What’s in a name?

Who to believe: experts or common sense? The evidence of our senses as we live in the world or the bewildering arguments of rival scientists, journals and institutions? In her 2009 book, Naming Nature, Carol Kaesuk Yoon provides a brief history of taxonomy–the naming and ordering of all life forms–though her captivating story includes questions that touch us all.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a widespread interest in nature led people of all ages and stations in life to scrabble together their own natural history collections. Kings and queens imported elephants and rhinoceroses, parrots and monkeys from distant colonies. The aristocracy planted exotic trees on their estates and grew rare flowers in hothouses. Pressed specimens featured in herbaria. Bottles full of preservatives housed such treasures as the blackbelly triggerfish, armadillos, and fetuses both human and animal. Taverns displayed more outlandish things yet: the penis of a whale, stuffed hummingbirds, snakes from South America, and a starved cat discovered between the walls of Westminster Abbey. As Yoon writes: “The world was full of astonishing things, things that made people desperately curious and to which they felt an easy and intimate connection.”

Butterfly collector, daguerreotype, ca. 1850

Yoon introduces a key term in biology, umwelt. This German word literally means “the environment” or “the world around.” For scientists studying animal behavior, Yoon comments, “the umwelt signifies the perceived world, the world sensed by an animal, a view idiosyncratic to each species, fuelled by its particular sensory and cognitive powers and limited by its deficits.” A dog appreciates the world differently from how a bee does or a mole or an earthworm or bacterium. People see the world in their own way as well.

Underlying our vision of the world is a search for order and place. We start by identifying creatures–naming living things, learning about them and gauging their relationship to other like and dislike creatures. One’s umwelt includes a feeling of connection to other living things, as best we see them, and relatedness. This feeling is very strong in us–all cultures name the creatures around them and organize them into groups such as meat eaters or songbirds or fruit-trees. As we observe different life cycles and behaviors, our sense impressions and identification skills form a background of familiar knowledge that is central to our sense of place and well being. It’s one of the first things we teach our children–information they’re eager to learn.

Sadly, as specialists take over, the insatiable curiosity of the public for natural history loses ground or diverts to other areas. Beyond a few animal shows on TV and the dinosaur phase of small children, it’s gotten to the point where the ordinary person can distinguish a “tree” or a “flower,” but couldn’t possibly differentiate one kind from another. This disaffection for nature has come in the midst of the greatest mass extinction of species in the history of the planet. Few people know it’s happening or seem to care, and have no sense of how this loss will affect humanity’s own future.

We no longer think of coffee as a plant, but as a product connected to favourite brands.

What has taken its place is our avid differentiation of brands and products. As Yoon writes: “Today, we effortlessly perceive an order among the many different kinds of human-made, purchasable items. Instead of sorting living things by size, shape, color, smell, and sound, we sort merchandise this way, obsessed and immersed as we are in a world of products … We are modern-day hunter-gatherers who do our hunting and gathering, not in the wilds, but at shops and grocery stores.”

It’s not just that specialists have taken over the field of nature. As Yoon outlines, the specialists cannot agree on anything. And one reason they cannot agree is because they are blinded by their umwelt. Human senses are deceiving. For one thing we think of creatures as having fixed, easily identifiable traits and markings. Darwin changed this view. No living thing is fixed; all species vary from one location to another, from one environment to another. The more scrupulous one is in collecting samples, the more these variations will become apparent.

So how to determine where one species starts and another ends? As Yoon outlines, scientists must ignore their umwelt. Instead of relying on observation and instinct, biologists now use statistics, lab tests, genetics and other indicators to place one creature in relationship to another. With all these tools, there is still room to disagree. Taxonomy is not unique in being a discipline marred by dissension, petty feuds and squabbles. I suspect the same holds true of most academic disciplines.

In contrast to the scientists who cannot agree on basic principles, Yoon describes a fascinating experiment conducted by Brent Berlin at the University of California Berkeley. He created a list of bird names and fish names in the language spoken by the Huambisa of the Peruvian rainforest. To get a taste of the experiment, try to distinguish bird from fish in the following lists:

A.

  1. chunchikit (choon-chew-EE-kit)
  2. chichikia (Chee-chee-KEE-ah)
  3. teres (tih-RISS)
  4. yawarach (yaw-wah-RAHTICH)
  5. waikia (wa-EE-kee-ah)

B.

  1. mats (MAW-oots)
  2. katan (kah-TAHN)
  3. takaikit (tah-KA-ee-keet)
  4. tuikcha (too-EEK-cha)
  5. kanuskin (kah-NOOS-kin)

For the five pairs, here are the bird names: chunchikit, chichikia, takaikit, tuikcha, waikia. How did you do? Quite well, I imagine. That’s because “the bird names are the ones that go tweet, tweet.” Yoon comments: Humans perceive birds in a universally similar way, often named after the sounds they make. Example chickadee.

It’s part of human nature to be curious about nature, to name different species and create a system of order. Learning the names of living beings from culture and tradition helps us relate to those beings, feel they are part of our world. Even if mistakes are made, it’s better to be wrong and invested, than to relinquish the task altogether.

Science may increase knowledge, but not increase how we feel or care about the world. This is why Yoon believes there is still place for folk knowledge, a place for the amateur naturalist and casual observer. “If we hope to revive and save our dying world, to recapture our connection to it, we must breathe a little life back into our vision of it.”

Kathleen Jamie, Poet Naturalist

Kathleen Jamie in 2017. Photo by by Jemimah Kuhfeld

Kathleen Jamie is a poet who writes books about nature, islands, vanished cultures and the people who study these sorts of things. She travels and observes, often as the guest of a scientific study, yet remains remarkably free of agendas, political or otherwise. Here’s an example from her chapter on “the Storm Petrel.” (from Sightlines, 2012) 

The account begins: “We found it on Rona, the very day we arrived … “ The “it” in question is the body of a dead bird. A biologist friend recognizes it as a storm petrel–unusual to find a bird like this with an identification ring. Jamie looks it up in a reference book–she is as much a collector of language as she is of natural curiosities—and notes how storm petrels are “essentially pelagic;” “they never occur inland except as storm driven waifs.” Jamie compares this “scientific” description with a description by the poet Richard Murphy, which begins: “Gypsy of the sea/ In winter wambling over scurvy whaleroads/ Jooking in the wake of ships …” 

The bird is petite: “you’d think storm petrels too small to jook anywhere at all.” Jamie describes the ring around its foot, and provides a background on the practice of ringing birds in Britain. The ring she’s recovered bears the words: “Inform British Museum.” Jamie does so, filling in an on-line form. She shares with the reader each question and answer, very factual and explicit. Then she muses on what other questions might have been asked, such as “smell of bird?” Her answer: “mysterious, musky, like an unguent.” 

Waiting for the British Museum’s response, Jamie muses on the furious 18th century debate on bird migration. Gilbert White is quoted at length. Jamie comments on his unusual words and phrases, beginning with the odd word “hibernaculum”: “Hybernaculum,” Jamie notes, “is his word for the winter quarters a swallow repairs to, but where was this hibernaculum? His other words were interesting too. ‘Embarrassment’ and ‘mortification’ almost suggest that the Enlightenment just then dawning, all that science and discovery, might have been driven not by the will to master and possess nature, but out of chagrin. As human beings, our ignorance was beginning to shame us, because we didn’t know the least things, like where swallows went in winter.” 

Jamie receives an answer to her ring inquiry. The bird was ringed on the island of Yell, one of the northernmost Shetland Islands, which she knows well. Jamie gets out her maps and sea charts to trace the journey her storm petrel made. She senses the absurdity of the exercise: “They migrate from Shetland or Rona or their many other breeding places, down to the vast pelagic hibernaculum off Namibia and South Africa. A few come to grief … some bearing a return address. An address! Ludicrous thing for a storm petrel to carry. ‘The Ocean’ would be their address …” 

She concludes: “So that’s why I keep the bird’s remains, here in this room, my own hibernaculum—if only for a while … I keep it for the intimacy, and for the petrel smell: fusty, musky, suggestive of a distant island in summer. And I keep it out of sheer respect because, in life, this ounce of a bird had made twenty-four return trips the length of the Atlantic. Twenty-four at least—which is not bad at all, for a waif, wambling

Biodiversity Museum

The Beaty Diodiversity Museum in Vancouver

How is a museum like a morgue? The bodies inside have tags on their toes. That’s the feeling I get walking through these pristine displays of bones and stuffed birds in the black-walled basement of the Beaty Diodiversity Museum on UBC campus. There’s a sense of being in the storage vaults of a collection rather than being in a showroom.

Dinosaur bones

For example, these dinosaur bones are not assembled into some spectacular crowd-pleasing giant. Instead the bones are randomly tossed into a box that evokes an archaeologist’s dig—the raw materials of a collection without layers of interpretation shaping the viewer’s response. 

This museum boasts an unusual but functional water feature.

That’s not all that makes this museum different. Bulrushes and other swamp-loving plants naturally purify water and so there’s a channel of blue-green algae leading to the museum, winding its way through tall unmowed grasses and piles of compost. 

Wild grass with students

Outside the entrance to the museum, students preoccupied with messaging, pass fields of grass, swamp and brambles of trees. This urban wilderness makes everyone more relaxed, even those who don’t quite know they’re walking through it. 

Signage

What’s a museum without signage? Good communication uses striking details with comparisons to familiar things to help us grasp the wonders of whales and other creatures. This fun fact is placed near the blue whale skeleton hanging in the foyer.

Carnivores

In keeping with the sense of being behind closed doors of a research facility, the curators have arranged long cabinets with pull out drawers containing specimens and explanations of current projects by faculty of UBC biology department. The focus is on relationships between creatures living in a shared environment rather than on individual species. You’d need to spend some time to appreciate the scope of the inquiries. The quick glance we had was fascinating.

As we were leaving, we found this card game with a theme of ecology.

Mountains, B.C.

Mountain, mist, lake

I travelled to Whistler, British Columbia recently with my wife Kathleen. This was a different vacation for us. Much of our time was spent outdoors. We’d come off season, just before the ski hills opened, but it worked out well for us as we mixed family time with small doses of nature and got a better appreciation of where Kathleen’s son Jay lives and why he’s there. 

Sunlight, shadows, mountain
I encountered this glowing wild flower on the side of the ski hill.

While I was there, I took a few photos. My current art project starts with close-up details of nature, but I also step back and record a wider view, the way filmmakers construct reality. One of the hardest things to photograph is sunlight, to appreciate how life depends on the light and energy of the sun. Light is the first element of art, as is shadow. A mystic might say we journey from a life of shadows toward the light.

Mountains meets the sea

I had feared living amongst a ring of mountains might get claustrophobic. The reality is they’re always changing, especially if you’re on the move. I get glimpses of them on our peregrinations around lakes and forests and along stretches of highway, power lines and ski slopes. 

Crows watch over a parking lot in Creekside, with mountains visible in background.

I’m reminded of Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji, a travelogue of 19th century Japan, showing the country through a series of pictures. In each picture, the landscape and activities change, except for one element, the mountain in the background. As I travel the back roads and hiking trails of Whistler, I get the idea that I could do a similar project, featuring Canadian mountain peaks.

The Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler was greatly improved for the Olympics. Here Kathleen poses with her son Jay, who served as agreeable tour guide.
The cranes of Horseshoe Bay.

The Sea to Ski highway has conveniently placed viewing stations. We stopped at Horseshoe Bay for lunch. It’s a lovely spot, picturesque with its views of ocean, busy with ferry traffic to outlying islands. In my nature shots, I often like to include traces of human intervention. These cranes gave a sense of scale to the mountain. One senses how precarious it is to build on these steep slopes, combined with the imperative to balance human activity with appreciation for the wonders of nature.

How to write a quick essay

Snoopy began his stormy writing career in July 1965 with a memorable first line lifted from 19th century novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. (Charles Schulz Museum)

There are probably a hundred ways to write a good essay, but this is my default for when panic stations start ringing.

  1. Select a topic (5 min.)
  2. Find 3 articles on this topic (5 min.)
  3. Select 1 quote from each article. It is important to introduce voices and ideas other than your own. (5 min.)
  4. In one sentence provide some context for the quote or simply paraphrase the quote (put it in your own words). This sentence is placed either before or after the quote. (5 min.)
  5. Write a sentence that puts two of the quotes in opposition to each other (opposing views). (5 min.)
  6. Write a sentence that sets up 3rd quote as the resolution (the way out) of these opposing views. (5 min.)
  7. Add a sentence that adds your own thought to this resolution. (5 min.)
  8. Write a concluding sentence that sums up what you learned about the topic while writing the paper, and also suggest future questions. (5 min.)
  9. Write the introduction, which mentions the topic, the debate around it, and why the reader should care about this. Though you write this sentence last, it is the first and most important sentence of your essay. (5 min.)
  10. This will give you the nuts and bolts of a reasonably decent essay. You could stop here, reread, and polish a second draft. (15 min)

Total: 1 hour

To create a slightly better essay, here is an additional step:

  1. Insert 2 or 3 examples or literary quotes (if you are writing about Shakespeare, for instance, this is where you insert quotes from Shakespeare’s plays), which relate in some way to your topic. If your topic is not Shakespeare, but say, advertising, this is where you insert images of ads and comment in your own words on these images. Here’s the trick: forget for a minute the arguments in your text and just write in your own words what most intrigues you about the image or the quote. This will give your essay a little sparkle and keep it from being too robotic. (15 min.)

Sample Exercise: Is Advertising Art?

Intro: Ads use sophisticated design and clever campaigns to sway human behaviour. But does this cleverness and influence make them art? The critics who answer yes point out how ads reflect current cultural values. The critics who answer no think art has a higher purpose. There is a third view that states art and ads often benefit from each other and in fact feed off of one another. To understand this, we need to consider the changing role of media in contemporary society.

  1. Yes, ads reflects culture (commercialism is part of culture), the time period, technology and values of the day. Insert quote 1: Matt Miller, president of the body that oversees ads in the USA, defines art as “a reflection and expression of what is happening in society.” Using this broad definition, Miller notes how we live in an era of mass media, global trade and instant messaging: ads finance the media, encourage trade and adopt to the latest technology at lightning speed.
  2. This argument is countered by Mary Warlick, art historian and executive director of The One Club, a New York trade organization. Quote 2: “Art is visual imagery that is meant to elevate thinking in an aesthetic context. [In contrast] what advertising does is give a visual record of our cultural ambiance and history, our tastes, our trends, our wants, our needs, our buying. It is never meant to elevate us to that higher plane.” (AdWeek, Nov. 12, 2001) Ads may be a reflection of contemporary culture and current trends, but that isn’t the purpose of art. Art helps us become more self-aware, to think critically and empathize more with other people. Advertising corrupts thinking and makes us selfish and short-sighted. It makes material things more important than relationships and always suggests there is a shortcut to happiness through the purchase of a product.
  3. There is common ground: Quote 3: To the question, “is advertising art,” author Jonathan Glancey answers: “is art advertising? The simple answer to these questions is that art feeds advertising and vice versa.” (The Independent, July 1995)

Artists work on ads; ads feature artwork. Beyond this, there is an enormous gray area where ads and content overlap, such as a beautifully crafted music video that advertises a song. Film trailers are obviously ads, but they need to be clever, fun, exciting, provocative—they need to be artistic—or no one would watch them and share them.

  1. My own thought: Western culture is moving in the direction where everyone is an artist, as Joseph Beuys predicted in the 1960s. The technology of smart phones and social media are the keys to these new citizen-artists. The trend started a hundred years ago when people started buying low-cost Brownie cameras and began recording their own lives. But smartphones and social media have taken it to another level of speed and accessibility. We continually revise, update and share family pictures, and use images to carefully craft our own public personas, selectively posting selfies and snapshots that promote our most popular and adventurous selves. These are advertisements for ourselves.

Conclusion: This state of citizen-artists continually talking and sharing with one another through media makes us all very art-smart, media-savvy. Ads reflect this desire to be as in-the-know, as mobile, as self-crafting of public image as possible. Everyone is an artist and all images are art because there is no alternative. There is no media innocence in the age of total connectivity.

Extra Step: Examples of a Calvin Klein ad featuring an Andy Warhol artwork, a Moncler ad featuring Chinese artist Liu Bolan.

Here is the final essay. Good luck to all you midnight crammers.

Prankster Philosopher

René Magritte. Son of Man, 1964, with lego spin off.

I have a friend who everyone loves. When he enters a room, he cannot be ignored. He talks to everyone whether he knows them or not. He is always talking, teasing, pulling someone’s leg. You might call him the class clown, only he’s middle-aged and there’s no class. Truth be told, he’s a self-made millionaire, retired, loves sports, travels the world and has as much fun as humanly possible. But he also likes to stir up trouble.

When he’s alone with me, he poses tricky philosophical questions: what is happiness? What do we do with people who spread hateful ideas? My friend reasons like this: if you hate hateful people, aren’t you yourself being hateful? Sometimes I take my interrogator seriously and engage in a discussion with him, examining the pros and cons of different positions. Just when I think the discussion is coming to a close, my friend returns to the beginning and tries to restart the entire argument again.

At this point, I realize my friend is more prankster than philosopher. Philosophers attempt to free our minds from falling into circular traps, repeating the same arguments over and over. Yet when I say I haven’t time, my prankster friend says I’m too serious for my own good. Why so serious? he asks. Why is your time more important than my time? Can you answer without squandering precious moments?

The prankster becomes philosopher. But only for a moment because there’s too much fun to be had, too many games to play, too many places to go, to lose time losing it.

Talking about Art

leaftalkposter-copy

A group of friends recently met at my sister’s house in Hantsport for an experimental event. We billed the evening as Talking about Art. On a large blank wall, we projected images of artworks, illustrations, ads and movie clips. With each image, we invited the assembled guests to contribute any impressions or ideas the images evoked. There were common themes and two moderators helped stir the group in useful directions. The evening was sponsored by the Robert Pope Foundation.

Death in the News

Interview with Death, cartoon by Ed McKean, 2016

Interview with Death, cartoon by Ed McKean, 2016

Death is in the news, but refuses to give any answers. This is my take on recent terrorist attacks and the attention given to these tragic and senseless incidents on news outlets.

David Bowie: Layers of Ghosts

Bowie poses with Cher on the set of her TV show in 1975.

Bowie poses with Cher on the set of her TV show in 1975.

In the days following David Bowie’s death. I listened to the songs “Life on Mars?” and “The Bewlay Brothers” from the 1971 album Hunky Dory. The lyrics intrigued me.

I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax
Unbelievable … And my brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you
He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature
Shooting up pie in the sky
Bewlay brothers

Life on MarsSurely there’s bit of self-portrait in this description. I found a link to a story written by Bowie for the Daily Mail, I went to buy shoes, I came back with Life on Marsdescribing 10 favourite underrated songs. Both “Life on Mars?” and “Bewlay Brothers” make the list. About the latter song, Bowie writes:

“The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late Sixties and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen – in place of my own. This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.”

I must write Merriam-Webster and suggest they add a new definition for palimpsest: layers of ghosts. The Hunky Dory album has its fair share of ghosts, along with a touch of Nietzsche, aliens, and tributes to other musicians. It’s this mixture of influences, delivered with glitter and angst, that gives Bowie’s work such a unique sense of modernity and other-worldliness.

Bowie helps transition us from the 60s world of peace, love and long hair to a Millennial world of sound and vision, mobile devices and remixed songs. Remixed everything. Among the countless Bowie tributes, I found this delightful illustration substituting Bowie for the Little Prince with the caption; “The man who fell to Earth is back amongst the stars. Rest in peace, David Bowie. Illustration/caption by Jarrett J. Krosoczka.”

Bowie as the Little PrinceThe musician starts the conversation and fans keep it going. On a recent CBC News story, we’re told that Canadian DJ Skratch Bastid’s remix of Bowie’s song, “Let’s Dance” has become a Facebook meme with over 8 million views in five days.

When I think of mash-ups and Bowie, his cut-up writing method comes to mind. Taking his cue from William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Bowie used scissors and pen to spark new thoughts. I ask myself, what would a mash-up of Bowie lyrics look like? Let’s give it a try:

It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair (Life on Mars)

He lays her down, he frowns
“Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I
still too young?” (Young Americans)

“You got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” (Rebel Rebel)

“Are you OK?
You’ve been shot in the head
And I’m holding your brains” (Seven Years in Tibet)

I’m looking for a vehicle, I’m looking for a ride
I’m looking for a party, I’m looking for a side. (Candidate)

He says he’s a beautician and sells you nutrition and keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear. (Jean Genie)

You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear (Space Oddity)

So I’ll break up my room and yawn and run to the centre of things. (Sweet Thing)

News guy wept when he told us Earth was really dying. (Five Years)

“I’ll make you a deal like any other candidate.” (Candidate)

Seems you’re trying not to lose
Since I’m not supposed to win. (Win)

Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair (Rock n roll suicide)

Every chance,
every chance that I take
I take it on the road… (Always Crashing in the Same Car)

I’ve lived all over the world
I’ve left every place. (Be My Wife)

You will be like your dreams tonight. (Joe the Lion)

I’m the space invader. (Moorage Daydream)

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange) (Changes)

Then let it be, it’s all I ever wanted
It’s a street with a deal, and a taste
It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you … (Sweet Thing reprise)

Multiple conversations. The search for experience. Exhibitionist finds relief in theatre, masks. The future looks bleak. Experience is filtered through news, media, entertainment. Distrust politicians. Rock ‘n roll is a collective experience. Fame is a trap. Keep dreaming. Space aliens. Nothing is permanent. Embrace change.

My final thought on Bowie: he doesn’t just change for the sake of change. He grows. He develops, he educates himself by traveling, working with gifted people, stretching himself through relationships, marriages, films, families. He stretches himself by renouncing a popular path for an uncertain path. He teaches us all how to become an alien and thrive.

Thanks Bowie, it’s been a blast.

One Straw Revolution



Masanobu FukuokaMasanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was a visionary ecologist, farmer and author. His pursuit of a balanced life within a healthy productive environment was carried out on a small scale, but with an originality and defiance of accepted wisdom that has inspired others around the world. “The ultimate goal of farming,” Mr. Fukuoka says, “is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” (One Straw Revolution, p. xiv)

Fukuoka began his career as a scientist based in Yokohama working for the Japanese government. He researched ways of combatting diseases in valuable agricultural crops. He was happy and successful. Then, while still a young man, he was hospitalized with pneumonia. During his recovery, he had a spiritual awakening, which led him to question everything he had previously been taught. He scoured the countryside in search of traditional farms, asking about farming methods before the arrival of modern chemicals and large machinery. Could it be that the technology used in industrial farming was creating more problems than it solved? Were the designers of ever-more powerful fertilizers, pesticides and genetically-modified crops moving in the wrong direction? Was there an alternative path that would not be so disruptive of native eco-systems?

Fukuoka resigned his government position to become a farmer, moving back to his father’s farm on the southern island of Shikoku to take care of a hillside orchard. Here Fukuoka applied traditional non-invasive approaches to growing fruit and rice. News of his unusual methods spread and visitors began arriving at his farm, many of whom became volunteer workers. Teaching these young recruits led Fukuoka to jot down his ideas. The resulting book, One Straw Revolution, published in 1975, was an astonishing statement of a creed of simplicity and adherence to natural ways.

In his preface to the English language edition that appeared in 1978,  poet and activist Wendell Berry comments: “Mr. Fukuoka has understood that we cannot isolate one aspect of life from another. When we change the way we grow our food, we change our food, we change society, we change our values. And so this book is about paying attention to relationships, to causes and effects, and it is about being responsible for what one knows.” (p. xii)

OneStrawREv

Here is a sampling from the book. I start with Fukuoka’s contrast of his own traditional farm with that of a modernized neighbouring farm.

“Make your way carefully through these fields. Dragonflies and moths fly up in a flurry. Honeybees buzz from blossom to blossom. Part the leaves and you will see insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, and many other small animals bustling about in the cool shade. Moles and earthworms burrow beneath the surface. This is a balanced rice field ecosystem. Insect and plant communities maintain a stable relationship here. It is not uncommon for a plant disease to sweep through the area, leaving the crops in these fields unaffected.

“And now look over at the neighbor’s field for a moment. The weeds have all been wiped out by herbicides and cultivation. The soil animals and insects have been exterminated by poison. The soil has been burned clean of organic matter and micro-organisms by chemical fertilizers. In the summer you see farmers at work in the fields, wearing gas masks and long rubber gloves. These rice fields, which have been farmed continuously for over 1,500 years, have now been laid waste by the exploitive farming practices of a single generation.”

Fukuoka goes on to outline the core ideas that differentiate his approach from large commercial practices. He calls these the “four principles of natural farming.”

“The first is no cultivation, that is, no plowing or turning of the soil. For centuries, farmers assumed that plowing is essential for growing crops. However, non-cultivation is fundamental to natural farming. The earth cultivates itself naturally be means of the penetration of plant roots and the activities of micro-organisms, small animals and earthworms. The second is no chemical fertilizer or prepared compost. People interfere with nature, and, try as they may, they cannot heal the resulting wounds. The third is no weeding by tillage or herbicide. 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. 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.” (p. 33-34)

In the middle of his book, Fukuoka discusses the need for rethinking long-standing harmful practices. He points out that once a practice becomes habitual, no matter how ineffective it proves, people have trouble changing course because their minds have grasped hold of a fixed idea that seems all but unshakable.

“To the extent that the consciousness of everyone is not fundamentally transformed, pollution will not cease.” (p. 82)

“When a decision is made to cope with the symptoms of a problem, it is generally assumed that the corrective measures will solve the problem itself. They seldom do … Until the modern faith in big technological solutions can be overturned, pollution will only get worse.” (p. 84)

In the final section to his book, Fukuoka turns his attention to the subject of food. He argues that people’s diets are unhealthy because they are based on ill-conceived notions of what is and isn’t tasty. The prejudice against simple natural foods is an acquired cultural absurdity.

“A natural person can achieve right diet because his instinct is in proper working order. He is satisfied with simple food; it is nutritious, tastes good , and is useful daily medicine.Food and the human spirit are united. ” (p.136)

“Modern people have lost their clear instinct … They go out seeking a variety of flavours. Their diet becomes disordered; the gap between likes and dislikes widens, and their instincts become more and more bewildered. At this point people begin to apply strong seasoning to their food and to use elaborate cooking techniques, further deepening the confusion. Food and the human spirit have become estranged.” (p. 136)

“People nowadays eat with their minds, not with their bodies … Foods taste good to a person not necessarily because they have nature’s subtle flavours and are nourishing to the body, but because his taste has been conditioned to the idea that they taste good.” (p. 137)

Even by the standards of most conscientious organic farmers, Fukuoka’s methods often appear radical. Critics view his ideas as impractical or unsuited for Western climates and conditions. Fukuoka counters that his methods are not quick easy fixes. Patience and experimentation are required. What Fukuoka has achieved is help spark a debate about food and land use, a debate which gains in  relevance as concerns mount over the health risks of GMOs, pesticides and land depletion. Fukuoka is now regarded as a pioneer of the permaculture movement. His vision of farming as a seeking of balance in a larger ecosystem offers a healthy alternative to the destructive practices that are currently employed.