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Reprise: Satoyama: The Wild Edge of Japanese Farming

Spring at Hamma Farm in Nara, Japan.
One of the best places on Earth.
This article first appeared at EcoWaza in the summer of 2010. Inspired by my work on a Tokyo organic farm and visits with other farmers around the country and at farmers markets, I was glad to delve a bit deeper into the topic. There is still so much to learn, but thankfully, it is a pleasure to get out, get my hands dirty, and find out what's happening. - JB

Traditional farming in Japan has a wild edge.  Adjacent to the carefully tended rice fields and rows of vegetables is an area rich with life.  Birds dive over the trees and fields, catching insects, while bees drone from one flower to the next. Trees of all types and sizes move in the wind, and a fox pauses in his afternoon stroll to listen for a mouse feeding on a fallen berry in the underbrush. Moss breaks down the stump of a tree cut for firewood, while microorganisms in the soil work from the bottom to help the process along. The juxtaposition of such wilderness seems at odds with the razor straight rows of rice and vegetables growing nearby, and at first appears rather un-Japanese. In reality, though, it is perhaps as Japanese as miso, rice, or sake. It is satoyama.

Literally translated as arable or livable (sato) mountain (yama), satoyama is most often associated with rice farming and forestry and can take many shapes and forms in the Japanese agricultural landscape. The most common definition is of a half-wild, half-managed space that acts as a transition between cultivated fields and the wilderness just beyond.  The word first appeared in writing in 1759 when Hyoemon Terauchi, a forester, used it to describe the area around a rural mountain village's agricultural fields.   The forest provided fuel and food for the nearby human community who in turn manage it through use. Cutting and trimming trees selectively for fuel, as well as construction and craft, allowed sunlight through to the forest floor, and kept enthusiastic members, such as bamboo, from creating a monoculture that bullied out more reticent forest members, like asparagus that want a bit more space and time to grow and reproduce. Harvesting edible wild plants (sansai), such as warabi and fuki, had a similar effect while providing some of the first tastes of fresh greenery in the spring. Chestnut (tochi) gathered in the fall offered an alternative source of protein and could be stored in case of lean harvests. New trees would be planted and seedlings encouraged, and some fruits and plants would be left as seed for the following year. Leaves gathered in the fall from the  diversity of trees would be spread on the rice fields to break down gradually through the winter months and replenish nutrients used up during the last growing season.  Yet, enough would be left on the forest floor to protect and feed the plants, animals and insects there, too.  Birds and insects returning in the spring and frogs and early blooming plants emerging from winter hibernation would find food, shelter, and a safe place to start anew.

Satoyama's underlying premise is one of balance and sustainability. Techniques developed over the course of multiple generations work in conjunction with the seasonal rhythm's and needs of the natural community in that particular area, and create a place that wildlife can depend on for its survival. The result is a unique natural environment that supports members large and small.  Too much harvesting and the delicate network of systems the human and natural communities rely on will break down. Wood will run out. No trimming or cutting will result in domination by one species leading to the decline and or demise of others. The early spring flower is no longer there, causing pollinating insects to eventually seek another location. The bird that relies on these insects to feed its young is forced to go elsewhere. A crop pest, also kept in check by the birds, is now free to roam the fields. In satoyama, each community is inextricably linked to the other. Humans are not separate, but rather part of the same whole: the world in which we live.

Growing and encouraging wildlife to support human food crops – annual ones like corn or tomatoes and perennial ones such as mikan or persimmon – is not as revolutionary as it might sound. Seeds and plants found in the forest were planted and cultivated in space carved from wilderness.  Observation and experimentation over time expanded the variety of food crops. as well as the area to grow them. It is only within the last hundred years that farming shifted from it's small-scale organic and natural roots to a giant weed-free sterile environment supported primarily by chemicals. Renewed interest in satoyama began in the 1960's in Japan about the time the world began questioning 'modern farming'. Others, like Masanobu Fukuoka, whose natural farming techniques developed over a lifetime on his small family farm in Shikouku, began working with nature's systems to grow food sustainably. Today, permaculture farmers and land stewardship advocates strive to rediscover ways of living and growing that collaborate with and learn from nature. Such efforts draw on the same sustainable principles traditional Japanese farmers and foresters practiced in satoyama to achieve balance with their environment.

These efforts result not just in knowing which mushroom to harvest or which tree to cut. The partnership with nature of satoyama requires the sharing of knowledge between human community members. As one generation passes information and skills to the next, the relationship between the human and natural community deepens. Traditions, crafts, and skills are taught and shared from farmer to carpenter to carver to healer to hunter to gatherer. Forest, stream, and field are seen in the light of the variety of living creatures that call them home and the beauty they create. The intimate understanding underlying satoyama's sustainable practices means this wild edge becomes home, not just to pollinators and a source for building materials, but a place of creative inspiration, joy, tradition, and wonder.

Developing Satoyama Sense
Satoyama – a bit of wildness on the edge of ordered human space – never seems far away in Japan. Even on the streets of the country's largest cities a diversity of plants in pots, gardens, green-ways, and parks support urban wildlife of all sizes and varieties. And while urban dwellers don't have ready access to hectares of rice fields and forest, it is possible to connect to the natural world and develop 'satoyama sense.' Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Plant. Plant a few pots of flowers and edibles and see what wildlife comes around. Or even jump right in and get a mini satoyama box for the balcony!
  • Learn. Find a good reference book and learn the names of nearby trees, flowers, bugs, and wild grasses. Don't capture or pick, but leave these new acquaintances in their place and see who their friends are, what they do for fun. A good starter might be Nature in Tokyo: A Guide to Plants and Animals in and around Tokyo by Kevin Short for a basic overview. 
  • Walk and observe. Walk nearby roads, alleys, and paths to see what grows, flies, swims, and even crawls. See how the landscape – crafted from pots or a small plot of earth – fosters life of all kinds. 
  • Experiment. Add an edible plant to the flower garden. Why not? Herbs and vegetables go well with flowers, and some flowers, like nasturtiums and violas, are as edible as they are pretty!
  • Talk. Talk to gardeners to find more about what they grow. From ornamentals like tulips to edibles such as shiso, most likely there is a good story to be found. It might turn out to be a secret ingredient in a favorite dish!
  • Tour. Visit a farm or growing region to see how wild life is part of what's growing there. Organizations such as The Satoyama Initiative and Totoro's Forest support the existence of satoyama in Tokyo, Japan, and the world over to help reestablish a partnership with nature

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