1864e Mould/Sun


Matthew, P. The vegetable mould. Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette (20 Feb 1864), pp.178-9

(Article dated Feb 1)
Matthew recapitulates his arguments for his position on the exhaustion of the vegetable mould. This article is also reproduced in the Western Times Friday 26 February 1864, although the memorable footnote referring to Liebig and his “goblin followers” is omitted (see below).

He also refers to his views on the Sun as a vital force on progressive evolution:

A considerable exposure to the sun’s rays seems necessary to the higher land vegetables and animals. It is said that mothers, passing much of their time in the dark casements of fortresses, have often children with malformation, as if there was a disposition to sink in the grade of life. This leads us to conceive that in former geological eras, from a greater amount of bottom heat, steaming vapour may have greatly abounded, veiling the earth with a dense covering of cloud from much of the sun’s rays— hence the earth only fitted to a lower fauna. I have often wished to try the effect of a considerable increase of the sun’s light, pure and divided, by means of reflectors, &c, upon vegetables and animals, as a means of producing variation, and many years ago endeavoured to get the late, Mr. McNab, of the Experimental Garden, Edinburgh, to experiment upon it.

In a footnote, Matthew pokes fun at Liebig with some memorable imagery:

Baron von Liebig will allow me, as an experiment, to skim off (in imagination) the vegetable mould to a depth of 10 inches from the entire of Germany, from the Vistula to the Rhine, and I will guarantee that a civilised people, raising their own food, could not exist in Fatherland—even with the chemical aids which a thousand Liebigs could give. This earth cover of vegetable mould being removed, only a, few kinds of forest trees and some Legumes, Heaths, Cudweeds, poisonous Equisetaceae, Lichens, and the poorest stunted Grasses, could exist for ages to come,– the whole wide region only fitted for a few roaming savages, obliged to eke out a subsistence for a part of the year as of yore, by mollusks (shell fish) procured on the more productive sands of the North Sea. Hereafter, on the Brocken, the summit of the Hartz, on Walpurgis Nacht, amongst the scattered masses of the lightning rifted rocks, the begrimed spectres of Liebig and his goblin followers might be seen, by the glare of their lurid fires, labouring with their furnaces and crucibles to prepare pure minerals for the food of the cereal plants. To this penance, for a thousand years, had the Cereal Goddess doomed our presumptuous chemists for laesa majestas, for the attempt to subvert her throne, the Vegetable Mould. Baron Liebig will pardon me for this play of fancy—a suitable reply to his Papal infallibility and denouncement of heretics in his letter to me of 10th July last.

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