This past weekend we made our first application of the season of BD-500, otherwise known as cow horn manure. BD-500 is basically fermented cow dung. It is the basis for soil fertility, and is used for the renewal of degraded soils. It is the first preparation used during the season, but especially when one changes to the biodynamic system. With our newly prepared vineyard expansion, it is an essential addition. But what does it really do? Some of the benefits include:
- Strong humus formation
- Increased soil bacteria, such as rhizobacteria activity, and an increase of the phosphate solubilizing bacteria
- Increase in the mycorrhizal fungi and their hyphae
- Improved soil structure and tilth
- Increased earthworm activity
- Greater water absorption and water retention; some studies show a 25 to 50 percent reduction in water needs
- A deep rooting system is developed in all plants
Trying to understand this web leads us to some of the more esoteric aspects of biodynamics. To fully understand biodynamic viticulture, one should delve deeply into Rudolf Steiner’s theories. There is so much more to it than the “mystical” aspects that drive critics nuts. Lecture No. 3 deals with the confluence of the physical elements suffused with the spiritual that make life possible. This particular lecture is a tough one to follow – really “out there” for most readers (even for me) — but worth the effort to study and understand.
This particular lecture (from the collection published as The Agriculture Course) piques our interest because he opens with a discussion of the role and importance of nitrogen. Have you given much thought to nitrogen? As of this writing nitrogen is at the forefront of our minds because of our imminent vineyard expansion. This time last year we pulled soil samples and sent them off to a soil scientist in Remington, Virginia, who sent back a report telling us how many tons of limestone to apply, how much nitrogen, zinc and other soil amendments. We don’t fully understand the report or why these substances are needed. We should start with nitrogen, but as a prelude we must have a discussion of the role of sulphur in the cosmos.
The Mystical Power of Sulphur
To fully understand the importance of nitrogen, one must first understand what Steiner called its’ “four sisters”: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and sulphur.* “The four sisters of nitrogen are those that are united with her in plant and animal protein, in a way that is not yet clear to the outer science of to-day.” He states that “To know the full significance of protein it will not suffice us to enumerate as its main ingredients hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon. We must include another substance, of the profoundest importance for protein, and that is sulphur. Sulphur in protein is the very element which acts as mediator between the Spiritual that is spread throughout the Universe — the formative power of the Spiritual — and the physical.”
We have great respect for sulphur because — as a practical matter — it is a powerful and effective fungicide on winegrapes, and approved for organic production. Unlike synthetic fungicides, sulphur never loses its effectiveness. Those unfamiliar with Steiner’s thinking should take note of a news story appearing 22 March 2011 in the London newspaper The Independent, “Volcanoes’ role in origins of life found after 50 years lost in a lab.”
An experiment carried out more than 50 years ago has revealed that volcanoes may have played a crucial role in the formation of the first organic building blocks of life, which led to the first replicating life forms on earth about 4.5 billion years ago.
Laboratory samples left over from a 1958 experiment in an American university have revealed, with the help of modern analytical techniques, that scientists had unwittingly discovered that gasses given off by volcanoes can be used to make the vital sulphur-containing amino acids of proteins. The discovery is further vindication of the pioneering experiments of Stanley Miller, who as a young graduate student demonstrated that a “primordial soup” of water and a few simple gasses such as ammonia and hydrogen can, with the help of electricity discharges to simulate lightning, produce the more complex organic molecules of life.
Dr Miller, who died in 2007, conducted may of his experiments at the University of California, San Diego, and received worldwide recognition of his earliest work in 1953.
But there was one set of experiments carried out five years later with the volcanic gas, hydrogen sulphide, that he seemed to have put to one side without fully realizing what he had found. Jeffrey Bada, a former student of Dr Miller’s who is now a Professor of Marine Chemistry at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, discovered the residue samples from the original 1958 experiment and analysed the contents using highly sensitive chemical techniques that were not available 50 years ago. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that Dr Miller was the first scientist to synthesize important sulphur-containing amino acids in this simulation of the environment of the early Earth. In total, Professor Bada’s team found 23 amino acids and four similar compounds known as amines in Dr Miller’s discarded samples, including seven substances containing sulphur.
During the course of that experiment, the scientists discovered that 15 percent of the carbon compounds had become organic compounds, and 2 percent of the carbon have become amino acids — the building blocks of life itself. This early experiment showed that amino acids, which combine to form proteins, which, in turn, form cellular structures and control reactions in living things. Sulphur-bearing amino acids were discovered in the early 19th century. According to an article appearing online in Wikipedia, in 1806, the French chemists Louis-Nicolas Vauquelin and Pierre Jean Robiquet isolated a compound in asparagus that proved to be asparagine, the first amino acid to be discovered. Another amino acid, cystine, was discovered in 1810, although its monomer, cysteine, was discovered much later in 1884. Glycine and leucine were also discovered in 1820.While Steiner no doubt knew of this pioneering work in isolating amino acids, Dr Miller’s research in the substances involved in the creation of life on Earth suggests that Steiner intuitively knew that sulphur suffused all of life itself.
To understand the whole of what Steiner is trying to communicate, we’ll consider first those building blocks of the universe being bound together by sulphur: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. We start with nitrogen, what Seiner called the “mediator.”
Nitrogen guides the life into the form or configuration which is embodied in the carbon. Wherever nitrogen occurs, its task is to mediate between the life and the spiritual essence which to begin with is in the carbon-nature. Everywhere — in the animal kingdom and in the plant and even in the Earth — the bridge between carbon and oxygen is built by nitrogen. And the spirituality which — once again with the help of sulphur is working thus in nitrogen, is that which we are wont to describe as the astral. It is the astral spirituality in the human astral body. It is the astral spirituality in the Earth’s environment. For as you know, there too the astral is working — in the life of plants and animals, and so on.
Thus, spiritually speaking we have the astral placed between the oxygen and the carbon, and this astral impresses itself upon the physical by making use of nitrogen. Nitrogen enables it to work physically. Wherever nitrogen is, thither the astral extends. The ethereal principle of life would flow away everywhere like a cloud, it would take no account of the carbon-framework were it not for the nitrogen. The nitrogen has an immense power of attraction for the carbon-framework. Wherever the lines are traced and the paths mapped out in the carbon, thither the nitrogen carries the oxygen — thither the astral in the nitrogen drags the ethereal.
Nitrogen is for ever dragging the living to the spiritual principle. Therefore, in man, nitrogen is so essential to the life of the soul. For the soul itself is the mediator between the Spirit and the mere principle of life. Truly, this nitrogen is a most wonderful thing. If we could trace its paths in the human organism, we should perceive in it once more a complete human being. This “nitrogen-man” actually exists. If we could peel him out of the body he would be the finest ghost you could imagine. For the nitrogen-man imitates to perfection whatever is there in the solid human framework, while on the other hand it flows perpetually into the element of life.
Now you can see into the human breathing process. Through it man receives into himself the oxygen — that is, the ethereal life. Then comes the internal nitrogen, and carries the oxygen everywhere — wherever there is carbon, i.e., wherever there is something formed and figured, albeit in everlasting change and movement. Thither the nitrogen carries the oxygen, so that it may fetch the carbon and get rid of it. Nitrogen is the real mediator, for the oxygen to be turned into carbonic acid and so to be breathed out.
As a practical matter, nitrogen is essential for many processes; it is crucial for any life on Earth. It is in all amino acids, it is incorporated into proteins, and it is present in the bases that make up the nucleic acids DNA and RNA. In plants, nitrogen is used in chlorophyll molecules, which are essential for photosynthesis and growth. Although earth’s atmosphere is an abundant source of nitrogen, most is relatively unusable by plants, so they must absorb it through chemical interactions through their roots.Chemical processing, or natural fixation , are necessary to convert gaseous nitrogen into forms usable by living organisms. This makes nitrogen a crucial part of food production.
Steiner then shared his thoughts on plants and their interaction with these same substances:
Here once more you see how we encounter Nature’s most wonderfully intimate workings. Carbon is the true form-creator in all plants; carbon it is that forms the framework or scaffolding. But in the course of earthly evolution this was made difficult for carbon. It could indeed form the plants if it only had water beneath it. Then it would be equal to the task. But now the limestone is there beneath it, and the limestone disturbs it. Therefore it allies itself to silica. Silica and carbon together — in union with clay, once more create the forms. They do so in alliance because the resistance, of the limestone-nature must be overcome.
How then does the plant itself live in the midst of this process? Down there below, the limestone-principle tries to get hold of it with tentacles and clutches, while up above the silica would tend to make it very fine, slender and fibrous — like the aquatic plants. But in the midst — giving rise to our actual plant forms — there is the carbon, which orders all these things. And as our astral body brings about an inner order between our Ego and our ether body, so does the nitrogen work in between, as the astral.
All this we must learn to understand. We must perceive how the nitrogen is there at work, in between the lime — the clay — and the silicious — natures —in between all that the limestone of itself would constantly drag downward, and the silica of itself would constantly ray upward. Here then the question arises, what is the proper way to bring the nitrogen-nature into the world of plants? We shall deal with this question tomorrow, and so find our way to the various forms of manuring.
We like to keep these posts short because we don’t want to bore you, so we’ll return to this topic another time sometime soon.
*Note: We prefer the British spelling “sulphur” to the American “sulfer”, which harks back to the original Latin name for this essential element, although the “f” spelling is the standard spelling when discussed in chemistry.