Secrets of Fertile Soils: Humus as the Guardian of the Fundamentals of Natural Life

review by Jack Kittredge

There is a tradition in German writing going back at least to Kant or Hegel, possibly farther, that finds signs of Spirit in every manifestation of reality. Rudolf Steiner certainly is part of that tradition. So is Erhard Hennig.

It is difficult to convey this kind of thinking to many Americans, trained as we are in a very materialistic and reductionist science. It strikes one as impres-sionistic rather than linear, intuited rather than deduced.

Secrets of Fertile Soils is a testament to the power of humus in shaping our natural world. There are chapters on Humus itself, as well as Compost, the Function of Roots, Tilth, Water, Earthworms, Rot and Decomposition, Cells, Carbon and Carbon Dioxide, Bacteria, Nitrogen, Soil Formation, Trace El-ements, and a Warning about the loss of Order in Nature.

His descriptions of these ideas are often engaging and resonate as truths. His chapter on earthworms is almost lyrical and yet filled with practical advice and information on their workings in soil. Having learned a bit about worms myself recently, his words captured their wonders well.

But occasionally he will throw in a completely novel idea without any substantiation. An example is his treatment of rot versus decomposition. For Hennig, rot is basically decomposition in an anaerobic environment, such as under water or in muck or mud. He associates it with excrement, manure, disgusting smells, insect pests and pathogens. Decomposition is aerobic decay and is associated with compost, pleasant odors such as earthy or fungal smells, a lack of pests and pathogens. Decomposition is necessary to separate the constituents of a living organism into the basic parts that can then be put together biolog-ically to create new life.

These ideas and feelings correspond to many experiences we all have. But to help farmers whose reality is living with an anaerobic manure slurry he sug-gests ventilating it and employing a “humus mill.” The mill is essentially a concrete mixer filled 1/3 with stones, 1/3 with water, and 1/3 with loam or clay earth. To this is added a small amount of compost and the entire batch is mixed for precisely 75 minutes, then poured into the slurry and stirred. He says this performs a function similar to “potentiation” in homeopathy, forming colloids in the mixture that adsorb the various components with strong binding forces that continue to work throughout the slurry and into the soil itself.

What do we make of such advice? Humus milling comes with a reasonable theory and may well work. But am I going to suggest it to a New York livestock farmer afflicted with a manure lagoon unless I can cite some references? We seem to be living in two alternate worlds sometimes, in agriculture.

Probably the strongest message animating Secrets of Fertile Soils is the special place in Nature played by Humus. (There, I just did it unconsciously — started capitalizing important nouns in the German style!)

There is a school in modern soil science, championed by such luminaries as Cornell’s Johannes Lehmann and Oregon State’s Markus Kleber, which denies the very existence of humus. In a December, 2015, paper they argue that humus is nothing but an artifact of an outmoded testing protocol which dissolves soil in alkaline extracts.

While this paper has started a hot new scholarly dispute, I am sure Hennig, were he still alive, would have nothing of it! He writes:
Right up to the present day, the notion of a lifeless soil has to a large extent persisted, and scientists constantly seek to explain processes in the soil from a measurable point of view. But in fact our field and garden grounds are dynamic systems that work in some respects like living organisms… Humus forms as a result of the complicated interplay of inorganic conversions and the life processes of the microbes and tiny creatures living in the soil. Earth-worms play a particularly important role in this process. Humus formation is carried out in two steps. First, organic substance and the soil minerals disintegrate. Next, totally new combinations of these breakdown products develop, which leads to the initial stages of humus. Humus formation is a bio-logical process.

He has not exactly claimed he understands it all, humus formation. If he did, we would all know he is a fraud. Because we all stand in awe, it seems to me, or we should, at the wonders an intelligent nature has performed in the lowly soil to continue life itself. And, despite our many transgressions and failings, allowed us to stay around to enjoy.