Reconstruction by Way of the Soil Part 4

Reconstruction by Way of the Soil Part 1
Reconstruction by Way of the Soil Part 2
Reconstruction by Way of the Soil Part 3
Reconstruction by Way of the Soil Part 5

Reconstruction by Way of the Soil Part 4

by G.T. Wrench, originally published in 1946

It was during the late stages of World War II when G.T. Wrench began work on his thesis which held that soils, health, and the likelihood of war were/are closely related throughout history. And further, that “reconstruction” of society after war would require a return to the soil. This is the fourth in a multi-part reprint of the material. We hope that you will find these ideas as thought provoking as we have. LRM


The word primitive is defined by Annandale’s Concise Dictionary as ‘characterized by the simplicity of the old times.’ The lexicographer, with this definition, hits off with happy ease an exact description of the primitive peoples of this chapter and of the two that follow it. ‘The simplicity of old times’ just fits, for the lexicographer informs us under the word ‘simple’ that it derives ‘from a root meaning one or unity.’ We can now paraphrase our heading of Primitive Farmers, as Farmers characterized by unity. We must do this quickly before going on to read other definitions of ‘simple,’ for we shall find that one of them is ‘easily intelligible,’ and farmers characterized by unity are not a bit easily understood by modern peoples. It is because they have so rarely been understood that so many troubles have come to them from the moderns.

The primitive people here to be considered are the Kikuyu of East Africa, for about these same Kikuyu a very rare kind of book has been written. Its authoress, in the beautiful phrase of Robert Louis Stevenson, eavesdrops at the door of the hearts of the people she describes. She is Mrs. Elspeth Huxley; her book, The Red Strangers. She tells her story from the mind and heart of the Kikuyu, to whom the British were the Red Strangers.

Before the coming of the British, the Kikuyu were a family of people, who cultivated the land by family ownership. The land was cleared from forest and cultivated. When its fertility was exhausted, a new clearing was made, and the old one allowed a long rest and return to jungly conditions for its recovery. This farming is known as that of shifting cultivation.

The Kikuyu grew fruits, beans, peas, millets, sweet potatoes and other food crops. They kept goats and cattle. The fields were worked by the women; the men protected the fields against the inroads of wild animals, tended and protected their domestic animals, acted as warriors when young and as councillors when old. They fitted their life-cycle into conditions, which they modified to their own advantage, but to which they did no permanent destructive harm.

An important feature of the tribe in regard to its eventual meeting with Western civilization, was that it had no metal money. Nor did it have any other form of durable money. Its currency was formed by domestic animals; the smaller currency being provided by goats, the larger by cows. In this matter of currency, therefore, they reached back to that of the early ancestors of Western civilization, whose word for money, pecunia, was derived from pecu, cattle. This character is very useful to our contrast picture. In looking at the rather hearty and cheerful Kikuyu, as they first showed themselves, Westerners saw a people who still possessed characteristics of the original Latins, from whom their own civilization itself had derived. They thus looked over a Great Rift Valley of time.

Goats, then, were the pecuniary units of the Kikuyu. A poor man had a few goats, a little land and one wife; a rich man many goats and fields, together with more than one wife to work the larger possession and more sons to tend the more numerous animals. Cows also were symbols of wealth. A cow was valued at about a dozen goats. If a man procured the consent of a maid to marriage, he had to pay some such sum as thirty-five goats, or two cows and ten goats to her father, and sometimes rams and brews of beer made a part of the payment. A field was valued at so many goats. A crime was expiated in a payment of goats to the injured party, or, in the case of murder, a fine of over one hundred goats paid by the clan of the slayer to the clan of the slain.

Goats possessed a second quality of money, over and above their general distribution; they helped a family at times of hardship. Goats are distinguished amongst domestic animals as those most able to feed themselves under adverse circumstances. In a drought, when other animals perish, goats manage to survive. They tend, it is true, to survive at the expense of the reduced herbage. They are, amongst animals, those most calculated to strip the vegetative cover and promote erosion and desert-making, for not only do they bite close, but they are nimble climbers; they can denude a hillside and find sustenance in its coarse, weedy vegetation. So they increase and perpetuate the disaster of drought as does money when, as debt, it adds to and perpetuates seasonal disasters of Western farmers.

In 1898 the Kikuyu of Mrs. Huxley’s story were first visited by the Red Strangers, as they called the Britons, and in 1902, their elders or councillors at Nyeri surrendered their freedom to the Red Strangers. They were forced to this by magic. The magic of the strangers was beyond all that they had imagined. Under it a mere noise could kill a man many fields away. The Kikuyu magicians strove to oppose it, but they were as feeble against it as were the prophets of Baal against Elijah. The story itself is, indeed, not a little magical, in that an established wisdom, that which had fitted the people so well into a cycle of life, should be at once dispersed because of a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. Neither Kikuyu nor Britain can answer the question why wisdom gets no immediate support from nature, so that these magics at times do struggle for the survival of the most powerful. What is sure is that nature in her own time does write her verdict and she writes it upon the soil. Then she makes herself the measure of wisdom and gives her verdict in its favour.

The Kikuyu cultivated the southern slopes of Mount Kenya at an elevation of 4,000 feet, with a climate in which the northern peoples could make their homes. So, with scarcely any preliminaries beyond the display of magic, the Red Strangers announced that the land, which the Kikuyu regarded as theirs, really belonged to a distant king.

The Kikuyu, upon the ridges of the hills, had their enemies, the Masai of the plains. They and the Masai had fought mainly so that the victors could seize the cattle of the defeated. The first thing that the strangers brought about was peace between the Kikuyu and Masai. But it was not a peace that was the counterpart of war, that is to say, a peace between plumed warriors. Like most that was happening, it was so odd as to be inexplicable. The men of Kikuyu were commanded by the strangers to go amongst the Masai peacefully and to carry the possessions of the Masai, while the Masai themselves, men, women, children and beasts were ejected from the land of their fathers and sent to a new land. Under the aegis of the peace, the two peoples met and mingled in humiliation.

As the younger men were deprived of the pride and privilege as warriors, so also their elders found their dignity stripped from them. It was their right as councillors to dispense justice and compel the guilty to pay fines to the injured. But now it was a Red Stranger who took over the dispensation of justice and imposed fines. These fines now had to be paid not in goats, but in round metal coins and when paid by the guilty to the Red Stranger, he did not give them to the injured, but kept them himself. This clearly was not justice but theft. There was no effecting of a balance by means of compensation. The Red Stranger alone benefited, not only by keeping the coins, but by forcing the guilty to do paid work, which the Red Stranger required, so that they might get the coins for paying the fine.

Later came new and terrible demands. The men of Kikuyu were taken from their homes and brought down to the sea, which they saw for the first time. They were put into a wagon that rested on the sea and locked into a room with iron walls, the floor of which, when the wagon moved, rocked under their feet. They were overwhelmed with fear; it was like being in the belly of an animal. They were brought to a strange land, where again they carried loads as porters and served the Red Strangers, whose king was engaged in a very big war. They endured hardships so severe, that those who eventually returned to their home could not speak of them for many years. Such grim memories were the ghosts of great fear.

On their return, some of them did not go back to their original homes, but went to take up new land at some distance from the old, where the Red Strangers were installed. Now they were free and happy to be free upon farms of their own making. But, after a while, quite unexpectedly, a Red Stranger arrived and told them he had given coins to the Serkali or Government, and because of this all the land and even their farms were his. But he did not, he said, intend to take away their farms or their animals. These they could continue to cultivate, but the men must also work for him. They would work one month for him and get six coins or rupees for the work, and then one month for themselves, and so on through the year. By this arrangement large fields of maize were grown and many beasts were pastured for the stranger, and the Kikuyu kept their farms in cultivation and received coins.

The early result was surprisingly good. They got their silver coins every second month and what was more, the Red Stranger knew of markets where they could, for more coins, sell the surplus products which the virgin land produced abundantly. So coins began to accumulate. One odd thing, however, happened. It was the Serkali who gave out the coins. Nevertheless, the Serkali would not let them keep all the coins they got, but asked for some of them back. As the Serkali themselves made the coins, this was another insoluble puzzle. But, though some were given back, there was still a goodly number left, either to be buried in the floor of the hut, or to be put in the post office to be spent, when opportunity occurred, on taking up more land and a second wife to work upon it, and more goats for pasture. So, under the leadership of the Red Stranger, who now became in some sort a friend, riches, that is to say land, wives, and goats became more plentiful and the future held out hands of promise as never before.

Then something happened that neither the old nor the new magic with its new coins could avert. There were two years of drought, terminating with locusts and famine. The Serkali sent food from outside to the people, whereby they were saved from actual starvation. There followed a season which seemed to concentrate its own rain with that which should have fallen in the two previous years. The crops were now not burnt up but drowned. Further, in spite of the great shortage brought about by the drought, when any surplus product was now taken to the market, instead of many coins being given for it, for some reason inexplicable, so few were given that they did not balance the cost of cultivation.

The Red Stranger, who had taken their freedom from them, nevertheless had helped them and become their friend. He was now filled with sorrow, and in sorrow he dismissed some of those who worked upon his big fields and paid fewer coins to those that remained. There followed a further season of drought, when the unclouded sun beat day after day upon the land. The lake in the valley shrank to a lowness unrecorded in living memory. The pastures, stripped by locusts, turned to powdered earth, and dust devils whirled across the valley like wild dancers. Erosion had begun. It was as if the new treatment of the old earth made the soil become something ghoulish and caused it to tear itself from its home and flee in towering columns with the wind. So it escaped from the Red Strangers, which the Kikuyu could not do.

As has been said, something had gone wrong with the coins of the new currency and it was now found necessary to contract or cut down the currency of the Kikuyu. The Red Stranger, whom the Kikuyu had had to obey and had come to trust, issued an order to them to limit the goats, first to ten goats for each married woman, and then five. But this too failed, and the stranger, having no coins left, gathered his family together, bid a sad farewell to his sorrowing Kikuyu friends and was no more there.

In his place came another and with him an officer of the Serkali. Then fell the final blow. All the goats, which in their hunger were eating down to the very roots, were expelled from the stranger’s pastures. The Kikuyu, who worked on the large fields, were allowed to continue their work, but they must have no goats. If they wished to keep goats, they and their animals must go elsewhere.

In this way the traditional currency of the Kikuyu peasants, that which had been to them what the coins had been to the kindly Red Stranger, was as effectively destroyed, as was that of the peasants of India by Act No. 8 of 1893. It was replaced by a currency which had no relation to the local returns of the soil, as had the goats, but was something quite outside the humble fortune or misfortune, which work and the seasons brought to the Kikuyu. The new currency, it is true, brought with it certain advantages. In times of actual famine, it was able to relate the Kikuyu to better conditions far distant from their locality. With it came trade, education and the creation and improvement of towns as means of livelihood. But it took away something that was an essential part of the lifecycle, an automatic animal factor upon the farms, which rose and fell according to the creative capacity of the soil. When severe adversity came, the animal life was diminished; it was only extreme and rare disaster that had a like effect upon human life. Being a part of the lifecycle itself, the currency moved up and down with the favourable or unfavourable condition of the soil. The new coins, on the other hand, had no relation whatever to the soil, local or otherwise. They were completely dissevered from it. They had, indeed, the agricultural impossibility of having nothing at all local about them and of having an existence entirely apart from the lifecycle. They were related not to the soil, but to world finance, the first modern attempt by a group of men to be masters of the world.

Without their goats the Kikuyu were like the friendly stranger without his coins, and they, too, in their despair, followed his example. They packed up and left the land of their adventure to return to the land of their forefathers.

In the further narration of the fortunes of this family, Mrs. Huxley skillfully contrives to give an epitome of the Kikuyu people, as a whole, in their transition from a subsistence to a capitalistic farming basis, which with its ancillaries occupied in years as many decades as it took centuries in England, so swift was the tempo. Nevertheless, all the main features reappear in the Kikuyu story. The large estate and the extrinsic money system have already been described.

The family returned back to their homeland, confident that, according to tribal custom, they would have a right to the land, which the father, when young, had cleared at the side of a forest glade. But, on their arrival, they found changes even more varied than those they had experienced in the land of their adventure. A cousin had taken over both the land and the glade. The glade had been turned into a pasture, and it had something unknown in the past, in a fence which enclosed it. Previously all pasture had been open and the common ground of the villagers. Fields in the past had had temporary fences to protect crops from wild pigs and other animals, but the fencing they now saw was substantially made and not the temporary fence of custom. The cultivation of the fenced-in fields was also different to that which they had expected. The native method of hoeing by hand had been supplanted by a plough with oxen to draw it, and they soon discovered that there were other new ways of cultivation, such as a rotation of crops. Still more surprising was a square house built of stone, with windows, a veranda and a shining iron roof, and about the house was a garden with flowers and with fruit trees planted in rows.

The family looked about for goats, but saw none at all. That animal, once the currency and also the victim of religious sacrifice and so in two aspects closely interwoven with men, they later found had, under British advice, been entirely discarded. There were some other measures of wealth, and then they realized that what they had seen of the home of the Red Stranger in the land they had left, was here repeated. They were looking, not at communal or tribal land any longer, but at something more like to the estate of the Red Stranger. So they saw and, asking many questions, they learnt that the cousin himself had become as the Red Stranger, one who, by the right of the Serkali, claimed that the land was his. They were looking on private property.

Certainly this cousin had benefited greatly by means of the Serkali and by listening obediently and intelligently to its agricultural officers. As a progressive man, the Serkali had made him something new to the Kikuyu, though not, had they known it, strange to the English Red Strangers, something derived from the lord of the manor. They had made him the local land-chief and he had become so rich that he had no less than twenty-two wives to serve him. Even the form of the wives’ service was strange, for it was they and not the cousin’s men who tended the cattle. There were sons enough for the work, but they had all of them been to the schools of the Serkali and this placed them above tending cattle. Education was something which turned the young men from the land to the town, where they became clerks or teachers or policemen or took other forms of subordinate service to the Serkali. In these services there lay a greater safety, a prior claim it seemed upon the Serkali, for in Nairobi, the capital town, during the long drought and famine, these younger people had still had enough to eat, still traveled comfortably in omnibuses to their work, still dressed in European clothes and danced in European fashion. The great affliction of the countryside was fended from the town.

The returning family saw and heard all this. Particularly, of course, did they note what concerned them most, the stone house, the rows of fruit trees, the cattle, the fencing and other changes upon the land that according to custom was theirs. On the one hand, then, was their traditional right, on the other the robust facts of private ownership. The father, now an old man nearing his end, wished to bow before the power of the new, the son was unwilling and prevailed. And so a claim for the land was lodged by the family.

The case aroused the keen interest of the whole locality. It staged the conflict that was everywhere diffused between the old and the new. The elders stood firmly for the tribal laws of inheritance and the safe living upon the land which they gave to each family, and opposed the new rights, which made men dependent upon the will or whim of so-called owners of the land. The younger generation stood as firmly for the cousin, because of the improvements he had made under the guidance of the Serkali’s experts. This, they said, made the land his. As to the family, if dispossessed, there were other ways of getting a living open to them, such as by becoming labourers upon the roads or railway or in house-building, or porterage, or even in Nairobi, by acquiring dignity as taxi or bus drivers. They could even stay on the land in the humble form of hired labourers, receiving wages from the new owners.

As the claimants could not afford to pay compensation for the improvements, the land was finally awarded to the cousin. But the claim of the family was also acknowledged and land, belonging to the clan, was awarded of equal size and excellence to the original clearing by the forest glade.

So, after many experiences of sudden and quite unpredictable changes of fortune, the family attained once more to the traditional security of the homeland. But even here they had to submit to the fringes of what was to become by far the most dangerous change of all.

The old father died and he left behind him one legacy. It was a prophetic pronouncement of his not long deceased friend, Irumu, who had been the seer of the tribe: ‘When women walk all day to seek firewood and when cultivation lies naked under the sun, then shall evil come. On the days when trees again darken the ridges and bring shelter to the weary, then shall good fortune return.’

From the deep, inward oneness with the local life-cycle, which such tribal wise men have, had arisen a vision of the coming of the Great Erosion. Where the new greed for land as property caused too many trees to be felled along the ridges of the hills upon which the Kikuyu had their homes, there the torrential rains would be unchecked by these umbrageous ramparts. The watery bullets would pound some of the top-soil into mud, which escaped in turbid runnels down the slopes of the hills. This was the beginning of water-erosion, which as it spreads causes women to walk all day in search of firewood. And when the fields were broken open by the plough in place of being lightly stirred by the native digging-knives, and when they were made to grow one crop in place of several plants of different heights, foliage and roots, then the cultivation lay naked under the sun. A dry season made the surface of the soil dusty and some was blown away by strong winds. This was the beginning of wind erosion.

These two erosions form the last phase of the present story of the entry of the Kikuyu peasantry into modern civilization. Due to this civilization, there was a greater call upon the fertility of the soil and in some strange way a similar call on the fertility of its partners, for a native proletarian population increases under the early rule of the Westerners. Many new ways of earning the new coins were opened up. The colonial governments called for more coffee, more sugar, more cotton, more hides, more maize, more sisal and so on for export. More land was exposed for cultivation, its fertility taken up by the crops and the rule of return neglected.

Here is an account of the last phase of this process as it is affecting the Kikuyu, written by Messrs. Jacks and Whyte in The Rape of the Earth, 1939. This account completes the story so brilliantly told by Mrs. Huxley.

Erosion, they write in their world review, has attacked the lands of the Kikuyu, and it is due to agriculture being forced to too speedy a pace in ‘the increased desire to obtain cash through the sale of crops’ and in the need for more food crops by the increasing population, much of which migrated to the growing towns.

The original mixed farming for sustenance succumbs to the new commercial farming, it does not everywhere form the basis of the new. One farmer will concentrate on the growing of maize, another will stock or overstock the land as pasture; both practise thereby a rape of the earth. They farm for cash, and, not heeding the rule of return, they take more fertility than the soil can recurrently yield. They treat the soil as conquerors and not as partners.

In the general demand for more crops, the peasants cultivate not only the ridges upon which they had their homes, but also the easier slopes of the hills. There comes a loss in the quality of the soil, a loss of that wonderful air-containing, loose adhesiveness of the soil due to good humus, and with this degeneration the great natural elements of rain, wind and sun, once friends and partners, now, at the times of their especial strength, become enemies. The Serkali has taken no proper measures to prevent this. There is a ‘lack of conservation measure in general’, say Messrs. Jacks and Whyte.

The European owners mostly exhaust their estates by the same disregard of the precepts of nature. They override nature before the fall. ‘In the European areas erosion is caused by exhaustion of the soil through long continuous cropping without the adoption of methods to prevent erosion and maintain the humus content of the soil. The results of land misuse are only now becoming apparent in a grave form, as much of the land in the settled areas has only been cultivated for fifteen to twenty-five years. Some areas of Kenya have already reached such a state of devastation that nothing short of the expenditure of enormous and quite impossible sums of money could restore the land for human use above a bare and precarious subsistence standard… Generally speaking, erosion has become serious only during the past five years. In addition to the causes enumerated above, the invasions of locusts of 1929-31 and the drought of 1931-5 greatly accelerated the process and were largely responsible for making it so apparent in the space of a few years.’

The Red Strangers came to the land of the Kikuyu in Kenya, because, though situated upon the Equator, it is highland and has a climate in which they can live and farm. They make their homes there, but to maintain their accustomed standard of living and to save money, they concentrate on farming for profit and in this they do but follow the common lines of modern farming. The facts that the fertility of soil is exhaustible and that methods, under which in the cool, wet climate of Britain the soil is slowly depleted will, in Kenya, deplete it with rapid momentum; that sun, wind, rain, goats and cattle, all fitting into the old life-cycle, will thereby be turned from partners into enemies — these are foreign to their experience and knowledge. In their own land the rule of return and the conservation of humus are not axiomatic.

So they farm and so, wishing the Kikuyu to share in the wealth from the new methods, they induce them to adopt the new values. The intention is good. Both white men and black shall profit by progress and science. Though the Red Strangers, with their greater magic, claim the land as belonging to the distant kings, any further exploitation of the Kikuyu is not the king’s wish. In July 1923, His Majesty’s Government itself decreed that the interest of the natives must be paramount over those of all immigrants, including the British, and that on no account were the black men to be sacrificed to the white. The Red Stranger, who announced to our Kikuyu family that the land had become his by the payment of coins, nevertheless, as befitted this good intent, soon became their beneficial friend. ‘They understood then that they, the black, were not to be sacrificed to the white.’ But both black and white depended upon the soil and it was the soil that was sacrificed. It was stripped of its sheltering cover with eager haste and a tragic lack of understanding. The final result is not yet known, but what is known is sufficient. In some parts, in very truth, the words of Irumu are no longer words but facts: the women walk all day to seek firewood and the cultivation lies naked under the sun. Can the days, of which he spoke, cease to be words and too become facts: ‘On the days when trees again darken the ridges and bring shelter to the weary, then shall good fortune return.’

Money, that has been the root of this evil, is unable to save. The authorities quoted say that only enormous and quite impossible sums of money could restore the land. And before money, representing effort, there must be again the change of values, a change of outlook and a change of faith.

Nature is very careful, but men are careless. In some of the species of acacia trees in Australia, the leaves are suppressed, and the leaf-stalks or petioles are vertically flattened to take upon themselves the function of leaves. It seems that the vertical position of these petioles prevent injury from excessive sunlight, as, with their edges to the sky and earth, the petioles are not so exposed to the light as are the horizontal leaves. Scientific theorists explain how this comes about, but to the thinker, it is an exquisite example of nature’s care, and should impress farmers, telling them: ‘Do likewise. Exquisite care is necessary in the preservation and adjustment of the details of life-cycles, and that is what farming should be.’


Here is the story of another primitive farming people of East Africa, about 1,000 miles south of the Kikuyu and occupying highlands of lesser elevation at about the same distance from the sea.

In 1935 the Government of Nyasaland became perturbed by the increasing exodus of able-bodied peasants from the homeland. The Governor appointed a committee of inquiry. How alarming the exodus and its far-reaching consequences were was revealed to the members of this committee. As they travelled and saw and questioned, vista after vista of the tragedy of native life was disclosed.

This is what they reported: ‘We must confess that, six months ago, there was not one of us who realized the seriousness of the situation; as our investigations proceeded we became more and more aware that this uncontrolled and growing emigration brought misery and poverty to hundreds and thousands of families, and that the waste of life, happiness, health and wealth was colossal.’

Now this statement of a well-intentioned committee is worthy of the closest attention. At the outset it should be noted that there was not a rural native upon the committee. It was assumed that wisdom lay outside the land. The committee men were not terrene men, measured by the axioms of the soil, but super-terrene men with very little knowledge of the terrene men of the land of Nyasa. Consequently, within six months, they found themselves astonished, even overwhelmed, by the disruption of a terrene life-cycle, involving many humble people, for whom they and their kind were responsible. The wealth, of which they wrote, was the wealth of the land, and they laid down their belief about it in these words: ‘We consider it essential that the whole Protectorate should be surveyed by local agriculturists with the idea of discovering the best uses to which the land can be put, regarding the land not as something to be exploited piecemeal, but as the sole capital of the Protectorate.’

The language, one will note, is that of money-minded men; the land is called the capital of the Protectorate; as capital it must not be exploited for industrial profit, but put to the best uses as the only means of livelihood for the people of the Protectorate. How this was to be done was to be decided by local agriculturists. This term did not include native farmers, because they would not be capable of surveys with an accumulation of facts and figures from which to draw conclusions. The committee men did not seek a renovation of the indigenous social and farming life, from which improvements could eventually develop, but advised the consideration of the question from the up-to-date Western agriculturists’ outlook. In that way it could be decided how to put this particular capital to its best uses.

The indigenous methods by which the natives of Nyasaland farmed had general resemblances to those of the Kikuyu. They cleared a part of the forest and cultivated it as long as it gave good results. Then they abandoned it for a number of years, in which, by encroachments from the neighbouring forests, it reverted to the natural plants and conditions of the country. This is called shifting cultivation.

‘Shifting cultivation,’ write Messrs. Jacks and Whyte, ‘although it kept men as unimportant servants of wild nature, maintained soil fertility indefinitely, since the forest drove the cultivator out and re-assumed its beneficent control as soon as any sign of soil exhaustion occurred.’ The indigenous method, therefore, included as a practice, if not as an intellectual precept, the indefinite maintenance of soil-fertility. The Western agricultural, money-making landowners only awoke to the devastating effects of the loss of soil-fertility after it had markedly occurred, and then devised methods of preservation.

This is because dominant money falsified conservative farming. The whole conception of money plus interest is foreign to the soil. When money is lent, it is in the expectation of getting not itself, but more than itself in return, an additional creation called interest. But a crop does not reproduce more than the substances it gets from the soil and the air. The creative power never creates anything extra. It changes forms. In nature there is only transition, not addition. The conception, then, that money can produce extra money, something over and above itself, is not one derived from the creative power of the soil or the character of nature, and that no doubt is the ultimate reason why interest has been so strongly condemned by religions and philosophies. Peasants feel it to be wrong and the poets, who in Dante’s definition are ‘those who know the secrets of nature’, the ‘makers’ of the Greeks, know it to be against nature and unreal and therefore inimical to the intellect and morally wrong.

For these reasons money-directed farming, however scientific, cannot create the honest constancy of equivalent return. It strives to get more than it gives, and thereby brings about a difficulty in actual survival. It is this which constitutes the story of Nyasa. Money-directed farming was expected from a primitive people by a government belonging to the money system. The primitive people belonged to a completed life-cycle, in which surplus crops were exchanged for other human needs. There was no space in their work or habits for anything over and above this completed life-cycle, nothing, that is to say, which could be stored away as dead capital or discarded as not wanted. It would be turned immediately into wealth, which meant cattle or other such visible ‘goods’ of the native. It certainly could not be symbolized and banked. Consequently when the Nyasa Government demanded a hut-tax to be paid in money, it drew the peasants into the money system without any preparation or aptitude for it and without defence.

They could have paid the tax in goods or kind according to their custom. But they had not the coins which the Government demanded, and their own elder men, in their own urgent need for the coin commanded by government, ordered the younger men to pay — the bride-price in coin, not the conventional cattle.

The cash asked for by government through taxation, wrote the committee in their Report, was considerable. It was more than a farming district, after providing for subsistence, earned. The committee gave, as examples, five districts, which had to pay taxes of £18,000, though earning but £14,000, made up of market earnings £1,000 and wages £13,000. In response to these urban infiltrations amongst primitive farmers, therefore, none of them proved to be ‘the fittest to survive’ upon the land of their fathers. There was only one thing to be done, as was done in England by many of the harassed Tudor and Georgian peasantry; they had to evict themselves and seek employment in the modern, Westerners’ mining towns of Tanganyika, Rhodesia and the Transvaal, all of which could be reached on foot. Hence, out of a total population of 1,600,000, there were 120,000 farmers continuously out of the country, 50 to 60 per cent of the able-bodied population. Basutoland and Swaziland, farther south, had almost the same percentage of young workers absent from the land. The workers, partners of the soil, were disintegrated and blown, as it were, like eroded soil, to regions where they were made to take from the earth, not crops, but the gold that was then the god of the money system. 50 to 60 per cent left their farms; yet the Government of the Belgian Congo had been advised by one of their committees that even the absence of 5 per cent of young able-bodied men from an African village upsets the whole economic and social balance of the community.

There is scarcely need to give a picture of the state of the peasant families who remained; of the women, the old men and the elder children, who strove to carry on the cultivation of the land; the fields overgrown with weeds and jungle invasion; the huts falling to pieces; abandoned fields and crumbling villages, as if the Tudor period flung a long reflection of itself upon Nyasa and the neighbouring lands.

A partial remedy came through the unchastity of the married women. Wearied by the unequal battle and the increasing illnesses of themselves and their families which accompanied it, they gave up the attempt to remain chaste for their husbands’ return from the mining towns with the cash and the venereal disease they had there acquired. So, when natives of Portuguese East Africa discovered that there were women and land across the border, they seized their opportunity. At the present time, it is said, there are as many, or even more, such male cuckoos resident in Nyasaland as there are Nyasa men.

The story of Nyasaland tells that ‘waste of life, happiness, health and wealth was colossal’. It is a tale of the misery of a shattered life-cycle. It is not a tale for the heart only, but for the brain. It is an expected tale. History does repeat itself over and over again. Post-Punic history and Tudor history, with their evictions and brilliancy, are repeated in the story of Nyasaland and its neighbours. Distances are greater and the brilliance was to be found distantly amidst the wealthy of London and other cities, and those who derived something from them.

But the modern story was debased by its being one caused by naked gold itself, to mine which the peasants went from their farms to earn cash, for the taxation by coin that was put upon them. It is a tale of the immediate contact of the raw material of the money-system itself with primitive farmers. The foes were face to face.

Some readers may sometimes have wondered why primitive peoples seem to die out with the ‘advance of civilization’. Here is one way. It shows directly how the money-system acts. It is the system, which elsewhere is represented by high explosives, bombs, tanks and the rest. But against the soil its weapons are not known as weapons. Nevertheless, through them, the money-system is far more widely and more permanently lethal than it is by the destructive efficiency of its machines. It kills at the source. It kills the partnership of the soil and the peasants. Wherever it is in action, it produces an eventual desolation of death; peasants and soil vanish, and with their loss, what was a source of healthy creative power is given over to death.


Between Kenya and Nyasaland lies the great, sparsely-inhabited territory of Tanganyika. In this territory, there is a life-cycle of a very remarkable character, which contains within it, as a part of its ecology, an insect, the tsetse fly. This fly has come to play the part which the lions of Judah once played as defenders of the natural forest against the intrusions of man. Palestine no longer has its lions and the consequence is that, when one flies over it in an aeroplane, one looks down upon the watershed to see barren rock where there should be forest.

The tsetse’s method of defending its forested life-cycle is more subtle than the terror by which the lion once kept men from his home. There is nothing regal about the tsetse, but its part in its life-cycle forms one of the most remarkable in nature. It feeds like the mosquito, upon blood, biting both animal and human. Tsetse is also a host of the microscopic trypanosome; consequently when it bites it may inject the trypanosome into the blood of the bitten animal. When it injects animals in its own life-cycle, the animals live. The trypanosomes do not harm them more than a number of microbes, which live in men, harm their hosts.

But if man’s domestic animals and man himself invade the tsetse area, it is a very different story. On the expedition to Tanganyika, to which the Kikuyu peasants were taken as porters and endured such miseries, none of the animals imported into Tanganyika in the service of the British Forces survived. Practically all that were not killed accidentally succumbed to the fly. It is destructive too, to men. The first trypanosomes were brought by cattle driven across the watershed between West and East Africa. In parts of Uganda the tsetse lived. They became the hosts of the trypanosomes, and 200,000 out of 300,000 people died in six years.

Men, therefore, have a very great fear of the localities of this insect, a great fear like that of past Palestinians for the lions of their forests. The tsetse evicted them and their cattle from its forest areas. It is said that in the full 365,000 square miles of Tanganyika, two-thirds of the five million inhabitants have to confine themselves to one-tenth of the total territory. Then came scientific white men determined not to be evicted by, but to evict the insect. So they cut down the trees and bushes near the streams, lakes and pools, in the shade of which the tsetse lives. The result has been an erosion, not so threatening and extensive as in Kenya, because the area that is cultivated is so limited, but so serious as to call a halt. It was clear that trees must be left to protect the soil against the heavy rain of tropical East Africa; otherwise the forest became savanna, then coarse grassland and, eventually, if this poor pasture was overstocked with cattle, barren waste.

The hydrological or water-cycle, in which vegetative cover plays an absolute part, had to be preserved, and consequently the wholesale destruction of the haunts of the tsetse along river and around pools and lakes had to be abandoned. In its place very cautious ablation of bushes and trees favoured by the fly, is being tried. Indeed, in no part of Africa probably has the value of distribution and conservation of the water supply been more thoroughly grasped than in present Tanganyika. In the Kilimanjaro Native Co-operative Union, which claims 24,000 members out of the 36,000 farmers on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, there are 26 societies, and the reason of this number is that it corresponds to 26 streams, which take their origin in the great mountain and water its slopes. Under the guidance of Sir Donald Cameron, geologists, plant ecologists and water surveyors have been linked together to fit farmers in an understanding manner to the local character of the water supply as a whole. They have marked out the catchment areas of the 26 streams. Each catchment area with the river to which it gives rise has been made into a separate entity and is presided over by a native chief, and the 26 entities united in the Cooperative Union; 26 catchment areas, 26 rivers, 26 cultivated areas, 26 chiefs, 26 communes, and one Union. It is a real association of communes and the assembly of the Union a real House of Communes or Commons, people of a common source of life and not the mixed mockery which the Assemblies of Communes have elsewhere become.

So in the strange way in which nature replies to human acts, man has been shown that the tsetse, which has been such a prolific killer of him and his animals, has nevertheless proved a great saviour of the source of terrene life, the soil. Had it not been for the tsetse, the rich soil, fed by the greatest mountains of Africa under an Equatorial sun, would have been greedily seized upon and its stored fertility turned into cash, until an irrevocable erosion stayed further ravages. But, owing to the tsetse, this swift onslaught could not be made. The tsetse has prevented it; in the words of Mr. R.O. Whyte ‘the presence of the tsetse in many parts may be a blessing in disguise, as it can be regarded as the trustee of the land for future generations’.

The tsetse is a pest to man, but man, greedily eager to make his fortune from stored soil fertility, is a pest to life itself. So the strange story of Tanganyika ends with the little tsetses still defending their waterways against the lords of the earth, so giving time for nature in her own ways to tell these lords that, masterful though they may be, if they claim to be masters of nature, they are doomed. They themselves must re-learn with humility that they are the creatures of nature, and, this time, a little insect shall teach them.


Before continuing the story of the present misfortunes of the soil, it is well to recall again how earthly we ourselves are. This may be done by a meditation, in which one concentrates the mind on some one thing of those so common to use that normally we never trouble ourselves about them. We concentrate and allow our minds constantly to widen the circle of thought that arises from this concentration. We are accustomed to give a good deal of time thinking out our problems, but we rarely meditate, we rarely make ourselves strange to the familiar. We accept the air as air, the sun as sun, the earth as earth without at any time making ourselves strange to them until we comprehend both them and ourselves in relation to them.

‘Earth we are and to earth we return’ is a sage and familiar saying upon which we may well widen our reflection. It seems that this earth now under our feet is in some way us. To it and its darkness we and so much else in the world of light belong. The interchange from the visible to the invisible and from the invisible back into the light, is continuous. We ourselves, as part of the visible, are largely concerned with the invisible. The great majority of men trouble little about it, but since man is, it seems, the sole creature of the soil that is endowed with meditative thought, he has gathered a good deal of knowledge of the crust of his planet. Deeper than the crust of the earth he can scarcely reach, but in it he searches from a wide generality of instinct, which tells him that, though he has spirituality, he is nevertheless essentially terrene, and when he searches into the earth, he searches for a further understanding of his own being.

Living in the visible world, he is destined to return to the earth. As electricity can be separated by him from the earth and made to run trains, drive ships, bathe night cities in radiance, and draw great clouds together over thirsty lands, yet like man it has its earthy phase and to the earth it must return.

Similarly man, in his farming, separates land from its natural state of forest and prairie. There he grows products for his use, but in the end they too are destined to return to the earth.

So also it is with water. Water rises invisibly from the ocean and ascends to the skies there to take visible form as clouds. Thence it descends again to the earth and takes visible form upon it as brooks, rivers, lakes, ponds and dew. Man, too, separates some of it for his purposes. By irrigation he waters his fields, by conduits he waters his cities, by tanks and reservoirs he waters himself. But eventually these waters return to the invisible, they sink into the earth or the depths of the ocean, from which once again they come back to the visible world.

We human beings, whose substance plays its part in these transitions, are conceived by the sparks that set our being in motion and spring from the mystery of creation. But from the very moment after the two sparks, male and female, unite, we are in growth of the earth earthy. Heredity, in all its variety, comes from two cells so small that they need the microscope to make them visible. In these two cells for us and other beings of the earth, there is the magic of predestination. It is they that determine that launching of man or animal or plant. In man, they determine sex, colour, character. Though only two specks, they have within them a multiplicity of destiny that is quite beyond our understanding. We know there are so many genes in each cell, but to know such mathematical details, though most acceptable, is not to understand its mysteries.

In this early stage, as in later ones, we receive the means of growth from the earth and from those things which also have their earthy phase, the air and water. These means of growth are made up of substances, many of which have been separated as entities by the knowledge of man and called by him elements. There are only ninety known elements, but they occur in so many combinations that we should be entirely lost if we had to manage them ourselves. It is nature that manages them and their interchange. This we know, that otherwise there would be no life. Nevertheless, we boldly again isolate elements and certain combinations, identify them by tests, weigh them and give our names to them and try, as it were, to come to some stable and positive relation towards them, calling a halt, for the time of our own being, to their constant transitions.

These are the elements that have been found to be a part of human bodies: nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, sodium, potassium, sulphur, iodine, fluorine, manganese, silicon, cobalt, copper, iron, zinc, lead, arsenic, lithium, magnesium, aluminum, boron, chromium, strontium, cadmium, barium, tin, vanadium, titanium. Some of these twenty-eight elements may not be essential to human life. But they are part of it, for all have been found in sewage sludge. They may, one hazards, be essential, if not to life, to certain qualities of life.

The four great elements of our body, our brain, our thought and our affections, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, are all aerial, as if they have to pass to the heavens for their purification before they turn with pristine vitality to the earth again. Perhaps there, bathed in the rays of the celestial bodies, they gather that marvelous power of combination, which makes them the supreme elements of life. In their endowment of life they show a singular affinity for each other, an affinity so dazzling that it blinds our very thought in conceiving it. They associate together in innumerable patterns, as if in the great spaces from which they come they had become like Wordsworth’s birds displaying

Hundreds of curves and circlets, to and fro,
Upward and downward, progress intricate
Yet unperplexed, as if one spirit swayed
Their indefatigable flight.

It is the four of them that, joining together in almost uncountable varieties, form the proteins of living substance. Some of their steps in the protein dance have been separated out by the cold skill of the masters of organic chemistry. These steps are called amino-acids. Here is one and this is how it is written: six atoms of carbon, thirteen of hydrogen, one of nitrogen and two of oxygen, or (CH3)2:CH. CH2.CH(NH2). COOH. Or they may be spaced like this:

Reconstruction by Way of the Soil Part 4

The number of possible proteins is quite beyond men’s imagination – Berg gives them as 6,708,373,705,728,100 – and the transition of associating elements from one temporary form to other forms gives one a glimpse of the constant and amazing variety of living nature, before which man can only, with such glimpses as he has gained, regard his own creative and manufacturing power as something, excellent though it may be for him, yet very lowly and humble before this whirling, form-making artistry.

When nitrogen steps aside from this quadruple partnership and leaves carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, the three again meet and re-meet in the less dazzling combinations of the carbohydrates or starchy and sugary substances of living matter. They too are illustrated by the chemists in formations more regular, but nevertheless as wondrous as when nitrogen takes so vital a share. Here is a common, sugar, dextrose, CH2OH. CHOH. CHOH. CHOH. CHOH. CHO. Were this form placed amidst a number of surrounding mirrors, there would be an equivalent number of reflections. There are actually sixteen of those reflections to the above sugar, dextrose, four of which are found in nature, twelve prepared synthetically by Emil Fischer and others, but not yet found in nature.

There is something sober and shapely about the carbohydrates, for the majority of them are so many atoms of carbon in combination with so much hydrogen and oxygen, combined as they are in water or H2O. This cannot be said of these three elements, when nature with her marvelous jugglery uses them to make the fats. Here for example is an arrangement which makes a fat: C3H5 (O.CO.C15H31) (O.CO.C17H33) (O.CO.C17H35). Even with this jugglery with the three elements in the making of food substances known as carbohydrates and fats, nature is not content, but from them she fashions certain hormones, which have a governing power within the body, such as the hormones of the testes and ovaries and also one of the adrenal glands which in excess can give a beard to a woman with other qualities of masculinity. Some of the popular vitamins are so made. By adding nitrogen there result one or two other hormones and vitamins, and yet again with the addition of iodine and nitrogen the hormone of that very dominant gland, the thyroid, and, with nitrogen, sulphur and chlorine, the well-known vitamin B.

When one reverently meditates upon these four marvelous aerial elements, is it strange that man, who derives so much of his vitality and the fabric of his spirituality from them, should not almost from the beginning have felt his intimate unity with the pellucid heavens above him? Truly it seems that he has a heavenly, as well as an earthly body. Yet, in his murky worship of money, in his manufacturing cities, he shuts himself off no less from the clean air than he does from the clean earth. We know that in consequence he is less whole and healthy. We know that he has to go to the seaside or the country to recover some of his aerial factors. We know that authorities have to plan camps for children and adolescents to go under the open sky. We know that we have to install plants of artificial sunlight in the cities as a treatment for the most obvious cases of deprivation of natural sunlight. We do not know how wide, subtle or deep is the total extent of deprivation, because our wholeness within the life-cycle is unknown to us and, at the most, only the subject of fragmentary research. How then dare we to proclaim ourselves the masters of nature and the lords of creation, we who have broken our own life-cycle, divided ourselves from its earthly and heavenly elements and look to mortal men of mediocre health and physique, sitting in their laboratories, for guidance in these immortal truths that are clearly evident in our inward feelings and written upon the open face of the great sphere where we live?

There are other aerial elements, argon, crypton, neon, xenon and helium, of the relation of which to life we know little or nothing. We will return then to the terrene elements. How many of the twenty-eight already named in this chapter are essential has not been determined, but it has been discovered that mere traces of some of them are essential. Thus, in the case of the black rot of sugar beet, it has been found that this disease occurs if there is lacking a necessary trade of boron in the soil. Similarly, a trace of manganese protects oats from black speck. A fatal disease of sheep in parts of Australia and New Zealand is made curable if a little cobalt is added to the soil. In Florida cattle were found to die until a trace of copper was put in the fields, in which they pastured. It is probable, then, that all these twenty-eight elements are workers and that none are drones in the cycle of life.

There is, then, a procession of the elements and, though there is no pause in it, it may be said to start in the microbic and fungoid stage in the soil. In man’s cycle, the procession starts in man himself, for the breaking down of waste substances by microbes begins in the lower bowel. Microbes in health are friendly microbes. Their hostility only appears when living matter seems to lack what we call quality. Then they set about hastening the return of the living matter which lacks quality to the soil. By far the greater part of the microbic world is, then, not only friendly, but it is merely ourselves in a different form. Our elements are their elements. They make us and we make them. Therefore, when we concern ourselves about them, we concern ourselves with what we ourselves are. This is a secret of healthy food. If we take elements out of the cycle and disperse them in the sea, we are robbing ourselves. The microbes then take measures, as it were, to save themselves. Unfriendly microbes multiply. One witnesses, in fact, a break in the mores, the morality, of the microbic world. The microbes start exploiting the weak for their own benefit, they become aggressive, bring the weak to the ground and become emboldened to attack the strong. But it is the original weakness that brings about the break in morality and turns one phase of the procession of the elements to become the enemy of another phase. The microbic theory and money-dominance are certainly no strangers to each other.

It can all be so different. These marvellous elements are like the notes of the piano, which under skilled and reverent treatment produce an infinite number of melodies and harmonies. In the rhythm and the completeness of the forms they make in the natural world, one can indeed see a wider picture of that music to which the ancient Greeks gave the highest place in human culture. Misplaced they make cacophony, the hideous cacophony that now roars throughout the inhabited globe.

Man must revere and respect these elements. He must lose none, he must spoil none. He must consider them wherever and however he meets them as a part of a great being and becoming in which he has his share. Whether as nonfarmer or farmer, it should be his wisdom to understand his life-cycle and keep to it. He should know that, as man, he tends to be so anthropomorphic, so selfcentered, that he interprets food from his own point of view only. He thinks of it as things of the day, the market and the shop, as bread, vegetables, meat, eggs, fruits and milk, or as things of the factory, processed, preserved, tinned, bottled, dried or dehydrated, or as things of the field, as growing grains and vegetables and fruits upon the tree. He thinks of them as things in themselves, as indeed he must do in the daily traffic of life. But to preserve quality in them and to maintain quality, he must also think of them as transitionary parts of a whole. This he has failed to do. It is a failure in thought and observation. With that failure he has become, in the words of the great seer, F.H. King: ‘the most extravagant accelerator of waste the world has even endured. His withering blight has fallen upon every living thing within his reach, himself not excepted.’ He pursues the path of race-suicide, while he chants the hymn of progress.

He is terrene and everything that is terrene is of importance to him. He is of and for the earth. As the sugar-beet gets black rot without its trace of boron, oats get black speck without their trace of manganese, and sheep ‘pinesickness’ without their trace of cobalt, so he also requires such final sculptural touches for the perfection of his physical and mental health. If he depletes his life-cycle, he is himself depleted. In the intelligent United States, the depletion of the soil has awakened alarm, and scientists now make statements which seem extreme but may well be true. Such statements are that 99 per cent of the American people show some lack of minerals. Dr. Sherman, of California, has said of his people, what Sir John Orr has said of his, that above half the people suffer from calcium deficiency. Dr. Northen, of Alabama, added a number of minerals to the soil and found that, though vegetables and milk produced by it had the accustomed appearance, they had a very different mineral content. Quite new standards are, therefore, needed.

Textbook analyses, once made, stand. But often they are standards set by a soil that has been injured by faulty practices. So they are faulty value standards. We need the standards of the perfectly healthy soil.

Man’s bodily substance, when not lost to the sea, returns to the earth many times in the course of his life. The grim saying, ‘Earth thou art and to earth thou shalt return’, said of his dead, is no less true of his living body. He is a terrene animal, of the earth earthy. That he cannot escape, and so he lives as a product of the soil to conserve it or deplete it. At present he depletes it. The story of this depletion is in its way mystical and inexplicable. It is one of retributive justice. The old doctrine that sickness and wars were the punishments of God appears again as truth. It seems that, in non-recognition of it, man acts with a perversity little short of insanity, for the insane are those who irrationally endanger both other and themselves.