Chapter XV. Nature's Building Materials

Some days after Burt's adventure, Dr. Marvin made his professional call in the evening. Mr. Alvord, Squire Bartley, and the minister also happened in, and all were soon chatting around Mr. Clifford's ruddy hearth. The pastor of this country parish was a sensible man, who, if he did not electrify his flock of a Sunday morning, honestly tried to guide it along safe paths, and led those whom he asked to follow. His power lay chiefly in the homes of his people, where his genial presence was ever welcomed. He did not regard those to whom he ministered as so many souls and subjects of theological dogma, but as flesh-and-blood men, women, and children, with complex interests and relations; and the heartiness of his laugh over a joke, often his own, and the havoc that he made in the dishes of nuts and apples, proved that he had plenty of good healthful blood himself. Although his hair was touched with frost, and he had never received any degree except his simple A.M., although the prospect of a metropolitan pulpit had grown remote indeed, he seemed the picture of content as he pared his apple and joined in the neighborly talk.

Squire Bartley had a growing sense of shortcoming in his farming operations. Notwithstanding his many acres, he felt himself growing "land-poor," as country people phrase it. He was not a reader, and looked with undisguised suspicion on book-farming. As for the agricultural journals, he said "they were full of new-fangled notions, and were kept up by people who liked to see their names in print." Nevertheless, he was compelled to admit that the Cliffords, who kept abreast of the age, obtained better crops, and made their business pay far better than he did, and he was inclined to turn his neighborly calls into thrifty use by questioning Leonard and Webb concerning their methods and management. Therefore he remarked to Leonard: "Do you find that you can keep your land in good condition by rotation of crops? Folks say this will do it, but I find some of our upland is getting mighty thin, and crops uncertain."

"What is your idea of rotation, squire?"

"Why, not growin' the same crop too often on the same ground."

"That is scarcely my idea. For the majority of soils the following rotation has been found most beneficial: corn and potatoes, which thoroughly subdue the sod the first year; root crops, as far as we grow them, and oats the second; then wheat or rye, seeded at the same time with clover or grass of some kind. We always try to plow our sod land in the fall, for in the intervening time before planting the sod partially decays, the land is sweetened and pulverized by the action of frost, and a good many injurious insects are killed also. But all rules need modification, and we try to study the nature of our various soils, and treat them accordingly".

"What! have a chemist prescribe for 'em like a doctor?" sneered the squire. "Mr. Walters, the rich city chap who bought Roger's worn-out farm, tried that to his heart's content, and mine too. He had a little of the dirt of each part of his farm analyzed, you know, and then he sent to New York for his phosphates, his potashes, his muriates, and his compound-super-universal panacea vegetates, and with all these bad-smelling mixtures--his barn was like a big agricultural drug-store--he was going to put into his skinned land just the elements lacking. In short, he gave his soil a big dose of powders, and we all know the result. If he had given his farm a pinch of snuff better crops ought to have been sneezed. No chemicals and land doctors for me, thank you. Beg pardon, Marvin! no reflections on your calling, but doctorin' land don't seem profitable for those who pay for the medicine."

They all laughed except Webb, who seemed nettled, but who quietly said, "Squire, will you please tell us what your house is made of?"

"Good lumber, sir."

"Well, when passing one day, I saw a fine stalk of corn in one of your fields. Will you also tell us what that was made of? It must have weighed, with the ears upon it, several pounds, and it was all of six feet high. How did it come into existence?"

"Why, it grew," said the squire, sententiously.

"That utterance was worthy of Solomon," remarked Dr. Marvin, laughing.

"It grew," continued Webb, "because it found the needed material at hand. I do not see how Nature can build a well-eared stalk of corn without proper material any more than you could have built your house without lumber. Suppose we have a soil in which the elements that make a crop of corn do not exist, or are present in a very deficient degree, what course is left for us but to supply what is lacking? Because Mr. Walters did not do this in the right way, is no reason why we should do nothing. If soil does not contain the ingredients of a crop, we must put them there, or our labor goes for nothing".

"Well, of course there's no gettin' around that; but yard manure is all I want. It's like a square meal to a man, and not a bit of powder on his tongue."

"No one wants anything better than barn-yard manure for most purposes, for it contains nearly all the elements needed by growing plants, and its mechanical action is most beneficial to the soil. But how many acres will you be able to cover with this fertilizer this spring?"

"That's just the rub," the squire answered. "We use all we have, and when I can pick it up cheap I buy some; but one can't cover a whole farm with it, and so in spite of you some fields get all run out."

"I don't think there's any need of their running out," said Leonard, emphatically. "I agree with Webb in one thing, if I can't follow him in all of his scientific theories--we have both decided never to let a field grow poor, any more than we would permit a horse or cow to so lose in flesh as to be nearly useless; therefore we not only buy fertilizers liberally, but use all the skill and care within our power to increase them. Barn-yard manure can be doubled in bulk and almost doubled in value by composting with the right materials. We make the most of our peat swamps, fallen leaves, and rubbish in general. Enough goes to waste on many farms every year to keep several acres in good heart. But, as you say, we cannot begin to procure enough to go over all the land from which we are taking crops of some kind; therefore we maintain a rotation which is adapted to our various soils, and every now and then plow under a heavy green crop of clover, buckwheat, or rye. A green crop plowed under is my great stand-by."

"I plowed under a crop of buckwheat once," said the squire, discontentedly, "and I didn't see much good from it, except that the ground was light and mellow afterward."

"That, at least, was a gain," Leonard continued; "but I can tell you why your ground was not much benefited, and perhaps injured. You scarcely plowed under a green crop, for I remember that the grain in your buckwheat straw was partly ripe. It is the forming seed or grain that takes the substance out of land. You should have plowed the buckwheat under just as it was coming into blossom. Up to that time the chief growth had been derived from the air, and there had been very little drain upon the soil."

"Well!" exclaimed the squire, incredulously, "I didn't know the air was so nourishing."

Webb had been showing increasing signs of disquietude during the last few moments, and now said, with some emphasis: "It seems to me, squire, that there is not much hope of our farming successfully unless we do know something of the materials that make our crops, and the conditions under which they grow. When you built your house you did not employ a man who had only a vague idea of how it was to be constructed, and what it was to be built of. Before your house was finished you had used lumber as your chief material, but you also employed brick, stone, lime, sand, nails, etc. If we examine a house, we find all these materials. If we wish to build another house, we know we must use them in their proper proportions. Now it is just as much a matter of fact, and is just as capable of proof, that a plant of any kind is built up on a regular plan, and from well-defined materials, as that a house is so built. The materials in various houses differ just as the elements in different kinds of plants vary. A man can decide what he will build of; Nature has decided forever what she will build of. She will construct a stalk of corn or wheat with its grain out of essentially the same materials to the end of time. Now suppose one or more of these necessary ingredients is limited in the soil, or has been taken from it by a succession of crops, what rational hope can we have for a good crop unless we place the absent material in the ground, and also put it there in a form suitable for the use of the plant?"

"What you say sounds plausible enough," answered the squire, scratching his head with the worried, perplexed air of a man convinced against his will. "How was it, then, that Walters made such a mess of it? He had his soil analyzed by a land doctor, and boasted that he was going to put into it just what was lacking. His soil may not be lacking now, but his crops are."

"It is possible that there are quacks among land doctors, as you call them, as well as among doctors of medicine", remarked Dr. Marvin.

"Or doctors of theology," added the minister.

"I looked into the Walters experiment somewhat carefully," Webb resumed, "and the causes of his failure were apparent to any one who has given a little study to the nature of soils and plant food. Some of his land needs draining. The ground is sour and cold from stagnant water beneath the surface, and the plant food which Nature originally placed in it is inert and in no condition to be used. Nearly all of his uplands have been depleted of organic or vegetable matter. He did not put into the soil all that the plants needed, and the fact that his crops were poor proves it. The materials he used may have been adulterated, or not in a form which the plants could, assimilate at the time. Give Nature a soil in the right mechanical condition--that is, light, mellow, moist, but not wet, and containing the essential elements of a crop--and she will produce it unless the season is so adverse that it cannot grow. I do not see how one can hope to be successful unless he studies Nature's methods and learns her needs, adapting his labor to the former, and supplying the latter. For instance, nitrogen in the form of ammonia is so essential to our crops that without it they could never come to maturity were all the other elements of plant food present in excess. Suppose that for several successive years we grow wheat upon a field with an average crop of twenty-five bushels to the acre. This amount of grain with its straw will take from the soil about fifty-one pounds of ammonia annually, and when the nitrogen (which is the main element of ammonia) gives out, the wheat will fail, although other plant food may be present in abundance. This is one reason why dairy farms from which all the milk is sold often grow poor. Milk is exceedingly rich in nitrogen, and through the milk the farm is depleted of this essential element faster than it is replaced by fertilizers. A man may thus be virtually selling his farm, or that which gives it value, without knowing it."

"But what's a man to do?" asked the squire, with a look of helpless perplexity. "How is one to know when his land needs nitrogen or ammonia and all the other kinds of plant food, as you call it, and how must he go to work to get and apply it?"

"You are asking large questions, squire," Webb replied, with a quiet smile. "In the course of a year you decide a number of legal questions, and I suppose read books, consult authorities, and use considerable judgment. It certainly never would do for people to settle these questions at hap-hazard or according to their own individual notions. Their decisions might be reversed. Whatever the courts may do, Nature is certain to reverse our decisions and bring to naught our action unless we comply with her laws and requirements."

The squire's experience coincided so truly with Webb's words that he urged no further objections against accurate agricultural knowledge, even though the information must be obtained in part at least from books and journals.