A philosophy must be practicable and yet aspire toward Truth. Hans Urs von Balthasar observes in The Glory of the Lord that if beauty and leisure are excluded from the way one lives, we will “no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” So we find ourselves with a tension: a philosophy, while placing absolute value on Truth, must also be incarnate and life-giving.

We often hear the phrase “art is food”—but not so much that the cultivation of food is an art. This latter truth is seen in an exemplary way in the philosophy and agricultural methodology of Masanobu Fukuoka. In standing against the inherently self-destructive nature of conventional agricultural practice, Fukuoka advocates for and demonstrates to great effect his own approach—what he calls “do-nothing” farming. Standing alongside the Japanese Fukuoka is Wendell Berry himself. Though separated from each other by the Pacific, Berry’s approach to farming jives markedly with his Japanese counterpart.

Masanobu Fukoka

Fukuoka tells us in his landmark One-Straw Revolution that he does not “belong to any religious group” and does “not care much for making distinctions among Christianity, Buddhism, Shinto, and the other religions,” yet his “do-nothing” farming has a distinctly Daoist bent to it. Berry is himself an openly practicing Christian. I will touch on this difference later. But what the two do have explicitly in common is poetry. It is no accident that among the oldest extant works of ancient literature we possess, Hesiod’s Works and Days takes a poetical form with an agricultural theme. Along with Hesiod, Virgil goes to great lengths in his verse to praise the labor of agriculture in his Eclogues and Georgics. This might cause us to wonder whether poetry is integral to flourishing agricultural practices.

Berry, in “The Whole Horse,” articulates this analogy between farming and poetry, quoting John Haines as he does so: “‘The eternal task of the artist and the poet, the historian and the scholar … is to find the means to reconcile what are two separate and yet inseparable histories, Nature and Culture. To the extent that we can do this, the “world” makes sense to us and can be lived in.’ I would add only that this applies also to the farmer.”

For Berry, poetry means form. While form imposes certain limits, these limits are put in place to help man flourish. In “Poetry and Marriage,” Berry notes that “form, crudely or stupidly used, may indeed by inimical to freedom. Well used, it may be the means of earning freedom, the enablement to be free. Strictly kept, form enforces freedom.” Form is not structure for structure’s sake: it is the structure that facilitates true freedom because it refuses to let creativity divorce itself from “coherence, joining things that need to be joined.”

In “The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture,” Berry further observes that “we can have agriculture only within nature, and culture only within agriculture.” There is, then, an innate link between culture and agriculture. As Berry tells us elsewhere in “Getting Along with Nature,” quality suffers when either the farmer or the poet fail to operate according to a form—that is, something which provides order and limits. The farmer must understand right form that is in accord with nature. Insofar as poetry helps man understand right form, it seems a practice that is natural to the farmer.

Fukuoka, for his part, says quite simply: “Life is song and poetry.” Like Berry, if farming provides for nourishment of body, then it also provides for man’s spirit. For Fukuoka—as with Berry—place is integral to culture. In The Natural Way of Farming, he critiques the idea that “culture is seen as a human product created, maintained, and refined through human invention by the separation of man from nature. … True culture arises from within nature, and is pure, modest, and simple.”

What Fukuoka is most concerned with when it comes to poetry, however, is its sudden disappearance from today’s culture—and he sees this as a direct result of current agricultural practice. In The Road Back to Nature he laments that “there is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song.” If the modern farmer has lost the time for poetry, then surely there is something wrong with the way he is farming. And if he no longer knows how to create poetry, then he has lost a valuable tool for the restoration of farming in concert with nature—specifically, form.

Fukuoka resists an understanding of beauty that is separated from truth, perceiving that “our primary concern should be whether our eyes have lost the ability to apprehend real beauty, our ears to capture rare tones, our nose to sense exalted fragrances, our tongue to distinguish delicious tastes, and our heart to discern and speak the truth.” From this we see here that Fukuoka is deeply invested in the senses.

What makes poetry necessary for the farmer is its ability to articulate and shape the proper ends that our labor serves. There’s a moment in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society when poetry is given a profound justification: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love: these are what we stay alive for.” Hence I agree with Josef Pieper in Leisure: The Basis of Culture that “one does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one’s work.” Poetry is one of those modes of work that can justify and sustain a life.

Stephanie Nelson points out in God and the Land that, “despite the more romantic view of some commentators,” Hesiod’s view in the Theogony is that “work is simply a necessary evil.” I believe we can and should move beyond Hesiod’s understanding. Because by its very nature farming works to perfect the human body and soul, it is a sort of end in and of itself, as poetry is. Farming is itself, as I will hope to show below, a kind of poetry. Berry asserts in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community that “all works of any power move us, in both body and mind, from the most exalted music or poetry to the simplest dance tune.” Poetry itself provides the justification for right action.

Kenosis and Wuwei as Agrarian Forms

The work of the farmer demands his whole being, body (considerably so), and soul. As such, it can be understood as a sort of self-emptying, or what the Christian theological tradition calls kenosis. This concept is best laid out in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (2:5-8). As man must be in relation to the land—humble—so too was Christ Himself. This self-emptying renounces claims of possession. Even though we are comically limited, we sometimes allow ourselves to fall into the illusion that we may possess the land on which we live. Berry, in “A Native Hill,” rejects this illusion: “The false and truly belittling transcendence is ownership. … But I wish to be [nature’s] friend.” In the Christian consciousness, friendship is inseparable from self-emptying, as Christ lays out quite plainly at the point of His death, in the setting of a supper: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. … I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends” (John 15:13-15). Kenosis is, because of its self-emptying nature, inherently open. We cannot empty ourselves if we are closed.

This openness is what enables friendship. Friendship, in turn, leads to further self-emptying. And for this reason it is kenosis that breaks down the harmful separation between man and the earth, a separation that Fukuoka preaches against vociferously. Because man is dust and shall return to dust, the distinction between man and nature is only temporary. The Christian may add something to this: while maintaining a distinction between man and nature, he does away with their separation. St Thomas Aquinas, writing of friendship in the Summa Theologiæ (I-II, 28, 2), articulates what he calls “mutual indwelling.” We can apply this concept to man and the soil:

The lover is said to be in the beloved … inasmuch as he … strives to gain an intimate knowledge of everything pertaining to the beloved, so as to penetrate into his very soul. … Insofar as he reckons what affects his friend as affecting himself, the lover seems to be in the beloved, as though he becomes one with him: but insofar as, on the other hand, he wills and acts for his friend’s sake as for his own sake, looking on his friend as identified with himself, thus the beloved is in the lover.

I suggest that if man were to treat the soil less as an object and more as a friend (as Berry advocates), respect would be returned once more to the soil. This, as stated above, requires friendship, which presupposes self-emptying. In this way, Berry would like us to meet the soil where it meets us, much as Christ does: “The most exemplary nature is that of the topsoil. It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it.”

Alongside Christian kenosis, we can set the Daoist concept of wuwei (無為). We can find a good explanation of this principle in the Daodejing, a classic Chinese text traditionally attributed to the sage Laozi. Joshua Brown helps us understand that “the spiritual ideal is described as ‘wuwei er wu bu wei 無為而無不為,’ meaning both ‘not acting and not failing to act.’ As this definition suggests, wuwei does not mean inaction or ‘doing nothing’ per se. Rather, wuwei concerns negating a specific kind of acting that is still harmonious with doing things in the world.” Understood rightly, there is a sort of spontaneity and effortlessness to the concept of wuwei. With Fukuoka’s method, the do-nothing principle is clearly not meant absolutely: there is real work involved. However, it is a work that is in perfect harmony with the ebbs and flows of nature. Do-nothing, properly understood, is a conscious passivity, much like water flowing in a stream. Benjamin Hoff shares this observation in his delightful The Tao of Pooh: “The efficiency of wuwei is like that of water flowing over and around the rocks in its path—not the mechanical, straight-line approach that usually ends up short-circuiting natural laws, but one that evolves from an inner sensitivity to the natural rhythm of things.” It is perhaps ironic that by not circumventing nature’s “obstacles” efficiency is increased. This is directly applicable to agricultural method. Fukuoka characterizes current conventional practice by the following questions: “‘How about trying this?’ or ‘How about trying that?’, bringing in a variety of techniques one upon the either. … My way was opposite. I was aiming at a pleasant, natural way of farming which results in making the work easier instead of harder.” Pleasant, like a branch in a stream enjoying being along for the ride, not caring where the current takes it. For Fukuoka, the do-nothing method has its foundations in the question, “What is the natural pattern?”

We can see, then, a deep affinity between the concepts of kenosis and wuwei: while both are primarily passive, neither is absolutely so. Each presupposes a deep listening. To re-quote a passage from Fukuoka: “Our primary concern should be whether our eyes have lost the ability to apprehend real beauty, our ears to capture rare tones, our nose to sense exalted fragrances, our tongue to distinguish delicious tastes, and our heart to discern and speak the truth.” Sensory experience, participated in rightly, is receptive—in this way, man acknowledges that creation exists before him and surrounds him. This should lead him to adopt a humble posture. It is a passivity that opens him up to flourishing actuality. Man is, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, clay in the hands of the potter.

The Inspiration of Poet and Farmer

Given this deep affinity between kenosis and wuwei, along with the emphasis they place on leisure in concert with agriculture, Berry and Fukuoka certainly seem to be of one mind. If these key concepts are operative, what is the relationship between these pairings? That is, how do kenosis and wuwei relate to the need for leisure in agriculture?

The answer is touched on earlier: form. We see from the earliest demonstrations of agriculture following poetical form that nature calls us to work in due season. Due season is, in turn, inherently linked to the obligations imposed by a transcendent being who governs creation. As the repetition of the seasons form a certain rhythm, so should the poet—and farmer—take a cue from the natural world surrounding us. Obeying form in the cycles of the natural world provides order, which in turn provides a certain kind of hope and trust in the goodness of creation.

Poetry is the creative ordering of words to bring forth the fruits of the human heart and intellect. The poet is called to lose himself, so to speak, in listening to inspiration, a power that is classically understood to be beyond him. In other words, it requires a self-emptying to the ecstasy man prays to receive from the muse. This must be followed by an effort of ingenuity to situate the given inspiration in an understandable form so as to exalt it even further. Similarly, the farmer is called to lose himself in the rhythms of the land he cares for, emptying himself, heart and mind, into the land. Acknowledging the utter gratuity of the land and existence itself, he humbles himself before a power greater than himself and upon which he relies; perceiving this should inspire the farmer in some respect. Following upon this, he applies his mind to order the awesome peculiarities of natural circumstance in order to bring forth the fruits lying within the womb of the soil. Fukuoka calls man to a do-nothing passivity that still is willing to act—but only as nature inspires him to do. Berry, for his part, calls man to a self-emptying that humbles himself before the land. In these analogous stances, there is a passivity that is open to inspiration: for the poet, from the muse; for the farmer, from the land. In other words: when done rightly, farming is a poetical art form.

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  1. This is an inspiring essay that explores deep understanding. The comparison across cultures is very well done.

    But where is the poetry? I don’t see any poems quoted, only abstract declarations about poetry, song, form, rhythm. One could just as easily re-title this essay as Agriculture and Trust, or Agriculture and Selflessness.

    I was also disappointed not to see any discussion of Fukuoka’s broad-cast method of sowing grain, which runs counter to modern planting methods. It is even counter to the pain-staking tradition of replanting seedlings that I have watched Asians do with bent backs in rice padis many times over the past 30 years.

  2. Thank you Andrew for introducing “kenosis” as a way of knowing and a way of practice- in the Land but not only in the land. “Not acting but not failing to act” sounds like a great mantra for all types of practice. For me it implies a kind of positioning of self to receive Holy Spirit, so emptying makes way for filling- with the Beautiful, the Good and ultimately the True.

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