Weeds -- Guardians of the Soil

by Joseph A. Cocannouer

14. Nature's Togetherness Law

ONE fundamental law governs inexorably every phase of organic life: Nature's law of the togetherness of things. This law of togetherness is as vital in practical agriculture as it is in the profoundest nature manipulation in which the human can play no part: for instance, in the manufacture of food in the leaf factory. This food factory is still beyond man's best ingenuity. Oh, man can help Nature in sundry ways by improving the environmental conditions of the plant; but he can take no part in the technical process of photosynthesis. Let there be the slightest interference with just one of the factors involved in the manufacturing of food, and the work of the leaf factory is slowed down; it may stop entirely.

That is why the law in operation there is the togetherness law. No matter where this law may be operating, there is certain to be a group of factors operating together. Often the number of these factors is close to legion, yet no matter how many there are, all must work together harmoniously. That is the heart of the law -- harmony. And that is why an understanding of the law in any specific case generally makes it possible to substitute constructive harmony where before there was baffling discord.

Though we may not be conscious of it or even wish to admit it, our success or failure depends very largely upon the understanding we have of Nature's law of togetherness, and our adherence to it. Every phase of agriculture is dependent upon the workings of this law. It is well enough to talk about the mechanization of crop production, but unless the machine is made to work in harmony with the togetherness law there will be trouble. The agricultural machine can be made to work with Nature instead of against her -- even those colossal machines employed in "building a farm in a day." It is not the machine that is at fault where this cooperation does not exist; it is the manipulator of the machine.

An ideal soil world, with all the factors functioning healthily and efficiently, is the togetherness law in superb manifestation. In such a soil there is supreme harmony: the necessary mineral elements are there, and the necessary gases. There is the indispensable fiber to regulate structure and to provide food and warmth for the live factors. These factors, along with a host of others all working together, furnish and prepare the ingredients that are to be sent up to the food factory of the leaf, where they will receive the final processing. Again, let anything interfere with the soil-world laboratory -- interfere with the togetherness law down there -- and discord becomes evident in many directions: the soil itself is thrown out of balance; the leaf factory may be forced to turn off an unbalanced food product. Animal life, which is at the mercy of the plant world, finds itself responding with weakened body structures. The animal world gets sick -- and all because something interfered with the togetherness law in the soil world.

A few farmers or even a few nations ignoring this law of togetherness in maintaining soil fertility and in the production of food, will not upset the harmony of the world as a whole; but when the agriculture of the entire world is disturbed at the same time in this manner, you have a very different situation. And that is exactly where we are now. In America, in our frenzied efforts to take advantage of high prices for agricultural products, we are mining our soils instead of farming them. In the manipulation of our soils, save for a case here and there, little thought is given to the law of return compensation. In many European countries, before the late war, there were many farmers in every country who methodically recognized and practiced the law of return compensation. Since the war, however, few of them have resumed their constructive routine, being forced in many parts to soil stimulation in order to provide a quick supply of food. Japan and China, ancient models of some types of Nature farming, are also out of gear, either because of the inevitable aftermath of war, or because of the continuous effects of war.

It is a little difficult to get some American farmers to understand why or how the togetherness law of Nature can possibly mean anything in the business of farming. This is due largely to the fact that America is and always has been machine minded; always has been an industrial nation. That includes her farmers. Our colonial forefathers, with few exceptions, were industrialists. There were a few dirt farmers on the Mayflower and on subsequent ships, but as a rule the colonial settlers came from the small urban districts. They had been shopkeepers, small-business folk, preachers, teachers, lawyers.

In the New World for a lengthy period there was little place for the shop as it had been known in Europe; not much place for even small business. Preachers and lawyers and teachers there were who were engaged in their professions, but even they had to turn to the soil for much of their living,

And they looked upon their soil as little more than mechanical food factories. Machines of most kinds were primitive in those days, of course, but the machine mindedness was much like ours of today. Cultivated land must be as clean as a shop counter.

The Indians in a large measure were the agriculture teachers of our colonial parents. And the Red Man was a pretty keen agriculturist. The colonists declined to accept all of his "crude" wisdom, however.

It is true that the Indian's Nature wisdom was mixed with superstition, but even so his agriculture was sound. It was sound because he listened to the subtle voices of the earth. Our forefathers acknowledued their God as the giver of gifts, but saw those gifts only in the abundant harvests. The Indian gave thanks to his Great Spirit for the land that gave him his corn; the white man gave thanks for his corn. The one was a naturalist, the other an industrialist. And across the decades from that day until this our farmers have ever had their eyes on the corn, not on the soil that is responsible for the corn.

Jim Lucas, an old college friend of mine, is a good example of industrial America. Jim has always had a machine mind. Never has he been able to see how this natural togetherness I talk about can have any connection with the efficient operation of farm machinery -- or in the production of livestock and grain. It was many years after we had both left college before we met again -- and those years hadn't changed Jim Lucas a bit.

"But, Joe -- you still don't seem able to see that now more than ever we're living in a mechanical age!" he chided me impatiently. "There is no longer any place for your small, half-neglected farm -- or your Nature business either! Large acreage with special machines to do the farm work -- that will be our agriculture of tomorrow. Two men doing the work that now requires twenty -- "

"Wait a minute, Jim! " I stopped him. "Are you still trying to tell me you can't understand how our very existence is dependent on some very definite laws of Nature -- "

"You and your Nature stuff ! That's all very well in theory, Joe -- I'm giving you cold-blooded facts! Starving people are looking to America for food. We've got to feed 'em. We've got to mechanize our agriculture on a large scale; make our land produce to its limit -- '

No; the Jim Lucases don't see or don't wish to see how the togetherness law functions in the most rudimentary agricultural operations, as well as in the most complex. The fact is that all of us unconsciously, through trial and error, if we have been growing things in dirt, are constantly discovering bits of the law. We learn that we must do certain things and not do certain things if we expect to harvest a crop of beans or potatoes -- or a crop of desirable pigs. We accept that much of the togetherness law without questioning it. But most of us are inclined to stop short. We aren't willing to admit that we can produce more and better beans and potatoes and pigs if we will learn and practice more of the togetherness law. We aren't willing to learn how we can improve our production in both quality and quantity, and improve our land at the same time, simply by following the mandates of the togetherness law. We aren't willing to admit that the law enters very directly into land preparation, natural soil fertilization, and into every phase of crop treatment from the planting of the seed until the harvest.

Not long ago I came face. to face with a proposition where a very considerable knowledge of the togetherness law would be needed. I was examining a small area of abandoned land, to see if it could be brought back to production again economically. Superficially, at first glance, the land looked as if it never could be other than abandoned land, no matter what one might do to it. It was not merely sick; that land appeared to be completely dead. It was just a stretch of barren, gullied and cracked subsoil that had been uncovered by erosion. It was situated on a fairly steep slope, too, with a large number of pretty deep gullies.

Before I was half through with my exploring, I found signs aplenty that the land was far from dead. It was sick, but not too sick to be cured, and that only by giving the togetherness law a bit of the right kind of assistance. How did I know that? Simply by what the togetherness law had already done and what it was fighting desperately to do.

Even the worst of weed haters would have been forced to pay the despicable weed a measure of respect had he walked with me around the edge of that abandoned field. He would have been forced to see how hardy weeds were slowly eating their way into that stiff clay -- and completely transforming the soil as they went. The weeds were inching their way forward very slowly, but they were going forward and not fighting an unproductive battle. The present process of rebuilding was entirely too slow, of course; but the law was at work constructively and needed only man's help to bring about satisfactory accomplishment in a reasonable period of time.

After I had finished my survey, I went to an oak tree that stood a short distance from the eroded field, sat down in the shade, and imagined I had the weed hater there beside me as the owner of that land; or of any other similar piece of land in the country. There he could see how to bring that piece of land back to life simply by cooperating with Nature's togetherness law. And it wouldn't take a half century to do the job, either.

It would be helpful to call in a piece or two of build-a-farm-in-a-day machinery, to get rid of those gullies in short nonce. But that wouldn't be possible. But we could brush the large gullies; build brush dams in them. There was an abundance of brush not far from the field and growing so thick that a large portion of it could be removed without starting erosion there. Cutting and hauling the brush would be an off-season job; a winter task. Then there would have to be a few terraces of a sort where the land was steep. Nothing extensive; just a few strong ridges to help hold the soil until the fiber should be put back into it. There should always be the minimum of soil stirring on a slope like that; and all plowing, of course, should be done contour. Every move must be directed toward getting a cover back onto the land. Those weeds that were eating into the edges must be helped to spread over the entire surface. Simply gathering and scattering the weed seed wouldn't be sufficient. The land would have to have special treatment before the weeds would take hold. That would mean an application of well-rotted barnyard manure, or a commercial stimulant, preferably one rich in nitrogen.

But first of all we would have to apply two or three tons of ground limestone per acre, and a fair dose of rock phosphate. On this particular piece of land it would be better to start work in the fall, provided there was sufficient moisture. Otherwise the beginning work should be done in late winter or early spring. The region will naturally govern the best seasons for such soil-building operations.

And we want to gather all weed seed we can get hold of, especially seed from those weeds that are already growing around the edges of our field, no matter where the field is located. If we begin the main work in the spring, it is still better to apply the lime and phosphate in the fall, though these also can be put on in the spring if necessary. Better to put the elixir on -- if we use one -- just before we plant our domestic legumes, which are going to be grown with our controlled weeds. Yes, we want at least one hardy legume to grow with our weeds, and that legume inoculated, of course; to provide some quick nitrogen. It doesn't make much difference when the weed seeds are planted, so long as they are there to start early spring growth. And remember that most weeds object to having the seed covered. Just scatter the seed over the surface of the ground.

That simple procedure should help us get a good weed growth started; help us get a soil-improving cover on the land. That was what we were after in the first place. We have a right to expect the project to succeed, because we are cooperating with the togetherness law. On an extremely poor piece of eroded land we may have to make our attack two or even three times. But once one gets several clumps of vigorous weeds along with some legume patches growing on the erstwhile dead slope, one can figure the problem more than three fourths solved. The togetherness law from then on will usually carry through alone. What is ultimately done with the land will depend on the location and the farmer's desires. In any case, it should not be permitted to lose its sponge structure.

Our understanding of the togetherness law can perhaps never be complete, but, fortunately, for reasonable success in agriculture our knowledge of the law need not be extensive. For instance, we can well leave to the expert the intricacies of animal breeding, but after the specialists have given us the new breeds of livestock, it is up to us to master the togetherness factors involved in propagating the new breeds and maintaining their high standards.. The same holds equally true with plants. Individual farmers don't need to go into the intricate details required to develop a new strain of wheat; but every wheat farmer should know how to grow and maintain the purity of the grain. The only difference is that the "breeder" in every case will need to have a deeper understanding of the law.

I doubt if any man of modern times -- or any other times -- ever had as clear an understanding of the law as had Luther Burbank, especially in the plant world. Burbank recognized the togetherness law and developed his marvelous creations by adhering strictly to it. Those seemingly impossible marvels that Burbank brought forth! As one of Burbank's several cooperators -- one of those fortunate people who were given the privilege of testing the new strains under varied conditions -- I always received a specimen or two or three of many of the new plants as soon as they were released: enormous Shasta Daisies; blackberries as white as snow and seedless, which would really melt in your mouth. I recall one particular plant whose leaves were fifty times as sweet (according to Burbank himself) as the most concentrated sugar. The father of these wonders was not Luther Burbank the "plant wizard," as he was commonly called, but Burbank the penetrating scientist and naturalist, who was able to prove that marvels could be brought about merely by understanding and practicing the law of "Nature Harmony," the togetherness law.

One of Luther Burbank's soundest convictions never appeared in print during his lifetime: that all agriculture learning should start with a clear-cut study of Nature as the basis of all agriculture. In other words, start with a thorough study of the togetherness law. Schools of agriculture would have scoffed at the idea then, as they would today. But Luther Burbank knew his practical agriculture, as he knew his Nature. He knew the relationship that must exist between the plant and the soil for success in crop production.

My claim for weed values rests entirely upon this basic law of the togetherness of things in Nature. It would be contrary to Nature's law of harmony, for instance, not to have any means of bringing back to the surface the food materials that constantly trickle into the lower soil regions. It is true that capillary water lifts much of this material back to the surface, but soil conditions must be right before capillarity can take place efficiently. Deep-foraging weeds will fiberize the lower soils and thus help capillarity. And weeds are not robbers, save in some instances where they are uncontrolled. Instead, they are Nature's most important means of preventing waste!

The fact that many common annual weeds can be put to work constructively does not by any means indicate they are constructively valuable in all situations. Such a claim would be ridiculous. But it is even more ridiculous to insist that all wild plants are injurious when growing with domestic crops -- simply because they are "weeds." A study of the togetherness law should convince any farmer -- or anyone else who is not too poisoned with bias -- just where and how the so-called weed can be useful in carrying out the law. To help him do that, I have written this book. Blind antipathy toward weeds will get us nowhere. But a sane study of the weed as a part of the law involved in the maintenance of soil fertility can be revealing to any open-minded person.


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