Copper Tools and the Legacy of Viktor Schauberger
by Jane Cobbald
Copper garden tools have been available in the UK since 2001, but don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of them. One of the things I’ve learnt along the way with the copper tools project is just how difficult it is to get a new idea out there.
In fact, the idea is very old – at least 3000 years old, back to the Bronze Age. In its most recent incarnation, the idea started with an extraordinary Austrian inventor, a forester and visionary called Viktor Schauberger. He spent his formative years at the start of the twentieth century wandering in the forests of upper Austria, areas at the time that were still largely untouched by humans. He became convinced that modern technology didn’t have to be so messy and destructive. After all, Mother Nature seems to manage very well without the use of fire and noisy machines. He was suspicious of what was taught in schools, preferring to listen to the stories of the old foresters and to learn from what he saw. He learned about energy transfer from the massive trees that carried sap from the roots to the crown without the use of a pump, and about transportation from the trout that stayed motionless in the fast-flowing mountain streams.
He first came to the attention of the wider world when he developed a logging chute that ignored conventional hydrological practice. His father had told him that water is at its most vibrant in moonlight, and curls up and goes to sleep in the sunshine. He had noticed how the trees arch over watercourses, as if to protect them from the sun’s rays. Applying this and what he had learnt from watching the way the water supports the trout, he devised a logging flume that allowed the water to twist and turn and maintain its buoyancy. It was made of wood, with an egg-shaped profile, and the logs gently bobbed and bounced along the side of the mountain to their destination. That first flume was so successful that he was invited by the Austrian Government to build similar devices all over central Europe.
And so the next phase of his life began. He gave up his work as a forester, and travelled in and around Austria. And it was on one such job that the germ of the idea for the copper tools project was sown. King Boris of Bulgaria invited him to his country to build a flume. The king had noticed that agricultural yields had declined since the introduction of modern farming methods, and while he was there, the king also asked Viktor to investigate this. After comparing traditional and modern farming methods, Viktor put it down to the effect of metallic iron ploughshares being dragged through the soil, an unnatural and destructive development, in his view. The ploughshares cause friction and create small sparks as they rub against the stones in the soil. Both of these effects are damaging to the groundwater, leaving it less able to nourish the plants. However, this conclusion went against the tide of history, and so was ignored.
Leaping forward another fifteen years, we come to the late nineteen-forties. Prevented from pursuing other projects, he returned to the ideas he had started to explore when in Bulgaria. He had also come to realise that in nature, nothing stands still. Everything is in process, either towards growth or towards decay, decay which breaks an organism into simpler elements to provide building blocks for the next generation of growth. Decay is associated with heat, which is why compost heaps get hot. Growth, in his view, happens in cool conditions. From this perspective, copper is in many ways the opposite of iron, and so he considered it as a possible alternative material for agricultural implements. It doesn’t spark and causes less friction than iron. Copper can occur in its native form in the earth, whereas iron does not; it has to be smelted from ores. Iron or steel, therefore, have a proneness to decay which copper does not. And if you want young plants to grow, he reasoned, why cultivate the soil with a material that invites decay?
With an academic from Salzburg, he arranged a range of field trials. They grew a range of crops from barley to potatoes, and cultivated half of the test plots with a conventional steel plough, as a control. Over a range of eight crops and fourteen separate trials, the results were consistent. The crops cultivated with the plough with copper ploughshares had larger, healthier yields and fewer pests.
Plain sailing from this point on, one would have thought. Develop some copper tools and start to market them. But that is not how things worked out. Viktor Schauberger did not have the skills to circumnavigate the many vested interests that stood in the way of such a project. He found he was unable to get hold of the copper he needed. And so the whole venture stalled again. Ten years later, he died.
However, his work didn’t die with him. Viktor Schauberger’s son, Walter, continued to develop his father’s ideas. Walter established the Pythagoras-Kepler-System, an organisation to preserve and promote their work. In the 1990’s, a coppersmith came along to a seminar organised by PKS. He was invited to apply Viktor Schauberger’s ideas about copper implements to develop a range of garden tools. With backing from PKS, the tools were designed and made, then they were tested out in the kitchen garden at the Schauberger house. When I heard about this development, I ordered a spade from them. As soon as it arrived I realised it was special. I offered to promote the tools in the UK, despite having no experience in launching a business venture. It has grown steadily ever since, I am happy to report.
The garden tools are made of solid bronze, a hardwearing copper alloy. Pure copper would not be practical, as it is too soft. They keep their sharp cutting edges, and slice easily into the soil. With regard to yields, it would be hard to say, as I couldn’t bring myself to go back to using steel tools as a control. Subjectively speaking, the garden feels healthier, and yields have been better than they used to be. But that could be due to many factors. One thing I definitely noticed: After the first season of using the tools in the garden, there was a reduction in slug and snail damage. But that is another story.
The tools will be available to buy from the 2010 RHS Cardiff Spring Flower Show from 16th -18th April. More information about them at our website, www.implementations.co.uk