There is considerable debate within the biochar community over the origins of the mysterious dark earths of the Amazon. How and why were they made? While scientists since Wim Sombroek have been experimenting with re-creating the recipe — a gruel grail Sombroek dubbed “terra preta nova” — many in the soil science/permaculture world have to concede, as Bruno Glaser is fond of saying, biochar-and-compost mixes, while beneficial supplements, are not the same as terra preta. To get terra preta may take centuries, or at least decades, as the fertile biochar supplements are processed in, fully networked, included in the family meetings and celebrations, and ultimately committed to the world beyond, by the Community of Living Soil.
This is not the same as saying that it is not worth charring as much as we can, as quickly as we can. David Yarrow reminds us, “… field research data clearly reveals there is a time lag between introduction of char and development of its full effects in soils. This may be a few weeks in the case of soil that's already alive with a working soil food web, or it may be one or two years if you start with very inert, sterile, infertile soil….”
Still, what is the alternative? Even if we go for the top shelf version, we don’t have a thousand years any more. We have probably less than a decade before the next, really severe, tipping points click into place and lock.
“More power, Mr. Scott!”
“Captain, the dilithium crystals are overheating. We have to get south of 350 before she blows.”
My point is that we have lost the recipe the ancients used, and while the questions surrounding reconstruction of that recipe are many, we can nonetheless make some approximations. People who have read my cookbooks know I am a big fan of substitutions. Sean K. Barry of Troposphere Energy LLC in Stillwater, Minnesota, offers his mama’s real dirt recipe:
“The Terra Preta soil recipe = clay like dirt, biochar, microorganism inoculants, composted microorganism food — sugars, urine, cow-manure, sea minerals, molybdenum, fish bones, banana peels, food wastes, charred wastes, human wastes — mix[ed] and pile[d], aerate[d] and age[d], wetted, dried, pyrolyzed, and infused with living biota. Then plant into [it], grow things in it, let them die in it, pyrolize some of those plants back into the soil, age it some more, mix it with more organics. Patience, years of patience and generations after yours of more patience and additions of more and more organics and biochar, etc. into that soil, along with rotating crops in and out of the soil.”Barry continues, “Clearly, this TP was grown over years and years, more than some human lifetimes of years. Making Terra Preta is joining a cycle. It doesn't just happen with a "magic bullet". It begins and goes on and on.”
In my research, I have come across a piece of the recipe that others have missed, although the reference work I found it in is often cited. The observation comes from the visit by Confederate veteran Ballard S. Dunn to the Amazon basin in 1865 in search of a place where the South could rise again. At a black-slave-dependent plantation known as Taperinha, built by a family of USAnian ex-pats, the R.J. Rhomes, Dunn reported:
“ …there are lines of swampy forest, and strips of arums, and clumps of bushes, all running parallel to the channel: seams left by the Amazons in sewing this patch-work together. Back of us the great cane field stretches half a mile or more in every direction, fresh, green, waving — the prettiest sight a planter's eye’s could find. The cane is cut by hand, and brought to the brow of the hill on ox-carts; there it is thrown into a long shoot, which deposits it cleverly in the mill-house. No wonder that the cane thrives here; the ground is a rich black loam, two feet thick; we see it in the road-cuttings, and it spreads away beyond the field far into the thick forest.* Acuña says that the Indians had chickens, descended from Peruvian stock which had been passed from tribe to tribe down the valley. [AB: my additional footnote is that this is another confirmation of Gavin Menzies’ contention that the Asian chicken reached Peru by Chinese trade in the 9th to 15th Centuries].
“It is curious to note what gave this land its richness. The refuse of a thousand kitchens for maybe a thousand years, together with the numberless palm-thatches, which were left to rot on the ground as they were replaced by new ones. For the bluffs were covered with Indian houses, “so close together," says Acuña, “that from one village you can hear the workmen of another.” The people made coarse pottery and marked it with quaint devices. We find fragments scattered everywhere, and for years Mr. Rhome has been making archaeological collections, including all sorts of curious things: a whistle, vultures' heads, frogs, and a cock with comb and wattles complete.*
“The Indians were cremationists: burning their dead and burying them in jars under their floors; and several of these burial urns have been obtained at Taperinha. Stone implements are not common: a few handsome axes and arrowheads were picked up here, and below the hill.
“Generally this black soil does not extend more than half a mile from the face of the bluff; after that the land is red sandy clay, for mold does not form in the forest as it does at the North: the leaves fall singly and are never packed together by a blanket of snow.”
Ballard S. Dunn, Brazil, The Home for Southerners: Or, A Practical Account of what the Author, and Others, who Visited that Country, for the Same Objects, Saw and Did While in that Empire, publication by G. B. Richardson, 1866, pp 696-697.So here is yet another explanation for the secret: terra preta derives, at least in part, from a thousand years of burying the dead under the floors of the houses, in clay jars.
As Walt Whitman so elegantly explained it (at about the same time as Dunn was writing):
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever,
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard and the orange-orchard, that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once catching disease.
Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas'd corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.
Soylent black is people! We are, as Allen Ginsberg said, just “in the total animal soup of time … with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of [our] own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”
Picking up again on Barry’s point about “making Terra Preta is joining a cycle,” it is more than mere speculation that the so-called “Fertile Crescent” between the Tigris and Euphrates may not have been alone among great river valley cradles for seminal civilizations. From the work of Jared Diamond, Charles Mann, and many others we can say (albeit not without controversy) that the likely populations of the Americas before European contact exceeded Europe and Africa, with cities of far more substance and wealth than those of Renaissance Europe or even Ming Dynasty China.
Soil tillage practices, typically involving cruel slave and animal labor, attending the rise of Western Civilization reversed the carbon flow between earth and sky from negative (earth-collecting) to positive (sky-collecting) and later bequeathed us the deserts of the Middle East and Northern Africa, pretty much the whole Silk Road — and, coming soon to a neighborhood near you, the Great American Midwestern Breadbasket — leaving only saline dust, blowing in the wind. This is the style of agriculture known well to the Italian navigator, sailing for Spain, as he followed his Chinese charts to the Americas.
The kill-rates necessary to obliterate all traces of the megacities of Western Brazil and Northeastern Bolivia, where there were supportive terra preta deposits covering an area the size of France, or the cinampas and milpa cultures of Mesoamerica, with their raised causeways, pyramids, arts and sciences, were unequaled save by paleoastrophysical extinction events now being parsed and revealed from within the human genome.
Mann’s estimate of 95 to 99 percent depopulation is probably pretty close to the mark. Mosquitoes must have been a very effective vector for a host of blood-borne swine and avian flus. What was left unattended, for land-starved European conquerors, landing with cross and sword, was not a “virgin wilderness” but a cultivated ecology gone feral, a cornucopian Lost World, and the myth that immediate misunderstanding created was none other than the “American Dream” of infinite growth and profits – all men can be Donald Trump — now being experienced as the “American Nightmare” of tumbling credit default swaps, turbo-warrants, and shattered expectations, that Richard Heinberg describes as the beginning phase of our “L” shaped recession.
In truth, what was killed in the Mississippi and Amazon valleys were the Earth-saving Leaver culture memes that had succeeded in disproving the waste-and-conquer, conquer-and-waste Taker culture standards of Europe, Africa and Asia. In the Americas they got it right, even if it wasn’t always pretty. You want to stick around on this blue marble in space? Put more back than you take out. Pay it forward. Make soil. Make it your religion, your culture, your lifestyle. Love your Pacha Mama.
At least not before now.