My dear Sir,
You are now acquainted with my opinions respecting the effects of the application of mineral agents to our cultivated fields, and also the rationale of the influence of the various kinds of manures; you will, therefore, now readily understand what I have to say of the sources whence the carbon and nitrogen, indispensable to the growth of plants, are derived.
The growth of forests, and the produce of meadows, demonstrate that an inexhaustible quantity of carbon is furnished for vegetation by the carbonic acid of the atmosphere.
We obtain from an equal surface of forest, or meadow-land, where the necessary mineral elements of the soil are present in a suitable state, and to which no carbonaceous matter whatever is furnished in manures, an amount of carbon, in the shape of wood and hay, quite equal, and oftimes more than is produced by our fields, in grain, roots, and straw, upon which abundance of manure has been heaped.
It is perfectly obvious that the atmosphere must furnish to our cultivated fields as much carbonic acid, as it does to an equal surface of forest or meadow, and that the carbon of this carbonic acid is assimilated, or may be assimilated by the plants growing there, provided the conditions essential to its assimilation, and becoming a constituent element of vegetables, exist in the soil of these fields.
In many tropical countries the produce of the land in grain or roots, during the whole year, depends upon one rain in the spring. If this rain is deficient in quantity, or altogether wanting, the expectation of an abundant harvest is diminished or destroyed.
Now it cannot be the water merely which produces this enlivening and fertilising effect observed, and which lasts for weeks and months. The plant receives, by means of this water, at the time of its first development, the alkalies, alkaline earths, and phosphates, necessary to its organization. If these elements, which are necessary previous to its assimilation of atmospheric nourishment, be absent, its growth is retarded. In fact, the development of a plant is in a direct ratio to the amount of the matters it takes up from the soil. If, therefore, a soil is deficient in these mineral constituents required by plants, they will not flourish even with an abundant supply of water.
The produce of carbon on a meadow, or an equal surface of forest land, is independent of a supply of carbonaceous manure, but it depends upon the presence of certain elements of the soil which in themselves contain no carbon, together with the existence of conditions under which their assimilation by plants can be effected. We increase the produce of our cultivated fields, in carbon, by a supply of lime, ashes, and marl, substances which cannot furnish carbon to the plants, and yet it is indisputable,—being founded upon abundant experience,—that in these substances we furnish to the fields elements which greatly increase the bulk of their produce, and consequently the amount of carbon.