Terra Preta and “the Biochar Solution”

The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, by Albert Bates
A review by Kiko Denzer

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.

About Kiko Denzer

I live in western Oregon with my family and run Hand Print Press with help from friends Max and Eva. We are interested in restoring the arts of living to their rightful, traditional, public role, as cultural medium – and think the web is a poor substitute, but until we can fashion something better, we try to make the most of it.

One Response to Terra Preta and “the Biochar Solution”

  1. Ken Kunst says:

    Kiko: I am using my earthen oven as I write, baking some lentils/veggies, with a lamb neck and some herbs from my garden, after baking off two loaves of bread. Oh, and I also just baked one of my last butternut squashes from last fall’s harvest! Everything everyone praises about these ovens can be confirmed by my experience! I’ve been using your 3rd edition borrowed from the library (which is always checked out) and had read the other editions as well, and am so glad I finally finished the oven. It’s gotten me obsessed with the whole process and all the possibilities. including the bio-char info too. It really is the most gratifying, creative, life-affirming activities, to not only build something like this, but to learn how it fires, how you time the breads and whatever else you’re going to cook, and how it stores so much heat for so long! I can’t praise you enough for writing this book, with your insights and philosophy, and especially the encouraging meme of “learn by doing”.
    I became interested in homemade bread while taking flamenco guitar lessons from a Greek-American named James Katsaros aka: “Jimmy” in Sebastapool, CA. back in the middle 1990′s. He was married to Bronwen Godfrey, who was the bread part of Laurel’s Kitchen fame. Jimmy built a masonary oven in their backyard, and together, they would host bread days, where any number of nieghbors and friends would gather for a festive day of incredible sourdough “desem” bread, foods, guitars, flamenco dancers, and Jimmie’s vast command of Greek philosophy, flamenco music, martial arts, building……It was an incredible time in my Life, but what brought everyone together was not only Jimmie’s generous and hospitable spirit, but Bron’s incredible whole wheat bread. Now that I’m commited to my oven and the process of baking bread for my Family, I finally can appreciate just how much work it must have taken them for those bread days. They used to bake about 25-30 loaves! And I think they were processing the wheat berries with a hand crank corona mill!!
    Anyway, I’ll take some photos of my oven to send you sometime. I can’t thank you enough for this Life-changing experience of building my own cob oven.

    Ken Kunst, Napa, CA.

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