Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/413

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
397
SOILS AND FERTILIZERS.

of allowing some one with peculiar facilities for performing an act to do that exclusively, that others may profit by his skill. So long as each man sought and killed his food, cooked his meals, made his own clothing, weapons, and implements—in a word, lived alone—advance was impossible. It was only when he who was most skillful with the needle made garments for the hunter in exchange for a haunch of venison, that the hunter could practice marksmanship, and the tailor design a new cut for the mantle with which the warrior might dazzle the daughter of the arrow maker. It is the same in Nature. Some organisms possess powers of elaborating certain materials of which others are quick to avail themselves. Plants can manufacture starch, an article needed by animals, but of which their own capacity, so far as producing it is concerned, is very limited, and thus animals find it advantageous to avail themselves of these stores instead of taxing their own resources. Similarly, plants need the organic matters of the animal bodies, and wise agriculture supplies carbon, nitrogen, and other articles of food in the shape of animal and vegetable refuse. But this matter requires digestion; it must be made soluble before it can be absorbed, and but few plants can effect this solution unaided. The "Venus's flytrap," the sundew, the wonderful "carrion plant," and others, are equipped with elaborate apparatus by which they are enabled to capture, kill, and literally digest the insects that supply them with nitrogeneous food, but these are exceptional cases. Nature usually employs other agents.

The action of bacteria in causing decay has been said to be in general similar to fermentation—that it is effected by the bacteria in seeking their food. If oxygen be abundant, putrefaction occurs; if it be scant or absent, then fermentation takes place, for the tiny organisms require oxygen, and, if the air fails them, they pull to pieces the organic matters near them to obtain it. In doing this they get the nitrogen into such shape that the plants can use it, and thus digest their food for them. All organic matter contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen as a general rule, and to these are often united phosphorus, sulphur, nitrogen, and others, making very complex arrangements, veritable houses of cards, in fact, only held together by the strange power of life. When a leaf falls or a bird dies, some of these combinations are broken, and then the bacteria and other lowly organisms have full sway, for living matter is impregnable to all save a few of them. As oxygen or something else is taken out of the complex molecules, the compound falls to pieces, but as in the kaleidoscope the bits of colored glass tumble into endless varieties of symmetrical figures, so do the atoms fall into new combinations. If the keystone of an arch be removed, the stones fall apart; but atoms, unlike bricks or stones, can not stand alone as a rule;