Biodynamic Agriculture course

by Rudolf Steiner

Lecture Nr. 7

Koberwitz, June 15, 1924

Translator unknown – edited here

I propose to devote the time that remains at our disposal to the consideration of the rearing of livestock and the cultivation of fruit and vegetables.

Naturally there will not be time to treat the subject at very great length, but in order to obtain a fruitful starting point, we must gain insight into all the factors which come into consideration. We shall do this today, and tomorrow we shall pass on to the more practical aspect of the subject.

I shall ask you today to join me in the consideration of rather more recondite matters, to follow me into what is nowadays an almost unknown territory, although the instinctive husbandry of the past was thoroughly conversant with it. The beings in Nature — minerals, plants, animals — we will disregard man for the moment — are often regarded as though they existed in completely separate realms. It is customary today to look at a plant as though it existed by and for itself and, similarly, one species of plant is also regarded as being isolated from other species. So these things are neatly sorted and fitted into genera and species, as though they were being put into boxes. But things are not like this in Nature. In Nature — nay, in the world — all things are in mutual interaction. One thing is always being affected by another. In these materialistic days only the more palpable effects of this interaction are noticed, such as when one thing is eaten or digested by another, or when the dung of animals is used for the soil. In addition to these, however, finer interactions amongst more delicate forces and substances are continually taking place: through warmth, through the chemical-etheric element which is continually at work in the atmosphere, and through the life-ether. Unless we take account of these more delicate interactions, we shall make no progress, at any rate in certain aspects of agriculture. In particular we must look to those more intimate interactions which take place in Nature when we have to deal with plants and animals together on the farm. We must look with understanding not only upon those animals which undoubtedly stand close to us, such as cattle, horses, sheep, etc., but also, for example, upon the manifold insect world, which during a certain period of the year hovers around the plants. Indeed we must learn to look with understanding at birds too. Humanity today is very far from realising how much farming and forestry are affected by the expulsion from certain districts of certain kinds of birds as a result of modern conditions. Here again light can be thrown on the subject by Spiritual Science. Let us therefore extend some of these ideas which have been working upon us and come by their help to a yet wider vision.

A fruit tree — apple, pear or plum — is something completely different from a herbaceous or cereal plant as is any other kind of tree. But, putting aside any preconceived notions, we must find out wherein the peculiarity of the tree lies. Otherwise we shall never understand the function fulfilled by fruits in the economy of Nature. I am speaking, of course, of the fruit that grows on trees. If we look at a tree with understanding we shall find that the only parts of it which can really be reckoned as plant are the tender twigs, the green leaves and their stalks, and the blossoms, the fruits. These grow out of the tree just as herbaceous plants grow out of the soil, the tree being in fact the “earth” in relation to the parts that grow out of it. It is as though the soil were heaped up — but a somewhat more quickened soil than the ordinary soil in which our herbaceous and cereal plants grow.

If, therefore, we want to understand the nature of a tree, we must observe that it consists of the thick trunk, to which are attached the branches and boughs. On this ground the specifically plant-like parts grow, that is, leaves and blossoms, which are as much rooted in the trunk and branches as cereal and herbaceous plants are rooted in the earth. The question therefore arises: Is this plant-like part, which may be regarded as more or less parasitical, really rooted in the tree?

We cannot discover any roots on the trees. We conclude, therefore, that this plant, which develops its leaves and blossoms and twigs up aloft, must have lost its roots in growing on the tree. But no plant is complete without its root. It must have a root. Where, then, does the actual root of this plant reside?

The root is only invisible for our limited outer vision. In this case one does not see it, but has to understand where it is. What do we mean by this? The following concrete comparison may help. Suppose I planted a large number of herbaceous plants so closely together that their roots were intertwined and grew into each other, forming a completely matted mass or pap of roots. You can well imagine that this pap does not remain chaotic, but that it organises itself into a unity so that the sap-bearing vessels unite with each other. In this organised root-pap, it would not be possible to distinguish where one root ended and the other began, and a common root-organ would arise. The plants that grow on the tree have lost their root, have become relatively separated from it and are only, as it were, etherically connected with it. What I have drawn hypothetically is really the layer of cambium (a layer of living cells lying between the last-formed wood and the outer bark) in the tree and we cannot regard the roots of these plants otherwise than as having been replaced by the cambium. From this tissue, which is always forming new cells, these plants unfold just as from the root below a herbaceous plant unfolds above the soil. We can now begin to understand what the tree really is. The tree with its cambium, which is the only cell-producing layer in the tree, is actually heaped-up earth, which has grown upwards into the air and therefore requires a more interior form of life than is present in the ordinary soil which contains the root. Thus we must regard the tree as a very curious entity, whose function it is to separate the plants growing on it twigs, blossoms, fruit, from their roots; an entity which places between them and their roots a distance which is bridged only by spirit — or more strictly by the etheric. We need to look in this way, with a macro-cosmic understanding, into the facts of growth.

But the matter goes much farther. What results arise from the existence of a tree? That which is around the tree in the air and outer warmth is of a different plant-nature from what grows up from the soil in the air and warmth and forms the herbaceous plant. It is a plant-world of a different order, possessing a far more intimate relation with the surrounding astral element. Lower down that element is eliminated from the air and warmth in order to make them mineral-like, so that they can be used by man and animals.

It is true, as I have said, that the plant we see growing upon the ground is surrounded, as with a cloud, by the astral element. But around the tree the astral element is far denser. So much so, that we may say that our trees are collectors of astral substance.

Here one might say that it is quite easy to reach a higher development and become esoteric — I do not mean clairvoyant but clair-sentient in respect of the sense of smell. One has only to acquire the capacity for distinguishing between the scent of plants growing in the ground, the peculiar smell of orchards, especially in the spring when they are in flower, and the aroma of forests. Then one is able to tell the difference between a plant atmosphere poor in astral elements, such as that of herbaceous plants growing in the soil, and an atmosphere such as we sniff with such pleasure when the scent of trees is wafted in our direction. And if you train your sense of smell to distinguish between the scent of soil-grown (herbaceous) plants and the scent of trees, you will have developed “clear-smelling” for the thinner and for the denser forms of the astral element. The countryman, as you see, can very easily acquire this “clear-smelling” though this faculty, common in the old days of instinctive clairvoyance, has been much neglected in recent times.

If, now, we realise the consequences to which this may lead, the question will arise: What is happening in that part of the tree which may be regarded as the opposite pole from the parasitical plants on the tree which collect this astral element. What is happening through the cambium? The tree makes the atmosphere far and wide around it richer in the astral element. What happens while the parasite growth goes on above in the tree? The tree here has a certain inner vitality, a powerful etheric life in it. The cambium tones down this vitality, making it more mineral in nature. While about the upper part of the tree an enrichment of the astral substance is going on, the cambium causes an impoverishment of the etheric life in the tree. The tree within is deprived of etheric life as compared with the herbaceous plant. In consequence, this produces a change in the root. The root of the tree becomes more mineral, far more mineral than the roots of the herbaceous plants. But by becoming more mineral, the tree-root withdraws some of the etheric life from the soil; it makes the soil around the tree slightly more dead than it would be around a herbaceous plant. This must be fully borne in mind, for these natural processes always have a great significance in the economy of Nature. We must therefore seek to understand the significance of the astral wealth in the atmosphere around the tree and of the etheric poverty in the region of the roots.

If we look around us, we can find a further connection. It is the fully developed insect which lives and weaves in this enriched astral element that wafts through the trees; whereas the impoverished etheric element below, spreading in the soil and throughout the whole tree, is that which harbours the larvae or grubs. Thus if there were no trees on the earth there would be no insects. The insects that flutter around the upper parts of the trees and through the forests depend for their life upon the presence of the trees; and exactly the same thing is true of the grubs.

Here we have yet another indication of the inner connection between all roots and animal life beneath the soil. This is especially evident in the case of the trees. But this same principle, which is so striking in the case of the trees, is present in a modified form throughout the whole of the vegetable world, for in every plant there lives something that tends to become a tree. In every plant the root, and what is around it, tend to shed the etheric life, whereas the upper growth strives to attract the astral element more closely to itself. For this reason there arises in every plant that kinship with the insect world which I have characterised in the case of the tree.

This relation to the insect world in fact extends so as to comprise the whole of the animal world. In former times insect grubs, which can only live upon the earth because of the presence of tree roots, transformed themselves into other kinds of animals, similar to larvae, and remaining at the larva stage throughout their lives. These animals then emancipated themselves to a certain extent from the tree-root nature and adopted a life which extends also to the root region of herbaceous plants. And now we find the curious fact that certain of these sub-terrestrial animals, though far removed from being larvae, yet have the ability to regulate the amount of etheric life in the soil if this amount becomes excessive. When the soil becomes too much alive and the sprouting etheric life too strong, these animals of the soil see to it that this excess is reduced. They are thus wonderful vents which regulate the vitality in the soil.

These lovely creatures, for they are of the greatest value to the earth, are no other than the common earthworms. One ought to study the life of earthworms in relation to the soil, for these wonderful animals allow just that amount of etheric life to remain in the soil as is needed for the growth of plants. Thus in the soil we have these creatures, earthworms and their like, distantly resembling larvae. One ought in fact to see to it that certain soils which require it are supplied with a healthy stock of worms. We should soon see how beneficial such control over this animal-world in the soil can be, not only for vegetation but also for the rest of the animal kingdom, as we shall show later.

Now there are certain animals which bear a distant resemblance to the insect world, to that part of it which is fully developed and winged; I mean the birds. It is well known that in the course of the development of the earth something very wonderful took place between the birds and the insects. It is as though, to put it figuratively, the insects had one day said: We do not feel strong enough to work-up the astrality sparkling around the trees, we shall therefore use the desire-to-be-a-tree of other plants. We shall flutter around these, and leave largely to you birds the astral life that surrounds the trees. Thus there arose in Nature a proper division of labour between the birds and the butterflies; and this co-operation in the winged world brought about in a wonderful manner the right distribution of astral life wherever it was required on the surface of the earth. If these winged creatures are removed, the astral life will fail to accomplish its proper function, and this will be noticeable in the stunted condition of the vegetation. The two things are connected; the world of winged animals and all that grows out of the soil into the air. The one is unthinkable without the other. In farming, therefore, we must see to it that birds and insects fly about as they were meant to do; and the farmer should know something about the breeding and rearing of birds and insects. For in Nature — I must repeat this again and again — everything, everything is connected.

These considerations are of the utmost importance for a right understanding of the questions before us and we must therefore hold them very clearly in our minds. The winged world of insects brings about the proper distribution of astrality in the air. The astrality in the air has a mutual relationship with the forest which directs it in the proper way, much as in the human body the blood is directed by certain forces. And this activity of the forest, which is effective over a very wide area, will have to be undertaken by something quite different in a district where there is no forest. Indeed, in districts where woods alternate with arable land and meadows, what grows in the soil comes under quite different laws from those which rule in completely treeless districts.

There are certain parts of the earth which were obviously wooded areas long before man took a hand. In certain matters, Nature is cleverer than we are, and it may be safely assumed that if a forest grows naturally in a certain district it will have its uses for the neighbouring fields and for the herbaceous and cereal vegetation round about. In such districts one ought therefore to have the intelligence not to uproot the woods but to cultivate them. And as the earth is gradually changing through climatic and cosmic influences of all kinds, one should have the courage, when the vegetation becomes poor, not merely to indulge in all sorts of experiments in the fields and for the fields, but to increase the area of woods in the neighbourhood. And when plants run to leaf, lacking the power to produce seed, one should take bits out of the neighbouring woods. The regulation of woods in districts which Nature intended to be wooded is an integral part of agriculture, and must be examined with all Its consequences from a spiritual point of view.

Again, the world of grubs and worms may be said to stand in a mutual relationship to the lime, i.e. to the mineral part of the earth, while the birds and insects, all that flies and flutters about, has a similar relationship to the astral element. The relation between the worm and grub world and lime brings about the drawing off of the etheric element, as I explained a few days ago from a different point of view. This is the function of lime, but it performs this function in cooperation with the worms and grubs.

If these ideas are carried out in more detail they will lead to other things which were applied, in the days of instinctive clairvoyance, in the right way. But this instinct has been lost, rooted out by intellectuality, as have been all such instincts. Materialism is to blame for men's having become so clever and intellectual. In the days when they were not intellectual, they were not so clever, but they were far wiser through their feelings as to how to go about things; and we must learn to act with wisdom once again through Anthroposophy, but this time the wisdom will be conscious. For Anthroposophy is by no means something clever and intellectual — it strives for wisdom. We must try to approach wisdom in all things and not be content merely to learn by rote an abstract jumble of words, such as “Man consists of a physical body, etc.” The main point is that we should introduce this knowledge into everything, then one finds the way to discriminate — especially if one really becomes clairvoyant in the sense that I have explained to you — and to see things in Nature as they really are. We shall discover, for example, that birds can become harmful if they are not in the neighbourhood of a wood of conifers which can turn what they do into something useful.

Our vision is then further sharpened and we begin to discern the presence of yet another relationship. It is a very delicate relationship, similar to those I have been dealing with, but which can appear in a more tangible form. All growing things that are neither trees nor small plants, i.e. all shrubs such as the hazel bush have an intimate relationship with mammals. If, therefore, we wish to improve the mammals on our farm, we shall do well to plant such bush-like growths. The mere presence of the bushes has a beneficent influence, for in Nature all things stand in constant reciprocal relationship.

But let us go a step further. Animals are not so foolish as human beings. They very soon notice the presence of this relationship. They find that they like these shrubs; this liking is inborn in them, and they enjoy eating them. They begin to eat what they need of the shrubs, and this has a wonderfully regulating effect upon the rest of their diet. But this insight into the intimate relations in Nature will also throw light upon the nature of harmful influences. Just as conifer woods stand in intimate relationship to birds and shrubs to mammals, so do all kinds of fungi stand in a similarly intimate relation to the lower animals, to bacteria and the like, as well as to parasites. Harmful parasites are closely connected with fungi. They develop where fungus-life is dispersed. In this way there arise plant diseases and other greater ills in plants. If, however, we can contrive to have not only woods, but also well watered meadows suitably situated in the neighbourhood of cultivated lands, these will be useful in forming a good breeding ground for fungi. One should see to it that the moist meadows are well-planted with such growths. We then make the following remarkable discovery, that if a meadow, not necessarily very large, but rich in fungi (e.g. mushrooms) is situated near cultivated land then the fungi, because of their kinship with bacteria and other parasites, will keep these creatures away from the farming land. For mushrooms hang out together with these little creatures more than do other plants. Thus in addition to the other methods I have advocated for combating plant pests, there is also the possibility of keeping these tiny creatures, these vermin, away from cultivated land by converting land in its vicinity into meadows.

It is so important for success in agriculture that the right amount of acreage should be assigned respectively to woods, orchards, shrubberies and meadows with a natural growth of fungi, that one often gets better results, even if one reduces the extent of tilled land accordingly. Generally speaking, to cultivate the whole of the acreage at one's disposal, leaving no room for the other factors of which I have spoken, and to count in consequence upon larger crops, is certainly no real economy. The extension of the tilled area is counterbalanced by a lowering in the quality of the produce, because the increase in the cultivated area is made at the cost of the other factors. One cannot be engaged in a thing like farming where Nature is the manager, without realising the inter-connections and interactions which exist between all her processes.

Now let us look at something which will make clear to us the relation of plant to animal and, conversely, of animal to plant. What is an animal in reality, and what is the plant-world? (In the case of plants, it is better to speak of the whole of the plant-world.) We must look for the relationship between the two because only by this means can we come to understand the feeding of animals. For feeding is only properly done if it is done in accordance with the true relationship between plant and animal. What are animals? We examine them, we even dissect them, study their muscles and nerves and admire the forms of their skeleton. But this does not tell us what an animal is in the whole economy of Nature. We shall only get at this if we grasp what it is with which the animal is most intimately connected in its environment.

With its system of nerves and senses and with part of its breathing system, the animal absorbs all that which comes through the air and warmth. The animal does this to the extent that it is a separate being. With regard to everything lying in its periphery, the animal lives with its nerves and sense system and part of its breathing system immediately in air and warmth. The animal has an immediate connection with air and warmth, its bony system being actually formed from the warmth which in particular mediates the influences of the sun and the moon. Its muscular system is formed from the air, which again works as a mediator of the forces of sun and moon. But as regards its relation to earth and water, the animal is not able directly to assimilate. It must first absorb them into its digestive tract and them work on them with what it has itself become through air and warmth; it works upon earth and water with its metabolic system and with a part of its breathing system, which passes over into the metabolic system. The animal must therefore have already come into existence by virtue of air and warmth if it is to be able to absorb earth and water. This, therefore, is the animal's way of living in the sphere of earth and water. The process of transformation which I have described takes place, of course, by means of forces (dynamically) rather than by means of substances (materially).

Let us now try to answer the question: What is a plant?

The plant stands in an immediate relation to earth and water just as the animal does to air and warmth. The plant, therefore, through a kind of breathing and through something very distantly resembling a sense system, absorbs earth and water in the same direct manner as the animal absorbs air and warmth. Thus the plant and earth and water live directly together. And now you will say: If the plant lives in immediate contact with earth and water as the animal does with air and warmth, then no doubt the plant absorbs air and warmth inside itself just as the animal absorbs earth and water. But that is not the case. We cannot reach spiritual truths merely by analogy. The fact is that whereas the animal absorbs earth and water into itself, the plant actually emits the air and warmth which it experiences dimly through its connection with the soil.

Thus air and warmth do not go into the plant, or at any rate do not enter deeply into it; instead of being devoured by the plant, air and warmth are emitted by it. And this process of elimination is the important thing. Organically the plant stands in inverse relation to the animal. That which in the animal is important as a process of nutrition becomes in the plant an elimination of air and warmth, and just as we can say that the animal lives by absorbing food, in the same sense does the plant live by eliminating air and warmth. And in virtue of that quality it may be said that the plant is virginal. Its character is not to absorb greedily, but actually to emit that which the animal takes from the world in order to live. Thus the plant lives by giving.

In this giving and taking, we can recognise something which played a very important part in the old instinctive knowledge of these matters. In Nature's economy, the plant gives and the animal takes. What is contained in this saying garnered from Anthroposophy was once common property in times of instinctive clairvoyance into Nature. Even in later days, much of this knowledge has remained among those gifted with sensitivity in these matters; and in the works of Goethe you will sometimes come across the phrase: “In Nature everything lives through giving and taking.” Goethe did not fully understand the phrase, but he adopted it from ancient customs and traditions and he felt that it pointed to something in Nature which was true. Those who came after him understood nothing of this, and so did not understand what he meant when he spoke of taking and giving. Goethe also speaks of taking and giving in connection with breathing, insofar as breathing interacts with metabolism.

To sum up, I have shown you that the woods, orchards and shrubberies on the earth act as regulators in producing the right kind of plant growth, and that under the soil grubs and other worm-like creatures act similarly in conjunction with lime. This is how we should envisage the relationship between the cultivation of fields, of fruit and of cattle, and then proceed to put our knowledge into practice. We shall endeavour to do this in the last hour that remains at our disposal, so that our Experimental Circle may work out these things more fully in the future.

Continued in the next issue of SCR