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Natural Farming and the Life and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka

Larry KornIn this episode I have the great pleasure if connecting with Larry Korn from Oregon, USA. In addition to being a student of the late Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) he’s and educator, consultant, editor and author in the fields of permaculture, natural farming, sustainable landscaping and local food production. Larry recently published a book titled One-Straw Revolutionary where he goes into the life and work of Masanobu Fukuoka, who initiated the natural farming movement. Larry spent several years together with Masanobu Fukuoka at his farm in Japan back in the 70’s, and he helped translate Fukuoka’s seminal book The One-Straw Revolution (1975). In our conversation we explore Fukuoka’s work with a special emphasis on the underlying ideas, values or mental models that drive the natural farming method. We also explore some of the reasons why this “philosophy of life” could be of benefit to the world community, and not only with reference to farming and food production. Feel free to take part in our dialogue by leaving a comment below the summary.

Learning to see the world as it is
I explain to Larry that it was my Swedish aikido teacher Jorma Lyly who pointed me to the work of Masanobu Fukuoka. There seems to be many parallels between natural farming and the practice in this Japanese martial art. Larry is not surprised and comments that 90% of what Fukuoka stands for is strictly speaking the grand old spiritual perspective found throughout Asia, the ways in which artists, poets, mystics and ordinary people have came to see the world and their place therein. It’s all about seeing the world as an indivisible whole where everything is interconnected and perfect – as it is. This is a very different approach to life than what is commonly found in the Western world, where the mindset is largely focused around the notion of an individual self that is set apart from the rest of the world. Such a worldview creates the false notion that we are disconnected from the whole, a perspective that has far reaching consequences in regards to how we organize our societies. The goal of many Asian arts is therefore to end this separation and move towards a more unified view of the world. Natural farming can be placed in the same category.

Book by Larry Korn (2015)

Book by Larry Korn (2015)

Living together with Masanobu Fukuoka
Given that Larry stayed with Fukuoka at his farm for two years I ask him what it was that inspired him the most? The remarkable thing, he says, was that all Fukuoka really talked about and did was farming – the practice was farming! There was no required reading or planned program for his stay. The only thing they did was farm and they got to know every square inch of Fukuoka’s orchard.

What is natural farming?
So what is natural farming? Larry gives some background on Fukuoka’s life and work and explains how he grew up in a typical farming village on the island of Shikoku. Later on he became a plant pathologist working in the customs department. One day, through a flash of insight, he came to see how nature was in fact perfect and unified, and that every part of nature was already expressing itself as best it could. He understood that any attempt at improving that which is already perfect would only cause disharmony and problems. In fact, the less human beings interfered with nature the better, a view which he tried to convey to his colleagues. However, they had a hard time grasping this idea since the mode of thinking at the time was all about making progress through technical innovation and manipulation of nature. He therefore decided to go back to his farm and make a physical example in accordance with his view. He looked closely at many of the typical agricultural practices, such as making compost, ploughing and weed control, and tried to figure out if these practices were in fact necessary. In stead of thinking “what if I try this or what if I try that”, he would rather think “what if I didn’t try this or didn’t do that”. Remarkably, after some years of “doing nothing” he had comparable or even higher yields than his neighboring farms. Moreover, his fields and soil were improving year by year while his neighbors fields were in fact decaying through the use of chemicals etc. He therefore decided to let nature show the way and take human decision-making out of the picture.

Doing nothing and provoking the Western mindset
I point out that this way of thinking and seeing the world is probably highly provocative to a Western mindset. Larry agrees and explains how our values and thinking has been molded by modern society. Talking of modern, Larry is actually referring to the last 10 000 years, from the point in history when people for some reason decided that we were more important than other species. It was as if human beings no longer had any limits in regards to what they could do towards nature. Fukuoka’s thinking was very different and more in line with the mindset of the indigenous people of the world.

The art of living one’s philosophy
I explain to Larry that the title of this show – Levevei™ – is a Norwegian word that could be translated as vocation or livelihood, but it also has the connotation of “way of life”. The aim of the show is to explore different approaches to personal, relational and societal transformation, while also investigating the various connections between these three dimensions. Looking back at all the interviews I’ve done there seems to be at least one red thread, namely, that there is a connection between the personal and the collective. For instance, our engagements in life, on a societal level, are highly dependent on our personal values and worldviews. My sense is that Fukuoka was the kind of person that really lived his philosophy, and where his doing, being and thinking were all connected. Larry agrees and reflects back that this understanding goes to the heart of the natural farming method. Fukuoka’s farm became an extension of himself and when the farm improved and became whole again, so did he! His way of thinking “inside” was transformed in accordance with the wholesome changes taking place “out there”, to the point where he came to realize his “original mind” (as in Zen). Larry explains this state of mind as “no mind”, where the experience of “you” no longer is present. Instead one has a direct and unfiltered experience of reality. This, again, might challenge the individualistic and self-centered mindset of Western cultures, but when realized such a state of (no)mind will be highly rewarding, and usher forth wonderful feelings of connection, wonder and joy.

The cultivation of human beings
In Fukuoka’s book The One-Straw Revolution there is a point which is often quoted, namely that the goal of natural farming is not the cultivation of plants, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings. Larry asks me if this understanding resonates with my aikido practice, and the views of my teacher, and it becomes very clear to me that the connections are numerous. Larry explains further how natural farming is only possible if you become a natural person yourself! Larry also explains that the natural farming method presupposes that you become a steward for the land. Instead of asking “what can the land do for me” you ask “what can I do to serve the land”. This also implies establishing an intimate relationship with nature and being able to support the flow of life, rather that intervening or manipulating nature to fit a preconceived idea, or trying to impose one’s will upon nature.

One Straw Revolution

Book by Masanobu Fukuoka

Why do we collectively create unwanted outcomes?
I reflect back to Larry that I find it strange how and why human beings, both personally and collectively, seem to go against what is natural. It looks like we’ve created a society that fosters many of the opposite values and outcomes than what would be the case if natural farming or natural living was the “modus operandi”. Why do we collectively create something which is not good for us? Larry’s first response is that we at some point in history thought we were like Gods, and again, that we saw no natural limits to our behavior. Our minds and hearts were instilled with certain ideas that would subsequently shape our way of thinking and acting in the world. Luckily we can apply the natural farming method on the human mind as well, and investigate which ideas have been “put in there” by our culture. Many ideas seem to pop up all the time, in the same way that weeds and unwanted agricultural consequences proliferate when we apply our modern technologies to farming. Again and again we can practice “taking away” or “doing less”, and through such a practice support the natural unfolding of our minds and society at large. Larry gives a detailed description on how this could apply to many arenas in our life, the essence being that there is great freedom inherent in the natural way of farming and living.

Challenging modern agriculture
So what is the impact of Fukuoka’s teaching amongst farming communities around the world? Is it possible to convince conventional farmers that this might be a feasible way of approaching the production of food? Larry admits that it does seem like an impossible task, also because we need to understand that it’s not possible to just apply the method from one day to the next, and expect to get the same yields. Nature will need its time to find back to its natural sustainable state, and it will imply a transitional period where we’ll see some years of decline in the overall food production. Fukuoka’s estimate was around 20% before the soil would gradually become whole again and yields would go back up. The problem is that in our growth-oriented society a drop of 10 or 20% in production for several years is not economically viable. At the same time it’s clear to many of us that we’re steadily approaching a global agricultural collapse. At some point there has to be a transition, or we’ll end up with a natural environment that no longer can sustain human civilization as we know it.

The underlying mental models of natural farming
I ask Larry to clarify the underlying mental models that can be found in the natural farming method and he explains by pointing to the ways in which human beings for 150,000 years lived in a natural relationship with the earth. We might think that these cultures were primitive, but he claims they were in fact highly sophisticated. In many ways they had lives that were more secure than ours, and they didn’t trash the place! After all, they did survive for thousands of generations which may be proof that they did something right? How many generations will “modern man” survive? If we were to pull out a piece of wisdom from our ancestral roots it could be that they never did anything towards nature that would inhibit or destroy its ability to keep providing what human beings need to survive. The source of abundance had to be kept intact. Another understanding or value that was key to this day and age was a general sense of gratitude towards life and nature. In his biography about Fukuoka’s life and work Larry made it clear that natural farming is correspondent to indigenous cultures, and the modern day remnants of these cultures that are spread across the globe. One of the most common responses that Larry receives from people who have read The One-Straw Revolution is that people experience the ideas as familiar, as if they’re lying dormant in our subconscious. This does call for hope even though the ideas are buried beneath many layers of cultural conditioning.

The sadness of losing touch with ourselves
I reflect back to Larry the sadness I feel when hearing him describe how we at some point in history lost touch with ourselves and the natural way of life. Larry recalls his daughter's reaction when he told her about this, when she was just a child, and her response was: “gosh Daddy, that’s really too bad” – needless to say, a huge understatement. Again, the major issue here is that human beings are acting as if they have no limits: “I can do what I want, I can consume what I want”. However, we do have limits, both physically and biologically, given that we’re intrinsically connected to our finite planet. The native people around the world taught their children about these limits so it became a natural part of their way of life. In the modern culture we implicitly and explicitly teach the opposite.

Signs of hope
Larry comments that he does see signs of improvement and growing awareness regarding the issues we’ve been discussing. There are more and more people looking into alternative ways of producing food, and there is a growing awareness in regards to the detrimental side effects of chemical pesticides and genetically modified crops. The place where natural farming has caught on the most is in fact rural India and South East Asia. In these areas a lot of people are still living on small independent farms, a context which is well suited for natural farming. Larry makes it clear that if we’re to succeed with the transition into a more sustainable society many more people have to go back to the countryside and become food producers themselves. Also, the reason why natural farming has caught on in Asia is probably because they see the world and life primarily as an expression of Spirit, and secondly as something material or physical. In the West it’s the other way around, we primarily orient ourselves and our lives in reference to reality as something material. This difference reflects itself in the questions Larry receives by email. Most people ask simple and practical farming questions, “how to do this” and “how to do that”, while a better approach would be to ask questions regarding the underlying philosophy and value-base that inspire that which is practical and concrete.

(48:55) A natural path towards the realization of cosmic consciousness
I again reflect back to Larry what seems to be the essence or main point of what we’ve been exploring, namely that there is a specific (but still universal) worldview underlying the natural farming method, a worldview that sees no separation between self and other, and where there is a fundamental spiritual outlook in regards to life in general. Larry agrees, but comments that Fukuoka didn’t like the word “spiritual”, in fact, he didn’t like words in general because they arise from the intellect and can separate people from the actual experience the word is pointing to. That which is pointed to as spiritual is just a feeling – which arises by itself – and you don’t really need a special practice or understanding to experience it! At the same time doing something, on a regular basis, might support the natural unfolding and realization of who we really are. The martial arts, and many of the traditional Asian arts such as Noe theater, pottery and flower arrangement, and subsequently natural farming, all have this in common, namely that they point towards “cosmic consciousness”, the universal experience of our non-separateness with all that there is.

Episode links:
Masanobu Fukuoka, bio
Larry Korn, bio
One-Straw Revolutionary, book by Larry Korn
The One-Straw Revolution, book by Masanobu Fukuoka
The Natural Way of Farming, book by Masanobu Fukuoka

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