The "new books" section at the London Library throw up many weird, wonderful and exciting possibilities. Not many readers might have picked up Manure Matters: Historical, Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives, but since it combines my interest in soils and history, how could I resist?
And I found parts of this collection of academic essays by different authors absolutely fascinating - and even a reader without my special interest would, I think, also do so.
Even the introduction, with its brief skip through the 20th-century organics movement, told me things I didn't know, particularly the debt that this Western knowledge owes to the East. It identified a key text, published in 1911, Farmers of Forty Centuries, by Franklin King, who had made a research trip to China, Japan and Korea. "Critically, King was able to demonstrate that organic manures in the East enabled more to be grown per hectar.. than contemporary methods used in the West which were becoming ever more reliant on artificials [fertilisers]". And India also contributed through the work of Sir Albert Howard, who eventually established the Institute of Plant Industry in Indore, where he established a manuring method, the Indore Process, that involves mixing vegetable and animal waste with chalk, limestone, wood ash, earth or claked lime, to neutralise the acidity produced by fermentation. His An Agricultural Testament (1940) informed Soil Association work.
But mostly, we're going an awful lot further back in history - or more correctly prehistory. "Middening and manuring in Neolithic Europe" sets out much of the ground - the fact that stall manure is rarely spread more than 500 metres from its source, even with animal transport available, greatly raising the value of land in immediate proximity of human/animal housing. And that manuring is a slow investment - only 5-25% of the nutrients being usually available in the year after its spreading - which immediately raises questions of land tenure and inheritance. There's a tension if new households are added - if they are to be in close proximity to existing ones, then this land will be encroached. This may explain areas such as central and northern Europe where dispersed settlements tend to be the norm.