The Real Human-Made Garden-of-Eden, The Origins of the State, and The Way Out of the Pitfall of Humanity: How the Selectively Cultivated Edible Jungle Was Lost in Pre-History and Antiquity
By Mark Andrews
Introduction to An Anthropological Analysis of Natural Farming
Human civilization probably could have been civil if it had been built upon principles in harmony with nature. Many people who study aboriginal life have a relatively positive image of native lifestyles, but most of us who have studied ancient civilization do not have such a positive image. Nevertheless, most people do not desire to go back to living a completely primitive lifestyle because they want the benefits of modern technology and civilization. Also, people innately believe that since humanity is able to develop modern technology, that therefore somehow it is natural for us to create it, and that there must be a right way to do it. Even though there is the negative image of internecine tribal warfare, life in hunter/gatherer societies has for quite some time enjoyed a net positive image as egalitarian, democratic and respectful to all its members. Ancient civilization carries with it the exact opposite image with an elite hierarchy ruling over the mass of peasant slaves. Until recently, the commonly accepted explanation for this unpleasant transformation from a dignified tribal life to a servile social structure within civilization is that these unpleasant characteristics are simply the necessary birth pangs of a possibly humanistic future civilization. Now, approximately eight thousand years after the beginning of the first known vestiges of recorded civilization, people en mass are giving up hope of the possibility of there ever becoming a sane civilization, and radical misanthropic and nihilistic philosophies are on the rise.
Anthropologists have debated for quite some time about whether or how much hunter/gatherers did or did not want to give up their nomadic lifestyle for a more settled existence. Regardless of how hunter/gatherers viewed the idea of home, people throughout much of civilization certainly have thought fondly of the idea, partly because it provides shelter from the elements such as harsh weather, poisonous bugs, snakes and wild carnivorous animals. Also, a non-nomadic/domestic lifestyle is essential for humans to be able to develop whatever other types of technology we have seen as desirable for improvements in living, such as storing food surpluses for winter or droughts, having a clean comfortable bed for a good night sleep, etc. There is no doubt that ensuring a constant food supply has been a formidable periodic problem with hunter/gatherer lifestyles,1 but the commonly held belief that modern agriculture solves this problem is a misguided notion, and many people in the modern world have forgotten about the many famine producing crop failures that have occurred throughout the history of civilization.2 However, on the face of it, and in spite of the shortcomings of what we know about agriculture, it seems like it should have been a good thing that humans had developed an agricultural home life. But something went seriously wrong as demonstrated by the totalitarian nature of early civilization. The idea here is to figure out where we went wrong and try to go back and fix it!
There is no apparent reason why agriculture, sedentism (non-nomadic lifestyle), domestication and civilization have to mean automatic human bondage to an upper class. The fact that our only knowledge of the first civilizations reveals human bondage should give us a clue that we did something wrong and took a wrong turn on the wrong path, way back when. Instead of thinking that human bondage is a normal birth pang of the beginning of civilization and that the only answers lie exclusively in the realm of looking forward towards technological progress, or else automatically assuming as the Deep Ecologists and anarcho-primitivists would have it that humanity needs to go in the exact opposite direction all the way “Back to the Pleistocene”3, we need to look backward to figure out what mistakes we can fix from the past. We know too little about the transitional steps that our ancestors passed through on their way from the hunter/gatherer ‘noble savage’ mode of life to a servile civilization. We need to do some thinking about this. Let us first analyze what we know about how the first civilizations evolved.
As Edward Hyams explains in Soil and Civilization, the four major original civilizations—Sumer, Babylonia and Mesopotamia in the Tigris/Euphrates river valley; Egypt in the Nile river valley; India in the Indus river valley; and China in the Yellow river valley—all started in river delta valleys with nutrient rich alluvial soil. There are very few places on Earth with alluvial fans large enough to foster a sizable civilization, and this is why there were only a few original civilizations that date way back in time. Each year these rivers would flood the delta regions where the rivers empty into the sea, and the floodwaters would spread plenty of valuable alluvium, which is silt that contains many nutrient-rich mineral compounds eroded from the mountainous regions upstream, and this would add great fertility to the soil. A great deal of biomass bound up within a natural ecosystem cannot flourish in alluvial soil regions due to the heavy flooding and the large quantities of silt that washes down the alluvial fans. The annual silt inundations tend to cover up the many smaller plants that begin growth in these regions, and the soft sandy silt does not hold water well. The water tends to either evaporate, or it drains down into the subsoil, both of which are due to the porosity of the soil and the lack of soil structure that usually accompanies more complex biotic communities. Because of the dryness of the native alluvial soils and because of the lack of small plants, the distance between plants tends to be of a relatively high magnitude. Removing the few native plants that were there initially at the start of agriculture would not have been a difficult task, since most of the plants would have been easy to merely pull out or dig out due to the softness of the alluvial soils. The main reason why the earliest civilizations started in the alluvial areas was, (a) due to the softness of the alluvial soils; they are the only soils that can be farmed on a regimented large-scale basis without strong metallic tools that can drastically alter the landscape; and, (b) the alluvial soils have inexhaustible and indestructible fertility due to the annual silt inundations.
Massive regimented till-based agriculture is basically impossible to achieve in the loess soil areas without metallic tools (Edward Hyams in Soil and Civilization uses the term loess soil to refer to any arable soils that are not alluvial, which will serve our purposes here.) Nevertheless, at a certain point in time humans began the practice of the cultivation of edible plants in many parts of the world, usually without turning over the soil much due to the lack of metallic implements that made till-based agriculture on loess soil possible. Unwanted plants were extirpated one way or another, and the seeds of edible plants were either just tossed out in a scattered fashion, or they were sown with a digging stick which merely poked a hole in the ground where the seed was placed. The hunter/gatherers of the rainforests no doubt sowed some of their selected food bearing crops amongst the other forest plants, but it is questionable how well these preferred edibles could compete with the root structures of the native plants of the forest floor. Less woody areas with more delicate plants were undoubtedly the preferred areas that the earliest agriculturalists chose to cultivate their select food producing plants on loess soil. They would either pull the plants out with the roots, or rip the tops of the plants off and leave the roots in the ground to rot, before they would scatter their select crop seeds. Sometimes the agriculturalists would wait for herbivorous animals to graze an area before they would scatter the seeds. At a later stage, using domesticated animals was an effective way of removing unwanted foliage, but at the time of the beginning of the domestication of plants, such domesticated animals were not available, nor are they associated with the hunter/gatherer mode of existence. Since the loess soil landscape was not easy to alter with rudimentary Stone Age implements, there is every reason to believe that the earliest loess soil farming sort of blended in with the natural vegetation, and the selected domesticated food bearing plants were sown along with the native plants.
The main theses of this first chapter is to establish the notion that, the reason why there has been so little democracy and liberty here on Earth throughout the history of civilization is because civilization has been predicated upon regimented till-based agriculture, instead of the agriculture that we should have been practicing which is natural ecosystem mimicking and not regimented nor till-based. In other words, there is a direct cause and effect relationship between a society that embraces practices and principles in harmony with nature, and a society that embraces democracy and liberty; and what is good for ecology is also good for democracy and liberty. Since neolithic farmers on loess soils didn’t have metallic tools and they lacked the ability to till the soil, many of them were naturally in the process of developing agricultural ecosystems that were very integrated in with the natural wilderness habitat, and this is why the original agriculture that was in the process of evolving in many of the areas around the planet can be referred to as natural farming.4
We have to keep in mind that the Earth was much more moist ten or fifteen thousand years ago, since in the intervening years humans have had an incredibly desiccating influence upon much of the face of the Earth through the improper grazing and overgrazing of domesticated animals, careless over logging, soil erosion through till agriculture, and the displacement of wild habitat with overpopulation and human technical artifice. Some deserts were probably natural due to the soil types that were geologically formed after the cooling of the Earth, but a certain percentage of deserts were human caused, and many people speculate that even the Sahara Desert was not natural, but rather human caused.5 Of course one of our goals should be to reverse such global desiccation, because the more moist the planet is the more reliable the weather will be for agriculture, the less wildfires will simplify the biotic community, the more moderate the various average micro climates will be around the entire planet, and the less we will have to worry about rising sea levels. Ten or fifteen thousand years ago the Earth was much more jungle-like, and because of this and the fact that humans lacked metallic instruments, humans often had a very difficult time clearing the unwanted foliage for agriculture. Now the Earth is so dry that even the tropical rainforests have lots of dry brush at various parts of the year, and people now don’t even have to use solvents such as gasoline to start fires in the dry brush to clear the rainforests for their cash cattle. Ten or fifteen thousand years ago it was virtually impossible to start fires to clear foliage for agriculture on much of the Earth due to the moistness of the climate and the wetness of the landscape.
The Neolithic Age, or late Stone Age, is known as the time that agriculture began.6 Even though agriculture began in many different places around the world during this time, most human development outside of the alluvial areas only reached the level of small isolated agricultural villages until the Iron Age. The stone axe was invented in the Neolithic period, and greatly allowed humans to alter the environment, such as opening up the heavy forest; building dams, reservoirs and irrigation ditches; erecting stockades; terracing hills; staking out permanent fields; pile driving; building clay and wooden dwellings.7 However, there are great limitations in terms of the efficiency of stone axes, and the amount of alterations to the landscape were undoubtedly kept to a minimum due to the heavy labor involved. The fact is that the early indigenous peoples were able to avoid a lot of such intensive labor because there was still no great amount of population pressure that would have necessitated a high degree of agriculture over hunting and gathering, and the agriculture they were practicing was natural farming so they didn’t need to expend a lot of labor to till the soil in the first place.
“Though neolithic cultivation is often referred to as hoe culture, the hoe is a relatively late contribution. There could be no cheap, efficient hoes until the Iron Age. The chief means of working the soil, right into Egyptian and Sumerian times, was the digging-stick, sometimes with a stone attached near the bottom to weight it. Even after the plow had been invented, it was actually a digging-stick in traction, not the furrow-turning plow that came in only at a nearer point in the Iron Age (sometime after 1000 B.C.) The late Sumerian ‘Dialogue Between the Plow and the Pickaxe’ as to their respective merits suggests that the plow did not become dominant at once.”8 The plow was not needed in the alluvial areas due to the softness of the soils, and long before a strong metal plow was invented the ard was invented at least by 6000 B.P., which was simply a large strong piece of wood held upright and pulled by an ox. The ard would plow the alluvial soil for the purpose of weeding, and to shape the soft soil into row mounds so the irrigation water would flow evenly to the right places.
Due to the lack of sponging action that accompanies the lack of soil structure, the civilizations that evolved in the alluvial regions logically were temped to employ labor intensive irrigation projects to extend the growing season year round. Because of the softness of the alluvial soils farmers were able to create irrigation trenches with the only primitive stone and wood implements that were available in the early period of civilization. As Karl Wittfogel has pointed out, irrigation is an activity that can often consume more than fifty percent of the total time a typical peasant devotes to their entire work schedule within agrarian civilization.9 Most of the irrigation related work involved digging irrigation canals and trenches, keeping the canals clear of mud, and carrying water from the river to the canal. Unfortunately, the annual alluvial floods meant that much of this trench construction and maintenance had to be almost completely redone each year.
Since the alluvial soil areas were limited in their acreage, before long these areas were completely occupied, and people began to fight over the choice spots versus the marginal areas on the alluvial fringe. Warring factions within each provincial area inevitably formed and various warlords would head-up these factions. Each farmer eventually would have to give a certain amount of their surplus to the regional warlord for protection. In the name of keeping the peace within the province, the provincial warlords would demand a greater surplus from the farmers who occupied the better land to keep people from fighting so much over better pieces of land.10 As time went on, various warlords from the different alluvial provinces would form alliances, so over a period of time there would be fewer and larger factions that would occasionally fight in huge wars. Eventually all the remaining large factions merged and the last remaining warlords joined forces to form ‘the state’, which in this case, it was the entire alluvial river delta region. (Civilization, by definition, means a human society usually covering a fairly large geographic land mass—such as a bioregion or an area enclosed by natural geographic boundaries, such as mountains or bodies of water, or alluvial areas surrounded by loess soil—that is controlled by the formation of a state. There are various textbook theories about the dynamics of warfare and its role in establishing the original complex societies, all of which might not necessarily, or at least not immediately, be pertinent for our purposes here.)11
There is no doubt that the great alluvial delta river valleys were the ideal habitat on the face of the Earth for totalitarianism to initially flourish, because alluvium is the type of soil that would allow a ruling class to squeeze the greatest amount of food surpluses out of each farmer, without modern implements, to support the largest possible non-farming class of people. The greater the relative size of the non-farming classes certainly meant the greater the size of the military that was made possible in these delta regions for the purpose of controlling the domestic population and expanding their empire, which became possible when metallic tools became available for farming the tough loess soils using till-based techniques on the lands beyond the borders of their alluvial home-base kingdoms.
Regimented agriculture generally uses the land more intensively, requires turning over the soil, is very mechanical and repetitive for the farmer, is very labor-intensive, and the logic of its dictates forces it’s toilers to farm in a very robotic fashion. Before humanity had developed metallic tools, the alluvial areas were the only places on Earth where regimented till-based agriculture could be practiced, and this is the reason why the alluvial areas were the ideal places for totalitarianism to initially flourish. (Regimented agricultural techniques such as what we are describing here, for our purposes we will refer to as simply till agriculture.)
With the evolution of alluvial civilizations, eventually a non-laboring antagonistic parasitical elite ruling class would form at the very top of the state. This elite ruling class would have their minions lord over the farmers and turn them into slaves, work them like robots from dawn to dusk, and force each slave to maximize their acreage cultivated in order to maximize the food surplus; all for the purpose of maximizing the relative size of the ruling class and non-farming classes. Long before metal plows became available the alluvial civilizations were ready to explode in their expansion of their empires beyond the bounds of the alluvial soil, but instead were contained within the confines of the alluvial soil due to the lack of good metal plows that were required to turn over the loess soil to implement till-based agriculture. The desire for empire expansion beyond the bounds of the alluvial deltas was a major impetus for the first mining operations and the first metallurgy in order to make the first plows strong enough to till loess soil. When they finally were able to achieve this technology these civilizations burst out of their cradles with a vengeance, and were finally able to create the expansive empires that they had long been dreaming of.
Even though the lack of good plows before metallurgy forced the alluvial civilizations to remain contained within the boundaries of the alluvial areas, this however didn’t stop them from conducting many expeditions out into the surrounding areas over the many thousands of years that they were contained in the alluvial areas. On these expeditions these civilizations became familiar with the surrounding landscape many miles away, if not thousands of miles away, and they took inventory of the resources, the peoples, and all of the various details of the surrounding terrain. These civilizations generally had the policy of slaughtering any small village farmers that they would come across, thus causing the land revert back to hunter/gatherer territory by default. Part of the reason for this policy was for the purpose of keeping the surrounding terrain free of settled peoples, thus making it easier for these civilizations to expand their empires into the surrounding territories when they had the proper technologies. The other reason why the alluvial elites wanted to slaughter the small village peoples in the surrounding territories is because the people in these villages had a better and freer lifestyle, which would set an example of a superior way of life, which would produce cognitive dissonance with the citizens of the alluvial civilizations if they found out about it. As Lewis Mumford beautifully describes in The Myth of the Machine, in many ways there was a lot of joy to life in the neolithic village, largely because of the wild nature of the landscape, the free time available for the inhabitants, and also because people were free from oppressive government and the oppressiveness of too many people overcrowding each other and getting in each other’s way.12
After the metal plow was developed in the alluvial-based civilizations, the larger the non-farming sector became, obviously the greater the need became for increasing food surpluses from the farming sector. Given that the farmer/slaves were already maxed out on their hours worked—dawn to dusk—this extra food surplus was achieved by, (a) increased productivity per labor hour through further advancement in more efficient farming techniques thus allowing the maximum acreage cultivated per farmer; and, (b) imperial expansion by encouraging population growth in order to increase the amount of farmers and thus the total amount of loess soil acreage under cultivation within civilization. Traditional till-based farming societies are endemically undemocratic due to the amount of labor-hours that can be squeezed out of the farmers by the ruling class.13 With constant work there is no way that the farmers can educate themselves enough to keep track of what the ruling class is doing politically; and everybody knows that the level of democracy is dependent on the level of education achieved by the populace. Contrary to the traditional Malthusian view, since the ruling class of the earliest societies up to at least the last third of the twentieth century wanted maximum population growth in order to expand their empires, an argument can be made that, the practice of till agriculture rather than genetically-based human stupidity is the root cause of human ignorance and the endless growth of civilization, totalitarianism and overpopulation,14 along with all the wars and other evils associated with civilization. (Relatively recently, in 1980, The Global 2000 Report to the President was published, and this was one of the more overt signals that the agenda was beginning to shift into the extermination/de-growth/contraction phase (more on this in chapters two and three.))
Once the logic of efficiency in agriculture became ingrained for the purpose of expanding the size of the non-farming class of people, this process of progression inevitably led from a totalitarian civilization to a totalitarian empire. The delta-based civilizations began to turn into a megamachine,15 and the leaders of civilization began to make decisions based on the logic of this machine, and growth for the sake of growth, and greater power for the sake of greater power became an end unto its own.16 A larger military meant the need for greater farm surpluses, and greater farm surpluses required more land and more people, and thus a bigger military was required to take over more land, and to manage more land and more people. Some time after this process took form and kicked into motion, the elites then came up with all sorts of ideas about grandiose things that needed to be built and fancy things that needed to get done; basically laying the foundation of the infrastructure for the first major empires. The more numerous all of these ambitious projects became, the greater the necessity grew for an ever increasing non-farming classes of engineers and specialized tradesmen, and of course the military, for maintaining and expanding the infrastructure. Basically, the simple universal formula was applied to all new lands that the empire expanded onto: kill the natives, till the soil and plant the crops in rows; and in the more sub-tropical and arid regions, irrigation works were installed. Authority within civilization was delegated to slave drivers who would crack the whip to make sure everyone kept to the grindstone. The elites were extremely happy with this arrangement because this kept the entire lower classes completely busy on mindless tasks, and the great hordes had no time or ability to watch what the elites were up to most of the time, let alone hold them accountable.
Consider the work involved with farming the alluvial areas: the plowing and shaping the soil into row-mounds and water channels; the weeding and pulling the remains of the last crop plants; transplanting the seedlings from the germinating area to the growing area, such as how the Chinese transplant the rice plants from the water inundated rice paddies to growing fields; sowing the seeds or seedlings in a perfectly planted and spaced-apart manner; creating, maintaining, and keeping clear the irrigation canals by constantly digging the mud out; physically lifting and/or carrying water from the river up to an irrigation reservoir where the water is finally released into a canal by an irrigation sluice; etc. Many of these activities were only seasonal, but there were many other things for the slaves to do when farming work did not require their full attention such as, re-thatching the roofs of their own private houses; producing many other important useful items for all aspects of society; and, doing maintenance work on much of the public infrastructure. Basically, the government would see to it that there was plenty of make-work that could keep the slaves busy just about every day of the year.
Due to the annual flooding of waters laden with nutrient rich silt, the soils in these alluvial deltas were inexhaustible, regardless of how the farming techniques that might have been practiced carelessly lacked conservation measures. Since the farming methods practiced in these inexhaustible alluvial soils lacked the necessity of soil conservation measures, such measures were almost assuredly not implemented due to the extra effort involved. Such soil conservation measures practiced under traditional organic till agriculture that are required to maintain the fertility in loess soil, but are not required on alluvial soil, include: crop rotation; allowing fields to grow fallow every four to seven years, sown with nitrogen fixing legumes or other cover crops to be tuned under or mulched; composting and recycling all organic wastes, including human waste, back into the soil; planting trees and hedgerows for windbreaks; having small versus large plots surrounded with canal irrigation. The small plots serve the need for integrated pest management, and the canals surrounding the small plots serve the purpose of soil conservation by preventing water from running across large areas in a torrential downpour which would tend to cause gully erosion and generalized topsoil erosion. The canals partly serve the need for soil conservation when heavy rains and winds carry soil into the canals, because the soil can be scooped from the canals and carried back to the fields; etc. Since the first great civilizations all evolved in areas with indestructible alluvial soil and were habituated to such careless farming practices that lacked these conservation measures, this would in part explain why they were so destructive to the loess soils that they later expanded onto.17
What is conventionally known as agriculture is antithetical to natural principles, because when we think of agriculture we think of plowing the soil and clearing the land to make it ready for sowing the seeds of our choosing. In terms of an ecosystem, this is the equivalent to pushing a reset button and forcing nature to begin to rebuild the ecosystem from scratch all over again. Some animals in nature might dig up and eat select plants, but they don’t dig up all the plants on any given piece of land; since in a state of nature all plants and animals are part of, and dependent on mature ecosystems, and reducing the ecosystem to such an extent would end up eliminating the animal that would do such a thing. There is nothing in nature that tears up the land and reduces the ecosystem back to square one, and there is nothing in nature that digs up and loosens the soil and makes it vulnerable to wind and water erosion the way that till farming does. Many books illustrate the degree of destruction to the loess soils that various civilizations have caused with till agriculture, such as: Topsoil and Civilization by Vernon Gill Carter and Tom Dale (1955, 1974); Soil and Civilization by Edward Hyams (1952); Deserts on the March by Paul Sears (1935, 1980); Rape of the Earth: A World Survey of Soil Erosion by G.V. Jacks and R.O. Whyte (1939); Dust Bowl by Donald Worster (1979); and, Soil Conservation by Hugh Bennett (1939). As the plow went through its many technological innovations and became much more efficient at turning over the soil, the rate of destruction to the Earth’s soils began to rise enormously. As Carter and Dale point out, soil erosion is not easy to recognize, and by the time many cultures found out, it was too late.18 A big part of the history of civilization is the history of till agriculture destroying many lands through the process of soil erosion, which in turn causes social dislocation and causes populations to encroach upon and start wars with neighboring populations.19
There have been many artifacts that indicate some form of agriculture was taking place in many different loess soil areas at least as early as the earliest agriculture in the alluvial areas. There seems to be very little known about the form the original farming took that initially began in the loess soil areas of the Earth, due to the lack of record keeping and the lack of artifacts that indicate many details about the earliest farming practices. A lot of what takes place in anthropology is speculation and the piecing together of clues with artifacts, and this is what we will have to resort to here. None of our human records indicate that any major human civilization has been based on natural farming, but this does not mean that natural farming is an inferior type of farming compared to till farming. On the contrary, we need to keep in mind that almost all civilizations based on till farming have been run by tyrants and have been inherently totalitarian by nature, except for rare sporadic revolutionary exceptions in time. Therefore, a good case can be made that till farming is inferior to natural farming since natural farming never had a totalitarian civilization based upon it. Also, it is a very significant fact that mature examples of natural farming in our present day have shown that natural farming can produce just as many calories per acre as till farming, which once again dispels the myth that till farming is superior. From what anthropologists have been able to surmise, neolithic loess soil farming did in fact support humans living in small villages. Yes, life in the Neolithic Age was small-scale and slow-paced, but there is no reason to believe that the natural farming that supported the small neolithic village could not have eventually evolved along with a more complex civilization. No doubt it would have taken longer for a civilization predicted upon natural farming to have evolved compared to the short amount of time that loess-based till civilizations or alluvial civilizations evolved, but many people know that things of quality often take longer than puffed up instant ersatz fraud based literally on a sandy foundation. Needless to say, it would have been much better if people had never begun farming the alluvial areas, or, if the people that had farmed the alluvial areas had been more spiritually evolved and had been willing to keep their civilization confined to the alluvial areas, and had been civil to their neighbors; but this would probably be expecting way too much from our ancient ancestors (at least at this stage of the universe (see chapter six on theoretical cosmology.))
In a classic book entitled, The One-Straw Revolution, and two other succeeding books, Japanese author and farmer Masanobu Fukuoka was the first to demonstrate to many students who visited his farm that he was able to get just as much or more food from his land compared to regular agriculture, and overall his farming methods require far less work than traditional till farming. In stark contrast from the traditional image of rows of plowed soil, the basic concept with the farming methods that Fukuoka refers to as “natural farming” is an overgrown edible jungle, or a human manipulated semi-natural edible ecosystem, with lots of varieties of different food plants all growing together—something that could easily be thought of as a garden-of-eden-like landscape. Later, others followed and began to adopt similar farming principles in what became known as the permaculture movement. Bill Mollison was the first to coin the term permaculture; he credited Fukuoka for his original inspiration20; and at least for our purposes here the term permaculture will be used synonymously with natural farming. Permaculture means permanent ecosystem and permanent ground cover; both of which till agriculture has neither.21 What really is very inspiring about natural farming is: (a) the concept of restoring a thick mature flora and fauna biotic layer back to most of the surface of the Earth, similar to or even more complex than what was there before humans started agriculture; (b) also, this thick biotic layer can be a fantastic habitat for humans to make their home due to an abundant amount of edible living plant and animal species integral to such a habitat; and, (c) the idea that working with nature doesn’t have to be a lot of work, so it can be a win-win for humanity and the environment.
Natural farming, or what Fukuoka calls “do nothing farming” has four rules known as “the four no’s”: no plowing, no composting, no weeding, and no chemicals. Fukuoka talks about minimizing labor through having the wisdom of knowing what truly needs to be done, but even more importantly knowing what does not need to be done in order to nurture an edible ecosystem that (pretty much) does it’s own thing once it has reached maturity. Before it reaches maturity, the setup process can be long and difficult, requiring lots of experimentation, tinkering, and failed efforts before things start to work right. As a final result and after the edible landscape is in full bloom, the natural farmer requires an enormous amount of intimate knowledge of the specific edible ecosystem landscape. Since knowledge plays a much larger role than physical labor, timing is a crucial element: when to harvest, when to cast seeds, when to cast straw for mulch, and when to irrigate are the big questions pertaining to whatever labor is required. Fukuoka’s methods are very subtle and intuitive, and it is very hard to do justice to them and convey much of an understanding of how they function here, but before we continue with our analysis let’s go over some direct quotes from The One-Straw Revolution. The following is his synopsis of the four principles:
“The first is NO CULTIVATION, that is, no plowing or turning of the soil. For centuries, farmers have assumed that the plow is essential for growing crops. However, non-cultivation is fundamental to natural farming. The earth cultivates itself naturally by means of penetration of plant roots and the activity of microorganisms, small animals, and earthworms.
“The second is NO CHEMICAL FERTILIZER OR PREPARED COMPOST.22 People interfere with nature, and, try as they may, they cannot heal the resulting wounds. Their careless farming practices drain the soil of essential nutrients and the result is yearly depletion of the land. If left to itself, the soil maintains its fertility naturally, in accordance with the orderly cycle of plant and animal life.
“The third is NO WEEDING BY TILLAGE OR HERBICIDES. Weeds play their part in building soil fertility and in balancing the biological community. As a fundamental principle, weeds should be controlled, not eliminated. Straw mulch, a ground cover of white clover interplanted with the crops, and temporary flooding provide effective weed control in my fields.
“The fourth is NO DEPENDENCE ON CHEMICALS.23 From the time that weak plants developed as a result of such unnatural practices as plowing and fertilizing, disease and insect imbalance became a great problem in agriculture. Nature, left alone, is in perfect balance. Harmful insects and plant diseases are always present, but do not occur in nature to an extent which requires the use of poisonous chemicals. The sensible approach to disease and insect control is to grow sturdy crops in a healthy environment.”24
Mr. Fukuoka speaking on some of his techniques for growing vegetables:
“…In growing vegetables in a “semi-wild” way, making use of a vacant lot, riverbank or open wasteland, my idea is to just toss out the seeds and let the vegetables grow up with the weeds. I grow my vegetables on the mountainside in the spaces between the citrus trees.
“The important thing is knowing the right time to plant. For the spring vegetables the right time is when the winter weeds are dying back and just before the summer weeds have sprouted.25 For the fall sowing, seeds should be tossed out when the summer grasses are fading away and the winter weeds have not yet appeared.
“It is best to wait for a rain which is likely to last for several days. Cut a swath in the weed cover and put out the vegetable seeds. There is no need to cover them with soil; just lay the weeds you have cut back over the seeds to act as a mulch and to hide them from the birds and chickens until they can geminate. Usually the weeds must be cut back two or three times in order to give the vegetable seedlings a head start, but sometimes just once is enough.
“Where the weeds and clover are not so thick, you can simply toss out the seeds. The chickens will eat some of them, but many will germinate. If you plant in a row or furrow, there is a chance that beetles or other insects will devour many of the seeds. They walk in a straight line. Chickens also spot a patch which has been cleared and come to scratch around. It is my experience that it is best to scatter the seeds here and there.
“Vegetables grown in this way are stronger than most people think. If they sprout up before the weeds, they will not be overgrown later on. There are some vegetables, such as spinach and carrots, which do not germinate easily. Soaking the seeds in water for a day or two, then wrapping them in a little clay pellet, should solve the problem…”26
A few comments on the terms for abandoning chemicals:
“…There are those, however, who say that turning to a non-chemical agriculture to supply the nation’s food is unthinkable. They say that chemical treatments must be used to control the three great rice diseases—stem rot, rice blast disease, and bacterial leaf blight. But if farmers would stop using weak, “improved” seed varieties, stop adding too much nitrogen to the soil, and reduce the amount of irrigation water so that strong roots could develop, these diseases would all but disappear and chemical sprays would become unnecessary.
“At first, the red clay soil in my fields was weak and unsuited for growing rice. Brown spot disease frequently occurred. But as the field gradually grew in fertility, the incidence of brown spot disease decreased. Lately there have been no outbreaks at all.
“With insect damage the situation is the same. The most important thing is not to kill the natural predators. Keeping the field continuously under water or irrigating with stagnant or polluted water will also lead to insect problems. The most troublesome insect pests, summer and fall leaf-hoppers, can be kept under control by keeping water out of the field.
“Green rice leaf-hoppers, living in the weeds over the winter, may become a virus host. If this happens the result is often a loss of ten to twenty percent from rice blast disease. If chemicals are not sprayed, however, there will be many spiders present in the field and one can generally leave the work to them. Spiders are sensitive to even the slightest human tampering and care must always be taken on this account.
“Most people think that if chemical fertilizer and insecticides were abandoned agricultural yields would fall to a fraction of the present level. Experts on insect damage estimate that losses in the first year after giving up insecticides would be about five percent. Loss of another five percent in abandoning chemical fertilizer would probably not be far mistaken.
“That is, if the use of water in the rice field were curtailed, and the chemical fertilizer and pesticide spraying encouraged by the Agricultural Co-op were abandoned, the average losses in the first year would probably reach about ten percent. The recuperative power of nature is great beyond imagining and after this initial loss, I believe harvests would increase and eventually surpass their original level.”27
His expression of triumphant exhilaration when two very important breakthroughs were achieved simultaneously, growing rice in a dry field without using a plow:
“I have made a lot of mistakes while experimenting over the years and have experienced failures of all kinds. I probably know more about what can go wrong growing agricultural crops than anyone else in Japan. When I succeeded for the first time in growing rice and winter grain with the non-cultivation method, I felt as joyful as Columbus must have felt when he discovered America.”28
Fukuoka on the limits of the scientific method:
“Before researchers become researchers they should become philosophers. They should consider what the human goal is, what it is that humanity should create. Doctors should first determine at the fundamental level what it is that human beings depend on for life.
“In applying my theories to farming, I have been experimenting in growing my crops in various ways, always with the idea of developing a method close to nature. I have done this by whittling away unnecessary agricultural practices.
“Modern scientific agriculture, on the other hand, has no such vision. Research wanders about aimlessly, each researcher seeing just one part of the infinite array of natural factors which affect harvest yields. Furthermore, these natural factors change from place to place and from year to year.
“Even though it is the same quarter acre, the farmer must grow his crops differently each year in accordance with variations in weather, insect populations, the condition of the soil, and many other natural factors. Nature is everywhere in perpetual motion; conditions are never exactly the same in any two years.
“Modern research divides nature into tiny pieces and conducts tests that conform neither with natural law nor with practical experiences. The results are arranged for the convenience of research, not according to the needs of the farmer. To think that these conclusions can be put to use with invariable success in the farmer’s field is a big mistake.
“…A scientific testing method which takes all relevant factors into account is an impossibility.
“…It appears that things go better when the farmer applies “scientific” techniques, but this does not mean that science must come to the rescue because the natural fertility is inherently insufficient. It means that rescue is necessary because the natural fertility has been destroyed.
“By spreading straw, growing clover, and returning to the soil all organic residues, the earth comes to possess all the nutrients needed to grow rice and winter grain in the same field year after year. By natural farming, fields that have already been damaged by cultivation or the use of agricultural chemicals can be effectively rehabilitated.” 29
If science instead had as its goal to serve natural farming and other harmonious holistic outcomes in actuality, maybe Fukuoka would have felt differently about it. Maybe the real problem is how the scientific method is defined, because it seems that there should be a way for humanity to study natural farming in different geographical regions in order to gather knowledge and organize information pertaining to rainfall patterns, soil types, regional biotic and ecosystem variation, etc., that might be useful for farmers struggling to perfect natural farming habitats.
1 Charles A. Reed, 1977, “Origins of Agriculture: Discussion and Conclusions”, p. 942, in Charles A. Reed (ed.) Origins of Agriculture. “The low density of population of hunter/gatherers was maintained by widely-spaced births, frequent infanticides, and occasional episodes of local intensified death rates during droughts, floods, or particularly severe winters; this latter factor would obviously be of greater importance in regions away from the tropics.”
2 Many people, at least the ones with money, in the more privileged “developed” G-8 or G-20 countries have not known famine due to the unfair trading advantages these countries have enjoyed in relation to the more poor disadvantaged nations. If one of these privileged countries have crop failures or shortages due to drought for instance, these countries merely buy up extra crops from other nations around the world, and often take food out of the mouths of many poor people in the more poor countries. This luxurious privilege could soon come to an end for many people in the developed world if the current economic situation continues to slide in the direction it is heading.
3 “Back to the Pleistocene” is a famous slogan of The Earth First! Movement and the philosophy of ‘Deep Ecology.’ Some basic references are, John Davis (ed.), 1991, The Earth First! Reader: Ten Years of Radical Environmentalism; Bill Devall and George Sessions (eds.), 1985, Deep Ecology: Living As Nature Mattered; Michael Tobias (ed.), 1984, 1988, Deep Ecology.
4 The geographical exception to this other than the alluvial areas would be the dry areas (what Allan Savory refers to as “brittle” environments, where the rainfall is sporadic, seasonally undependable, and/or low in aggregate to the point that it has been a contributing factor in causing the plant biodiversity, and therefore the animal biodiversity of the environment to be very simplified and monoculturated over the past eons of time. Savory explains that it is not just the inches of rainfall that matter for diversified ecosystems with high biomass, but the rainfall patterns. Instead of a single torrential downpour accounting for most of the rain for the year in a given location, a much better rainfall pattern would be lighter rains multiple times a year.) Quite often natives would grow one harvest of grain and maybe some legumes in the same season per year, and be hunter/gatherers throughout most of the rest of the year. They would wait for the weather to look like it was going to rain, use fire to clear a section of the land, and then they would just toss out their crop seeds. Using fire to clear land in brittle environments for agriculture tends to degrade the soil and further simplify the biological diversity, and is generally known as swidden agriculture. Swidden agriculture is not till-based but nor is it considered natural farming, because swidden agriculture generally requires long periods of time (in between periodic semi-controlled burns) where the land remains fallow; therefore it is not a permanent ecosystem, so it doesn’t qualify by any means to be labeled as permaculture or natural farming.
5 In the introduction to A Forest Journey by John Perlin, 1989, p. 1, Lester Brown mentions that many anthropologists believe that the Sahara Desert was caused by logging.
6 In order to be clear on terminology, the following nomenclature is a listing of some of the various time periods. The term Paleolithic Age is an anthropological term, meaning—paleo or early, and lithos which is Greek for the word stone; early Stone Age—and is the earliest age that humans and our ancestral primates used stones for tools, which some anthropologists claim could go back as far as 3,000,000 years B.P (before present.) The Paleolithic Age overlaps with the last half of the Pliocene geological epoch and covers the entire time span of the later Pleistocene epoch, which ends simultaneously with the Paleolithic Age. The Pleistocene is a geological term which means the age of at least four major Ice Ages which span from 1,600,000 B.P. to 17,000 B.P. (creationists question if we even had an Ice Age, and many believe that we had a flood or floods instead.) The Holocene epoch is the current post-Ice Age geological period, which is characterized as the age of humanity. The Mesolithic Age (17,000 to 10,000 B.P.)—or middle Stone Age—is generally defined as the period from the end of the last Ice Age and the beginning of the Holocene to the age of the beginning of agriculture. Since the time of the beginning of agriculture differed in different geographical areas, the end of the Mesolithic Age varies depending on the area in question. The Neolithic Age (10,000 to 6,000 B.P.)—or late Stone Age—marks the beginning of the age of agriculture to the beginning of the Bronze Age (6,000 to 3,000 B.P.) The Iron Age began somewhat before 3000 B.P. in western Asia and Egypt. All of these dates usually mark the approximate beginning of a significant change in human culture at the first particular location of the change, but obviously such changes happened at different times for different human cultures.
7 Lewis Mumford, 1966, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development, p. 127.
8 Ibid., p. 134.
9 Karl Wittfogel, 1957, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, p. 23.
10 This economic principle, otherwise known as the socialization of the rental value of land, benefited the warlords, but they also bore the burden of fighting other warlords beyond their local geographical province. This system ostensibly created more peace and less fighting over land within the province, because this system created more equality as to the comparative benefit of occupying one piece of land versus another. The socialization of land-rent much later became a major issue starting with the French Physiocrats in eighteenth century classical economics, and will be dealt with in chapter three. A basic textbook dealing with this would be, A History of Economic Doctrines: From the Time of the Physiocrats to the Present Day, 1913, by Charles Gide and Charles Rist.
11 For example see, Robert J. Wenke, 1980, Patterns in Prehistory: Mankind’s First Three Million Years, Chapter 8: “The Origins of Complex Societies.”
12 Lewis Mumford, 1966, op. cit., pp. 156-162.
13 Some people would take issue with this statement, citing for example the early American Republic. This was a unique exception never to happen again due to the fact that a certain amount of freedom and independence had to be allowed for the frontier farmers because they had a brand new continent to settle. As soon as the continent was settled the freedom quickly evaporated.
14 Not the faux overpopulation during the Mesolithic Period that supposedly pushed us into agriculture which could have been the truly evolutionary if we had learned from our mistakes with till or swidden agriculture and converted over to permaculture a lot sooner (to be explained later.)
15 Lewis Mumford refers to totalitarian civilization as the megamachine. The reason why he used the phrase The Myth of the Machine as the title of his book was for the purpose of highlighting the myth that the machine was invented in the Industrial Revolution. Many people insist that the Egyptian pyramids couldn’t have been built without advanced technology, and they debate whether they were built by extraterrestrials or by some other super-ancient and super-advanced civilization. Regardless of whether the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids or not, we know from much other historical evidence that their civilization was extremely totalitarian and machine-like. This historical fact has bolstered the image that mainstream anthropology has conjured up, of huge numbers of slave-laborers being forced to work in unison like a megamachine to build the Egyptian pyramids without modern technology.
16 Langdon Winner’s book, 1977, Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought, is a masterful treatise about how the logic of technology becomes the dominant theme in society. Contrary to the idea of the ruling class being autonomous and making the ultimate decisions, Winner explains how techno-logic dictates to the ruling class what decisions they are going to make about every aspect of life.
17 Vernon Gill Carter and Tom Dale, 1974, Topsoil and Civilization, pp. 63-64.
18 Ibid., p. 102.
19 Ibid., p. 7, “Many historians point out the fact that most wars and colonizing movements were started because someone wanted more land. But seldom do they note that the conquerors or colonizers had often ruined their own land before they started to take that of their neighbors. Most writers of current history recognize that the strong and wealthy nations of today are those with abundant natural resources. But, too often, they forget that many of the poor and weak nations once had plenty. They do not note that most of the poor peoples of the earth are poor mainly because their ancestors wasted the natural resources on which present generations must live.” Carter and Dale’s Topsoil and Civilization is probably one of the best books in highlighting the fact that soil erosion has been the most significant cause for the decline of many past civilizations.
20 Barbara Dunlap audio interview with Bill Mollison, aired on KPFK, Pacifica radio in 1990.
21 Permaculture is a term that has become popular these days, and it is therefore probably no surprise that it has lost some of its original meaning in various circles. This could be partly because everybody wants instant permaculture in spite of the fact that Fukuoka talks about how long it can take to get natural farming to work correctly. Bill Mollison could be partly responsible for this because he hasn’t emphasized the length of time permaculture could take to mature. Quite often it seems that permaculture is used in a relative sense—something that is more sustainable than modern agribusiness, instead of a distinct sense—something that is a completely different mode-of-production. Since modern agribusiness is so bad, any type of farming that is organic is relatively sustainable. For many people the term permaculture implies nothing different from till intensive small-scale organic horticulture and it carries with it no meaning of permanent ground cover and permanent ecosystem.
22 “For fertilizer Mr. Fukuoka grows a leguminous ground cover of white clover, returns the threshed straw to the fields, and adds a little poultry manure.”
23 “Mr. Fukuoka grows his grain crops without chemicals of any kind. On some orchard trees he occasionally uses a machine oil emulsion for the control of insect scales. He uses no persistent or broad-spectrum poisons, and has no pesticide “program.”
24 Masanobu Fukuoka, 1978, The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, pp. 33-34.
25 “This method of growing vegetables has been developed by Mr. Fukuoka by trial and experiment in accordance with local conditions. Where he lives there are dependable spring rains, and a climate warm enough to grow vegetables in all seasons. Over the years he has come to know which vegetables can be grown among which weeds and the kind of care each requires.
“In most parts of North America the specific method Mr. Fukuoka uses for growing vegetables would be impractical. It is up to each farmer who would grow vegetables in the semi-wild manner to develop a technique appropriate to the land and the natural vegetation.”
26 Ibid., pp. 66-67.
27 Ibid., pp. 70-71.
28 Ibid., p. 52.
29 Ibid., pp. 74-76.
Copyright 2017 Mark Andrews and Jasmine Publications