Reconstruction by Way of the Soil

by G.T. Wrench

Chapter 16


When, in the first half of the industrial era, the call upon the soil for food and raw material became urgent, certain scientists set themselves to study the means by which the soil was enabled to create more life. They did not do this by a wide observation of nature in the forest, prairie or elsewhere, nor by a study of successful farming, past and present, but they did what is typical of scientists, they selected one aspect of the question and concentrated on it. They selected plant-food, not in its entirety, but in the fragmentary aspect of a particular character of it, its chemical character. They acted as simplicists, split off a part of a whole problem, and attempted by an intense study to make the part solve the whole. Thereby they eventually made the part greater than the whole. However, the story tells itself.

The men who set out to solve this problem, or, in other words, to put a scientific theory and practice of plant-feeding in the place of the traditional, observational knowledge and practice, were not farmers. They were chemists, allied, therefore, to the chemists who then were making factories so successful.

The three leading men in this venture of the human mind were Theodore de Saussure, Justus von Liebig and J. B. Lawes. Liebig (1803-73), with whose name the venture became chiefly connected, had already won a wide recognition as one of the greatest chemists of his time. In 1832 he, with Wöhler, published a memoir called Researches on the Radical in Benzoic Acid, in which he showed that the radical benzoyl might be regarded as forming an unchanging constituent of a long series of compounds. By this great work, he opened out a new era of organic chemistry, and made possible the elucidation of the numberless combinations of a few elements, such as those which figured in Chapter 14.

It was, therefore, with a great prestige and unavoidable recognition on his part of his own pre-eminence as a chemist, that in 1838 he turned his powers to a subject that was urgent and immediate, the subject of the production of more food. It was a time known in England as the 'Hungry Forties' and in Germany one of grave social unrest amongst the growing industrial population. Liebig became drawn to the nature of food, vegetable and animal, and such was his forceful intelligence that he was sure to make out a very strong case for the chemist with regard to it. He did so. In this vital matter, he made out the claim that the chemist should be the supreme arbiter.

He rejected the farmers' knowledge that the plants derived their chief nourishment from humus, formed by the decay of dead animal and vegetable matter. He taught that plants took their nitrogen and carbon from the air and eventually returned them to the air by the agencies of putrefaction and fermentation. There was no loss of either carbon or nitrogen in this cycle. But it was a different matter with the minerals that plants required, such as phosphorus, potash, soda, sulphur and lime. These came from the superficial earth, in which they were limited and could become exhausted. What the farmers had to do was to make good the loss by giving back the required amount to the soil. To affect this, they had to put themselves in the hands of the chemists. The chemists would take some of the crops to the laboratory and there burn away the organic matter and analyse the minerals of the ash that was left. They would, then, discover whether phosphates, potash, sulphates, lime, and also nitrates since nitrogen was not supplied speedily enough by the air, were defective in quantity. By mining the deficient salts or by manufacturing them in factories, they would supply those that were required. The ones particularly required were grouped under nitrogen, phosphorus and potash, with lime which had long been given to fields in the form of marl or chalk. These chemicals became known by the term of 'artificial' manures in contrast to natural, farmyard manures.

At no time could circumstances have been more favourable to artificials than at the time of their introduction. The overthrow of the conception of men's partnership with the soil, which is embodied in a free peasantry, had been completed as has already been told. The old feeling for the land as something living and creative had disappeared with the peasantry. The land had become something to be owned and worked for money. Large, new populations were awaiting food and also other raw materials of plant growth. Fortunes were won through ownership of land as quickly as through that of factories. The land of England had, therefore, been seized by wealthy and ambitious men, and the peasants had been turned off their holdings and their commons. The peasants were subjugated by the rich, as if they were a conquered people and not fellow-countrymen.

Urban areas, too, were rapidly ceasing to have the character of country-towns and were differentiating themselves as almost purely industrial. The leading industrialists, on their part, had also defeated the countryside. They had destroyed the rural cottage industries and thereby had forced the young and able-bodied country folk to serve their factories. Whether on the land or in factories and mines, the new order was rich men and, completely subservient to them, the proletarians. This was the rural condition which constituted the parentage of 'artificials', and, from the point of view of life-cycles, it was bad.

On the other hand, it may be claimed that these chemical fertilizers made a big contribution to the difficulty of feeding the new, urban populations. Apart from exceptional farmers, the soil had for long been indifferently manured. The elements which artificials supplied were needed, and larger crops followed their use. Healthier and better results could have been effected by the systematized collection of great quantities of urban and rural waste and the manufacture of it into manure. But there were difficulties. Firstly, the roads were bad. Even the best of roads were such that royalty sometimes could not get from Kensington Palace to Richmond owing to the mud. If this were so where royalty passed, collection and distribution of stuff needed by farms and villages were not likely to be systematized, a word that did not apply to the farming of that day. Secondly, the making of manure from wastes requires planning and labour, and there was a lack of both in the English countryside.

Artificials had many advantages over natural manure. They were either mined or manufactured. They were much less bulky to transport, and they were very easy to spread upon the fields. They were, indeed, almost too practical and convenient; they offered the allurement of ease, and, as they gave quick results, landowners and large farmers were satisfied. Science thus came to the rescue and scored a triumph. Artificials did great service in a period when the altogether unprecedented increase of population and new towns enforced an exploitation of the soil in a country of backward agriculture. They provided a partial and artificial fulfilment of the rule of return. They singled out the most important elements of plant food and replaced them, even if distant islands had to be sought to get the required substance. This feeding to the land was certainly superior in its results to no feeding at all. It was planned and conducted under skilled guidance. It increased yields, strengthened weakling crops in their growth, filled in gaps when the introduction of motors and tractors led to losses of organic manure by displacing horses and oxen. In consequence, artificials came to be used in large quantities in many parts of the world.

Nevertheless, they were and they remain fragmentary; they are not a full return of all that is taken from the soil. Is there evidence that in results they have not had a whole effect, such as their partial character would indicate? At the very outset there is something which, in a sense, is so fantastic and yet so in keeping with the spirit of that exuberant time, when the first burst of wonder was aroused by the many triumphs of the scientific method, that it seems almost logical. It is this: the life-cycle was not used as a test of artificials.

There is the justly famous small plot of ground of Broadbalk, Rothamsted, the experimental station founded by Mr. J. B. Lawes, where for a century wheat has been grown yearly on soil with a full complement of artificials next to a similar plot, where farmyard manure has been used. The wheat on both plots looks well and yields well. But all tests of this century of experiment have stopped with the crop itself and its quantity. The crop has been watched as a thing in itself by the close, careful, fragmentary , watch of science. It has just been a market test, the quantity of wheat yielded by a plot of such a size. No animal phase of the wheat as a food has been tested, nor has its vegetable factor been complete, for the seed of the plots has been imported from outside, bringing in qualities of life-cycles not belonging to the plot. So the whole century-old experiment has been without any life-cycle tests, has indeed belonged to no life-cycle. It has been individualized, separated, specialized. But in nature nothing is like that.

This fragmentary method in agriculture, as elsewhere, became the standardized method of test. It has not, even now, reached the stage of the life-cycle, in which observant peasants and the health of themselves and their products enter as a part of it. Scientists, it is true, do test out crops and foods on animals, but in a fragmentary and apparently inexhaustible manner, and, except the estate planned by Lady Eve Balfour in Suffolk before the outbreak of war, there was in Britain no experimental farm, in which the life-cycle was the standard of test.

There seems to be, then, only one way to get an answer to the life-cycle results of artificials and that is to take a general view of the results of agriculture in the period, in which artificials have played a prominent part.

Firstly, we will take quality as denoted by taste. That great farmer, Mr. F. A. Secrett, at the Royal Society of Arts in 1935, spoke of taste and quality in this practical manner: 'I notice that in Covent Garden and the larger provincial markets, those stands are favoured where the produce has come from farms which have received organic manure. Although higher prices are charged for this produce, it is sold out first.'

Taste and choice are, of course, natural measures of food, but they are not scientific ones. People are so subject to the statements 'proved scientifically', 'measured scientifically', that they fail to realize that the excellencies are not measurable and therefore have to be disregarded by science. The customer, who likes the look of a basket of gooseberries and takes one to taste, is a sound measurer, but he is not a scientist. A scientist, as scientist, cannot measure appearance and taste. (A very great and honest scientist, Charles Darwin, said that his work had spoiled his appreciation of music.) But people can still judge by taste, and it has been noted by those who grow vegetables and fruits upon land where full return is practised, that customers give a sudden expression of surprised delight when they first bite into these products. They have come to expect almost a savourlessness in market-garden produce. Anyone who has tried out foods grown from full return and those from artificials, immediately recognizes the distinction. One is inviting, the other insipid. Market-gardeners themselves know it, but now that motor-cars and vans have driven out the huge horse population which once belonged to the towns the gardeners served, they have been left mostly helpless. Animals, too, know that taste is a safe guide to good food. Mice have been tried out by giving them two troughs, the one filled with grain grown by the bio-dynamic methods, which is a 'whole' method, and one with grain grown by artificials. The mice invariably chose the first trough and finished its grain before they went to the second. Similarly cattle, let into a field equally divided into 'artificials' and 'whole return' areas, collect and graze upon the whole return.

Nevertheless, in searching around it is surprising how few are the examples of choice. The curious fact emerges that the taste of fresh foods is no longer regarded as a guide. The great majority of modern foods are scarcely expected to taste of themselves by the mass of their consumers. Tastes, as condiments, sauces, curries,, and so on, have to be added to them.

The next test of quality is health. Can it be said that the products are healthy under modern farming, in which artificials have come to play a dominant part?

To answer this question by personal observation, one would have to go on a tour like those of Arthur Young, William Cobbett and Rider Haggard, and see for oneself. We have to find a less laborious journey, and this is readily achieved by going through a textbook on modern farming, which gives one, as it were, a guidebook to a country one does not know. As the majority of people do not know the farming world, such a book will form a guide to what is to the reader virtually a foreign country. I have such a book before me, written with the excellent technical skill which one expects in such instructive books. I have read through it several times, with the spirit of a traveller seeking to know what this new farming world is like, and each time I have wondered the more at what I read.

There is first the soil. In this new country one soon comes to realize that the soil is not a bit like the soil in nature, a part of a general life-cycle. It is a thing in itself, the composition of which is understood by scientists as something that they can manipulate, compound into its several parts and dispense to farmers as compounders dispense medicines. What the soil did in the past and still does where left to nature, what it did under the cultivation of past farmers, these are things of the Dark Ages before the light of modern science came to the world. As principles or assistants to knowledge, they are not even mentioned. Previous knowledge and tradition of the land are treated as the previous knowledge of, say, radiology and wireless, as not worth mentioning. But the soil is something very different to new scientific subjects or discoveries in technique such as that of Marconi. The scientists, however, seem to see no difference between technique and vitality.

The manipulated soil gets a number of diseases, so the wise modern farmer will get his soil overhauled by a soil-scientist, as the townsman gets himself overhauled by his local doctor. But with these numerous complaints and their treatments we will not deal. The spontaneity of the soil, by which it has done its job of life-supporting for endless vistas of time, is lost in this new country. So, even though one knows the language, one has also to know the exact meaning the scientist gives to his words. One wonders what exactly he thinks of the soil. Is it a vigorous re-creator of life or a cantankerous invalid? Is it the peasant's partner or the scientist's patient? It is really confusing, but let us go on with our journey.

We now enter another province, that at which the scientist is at his happiest technically, manipulating the breeding of plants and animals in ways so quietly discovered by the monk, Mendel. In this province, wonderful varieties of life have been fashioned. Here, for example, are pigs so fat that to their progenitors they would appear nightmares rather than pigs. They have been conjured into masses of streaky bacon such as a public has been taught especially to value. Sometimes the public taste in bacon is changed, and with it the pigs are changed, the scientists being able to switch their fat and lean about so as to make a change practical. These pigs are bred, fed in special ways, stalled and slaughtered, and often never go under the open sky, until they are taken to the market. They are, of course, delicate, but they are bulky. They are tasty, too, when they reach the table, so that here public taste itself seems faulty as a guide, and this would be so, were it not that the taste is directed not so much by the consumers as by the retailers.

Still they are tasty, especially to those who have not or care not for the powerful crunch of orthodontic teeth.

Here, too, are cows specially bred for milk. They also see very little of the open sky during their useful life. They become mothers and their udders fill with milk. Their calves are almost at once taken from them and the mothers are transferred for service to long and very clean buildings near large towns, where each one has her stall. Antiseptic chemicals are requisitioned to cleanse the teats of microbes and then a machine is attached to the teats, which sucks out the milk into sterile receptacles. Extreme watchfulness and care is taken. Above all the scientists have to test and examine for tuberculosis, for there is probably no group of living animals so prone to a grave infection as are these unnatural cows to tuberculosis. I have not with me nor can I recall the percentage of cows in Britain that have tuberculosis, but it is surprisingly large. Our guide to this new farming country, however, comes to our assistance. The best way of preventing the spread of tuberculosis in dairy herds, it says, is to test the cows by the tuberculin test and to destroy those with a positive reaction. The objection to this practical man's treatment of an invited disease is that it means a capital loss to farmers, which they cannot afford. The scheme, though declared to be scientifically sound, is not carried out in practice. It is a good example of the language of this new country being so topsy turvy as to distort the meaning of words. Sound may be so allied with science, but it certainly cannot be so allied with nature. To be sound in nature is to be healthy.

We have now had a sight of some of the animals in the new country. We will direct ourselves to some of its crops. It does not really matter which crops we choose. We will, therefore, select two of the commonest forms of human food, wheat and potatoes.

What is wanted is a wheat of the best quality. There we all agree, but the word quality in the new country has a different meaning to that which it had in the old one, when it meant a wheat that gave a health-giving and tasty loaf. Quality is now milling quality, the capacity to make large loaves. Imported wheat is better quality in this respect than British wheat, for a two-pound British loaf is only two-thirds as big as a two-pound loaf of imported flour. For this reason the British flour is called weak and the imported strong.

The science of plant-breeding is recent; it belongs to the present century, and one of its early triumphs was in the making of British wheat strong. This was accomplished by breeding on Mendel's principles. 'Yeoman' and other wheats show that strong wheat could be grown in Britain. But, though these wheats were strong in the baker's sense of the word, they were not strong in health. They were, like the so-called soft wheats, subject to many diseases, of which certain 'rusts' are particularly destructive. A wheat, called 'Ghurka', was fetched from Russia because it resists rust and it was bred with British wheats, and finally there emerged 'Little Joss', which was immune to Yellow Rust. Its baker-quality was not so good as that of 'Yeoman', but its health was better; so by better health it lost one quality in gaining another.

There are many other diseases of wheat; there is, for instance, one with the unpleasant name of stinking smut. To avoid stinking smut the seeds of wheat before sowing are soaked or dusted with chemical antiseptics, so strong that those who handle the seed have to guard themselves against being poisoned. Some of the poisons were too dangerous for common use, so the scientists set to work to find safer poisons. Coated with these poisons, wheats of good quality can emerge into life.

Now those who can remember the cottage loaf, as made by hand in the countryside before these changes were begun, will recall the delicious flavour of the bread. But a delicious flavour is not a measure in this new country. See, for example, what has been done with our second choice, the potato. The potato is an American plant with its original home in Peru, when that country was itself the home of a very great agricultural civilization. Our guide to the new country, however, tells us what a poor-quality thing the potato was before being taken in hand by the scientists. Potatoes of the present day, the guide-book, declares, are much superior to the small 'highly flavoured' potato of the last century. Nowadays a hygienic public, trained to associate the colour white with cleanliness, demand what in the new country is a quality-potato. It must be of medium size, thin-skinned, with few eyes, and above all, it must be white. It must have a 'good' appearance, it must be a 'shop-window' potato, though its flavour is poor compared to its yellow-fleshed, highly-flavoured and more nutritious ancestor. But this yellow colour is not 'quality'; it is, a 'discoloration'; merchants will not buy such potatoes and the public will not eat them. How is it that the public rejected flavour and nutritiousness in favour of bulk and appearance? Is the answer not clear to my readers? Bulk, if it means ultimately less to the consumer, means more gain to the seller. Money scores. And appearance, is that not a second falsity of money, the eye displacing the tongue, where the tongue should serve the whole in the supreme matter of vitality? Or, to discard the serious for the humorous, how many times have I not read and laughed at Alice in the Looking-Glass, until, following my guide-book, I realized that I too was living in such a wrong-way-round country.

Of course the potato has a number of diseases. We read of them, in the guide-book. It is really delicate, so delicate in fact that in many countries, including Britain, certificates are issued by special inspectors that seed-potatoes are free of virus, and, in consequence, that their offspring will not be killed out to an extent of more than 50 per cent by virus diseases. There are, of course, fungus diseases as well. There is, for example, wart disease, which is so dangerous that in 1923, Government made its occurrence notifiable to the police.

So one travels in the new country, to hear the same tale again and again repeated. Finally the traveller comes to the opinion that the modern scientific farm, and especially the experimental farm, is a mixture of forcing house and hospital. It fragments the life-cycle. It is the offspring of a defect of thought, the splitting or departmentalizing of the mind, which disables it from seeing wholeness and that men, animals, plants and soil are inseparably united.

Under this fragmentation, insects and other pests have assumed a dominion, which assuredly they have not got in nature, frit flies, aphides, moths, cut worms, wireworms, leather-jackets, warble flies, maggot flies and the rest. But, through these misfortunes of the new farming, the balance of nature is once again emerging under the term ecology. How different is the tale of ecologists to that of scientific money-farms. Here is the evidence of one of them, taken from the Bio-dynamic Agricultural News Sheet of April 1938:

'We have found it possible to prevent the plants from suffering damage from insects simply by means of suitable biological measures, and without taking steps to kill them. In vegetable culture proper we have mostly to do with plants whose flowering impulse is held back, as, for example, all kinds of cabbage, carrots, radish, chicory, leek, celery, beetroot, turnip, etc. Or we have to do with plants whose flowers are not very prominent, such as beans, tomatoes and similar plants. From this repressed impulse to bloom there results a certain one-sidedness. True flowering plants are not amongst them. A close study of the relationships in nature makes it clear that the insect and plant worlds are complementary to and dependent upon one another, and moreover that certain insects and certain plants are sympathetic to each other. Vegetables enable insects to develop their larvae and flowers offer food to countless fully-developed insects. And there are many small creatures which prey on each other, such as the spiders, ichneumon-fly, ladybirds, etc. If we provide as large a variety of insects as possible with the means of living, most of them will in time live harmoniously together, and the harm done by this or that one will be practically negligible. That is why it is so important to have flowering plants near vegetables. The aromatic herbs are especially valuable for this purpose, e.g. borage, lavender, hyssop, sage, thyme, marjoram, dill and fennel ...

'At first the grubs of the cabbage-fly were very destructive. Now we do not mind them at all. If on, warm days, at the end of April or May, the fly lays her eggs on the cabbage plant, the red mites find them and suck the eggs before the larvae emerge. There are many such compensatory adjustments. The sand-fly drags many caterpillars away to bury them for its larvae. In springtime ants seek among grass and plants for the larvae of the daddy-long-legs and kill them. Even the wireworm made itself useful by preferring pre-digested plant-stuff and destroying the larvae of a cabbage-fly.

'Not only do insects balance amongst themselves, but toads, frogs, moles, shrew-mice and lizards take part in this adjustment.'

Men, animals, plants and the soil are balanced and united. That is the clear meaning of the above close observer and follower of nature. It is the answer to all that strange, new country, through which we have travelled. It is also the answer to that particular part of it called 'artificials'. Men separate and fragment. They separate a science from nature as chemistry. Then the common thing, which bad thought permits, happens. The new specialists, the chemists, look at the vital processes chemically and lay claim to be its guides and masters. Being scientists they get the support of other scientists, and that of the scientific method, the method of experiments, which can be repeated by any properly trained individuals. Thereby they fragment, isolate and simplify questions, and make them readily 'comprehensible' and 'controlled'. By 'artificials' not only do they reduce the feeding of the soil to a purely chemical process, not only do they omit the secrecy, delicacy and variety of nature's own methods, but they limit the very chemistry itself. They fragment and simplify it to three or four minerals, those of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium. But there are more minerals in the soil than are dreamt of in their philosophy; for example, those that accompany the growth of sugar-beet by the sea constitute, as Dr. Pfeiffer calls it in Bio-dynamic Farming, 1938, a 'small pharmacy of sodium, lithium, manganese, titanium, vanadium, strontium, caesium, copper, rubidium', some of which elements are as rare as their names are beautiful.

As to these rare and common metals, do we know what tone and quality we miss, if we lack our share of them? We already know from Chapter 14 of grave defects from small omissions, but the mind need not get confused contemplating their possibilities. We have just read of the wonderful balance of nature's adjustment between insects, flowers and other small forms of life. Will not nature effect the same balance within us, if she is allowed her way, and we follow and do not fragment her method of life-cycles? Will not each element harmonize with the others and so express health? How then can we expect health, when that harmony is broken in the soil itself? That is the answer to 'artificials'.

I could give other answers and show how, when the whole is followed, health must necessarily accompany it, but I will not do so, as I have already made this the subject of my book, The Wheel of Health (1938). But I prefer to end this chapter not with minerals but men. The intelligence department of our agriculture is wrongly based; it is an intelligence largely directed to cure the evils which it itself brings into being. It is the countrymen's wisdom we need now, that of the countrymen who have built up long-lasting agriculture and whose wisdom lies in tradition. They have fashioned it by muscular and bodily work and by a close and immediate observation, by a personal intimacy with nature, which we have come to associate with the poet. And, in fact, peasantries are poetical and are so because of this intimacy. The music, dances and songs of the peasantries are characteristic of their countries; they are the creative expression of their own lives. Nothing collective or characteristic, as their life is, originates from people separated from the soil as are townfolk. The poems and essays that played a notable part in the country life of the Chinese, the Tibetan art which finds its way into every home, the sylvan setting of the modern Japanese villages, of the Balinese and Burmese, the vocal harmony of Swiss peasants returning from their fields, the reproduction of floral beauty and colour in festive dress of so many countries, these betoken the unvoiced poet that lies in every peasant's heart. It is this intimacy that becomes creative in the poet, as the great Greek people recognized in their use of their word poet, namely, a 'maker' or creator, and which Dante voiced in the Divine Comedy, when he declared that the poet was not the disciple of the imagination, but he who knows the secrets of nature.

It is this intimacy which reveals to the cultureless or self-cultured countrymen the complete, inter-dependent character of all the varying forms of life, and the health, goodness and beauty which come from it. Its all-pervading quality is something known by being seen, felt, lived with and realized, and not told to the ear. It constitutes that mystical unity, about which all the most meditative religious thought and all the most sublime art have gathered. The most famous temples of the world, the noblest poems, the loveliest pictures, the most transcendent music, have acclaimed it. They are all works of balance and beauty, created by the unity of realization on the part of artists, who know the secrets of nature. It is to their company that the knowledge and arts of the peasantries belong. They are, both great and humble, of like origin. But modern, urban civilization, split off from the creative power of the soil, has forsworn this great heritage. In its place there has spread a nihilism that year by year has been destroying art, truth and beauty, and, at the same time, in an immeasurable degree, the soil itself, to be consummated in a holocaust of men and nations.

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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