This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
There is a well known story of a certain Duke, who, on seeing a man ploughing a light soil with four horses one before the other, got off his horse, unhooked the two leaders, harnessed the two others abreast, and ploughed a few furrows out with his own hands, intending to show how easy it might be done with a pair properly geared. "Ah 1 it's all very well for you that can afford it," said the man; " but those new-fangled improvements are too expensive for a poor man." Jethro Tull found the greatest objections made to .sowing artificial grasses, the farmer saying "gentlemen might sow them if they pleased, but the tenant farmer had got his rent to pay," as though sowing clover would disable him from doing so; "yet now," he continues, "the case is so much altered that he could not pay his rent without sowing it." Not a few have heard the same objection urged against the introduction or bone-dust, of guano, of draining, subsoil ploughing, each in succession. It is a mistake to attribute these things to obstinacy, or any unwillingness to adopt an improvement that can be perceived) it is in the perceptive faculty that the impediment lies - a faculty that will not act of itself without exercise, any more than that of reading, writing, or playing on a musical instrument.
We are born into a ready-furnished world - a world stored like a granary with the labors of those who have gone before us; and we complacently avail ourselves of the comforts and conveniences that lay ready to our hand, little reflecting through what a travail of human thought, encountered and renewed through successive ages - through what repeated conflicts with prejudice, and even persecution, we have inherited many of those appliances of art, and most of the discoveries of science, which have gradually built up stone by stone, and adapted with so many material comforts, the station that we have reached in the history of human invention. The history of the Useful Arts beckons us to look back now and then upon that long line of road, rough, arduous, and crooked as it is, that lies behind us in the journey of our race to its present point of progress and attainment.
The chart of history is very barren regarding the industrial pursuits of former ages. We ask almost in vain, what was the condition, what the inner history and pursuits of that large portion of mankind who were disengaged, or remote from the rude pastime of hostile conflict with their fellow men. Husbandry must have been carried on without intermission, and commerce must have flourished, though the historian has not deigned to come down from the supposed elevation of the warrior to the level of the masses who labored at home. The time arrives when the silence of all records awakens our curiosity more than the high-sounding themes of emperors and kings, whose absurdities fill our books, can satisfy. All natural laws seem to testify to the slow growth of whatever is most permanently valuable. The history of Agriculture would, in some sort, be the history of civilization. The husbandman is the persevering antagonist of those elements of international and social disorder, which might seem to present man as the great disturbing agent of an otherwise harmonious creation.
We can trace this useful member of the community but rarely with accuracy. The Romans seem to have been the best ploughmen; the furrows were straight to perfection. When any one ploughed a crooked furrow, he was said, de linea arare (to plough out of line), which was abbreviated into the word delilare (to go wrong or to stagger), whence we derive our word delirious. Occasional glimpses are afforded, bat in the main we have bat little knowledge of ancient tillage, nor, perhaps, to the practical man is it of much importance.
In the Middle Ages Saracenic Spain seems to have been the best tilled. To this day the traveller in Valencia and Granada, amidst scenes of otter apathy and indolence, varied only by a chronic system of intestine dissension, often meets the neglected remains of a most magnificent system of irrigation, remaining like monuments of the indefatigable labors of a race that has passed away, but carrying with them so lasting an attachment to Spain, that long after their expulsion from Europe, they retained and handed down through many generations recorded titles of their estates, and even the very keys of their houses in the Spanish Peninsula.
There are lost arts undoubtedly, and in agriculture and gardening we are not sure but that sometimes we might derive benefit from the olden times. Mr. Prescott tells us, that along the table-lands of the mountainous districts of Peru, and in dry and unfruitful valleys, the singular practice was adopted of digging what may be called subterranean fields; the upper soil was thrown out, till they reached one more moist and fertile, and here, twenty feet below the natural surface, in a sort of sunk hot bed, manured with fish from the sea-coast, or the still more enriching deposit of guano from the islands along the coast, they raised abundant crops of corn and vegetables.
No pheasant in an English preserve is watched with more jealous care than the Incas extended to the sea fowl of the guano islands. To kill one of them, or even to set foot on their island territories during the hatching season, was as much as the life of a Peruvian was worth. Now, under civilized (?) rule, we kill the goose that lays the golden egg, regardless of posterity.
There is scarcely a reflecting mind which does not feel that amongst all the wonders of advanced or advancing science, the greatest wonder is its own infancy; that man should have looked upon nature so long, and known her so little, and that what little we have learnt should have been learnt so lately.
Of all the centuries which make up the history of the world, take away all but the last, and what becomes of that elementary science, little yet valued at its ripe importance, which directs and explains to us the simple elements and constitution of all the matter we behold - of every existing substance that we come into contact with by the aid of our bodily senses, of everything, in short, that we can touch, taste, smell or see, and of a great deal which is not cognizable by the external senses, but only those of the mind, such as invisible gases; where again would be that other science, which investigates the substance of the planet on which we live and move, and which, step by step, interrogates the solid rock, and chronicles its place in the history of creation, by the evidence inclosed in its successive layers of once living creatures, now lying in monumental forms more real than sculptured effigies, and affording by the regular series they present of fossil anatomy and osteology, a complete sketch of the rise and progress of organic forms of plant and animal, antecedent to those we now see around us.
Where, again, would be that analytical history of organized matter which explains the growth and structure of all existing forms of life, containing within themselves the principle of increase and reproduction? We allude to chemistry, geology, and animal and vegetable physiology. These three sciences, to mention no others, are each directly connected with the labors and the studies of the agriculturist and gardener; and when we lift our eyes around us, and see the accumulation of results, the realized forms of human comfort and enjoyment, the means and appliances of life, which one or two centuries of discovery in those and other sciences have supplied by their application to every useful art, it is surely a somewhat startling thought, or would be, were we not so accustomed to overlook it, that for so long a portion of the world's history such studies had no existence; that for ages upon ages human life passed without them.
One of the tangible causes in operation to retard the growth of agricultural knowledge was found in the variety of climate. The easy labors of the Egyptian husbandman afforded little to guide more northern nations under the changed influences of the elements and seasons; every detail was invested by the preponderance of heat and cold, drought and moisture. The progress of the art was checked, as the conditions of its practice varied at every step, and differences of climate were again broken up into smaller areas by varieties of soil. A light soil required quite different treatment from a clay, and what was true of either, a little above the sea, would no longer be true at a height of seven or eight hundred feet. A science can only grow by the observation of individual facts. Can it be wondered at that the literature of agriculture should have proved so useless, so apparently impractical, and therefore so distrusted, when every rule laid down was liable to be found false on application; that, like faery money, what seemed gold in the hand of the giver, proved dust in the hand of the receiver. Thus there was little or no history of agriculture or gardening to write.
They are the arts of the world's advanced age; their science is prospective; every day's addition to the population of a country enforces it upon human notice and intelligence by the repeated impulse of daily necessity. Where the active minds of old were intent on cathedral architecture, our scientific men reveal to us the structure of the plant, and give us principles on which to erect our fulcrums of action. The birth of chemistry, a science which unfolds the laws and structure of the soil and the plants it produces, with the phenomena of their growth, must obviously afford an epoch from which all analytical progress in agriculture must take its date. Its practice must be merely empirical so long as its elementary principles are unknown; it was equally useful as the magnetic needle to navigation, or steam power to the mechanical arts. Knowing this, good citizens are now turning their attention to teaching it in colleges, to be disseminated everywhere. The principles must be known before true progress can be attained. Cultivation by steam power is now as near being an established fact as the steamboat was twenty or thirty years after Fitch's success.
The harvesters and steam-threshers are but the forerunners of modified ploughing.
Causes and effects which were once regarded as purely physical and temporary, begin to assume a wider aspect, a permanence and moral fixity of purpose, which, when regarded by themselves, we had never attached to them. The sustenance, the comforts, the conveniences of life, achieved by art and science, are no longer the mere utilitarian objects of human ingenuity, nor the matter from which they are struck out,'things to contemplate independently or for their own sake alone. Physical things, and the sciences which relate to them begin to be invested with a garment of meaning and of purpose altogether new. The drained morass, the fresh-turned fallow, the waving corn-field, the meadow with its herbage interspersed by flowers, no longer stand separately before us as things of mere labor, utility or beauty, or our relation with them the accident of a day. A higher ordinance and appointment, enveloped within the teaching of science, become gradually but irresistibly revealed, binding and disposing all to work together to the greatest ends, not of the individual only, but of the whole family of man; not of his physical necessities, or intellectual pursuits alone, but of his whole relation with that Highest Wisdom whose evidences and attributes are engraven upon the fabric of nature, in characters not of power or knowledge only, but of universal and inexhaustible beneficence.