Marginal Land

Showing its back

And showing its front

A falling maple leaf

Ryokan (death poem)

 I met a roe deer this morning for the first time in ages. There is at least one small herd that lives around here but they appeared to have moved off to graze other land over the last couple of months, a noticeable absence. The roe is common in Somerset, preferring to live in woodland and feeding on grass, leaves, berries and the shoots of young plants. I wonder if their return now is connected to the first thick blush of grass that has shown in the fields hereabouts from last year’s autumn sowing.

The one I saw appeared out of a small thicket of hazel trees right at the bottom of the hill where the path I take on my daily walk turns right at an old wooden gate and leads down towards the river. I was struck by how quickly the deer moved. Startled by my footsteps, it bounded away along the line of trees and hedgerow that trace out the small brook as it heads down to feed the Alham. It was gone in a moment and by the time I reached the bend to look down across the field, it had vanished completely.

It’s always a wonder how one thing; one event will draw attention to another and set off a train of thought. I spent a while looking at the pencil line of trees and brush that follow the brook and was struck by the mixture of colours there; dark, brown, reddish, almost auburn in places. The deer, like the fox, is a marginal animal perfectly suited in colour for a life along the stream amongst the hedgerow scrub, hazel and alder groves. Its coat had that auburn look to it. Indeed I had not seen it at all until it crashed out of the thicket and ran. There is a symbiosis here between landscape and animal, a kind of mutual arising or cooperation that feeds, shelters and gives near invisibility to the deer which in turn eats the leaves, shoots and berries and distributes the latter on surrounding land.

The deer is only really exposed on the wide green pasture fields that patch work the landscape here. This is dairy farming land. Looking around its clear that this is a domesticated landscape, pastoral and beautiful in its own way but intensively farmed and greatly shaped by human activity since the Bronze Age peoples and then the Romans lived on the hill above our house thousands of years ago. The network of green fields here today are an example of biological simplification, the very art of the European agricultural system developed since the 18th century. The picture is civilised and neat but a closer look reveals another story.

It’s extraordinary how sodden the open fields have become after weeks of rain. Perhaps that seems obvious or perhaps odd to say but it’s not. Water lies in pools at the gate entrances and puddles out in all directions over the land. Parts of the fields are a liquid mud that makes walking hard. The freshly sown grass is hardy and coping and will recover with the spring but its striking how different things are in the margins and among the neglected copses that define the edges of the fields, the remaining pockets of wilderness.

Where the pasture fields really feel empty of life; strangely barren, bedraggled, exposed and defenceless, the pockets of copse are vibrant. Squirrels, pheasants, owls, woodpeckers and numerous other birds come and go constantly. Foxes and badgers move through the woodland terrain along with mice and voles. The natural mix of ground cover, trees and shrubs has prevented any saturation and the soil under the fallen leaf mould and ivy, smells sweet and is full of life. I noticed something similar when I took a walk through a Birchwood forest recently in Surrey. In any place I stopped I could put my hand down through leaf litter into deep, rich sweet smelling soil. The unmanaged forest was effortlessly abundant, filled with an extraordinary diversity of life.

The same is true on our own land. The 2 acres we bought last year as a smallholding is currently pasture grass having been most recently a pony paddock. The site is interspersed with a few newly planted fruit trees, fruit bushes and some older cider apples that recall its recent history as a productive orchard. In one corner of the field there is a small area of woodland; a mix of mature deciduous trees including oak and ash. This, I imagine, would have been the natural state of the land before it was claimed for agricultural development; it’s a mystery how that parcel survived when the orchard was first planted sometime around the Second World War. Today after the wettest winter on record, the field, which has a gently sloping southerly aspect is flooded in many places and terribly saturated in others. The wooded land is fine. It’s our hope to rehabilitate the field to its natural state in the coming years, to create something that is both productive and a pleasure to spend time in.

Thinking on our relationship with the land brought to mind a piece of writing I came across recently in a journal written for the Akwasasne first nation peoples-a review written some years ago on the life and work of a Japanese farmer and philosopher called Masanobu Fukuoka .

The article offers an interesting reflection on the traditional methods of agriculture employed by the Hau de no sau nee or Six Nations people of Eastern North America and the impact that European farming systems had both on productivity and the culture of these people. Culturally it was traditional that agricultural work was undertaken by women whilst men were responsible for hunting and fishing, both working together to provide for and sustain the community.

Typically gardens were laid out amongst trees some of which had been girdled to encourage leaf fall and provide firewood. Seeds were sown in groups on hillsides directly into the forest-enriched earth. Fertiliser was provided by fish scraps but beyond that, things were left to grow on their own; put simply, nature was entrusted to do the work of growing and providing for the people. The primary crops were inter-planted corn, beans and squash, a grouping today popularly known as the three sisters, a reference to their mutually beneficial relationship as plants.

Historical accounts of the agricultural practices, taken from military journals suggest that crops were typically bountiful, even extraordinary to European eyes. However, with the arrival of European methods in the late 18th century came a dramatic change in practice. Ploughing was introduced, using draft animals and the iron plough. What differentiated European methods from first nation practices was belief in the efficacy and importance of clearing the land in large swathes in an effort to produce biological simplification such that, in the end, only one life form remained on the land. This was thought to be the best method for plant control and the maximisation of crops.

As I see it now, it was the arrival of the plough borne on a philosophy that sought to subdue and commodify nature that began the divorce from the natural world that we now take for granted. In the 1790s, our relationship with the earth tilted irrevocably from a place of sanctuary to one of commodity. Here are the roots of the timber industry and the beef industry. The forest and the cow were objectified and that objectification made all manner of acts of mistreatment possible in the name of progress. The marriage between people and the earth which had been at the heart of life for millennia was broken.

The consequences of the broken agreement have been varied and many. For the six nation’s people the consequences were catastrophic. Early positive results with the plough proved to be unsustainable. Traditional farming methods were replaced by clear felling of land. Ploughing and monoculture began to reduce the fertility of the soil itself requiring the land to be fertilised more regularly with animal dung and later chemical fertilisers in a bid to sustain productivity.

As the land lost its vitality so the crops weakened and became vulnerable to disease and parasite infection. The inherent balance of natural pests had been broken by the plough and the single cropping system and the ground was laid for the introduction of artificial insecticides and pesticides to manage the apparent deficiencies in the soil. The cost of growing food escalated as the nutritional value (life force) of the crop itself diminished. Slowly the soil died.

Of course ploughing required animals and thus more land for hay and grain was needed to feed the animals. As the cycle of events unfolded, men increasingly became involved in the work, first supporting and then finally taking over from the women not because of a need for strength but simply because of the volume of hard work now required to grow the food. The archetypal balance of masculine and feminine itself began to shift as stewardship was replaced by land management. Centuries old patterns fell by the wayside and were lost forever.

It is important to recognize that the practice of farming introduced to the Akwesasne by the settlers rested on a philosophy born out of the enlightenment. Across the distant lands of civilized Western Europe, reason was replacing faith as the primary touchstone for society. The new civil order would be based on natural law and a science based on observation and experimentation. The plough and the single crop are reasonable extensions of a philosophy of separation and discrimination, a triumph of science and technology and the rational mind built on the profound belief in humankind’s capacity to both dominate and improve on nature. A space appeared definitely and finally in the western mind that could separate out the observer from what was observed.

The reflections I have shared by the Akwesasne come from a review of a book that had been published by a relatively unknown Japanese man, a farmer and philosopher called Masanobu Fukouka (1913-2008). The book, published in 1975, was called ‘The one straw revolution’ and it took fundamental issue with the precepts of European agriculture that he felt had blighted agriculture and life in general for over 200 years.

Fukuoka-san, who was born on the island of Shikoku, spent 60 years demonstrating by his own efforts, on his own farm that a wide variety of crops could be grown completely naturally to a quality, quantity and standard that could equal or better the crops being grown by neighbours using modern scientific methods. Over that time he developed a method of agricultural production that many would say has the potential to reverse the degenerative momentum of modern agriculture. It was simply called natural farming.

As a young man Fukouka-san, then a microbiologist specializing in plant diseases, had a realization which changed his understanding of life completely. He describes the experience which occurred at the end of a long sleepless night during a bout of depression;

As the breeze blew up from the bluff, the morning mist suddenly disappeared. Just at that moment a night hero appeared, gave a sharp cry, and flew away into the distance. I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of my confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood just one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth, “in this world there is nothing at all”….I felt I understood nothing….I could see that all the concepts to which I had been clinging, the very notion of existence itself, were empty fabrications….everything that had possessed me, all the agonies, disappeared like dreams and illusions and something one might call ‘true nature’ stood revealed.

From this realisation a simple philosophy was born. At its heart Fukuoka-san recognised as fallacy the belief that we can improve on nature at all. His observations in the fields he worked every day suggested that all attempts to improve on nature lead to consequences that require further effort to address. Thus a vicious cycle is born that is never ending, detrimental to all living systems and leads the great majority of people into an endless life of largely pointless toil.

The more people do, the more society develops, the more problems arise. The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity’s trying to accomplish things’

As Fukuoka-san saw it, nature is already ideally arranged and abundant without any interference. Each effort at improvement creates adverse reactions that require measures to counteract those side effects. It was his view that, in the modern world, pretty much everything people are doing today aims to mitigate problems caused by previous misguided actions. It would be better, suggested Fukuoka-san if people did nothing at all. This philosophy underpinned his method of natural farming. No ploughing, no digging, no fossil fuels, no pesticides or compost. A simple life lived in harmony with nature-very practical and indeed, a considerable act of service.

The philosophy expanded beyond agriculture to life in more general terms. Fukuoka-san was convinced that the demoralization of society had much to do with the separation of the human being from nature.

Sickness comes when people draw away from nature. The severity of the disease is directly proportional to the degree of separation”

There are echoes here of Freud’s observation when he said that

the consequence of civilization is our neuroses.

Fukouka-san felt that beyond agriculture, the effects of our disenchantment with the natural world were seen in a growing dependency on doctors and medicine that were only necessary when

‘people create a sickly environment’.

Formal schooling he said,

has no intrinsic value, but becomes necessary when humanity creates a condition in which one must become ‘educated’ to get along’.

His thinking was indeed revolutionary and yet, radically simple.

When Fukuoka –san talked about ‘doing nothing’ he was not commending a life of laziness in the western sense, but was really reflecting a cultural philosophy seeped in a Buddhist and Taoist understanding of the universe. He and his students worked long hard days but always within the limits of a natural life. He lived simply, ate simply, made few demands on the earth or his fellow man. The key to the practice of natural farming was to live humbly. His understanding rested in the Asian experience of the universe described by David Hinton as;

‘existence burgeoning forth, an ongoing generative present in which things appear and disappear in the process of change…clouds drift, wind rustles wildflowers and trees, day fades into night and night into day. Seasons come and go, one after the other. You die. Other people are born. On and on it goes…everything is moving all the time without pause, without beginning or end’

We can find many descriptions of the philosophy underpinning his work in writings such as the Tao Te Ching;

‘In the pursuit of learning one knows more every day. In the pursuit of the way one does less every day. One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when one does nothing at all, there is nothing that is undone’

What is interesting in this case is that the philosophical insight followed on from activity in the world-it unfolded out of direct experience. Conceptually, ‘doing nothing’ is perhaps best understood through such principles as we find in the Buddhist eightfold which speaks of such things as ‘right effort’ and right livelihood’-really a pragmatic guide rather than a moralistic set of rules that describe a way of being present to the world in harmony; not resisting the nature of things to change, appear and disappear.

Practice is the path’ said the Zen Master Dogen. No doubt Fukuoka-san would agree. Perhaps this is another way of saying that actions speak louder than words but that actions themselves may be in harmony or antagonistic to the natural or ‘great way’ and therefore more or less useful from a universal perspective. Sometimes inaction is the best way.

The real goal of farming is not the growing of food but the cultivation and perfection of the human-being.

It is not hard to imagine the kindred spirit felt between the Akwasesne peoples of North America and Fukuoka-san in Japan. They share a deep and profound philosophy about the nature of human life on earth that places our relationship with all life and the practice of growing food at the very heart of the experience.

Turning to another first nation tribe, the Yurok Indians have the word mrwrsrgerh which means beauty. The word is a verb; to be beautiful in this context is to be unpolluted and pure or natural. It speaks also to the capacity to make medicine and be part of rituals. It was understood by elders of the tradition that ‘Creation’ was ‘everything’ but that it was impossible to name. The Yurok could not conceive of a personalised god so they used a variety of words to describe the Creation itself including nahwok, which translates as ‘you see how it is but there are no words to say it’. Though it could not be spoken it could be understood through the study of beauty. This seems to very closely mirror the experience of the universe as described in Taoism-when it is said that ‘the Tao that is talked about is not the real Tao.’

It is a powerful thing to the educated western mind to imagine what Creation might really mean to the Yurok peoples-what it might mean in the formation of a human being. Describing that relationship Harry Roberts said;

When a man made communion with Creation so that he could walk with beauty he stood forth on a mountain top and opened his hands and held his arms wide and looked full into the breaking dawn and let the Spirit of Creation flow into him. He didn’t even wear moccasins or a necklace lest some portion of him should be shielded from the light of creation…these were real men. I don’t mean big bruisers stomping around, but complete people. We say man, but some were women. These people became complete by studying very hard, training hard from their early life.

Here again we see that to ‘do nothing’ does not mean doing nothing but to act in accordance with natural principles, that are beyond naming. There is a symbiosis here. The Yurok human being feels to me like a marginal being, kindred to the copses and woodland that still remain around my home as outposts, edging the grassland where the slow cattle move and eat.

It’s funny how thoughts run into each other. Turning towards home after seeing the deer, I walked along the path beside another stream. Here where the land is more neglected you can see the tendency of the earth to stretch back and reclaim the pasture. A generation or two of neglect and things would look very different here. The hazel and alder, the brambles, the ivy, want to establish themselves, want to claim the earth back. Much effort is put into land a management here, much effort to keep it civilized.

As I walked down the hill towards home I recalled a radio interview I had listened to a few days ago with the Irish philosopher John Moriarty. In it he describes a time when he felt compelled to leave his post as a professor at a Canadian university to return to a more simple life in his native Connemara. He describes walking across a bog and coming across a hare, hidden among tussocks of grass. The startled hare ran for its life just as the deer had run this morning, but left an indent in the grass where it had been lying. Moriarty immediately lay down and rested his head where the hare had been and asked that the soft bowl of earth there might work to suck his western knowledge out of his head; that the warmth of the earth where the hare had been might act as a kind of poultice for his European mind, as aching full as it was with academic knowledge and intellectual facts. It’s a powerful thought. After becoming civilized, perhaps the only thing left for us is to become de-civilized again, to let nature run over us, guide us home. We need, said Moriarty, to be inhumed-a wonderful term-to dig our way back down into the soil. Perhaps he meant it literally -Moriarty himself returned to Connemara and exchanged his academic life for one as a gardener, writer and in my view something of a mystic-shaman. He meant it psychologically, spiritually and philosophically too-surely it is true that to be alive in our nature we must be alive in the nature into which we are born. To say we have lived a life, that we were here on the earth albeit briefly, mustn’t we reconnect with the soil of our inner lives, to meet the serious life we lead, the archetypal longings we feel, seriously?

Moriarty, in his finest writings, reminds us of what the psalmists knew; that we are indeed;

fearfully and wonderfully made.

He reminds us of what William James knew-

The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and the merely understandable.

 What Nietzsche knew

 I have discovered for myself that the old human and animal life, indeed the entire prehistory and past of all sentient being, works on, loves on, hates on, thinks on in me.

And Wordsworth knew

Not chaos, not

The darkest pit of lowest Erebus,

Nor aught of blinder vacancy scooped out

By help of dreams – can breed such fear and awe

As fall upon us often when we look

Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man

 I think had he been with me in the Birch wood, Moriarty might have encouraged me to keep digging into the soil that morning, to let my fingers, my hand, my arm and whole body be drawn down into the soil-to trust the poultice of the earth to heal my own European mind, to help me loosen up around my own incessant need to know. He would say, and I would agree, that we can learn a lot from the margins of our civilized lives, from the trees, plants and animals we find there in the quiet and overlooked places. I was grateful for the deer this morning, for reminding me, for what it had to tell me as it ran away.

Larry Korn, an American student who spent many years in the company of Masanobu Fukuoka recalls the day when he was given some helpful advice by the sensei-

‘There is no need to understand the world, he said, just enjoy it’

It’s a serious point, lightly put.

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