me anywhere. If I had produced anything useful. If I had managed to understand Mr. Fukuoka a bit better or if I had just tried to force some of his ways of working into an artistic approach. When November came I thought about retracing my steps to see if any Daydreams had grown and flowered. I was pretty convinced they hadn’t. I had sown them during the one of the hottest weeks of the year and in the months afterwards there had hardly been any rain. I postponed walking back; I told myself I didn’t have time and I wouldn’t see any results. But one morning, when the days were getting cold and the first Christmas lights appeared in the city, I just packed my bag and headed out.
It is strange to walk back in your own footsteps. When you start encountering your own old self, you also wonder if your old self encountered your future self. If so, they must be on that road continuously, passing each other every moment. I can’t be 100% sure that none of the Daydreams flowered because once I started walking my eyes wandered off all the time. I looked at the beautiful yellow of the ginkgo trees, the fake flowers in the enormous cemetery, the deep red of the soil higher up in the mountains, the clouds covering the valley in the morning. I realised one of my dreams had been to walk back and I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t left the trail.
Just as in Natural Farming the ultimate goal isn’t the growing of crops ‘but the cultivation and perfection of human beings’, in making art the goal shouldn’t be to produce the best or as many artworks as possible. The goal is the same. You could say though that the benefit of being a farmer is that you have something to eat at the end of the day. That you don’t have to break your head over what to produce. But that is too easy.
Many years ago after my wanderings had led me to Sweden where I lived and worked for a while in the forest with some modern pioneers, I found The One-Straw Revolution in the house they had built from tree trunks and insulated with moss. I started corresponding with Larry Korn, who lived and worked with Mr. Fukuoka on his farm. He had translated The One-Straw Revolution and brought it to America. Sometimes I wrote to him that I was tired of trying to be an artist and dreamed about moving to a piece of land and growing vegetables. But whenever I did that he told me you don’t have to farm to be a natural farmer. There are many ways to sow seeds and be a co-conspirator in the one-straw revolution. In the last chapter of his book about Masanobu Fukuoka he writes, ‘The one-straw revolution is about remembering who we are so we can live freely, joyously, and responsibly in the world.’
I thought about this on my walk back. I thought about the importance of remembering. When we want to restore, regenerate, repair, return, we have to remember. We have to remember like a child does, like people who are part of nature, like the indigenous people Mr. Fukuoka referred to many times. We have forgotten this. We have even become so separated from nature that more and more people are starting to wonder if there shouldn’t be a new word for it. But maybe it is better to try to remember what nature really is. What our nature really is. And that it doesn’t really matter what we do, in the sense of what we do professionally. What matters is who we are. When we remember this, when we construct our lives according to this, we will get somewhere. The beginning is also the end. The end is also the beginning. And in the middle you can go in both directions. You don’t have to choose. You just have to remember where you came from and where you want to go.
All quotes by Masanobu Fukuoka unless mentioned otherwise.
Besten, M. The Middle of Nothing, blog based on CACiS experience, themiddleofnothing.blogspot.com
CACiS (Centre d’Art Contemporani i Sostenibilitat) website, elforndelacalc.cat
Fukuoka, M. The One-Straw Revolution, Rodale Press, 1978, and Sowing Seeds in the Desert, ed. Korn, Larry, Chelsea Green, 2012
Korn, L. One-Straw Revolutionary, Chelsea Green, 2015