Living trees lock up carbon, and burning releases it. That’s the conflict-ridden equation of global warming. Albert Bates has been at the front lines of the warming conflict since his 1990 title, Climate in Crisis. In this book, he defines “biochar” as “charred (pyrolized) organic matter intended to be applied to soil in farming or gardening,” and argues that partial burning of waste wood and other carbonaceous matter can effectively “lock up” carbon and store it underground in a human-fired echo of what Gaia did when she converted ancient forests into coal and oil.
The major difference, however, between deep fossil fuel deposits and surface applications of charcoal is that charcoal attracts and holds the nutrients that make for lush and healthy plant growth. So charcoal could be not only the best way to improve soil fertility, but also a “cure,” of sorts, for global warming.
Did you read Charles Mann’s bestselling book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus? If so, you encountered a story about a Spaniard named Orellana, the first European to go down the Amazon, who told of stunning riverside cities filled with marvelously attired (but hostile) natives, as well as bands of female warriors who lived without men. Of course, no one believed him, then or now, and modern research has shown the entire Amazonian region to be a vast and unforgiving wilderness with little tolerance for human presence. As Mann explains, however, “modern research” was, shall we say, mistaken, and people now wonder if Orellana wasn’t telling a much more interesting truth.
Underlying this new interest in Orellana’s story is dirt – specifically, a rich, dark soil known called “terra preta de los indios,” or “dark earth of the indians.” Consisting of local soil amended with large amounts of charcoal and broken pottery, Terra Preta crops up throughout the region and, a thousand or more years later, retains such fertility that the locals mine and bag it for sale as potting soil. It may have supported a very real, very rich, and various human civilization such as Orellana wrote of.
But where Charles Mann spends chapters exploring the complicated and disputatious history of anthropology and its effect on our notions about “early man,” Bates suggests that Orellana’s “natives” had not only manufactured the most fertile soil known to mankind, but had also unwittingly discovered a key to climate change. He cites new data suggesting that as “indians” converted untold tons of living wood into untold acres of charcoal soil amendments they effectively warmed the planet. And when they all died from sudden exposure to European diseases (which they were genetically unable to resist), the resulting reforestation of previously farmed land threw the planet into a cooling cycle that we know as the “little ice age” – the period between Columbus’ “discovery” of America and the start of the (coal-fired) industrial revolution.
Bates basically suggests that by making biochar we can both cool the planet and feed the people. Is Biochar a magic bullet? Maybe. Maybe not. But Bates book is worth reading. So is the forward by Dr. Vandana Shiva, who launches the book with a stern reminder that magic or not, a bullet is still a bullet, and that mechanical thinking produces only mechanical results: “To cultivate the future, we need to cultivate life in the soil. We need to cultivate the humility that the soil makes us, we do not make the soil, and we can only serve her processes of making life.” [emphasis added]
Me? I just finished grinding up a winter’s worth of charcoal left-over from my wood-fired oven. This spring, it’s going into the compost to be “activated” so I can put it back into the soil that not only made me, but gave me my lovely wife and children as well. By grace and beauty, we hope not only to live, but to participate in miracles.