A Deeper Permaculture: Fukuoka’s Koan

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We still tell ourselves the story of how human reason emerged out of the twilit world of myth 2500 years ago in Ancient Greece, to then spread around the world so that today there is nowhere that the writ of human reason does not run. It is a good story, closely allied to the religious vision that through our God-given reason we can take this fallen world and perfect it.

Yet, today, can we in all honesty still retain this naive belief in such a rational vision? These last decades have provided incontrovertible evidence that the world is dying of our reason – perfectly expressed in Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, where pesticide use in the American Mid-West had decimated bird populations – and our rational attempts to halt or slow this destruction have all failed and today, wherever we look, the speed of destruction is only increasing.

Ever since the first moonshots sent back photos of our blue planet set against the starlit infinity of space, we cannot help but see the beauty, but we cannot also help but see the fragility. Just as we wonder at the technological progress expressed in our ability to take such photos, we must also wonder at this same technology which is destroying the earth.

We call it progress, we insist that despite the destruction soon a technological breakthrough will solve our problems. Yet when will we see that every technological solution itself becomes a problem in need of a solution, which, in turn, then becomes a problem in need of a solution ..and so the vicious cycle spirals downward? This is the paradox of human reason, a riddle we must solve, a koan of this very moment.

Permaculture is just one of many well-meaning attempts at solving some of the problems we face today. If we look more closely at its founding vision, we can perhaps discover just where the real problem lies. The critique below is not intended to dismiss the many wonderful projects and people that make the Permaculture movement, nor is it intended negatively, for, as I hope to show, only by seeing more deeply can something arise, not something new perhaps, but something always there but hidden beneath the ceaseless activity of our lives.

Permaculture self-identifies as an holistic, systems-based alternative to conventional techniques, which it develops through a conscious, design process, determined to integrate all relevant factors required in the establishment and development of a site.

Permaculture was conceived in the radical ferment of the 1960s freedom movements and matured amid the failure of the Green Revolution. But irrespective of such cultural aspects, it is clearly seen by its practitioners as being an alternative to the destructive technologies, specifically in agriculture, during the Twentieth Century.

Bill Mollison, the man responsible more than any other for the spread and popularisation of PC, describes his founding vision thus;

‘Yeah, Nature, I’m talking about Nature. Really, God missed out on a few things. So in November of 1959, I made a note in my diary and that’s what I call the beginning of Permaculture. It said, “I think I could build a system that works better than this one I’m watching.”‘ Seeds of Change Interview, p1

It is a bold conceit! Indeed a better expression of our rational approach is hard to find. Irrespective of whether we understand the world as Created by God or under the physical laws of nature, the claim of Permaculture is that through the use of human reason we can do better than nature.

It would be no exaggeration to claim that such a perspective is not only foundational of Permaculture but also of our modern technological world too. Which is now no other than the globalised world. As such, Permaculture, despite its alternative pretensions, would seem to be simply part of the ongoing human rational manipulation and control of the world.

Permaculture does not reject any specific technology, nor does it reject any of the human sciences that have been so successful at designing the technologies with which we can now raze mountains and drain seas. As Mollison’s words show, rather than being an alternative to the way human beings approach the world, Permaculture is the pure expression of human reason using human knowledge to impose a human design on nature.
In the Introduction to the book, Permaculture II, 1979, Mollison attempts an expression of Permaculture’s philosophy;

‘Perhaps Fukuoka, in his book, The One Straw Revolution, has best stated the basic philosophy of Permaculture. In brief, it is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.’

Which sounds eminently reasonable until we ask whether humans do work ‘with nature’, who benefits from this ‘thoughtful observation’, and why animals and plants are seen as ‘functions’ with ‘products’ for human beings and not ends in themselves?

Curiously, the answer to these questions comes not in a closer, rational analysis of this philosophy, but in the discovery that these are not the words, much less the philosophy of Masanobu Fukuoka. What is revealed instead is the human ‘use’ made of a resource – oriental spiritual wisdom is as much a resource as oil or timber – this instrumentalist approach that sees nature as a resource to be exploited for human gain without regard for the intrinsic meaning of the thing itself.

This is how Fukuoka describes the founding philosophy of Natural Farming in his own words;

‘I had been grappling with the meaning of life and humanity when one night the truth came to me in a flash. I saw all of a sudden that nature is an astounding thing that cannot be named. In that instant, I understood the principle of “nothingness” of Mu. This later gave birth to my method of natural farming, but at first I was totally absorbed by the conviction that there is nothing in this world, that man should live only in accordance with nature and has no need to do anything.’
The Natural Way of Farming, 1985, p136

In Permaculture we use our knowledge in order to improve the world for our benefit, while in Natural Farming the world is always already seen as enough and our work is not to transform it, but for it to transform us by conforming ourselves to its unfolding. As Fukuoka makes clear;

‘Natural Farming is not about the growing of crops, but about the cultivation and perfection of human being.’
End Book III, The One-Straw Revolution, 1975

If we take the clue offered by Mollison’s notion of ‘observation’, ironically, it might be possible to discover the first trace of a path with which to break out of the prison we have built for ourselves through our small human reason, and experience the greater reason embodied in the life of the world itself.

The celebrated Japanese haiku poet, Basho, says;

‘From the pine tree,
Learn of the pine,
And from the bamboo,
Of the bamboo’.

The apparent simplicity of these words has to be carefully attended to for Basho does not mean that we should observe the pine tree carefully and still less does he mean we should study it scientifically. The intention of the words is to encourage us to enter into the way of being of the pine itself and from there understand the pine. The insight into nature is that it is no new knowledge we need but a new understanding. If we can make this leap of trust then we will see that the great reason of nature can also be called wisdom.

Scientific study claims to understand the pine or the bamboo by reducing it to its constituent parts so that it becomes a matter of biology, reducing it further it becomes a matter of chemistry, and by reducing it to its constituent particles it becomes a matter of physics. The suggestion is clear; if we want to know, we must reduce the world to facts, which we then use in theories to manipulate the world for our gain. Human reason demands of a thing that it give up its meaning so that we can control it. Francis Bacon said we should “put nature to the rack”; and that is just what we’ve done!

But free from the interference of reason, the power of nature is released. By letting things be just what they are, a way is opened outside representational thought, which leads away from our rational destruction of the earth. It is just this way which is expressed in Natural Farming.

I have spent many years practicing and teaching Natural Farming and I am still amazed at the confusion it causes. Yet what could be simpler than an approach to agriculture that does away with the need for plowing, fertilising, weeding or chemicals? Whereas what is startling is that it required someone like Fukuoka to reveal what is in plain sight of us all;

– nature grows plants and not human beings
– no seed is so weak not grow in unplowed soil
– soil left to itself becomes more fertile each year
– a tree left to itself knows better how to grow
– few agricultural techniques are really necessary

Yet, today, agricultural techniques have multiplied without number, but this is not just a matter for conventional farming as Fukuoka explains;

‘Organic farming will partially improve the soil, but it requires much labour for little result, and I realized that when you look at it from a macro perspective, it is an agricultural method that results in a loss and is one branch of the scientific agriculture that is linked to the destruction of the globe.’
The Ultimatum of God/Nature, 1996, p65

This conventional agriculture can be called the many-sword school; while Natural Farming, ever simplifying its techniques, is the one-sword school. However, there is yet a deeper truth inherent in Natural Farming that still remains to be revealed, this is the no-sword school. When we break through our narrow human reason we ourselves become the greater reason of nature, where we then act effortlessly in the ever-changing context of an ever-changing world. It is this no-sword school which Fukuoka has bequeathed us today.

It is now more than 40 years since Fukuoka wrote The One-Straw Revolution, and almost as long since Permaculture began. Perhaps it has needed these years for us to see that for all our efforts to put things right, we are still missing something. But where the danger grows, also grows the saving power. Perhaps it is only now, as we enter the era of rapid climate change, that the living heart of Fukuoka’s green philosophy can finally be felt.

Fukuoka himself felt great disappointment and a sense of personal failure in his inability to get people to see the inherent perfection of nature, he expressed his disappointment at the International PC Designers Convention, 1986;

‘I envy that Permaculture is happening all over the world. There is no group working to perfect Natural Farming and many groups against.’

However, if we were to take Mollison at his word that Fukuoka really does best express the philosophy of Permaculture, what then might be achieved?

Fukuoka’s no-sword school effortlessly accords with nature and without seeming to do gets everything done. If this way were to become the abiding insight of Permaculture then the intrinsic indivisibility of the web of life would become the centre of the design process and ever more can then be given back to the great reason of nature.

It is the prospect of a Deeper Permaculture that has inspired the writing of this article and the courses offered this year. Using the elegant simplicity of Fukuoka’s lead in the techniques of Natural Farming, the temperate climate adaptations by Emilia Hazelip in her Synergistic Agriculture, Marc Bonfils cereal cultivation, forest gardens, and the preparation and use of Seedballs in all aspects of agriculture and in broadscale reforestation projects, that a Deeper Permaculture takes shape.

But it is not because of any technique or method but the insight that the no-sword school solves the paradox of human reason that I believe Fukuoka’s time has come.

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About Jamie Nicol

Living in the forested hills of Catalonia, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Zen teacher, recovering philosopher, small-scale natural farmer. Writing just what comes.
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2 Responses to A Deeper Permaculture: Fukuoka’s Koan

  1. Pingback: Update | seedzen

  2. Pingback: Course: A Deeper Permaculture: Fukuoka’s Koan | seedzen

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