Deserts, non-native species and the Second Genesis

una muerte anunciada

Photo: “Una muerte anunciada” by Macnolete/Flickr.

When Zen farmer Masanobu Fukuoka proposed that military bombers of his native Japan be used to drop balls made of seeds for hundreds of plant species over the world’s desert areas in order to revegetate them, housewives and children around the country started sending Fukuoka donations of seeds.

Though his dream of a vegetation air force has yet to become a reality, Fukuoka’s book  Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Restoration, and Ultimate Food Security tells the story of how he did work with authorities in India and Africa to successfully start growing plants in deserts and bring back forest habitat for elephants and people.

And Fukuoka claims that his method can help regenerate other degraded areas too, replacing extinct species around the world with new ones and leading to a Second Genesis. But his work has implications far beyond farming and land, offering a way to deal with such huge issues climate change, peak oil and economic collapse.

A quiet revolutionary

For more than half a century, Fukuoka ran a farm where he grew rice organically without plowing or flooding his fields as Asian farmers have done for centuries. Yet, his more natural method produced double the yield.

In 1975, Fukuoka published an autobiography dealing with his farming techniques and his Buddhist-friendly philosophy, The One-Straw Revolution. When the book was translated into a couple dozen languages Fukuoka gained recognition as a leader in sustainable agriculture. He continued farming until he died in 2008 at age 95.

In Sowing Seeds in the Desert, edited after the author’s death by American disciple Larry Korn, Fukuoka extends his method to the desert areas of the world, now poised to spread at an accelerating rate due to droughts caused by climate change.

Sowing Seeds in the Desert

Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Restoration, and Ultimate Food Security by Masanobu Fukuoka, ed. Larry Korn, Chelsea Green, 168 pp, Kindle, $8.77.

Unlike traditional approaches like drilling wells or damming rivers to provide irrigation that exhaust precious water resources for little long-term benefit, Fukuoka’s angle is just to dump a bunch of seeds on a dry area and see what takes, without the need for any artificial irrigation.

Fukuoka jokes that this his method is a lazy one. But letting nature take charge may be more effective than trying to exert more human control.

Most of the seeds will fail to sprout. But those that do take root have a better chance to thrive in that environment. And if they do thrive, they will start a virtuous cycle of growth of grasses and moisture retention that will bring water back to a dry area naturally. This sets the stage for bushes and trees and eventually, return of a robust forest.

Not going native

Forget about restoring native species, Fukuoka counsels. On degraded land, those are the very species that disappeared in the first place, so they probably won’t work any better now.

“We cannot simply put things back the way they once were,” he writes. “Too much has happened. Conditions are far different today from what they were just one hundred years ago…Even if we did go to the trouble of putting back the plants that were once native to a certain place, there is no guarantee that they would thrive there anymore.” Instead, he urges us to just jumble plants up and let nature sort them out:

My idea is entirely different. I think we should mix all the species together and scatter them worldwide, completing doing away with their uneven distribution. This would give nature a full palette to work with as it establishes a new balance given the current conditions. I call this the Second Genesis.

This is an intriguing enough idea to deal with the spreading deserts of the Sahel, the Middle East or Northern India. But Fukuoka says that much of Europe and North America (including about half of the U.S.) are just deserts waiting to happen, with a surface layer of green grass and trees hiding dangerously degraded soil that gets worse every decade.

A lesson for localizers

Sowing Seeds in the Desert is a thought-provoking and inspiring book with implications beyond restoring deserts or making organic agriculture more effective.

Mixing plants from all over the world can serve as a metaphor for a new kind of culture that’s both local and global, a cosmopolitan-local society that would mix ideas and traditions from all over the world and then see which combination works for people in any particular place.

For example, if you live in Mississippi, it’s OK to choose Zen meditation and green tea over Southern Baptism and football at Ole Miss. Likewise, living in rural Japan shouldn’t stop you from playing the Gulf Coast blues on your banjo from Biloxi.

Fukuoka would surely tell regionalists everywhere that you shouldn’t feel guilty for being inauthentic or ignoring local culture if you try something from across the globe. And only by using the best approaches from around the world can communities adapt successfully to climate change, peak oil and economic collapse.

The inclusion of Fukuoka’s own amiable brush paintings adds a meditative element that makes reading Sowing Seeds in the Desert even more delightful.

Watch a video on Fukuoka’s unique approach to permaculture with Sowing Seeds in the Desert editor Larry Korn:

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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