The Lowest Revolution of the Wheel
In our preceding chapter we noted that in Western farming the European system took pride of place, thus based on it European culture had remained in being for two thousand years or more, and that in spite of frequent phases of severe soil exhaustion natural law had so far been obeyed that the cultivated areas of Europe remain capable of complete restoration at any moment. The prevailing practice which has made this possible is the pursuit of mixed farming, the principles of which are well understood by the European peoples, These principles, already worked out into an ingenious management of rotations and of mixed grazing, have during the last fifty or sixty years been somewhat strengthened by some newer devices calculated to add as much green organic matter to the soil as is obtainable. In some cases success is registered; it has been found not altogether impossible to get fields into a good state of fertility under a grass cover and to maintain them in that condition. But the picture is not a stable one. It is not the picture of China. Something is lacking; there is a note of uncertainty. What is wrong? Why do we have to face, even now with all our knowledge, that terrible danger of the slow running down of soil fertility which we should have left behind us with the passing of the centuries?
The answer when we come to it is extraordinarily simple. We have not yet grasped in its entirety the first law of Nature, the law of mixed existences, that supreme tenet which seems to run through every phase of life on this planet from first to last. In so far as we have applied this law we are on safe ground; but we remain consistently unaware of our failure to carry it to its final terrific conclusion.
Our general use of the animal as our farming partner is an act of obedience to the law. Moreover our use fastens on the animal in its important aspect-we highly value its waste products; these, as we know, are an essential I part of the fertility cycle. Where we fail is in ceasing to follow the working of the law in that section of the turning Wheel of Life which comes after these waste products have been accumulated.
We must now go somewhat thoroughly into actual methods for the use of wastes. Simply to declare that they must be returned to the soil is not enough; we need to probe further. We need to know when and in what way and by what agents such animal wastes, or any wastes, are to be re-incorporated into the soil. Our present chapter will be devoted to this problem.
To say that European agriculture is based on the manure heap is to say a great deal and yet not enough. What is the manure heap? An evil-smelling, sodden, fly-ridden midden, of which the best components seep away as wasted liquid into the nearest ditch or escape as strong ammonia into the air; the remaining matter putrefies rather than decays. Yet thus we meet it as far back as we can trace European husbandry and thus it has continued ever since. Its origin is not known. Probably the dung was looked on as so precious that it was collected in order to establish ownership; we do know that under the manorial system it was the prerogative of the lord of the manor. There was a good deal less of it than was needed, because it was exceedingly difficult to keep animals alive during the winter, a difficulty not overcome until the introduction of root crops in the eighteenth century. When that difficulty had been surmounted, the manure heap was established on every farm.
How does Nature manage this business of the disposal of waste? In a very different manner. The animal's habit of roaming scatters its waste products widely. Exceptions are most rare; where they do occur, as in the accumulation of guano on isolated sea rocks, vegetation is absent -- the earth's green carpet falls to appear. This is illuminating. Leaving aside these isolated exceptions we cannot but observe that the law about the interlocking of vegetable and animal existence continues throughout the turning of the Wheel. It does not suddenly cease but remains in force as potently during all the processes of decay as during those of increase and growth. The animal products mingle with the vegetable waste -- which themselves fall and drift and are distributed everywhere there is no attempt at separation, no isolation or distinction, just a scattered deposit, leading to an inevitable mingling, a combined decay. Even the dead bodies of the animal world obey this incontrovertible principle; they remain on the floor of the forest or prairie and are at once in immediate contact with the vegetable and microbial life around them -- they mingle with the dust. At no point whatsoever can we find any segregation of the two worlds, the plant and the beast; they are conjoined in life; they unite in death.
The scattering of wild wastes over the surface of the earth is Nature's way of insuring that her law continues in operation to the end; it secures, during the stages of their decay, the mingling of animal and vegetable matter together with access to the needed air and water. But the ordinary manure heap is not, except at its outer edges, accessible to the oxygen of the atmosphere; the heavy manure packs closely and the heap is airless; nor is it, except at its extreme base, in contact with the earth; finally, it is not mixed with sufficient vegetable matter. Thus in three ways it contradicts the law which decrees mixture and forbids separation: it corresponds with nothing in Nature. Is it surprising that it ends as a nuisance, something from which we instinctively recoil, which we come to value only because a long experience has told us that in spite of all it is essential to our continued existence?
Why did we not take a lesson from what was before our eyes? As if to drive it home to us Nature has visibly emphasized the effect of the ordinary cowpat, where, for a time, a shortage of air, an excess of animal manure and a deficiency of vegetable matter come together. Every farmer knows that the grass immediately round a cowpat is rank and dark green; it is heavily overmanured with nitrogen. Such is the effect of this small-scale concentration of too much animal waste. Such grass is avoided by the grazing animal; there is something unpalatable in this rank growth; horses are specially particular and will not feed off that part of the field which has been stained, as it is called, by their droppings. The effects are of course corrected by Nature. The rank growth is only the first stage; she can afford to take her time about completing the other stages. The delay does not incommode her, because in wild life there is ample room and the grazing animal will have sought fresh food miles away. The confinement of the domestic beast draws our attention to its distaste; its instinct is to avoid what has not yet achieved that perfect harmony, that balance of the vegetable and animal elements which is so deeply characteristic of the green carpet's continuance. (There is probably also a strong instinct to avoid the danger of picking up parasitic worms passed through in the droppings. Harrowing or even ploughing up may have to be resorted to in order to cure very bad stain.) This simple observation might have helped us to understand the right treatment of animal waste.
There is another point about the manure heap which we overlook with far too much nonchalance -- the escape of ammonia into the air; this was mentioned above as characteristic of the ordinary midden, especially when freshly made up. Now this means a serious loss of combined nitrogen and is the exact opposite of what is wanted, for, as we know, there is always a fight for such nitrogen going on in the soil. It is not only the exact opposite of what is wanted, it is the exact opposite of what Nature does; for Nature has so arranged matters as to balance nitrogen so that it is not lost from the soil to the atmosphere, but is actually gained from the atmosphere. We have already examined the way in which this is done by means of certain types of vegetation and the Azotobacter.
If the plant then can catch at the atmospheric nitrogen and if we can use this its capacity to maintain the fertility of our fields, how absurd, is it not, to lose on the swings what we have gained on the roundabouts? How absurd is it for us to reverse the rule of Nature, to allow our reserves of nitrogen from the animal excrement we have painfully collected to escape instead of doing our best to add to it! The manure heap is proved to be indeed deficient. Useful as it has been, because in the long run it does to some extent maintain the law of the return of all wastes to the land, because it does join the animal to the vegetable world, yet it could scarcely be more faulty in its details. It is to be regretted that our European ancestors, misled perhaps by the criterion of the ultimate value of the animal matter, should have clung so tenaciously to the building up of the manure heap. It is one of the few points on which we may definitely say that European practice has failed of the mark, for in general it has been a fine tradition.
What then must we substitute for the manure heap? It is not the act of accumulation of valuable material which is wrong, it is the conditions under which that accumulation is allowed to degenerate and fail of its fulfilment. If we intensify the processes of growth we must also intensify the process of decay; and we must do so in the same degree and with the like eagerness. For it is the aim of all agriculture to intensify the processes of increase, but it has been the cardinal mistake of Western agriculture to pay far too little attention to the processes of decay; we have contemplated only one-half of the turning of the Wheel. The other half, the hidden half that turns away from our sight, is as important; the Wheel can never come full circle unless we see to it that this is accomplished in all its perfection.
Once more we reach the position that our only salvation is to be found in a frank imitation of natural processes; once more we shall do well to refer to the floor of the forest. We cannot do better than do what the Chinese do -- as it were, roll up that rich carpet into convenient concentrated masses: we cannot do better than constitute our wastes into compost heaps.
The principles underlying composting indicate something more fundamental than a merely useful improvement in farming practice; they are the re-assertion of that supreme Law of Nature, the law of mixed existences, to which we have already paid such frequent tribute. They insure in a way which is otherwise absent the required mixing of the animal with the vegetable element, combined with such access to earth, air and moisture as together reproduce with exactness the conditions under which Nature chooses that wastes should ordinarily decay.
The compost heap is composed of an intimate mixture of three to four parts by volume of vegetable to one of animal wastes mixed with a little earth, the whole being built up to a height of about five feet; a thin sprinkling of the earth to lie on top. (Or wood ashes; the purpose in either case is to neutralize excessive acidity. The floor of the forest is usually somewhat acid; forest growth likes a sub-acid soil.) The material may be built up in an earthen pit, in a mass (the "heap" proper), or in a box constructed of rough timber open to the air above and to the earth below and with half-inch interstices between the side boards to insure the further entry of air. The material thus layered or mixed must be moistened though never soddened, the conditions in the forest being so far imitated that this moisture is supplied in a gentle sprinkling or spraying by hose or can in the same way as the natural downpour is broken up into a gentle patter by the leaf canopy of the trees. Shelter too from extreme cold or violent wind is to be given, for the forest provides a very noticeable degree of shelter; in our climate we can do this by siting against a hedge or south wall or in some other protected corner.
Above all there must be air. The fallen wastes in the forest are kept very loose by Nature. As they sink they compact gradually, but for at least a few inches there is abundant air. This is the secret also of composting. Air is the first essential; without it there can be neither start nor continuation, for the whole beneficial processes of decay depend on an ample supply of oxygen to enable the fungi and bacteria to do their work. To insure air in the compost heap is not difficult. If left as described the heap breathes from above and below and also at the sides; it must, of course, not be trampled on nor pressed down. To add to the access of air from the bottom a thin layer of twigs or branch material will lift the heap a little (in large heaps brick air-channels are sometimes supplied for this purpose) and will itself decay and add to the value of the compost; the twig and branch fall is included in the natural forest waste and any composting which continues to omit this material becomes in course of time deficient both in potash and in the lignified cellulose essential for the best compost.
A properly made compost heap heats up rapidly. The degree of heat is surprising (in a well-made heap 150 deg. F., sinking to 90 deg. F. at the end of ninety days) and should develop in from three to six days according to circumstances; the type of material used can help, a proportion of grass cuttings and fresh green stuff, for instance, helps the heap to heat quickly. Very often, when a fork is thrust into the heap at this stage and the heap is a little opened up, it will steam visually to the eye. The operator may then be happy, for his heap is going with a bound. He may be happy also if he sees rich threads of grey fungous matter clinging to and clothing the material in the heap, especially the small woody boughs and branches. This rapid growth of fungous mycelium indicates that Nature is at work with a will. The fungi are busy eating up the mixed material. Such fungi are the real workers. They are Nature's chemists, her bench operators, her mechanics, her skilled technologists. In making a compost heap we do no work; what we do is to provide conditions. Warmth and abundance of air are essential and we may have to take some trouble to secure these. (For small heaps warmth is secured by making in a box as described above in the text; this idea comes from New Zealand; large heaps, having less evaporating surface, protect themselves. For details of the box, see Appendix A.)
There are tests of the correctness of our conditions. It is as well to realize that Nature has provided herself with a certain choice in this matter of the removal of wastes. The normal -- what we may perhaps a little incorrectly call the healthy -- process is that of fermentation, i.e. of combination with the oxygen of the air to form beneficial products: there is a kind of slow burning up which has much of the purificatory effect of fire. But if abundant oxygen is not present, then quite a different set of processes may be initiated, those of putrefaction. These are accompanied by smells and other effects highly distasteful to us. Our instinct on this point is powerful and seems to be one of those rare instincts which civilization has not damaged. A compost heap should never putrefy; in this it is greatly superior to the manure heap, which easily putrefies. It should never breed maggots or flies: it should never emit an unpleasant smell. These are infallible signs of faulty conditions and need to be corrected without further delay. (The cause is usually excessive wetness or some other form of imperfect aeration. The cure is to re-admit air by a turning; the evil then disappears. With a very little practice it never occurs.)
As he watches, the compost-maker will see his heap sink: the sinking is quite noticeable. Again this repeats what happens on the floor of the forest. We noted above how loose were the forest wastes for a few inches, but that below this depth they compacted and formed a close mass. Exactly the same process takes place in the well-made compost heap. When the intense oxygenation -- the slow burning up process -- has been finished, another stage succeeds: what the scientist calls the anaerobic stage as contrasted with the previous aerobic stage. The air begins to be cut off; the fungi are succeeded by bacteria, which now take over the final operations. The dead bodies of the fungi and bacteria and the undecomposed portions of the vegetable and animal residues amalgamate to form humus; the compost matures and ripens. In a surprisingly short space of time -- twelve weeks -- all processes are complete.
Much has happened during these few weeks. In truth, the chemistry and biology of the compost heap is not a little complicated. The organisms taking charge change rapidly, nor are their various types and kinds always present in like proportions in all heaps; there is no hard and fast prescription as to the components of a heap: the fungi and bacteria jostle and fight each other, the organic chemical compounds which emerge are of wide range. No heap is ever static; it is not the same to-day as it was yesterday, and will change again to-morrow. In truth, the compost heap is alive: it is just a convenient name for a vast mass of living organisms which have their habitat, and live out their life cycle, in any mass of humus, whether accumulated in a mound or spread out as the topsoil of field or forest. Compost is naturally teeming with life just as the soil is teeming with life.
Compost properly made should be a quality product. It should emerge as a rich, crumbly, dark, sweet-smelling material, easy to handle and packed with the life-necessities of living things. It should have the power of fixing the nitrogen of the air which is the mark of the fertile earth. (This undoubtedly takes place in the well-made heap. The proved figures vary according to conditions and very much according to the materials used in making the heap. Details of a number of careful and exact tests in Howard: The Waste Products of Agriculture: their Utilization as Humus, pp. 100 sqq. If the heap is kept too long the capacity to fix nitrogen is presumably lost. It is therefore best to use the compost soon after ripening.) In truth it should be the same as what the forest manufactures; it should rank with Nature's finest efforts. For this has been our aim all along, and unless it is attained we have strayed from the path.
In the details just given we have a description of one well-known composting method (the Indore Process; see Appendix A). The choice of material, the minutiae of management, the scale of operation are scarcely the important things, though they make for success or failure in practice. What we need to stress for our present purpose are the underlying truths. What is it that constitutes the process of composting? What makes it so valuable? Why must we go to all this trouble?
In the first place, in making compost we are adding to the humus supply of our topsoils, those precious few inches of earth which are the very hinge of life on this planet, which at the outset we referred to as Nature's most pre-eminent reserve. Humus is a Latin word meaning soil, but in science its significance is a little narrowed to indicate that part of the soil spread over the surface of the earth which is the end product of the decaying fragments of organic matter deposited at all times and in all places by the life and death processes of plants and animals; this mass of fragments is further the habitat of millions of unseen organisms and also of invertebrates like earthworms, who, using it both as a home and a food supply, radically transform and shape it. The final material is therefore varied, how varied we hardly yet know in spite of much investigation. It has been described as a skin to our planet and the description is very apt; to strip it away is just as harmful as would be the stripping of the skin off a living animal. Compost may be called man's contribution to this protective skin. If, so to say, he scrapes a little off the skin when he cultivates, he hastens to put it back again by composting.
But composting does more than merely maintain Nature's great insurance system of reserves; it intensifies. Herein lies its value to us. From the practical point of view it adds, in the first place, volume; a compost heap, by the admixture of vegetable waste, turns the whole mass into fertilizing material, thus multiplying our available, often scanty, supplies of manure three or four times over. Composting further hastens the work of decay. The process is in truth nothing whatever but a speeding up of all that happens on the floor of the forest; we do in three months what Nature does at her leisure. She accumulates for centuries and need not hurry. Our smaller supplies of humus are quickly used and it is an advantage to be able to remake them again and again. Our turnover is thus repeated at short intervals, but without loss or damage or despoiling of the capital wealth held in our topsoils.
Now this is a parallel to what we are doing in our crop-growing: we are always speeding up Nature. We are entitled to do so; we could not feed ourselves unless we had that much power. Surely it is obvious that if we do this when we grow our crops, we should also see to it that an action of comparable rapidity goes on where the Wheel of Life turns away from us unseen? We must give to Mother Earth as quickly as we take from her, and in no less ample measure.
Nor is it a small advantage that we -- or rather the Chinese -- have hit on the idea of making our compost as a process separate from our crop-growing. This is not an essential point of principle, but is a great convenience. Composting can also be carried out over the surface of the field. Animal manure or some already prepared compost) can be lightly ploughed in with the stubble or some green-crop. (Not too deeply, or the air is cut off. The process is greatly superior to ordinary green-manuring and should replace it.) If done while the earth is still warm in the late summer the results are highly successful. This is known as sheet-composting because done in a sheet over the whole field. In many ways sheet-composting is an even closer imitation of natural law than the making of compost in a heap. It is extremely practical and convenient and has the advantage of saving labour; the material need not be gathered together and need not be redistributed. It should have a big future in farming, but it sacrifices the speeding up of the processes of decay which is such a feature of the compost heap: it can only take place between the growing of crops and, as already stated, at a suitable season of the year. It can be neither a very quick nor a continuous process, though, in regard to the first point, the time required in the case of a truly fertile soil is surprisingly short. Nevertheless, it cannot be contemporaneous with the growing of crops. (It can obviously be contemporaneous with the growing of grass; the well-known Hosier system of moving dairy cattle systematically over a field implies a form of sheet-composting; the vegetable and animal wastes are combined. The ploughing or digging in of such combined wastes in pits between bushes or fruit trees is another adaptation; this has been very successfully carried out in tea-gardens; it might be described as "pit-composting".)
Perhaps we are now in a position to realize some of the far-reaching implications in the correct disposal of wastes. We shall treat our soil for what it is -- a living thing. Like all other living things, unless it is supplied with what it needs, it dies. For our own survival it is vital to give right treatment to that precious skin of humus which Nature has so wisely laid over the bare earth. To observe its condition and to maintain it fertile should always be the first consideration in our farming and no cultivation should be considered allowable which does not conform to this fundamental requirement.
We shall not be surprised at anything which correct methods can achieve. The results of any system of composting are indeed remarkable. Of their ultimate nature we shall treat in our last chapter, only the straightforward effects will be dealt with here. These are easily recognized -- they usually appear quickly, but it is not to be supposed that worn-out land can at once be brought up to a high state of fertility. Some little time must pass, perhaps three to five years will be needed, though long before the completion of this period improvement will be visible. But when once regularly composted the signs of a fertile soil are unmistakable. Nature paints them into the landscape, for her pleasure and for ours.
There is an immensely improved appearance. This is always revealed when a well-composted field or garden is looked at as a whole; the mass of leaves and flowers seem to stand out by reason of their fine colour. Colour is not a quality which can be expressed in statistics. It is of importance to the commercial producer and adds to the pleasure of the amateur grower of flowers. The deep and beautiful colour which follows on the use of compost is not, however, confined to the blossom only. A composted lawn will lose its grey washed-out appearance, and the field crops will stand out in great sweeps of emerald green. Moreover, a close examination will reveal that something more than colour is present. Stems are far more vigorous, thicker, better formed and ribbed and height is sometimes considerably increased. Above all the stance of the plant is noticeably superior, a quality which is carried into each separate leaf, which is set at a better angle to catch the sunlight and stands out more. It is the aggregation of these characters taken in the mass that creates the look of beauty so noticeable from a distance.
We have more than appearance to reward us: there is the asset of larger amounts of crop. Increases in harvests from composted crops are definite. Returns may be raised by thirty, forty, fifty or even one hundred per cent. Such increases in yield have been recorded for very different crops in different parts of the world, for tea in Bengal, potatoes in New Zealand, coconuts in the Federated Malay States. The increase may come from the prolongation of the life of a fruit-bearing tree or bush. Thus the coconut trees of which the record is made had been beyond the age when any appreciable response was expected; they not only survived to bear a better harvest than before but "looked like even doing better". The profitability of compost arises partly in this way, from the generally superior state of the plant treated, its better endurance, its longer life. Amounts of actual harvests go up slowly, but are usually dependable. (Potatoes in the Greytown district of New Zealand were harvested to an amount of 18.87 tons per acre from composted land as against 10.33 tons per acre from uncomposted land (1941-2); Compost News Letter, No. 5, pp. 15-16; at the Permatang Estate, Banting, composting raised the yield of copra from 9 piculs to 14 piculs per acre averaged over five years; ibid., No. 2, p. 2. There are any number of examples.)
Of further qualities we may note fine flavour and keeping power. These are aspects of good health, the consideration of which is so important that it requires separate discussion; the reader will find this topic treated at length in the last chapter of the present book. He will there find the significant claim made on behalf of composted crops that they display a health and stamina which crops cultivated on other methods cannot approach.
It is certain that composted crops resist frost well. In addition, they both come into fruition earlier -- in the gardener's phrase, they get away rapidly -- and stay in bearing longer. Not only is this true of a particular crop but it also applies to the succession of crops; an experienced market gardener has stated that any cost of composting is amply repaid because an extra crop a year can be got off the ground; in course of time two extra crops, namely, six in place of four. That the bearing life of permanent plants and trees is prolonged was shown in the case of the coconut palms mentioned above. Bloom lasts longer, fruit does not drop, it matures well; in every way the plant shows itself able to stand up to any conditions which it may have to face.
But it is the state of the soil which should in reality draw our attention. On composted soil many paeans of praise are sung. It "hangs loose", it is "crumbly", "easily workable", it "never cakes", is "not sour", it "looks good and smells better", it protects the plant roots from the fierce action of the sun, it holds moisture. The last quality is most important and is supremely evident; it is invariably commented upon and it is, in fact, conceded by all. Humidity is necessary to plants at each stage of their growth; it swells the seed, opens the bud, sets the blossom, and ripens the harvest. The moisture-holding capacity of composted soil has to be seen to be believed. In such soil, rich in organic matter, the moisture actually penetrates the soft large compound particles themselves -- there is a series of minature sponges to receive it and hold it; in soils lacking organic matter there is an unfriendly mass of hard minute sandy grains; the water cannot get into these, is forced into the channels between them, seeps away unused with a rapidity most disappointing to the cultivator, whereas 'the humus-fed soil holds water for days after a shower. (R.H. Elliot, Clifton Park System of Farming, ed. Faber & Faber, p. 232, quotes a statement that three years' experiments with farmyard manure enriching the soil with organic matter showed that the first foot of soil contained 18-3/4 tons more water per acre than adjacent and similar but unmanured land, the second foot 9.28 tons and the third 6.38, the three feet together 34.41 tons.)
It is unnecessary to continue the catalogue of these qualities. No cultivator who has once followed the indications of Nature and read her wise lesson from the floor of the forest has ever had cause to turn back. He may have begun in doubt; he ends in enthusiasm. He may have argued and queried, cried, out at the work to be done; before long he is calling on all and sundry to join him in an eager campaign. He may have urged that he had nothing wherewith to fill his pits or build his heaps, and in truth he can find little verdure on his starved land; he ends by cutting great swathes of herbage from forgotten corners of his fields and gardens whither the general richness has spread. So eager has he become in his passion to give back to the kindly soil as well as to take from it, so finally has he learned from Nature's deep and far-flung generosity, that he will set aside acres to grow special crops -- true harvests -- for the sole purpose of adding to his great mounds of waste. If only once man can understand the law which bids him in his use of the green carpet to look on himself as a borrower, who, having had his profit and enjoyment on easy terms, is glad and ready when the time comes to repay his just debt, he will not only be conferring on his fellow-creatures material benefits in the shape of the good and wholesome food which he produces, but will have done his share in asserting truths which are of their very nature part of a philosophy of human life.
The soil out of which the green carpet springs is the lowest revolution of the Wheel. Beyond this we cannot trace what is essential to life and may look on the slow processes of geological change in subsoil and rock as action preliminary to the build-up of the living cover. This great mantle of live sweet earth is the beginning of all: it is the start of life. Here the Wheel turns finally and having borne downwards to its nadir again begins its upward spin.
We have but one more link to trace: to consider what are the arrangements which Nature contemplates for making available this mass of material which she has been at such pains to evoke out of the changes from decay into life. How does she operate this collected wealth? How does she place it at the disposal of the green leaf? It was with the work of the green leaf that we began our investigation and if we can point to this last link in the long chain, we shall have completed our outline of the natural round.
Next: 8. Final Preparation of the Soil
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