to Fantasy Island. I can see the camera zooming in right
now: on the lawn stands Ricardo Montalban in his white suit, next
to him sidekick Tattoo, who’s just about to announce: “Dee
plane! Dee plane!” While I’d probably skip the Friday
night TV show, the island itself had an undeniable mystique: a location
so secluded no visitor knows where he is, the perfect place to try
out a wishful reverie.
Early in my Japanese sojourn, I may have found such a place. I
certainly have no idea where I am. I know only that the dark water
we’ve crossed is Japan’s Inland Sea, and that this island
is one of the many vague, green shores that vanish in and out of
the mist. I’ve come with my trip’s usual troupe of Shumei
guides and interpreter—not fantasy companions per se, but
the scene is magic nonetheless.
On this spring day, hot pink rhododendrons peek out from the soft
forest and the red leaves of autumn still line wet paths. This is
a place where you pass through pleasures like scanning the dial
for a radio station: here the precise song of birds, here the perfume
of cherry blossoms, here nothing but the pure silence you find only
in the middle of the sea.
If Natural Agriculture has a single heart, this is it. And it’s
even more like Fantasy Island than I thought. Shumei owns most of
Kishima Island, making it a rather inimitable ideal. But it’s
a place for the dream to grow, a place where Natural Agriculture
can flourish unfettered by the mainland’s reality of drifting
pesticides and financial pressure. Its lessons of perfection are
taken by the farmers of Shumei, like those departing on dee plane
at the end of the show, to put into practice in their imperfect
world. A sort of dreamy research center.
But the master of this island is no Ricardo Montalban; in fact,
when he slides up to the lunch table just after we arrive, he appears
more like a shy servant than the highly revered teacher he’s
supposed to be. He’s small and his face is thin, with skin
stretched over high, round cheekbones and caved into hollows below.
His ears are the red-brown color of sausages, his leather hat so
molded to his skull it could never fit another person. Rather than
pull up a chair to our table, he stays seated at the one beside
it and keeps his conversation cautious and deferent. When he does
talk, his eyes blink.
Farmer energized by his fields
Out of the lunchroom and onto the land, Murota is like a fish returned
to water. Standing in the soil his voice starts to flow, unfolding
the concept of compost, layer by layer. We walk to the second of
many micro-fields, up a thin and muddy path lined with short trees,
and his voice becomes even stronger. The slight rise obscures our
destination, the foliage erases the field we came from, and suddenly
it is clear that he’s not powered by just the fields. This
wildness is the thing that completes Murota—and his agriculture.
It wasn’t always like this. When Murota arrived decades ago
he wasn’t a farmer but a young man sent to help with other
work on the island. (Kishima also functions as a Shumei children’s
summer camp and a retreat for members.) Natural Agriculture was
in its nascence, and the residents in charge were still figuring
out how to make it work. Having been professional, non-organic farmers,
the only approach they knew was “the more, the better,”
and so they set out to make as many fields as the island could hold.
But holding capacity is a matter of opinion. As they cut down trees
and plowed wild spaces for fields, the leaves and weeds they relied
on for compost became scarce. When the island couldn’t produce
enough organic matter to sustain itself, they brought compost from
the mainland, even that made with manure—whatever it took
to keep the fields going.
Now Murota had been apprenticing with the veteran farmers, and
gradually he noticed that something was wrong. It wasn’t just
the compromise that allowed the use of manure (a practice verboten
within Natural Agriculture), but the system’s overall imbalance.
The island’s forest was nearly gone and the remaining pine
trees were mysteriously sick, their growth rings growing thinner
every year. The seaweed around the island was dwindling. The food
production was impressive, but the farmers had forgotten that that
wasn’t their only goal. Murota thought, ‘How could we
be creating harmony with nature if the nature is being obliterated?’
Seeing the farm extended to the world
When Murota took charge of the farm 20 years ago, he made a fundamental
change that has become the backbone of all Natural Agriculture practice.
Rather than viewing it as a system unto itself, he saw his world—the
fields, the farm, the island—as one microcosm of a larger
entity that is all-inclusive, yet finite. Add something in, and
the balance is jarred; take something out, and the machine doesn’t
In 2003, his fields create a picture of abundance. Today the cabbages
are at their peak, and the rows are comfortably lush. The heads
have generous space between them, but each one is so full and round
that the row feels packed. It’s that way everywhere: each
piece of these 1.8 acres is at its optimum, whether that means heavy,
hearty, bushy, leafy, dense or tall.
Murota credits this fecundity to the island’s renewed natural
balance, which allows the soil to be composted with local ingredients.
But as I jump to draw a conclusion about fertility, Murota catches
me. He raises a thick finger patiently and repeats the cardinal
rule of Natural Agriculture, the concept upon which most Westerners
stumble: Compost is not used to supply nutrition, it is used to
keep the ground moist and protected to regulate its temperature
so the soil can feed itself.
Nature already has everything it needs, he reminds me, we are just
here to facilitate.
The most scientific process he employs is not very scientific.
To compost, Murota combines leaves and weeds in a container. He
covers them with pure water, then compresses the mass, then repeats
until the mixture is 40 percent organic matter, 60 percent water.
Then he leaves it to rot.
Of course I ask how he knows when it’s done, and of course
he answers indirectly—unraveling the story a little more,
but in such a way I realize my question doesn’t really apply.
“Hanjyuku is a word that means something like ‘half-boiled,””
he says, “like an egg. I use the compost mostly when it’s
Using compost-in-process boosts benefits
To mix compost into soil it must be fully rotted, but he rarely
applies it that way. Most often he takes it when half-done and lays
it over the soil and around the plants. The composting process is
one of layers, he explains, and each of them is useful. Imagine
the duff in the forest: beneath a tree you would find whole leaves,
under them those half-rotted, and under them those broken down completely.
In each stage of decomposition the leaves have varying levels of
energy and nutrients in different forms, all of which are important
to the plant’s environment. “Instead of waiting for
only the oldest stage,” he says, “why not put it on
sooner and take advantage of the whole process?”
The information sinks into my Western head as we admire the yellow
flowers of late radishes and the twirling young pea vines, both
sheltered under misty mesh tents. The humid air gradually solidifies
into a cool rain, adversity that yesterday sent all parties running
for the cover of umbrellas. But here at the hilltop garden, the
one visibly most mature and vibrant, Murota has kneeled like a yogi
before a row of chives and nobody is going anywhere.
For a moment he strokes the chives as if they were a child’s
hair. Then he stretches his thick right hand over the soil and gives
us the next piece of this story: If you leave the crop in the ground
after its top is harvested, the three layers can exist underground
as well. The top layer is this year’s roots, the second those
of the last crop, and so on. Again, the explanation is one of nature:
Go to a wild mountain, where this happens as a matter of course.
Take a clump of soil in your hand, pour in some water, and it will
expand like a cotton ball. Do the same with soil that has been left
bare and cultivated blindly, and it will crumble—there’s
nothing to hold it together.
“Real good soil is not just rotting,” he says, “it’s
His left hand brushes the chives aside to reveal a skinny brown
mushroom growing at their base. “It’s like yogurt. The
life is not breaking down into nothing, but rather that breaking
down is producing something new. And the sign of it is mushrooms,
just like in a forest.”
Finding concrete proof for the American
The rain is our excuse for going inside, but it’s clear to
all that I still need something more, some combination of explanation
and proof. Next to the field is a concrete house, and in it an improbably
clean room; floors lined with tatami mats and empty of furniture
but for two low tables and a single chair for the American woman.
On one table are three glass jars. Each is thick, clean and closed
tightly, each contains water and a 30-g. sample of soil sealed inside
six months before. What has happened inside them belies their identical
The jar with soil from Murota’s least-mature field is a predictably
grim mix of nearly clear water and an inch of dense, monotone dirt
caked on the bottom like old fish food. The jar from the hilltop
field of eggplants is a step up: the water transparent but dirty,
the lumpy soil maybe two inches deep, ranging from green to brown
and growing fuzz on top. But the forest soil is a whole separate
type of life, a microbial cosmos unto itself. The water is such
a deep, thick brown you can’t see through it. The dirt inhabits
all six of the jar’s vertical inches and spreads out in thick
clumps of hairy dirt, between them furry areas like the bottom of
a pond. White filaments stream in and out of view, connecting the
Murota explains that whether you’re talking about compost
or roots, each step toward wildness adds a new level of complexity.
That complexity is what holds the soil together both literally and
figuratively. Each layer attracts different microorganisms and contributes
different nutrients, and in a perfect state, the soil has all the
pieces needed for absorbing nutrition—similar to a whole food,
which comes complete with the enzymes and minerals it needs to be
digested. When one piece is removed—like a plant’s roots
pulled after harvest—the composition becomes incomplete and
the natural process can’t possibly function at full capacity.
Likewise, adding something to the system jerks it out of balance.
He pulls out a wordy Japanese technical journal and flips to a University
of California experiment comparing the life cycles in two lab ponds,
one with fertilizer added, one pure water. The latter produced life
slowly, peaking gradually and petering out at the end of the chart.
The fertilizer sample spiked, then just as quickly plummeted as
its rapid growth depleted the pond’s oxygen.
But as my interpreter wades through explaining the concept, I notice
Murota is already on another topic. He looks deeply into his cup
of coffee, and to waiting attendees tilts his head slightly and
begins to talk. These jars and journals are something for me to
hold on to, but next to his voice they feel compulsory, hollow.
The real proof is outside, somewhere between the slender chives
and the wet brown mushroom hiding beneath them.