Reconstruction by Way of the Soil

Guy Wrench

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Guy Wrench takes us on a wide-ranging journey through the history of some of the world’s most important civilizations, concentrating on the relationship between humanity and the soil. He shows the reader how farming practices, and the care – or lack of care – with which the soil is treated have brought about both the rise and fall of civilizations, from the ancient Romans, to the Chinese, and the Muslim world.

This history by Guy Wrench is a wide-ranging history of the agricultural policies and politics of several (actually many) different cultures through history. The author looks for parallels and similarities between the rise and decline of the cultures he discusses, and what he finds is interesting, and educational.

Guy Wrench’s politics, and also his optimism, shine through in his writing. This text has many merits as a historical survey.

“Our agriculture is wrongly based. It is a system largely directed at curing evils which it itself is responsible for. It is the wisdom of the country and the traditional farmers we need now; the wisdom of those who have built up long-lasting agriculture and whose wisdom lies in tradition. They have fashioned it through physical work and close and immediate observation; through the personal intimacy with nature which we have come to associate with the poet.

In fact, peasant life is poetic, and it is so precisely because of this intimacy. The music, dance and art of peasants are the creative expression of their lives, and as such are characteristic of their environments and the land on which they live.

Nothing collective or traditional, as peasant life is, originates from people separated from the soil, as are townfolk.

The poems and essays that played a notable part in the country life of the Chinese, the Tibetan art which finds its way into every home, the sylvan setting of Japanese villages, of the Balinese and Burmese, the vocal harmony of Swiss peasants returning from their fields, the reproduction of floral beauty and colour in festive dress of so many countries; these are the product of the poet that lies in every peasant’s heart.

It is this intimacy that inspires creativity in the poet, as the Greeks recognized in their choice of word for poet, namely, a ‘maker’ or creator, and which Dante voiced in the Divine Comedy, when he wrote that the poet was not the disciple of the imagination, but rather one who knows the secrets of nature.”

Guy Wrench


  1. Introduction
  2. Rome
  3. The Roman Foods
  4. The Roman Family
  5. Soil Erosion in ancient Rome
  6. Farmers and Nomads
  7. Contrasting Pictures
  8. Banks for the Soil
  9. The Economics of the Soil
  10. The English Peasant
  11. Primitive Farmers
  12. Nyasa
  13. Tanganyika
  14. Humanity and the Earth
  15. Sind and Egypt
  16. Fragmentation
  17. The East and West Indies
  18. The German Colonies: The Mandates
  19. Russia, South Africa, Australia
  20. The United States of America
  21. A Kingdom of Agricultural Art in Europe
  22. An Historical Reconstruction
  23. Summary
  24. A Plan for Action

Dr Wrench also wrote The Wheel of Health, also published by A Distant Mirror.


It will be clear to a reader who, like a prospector confronting a face of rock, runs his eye down the page of contents of this book, that its subject is a general one. It is, indeed, widespread both in space and time, yet in spite of its generality it cannot be said to be widely recognized; so little so, in fact, that to many readers it will appear a new subject.

People, under the advanced differentiation of the present day, are apt to think of themselves as finished products – as soldiers, merchants, sailors, engineers, lawyers and so on – but to speculate on what they, one and all, actually are, seldom occupies many of them for more than a few casual moments.

Nevertheless, now that they are involved in a supreme crisis (the author is referring to WW2 – ed.), now that, however complete victory may be, the future cannot be the replica of the past, it is inconceivable that humanity will not be forced to face fundamental questions such as in previous times of habit and routine they were able to avoid.
They have already come to learn that this age, so distinguished for its scientific progress and its widespread knowledge has, in spite of these advantages, completely failed in its promise of peace and prosperity.

Even in such vital social problems as feeding and employment, it has failed, and failed signally. Those who have now been forced to experience in their own lives, and therefore to reflect upon, these two problems, are astounded that their resolution has been so definitely brought about by war. Where peace failed, it seems that war has succeeded brilliantly.

The will of the people and the skill of organization have assured all of their share of the national food supply. Those who do hard manual labour can rely on receiving sufficient to allow them to accomplish their work without the weariness that results from partial starvation.

Why is war so much more effective in these respects than peace? What is lacking in times of peace that comes into being in times of war?

Is it that under the supreme strain of war against a powerful and ruthless enemy there arises in the homeland a peace, goodwill, and sense of brotherhood which displaces the greedy competition, the covert hostility and the social barriers of peacetime that destroy the best qualities of country, blood and language? Does our civilization need war to make decency of human conduct prevail?

Many answers have been given to these and kindred questions, but in order to look at them afresh, it is proposed in this book to review conditions, both historical and immediate, with a vision untarnished by the pride of the present, pride attached to that in which one’s ego has its being. This is a broad statement, for all are tarred with the same brush, and no one can claim impartiality exempting him from his heritage and the prejudice of circumstance. Yet, if we are to enjoy a better communal and individual life after the war than before it, the attempt has to be made with the probity it demands.

To introduce the attempt is the object of this opening chapter, and to make this beginning we will try to look at people not as final products, not as labourers, merchants, shopmen and the rest, not as rich and poor, sick and healthy, wise and foolish, but as they are – all and each inseparably linked together in a common likeness, one which will pervade the chapters of this book.

This common likeness is the fact that we are all supporting our lives with the products of the soil. Like other forms of life, vegetable and animal, we humans are dependent for our existence upon the crust of the earth on which we live.

Humanity, however, possess a marked peculiarity which distinguishes us from other forms of earthly life. It is this – that we alone have been able to make ourselves partners in the creative power of the soil. We alone are agriculturists or farmers, whereby we assure ourselves a constant supply of food, clothing and other primal necessities instead of having to trust in the uncertainties of chance.

Mankind alone has acquired a degree of mastery over the earth. In this ability to take part in the creation of their necessities, humanity has gained something more than a mere increase in its food supply. We have gained an understanding, dim though it may be, of the relationship between ourselves and the powers which rule the universe and that minute part of it on which we live. Humans have realized that to be partners in creation, they have to submit themselves to the unavoidable autocracy of these powers; they have to be, in their own language, creatures of the Creator, and as such, however headstrong and dominant they may be over weaker forms of life than theirs, they are, nevertheless, like them limited by the laws of their existence.

Upon the basis of limitation, humans are inevitably compelled to shape their individual and social lives. Should they transgress, they or their descendants are inevitably punished. These rules and restrictions under which mankind lives are those of the very nature of life and death.

Life and death are the two essential conditions of earthly existence; they are the two different phases of this existence.

The living may cease to be alive, but it is not lost to the cycle of existence, and remains within it as a necessary part of it.

In the condition which is called ‘dead’, matter is either in the soil or will eventually reach it. That which, by its life, has had the power to lift itself from the crust of the earth now returns to that crust. There it plays an essential part in promoting further life. In a word, there is no actual death as a permanent thing. There is only a suspension of life. Death itself is but a phase of life in which dead matter returns to the soil, where it is reformed into living matter again.

There is nothing that has once taken life from the soil, that will not, by reaching the soil, again become living. The dead leaf that we see lying on the path at our feet is not dead in the sense of being finished. Let it lie, and, through the creative agency of the soil, its substance will again enter into a blade of grass, a flower, an insect, bird or animal, and so return to the kingdom of the living.

Life and death are therefore not separate entities, but phases of each other. The living has to respect the dead as a part of itself, not ultimately dead but living. This respect has been expressed in the religious life of humanity by various forms of reverence in which the innate eternity of life in its most highly developed form, that of the human soul, is recognized.

When humans do not interfere and the soil is left to itself, it does not fail. Through it everything that has passed from a state of life is restored again to a state of life; nothing is lost.

In the philosophy of modern science, however, the seeds that lie scattered upon the ground and do not fructify are stigmatized as failures, while those that grow into plants are dubbed the fittest, because they survive and expand into plants. Yet the other seeds survive no less; they re-enter cycles of life by other paths. Some even enter the very plants to which their fellow seeds have given rise. So, for example, every one of the countless seeds of the elm that litter the ground in early summer and which fail to turn into trees are not failures in the symphony of nature. In a musical symphony, each note, even the lowest and lowliest, fits. It is not a question of the fittest excluding or making superfluous the remainder. That is a wholly false outlook upon the processes of earthly life. Each has its place without which the whole is incomplete. Each has its place in a creative cycle, each passes from soil to plant and then, in many cases, to animal, and, after an interlude of death, returns to the creative realm of soil.

This is the symphony of nature and creation to which humans as creatures of the earth are inevitably bound and yet not wholly bound. Though they themselves are products of the soil, yet through the possession of their intellect, they have become co-creators and, within their limited human sphere, fashioned in the image of the Creator.
They can produce life other than their own. To do this in accord with the processes of creation, they must themselves be continuous and limited in production; they must act in harmony with the process, as it exists on earth apart from them.

Here they have to fit; they have to act within a process of balance. In it the living as a whole are balanced by the dead as a whole. In the living itself, its chief forms, vegetable and animal, balance each other. They are interdependent, and are incomplete without each other.

In the exchange of vegetable and animal life with the enveloping atmosphere, a similar balance is effected. It has to be regarded as a whole of balanced parts and therefore is, in human phraseology, of the character of art. Nothing in it is isolated, everything belongs to the pattern. From this art of fitting within the whole, certain consequences necessarily follow.

Wholeness or health – two words of a like origin and meaning – are one consequence.


This wholeness as a consequence has to be proved. Though it seems logical enough, yet little has been done to prove it in an age of unprecedented speed and discovery, an age of immense progress at a constantly expanding periphery, which by distance has inured man to the earth itself.

We are today no longer whole or healthy, physically or mentally. In the careful work of the Peckham investigators, it has been established that the vast majority of us are subnormal. We have broken away from the great primary fact of our existence – that we are first and foremost earthly animals, and, until we regain that fact and put it into practice, we cannot expect our social and individual lives to be whole.

Our civilization, threatened with destruction as we know it to be, has to be healed – another word meaning whole – and to be healed it has to be overhauled and reconstructed in its relation to the soil that provides it with the means of existence.
This was the task the bare outline of which presented itself to the author when, as a medical student, I was appalled by the crowded state of the outpatient department of a large London hospital.

‘Why disease? What then is health?’ were the questions that often vexed me. To answer them I had neither the opportunity, nor the tenacity which truly great men have in pursuing an object that is to them a consuming passion and for which they will forgo the pleasures of life, and which end so often in destitution and despair.

For that heroic life I lacked the courage, but the questions did not entirely leave me. It was only when I had leisure in which to retire for a space of years (brought to an end by the war) that I was able to gather material for the answer to this fundamental question regarding correct earthly being:

‘Is there a relation of humanity to the soil which assures our health?’

The answer came as a decided yes, and in the instances I was able to gather, I found that humans could acquire health if they gave to the soil on which they lived all the food and water it required, and if they did not weaken it by exceeding the limits of the creative powers which nature had allotted to it.

My chief lesson I gained from a little-known people called the Hunza, to whom I was attracted by what Sir Robert McCarrison, who knew them well, wrote of them:
‘They are long lived, vigorous in youth and age, capable of great endurance and enjoy a remarkable freedom from disease in general.’

He found that the Hunza, isolated in their mountain valley amidst the vast mountains of the Karakoram in north-west India, gave close attention to the soil, which strangely enough, seemingly related them to a golden age of agriculture. As a strengthening of this supposition, he found that their present farming recalled to that most cultured of mountaineers, the late Lord Conway, the unsurpassed farming of pre-Spanish Peru, the remnants of which he had seen, and which caused another explorer, O. F. Cook of the Bureau of Plant Industry of the USA Department of Agriculture, to state:

‘Agriculture is not a lost art, but must be reckoned as one of those which reached a remarkable development in the remote past and afterwards declined.’

The glowing pages of Prescott’s second chapter in the Conquest of Peru seem to shine again with the Hunza, huddled between the highest congress of great mountains on earth.

Cook found that the Hunza meticulously preserved the rule of return. They were, indeed, the source of my understanding of the ultimate nature of the soil and man, and of the relationship between life and death, to which I referred a few pages back. Nothing that once got life from the Hunzas’ soil was ever wasted; everything, from the least fleck of wool, the fallen leaf, the broken nutshell, to human refuse itself, was gathered and after suitable preparation returned to the soil for its food.

The Hunzas paid the same heed to water, which, by means of their principal aqueduct, the Berber – itself famous in its own right – they brought along with its silt from a glacier snout to their terraced fields. Of the Berber, Lord Conway wrote:

‘The Alps contain no Wasserleitung which for volume and boldness of position can be compared to the Hunza canal. It is a wonderful work for such a toolless people as the Hunza to have accomplished, and it must have been done many centuries ago and maintained ever since, for it is the life-blood of the valley.’

Here, too, they were like the people of Peru, of whose waterways, stretching for hundreds of miles across the slopes and precipices of mountains, Prescott wrote:

‘That they should have accomplished these difficult works with such tools as they possessed is truly wonderful.’The words ‘many centuries ago’ led me to further inquiries. I found that Professor N. I. Vavilov, of the Institute of Applied Botany, Leningrad, had discovered that the area of which the Hunza Valley forms a part ‘is one of the most important and primary world agricultural centres, where the diversity of a whole series of plants have originated’.

The people of ancient Peru, according to Cook, also produced a wonderful series of plants in the secluded valleys of the Andes and so made them the most important originating agricultural centre in America.

Here, then, within the precincts of British-supervised India, was a people who brought quite a marvellous message from the remote past, a past that justifies the tradition of the Golden Age – a past of perfect relations between humanity and the soil.

The Hunzas had created a symphony of nature. As each note, however humble, has its proper place in a symphony of Beethoven, so even the humblest fallen leaf and each drop of water have their place in the symphony of Hunza. I learned from the Hunza that their work too, was art in its original sense – derived from from aro, to ‘fit’.
I learnt that farming is an art, and something infinitely more than just scientific agriculture. It is a way of life itself.

So much for the health and constantly cheerful wholeness which the Hunza enjoy. There are many other examples of this health still extant on the globe, all of them in places remote from our Western civilization. To those who are interested in this – at present – novel meaning of genuine health, I commends my book The Wheel of Health, in which these examples are recorded in detail. It is an essential subject to understand for any who feel the need for a reconstruction by way of the soil.

Nevertheless, it must be said that such small and remote examples are scarcely likely to have much effect on those upon whom this reconstruction by way of the soil is now urged. It seems that one is destined to stir one’s readers with the negative proof of the devastation and sickness that the modern era has brought to the soil and its products, rather than by isolated proofs of wholeness, health, cheerfulness and wellbeing.

Before, however, entering upon the long path of negative proof, there presents itself a second positive element of construction, which is complementary to the meticulous care of the soil. This is the form in which that meticulous care of the soil is undertaken. The form is that of family farming.

Family farming

The family as a group is but a human complement of the soil itself, both family and soil recreating life. The family is human continuity, and the soil is vital continuity. Continuity of the family necessitates marriage as the mode of the bond of the woman to the soil; marriage bringing sons and daughters to the service of the land. It is the land that gave its particular meaning to the farming family; it is its creative power that united itself with the creation of the farmers’ children. Marriage, the bearing of children, the apprenticeship of children, the respect of children for their parents and their ancestors, the care that is bestowed by the elders on the present generation because it is to repeat itself in future generations – all this wholeness of life finds its true significance in continuous family ownership or inherited right to the land.

It is, then, the land as family property, or in lesser and more dependent degree, craft as family property, requiring the work of the family for their continuity, which primarily gives stability to men and women, making a people.

This right the people of ancient Peru possessed. Their self-governing communities or ayullus, settled in ownership of limited areas of land, existed from remote antiquity. They were the basis of the autocratic state, and they themselves constituted an agrarian communism collectively holding the land. The uniting of the ayullus was effected by the rulership of the principal ayullu, or royal family.

By far the majority, too, of the Hunza families – and the Hunza are also an ancient people – are freeholders, subject in their unity to the rulership of the Mir.
The greatest example of family farming is to be found among the Chinese. Their empire is by far the most stable and continuous in the world’s history, and it was originally founded in the long distant past upon family property, or right to the land.

It was to their revered sages that the Chinese have always attributed their Tsing Tien system, the system of the nine fields. A square of land was divided by drawing two lines across it from side to side and two up and down, as in the nursery game of noughts and crosses. Nine squares were thereby formed, eight outer and one central square. The eight outer squares of land were allotted to eight families, while the centre square was worked co-operatively and its produce given to the government officials as a tax in kind.

This division into nine squares was symbolic of the principles of the sages. Where it could be, it was no doubt carried out, but it was not rigid. The soil is not so uniform in character that it can be divided with such exactness. One square might be less readily cultivated than another; one family might be larger than another. So adjustments were made; for example, if one family had several sons and another none, one or more sons of the first might be adopted by the second family.

Adaptations were made, but the principal and standard measurements remained. It was considered by the sages as the principle of choice because it promoted co-operation, close social relations, mutual production, easy exchange of commodities, unified customs, saving of individual expenses, and it connected the work and life of the families to the nation as a whole through the work which the combined families undertook on the central field. This central field could also be adjusted within limits; it could be enlarged or diminished according to the general fortune of the province or nation.

The nine squares within a square symbolized a simple approach to life, which without doubt produced a stability now inconceivable to our Western minds trained in its opposites – in change, progress and instability. We have become accustomed to regarding stability as stagnation. However, since we have become confused and disillusioned with progress and the disasters which it has brought and with which it further threatens almost all mankind, we have come to think of traditional methods with more interest and approval, but nevertheless as something still distant and foreign to us.

Yet if nature is limited, and humanity cannot pass certain boundaries or exceed certain controls without bringing upon itself generations of disaster or even human extinction, then some such stable system as that of the Chinese takes upon itself a very different aspect in the measure of human wisdom.

It may be that it will then appear as a natural human system, in scale and endurance the greatest achievement in the partnership of intelligent man and nature upon the earth. It was such a system that long ago attained a certain finality, a completion such as a great art work, a great cathedral or temple reaches. The building needs care, love and daily attendance and sometimes renovation, but it cannot be made more beautiful. It reaches its excellence and, though time may make it more revered and loved, its very excellence shows that it had, from the very beginning, the power of duration within it.

All great art has this duration. It is not subject to frequent change as is science. Changes fail to improve it. Recasting a symphony of Beethoven would not make it more beautiful, but less. It is the devotion with which it is played that bestows its beauty as human generations pass.

It is in this sense that we should, I believe, try to appreciate and understand the Tsing Tien system. It is a national thing on a great scale that has kept within the limits imposed by nature. Through this system, the Chinese have produced and maintained a productivity from the soil unexcelled elsewhere, and have supported a community of peasant-family farmers, the largest in numbers, the most skilful, the most contented and the most peaceful amongst the peoples of mankind.

The Chinese have, of course, had their misfortunes and occasional catastrophes. They have been beset by people without any settled system such as they enjoyed. Large landowners have from within sometimes destroyed the rights of the peasants, but the Tsing Tien system has been the thread upon which has been strung period after period of their long history.

Dr Ping-Hua Lee, in Volume 99 of Studies in History (Columbia University), writes:

‘The whole history of government administration of agriculture in China coincides with the history of the Tsing Tien system, for it started with this system of land tenure. Its vicissitudes, its crises and epochs were timed by the abolition or re-establishment of the system … It is fortunate for the economic historian that the history of the Tsing Tien system is coincident with China’s political history.’

Thus in the small body of the Hunza and in the large body of the Chinese, though much disrupted by the recent and present havoc, we have rare survivals, instances of skilled and continuous life within the limits that are set by nature and the land; a skillful fitting of mankind into the life cycle of the planet.

The Chinese had not the stupendous secluding mountain wall of the Hunza, but for as far as their power could reach, they built such a wall – the Great Wall, stretching for 1,500 miles – to shut out the Tartar. They had not the control of their water supplies from their sources as had the Peruvians and the Hunza; the floods of their great rivers have their origins in huge ranges of stripped hills mostly outside their control.

Yet in spite of these foes of stability, their system endured until it was finally worn down by the constant attrition of contact with the West. Although it has been the West and its ways that have broken up this system, nevertheless sufficient of it is known, thanks to the Chinese predilection for written history, to see in it a supreme example of the Wisdom of the East in contrast to the Science of the West.

The Tsing Tien has been a system of a human partnership with the soil. In it was secured for century after century the comprehensive range of both the minuteness and grandeur of this partnership, which has by no Western writer been better expressed than by Hasbach in his unique History of the English Agricultural Labourer:

‘Trifles are the very objects of the small cultivator; he has everything near him and under his eye, makes use of every small advantage, cultivates every corner, has the help of his wife, and brings up his children to be the most useful the country produces. Such men serve the land as it should be served, never stinting themselves, and as absorbed in their service as any priest in his religion.’

Upon this foundation stable civilizations have been built, and can be built again.

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