Rice harvest at 최성현 Seonghyun Choi's natural farm in Hongcheon, South Korea (Photo: P.M. Lydon | Final Straw)

Meeting Seonghyun Choi — The Beginning of Final Straw

It’s 2011, and Suhee and I live and work in Seoul and Silicon Valley respectively. Being a part of these two giant, fast-paced economies, we have both seen our fair share of social and ecological problems. The reality of living in the middle of a social and economic system based on the fairy tale of never-ending growth is clearly taking a toll us, on our friends, and on our families, not to mention the toll on an environment that is struggling to continue supporting our immense demands. We feel pretty deeply, that the story of society that we were living in is not working out so well.

We have decided to begin interviewing people who are working towards a better story. What kind of story? One about the kind of social and ecological wellbeing that we know is possible for all, yet that we constantly see slipping out of reach of the people around us.

We schedule meetings with urban ecologists, city planners, business people, ecological nonprofit leaders, mayors, and academics, and yet no one seems to offer truly convincing answers. All of the answers seem to be rooted in the same fallacy; endless growth is the answer, selling more is the answer, growing the economy is the answer, finding more places to mine oil, coal, and minerals is the answer; finding more places to dump our waste, or recycle or man-made toxins into new toxins is the answer; building more things and creating more demand is the answer. We don’t believe these answers. None of them answer to the ecological reality that we humans face, that we can not endlessly consume and destroy on a living, breathing, finite planet that must maintain its own ecological health if it is to support our existence.

We believe of course, that our world needs housing and jobs and industry. Yet we also believe that goals of humans can be accomplished in ways that respect the living world we are a part of. We are distraught though, because after talking to so many environmentally-minded people, and looking through so many environmental policy reports, we’ve found that no one is interested is giving us these kinds of answers.

Still, we keep looking.

Seonghyun Choi at his natural rice farm after harvest time in Hongcheon, South Korea (photo, P.M. Lydon / Final Straw)
Seonghyun Choi at his natural rice farm after harvest time in Hongcheon, South Korea (photo, P.M. Lydon / Final Straw)

In the Fall of 2011, our persistence is rewarded, when a friend in Korea suggests that we meet someone who calls himself a ‘natural’ farmer. At the time, we treat is as just another interview, with another interesting person who will probably give us more uninspiring answers.

Yet this meeting — with farmer Seonghyun Choi — is far more than a good interview, it is a major turning point in our lives.

It is here, on a small farm in the mountains four hours east of Seoul, that we finally meet a human being who gives us some plausible answers. Choi’s interview is not just about technical fixes, or ways to work within the current system, it is about whole new way of approaching how we frame the sustainability problem. It is about looking at the “roots” instead of the “branches”.

Choi begins by talking with us about farming:

On this Earth, human beings are the only beings that live by farming. Accordingly, the way we do farming is a very important thing. But until now, farming has been a demolition [of nature] and without any reconsideration, it continues. Starting with Masanobu Fukuoka, a totally new perspective began.

But then he gets into a bigger theme, of how we see ourselves in relation to the Earth:

We human beings, don’t know how miraculous the Earth is. And we live unhappily here. Actually we don’t know how to live here yet. We’re fighting against nature. If we knew how to live peacefully with insects and weeds, it would be much better. By fighting against them, we only generate pollution and a dirty environment. In conclusion, I think the
natural way of farming is the best method of living.

The talk with Choi goes on for hours, continuing even as the skies grow dark and the stars come out. We stay at a small guesthouse along the river, and on that night, staring out into the universe, I feel like so many possible solutions for our global problems begin to light up with the stars. The way Choi talks about growing food that is not just about farming, but a way of thinking and being to sustain and nourish all human relationships, ecological and social. It is a way of thinking that relates really, to any job we might do in this world.

At the same time, this talk creates so many questions. Why have we not heard of this? If it is so good why is it not more popular? And most importantly for me at this point, is to know how is this possible?

Answers to this question are few and far in between. We want to know more broadly, about others who Choi talked about, about the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, and Yoshikazu Kawaguchi, and about others in the world who are working with what seems to be a true and beautiful mentality.

To answer these radical questions, Suhee and I decide to do something radical ourselves. In the following months and years, we will quit our jobs, cash in our meager life savings, give away most of our stuff, give up our homes, and begin a nomadic life in order to find answers. Over the next five years, we will chose a life of poverty, putting our backgrounds in photography and publishing together to try and uncover a story that we think is so greatly needed in our world.

In this, we hope the question of “how is a socially and ecologically healthy world possible for everyone” is something we’re about to find an answer to.