But, beside all this, there is a question, which ought to be a curious one to you (for I suspect you cannot answer it)—Why does the farmer take the trouble to send his cart and horses eight miles and more, to draw in chalk from Odiham chalk-pit?
Oh, he is going to put it on the land, of course. They are chalking the bit at the top of the next field, where the copse was grubbed.
But what good will he do by putting chalk on it? Chalk is not rich and fertile, like manure, it is altogether poor, barren stuff: you know that, or ought to know it. Recollect the chalk cuttings and banks on the railway between Basingstoke and Winchester—how utterly barren they are. Though they have been open these thirty years, not a blade of grass, hardly a bit of moss, has grown on them, or will grow, perhaps, for centuries.
Come, let us find out something about the chalk before we talk about the caves. The chalk is here, and the caves are not; and “Learn from the thing that lies nearest you” is as good a rule as “Do the duty which lies nearest you.” Let us come into the grubbed bit, and ask the farmer—there he is in his gig.
Well, old friend, and how are you? Here is a little boy who wants to know why you are putting chalk on your field.
Does he then? If he ever tries to farm round here, he will have to learn for his first rule—No chalk, no wheat.
Why, is more than I can tell, young squire. But if you want to see how it comes about, look here at this freshly-grubbed land—how sour it is. You can see that by the colour of it—some black, some red, some green, some yellow, all full of sour iron, which will let nothing grow. After the chalk has been on it a year or two, those colours will have all gone out of it; and it will turn to a nice wholesome brown, like the rest of the field; and then you will know that the land is sweet, and fit for any crop. Now do you mind what I tell you, and then I’ll tell you something more. We put on the chalk because, beside sweetening the land, it will hold water. You see, the land about here, though it is often very wet from springs, is sandy and hungry; and when we drain the bottom water out of it, the top water (that is, the rain) is apt to run through it too fast: and then it dries and burns up; and we get no plant of wheat, nor of turnips either. So we put on chalk to hold water, and keep the ground moist.