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Last week we discussed a special kind of mud from here in New Jersey. The mud is used to rub down baseballs. When it comes to the world of dirt, one can rightfully argue that baseball rubbing mud is insignificant in importance compared to the dirt that hosts our food crops and our forests and other areas of vegetative growth. My column on the mud was spurred by a very brief three-paragraph item in the October National Geographic. However, the September issue had a long article by Charles C. Mann titled "Our Good Earth" which poses the following question: "The future rests on the soil beneath our feet. Can we save it?" A brief companion article by Joel K. Bourne, Jr. Titled "Dirt Poor" considers just the case of Haiti.
The situation in Haiti is one grim example of the consequences of ill treatment of our soil and its resources. The article notes that rice is some twenty percent of the typical Haitian diet. Rice, of course, is a staple of diets in other populous areas of the world. In Haiti in 1981, 18,00 tons of rice were imported. The rest was homegrown. Today, only 27 years later, Haiti imports 400,000 tons of rice a year, with only a quarter of its rice grown in Haiti. The rape of Haitian soil and forestry began five centuries ago with the arrival of Columbus and the ensuing deforestation by both the Spanish and the French, followed after the revolution by the upper class planters and speculators, who took over the more fertile areas and forests to grow crops other than rice and to provide lumber to foreign customers.
Today, the situation in Haiti mirrors the situation elsewhere, notably in Africa. The recent dramatic increases in the prices of rice, wheat and other basic foodstuffs has resulted in starvation, riots and armed conflicts. We in America certainly cannot be proud of our own past treatment of our natural resources. And it seems as though our ill-advised attempt to be greener by converting corn to ethanol for our cars has only worsened the situation by increasing the price of corn as a foodstuff. Now our heavy farm machinery compacts the soil upon which it rides, further degrading the soil’s productive capacity. As a child, the only president I knew growing up was Franklin D. Roosevelt. I thought I knew most of FDR’s more noteworthy quotes but I missed the one quoted in Mann’s Geographic article, "The history of every nation is eventually written in the way in which it cares for its soil."
One of the things driving the degradation of the soil in Haiti and elsewhere is the demand for charcoal as a fuel. Charcoal is generally made by heating wood or woody plants at relatively low temperatures in the absence of air, or at least under low levels of oxygen. The resulting charcoal is a porous form of impure carbon with significant amounts of other materials, organic and inorganic in nature. What caught my attention in Mann’s article is the role of charcoal in actually building up a special type of soil that may play an important role in helping to reverse the degradation of soil around the world. The special soil is "terra preta do indio" (there’s an accent instead of a dot over the first "i" in indio), which translates to "black Indian earth".
The modern discovery of terra preta dates back to a Dutch soil scientist named Wim Sombroek, who attributed his very life to his ancestors’ good care of the soil. During World War II, there was a famine in The Netherlands in which 20 thousand people died. Sombroek and his family made it through the famine thanks to a very small plot of soil that had benefitted from generations of loving care and fertilization. The soil was a lush dark soil known as plaggen. In the 1950s, Sombroek set out to the Amazon region, where the soil in the rain forests was well known to be extremely fragile. When the trees were chopped down to make clearings for farmers to grow crops, the protective canopy was gone. The soil was exposed to the sun and rains washed away the minerals and other nutrients. The result was a hard soil, almost the consistency of brick.
Surprisingly, Sombroek found large patches of a much different kind of soil along the banks of the Amazon River. In fact, these patches of soil, terra preta, were strikingly reminiscent of the plaggen that saved his life. The soil was lush and dark, blacker than the blackest coffee, and the topsoil extended down several feet. This rich soil was a complete surprise and Sombroek wrote about it in a book in 1966. He later became head of the International Society of Soil Science, which now is the International Union of Soil Sciences. Sombroek, who died in 2003, couldn’t forget the terra preta and believed that it might shed light on how to make the soil richer and more productive in impoverished nations.
Why did Sombroek think this was possible? Terra preta is not a natural phenomenon but was manmade. Excavations, still ongoing, have shown that terra preta is filled with broken pre-Columbian pottery. Mann, who visited the site of one excavation describes it as though the people of the time had thrown a rowdy drunken frat party and smashed all the pottery, then buried the evidence! But even more striking is the reason for the dark color - vast quantities of charcoal! Terra petra is only found in regions inhabited by humans. So, it’s clear that terra petra, whether deliberately or by accident, was made by the inhabitants of the region. Hence the hope that man can start renovating the soil by homing in on the key ingredients for making terra preta.
Let’s compare the terra petra with normal Amazonian soil. There’s some sort of growth on top, grass or whatever. Then comes the topsoil, which is about 8 inches deep in normal Amazonian soil but which ranges up to six and a half feet deep in terra petra! Terra petra is loaded with all sorts of good minerals and has withstood centuries of exposure to sun and rain and is still great soil for growing all manner of crops, including crops such as corn and rice, which fail miserably in typical tropical rain fores soil. The sizes of the terra petra patches generally are in the two or three acre range but some patches are as large as 30 to 40 acres! To me, it’s pretty impressive if such large plots grew by accident; and even more impressive if those early indians knew what they were doing to enrich the soil.
Charcoal seems to be the key to terra petra’s fertility. Mann cites a recent study in which a team led by Christopher Steiner, then at the University of Bayreuth, added charcoal and condensed smoke to poor tropical soils and found a striking increase in the number of microbes in the soil. Microbes pave the way for increased soil fertility and terra petra has more microbes of a greater variety than does the usual tropical soil.
It has even been suggested that, since terra petra stores carbon in the form of charcoal, a major program to create terra petra worldwide would help the global warming problem by storing carbon. Hey, this sounds a bit too optimistic but every little bit helps. Just before posting this column, I went online and found various reports on terra petra and charcoal addition to promote microbe growth. Quite a few garden type bloggers are to be found in locations ranging from Iowa to Australia and points in between (either way). Charcoal is the word.
Allen F. Bortrum