'WHEN the question is asked, "Can I build top-soil?" the answer is "Yes", and when the first question is followed by a second question, 'How can I do it?" the answer is "Feed earthworms".'
That is the last sentence of this book, and it seems to me particularly appropriate to use it as the first sentence of my introduction, because it serves equally well as a preface to, or a summary of, what the book is all about, and this fact symbolizes that in the Wheel of Life, or the Nutrition Cycle, or by whatever other name you prefer to call it, there is neither beginning nor end, but only continuity; an unbroken progression of birth, growth, reproduction, decline, death, decay, rebirth -- a continuous flow of substances passing from one form of life to another, round and round the cycle without end.
Dr. Barrett puts it rather more simply; he says, "Earthworms are soil builders, everything else -- plant, animal, man and bacteria are food for earthworms whose function is to mix living matter with mineral particles and send them forth on their round once again.'
That is the cycle as established by nature and operated by the creative, i.e., living, forces. It worked on an ever-ascending spiral, accumulating yet richer and more varied life forms, until man arrived upon the scene. It has been left to this supposedly most intelligent of all creation's species to put the wheel into reverse by abandoning creative motive power in favour of consumptive power, i.e., the destructive forces. In so doing man has enacted the role of the parasite whose ravages destroy the host upon which it is dependent for sustenance. He has been guilty of this behaviour since the early dawn of 'civilization'. His host is the fertile topsoil forming the surface covering of the globe; a thin covering now, very threadbare in places. 'The Wasting Basis of Civilization', so has Sir John Boyd Orr defined soil fertility. It is man who is responsible for this wasting. Of the fertile cultivatable area of the U.S.A., as it was found by the pioneers, one-quarter has gone for ever, so their soil experts tell us, and many million acres are still disappearing annually. The same story comes from South Africa. Deserts can be seen there extending for hundreds of square miles, that were producing good crops only thirty years ago. Australia and New Zealand have the same sorry record of man's rapacious exploitation to relate, and even European soil shows signs of the same decline.
The phenomenon is not new. In the name of economic necessity, God forgive him, mankind has destroyed the source of his food since before the days when part of the Sahara Desert was known as the granary of Rome. The two new factors are the speed with which modern man can turn fertile land into desert, and the fact that there no longer exist any new virgin lands for him to discover and exploit. He has reached the last barrier. At last he must learn the bitter lesson of his past mistakes or perish from the face of the earth, like other species, now extinct, who failed to solve the problem of how to co-operate with their environment.
That is the major crisis facing the human race to-day. It is a challenge beside which, as a recent writer put it, the bickerings of Foreign Ministers sound like the jabbering on Monkey Hill.
Those of us who believe that the living, creative forces are the only ones that can promote and sustain life, know that soil fertility can still be maintained by obeying nature's law of return, and that by this means vitality in soil, plant, animal and man results, but the time is short, and mass action is required now if it is not to be too late. The warning has been cried aloud from the housetops by men of knowledge and the highest repute. From every continent, almost every country, their warning and call to action comes -- 'The Human Race faces mass starvation -- Act Now or your children's children will die.'
Does anyone pay the slightest attention? Very few. Does anyone ever pay the slightest attention to prophets of woe? They persecute the prophets sometimes, but that is about all. The prophets were so frequently right that I have often marvelled at the persistent deafness of mankind to all warnings of preventable horrors to come. I have come to the conclusion that the explanation of this is twofold.
First, in the case of the powers that be; those in authority are always so preoccupied by the immediate problems of the moment, that they have become permanently myopic and are literally incapable of taking any but the shortest of short-term views.
At the present time, for example, the need for timber, for fuel and housing now, is of such apparently prime importance that it seems to justify the risk that a new desert will result to-morrow. It is a mistaken view, of course, and it is the attitude of mind that has produced the dustbowls of the world and landed us in the mess we are in; a mess which makes it increasingly more difficult to opt for the long-term view. One can have nothing but sympathy with those who may have to choose between the death of hundreds now or millions to-morrow. There is always the chance that if one saves the hundreds now one will not live to see the million perish. Thus it is -- to take a topical example -- that the present danger from the atomic bomb appears much greater than that from soil erosion. It isn't. In point of fact it is a mere flea-bite to it when considered in terms of the probable survival of the species, but that is the way it looks, so those in authority perpetually confuse priorities and postpone action, while the apathy of the rest of the population comes, I think, from the feeling that nothing they personally can do about it can possibly affect the situation as a whole, 'so what's the use?'
I urge anyone who feels that way about it to read this book, and here I must make a confession. Like other people who have had practical experience of the results of compost-making and organic cultivation generally, I have for long been convinced that in the cycle of life the members of the soil population play a vital part, and that when relying on the return of all possible organic wastes to the soil as our sole method of fertilizing, we are not feeding our crops direct, but through the soil population. We have, in fact, a slogan -- 'Feed the soil population and they will feed your crop.' Among this vast population I have always recognized the priority claims of the earthworm as a creator of soil fertility without equal, a view confirmed and strengthened by the recent research work carried out at the Connecticut Agricultural Research Station which is reprinted in this book and of which I was already aware. I am even myself a breeder of domesticated earthworms in a small way. For all these reasons I did not expect to find anything particularly startling or new to me personally, in a book called Harnessing the Earthworm. I was wrong.
I did not know, for example, that in fertile soil the weight of bacteria alone amounts to 7,000 lb. per acre. I did not know that anywhere in cultivated soil, however fertile, the natural earthworm population reached two million per acre (Nile Valley). I did not know that in any part of the world, even where intensive propagation of earthworms for soil building was carried out, there were farms where as many as three million earthworms per acre have been recorded, and that populations of between one and two million are quite common. I did not know that one million earthworms weigh a ton, or that in the course of twenty-four hours each worm will pass through its body its own weight of soil. Since earthworm castings are composed largely of colloidal soluble humus, and are far richer in available plant foods than the surrounding soil, this represents a staggering annual deposit of natural plant fertilizer, quite apart from the continual addition of the dead bodies of the worms themselves as they fulfil their own life cycle.
The figures given in this book of the differences in crop yields obtained from soils of equal fertility, with and without added earthworms, are startling, but not unbelievable once the data given is studied.
While I doubt whether quite such spectacular results could ever be obtained in our climate, earthworms can and do exist in a very wide range of latitudes. Where they can exist they can be increased, and there is no better or quicker way of increasing them than by intensive propagation of egg capsules in special breeding boxes. The point being that when transferred as eggs to their final location in garden, field or orchard, they will survive, whereas the mature or growing worm may not.
The technique for this intensive propagation is simple, and Dr. Barrett gives such clear and concise instructions that anyone -- whether he starts with purchased stock or native brandlings -- can test the claims made for it for himself. For the English reader, however, there is one serious omission. The optimum temperature for maximum production of egg capsules is given as 70 degrees, and while plenty of advice is given for protecting culture boxes or master beds from too great heat, nothing whatever is said about how to protect them from cold. My own experience may therefore be helpful. Culture in boxes must either be discontinued during the winter, or take place in cellars or heated greenhouses. Culture in master beds can continue provided these are sunk in the ground and covered up with straw in frosty weather. Attention of course must be given to drainage from below, and prevention of flooding from above.
I consider it highly important that experiments on the lines suggested in this book should be carried out without delay. As organic cultivators are well aware, the principal argument used against them by soil scientists, is based on mathematics. 'The crop takes out more than the compost puts back. The result must be a deficiency.' The organic cultivator replies that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, which he can demonstrate. Therefore, either mathematics do not apply to living organisms, or there must be some figures missing from the sum. It seems to me that this book gives a clue to one at least of the possible missing figures, and I hope our scientists will give it the study it deserves. Mankind is at the last frontier. There is no new soil to be had in the horizontal plane. His hope lies in building new soil vertically. Dr. Barrett asserts that by harnessing the earthworm in the way he recommends, the kitchen waste or garbage from a household of two or three members will furnish enough ideal earthworm food to breed tens of thousands of the soil builders each year. He himself, by this method, produces all the fruit and vegetables he and his family can eat, from one acre of land, as well as growing flowers and lawns. He discovered, in an experiment in his culture beds, that an acre of soil, if provided with enough organic matter, could support an astronomical population of earthworms, and quotes the Oregon State and New York State College of Forestry field studies as indicating that an earthworm population of from 250,000 to 1,500,000 an acre is enough to keep the earth as fertile and productive as man can want it.
In another publication, Dr. Barrett sums the matter up thus: 'The problem facing civilization to-day is rebuilding the soil and restoring the earth to a form immediately usable for food production. By the slow process of nature, it takes 500 to 1,000 years to lay down an inch of topsoil. Under favourable conditions a task-force of earthworms can do the same job in five years. An individual working with a lug-box or a compost pile can start building topsoil for his garden. A farmer working with a manure pile can do it with his farm. A community utilizing a garbage dump can do it, or a nation working with its resources can do it.'
When, in connection with my work for the Soil Association, I have lectured on world soil erosion and the imperative need to restore, maintain and if possible increase the vitality of what soil is left, people often say, 'I realize the situation is appalling, but what can I do?' I feel this book at last contains a practical answer to that question. 'Feed earthworms.' This answer may sound flippant. I don't think you will think so when you have read this book. The technique is easy, and involves much less work than ordinary compost-making, and in all seriousness I suggest that if everyone turned his attention to increasing the earthworm population (and there is no one who cannot do this, for it can be done even in a flower-pot or window-box) it might be the key to the survival of the human race, because through utilizing all organic wastes to feed earthworms and then deliberately putting them to work in the manner here described, it might be possible not only vastly to increase the fertility and productivity of the land already under cultivation, but also to arrest the further advance of deserts and dustbowls. This would give humanity a breathing space in which to learn how to bring other creative forces into play, so that water and life and the capacity to sustain vegetation may ultimately be restored to all the man-made deserts of the earth.
-- Eve B. Balfour
From "Harnessing the Earthworm" by Dr. Thomas J. Barrett, Humphries, 1947, with an Introduction by Eve Balfour; Wedgewood Press, Boston, 1959; Bookworm Pub Co, ISBN 0916302091
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