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The Green Deserts of Western Civilization
The following commentary is adapted from the posthumously published Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka (Chelsea Green, 2012). Fukuoka was the author of the international bestseller One-Straw Revolution. He died in 2008. Given the recent news about the extended drought facing much of the United States, we thought our readers might want to read Mr. Fukuoka’s deep insight into how Western agricultural practices have helped to create vast deserts across the planet, while on the surface appearing very “green.” In fact, Mr. Fukuoka notes, below the grassy surface, soils are being depleted and drained — becoming deserts under our feet. As you read this, keep in mind that Sowing Seeds in the Desert first appeared in print – in Japanese – in the mid-1990s.
Although the surface of the ground in Europe and the United States appears to be covered with a lovely green, it is only the imitation green of a managed landscape. Beneath the surface, the soil is becoming depleted due to the mistaken agricultural practices of the last two thousand years.
Much of Africa is devoid of vegetation today, while just a few hundred years ago it was covered by deep forests. According to the Statistical Research Bureau in India, the vegetation there has also disappeared rapidly over the past forty-five or fifty years and now covers less than 10 percent of the land’s surface. When I went to Nepal, officials lamented the fact that in the last twenty years the Himalayas have become bald, treeless mountains.
In the Philippines, on the islands of Cebu and Mindanao, there are banana plantations but no forests, and there is concern that in a few years even drinking water may be in short supply. In Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, as farming methods that protected nature have been swallowed up by the wave of modern civilization, the condition of the land has also deteriorated. If the deforestation of the tropical rain forests in Asia and Brazil continues at the present rate, oxygen will become scarce on earth and the joy of springtime on the planet will be replaced by the barrenness of winter.
The immediate cause of the rapid loss of vegetation has been the indiscriminate deforestation and large-scale agriculture carried out in order to support the materialistic cultures of the developed countries, but the remote cause stretches back thousands of years.
The natural world did not become a desert on its own. Both in the past and at present, human beings, with their “superior” knowledge, have been the ringleader in turning the earth and the human heart into wastelands. If we eliminate the fundamental cause of this destruction—people’s knowledge and actions—nature will surely come to life again. I am not proposing to do away with human beings, but rather to change the politics and practice of our authority.
My measures for countering desertification are exactly the same as the basic natural farming method. One could refer to it as a natural farming revolution whose goal is to return the earth to the paradise it once was.
Lessons from the Landscapes of Europe and the United States
I first saw the desert and began to have an interest in it the summer I flew to the United States for the first time, in 1979. I was expecting the American continent to be a vast, fertile green plain with lush forests, but to my amazement, it was a brown, desolate semi-desert.
I gave a talk in Sacramento, California, for the state’s Department of Conservation hosted by Ms. Priscilla Grew, who was head of the department at the time. I said that the environment in California had serious problems as a result of poor agricultural practices, poor water management, overlogging, and overgrazing. These things, I told the group, are conspiring to create the “Great California Desert.” After the talk, I was invited for a private conversation with Ms. Grew, a geologist, in her office on the thirteenth floor of the Resources Building.
We discussed how Japan and California were roughly the same latitude, that both the vegetation and the parent rocks in the two places were similar, and that long ago the Asian and American continents were one. The fossil record shows, for example, that vast forests of Metasequoia1 existed in both places. The mosses and lichens I saw growing in the undisturbed forests of the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Range were also the same as I observed in the virgin forests of Japan.
It was my conjecture that the desertification and climate change in California has been accelerated by mistaken agricultural methods. I suggested that deforestation and the change from the perennial bunchgrasses that once covered the plains to annuals such as foxtail and wild oats contributed to the decrease in rainfall.2 “Rain doesn’t only fall from the sky,” I suggested. “It also falls up from below.” The vegetation, especially trees, actually causes the rain to fall.
After we left her office, someone suggested that I come along and visit an interesting place nearby. That “interesting place nearby” turned out to be a hot, dry plateau in the Coast Range about one hundred miles away.
About twenty young people from several countries were somehow managing to live in this remote area on national forest land. They asked me to teach them how to use natural farming to help them make their livelihood. They did not even have proper sickles or hoes. The entire area was covered with dry grass, with not a spot of green in sight. There were only a few oak trees here and there.
In the midst of such hopeless circumstances, I was unable to sleep. Early the next morning, as I was washing my face at a small spring, I noticed that water soaking a mouse’s nest had caused some weed seeds to sprout and grow a few inches tall.
I had always thought that the grass in California died because the summers are hot and dry, but I realized it was only the introduced annual grasses that gave that impression. They come up in the fall with the first rain, set seeds, and then die by early summer. These annuals had chased out the native grasses, which remain green all summer. Grazing probably had a lot to do with it, but there were no grazing animals in the area anymore. Thinking that the green perennial plants ought to come back if we got rid of the weedy annuals, I set about doing an experiment.
After broadcasting the seeds of various Japanese vegetables amid the dried grasses and mowing them down with an improvised sickle, I brought water from the spring near the top of the hill by plastic pipe and sprinkled it fairly deeply over the area. I thought the few days until the water evaporated would tell the tale. Eventually, green began to grow among the brown grass. Of course, it was the green of the weedy foxtails. As I expected, when the water had disappeared by the end of a week’s time, the grass that had sprouted up began to wither in the heat, but in its midst Japanese pumpkin, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, daikon, and corn began to flourish. The center of the field turned into a vegetable garden. The stubborn foxtails sprouted, then withered and became mulch, and in their place, vegetables had grown up.3
We should revegetate California. We should wake up the seeds of weeds that are lying dormant during summer by giving them water, and then let them die before they can make more seeds. At the same time, it would be good if the state government would broadcast seeds of perennial grasses from the air in clay pellets. After this experiment, however, I had to press on with my travels, so I left the mountain and entrusted these hardy souls with my dream.
Later that year, I was shown around Europe by a Greek gentleman and a young Italian woman who had stayed in one of my hillside huts. The European countries are, for the most part, very careful about protecting the natural environment and maintaining the lovely vegetation. At first glance the entire area looks like a natural park, but it is only the beauty of a picture postcard. If you look closely, you will find that there are very few varieties of trees. The soil is thin, hard, and unfertile. It appeared to me that the earth in Europe had been damaged by an agriculture made up of mismanaged pastures used to produce meat for royalty, and vineyards to produce wine for church use.
Generally speaking, the farther south you go from the Netherlands, up the Rhine, and toward Italy, the more the number of trees decreases and the green color fades. In addition, much of the Alps are composed of limestone and have few large trees. The farther south you go, the higher the soil temperature, and the drier the climate. The soil becomes thinner and increasingly less fertile. My impression was that in Europe, the soil was dry and depleted just below the surface.
When people started plowing, that marked the beginning of modern European civilization. Culture, in its original sense means “to till the soil with a plow.” When tractors were introduced, production increased, but the earth lost its vitality even more quickly. Throughout human history civilizations have been founded in areas with rich soil and other resources. After the soil was depleted as a result of cutting too many trees, overgrazing, harmful irrigation practices and plowed-field agriculture, that civilization, which had been wearing the mask of prosperity, declined and often disappeared altogether. This has happened over and over again.
From my observations in Europe and the United States, I could see how the errors of modern agriculture were damaging the earth. That strengthened my conviction that natural farming methods are the only ones capable of reversing this degradation.
This excerpt is reprinted with permission of the publisher, Chelsea Green Publishing. For more information about this book, and Mr. Fukuoka, visit: http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/sowing_seeds_in_the_desert:hardcover or www.chelseagreen.com
1• This is one of three types of redwood trees, the others being the coast redwood and the giant sequoia. The Metasequoia, or dawn redwood, was thought to be extinct until a few groves were discovered in southern China in 1944. It is now a popular landscape tree widely available in plant nurseries.
2• The grasslands of California originally consisted of perennial grasses. These plants have deep and extensive root systems and stay green all summer. When the Spanish introduced grazing sheep and cattle in the late 1700s, they also brought the seeds of annual grasses such as rye and oats. The grazing animals selectively ate the more nutritious native perennials, giving the annuals a big reproductive advantage. The native grasses were supplanted by the annuals in just a few generations, leaving the soil depleted and much drier.
3• This technique of watering annual weeds to get them to sprout and then wither before they can set new seeds—known as premature germination—has been used by organic farmers for many years to control weeds. When the weeds grow up, they shade and cool the ground long enough for the vegetables to get off to a good start, then they act as mulch for the vegetable garden, cooling the ground and conserving moisture. When the autumn rains arrive, fewer weeds come up since they were “tricked” into germinating too soon. Mr. Fukuoka is suggesting that this technique could also be useful in broad-scale rehabilitation for establishing trees, shrubs, and perennial grasses.