Friday Sprog Blogging: did it have to be fish?

This post is dedicated to a donor to my Blogger Challenge who prefers to remain anonymous. The donor actually asked for artwork on the subject to which this discussion eventually turns; I hope the dialogue is an acceptable substitute.

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Even though certain elements of the U.S. early grade school curriculum seem thoroughly ossified, some of them still end up sparking fresh thinking. For instance, in anticipation of Thanksgiving the younger Free-Ride offspring's first grade class learned about how Squanto helped the pilgrims learn how to grow corn in the challenging terrain of Massachusetts -- something we were taught a hundred years ago when I was a first grader.

But I don't recall having a follow-up discussion like this one:

Younger offspring: Squanto told the Pilgrims to put herrings in the ground and then corn kernels, and cover them up with dirt. And then, strong healthy corn plants grew.

Dr. Free-Ride: Was it important that they were herring?

Elder offspring: I don't remember the fish being herring. I think any fish would work.

Younger offspring: (with an eye-roll) It was herring.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, herring or not, it was pretty smart to use dead fish as a fertilizer to grow the corn plants.

Younger offspring: I didn't think they were dead fish!

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, but even if they were alive to start with, if you bury a fish in dirt, the chances of that fish ending up dead are extremely good.

Younger offspring: Oh.

Elder offspring: Also, I don't think a live fish would make very good fertilizer.

Dr. Free-Ride: That's a good point. The fish parts that you want to put into the soil to nourish the plants only get into the soil as the fish is decaying. A living fish keeps its nourishing compounds in its body better than a dead, decaying fish.

Younger offspring: So why did they use fish as fertilizer?

Dr. Free-Ride: From what I know about corn, it's what they call a "heavy feeder". The plants pull a lot of nitrogen out of the soil. (That's why people who grow corn often plant legumes after they've harvest the corn, to put nitrogen back into the soil.) And fish are a good source of --

Elder offspring: Nitrogen!

Dr. Free-Ride: That's right. Among other things, fish are loaded with nitrogen-containing compounds called amines. Amines are what make the "fishy" smell that dead fish have.

Younger offspring: But the Pilgrims could have used the herrings for food. Why didn't they use something else for fertilizer?

Elder offspring: Yeah, like poop.

Dr. Free-Ride: You know, that's a good question. I wonder if poop is as good a source of nitrogen as dead fish would be.

Dr. Free-Ride's better half: Poop is a fine source of nitrogen.

Elder offspring: Does poop have amines?

Dr. Free-Ride's better half: Poop is more noted for indoles.

Dr. Free-Ride: Which would explain why poop smells less fishy and more ...

Dr. Free-Ride's better half: Poopy.

Elder offspring: But if poop has lots of nitrogen, why didn't Squanto use poop as the fertilizer? Why use fish as fertilizer?

Younger offspring: The Pilgrims could have eaten the fish.

Dr. Free-Ride's better half: That's a good question.

Elder offspring: Maybe because the poop could have germs if the people were sick?

Dr. Free-Ride: That's a good possibility. (Of course, they didn't know about germs back then, but they might have known that poop could make you sick.)

Younger offspring: Maybe if the Pilgrims didn't have enough food to eat, they weren't pooping very much.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmm. A less reliable source of poop than fish. That's another possibility.

Elder offspring: Why do you think Squanto used fish instead of poop?

Dr. Free-Ride: I don't actually know. The Pilgrims were Puritans. It's possible that they were deeply uncomfortable with bodily functions like pooping.

Younger offspring: So maybe they wouldn't have liked it if Squanto pooped in their gardens.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yes, it's possible that the Pilgrims would have misinterpreted that as an unfriendly gesture.


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100 years ago, in my first grade class, we were told they only used fish heads, to make use of the fish-bits they don't eat. Speaking as a gardener and not a scientist, I am under the impression the general rule is poop from vegetarians is better fertilizer than from carnivores (so cows make better manure than your dog or meat-eating pilgrims). This could be out right wrong, or could just be a matter of taste (or, in this case, smell) that became crystallized as passed-down gardener advice. Anyways, I offer them as possible explanations.

By forhecancreep (not verified) on 16 Nov 2007 #permalink

Well, good source of nutrients or not, you don't have to be a Puritan to know you should never poop where you eat. I'd guess that has as much to do with the usage of fish as anything else.

What I'd like to know is how Squanto and his folks learned about using fish for fertilizer at all. It's one of the least obvious applications for fish I can think of.

Younger Offspring is correct about eating the fish, particularly in light of the fact that corn is a relatively poor food-value crop. Though is it possible they actually buried fish offal, such a guts and heads and skin, but retained the meat for eating?

Per Chuck Mann's book 1491 this may not have been an Indian practice at all. Tisquantum had been kidnapped and lived in Europe for seven years in regions where the practice of fertilizing with fish was in place for hundreds of years at that point. That'll make for some interesting classroom discussion.

By Uncle Fishy (not verified) on 16 Nov 2007 #permalink

Using fish for fertilizer is a very old tradition. Where I'm from (Newfoundland) there is a species of fish called Capelin (Mallotus villosus) which spawns in huge numbers on sandy beaches in the spring and early summer. A large percentage of these fish die after spawning, leaving their fish-smelling bodies on the strand. Fish that are caught while spawning are often eaten, either fresh or dried, then eaten, but there are HUGE numbers which are just rotting on the beach, and these are traditionally used as fertilizer.
Now, I'm not sure, but I'd imagine that there are similar practices in place all over the British Isles, as Capelin are found all over the North Atlantic. When I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that perhaps the difficulties of the Puritans was not so much that they were not familiar with North America, but perhaps that they were "City Slickers" who weren't all that knowledgable about living off ANY land, not just North American land. Most of the accounts I've read about Puritans of the time in England at the time suggested a very urban slant, and I'd imagine any farmer near a coastal region in the Old World would know to use fish for fertilizer. Any thoughts?

You know, it amaizes me we keep assuming it was corn corn. Grains such as barley and oats have been called corn. Matter of fact, I think corn was originally just another word for grain. Massachusetts after all is a tad too far north along the Atlantic coast for corn to be grown to any real profit.

More likely it was something like barley or wheat, and fish parts where used as starter fertilizer to get the seeds growing.

Besides, corn had a bad reputation among the English around that time. Being English, the Puritans would have had those food prejudices.

As for earthy stuff, keep in mind you are talking about 17th century Englishmen and ladies. Language was...colorful. A common European practice of the time was to engage in sexual relations once a betrothal was in place. It was considered good luck for the first child to come "miraculously" early after the wedding. A sign of God's favor and blessing upon the enterprise.

And yes, poop was used out in the field. Sometimes wet as "night soil", but other times it would be spread out in special drying pens would it would be dried by the Sun for later application; Sunlight killing the bacteria. The failure of the Essenes to thrive as a community in the long run has been connected to their practice of piling up all their crap in a dark enclosed space where it couldn't dry out.

Thanks so much for this entry. It didn't pass unnoticed. I just didn't want to raise a stink about it.

By "CoproPhil" (not verified) on 02 Feb 2008 #permalink