Japanese gardener Masanobu Fukuoka defined the term “do-nothing farming” in his book “The One-Straw Revolution”. He uses the Taoist principle of “wu wai” (literally “non-action”) as a basis and founds his farming techniques on the least possible amount work.
But that doesn’t imply laziness!
On every farm there is a lot of work that needs to be done, and the tropical vegetation would take over our garden in no time if we wouldn’t intervene. “Do-nothing” in this respect means the least possible intervention with Nature’s way. It means, instead of thinking “What would happen if we do this, if we try that” we think “What would happen if we don’t do this, if we don’t try that”.
This leads to seemingly paradox tasks like “do-nothing” woodworking (hand tools instead of chainsaws) which is a lot more work, but also a lot more non-action against Nature’s way, the Tao.
This method of farming heavily relies on the cooperation with Nature. Work gets less and less the more Nature comes back to balance.
The rainforest for example sustains itself without requiring any form of “work”, even though in areas with primitive tribes there is an unusually high density of fruit trees, indicating some voluntary or accidental form of horticulture. It is believed that over many centuries, tribal people have consciously planted seeds of various fruit trees in the Amazon rainforest, making it a giant, all-natural orchard. In contrast to popular opinion (the “Agricultural Revolution” hasn’t reached them yet, bringing them all the wonderful benefits of civilized life like polluted rivers, antibiotics, 40-hour weeks, BigMac’s, and Tinder), primitive people sure know how to grow crops, they mostly just choose not to. It doesn’t need a rocket scientist to figure out that if you put a seed in the ground, a tree will grow.
In fact, many tribes throughout the world practice some form of horticulture. The Zo’é people of the Amazon rainforest for example plant vegetables and tubers during the monsoon season, where they also “settle down” in temporary huts, and continue foraging in dry season.
So even with a little well-intentioned human intervention, Nature still does most of the work. A common argument by permaculturalists is that you need to work less because the plants do most of the work for you. The more you let Nature help you, the less work is required. In a well-balanced environment, there is not too much of one insect, so there is no need for pesticides. There is not too much of one plant, so the soil stays fertile. Even weeding can be reduced by introducing ground-covering plants like the nitrogen-fixing peanut grass, making herbicides unnecessary (although it remains highly questionable if herbicides are ever necessary).
The reason that conventional agriculture’s “improved” techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them.
Grow only one crop, and the insects that feed on this crop will multiply tenfold. Grow only one crop, and the plants will deplete the soil of one set of nutrients, leading to a monoculture of weeds that feed on the leftovers.
Fukuoka insists that the best disease and insect control is to grow crops in a healthy environment. He farms by cooperating with Nature rather than trying to “improve” on it by conquest.
He also said that, strictly speaking, the only “natural” way to obtain food is hunting and gathering. “Raising agricultural crops is a cultural innovation which requires knowledge and persistent effort.”
Mr Fukuoka grew many wild vegetable varieties, since they require a lot less care than modern genetically modified hybrid species. He advises to collect seeds from the strongest plants (not the sweetest), sow them, and choose the strongest plant again for the next seed-saving process. This way, he found out, the vegetables get more robust and even if the fruit/leaves/seeds get slightly smaller, the plant will rewild by itself to the extend that it will require less and less care with every generation, because it adapts to its direct environment.
Some of his techniques are as simple as they are genius: Instead of weeding one area, take out the weeds on one half and use them for covering the other half. When the next weeding cycle starts, do it the other way around. This way you create a space for insects to live and the weeds decompose, hence creating a layer of black humus.
Most importantly: Don’t burn anything! As much fun as it might be to make a big fire, most of the biomass that the plants stored in themselves will be lost and contribute as greenhouse gases to global warming. If you let the organic matter decompose (even big pieces of wood, a good way to compost wood is the ‘Banana Circle’), you will get all of the benefits. (One exception is making biochar: In this case you create a substance that is almost exclusively carbon, that is able to store huge amounts of nutrients due to its enormous surface, making it a great fertilizer. There are methods of pyrolysis that don’t contribute to climate change.)
The most important thing is to listen to Nature and respect her needs. We can easily find out what Nature wants by just looking at her: if you take any piece of land (with enough rain), it will thrive to become jungle – if we humans don’t intervene. We listen Nature’s wishes, we respect them, and we help Nature achieving her highest goal.
This takes many forms: The most obvious being us helping to turn this place into a jungle even faster than it would happen without our place. In return we get a lot of fruit from the jungle we help create.
Another form is trusting Nature: if a plant grows all by herself without us planting her, she will most likely be a strong plant (so we try to keep her), since the plant itself decided to grow there – and only the plant herself knows what’s best for her.
Obtaining food from your environment can be a Taoist exercise of practicing wu wai. Although (as Fukuoka acknowledges) the only practice which can be called “natural” and “wu wai” is hunting and gathering, while we garden we can easily inplement Taoist teachings.
One example from the writings of Chuang Tzu (an influential early Taoist) is the story of an old vegetable gardener who is confronted by a disciple of Confucius (Confucianism is the strict legalist school of Chinese philosophy, obsessed with rules, laws, order, and a rigid social structure). This disciple proposes that the old gardener uses a modern contraption to make watering his crops easier – the equivalent of using sprinklers for irrigation in today’s world. The old man replies “with a sneer”:
“I heard from my teacher [supposedly a Taoist] that whoever has contrivances with tricks to make them go is sure to have activities with tricks to make them go. Whoever has activities with tricks to make them go is sure to have a heart with tricks to make things go. If a heart with tricks to make things go is lodged inside your breast, the pure and simple will not be at your disposal. If the pure and simple is not at your disposal, the spiritual and the vital will be unsettled. Anyone in whom the spiritual and vital is unsettled, the Way [the Tao] will not sustain. It isn’t that I don’t know [about your modern innovation], it’s that I would be ashamed to make it.” [Emphasis added]
This answer is as remarkable – how often were we confronted by “disciples” of progress, technology and modernity! – as it is inspiring for us, since it explains in rather simple terms (and much more eloquently than we could ever express it) why we water our plants the old fashioned way, one by one, with watering cans (instead of hoses and sprinklers). Sure, we would “save time” if we would use the modern contrivance, but we have and always had a deep aversion and distaste towards automated watering systems, since they remove you from the daily interaction with your plant friends and makes watering, this great act of warm, heart-felt caring and kindness towards the plants that feed you, something impersonal, mechanized, and cold.
Another aspect to take to heart is patience and respect for Nature’s own dimension of time,
“[…] for duck’s legs, though short, cannot be lengthened without dismay to the duck, and a crane’s legs, though long, cannot be shortened without misery to the crane. That which is long in nature must not be cut off, and that which is short in nature must not be lengthened. Thus will all sorrow be avoided.”
(from Chuang Tzu’s “Outer Chapters”)
What this means for us is that while everyone around us sprays their fruit trees with artificial hormones to make them flower earlier (the earliest Durian gets the best price), we just wu wai – do nothing – and wait for the flowers to appear naturally, when the trees decide the time has come.
Also, while everyone fertilizes their trees with industrially produced chemical nitrogen salts made from fossil fuels (talk about ‘going against Nature’!), and waters their full-grown trees as soon as it doesn’t rain for two days – we just wu wai.
This principle of non-action respects the natural seasons, the living beings, and the Tao (and saves us time and money).
There is no need to push against Nature’s way with all your strength and power, just to force the trees to grow each and every minute of their waking lives and flower whenever “The Market” commands.
As Lao Tze wrote:
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”