Reconstruction by Way of the Soil

by G.T. Wrench

Chapter 1


It will be clear to a reader, who, like a prospector sampling a face of rock, runs his eye down the page of Contents of this book, that its subject is a general one. It is, indeed, widespread both in space and time, yet in spite of its generality it cannot be said to be widely recognized; so little so, in fact, that to not a few it will appear a new subject. Men, under the advanced differentiation of the present, are apt to think of themselves as finished products, as soldiers, merchants, sailors, engineers, lawyers and so on; to speculate on what they, one and all, actually are, seldom occupies many of them for more than a few casual brevities of time.

Nevertheless, now that they are involved in a supreme crisis, now that, however complete victory may be, the future cannot be the replica of the past, it is inconceivable that men will not be forced to face fundamental questions, such as, in previous times of habit and routine, they were able to avoid.

They have already come to learn that this age, so distinguished for its scientific progress and its widespread knowledge has, in spite of these advantages, completely failed in its promise of peace and prosperity. Even in such vital social problems as feeding and employment, it has failed and failed signally. Men, who have now been forced to experience in their own persons, and therefore to reflect upon these two problems, are astounded that their settlement has been so definitely brought about by war. Where peace failed, war succeeded. The will of the people and the skill of organization have assured all of their share in the national food, and those who do hard manual labour can reckon on sufficient energy being given to them by their allowance to accomplish their work without the weariness that results from a partial starvation in essential foods. Why, then, is war so much juster in these respects than peace? What is lacking in times of peace, that comes into being in times of war? Is it that under the supreme strain of war against a powerful and ruthless enemy there arises in the homeland a peace, goodwill, and indeed a veritable brotherhood of man, which displaces the greedy competition, the covert hostility and the social barriers of peace that destroy the best qualities of country, blood and language? Does our civilization need war to make a decency of human conduct prevail?

Many answers have been given to these and kindred questions, but in order to look at them afresh, it is proposed in this book to review conditions, both historical and immediate, with a vision untarnished by the pride of the present, the pride attached to that in which one's ego has its being. This is a hard saying, for all are tarred with the same brush, and none can claim impartiality exempting him from his heritage and the prejudice of circumstance.

Yet, if we are to enjoy a better communal and individual life after the war than before it, the attempt has to be made with the probity it demands.

To introduce the attempt is the object of this opening chapter, and to make this beginning we will try to look at men, not as final products, not as labourers, merchants, shopmen and the rest, not as rich and poor, sick and healthy, wise and foolish, but as they are, all and each, inseparably linked together in a common likeness, which will pervade the chapters of this book. This likeness is that they are all feeding animals, getting, mostly and daily, their life from the products of the soil. Like other forms of life, vegetable and animal, men are dependent for their existence upon the crust of the globular earth on which they live.

Men, however, possess a marked peculiarity which distinguishes them from other forms of earthly life. It is this -- that they alone have been able to make themselves partners in the creative power of the soil. They alone are agriculturists or farmers, whereby they assure themselves the constancy of their food, clothing and other primal necessities in place of having to trust to the gifts of chance. They alone, amidst terrene life, have acquired a quota of mastery in creation.

In this ability to take a part in the creation of their necessities, men have gained something more than a repetitive increase of their food. They have gained an understanding, dim though it may be, of a relation between themselves and the powers which rule the universe and that minute part of it on which they live. They realize that to be partners in creation, they have to submit themselves to the unavoidable autocracy of these powers; they have to be, in their own language, creatures of the Creator, and as such, however headstrong and dominant they may be over weaker forms of life than theirs, they are, nevertheless, like them limited by the laws of their existence. Upon the basis of limitation, they are inevitably compelled to shape their individual and social lives. Should they transgress, they or their descendants are inevitably punished.

These rules and restrictions, under which mankind lives, are those of the nature of life and death. Life and death are the two essential conditions of terrene existence; they are the two different phases of this existence. The living ceases to be what is called living, but it is not lost to the cycle of existence but remains within it as a necessary part of it. In the condition which is called dead, matter is commonly in the soil or will eventually reach it. That which, by its life, has often had the power to lift itself from the crust of the earth, now returns to that crust. There it plays an essential part in promoting further life. In a word, there is no actual death as a permanent thing. There is a suspension of life. Death itself is but a phase of life, in which the dead matter returns to the soil, where it is reformed into living matter again. There is nothing that has once taken life from the soil, that will not, by reaching the soil, again become living. The dead leaf, that we see lying on the path at our feet, is not dead in the sense of being finished. Let it lie, and, through the creative agency of the soil, its substance will again enter into a blade of grass, a flower, an insect, bird or animal and so return to the kingdom of the living.

Life and death are, therefore, not separate entities, but phases of each other. The living has to respect the dead as a part of itself, not finally dead but living, and this respect has been expressed in the religious mind of man by various forms of reverence in which the innate eternity of life in its most highly developed form, that of the human soul, is recognized.

When man does not interfere and the soil is left to itself, it does not fail. Through it everything that has passed from a state of life is restored again to a state of life; nothing fails or is lost. In the philosophy of modern science, however, the seeds that lie scattered upon the ground and do not fructify are stigmatized as failures, but those that grow into plants are dubbed the fittest, because they survive and expand into plants. Yet the other seeds survive no less; they re-enter cycles of life by other paths. Some even enter the very plants to which their fellow-seeds have given rise. So, for example, every one of the countless seeds of the elm that bestrew the ground in early summer, as well as the fittest surviving as elm plants, are not failures in the symphony of nature. In a musical symphony, each note, even the lowest and lowliest, fits. It is not a question of the fittest excluding or making superfluous the remainder. That is a wholly false outlook upon the processes of terrene life. Each has its place without which the whole is incomplete. Each has its place in a creative cycle, each passes from soil to plant and then, in many cases, to animal, and, after an interlude of death, returns to the creative realm of soil.

This is the symphony of nature and creation to which men as terrene animals are inevitably bound and yet not wholly bound. Though they themselves are products of the soil, yet through the possession of their intellect, they have become co-creators and, in their limited human sphere, fashioned in the image of the Creator. They can produce life other than their own. To do this in accord with the processes of creation, they must themselves be continuous and limited in production; they must act in harmony with the process as it exists on earth apart from them. Here they have to fit. They have to act within a process of balance. In it the living as a whole is balanced by the dead as a whole. In the living itself, its chief forms, vegetable and animal, balance each other. They are interdependent, and are incomplete without each other. In the exchange of vegetable and animal life with the enveloping atmosphere, a similar balance is effected. It has to be regarded as a whole of balanced parts and therefore partakes, in human phraseology, of the character of art. Nothing in it is isolated, everything belongs to the pattern. From this art of fitting within the whole, certain consequences necessarily follow. Wholeness or health -- two words of a like origin and meaning -- is one consequence.

This wholeness as a consequence has to be proved. Though it seems logical enough, yet little has been done to prove it in an age of unprecedented speed and discovery, of immense progress at a constantly expanding periphery, which by distance has almost shut men's ultimate terrenity from their vision.

We are to-day no longer whole or healthy physically or mentally. In the careful work of the Peckham investigators it has been established that the vast majority of us are subnormal. We seem to have broken away from the great primary fact of our existence, namely, that we are first and foremost terrene animals, and, until we regain that fact and put it into practice, we cannot expect our social and individual lives to be whole. Our civilization, threatened with destruction as we know it to be, has to be healed -- another word meaning whole -- and to be healed it has to be overhauled and reconstructed in its relation to the soil that provides it with the means of existence.

This was the task that in dim outline presented itself to the author when, as a medical student, he was appalled by the crowded gatherings of the out-patient department of a large London hospital. 'Why disease? What then is health?' were the questions that often vexed him. To answer them he had not the opportunity, nor the tenacity which truly great men have in pursuing an object that is to them a consuming passion and for which they will forgo the pleasures of life, and end -- God knows how often -- in destitution and despair. For that heroic life he had not courage, but the questions did not entirely leave him, and it was when he had leisure in which to retire for a space of years, brought to an end by the war, that he was able to gather material for the answer to this first question of correct terrene being: 'Is there a relation of man to the soil which assures his health?'

The answer came as a decided yes, and in the instances he was able to gather, he found that a group of men could acquire health if they gave to the soil, from which they lived, all the food and water it required, and if they did not weaken it by exceeding the limits of the creative powers which nature had allotted to it.

His chief lesson he gained from a little, shut-away people called the Hunza, to whom he was attracted by what Sir Robert McCarrison, who knew them well, wrote of them: 'They are long lived, vigorous in youth and age, capable of great endurance and enjoy a remarkable freedom from disease in general.'

His further inquiries opened out a prospect of intense interest and even beauty such as their own mountain valley, amidst the vast mountains of the Karakoram in North-west India, possessed. He found that they pursued a close attention to the soil, which strangely enough, seemingly related them to a time of the golden age of agriculture. As a strengthening of this supposition, he found that their present farming recalled to that most cultured of mountaineers, the late Lord Conway, the unsurpassed farming of pre-Spanish Peru, the remnants of which he had seen and which caused another well-cultured explorer of these gigantic relics, Mr. O. F. Cook of the Bureau of Plant Industry of the U.S.A. Department of Agriculture, to exclaim: 'Agriculture is not a lost art, but must be reckoned as one of those which reached a remarkable development in the remote past and afterwards declined.' The glowing pages of Prescott's second chapter in the Conquest of Peru seem to shine again amidst this little people, huddled between the highest congress of great mountains that uprises from our globe.

The author found that this people meticulously preserved the rule of return; they were, indeed, the source of the understanding of the ultimate nature of the soil and man and of the warp and woof of life and death, to which he has referred a few pages back. Nothing that once got life from the Hunzas' soil was ever wasted but all, from the least fleck of wool, the fallen leaf, the broken nutshell, to human refuse itself, was gathered and, after suitable preparation, returned to the soil for its food. He found that the Hunzas paid the same heed to water, which, by means of their principal aqueduct, the Berber -- itself famous far beyond the limit of their own small country -- they brought with its silt from a glacier snout to their terraced fields. Of the Berber, Lord Conway wrote: 'The Alps contain no Wasserleitung which for volume and boldness of position can be compared to the Hunza canal. It is a wonderful work for such a toolless people as the Hunzakats to have accomplished, and it must have been done many centuries ago and maintained ever since, for it is the life-blood of the valley.' Here, too, they were like the people of Peru, of whose water-ways, stretching for hundreds of miles athwart the slopes and precipices of mountains, Prescott wrote: 'That they should have accomplished these difficult works with such tools as they possessed is truly wonderful.'

The words 'many centuries ago' led the author to further inquiries. He found that Professor N. I. Vavilov, of the Institute of Applied Botany, Leningrad, had discovered that the area of which the Hunza Valley forms a part 'is one of the most important primary world agricultural centres, where the diversity of a whole series of plants have originated'. The people of ancient Peru, according to Mr. Cook, also produced a wonderful series of plants in the secluded valleys of the Andes and so made them the most important originating agricultural centre in America.

Here, then, within the precincts of British-supervised India, was a people who brought quite a marvellous message from the remote past, a past that justifies the tradition of the Golden Age, a past of perfect relations between men and the soil. The Hunzas had created a symphony of nature. As each note, however humble, has its proper place in a symphony of Beethoven, so even the humblest fallen leaf, each drop of water have their place in the symphony of Hunza. The author learnt from its example that the work of the Hunza, too, was an art in its original sense from aro, to 'fit'. He learnt that farming is an art and something infinitely wider than scientific agriculture. It is a way of life itself.

So much for health, such health and the constant cheerfulness of wholeness, which the Hunza now enjoy. There are many other examples of this health still extant on the globe, all of them in places remote from our Western civilization. To those who are attracted by this, at present, novel meaning of genuine health, the author unblushingly commends his little book of a hundred and forty-odd pages, The Wheel of Health, in which these examples are also recorded. It is an essential subject to understand for any who feel the need of a reconstruction by way of the soil.

Nevertheless, it cannot be gainsaid that such small and remote examples are scarcely likely to have much effect on those upon whom this reconstruction by way of the soil is now urged. It seems that one is doomed to stir one's readers by the negative proof of the devastation and sickness that the modern era has brought to the soil and the feeders of its products, rather than by isolated proofs of wholeness, health, cheerfulness and well-being.

Before, however, entering upon the long path of negative proof, there presents itself a second positive element of construction, which is complementary to the meticulous care of the soil. This is the form in which the men of that meticulous care served the soil. The form was that of family farming.

The family as a group is but a human complement of the soil itself, both family and soil recreating life. The family is human continuity and the soil is vital continuity. Continuity of the family necessitates marriage as the mode of the bond of the woman to the soil; marriage bringing sons and daughters to the service of the land. It is the land that gave its particular meaning to the farming family; it is its creative power that united itself with the creation of the farmers' children. Marriage, the bearing of children, the apprenticeship of children, the respect of children for their parents and their ancestors, the care that is bestowed by the elders on the present generation because it is to repeat itself in future generations, all this wholeness of life finds its true significance in continuous family ownership or inherited right to the land. It is, then, the land as family property, or in lesser and more dependent degree, the craft as family property, requiring the work of the family for their continuity, which primarily gives stability to men and women making a people.

This right the people of ancient Peru possessed. Their self-governing communities or ayullus, settled in ownership of limited areas of land, existed from remote antiquity. They were the basis of the autocratic state, and they themselves constituted an agrarian communism collectively holding the land. The uniting of the ayullus was effected by the rulership of the principal ayullu or royal family community. By far the majority, too, of the Hunza families -- and the Hunza are also an ancient people -- are freeholders, subject in their unity to the rulership of the Mir. The greatest of these peoples of family farming are our allies, the Chinese. Their empire is by far the most stable and continuous in the world's history and it was originally founded in the long distant past upon family property or right to the land.

It was to their revered sages that the Chinese have always attributed their Tsing Tien system, the system of the nine fields. A square of land was divided by drawing two lines across it from side to side and two up and down, as in the nursery game of noughts and crosses. Nine squares were thereby formed, eight outer and one central square. The eight outer squares of land were allotted to eight families, the centre square was worked co-operatively and its produce given to the government officials as a tax in kind.

This division into nine squares was symbolic of the principles of the sages. Where it could be, it was, no doubt, carried out. But it was not rigid. The soil is not so similar in character that it can be divided with such exactness. One square might be less readily cultivated than another; one family might be larger than another. So adjustments were made; for example, if one family had several and another no sons, one or more sons of the first might be adopted by the second family. Adaptations were made, but the principal and standard measurements remained. It was considered by the sages as the principle of choice for the reasons that it promoted co-operation, close social relations, mutual production, easy exchange of commodities, unified customs, saving of individual expenses, and it related the work and life of the families to the officials of the nation by the work which the combined families undertook on the central field. This central field could also be adjusted within limits; it could be enlarged or diminished according to the general fortune of the province or nation.

The nine squares within a square symbolized a simple planning and basis of life, which, without doubt, as opposed to change, progress and instability, produced a stability now inconceivable to our Western minds trained in its opposites. We have been accustomed to regard it as stagnation. Since we have become confused and disillusioned with progress and the disasters which it has brought and with which it further threatens almost all mankind including the Chinese people themselves, we have come to think of them historically with more interest and approval, but nevertheless as something so distant and foreign to us that their methods and history cannot really affect us.

Yet, if nature is limited, if man cannot pass certain boundaries or exceed certain controls without entering upon generations of disaster and even human extinction, then some such stable system as that of the Chinese takes upon itself a very different aspect in the measure of human wisdom. It may be that it will then appear as a natural human system, in scale and endurance the greatest achievement in the partnership of intelligent man and nature upon the earth. It was one that long ago attained a certain finality, a completion such as a great art work, a great cathedral or temple reaches. The building needs care, love and daily attendance and sometimes renovation, but it cannot be made more beautiful. It reaches its excellence and, though time may make it more revered and loved, its very excellence shows that it had, from the very beginning, a power of duration within it. A great art has this duration. It is not subject to frequent change as is science. Changes fail to improve it. Recasting a symphony of Beethoven would not make it more but less beautiful, but the devotion with which it is played supports its beauty as human generations pass.

It is in this sense that we should, I believe, try to estimate and understand the Tsing Tien system. It is a national thing on a great scale that has kept within the limits imposed by nature. Through this system the Chinese sages produced and continued a productivity from the soil unexcelled elsewhere, and, from humanity, a community of peasant-family farmers, the largest in numbers, the most skilful, the most contented and the most peaceful amongst the peoples of mankind. The Chinese have, of course, had their misfortunes and occasional catastrophes. They have been beset by people without any settled system such as they enjoyed. Large landowners have from within sometimes destroyed the rights of the peasants, but the Tsing Tien system has been the thread upon which has been threaded period after period of their long history. 'The whole history of government administration of agriculture in China', writes Dr. Ping-Hua Lee, in Volume 99 of the Studies in History of the Columbia University, 'coincides with the history of the Tsing Tien system, for it started with this system of land tenure. Its vicissitudes, its crises and epochs were timed by the abolition or re-establishment of the system ... It is fortunate for the economic historian that the history of the Tsing Tien system is coincident with China's political history.'

Thus in the small body of the Hunza and in the large body of the Chinese, much broken by the near past and present havoc, we have rare survivals, instances of skilled and continuous life within the limits that are set by nature and the land; a fitting of skilled mankind into the life-cycle.

The Chinese had not the stupendous secluding mountain wall of the Hunza, but as far as men's power could reach, they made such a wall, the Great Wall fortress, stretching for 1,500 miles to shut out the Tartar. They had not the control of their water supplies from their sources as had the Peruvians and the Hunza; the floods of their great rivers have their origins in huge ranges of stripped hills mostly outside their control. Yet in spite of these foes of secured stability, their system endured until it was finally worn down by the constant attrition of contact with the West. Although it has been the West and its ways that have broken up this system of stability, nevertheless sufficient of it is known, owing to the Chinese historical habit, to see in it the supreme example of the Wisdom of the East in contrast to the Science of the West. The Tsing Tien has been the chief historical system of a human partnership with the soil. In it was secured for century after century the comprehensive range of both the minuteness and grandeur of this partnership, which has by no Western writer been better expressed than by the well-known words of Hasbach in his unique History of the English Agricultural Labourer, 1920. 'Trifles', he wrote, 'are the very objects of the small cultivator; he has everything near him and under his eye, makes use of every small advantage, cultivates every corner, has the help of his wife, and brings up his children to be the most useful the country produces. Such men serve the land as it should be served, never stinting themselves, and as absorbed in their service as any priest in his religion.' Upon this basis stable civilizations of conservation have been and can be built.

Next chapter

Table of Contents
1. Introductory
2. Rome
3. The Roman Foods
4. The Roman Family
5. Roman Soil Erosion
6. Farmers and Nomads
I. The Land
II. The Nomads
III. The Farmers
IV. Nomadic Migrations and Farmers
7. Contrasting Pictures
8. Banks for the Soil
9. Economics of the Soil
10. The English Peasant and Agricultural Labourer
11. Primitive Farmers
12. Nyasa
13. Tanganyika
14. 'Earth Thou Art'
15. Sind and Egypt
16. Fragmentation
17. East and West Indies
18. German Colonies: The Mandates
19. Russia, South Africa, Australia
South Africa
20. The United States of America
21. A Kingdom of Agricultural Art in Europe
22. An Historical Reconstruction
The Initiation
The Institution
The Achievement
23. Recapitulation
24. Action

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