Reconstruction by Way of the Soil

by G.T. Wrench

Chapter 23


In a chapter on Recapitulation designed to sum up the principles of reconstruction by way of the soil, I could have taken other civilizations than those of the period of Islamic success as a measure of our present needs. Mr. 0. F. Cook of the U.S. Agricultural Department, for example, tempts me with words I have already quoted and will here repeat: '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.' This is his conclusion after his examination of the farming system of Ancient Peru.

William Prescott, in his History of the Conquest of Peru, 1847, gave a brief account of that remote farming. The land, he wrote, was divided into three parts, one for the support of the national religion and the sick and infirm, one for the maintenance of the Royal Family and Government, and one 'divided, per capita, in equal shares for the people'. By law each man had to marry at a certain age, and the land was re-allotted each year and 'increased or diminished according to the number of the members of his family'. None were allowed to be idle 'from the child of five years old to the aged matron not too infirm to hold a distaff'. Prescott then discussed this agrarian law, and, of European countries that resembled it, he selected that in Judaea as 'the nearest approach to the Peruvian constitution'.

Nevertheless, our information, or mine at least, of this system of irrigated fields 'cultivated wholly by the people', is so scanty and remote that thorough and practical to the highest degree as it was, it would have been quixotic for me to have made it a measure of choice.

The same applies to the riverine civilizations of Iraq; knowledge of essential details is lacking. These civilizations collectively offer a stability of the soil of some four thousand years, but so far off is this period that again it would be quixotic to choose ancient Iraq for modern guidance.

It is a very different matter with a far more numerous people of a like duration of four thousand years, the Chinese, a people whose farming, right up to the years preceding the Great War of 1914-18, earned the unstinted praise of that genius of agriculture, Professor King. The introductory chapter of his Farmers of Forty Centuries is a well-deserved paean to the Chinese farming, carried out in spite of the floods of their great rivers, which, rising in the vast area of Tibet, have been beyond their control. Moreover, they have in their history records of several reconstructions by way of the soil one of which, that of the Tangs, was contemporary with the Islamic reconstruction. When their society was disintegrated by the incursions and conquests of the Tartars and when their land was devastated, the first task of a Chinese dynasty after overcoming the Nomads was the reconstruction of their peasant-farming system.

In the West, there has been abundant studentship given to the arts of China, and especially to its pictures and ceramics, but it has ignored the greater art, the art of agriculture and its reconstruction. One student, however, of the Columbia University, New York, Dr. Ping-Hua Lee, has been a fortunate exception, and this gifted author has given accounts of the Han and other dynastic reconstructions of the system of land tenure of the Chinese sages, of which I made use in the third chapter of my Restoration of the Peasantries, under the heading of 'The First Agricultural Path'. The history and character of these reconstructions, and of Chinese historic farming generally, to my mind and to that of the late Professor King, offer a wide field of invaluable research to future western students, but that time has not yet come. When it does come it will, doubtless, reveal a number of principles of reconstruction by way of the soil at present not available.

For these reasons, therefore, I have chosen the Arabic reconstruction, and for the further reason that they were, according to many scholars, the initiators of the modern sciences. It is true that we have surpassed their sciences to an immeasurable degree, but the same cannot be said of their arts, and particularly of their farming as a national art. Here we have by no means surpassed them; on the contrary, we are far below their level. So, although by their violent jealousies and extravagances, such as the Chinese were never guilty of, the Arabs exposed themselves to their enemies, who destroyed their empire, and though, with a fatality that seems as inexorable as it is inexplicable, they have almost reverted to their original desert status and to-day nowhere exhibit any art of agriculture for our enlightenment, I have chosen their historical reconstruction as the measure of what should be possible to us in our present urgent need. Consequently, to give coherence to my subject before my final chapter, I propose in this reconstruction to review the first twenty chapters of my book in the light of chapters 21 and 22.

Chapter 1 discloses the general theme and purport of the book as a need to accept the priority of the soil in a sane and sound civilization. It describes the intimacy and oneness of Man with the soil, which forms the initial factor of life-cycles, in which men have their being. It reveals the wholeness or health, which arises from a complete adherence to the life-cycle by a brief account of possibly the healthiest people on the earth. It goes on to show how the human family conjoined with property in the soil, through which the life of the soil and of humanity become vitally interwoven. It ends with an account of the most enduring association of soil and family in history, that of the Tsing-Tien System of the Chinese.

The duration of the Chinese family system and the degree of positive health of the Hunza both surpass what the Arabs attained. Nevertheless, Islam attached great significance to both family and health. Mohammed asseverated the sanctity of agricultural work and coupled with it the declaration that the land or other property, was inviolable as long as it was rightly used. Islam, founded upon the Prophet's dicta, embodied them in its fixed laws upon the freedom and security of the peasantry and the inviolability of property rightly used.

As regards health, we know that, at the time of the rise of Islam and after, Europe was frequently devastated by epidemics. The condition of the towns and the homes of the people was one of extreme filth, and this condition has lasted amongst the poor urban classes almost to the present day. In many of the most populous capitals of Europe not a single public bath was to be found, and religion itself made personal dirtiness almost synonymous with holiness. The practice of Islam was the very opposite of this. Mohammed himself taught the paramount importance of hygiene. He also placed right feeding as the first source of health and decreed that lack of restraint in food and drink was 'the source of all physical ills'. Islamic civilization was marked by its insistence on bodily cleanliness, and public baths were provided on a liberal scale. Drainage in towns was efficient without being wasteful. Nevertheless, though vastly superior to anything in Europe, Islam needed the assistance of the medical art, which it developed to a high degree as shown by the fame of its Schools of Medicine and its hospitals, and the knowledge of botany, pharmacy, chemistry and other branches of medicine, from which much of the modern healing art is derived.

The next four chapters, Chapters 2 to 5, tell the story of Rome and the evil effect of its capitalistic civilization upon the peasantries and family, upon the food of the poor, and upon the soil resulting in its extensive loss through erosion and the formation of marshes. Islam supported the peasantries, honoured the family, dictated that even the slaves should have the same food as their masters, and took every care to conserve the soil.

Chapter 6 is concerned with Nomads and Farmers, and the effect which scarcity of the food of the Nomads had upon the civilizations of the Farmers and the history resulting therefrom.

Chapter 7 brings forward two contrasting examples, the first of the deprivation of the soil of the Falkland Islands under the dominance of modern commerce, and the second of the renovation of the soil of a Baltic dairy farm by correct farming and ecology. Both form examples on a small scale of vital issues. The local self-government in things of the soil would have avoided the first; the second is in accord with the final unity of all living things of Mohammed's teaching.

Chapter 8 gives an account of the proper and the wrongful uses of urban and rural wastes. Islamic agriculture was, amongst other things, based on the proper use of wastes. Chapter 9 continues this theme and shows the reason why the cash-nexus leads to the wrongful use of wastes. Under the guidance of Oswald Spengler, it develops the difference in thought and values of the countrymen and townsmen, which are illustrated by the different character of their taxations, the natural character of that of the farmers being payment in kind or farm products, that of urbans payment in money. This difference was recognized and acted upon by Islamic civilization. The chapter continues with further illustrations of the economics of the soil, including an account of the Chinese economics of the use of water for the soil, as given by Professor King. It concludes with a brief description of the disastrous effect of the dominant money values upon the fertility and health of the soil.

Chapter 10 contains the story of the peasantry of England and the robbing of the food of the soil by the lords of the manor, culminating in the ruin of the peasantry in the Industrial Era by acquisitive men. Only the peasants of the Isle of Axholme escaped this fate.

The story shows especially the entire lack of decent conduct towards rural labour at the introduction of modern capitalism and is the precise opposite of the sacredness that was bestowed on all labour by the introduction of Islamic civilization.

Chapter 11 is the first tale of primitive agriculturists, those of Kenya, under the aegis of commercial farming, so poignantly told by Mrs. Huxley. It is a story without redemption, but not without the retribution of an extraordinarily rapid and devastating spread of erosion of the soil. Chapter 12 is a second story of a primitive people in Nyasa lured or forced from their land to serve in the adjacent gold and diamond mines. It has an all-too-near resemblance to the fate of the English peasantry as told in Chapter 10. The conditions of the miners in the gold and diamond mines was never as terrible as those of English miners under which children of six years, harnessed to small carts by chains, drew coal along the passages of the mines, but it was one with a large share of bondage, drunkenness and disease, under the stress of which many great and successful social and medical improvements have now been effected.

Chapter 13 tells the story of the salvation of Tanganyika, effected by the little tsetse fly, from the rapid erosion that has visited Kenya. It also contains a most promising story of redemption in the proper use of rivers, in which, instead of forming boundaries of human hostility with the ill-effect that such a river as the Rhine in particular has had, they are made beneficial by being used primarily for people on either bank.

The last tale of the due effect of dominance of money over a primitive peasantry is that of our oldest colonies, the West Indies, in Chapter 17. The hardships and erosion it has caused is made the more graphic by an account of an uninterfered with, and flourishing island -- that of Lombock in the East Indies.

Under the Islamic principles of the treatment of peasants, none of the disasters of Chapters 11, 12 and 17 could have been brought about; on the contrary, the Lombocks would have been multiplied, as the results in the Mediterranean Moslem islands show.

Chapter 14 is a philosophic interlude on the extraordinarily delicate and infinitely varied nature of our food substances built up from only a few elements, the most common of which are not only earthly but also aerial, and the need for a wider conception of them and their nature, if positive mental and physical health are to be attained.

Chapter 15 is another tale of the effect of the dominance of money. It concerns itself with Sind and Egypt, and shows the danger to the alluvial soil, of trying to force it out of its primal character in order to make two blades grow where one or none grew before. The perennial irrigation, which has been introduced into Egypt and Sind, has been first financed by money at interest, and thereby has followed another path than that of Islam, in which the cost of new canals was borne by the government and that of cleansing and repair alone shared between the State and the recipients of water. There was no interest; there were no bankers who brought the huge sums into existence out of nothing and issued them as loans to be repaid with interest. The first thing the bankers sow upon the new land is debt, as one might sow tares amidst the wheat. They enforce greater productive effort upon the land than it will bear. 'Although interest brings increase', said Mohammed, 'yet its end tends to scarcity.' This great saying again proves itself true in this modern example. Both in Egypt and Sind, the forcing of the land out of its natural capacity to make it 'pay', has already produced scarcity, through alkalinity. Writing only from the purely agricultural side, Professor King says that in all probability the people whom our modern civilization has supplanted knew of this error and had tried and abandoned perennial irrigation. Islam went further in the interests of soil. From the very start it shut out the men of greed.

Chapter 16 is a second interlude chapter. It is a review of what are known as artificial manures. The introduction of artificial manures was a fragmentation, an incursion of one particular section of scientists into the realm of farming. These scientists took a partial view of the character of the soil. They took a few of the most important chemical elements of the soil, and tried to make them into a whole. They sought to displace natural manure with measured doses of these chemicals; they first diagnosed the land, and then prescribed for it. They began to be important when the quantity of natural manure itself began to decrease owing to railways taking away horse traffic and sanitation abolishing the disposal of refuse upon the soil. With motors displacing horses, and tractors displacing horses and oxen on the farm itself, artificials became yet more strongly advocated. They have their occasional place in increasing the amount of produce of underfed land, and they have been of great service during the period of war. But they have distracted thought from natural manures; they have helped to hide away the disastrous misuse of wastes. They are a fragmentation, a default in philosophic thought upon the wholeness of the association of the dead and the living in farming. They have, therefore, been accompanied by a farming so beset by disease that the scientific farm has become a blend of factory and hospital, producing products inferior in health, quality and taste, and deterioration of the soil.

Artificials, of course, played no part in the farming of the Islamic civilization; nor, indeed, of that of ancient Peru, nor of any of the great farmings that men erected in the past.

Chapter 18 is the tale of the German Colonies, in which the creed of the rights of the fittest received almost its final consummation. The latter part of the chapter tells the happy stories of these same colonies under the guardianship of the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations. Differing in manner, the three governments, those of the Union of South Africa, of France and of Britain, effected a miraculous change by means of principles approaching, and in the case of Tanganyika nearly identical with, those of Islam, when dealing with oppressed peoples of the soil.

In Chapters 19 and 20, the huge countries of Russia, South Africa, Australia and the United States illustrate the climax of the destruction and death of the soil which our modern values make inevitable. In spite of their great scientists, all these countries have been placed in grave danger owing to erosion.

In Russia erosion, particularly that due to deforestation, is of longer duration than in the other three countries of later development. But, with Russia's modernization and especially its almost fanatical faith in the tractor or machine farming, Professor Kornev has had to utter the warning: 'At the present day there are huge areas in the U.S.S.R. where, owing to the excessive breaking up of topography, whole territories formerly under profitable agriculture are now occupied by immense ravines and infertile wastes.'

South Africa has been described by Mr. R. 0. Whyte under the italicized sub-heading of The Transformation of South Africa into Semi-desert in the Twentieth Century. Mr. E. S. Clayton, in Overseas Investigation, 1937, declares: 'There is no doubt that we Australians are in a process of transforming the semi-arid areas into desert at a more rapid rate than in the U.S.A.'; the wetter, riverine districts many parts are gravely affected by erosion.

Finally we arrive at that great country, which has become the leading modern country in the production of food for itself and other countries, as well as of other essential crops for the benefit of all men and its own prosperity. Yet in doing so, it is fulfilling the prophecy of its own Professor Shaler that unless some radical change is adopted, we must anticipate a time 'when our kind, having wasted its great inheritance, will fade from the earth because of the ruin it has accomplished'. The chapter closes with an example of a great awakening, a powerful effort towards redemption in the U.S.A., the Tennessee Valley Authority, which follows the values of Islam in the priority given to local, agricultural knowledge, and the balance and mutuality of all labour, whether it be in the factory or on the land.

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

Back to the Small Farms Library Index

Community development | Rural development
City farms | Organic gardening | Composting | Small farms | Biofuel | Solar box cookers
Trees, soil and water | Seeds of the world | Appropriate technology | Project vehicles

Home | What people are saying about us | About Handmade Projects 
Projects | Internet | Schools projects | Sitemap | Site Search | Donations |