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Dana's Muck Manual

Boston Quarterly Review, July, 1842

Art. V. -A Muck Manual for Farmers.    By Samuel L. Dana.    Lowell: Daniel Bixby.    1842.    pp. 229.

Considering that Agriculture is one of the oldest of arts, if not prior to all deserving the name; that it is emphatically the art upon which the greater part of mankind and all their dependent animals rely tor subsistence ; without the products of which wealth and power would have no value, and glory be an emptiness and a mockery ; it seems strange, that through the long ages that have passed since the human race began, no traces should have come down of the application of the principles of genuine science to the elucidation of its laws, and the direction of its processes. That much practical skill was acquired thousands of years ago we have no reason to doubt ; we cannot indeed say with confidence, that such skill might not have been on the average as great as is now pos­sessed, but all the rules of proceeding appear merely empirical, indications from the repetitions of experiments, either made at random or from the observation of the efforts of some acci­dent. Of the intimate structure of vegetables, and the intimate nature of their organized and organic constituents, we have no information from ancient days, and no sound reasons explanatory of the nature and  manner of operation of the direc­tions inculcated.

As, however, recent researches have shown, that the an­cients carried to great perfection the practice of many arts, supposed till lately to be the inventions of modern times, we have reason to suppose, that they may have had a proportion­ate degree of science, which, if so, must have been lost in the changes and ruin which time and fate brought upon the early and highly civilized kingdoms of antiquity. Among these vanished lights may have been the knowledge of vegetable Physiology and organic Chimistry, and it would be a matter of just surprise to find that our modern acquisitions in these branches were anticipated by the Kgvptians, no more than to find, that they understood the chimical principles of other arts, in many of which they equalled and in some surpassed us, or than to ascertain, that the gigantic masses of the Pyra­mids, and other colossal structures, were not reared by the, mere unbounded application of brute force, but by the use of mechanical powers under the guidance of high scientific knowledge.

Still with the garden of Nature before his eyes man has not been a sluggish or unobservant laborer. He h;is carefully watched her works, and endeavored to second or imitate her processes ; and though occasionally marring his own efforts by misconceptions as to what was to be done, yet sometimes find­ing success as the result of well directed labor, and sometimes blundering into it by a way he did not expect, he has gone onward in modern times in the path of practical improvement, to a degree of perfection that may well command praise

Within the last century the birth and advancement of mod­ern Chimistry have opened to him new sources of knowl­edge, and furnished him with new menus for obtaining it. The more perfect investigation of vegetable physiology has lent its powerful aid, and by the united application of the two, the often despised, yet always immeasurably important and truly noble, art of agriculture is rising from a handicraft to the rank of a science. Not indeed we confess with the many, for as in the practice of all other arts the bulk of the operatives must be guided by rules, formed by understandings more enlight­ened than their own; but still such rules are in the process of formation, and intellects of the highest power, and most exten­sive and varied acquirements, are tasking themselves for their production, and bending their forces and their acquisitions to the purpose of discovering and unfolding the secrets of fer­tility, and causing the  earth  surely to bring  ibrth  its abundance for the various tribes that God has placed upon its bosom.

We are glad to see evidences of various kinds, that our own country docs not mean to be backward in the endeavors of learning to contribute to sustenance, and that the science of our citizens and countrymen is beginning to be directed to an end, than which none can be more truly gainful to the nation, or more thoroughly subservient to its true prosperity. Hav­ing lately been presented with an American edition of a work of one of the great Chimists of Germany, through the zeal of one of our own, we are now presented with an original work tending to the same end by another ; and though the volume before us is unpretending in size, and almost unpleasantly un­assuming in title, its name being as rustic as its immediate subject, yet we think that we shall be able to show, that be­neath this unassuming exterior and address are contained, not hidden, the results of long study and much scientific skill, with abundance of sound judgment and good common sense.

The book is briefly dedicated to the citizens of Lowell, and is stated to be the "pith of eight lectures on the chimis-try of soil and manure delivered at their request."

In accordance with their annunciation we find the five first chapters devoted to teaching the nature of soil, the properties of its various constituent parts, and their action in promoting the growth of vegetation. We have often noticed one great fault, in scientific men writing for popular use, that they are apt to forget the relative position of themselves and their read­ers, and to incur the censure bestowed by Goldsmith upon Burke,

" Who too deep for his hearers still went on refining,
And thought of convincing while they thought of dining."

They cannot content themselves with making such state­ments as are necessary for the purpose in a general way, merely indicating the nice distinctions that are established in scientific doctrine, but bring them all forth, generally useless­ly and sometimes injuriously, wearying or perplexing the very minds they wish to enlighten ; forgetting that the darkness of " excessive light " is as prejudicial to useful vision, as the " palpable obscure " of Egypt. From this fault we are glad to be able to say, that our author is in a great measure free; his language is usually very simple and direct, his general explana­tions clear and well directed. The chapters are divided into short sections, admitting of easy reference from one to another, for the purpose of elucidating or enforcing the point immediately under consideration, and occasionly, as the investigation of the subject advances, the annunciation of its result, so far as ob­tained, is given in the form of a brief principle, easily under­stood and retained in the memory. In some instances we think his style rather too brief, and too much wanting in the usual expletives that make the language more naturally and easily understood ; whence, in enforcing a chimical argument, or laying down the consecutive steps of chimical action, the propositions, from the brevity of their announcement, seem to crowd too fast upon the attention of a reader not familiar with them, and produce fatigue. There are also a few errors of expression, but these things we look upon as the " macula'," to which Horace was willing to be charitable even in poetry, and which must therefore be of less consequence still in a work like the one before us.

The first chapter is devoted to an explanation of the " Ge­ology of Soil," giving the meaning of rocks and earth, consid­ered as primary and secondary, of the natural limits of plants, and of isothermal and isochimical lines as affecting their ar­tificial cultivation. In accordance with the principles of adapting his doctrine to the purpose in view, the author's geo­logical explanations are brief and general, and considering the subject agriculturally, after a slight indication of more minute directions, and short but satisfactory reasons, he gives, as the results of the examination of this subject, the following principles.

" That there is hut one rod:, consequently hut one, soil."
" That rocks  do not affect  the  vegetation  which  covers
Jl   " That rocks have not formed the soil which covers them." Although partial or  particular exceptions may undoubtedly be  taken   and  sustained  in  opposition to these  rules, yet as general principles we think they will be found true.

The second chapter is devoted to the chimical constitution of rocks and soil, that is, of soil considered as an assemblage of inorganic substances. Excluding as before the partial de­posits of particular elements, and taking the constituents of the great rock formations, and of the mixture of their shattered and pulverized fragments, of which inorganic soil consists, they are shown to consist of twelve elementary substances, easily reduc­ed into three classes, the various combinations of which are ex­plained with much simplicity and clearness, as well as the general principles of definite proportions, in obedience to which such combinations take place ; and the leading features of the  doctrine of equivalents.    This subject is pursued in the subsequent chapters devoted to the properties and chimi-cal actions of these elements; and after an examination of the quantities of particular substances of this class, that enter in­to the composition of vegetable bodies, both as existing in soil generally, and as found in a given amount of vegetable growth, the result is announced in the following important but not generally believed principle.

4. " All soils contain enough of lime, alkali, and other in­organic elements, for any crop grown on them."

This doctrine will doubtless appear very strange and in­credible to many, and is certainly very much in opposition to the popular belief, that certain crops cannot succeed well upon the soil of many parts of New England, on account of the deficiency of lime. There seems no reason, however, to doubt the evidence here given, and apart from the irrefutabil­ity of the scientific investigation, we have long been convinc­ed from observation of agricultural proceedings, that this be­lief was erroneous, and that where certain crops did fail for want of a sufficient supply of these ingredients, it was not that they were not contained in the soil, but that the mode of culture was not such as to make them available to the crop.

In the fourth chapter we come to the consideration of the organic elements of soil ; but before entering upon the full consideration of these, while pointing out the general connex­ion between them and the inorganic elements, the author furnishes us with two new principles.

6. " That soil consisting chiefly of one silicate, or salt, is always barren.
7. " That one base may be substituted for another in an isomorphous proportion."

The last principle in certain localities may be of great practical utility.

The great mass of organic matter contained in the soil Dr. Dana, in accordance with views that he has heretofore maintained, and which he briefly but clearly and forcibly re­capitulates in the present work, arranges under the term of geinc ; mentioning, however, the divisions made by chimists in prosecuting a more minute analysis. For the purposes of the practical agriculturalist we apprehend that the term is well chosen and sufficiently distinct. To investigators in the laboratory the minor divisions may have their value; but mixed as they all are in the soil, consisting of the same gen­eral elements, and passing from one into another, as many of them do, by slight variations of continually changing influences, which modify their proportions and affinities, it seems to us to be useless to encumber with them the attention and memories of those, who are generally but too little willing to mix even a small proportion of study with their more active pursuits. Of the importance of this great element we shall give the statement in his own words. " The great practical lesson of all agricultural experience teaches, that geine is es­sential to the growth and perfection of seed ; that without geine crops are not raised. Geine is as essential to plants as food is to animals. So far as nourishment is derived from the soil, geine is the food of plants. It may be laid down as the eighth principle of agricultural chimistry, that geine is in some form essential to agriculture." - p. 02. Again, p. 98, in speaking of the action of soda upon geine, he says, " If this has been long in an insoluble and perfectly useless condition, it is now rendered soluble, and hence supplies plants with food." And in p. 100, " Fertility depends whol­ly upon salts and geine. Without the last there is no fruit formed."

We have been thus particular in specifying our author's views upon this subject, because we perceive in them a direct opposition to views advanced by the celebrated Liebig, to the recent republication of whose work on the Organic Chimistry of Agriculture we have before adverted. The ground taken by Dr. Dana seems to be, beyond the possibility of doubt, that geine itself in a state of solution is food for plants, that it is their usual and natural nourishment, that in proportion as they are supplied with this under proper circumstances in other respects, they become vigorous and productive, and that they cannot be naturally so without it. We do not consider him in advancing these views as having any reference to a plant plunged in a pot, basking in the regulated heat of a con­servatory or hot house, and stimulated to unwonted and unnat­ural energy by the application of the concentrated principles of manure. Such a plant may linger fora greater or less time in a sickly existence, or, after maintaining a specious and unsound luxuriance for a season or two, perish premature­ly of over exhaustion. The broad culture of the garden and the field, beneath all the vicissitudes of the seasons, with all useful growth either annual or perennial in health and hardy richness, is that to which we presume he means to be under­stood as generally applying his remarks, not refusing, however, to have them extended to all such instances of cultivation, as require an artificial climate and soil formed in imitation of those of which the subjects are natives.
If we understand Liebig rightly, he expressly refuses to
geine, or as he terms it humus, for we conceive that as a ge­
neric appellation this means  the same thing  as the geine of
our author, the property of being the food of plants, or of be­
ing necessary or conducive to their perfection.    The most
that he seems willing to concede to it is, that, in the early
stage of their existence, during germination, and till the young
plant  acquires its proper leaves, it may  assist in forming a
proper nidus, or place of deposit, and by decomposition afford
a supply of carbonic acid for the early wants of the embryo.
After the plant has obtained all its proper organs, he seems
willing to regard it as no longer depending upon the organic
constituents of the soil for the means of increase and arriving
at perfection, but as deriving its whole nourishment from the
chimical  constituents of the air and water; so that after its
early youth the earth is of no advantage to it, but as supplying
a place upon which it may stand firmly by means of its roots,
mechanical facilities for enabling those roots to perform their
functions of absorption  and  excretion, and those inorganic
constituents of the soil that enter into the composition of veg­
etables.    We will give his own statements.    " Humus does
not nourish plants, by being taken up and  assimilated in its
unaltered state, but by presenting a slow and lasting source of
carbonic acid, which is absorbed by the roots, and is the prin­
cipal nutriment of young plants at a time when, being desti­
tute of leaves, they are unable to extract food from the atmo­
sphere." - p. 117.   " When a plant is quite matured, and when
the organs, by which it obtains food from the atmosphere, are
formed, the carbonic acid of the soil  is no  longer required.
Deficiency of moisture in the soil, or its complete dryness,
does not now check the growth of a plant, provided it receives
from the dew and the atmosphere as much as is requisite for
the process of assimilation.    During the heat of summer it
derives its carbon exclusively from the atmosphere." -p. 106.
" All the hydrogen necessary for the formation of an organic
compound  is  supplied to  a plant by the decomposition  of
water."-p. 122.    " No conclusion then can have a better
foundation than this, that it is the ammonia of the atmosphere
which furnishes nitrogen to plants." - p. 14G.   "Plants, and
consequently animals,  must therefore  derive their nitrogen
from the atmosphere." - p.  129.    " Carbonic acid, water,
and ammonia contain the elements necessary for the support
of  animals   and   vegetables." - p.   147.     "Carbonic  acid,
water, and ammonia are necessary for the existence of plants, because they contain the elements from which their organs are formed ; but other substances are likewise requisite for the formation of certain organs, destined for special functions pe­culiar to each family oi' plants. Plants obtain these substan­ces from inorganic matter."-p. 147. " In whatever form therefore we supply plants with those substances which are the product of their own action, in no instance do they ap­pear to have any effect on their growth, or to replace what they had lost. Sugar, gum, and starch are not food for plants, and the same must be said of humic acid, which is so closely allied to them in composition." - p. 1S1. We think the doctrine we have attributed to Liebig may be considered as fairly made out by these citations. He makes many ingen­ious and plausible statements and arguments in support of it, though we think the various trains of his reasonings are not always consistent; with that, however, we have nothing to do at present. Our great business is with Dr. Dana's work ; and as there seems on this subject to be such wide difference of opinion between two such high authorities, such as is our duty to point out, we thought it best to let each speak for himself.

After a careful consideration of the two doctrines, we have come to a conclusion in favor of the superior correctness of that of our author, as one supported by experiment, and conso­nant to the experience, common sense, and judgment of agri­culturists generally, in all ages, that is to say, of the far greater part of mankind. Why are the fertile plains of the West so superior to our own sterile New England, but from the greater abundance of their rich vegetable mould, that is, geine, de­cayed and decaying humus? Why even in New England is the black earth of the valleys so much more esteemed by the farmer for its ability to repay his toil, than light sandy, gravel­ly, or clayey plains and hills'? Why are drained and reclaim­ed swamps and peat meadows so extolled for their perennial productiveness? Why is the compost of peat and stable ma­nure found so fertilizing? Surely the observation of such multitudes, and among them so many intelligent and enlight­ened persons, for so many centuries, is not a thing lightly to be set aside. Were the opposite theory correct, there could certainly be but little difference in the natural productiveness of sandy plains and rich bottoms. A little humus or geine, to supply carbonic acid at starting, is all that is wanting, and dry and barren indeed must be sand that will not supply enough to last a young plant till it lias put forth its proper leaves. If after that the atmosphere will supply it with nour­ishment, we do not see why it may not thrive and prosper as well in one situation as another. Yet it does not. We have repeatedly seen plants coming up in the spring from seeds sown on sandy plains, go forward during their first stages with more luxuriance of growth than upon a rich vegetable mould immediately adjoining, showing that there was no want of nourishment at that time; but after having come fairly and fully into leaf, under the same circumstances of atmospheric influence, the former became stinted, sickly, and abortive, while the latter continued to increase in. vigor to a full and productive maturity. Yet the soils were formed of the same inorganic elements, and differed in nothing but the greater or less abundance of vegetable mould.

Still it may be urged, that admitting an error as to the time during which the presence of decayed and decaying vegeta­ble matter is serviceable, it does not prove that geiue itself, in solution, affords nutriment to plants ; it may still, in ac­cordance with Liebig's theory in other respects, benefit them only by affording a prolonged supply of carbonic acid by its decomposition. To say nothing of the authority of Ilassen-fratz, Saussure, and Davy, not to mention others, founded upon direct experiments, which shov flic contrary, it is ad­mitted by Liebig himself, that " all substances in solution in a soil are absorbed by the roots of plants, exactly as a sponge imbibes a liquid and all that it contains, without solution." - p. 147. We can hardly suppose this power to be given mere­ly for the purpose of rejecting these substances again in the form of excretions. It seems manifestly for the purpose of supplying the plants with food, by affording them in solution such substances as are fit for assimilation, Geine in solution affords such substances, in the proper proportions, and per­haps more easily acted upon by the vegetable organs for hav­ing been already once assimilated. It seems irrational and at variance with what we know of the economy of nature, of its nice and exact adaptation of the means to the ends, with the smallest possible waste of material, and the least ex­ertion of power, to suppose that the nutriment, thus taken in­to the veo-etable body, should pass through it unchanged and unappropriated, while the saline and earthy substances that accompany it, so far as they are needed, are made use of, and even the water in which they are dissolved. If the analogy of the animal creation be of any weight, and we think that it is, a strong argument in favor of the nourishing effect of geine may be drawn from it. Myriads of animals are sup­ported on the flesh of other animals, in all stages from life to utter decay, and as a general rule it is found that animal food is more easily assimilated by other animals, and requires a less complicated system of digestive organs than vegetable food, and that with less bulk it affords more hearty nourish­ment.

We do not deny, however, that many or most plants derive some portion of their nourishment from the atmosphere, or at least some portion of the materials employed in their vari­ous secretions and excretions, though we think that the amount varies in the various races of the vegetable kingdom. To pursue the analogy already employed, as among animals, some live wholly upon animal food, some wholly on vegetable food, and others on a mixture of both in varying proportions ; so we think that among vegetables, some derive thej bulk of their nutriment from the decayed or decaying matter of other vegetables, either of the same or of different races, some partly from such and from the atmosphere, and some almost wholly, a few possibly entirely, from the atmosphere. Yet, even in admitting this last, it does not necessarily follow that such plants do not have some organic food. The air is filled with fine, impalpable dust, the minutely divided particles of organic and inorganic substances; these are mingled with the vapors of the clouds, and held in solution in the rain­drops that fall from them ; they settle upon the leaves moist with dew, and are in part dissolved by it; and if the rain and the dew are absorbed by such plants, we see not why the substances contained in it are not absorbed likewise; and if absorbed and capable of affording nutrition, it is altogether impossible that they will not be used for that purpose. Geine, as well as other substances, and probably in no small propor­tion, is among this fine dust; and the ammonia,which Liebig asserts that rain-water contains, affords readily the means for making it soluble in the moisture of the atmosphere.

On all the grounds, therefore, of the authorities of science, of analogy, of common and universal observation and experi­ence, we are convinced at present of the correctness of the doctrine supported by our author.

But to return to our book. Chapter 5th is devoted to the examination of the mutual action of the organic and inorgan­ic elements of the soil. It is long, able, and instructive, but requiring close attention from a reader not quite familiar with chimical  action and reaction, to follow the condensed, yet direct course of the reasoning.    In it are to be found, the two next succeeding principles, viz.

9. " Carbonic   Acid  and  the   carbonates   decompose   the
earthy, alkaline, and mdnllic silicates of the soil."
10. " The base of all salts acts ever the same in Agricul­
ture.    Peculiarity of action   depends upon   the acid of the

Upon the importance of this last, the author lays great stress. "It is," he says, "the great practical principle of agricultural chimistry." What makes it so, is the great di­vision of opinions on the manner in which salts or mineral manures act. Different theories are framed for the operation of each. By many they are looked upon as merely stimu­lants, while others regard one or more as possessing more substantial properties. Through this confusion and contrari­ety, Dr. Dana thinks, the principle above laid down will afford a guiding clue. It will, however, require some skill and nicety of touch to follow it with accuracy, though its value seems indubitable.

The two subsequent chapters, comprising about one half of the book, are occupied with the subject of manure, natural and artificial, and irrigation. Manures are divided into three classes ; the first consisting of geine, the second of salts, and the third of salts and geine. Animal excrement is assigned to the last division, and the chief element of its value is stated to consist in the nitrogen contained in the albuminous portion of it. This element is considered as acting in two ways, in combination with hydrogen forming ammonia; in on;;, on the geine, the other great element of the manure, converting it from its insoluble to a soluble form ; in the other, on the silicates contained either in the soil or the manure, thus among other things producing saltpetre or nitrate of potash, one of the most active and useful of the fertilizing salts. By a statement in a recent number of the New Eng­land Farmer we learn, that M. M. Baussingault and Poyer are now advocating in France similar views of the action and value of nitrogen as contained in manure. This coincidence must be considered as supporting our author's doctrine, though as his views were made public more than a year since, it will not deprive him of the credit of originating them for himself. Liebig refers the action of solid animal excrement to the inorganic parts of it.

The different kinds of manure are carefully examined, their relative composition  and value pointed out, and the modes of action of their different great components investi­gated, so far as this had not been done in the previous chap­ters.    The whole  management of the  subject appears to  us uncommonly able and  instructive.    The directions given for the formation of artificial manures are practical and valuable. The explanation of the beneficial effects of irrigation con­tains something, that we do not remember to have seen before so well and distinctly set forth in any treatise on the subject. This  is the cause  assigned  for the beneficial effect of pure running water, namely, the absorption by the soil of a portion of the oxygen from the air known to  be contained in water. By Dr. Dana's statements, two thirds of the oxygen of the air, that is  absorbed by the water of a river or pond, cannot be obtained  from  it  again by boiling.    Ho infers that much of this, when the water is  employed in irrigation, enters into combination with the geine of the soil and makes it soluble, and to this he refers the well known  beneficial effects of the process, when performed with pure waters.    The explanation seems reasonable, and more satisfactory as to the result than any we now recollect to have seen offered, though we should hardly attribute the whole benefit to this single  cause, since others, more or less efficient, can hardly fail to be combined with it in some degree.    Liebijr's  slight  mention of this sub-ject is confused  and imperfect.    In  connexion with irriga­tion the somewhat opposite process of paring and burning is succinctly discussed.

The physcial properties of the soil form the subject of the last chapter, and by it is explained the boldness and seeming impossibility of the correctness of the first of the author's prin­ciples, that " there is but one soil." That is true in the chimical sense, referring to the inorganic elements ; the differ-ences in texture, lightness, fineness, &,c. are considered as be­longing to the physical properties, and these explain ail the great diversity of appearance which the soil presents. These are briefly discussed; and in the course of his remarks the au­thor offers an explanation of the beneficial effects, practically known to follow the stirring and loosening of the earth among growing crops in the time of a drought. We have often heard it remarked that a good hoeing in a dry time was of equal value to corn with a heavy shower ; and if we recollect rightly, Cobbett, in some of his treatises on agricultural matters, in­sisted very strongly upon this principle as a practical one of great value, though he could give no rational explanation of its action ; yet correctly enough considered that more moisture was thereby in some way supplied. Dr. Dana says, that more moisture is actually produced and in larger quantities, in soil abounding in geiue. Atmospheric air is by this process admit­ted freely, the oxygen of which is absorbed by the geine, part unites with the carbon of this substance to form carbonic acid, and part unites with the hydrogen to form water. From the calculations made as to the amount that may thus be form­ed, it would seem as if the value popularly assigned to a good hoeing was not overstated.

A short appendix contains a statement of the results of sev­eral of the author's principles, as applied to practice by others, which strongly support their utility.

From the full analysis we have given of the contents of this work, our readers will have perceived that, under a very brief and unassuming title, the public is presented with a very thorough treatise on the chimistry of agriculture, as~relating to soils natural and artificial, and the means of improving them, or making their natural powers available for the purposes of the husbandman. We could have wished it some more eu-phonous if less alliterative name ; but there are several trea­tises already before the public with the titles of" agricultural clumistry," " chimistry of agriculture," &c, &c, so that some variety seemed advisable ; and the Dr. probably thought that " the rose by any other name would smell as sweet," or at least resolved to try the truth of the adage.

Of the merits of the work our opinion must be very evident from what we have said; but to sum it up fairly, we consider it a very excellent work, of great clearness of views, precision and simplicity of arrangement and expression, and for utility to the practical farmer, admitting of easy referencenand im­parting sound and valuable information, it seems to us superior to any work on the subiect that we have seen.