Familiar Letters on Chemistry eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 103 pages of information about Familiar Letters on Chemistry.

I have now, I trust, explained to your satisfaction, that the mechanical operations of agriculture—­the application of lime and chalk to lands, and the burning of clay—­depend upon one and the same scientific principle:  they are means of accelerating the decomposition of the alkaline clay silicates, in order to provide plants, at the beginning of a new vegetation, with certain inorganic matters indispensable for their nutrition.

LETTER XIV

My dear Sir,

I treated, in my last letter, of the means of improving the condition of the soil for agricultural purposes by mechanical operations and mineral agents.  I have now to speak of the uses and effects of animal exuviae, and vegetable matters or manures—­properly so called.

In order to understand the nature of these, and the peculiarity of their influence upon our fields, it is highly important to keep in mind the source whence they are derived.

It is generally known, that if we deprive an animal of food, the weight of its body diminishes during every moment of its existence.  If this abstinence is continued for some time, the diminution becomes apparent to the eye; all the fat of the body disappears, the muscles decrease in firmness and bulk, and, if the animal is allowed to die starved, scarcely anything but skin, tendon, and bones, remain.  This emaciation which occurs in a body otherwise healthy, demonstrates to us, that during the life of an animal every part of its living substance is undergoing a perpetual change; all its component parts, assuming the form of lifeless compounds, are thrown off by the skin, lungs, and urinary system, altered more or less by the secretory organs.  This change in the living body is intimately connected with the process of respiration; it is, in truth, occasioned by the oxygen of the atmosphere in breathing, which combines with all the various matters within the body.  At every inspiration a quantity of oxygen passes into the blood in the lungs, and unites with its elements; but although the weight of the oxygen thus daily entering into the body amounts to 32 or more ounces, yet the weight of the body is not thereby increased.  Exactly as much oxygen as is imbibed in inspiration passes off in expiration, in the form of carbonic acid and water; so that with every breath the amount of carbon and hydrogen in the body is diminished.  But the emaciation—­the loss of weight by starvation—­does not simply depend upon the separation of the carbon and hydrogen; but all the other substances which are in combination with these elements in the living tissues pass off in the secretions.  The nitrogen undergoes a change, and is thrown out of the system by the kidneys.  Their secretion, the urine, contains not only a compound rich in nitrogen, namely urea, but the sulphur of the tissues in the form of a sulphate, all the soluble salts of the blood and animal fluids, common salt, the phosphates, soda and potash.  The carbon and hydrogen of the blood, of the muscular fibre, and of all the animal tissues which can undergo change, return into the atmosphere.  The nitrogen, and all the soluble inorganic elements are carried to the earth in the urine.

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