The traditional method used to grow rice beings around March, when seeds are planted in a sprouting bed. The bed is filled with soft mud and water to a depth of about knee-high. Unhusked rice seeds are planted, almost at random. Many seeds are planted in the bed. Several weeks later, sprouts appear, looking very much like scallions. While this is taking place, the rice field is prepared.
Along the sides of the field are water channels. Enough water is let into the field to make it muddy. The sprouts are removed from the sprouting bed and placed by hand into the muddy field. A group of people join in this activity. As you plant, you move backward or to the side. Several sprouts are planted in each location.
Then, after the rice has been transplanted, additional water is let in. Mud settles to the bottom, and the water above becomes fairly clear. One by one, microbes, worms, freshwater shellfish, small fish, and frogs appear in the water that covers the field. All stages of water life, from the most primitive bacteria to amphibians, start to appear. By the time the rice is harvested, the field is brimming with life.
As the rice takes root and grows, many leaves appear on each plant. By the middle of summer, flowers appear and the ear begins to form. Green grains appear. As fall approaches, the ears become larger and heavier, causing the plants to bend. By this tie, grasshoppers, butterflies, crickets, and other insects are active in the field.
When the ears are big enough—usually around October—the field is drained and allowed to dry. During the summer, the field is flooded several times, to replace water lost through evaporation. The channels make it possible to flood the fields whenever necessary. A small channel connects the field to a main channel of water. The small channel is blocked with a wooden gate. When it becomes necessary to flood the field, the gate is opened, letting water from the main channel rush in. When the field is drained in the fall, however, it is allowed to remain dry. The rice matures on dry land for two to three weeks under the autumn sun. The plants become dry and golden-yellow in color.
When it comes time for harvest, everyone in the village pitches in. The plants are cut and placed in bundles, making it easy to collect the grain. The plants are then pulled through a simple device that resembles a large comb. As the plants are drawn through the comb, the grains fall to the front, while the leaves and stem piles up at the back. The rice plants were traditionally used to make straw sandals, thatch for the roofs of houses, rice straw mats (tatami), and a variety of other things.
Each grain is encased in a hard shell, or husk. Today the husks are removed with mortars, but in olden times, rice straw maters were spread on a level place, and several hundred pounds of grain were scattered upon them. Then, using a wooden hammer, or flail, several people would pound the rice, breaking off the husks. The end of the flail is flat and big, flexibly attached to the handle. With this tool, the husks would come off easily, especially when the rice had been very well dried, under sunlight. Rice with the husk removed is brown rice. When you husk rice and cook it the same day, it incredibly delicious and nourishing. The husk of the grain is composed largely of cellulose, an indigestible form of carbohydrate. Our teeth cannot crush cellulose, even after it is cooked. That is why the husks must be removed from cereal grains.
In Asian countries today, once rice has been husked, the outside skin is then removed. Brown rice is polished into white rice. White rice is the inner portion of the grain left over from the process of refining. The outer layers that have been removed are known as rice bran, or nuka. This process results in a nutritionally deficient product. White rice lacks the essential nutrients found in the outer layers of brown rice and is not recommended for optimal health.
The traditional cultivation of rice reflects the earth’s geological and biological history. Altogether, from March to October, about eight months pass. During the first seven months, the rice grows in water, while in the final month, it grows on dry land; it passes through seven periods of water life, and one period of land life. Life began on earth about 3.2 billion years ago; 2.8 billion years of which were spent developing in water, and 400 million years of which were spent developing in a ratio of 7-to-1. The rice repeats this 7-to-1 water to land ratio in its growing cycle. The 7-to-1 ratio reflects the logarithmic spiral, which is the fundamental form of the cosmos and all living things.
Ancient people developed this method of cultivation ten thousand years ago. Traditional rice cultivation is an example of a natural, self-sustaining system conducted in accord with the order of the universe. That is way it has lasted so long. We can only marvel and respect the wisdom inherent in this time-tested method. However, at present, even this ancient method is becoming obsolete. It is becoming necessary because of celestial change, and because of changing conditions on the earth. It is now possible for rice to be cultivated in a way that is even more in accord with nature. The traditional method requires the dedication and labor of many people. Activities such as tilling, planting, transplanting, and watering demand a tremendous expenditure of human energy. Now with only less than a hundred years before Polaris, the North Star, comes into alignment with the North Pole, the time to reevaluate this method has arrived. We can now begin to consider and experiment with simpler, more natural methods for the cultivation of rice, while keeping in mind the principles of traditional cultivation in mind.
Michio Kushi and his wife Aveline introduced macrobiotics to the United States in the early 1950s and were pioneers in the natural foods and holistic health movements. This article is adapted from Michio Kushi’s book Healing Harvest: Michio Kushi’s Guide to Sustainable Home Gardening and Food Production, edited by Edward Esko, One Peaceful World Press, 1994.