Biochar from Bamboo
How fast can the climate of earlier centuries be restored?
In an Hawaiian origin legend, the Polynesian creator god Kāne brought forth light from endless blackness while Lono created sound and Kü created substance. The first man was molded in clay by the three deities in the image of Kāne. Aloha, the traditional greeting, was originally spoken while touching foreheads and exchanging a breath of air. This symbolizes exchanging the breath of life, håloa, originally given by the Gods. Hawaiian bamboo ('ohe) is a kinolau or body form of Kāne. The image at the top of the page is a performance of Kāne hula.
For more than 40 years I have been growing temperate bamboo in my ecovillage. I trace that long and beneficial association to Adam Turtle, who was part of an intentional community on the Cumberland Plateau of Middle Tennessee and then moved south to our neighborhood, buying a highland farm on the east side of Summertown in the late 1970s. The Turtles’ Earth Advocates Research Farm grew more than 300 varieties of bamboo and faithfully produced the Temperate Bamboo Quarterly, a respected international journal.
I have some 24 varieties in the landscape here at the Ecovillage Training Center and thirty acres of bamboo on nearby farmland. These evergreen plants all go to subzero temperatures most years but then miraculously recover. Around the world, more than 1,400 species occupy 115 genera, with more than 70,000 different cultivars. There are tens of thousands of practical uses, at all stages of their life-cycles, but most endearing to me is their capacity to reverse climate change.
Bamboos are the fastest-growing land-based plants on Earth—extending shoots up to 910 mm (36 in) height every 24 hours, doubling the biomass of a grove annually, and extending rhizomes as far away as they are tall. My tallest varieties tower nearly 80 feet, but in tropical zones they can go well over 100 feet and reach 12 inches in diameter. I also have diminutive broadleaf varieties that are knee-high and others that never get taller than my garden fence. Unlike trees, individual bamboo culms emerge from the ground at their full diameter and grow to their full height in three to four months. They then take 3 years to harden from hemicellulose to lignin. From 5 to 8 years they senesce, as fungal growth causes the culm to decay, and it is at this time that harvesting for biochar makes perfect sense. I am intercepting the process that would otherwise return the carbon to the sky as carbon dioxide. I am locking that carbon away in a durable mineral form, and thereby using bamboo’s remarkable photosynthetic ability as an atmospheric scrub brush.
Because bamboo can grow on otherwise marginal land, bamboo can be profitably cultivated in many degraded lands. Moreover, because of the rapid growth, bamboo is an effective climate change mitigation and carbon sequestration crop, absorbing between 100 and 400 tonnes of carbon per hectare.
Those who have traveled in India, Indonesia or China may have tried gulai rebung (bamboo shoots boiled in thick coconut milk), pickled bamboo, or lun pia (fried wrapped bamboo shoots with vegetables). Fermented sap can also make a sweet wine (ulanzi). In southern India and some regions of southwest China, the seeds are saved as "bamboo rice" or ground and baked like wheat. Many of us have seen rice steamers and chopsticks made of bamboo, and India now promotes bamboo water bottles as a substitute for plastic.
Bamboo’s legions of uses—for writing, fabrics, art, music, fabrics, construction, firecrackers, desalination, kitchenware and furniture—trace to at least the second millennium BCE. In China, bamboo is one of the "Four Gentlemen" (bamboo, orchid, plum blossom and chrysanthemum), regarded as a behavior model for its uprightness, tenacity, and modesty. In Japan, it is the second of the “Three Friends of Winter" (kansai sanyū), between pine and plum. Adam Turtle says no country with bamboo is truly poor.
Here, then, is my usual routine for making bamboo biochar for my garden.
Towns, villages and cities in the Ukraine are being bombed every day. As refugees pour out into the countryside, they must rest by day so they can travel by night. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. So far there are 62 sites in Ukraine and 265 around the region. They are calling their project “The Green Road.”
The Green Road also wants to address the ongoing food crisis at the local level by helping people grow their own food, and they are raising money to acquire farm machinery, seed, and to erect greenhouses. The opportunity, however, is larger than that. The majority of the migrants are children. This will be the first experience in ecovillage living for most. They will directly experience its wonders, skills, and safety. They may never want to go back. Those that do will carry the seeds within them of the better world they glimpsed through the eyes of a child.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.
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