Oxygen the Activator
by Hugh Lovel
In agriculture we’re in trouble when the soil doesn’t get enough oxygen. Even with crops like rice oxygen must diffuse into the water and the soil even while the field is soaked. However, oxygen deficiency usually goes unrecognized. What are its signs? How can we look at oxygen’s functions and learn to spot its deficiency? What plants best exemplify the role of oxygen? Why does the soil need oxygen and how does it get it? How do we know when the soil is properly oxygenated?
To understand the role of oxygen let’s go back to the processes of life itself where oxygen is the carrier of life force. Oxygen internalizes dynamic order and organization just as carbon internalizes form and nitrogen internalizes awareness. Rudolf Steiner pointed out that lime, the oxide of calcium rather than calcium itself, was the preeminent influence in the soil, and that silica, the oxide of silicon, was the preeminent influence in the atmosphere. Furthermore it is clay, the oxide of aluminium allied with silica, that provides the give and take between the lime and silica polarities.
Of course, loose talk about calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, boron, etc. will continue since it serves as shorthand when talking about the influences of these elements. But the truth is none of these occur in pure form in living organisms. Rather they invariably are allied one way or another with oxygen.
Oxygen was discovered more or less independently at the same time by Karl Scheele (1742-1786) in Sweden and Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) in England, with Priestly isolating oxygen in 1774. However it was Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) who named it oxy, from the Greek meaning acid, and gen as source of, as he found oxygen was the basis of virtually all acids except the halogens, or salt makers. The halogens—fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine—all form strong acids without assistance from oxygen, though they also form acids with oxygen.
Hydrogen, the water maker, joins with oxygen, the acid maker, to form water, the universal solvent. Hydrogen thus becomes active chemically by uniting with oxygen, making it the basis of pH* which is fundamental to chemistry. With water we see oxygen, the maker of acids, balanced by hydrogen, which is the fundamental alkali.
Always chemists treat reactions as simultaneously proceeding both forward and backward until they reach an equilibrium, no matter if the reaction barely proceeds at all or if it proceeds to virtual completion. Thus chemical reactions are talked about in terms of oxidation/reduction, and a useful measure of a soil’s chemical responsiveness is its oxidation/reduction potential (ORP).
Chemical reagents (pronounced re-agents) are any substances that take part in chemical reactions. Reagents may be used in detecting, examining or measuring other substances or in preparing materials. Any reagent that shifts the equilibrium of reaction toward oxygen and away from hydrogen is called an oxidizing agent. Any reagent that shifts the equilibrium toward hydrogen and away from oxygen is called a reducing agent.
Early Soil Analysis
At first analytical chemists concerned with agriculture assayed the chemical components of plants, summing up their mineral contents. They then tested soils for these elements. Because plants generally release fine quantities of mild, organic acids at their roots chemists used dilute mild acids such as citric or acetic acid to test soils to see how much of each nutrient could be released. These tests were taken as measures of how much of various nutrients were available over the growing season. It was assumed that the entire amount of each nutrient required by the plant to reach harvest would have to be present at the time of planting or would have to be added during the growing season. This tragically flawed assumption took no notice of the use of oxygen by the soil micro-life to release nutrients over the growing season, and is still taught in many prestigious agricultural schools. The belief is that plants can only absorb water soluble nutrients, makes no allowance for plants absorbing complex protoplasmic or colloidal nutrients. Even stranger, little allowance is made for soil losses by leaching or volatilization, and in most cases the tie-up of nutrients in insoluble reserves completely ignores microbial activities.*
Early on another peculiar belief took root, namely that the only acceptable way of establishing the necessity for a given nutrient in the soil was to exclude it from the plant environment and see if the plant could or could not grow without it. Since both silicon and oxygen were virtually impossible to exclude from plant environments they were not considered essential elements—even though all plants contain considerable quantities of both. Oxygen is the most abundant element in the earth’s crust and silicon is close behind. In fact, silica, which is SiO2, is estimated to make up 52% of the earth’s crust, and is also present as fine dust in the atmosphere. Both oxygen and silicon were impossible to exclude from plant environments. The absurdity of believing these two elements were not essential was most apparent with oxygen since it combines with all the minerals in the earth’s crust and is eight ninths of water by weight. Plants give off oxygen when they photosynthesize, so plants can never be deficient in oxygen. And yet, according to this belief both oxygen and silicon can be ignored as if neither have anything to do with plant vigor.
Oxygen and Tilth
Since the dawn of history farmers have used cultivation as a means of increasing the oxygenation of their soils. In modern times with tractor power degrading soil structure one must wonder how we can expect to maintain oxygen levels in soils. How does nature achieve soil oxygenation?
All soils with a history of abundant oxygenation, whether or not they are cultivated, enjoy rich soil structure, otherwise known as tilth. Mostly this boils down to the ratio of space between soil particles and the total volume, or the ‘interstice to volume ratio’ of the soil. In sands and gravels this is a simple matter of porosity due to large particle size, although the nutrient holding capacity known as the cation exchange capacity (CEC) will be low. In heavy clay soils the CEC can be quite high, but because clay particle size is so small porosity suffers if the particles pack tightly together. In fact, clay particles are often referred to as platelets because they are flat and thus they can stack more tightly with less air space than if they combine with organic compounds that make them more rounded. This means that many soils with high nutrient holding and releasing capacity have low tilth.
Tilth depends on soil organic matter, a rich and diverse soil foodweb and soil aggregation. Whether we are dealing with sand or clay soils, good tilth involves carbon that is available to micro-organisms and higher lifeforms as well as sufficient oxygen to make use of it. Soil microbes—including protozoa and higher soil animals—open up the soil and create a food web of soil islands or aggregates connected by an intricate maze of pathways between them. This turns a pottery grade clay into a crumbly sponge cake, or on the other hand holds sand and gravel soils together and improves their retention and release of nutrients.
In most cases the primary microbial players are archaea, fungi, bacteria, actinomycetes and protozoa. It also helps to have legumes—which bring oxygen down to their root tips and supply this all important nutrient to the soil food web. In wetland clays or mucks, as with rice culture, algae and aquatic plants like azolla take over from fungi and legumes as the primary suppliers of mineral complexes and the all-important oxygen.
The Role of Legumes
If we honestly wanted to understand the healthy natural processes that produce and maintain fertile soils we would not start with degraded soils and see what happens when we pump them up with bits of soluble nutrients. Instead we would study what goes on in undisturbed fertile soils such as tropical rain forests and native prairies or steppes. In both cases we find that soil fungi and actinomycetes, with their large requirement for oxygen, are the chief means of activating minerals and incorporating them into the soil’s biology. One of the first things to stand out if we do is the fact that fertility does not depend so much on solubility. Rather, it depends on activity, which means oxygen.
Most plants and bacteria release mild acids such as carbonic, acetic, lactic and citric, but legumes and fungi eat into the soil with powerful organic acids. This works on the lime organization of the soil, activating calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, phosphorous, sulphur and trace elements.
Arguably the most fundamental biodynamic preparation is the horn manure or “500” remedy, which triggers the patterns for healthy soil development. These are the patterns that bring oxygen into the soil and wake up its lime activity. And, as quantum mechanics teaches us, patterns give rise to activity—if the pattern is present the phenomenon arises. Soil that is treated with BD 500 typically loosens up and oxidizes. In the process it comes alive with myriad bacteria and fungi that expand it and bring in air.
Compact soils are starved for oxygen, and legumes are a powerful means remediate this lack. Rudolf Steiner called legumes “the lungs of the soil.” Some suppose that must be because they draw nitrogen into the soil. But actually they release oxygen rich acids along their roots, releasing calcium and other minerals and uniting them carbohydrates and proteins, making them biological. Actually legumes do not fix nitrogen. Rather, they provide the mineral support for the microbes that do, and their follow on nitrogen effect is a result of the biological mineral reserves they build. Their primary function is to diffuse oxygen into the soil in order to wrest the lime complex away from the mineral realm. The Rhizobia that form nodules on legume roots use this biological lime for nitrogen fixation.
As an inert gas in the atmosphere nitrogen triple bonds with itself as one of the more intense chemical bonds in nature. Microorganisms with the molybdenum enzyme, nitrogenase, only teases open the first of nitrogen’s bonds and inserts carbon linked calcium into the breach. The remaining two nitrogen bonds open up like zippers at a drive-in movie, and nitrogen is seduced away from its love affair with itself.
In the mineral realm things disperse from higher concentration to lower concentration. But in the living realm life force flows from lower concentration to higher concentration. If this was not true there would be no living organisms. They would all run down, and as their energies dissipated they would die. But, as we know, living organisms have the remarkable ability to concentrate a stream of order on themselves.
To be sure, this is cyclic. Living organisms unfold or progress through conception, birth, childhood, adolescence, maturity, old age, senescence and death. Life is all about cyclic organization.
The Octave Rule
Also there is something known as the octave rule. Awareness of this in western culture goes back as least to Pythagoras. Eight is the number of cyclic return and going to the next level. There are seven notes in the musical scale with the octave being the return. There are seven colours in the visible spectrum with the eighth returning to the next level. There are seven elements in the first (chemical) row of the periodic table with the eighth being neon, an inert gas.
When we deal with the periodic table of the elements, it has eight primary groups or columes. The fundamental character of each group is revealed in its first representative, which has only one layer of electrons enshrouding its nucleus. Oxygen is at the top of the sixth column although it is the eighth element in the periodic table. Its most common isotope, oxygen16, has eight protons, eight neutrons and eight electrons. Thus oxygen is the dynamic recycler, the cleanser and returner. Where plants build up carbohydrate stores via photosynthesis, oxygen breaks these free of their rigidity and frees their components as carbon dioxide and water.
Since it is in the first (chemical) row of the periodic table oxygen is a universal element of great power and abundance. Oxygen’s sibling in the next (physical) row of the periodic table is sulfur. Sulfur is the catalyst in carbon chemistry, and it acts more as a lubricant than as a primary player. Oxygen’s sibling in the next (etheric) row is selenium. Selenium is an essential enzyme co-factor for reproductive processes. Selenium deficient cattle are famous for retained placenta and prolapsed uterus. Selenium deficiency in males leads to impotence. Selenium deficiency in general leads to cancer. All of which shows us things about oxygen’s role in life, growth and reproduction.
Since the early twentieth century when Rutherford bombarded nitrogen14 with alpha particles (He4 nuclei) making oxygen17 plus a proton (H1 nuclei) (N14 + He4 → O17 + H1), chemists and physicists have had conclusive evidence that transmutation of elements occurs. A classic case is the creation of carbon14 by cosmic ray bombardment of nitrogen14 in the upper atmosphere. By assuming cosmic ray levels have always been the same, geologists and archeologists have used this as the basis of carbon dating of fossils and artifacts. In fact, it was discovered that deuterium (heavy hydrogen) and tritium (radioactive hydrogen) could be induced to fuse in a plasma somewhere around 100 million degrees Kelvin.* This is the stuff of thermonuclear explosions and weapons of mass destruction, although unlike GMOs thermonuclear devices don’t reproduce themselves. But billions—perhaps trillions—of dollars have been spent on this research, which shows where priorities presently lie. It also shows that transmutation occurs.
Throughout the twentieth century most well-known transmutations amounted to penetrating the electron shroud of the atomic nucleus by blasting through. But it seems living organisms have to fit the key in the lock and enter through the door, as they can’t blast through the walls. Louis Kervran was a French investigator who developed a passion for investigating biological transmutation after running exhaustive experiments to determine the source of carbon monoxide, which caused deaths of welders working in a closed space. What he found was molecules of nitrogen gas, composed of two atoms of nitrogen (2N14 = N28) became so excited in contact with red hot iron that they transmuted to molecules of carbon monoxide [C12O16] in the welders’ lungs. This set him on a trail of investigation that ended up mapping dozens of transmutations in nature where living organisms fit their keys in the locks and opened doorways that permitted biological transmutation. He found that oxygen, along with hydrogen, was one of the two most important elements in biological transmutations, which has tremendous implications for low budget agriculture.
Carrier of the Ether
Oxygen internalizes organization just as carbon internalizes form and nitrogen internalizes awareness. The English word for the element that epitomizes this is quaintly symbolic, as the ‘O’ symbolizes origin or something out of nothingness, while the ‘X’ symbolizes corporeality. Organization is fundamental to life—organic, organize, organelle, organ, organism, orgy, orgasm. Dynamic oxygen, the big “O” at the cross “X” roads, is the primary agency in this organization. For example it is only where calcium meets oxygen that it becomes activated as lime, or where silicon meets oxygen that it becomes enlivened as silica, and so forth. In the earth’s biological economy, hydrogen combines with oxygen to form water; plants release oxygen as they combine carbon dioxide and water to make sugars; animals require oxygen to free carbon of its rigidity and move, as carbon is the be-er while oxygen is the do-er.
Without oxygen there would be no life as we know it, as there would be no activity. With the help of the sun, plants release oxygen into the atmosphere. Thus plants, along with the sun, are primary agencies of earthly life. The organization that oxygen embodies can be called the ether, or the life force. Dr. Phil Callahan’s theory of the importance of paramagnetism (mild magnetism) is based on the fact that oxygen, at 3449 centimetres grams/second (cgs) is the most paramagnetic element in the periodic table. Of course, this ether that oxygen carries is dynamic and is wedded to the compounds it is associated with, particularly the oxygen part. This leads to the question of what is ether?
Elements and Ethers
For over a hundred years there was debate about the term ‘ether’, as there is no fixed ether field that objects move through as was believed in physics during the early and mid-nineteenth century. In 1887 when Michelson and Morley’s experiments disproved the idea of a fixed etheric field, physicists took this as proof there was no ether whatsoever, and the term fell from use. Rudolf Steiner was one of the few that unwaveringly called the organizational aspect of energy, where energy flowed from lower to higher concentration, the ether. The realization has since dawned in physics that anything and everything has an organizational field associated with it. Oxygen, it turns out, epitomizes this in the most dynamic way, and thus can be said to carry the ether.
When we consider what used to be called the elements—fire, air, water and earth—we now call these the states of matter, or the radiant, gaseous, liquid and solid states. But where organization is involved there still is value in thinking of these as fire, air, water and earth. Each of these classical elements has a periodic table element that best characterizes it. Sulphur is associated with fire, nitrogen with air, hydrogen with water and carbon with earth. Each of these elements combines with oxygen to produce the warmth, light, chemical and life ethers that characterize it. Which is to say there is no warmth in sulphur/fire until it combines with oxygen. The light we see in the air/nitrogen is produced in combination with oxygen. The chemistry in water depends on hydrogen in combination with oxygen. And the carbon based life in the soil is animated by combining with oxygen. Oxygen truly is the carrier of the ether.
* pH is defined as the inverse log of the hydrogen ion concentration in water. At neutral where acidity and alkalinity are balanced the hydrogen ion (H3O+) concentration is one part in ten million or 1/107, or 1 over 10 with seven zeros. If the pH goes down to 6 this is one part in one million. At five it is one part in one hundred thousand, etc. Corresponding to this, the hydroxyl ion (OH־) concentration decreases as the hydrogen increases and vice versa.
* There is also the assumption that the atomic structure of all elements in the growing environment is immutable. This was disproven early in the twentieth century with the discovery of transmutation by radioactive decay and cosmic ray bombardment, which yielded many useful analytical tools such as radioactive dating. However, the assumption that transmutation does not occur still widely persists. Interestingly, U.S. military research in the late twentieth century established significant pathways of biological transmutation in soils, which should have dispelled any notions that biological transmutation was impossible, but such notions die hard. There is an additional debate about spontaneous coalescence, such as the formation of hydrogen in outer space. There is widespread disbelief in spontaneous coalescence in agricultural schools, but the truth is we simply do not know how widespread transmutation and spontaneous coalescence may be in biological environments. Perhaps of all scientific disciplines the debate against prejudice and assumption is stormiest in soil science.
* The Kelvin scale is named after Lord Kelvin, the nineteenth century physicist who found there was a temperature where matter would theoretically come to rest and cease vibrating. This was -273ºC, a temperature closely approached though never achieved by experiment. The Kelvin scale, used in physics research, starts at this absolute zero with the melting point of water being 273ºC and the boiling point of water being 373ºC.