Climate change fighter spills the dirt on biochar

It’s safe to say that biochar is a miracle.

It doesn’t look like much. Just a handful of dirt. But this innocuous black mound is actually the perfect marriage of nature and science.

It acts like fertilizer in healthy soil, adds nutrients back into depleted soil, and even combats climate change by pulling carbon out of the air and putting it back into the earth where it belongs. It can be used on any garden or lawn and can help plants weather or recover from drought.

“I learned about biochar five years ago,” said Debbie Cook, who was working as the greenscapes manager for the North and South Rivers Watershed Association at the time. She’d been researching environmentally-friendly methods of lawn care, but what she actually found was even bigger and better.

“I thought, ‘It can’t be this good,’” said Cook. “It’s a true miracle. I’m obsessed.”

Which is how she found herself in Peru at the Sachamama Center for Biocultural Regeneration, making and sharing biochar with Kechwa farmers whose slash-and-burn-style agriculture was depleting soil beyond the point of recovery.

Cook met Frederique Apffel-Marglin, a Smith College professor of anthropology, at a potluck dinner in Cambridge, where the professor told her about a Peru service trip she would be leading. Cook knew right away that she had to go. She didn’t know who else was going or where they would stay, but it didn’t matter; she had to learn more about this miracle substance.

It was Cook and 16 others, most of them millennials – students of Apffel-Marglin or her daughter, who is also a professor. Despite their generational differences, Cook said everyone got along well, had fun, and learned a lot.

Over the course of six weeks, the team built special stoves in four villages in the region. The ovens heat organic material to a high temperature without oxygen through a process called pyrolysis; this is the key to creating biochar.

 The result is a porous, inert carbon, which has lots of room for storing vitamins, minerals, and moisture for plants to use as they need it – as well as for all that extra carbon that’s been hanging around the atmosphere, pushing global temperatures ever higher.

“I call it a condominium or house for microbes and water,” Cook said.

With the stoves in place, the team taught the Kechwas how to use them. This variety of biochar was called “Terra Preta” and included microbes from the forest floor, cow manure, nuts, and coconut shells.

Making Terra Preta is an involved process that requires an investment of time and effort from everyone in the community. But the investment pays off within a year, when gardens that have lain fallow for generations are suddenly – miraculously – able to produce vegetables again.

If biochar catches on in the region, it could herald a marked improvement in quality of life for the Kechwas. Because the tribe has been practicing slash-and-burn agriculture for so long, they have to travel further and further from their homes to reach their farms and gardens, sometimes as far as six hours away – and there’s no fast or easy means of transportation.

The irony is that biochar originated in the Amazon. Cook cited Charles C. Mann’s book “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” which says that a substance like biochar was once widely used in that area.

Researchers today are unsure exactly what went into this ancient recipe, but they know it sustained millions of people along the Amazon, a region whose soil is today considered too poor to support such a population. One ingredient would have been fermented human waste, because the indigenous people did not keep farm animals whose manure could be used.

When European explorers brought smallpox to the Amazon, millions died, and with them went the knowledge of biochar. There were not enough people left to continue making it, and that’s when the people turned to slash-and-burn agriculture using steel and machetes brought by explorers.

The new method could completely deplete a plot of soil within two years. Now, with the rediscovery of biochar, that same soil can be fully replenished in the same amount of time.

Cook used biochar in her own garden this summer and said that, despite the drought, her chives and lavender doubled in size. A contact of hers, Bob Wells, who makes and sells biochar ovens all over the world, uses it on his sandy Cape Cod property and now regularly wins the Eastham turnip festival.

If you’re looking for the inevitable downside of biochar, so far, it’s only this: biochar must be “charged” before use by leaving it to sit in compost for two weeks. Otherwise, especially if you use it on your lawn, it will start grabbing up all the nearest microbes – the ones that are in the plants. Biochar needs to be fully loaded with microbes before application.

It’s worth the effort, if you ask Cook and other proponents.

“If we’re going to keep our climate habitable, we need less than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Last week, we exceeded 400,” Cook said, quoting national climate leader Bill McKibben of is building a global climate movement through online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions, coordinated by a global network active in over 188 countries.

 “The only reason we’ve escaped for now is that the oceans have sequestered carbon dioxide,” Cook went on, “but it’s making the oceans acidic; it will eat the shells of lobsters.”

That’s why she couldn’t stop with Peru. In November, Cook and Apffel-Marglin are going to Morocco to introduce this new form of agriculture at the Marrakech Climate Change Conference. They’re preparing a TED-style talk, which Cook would be thrilled to share with other audiences.

To inquire about Cook’s presentation, or to try our biochar for yourself, contact Debbie Cook at

This story originally appeared in the Cohasset Mariner.


My teacher said I couldn’t be a writer.

Middle school was the first time someone told me I couldn’t be a writer. Thankfully, it was also one of the only times, but it still had a profound impact.

It was a teacher who said it. He didn’t mean that I wasn’t good enough; even then, I knew that wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that “being a writer” is a gamble. You might make it; you might not. Your paycheck, if you get one, will never be for the same amount twice, and until you’re J.K. Rowling, that’s going to be a source of instability, stress and hardship.

Of course, even at 12 or whatever I was, I understood that. I knew what a starving artist was and that I was probably going to be one. But I also believed I could play the game and eventually get noticed. Instead of giving me the tools to win that game, my teacher simply said, “You can’t really ‘be a writer.’

As my friend who has never cursed in her life said, “That’s bullshit.”


Of course you can “be a writer.” It just means that, on top of writing creatively in your work-time, you also have to live and budget creatively in your off-time. To this day, I wonder how my career might be different if, instead of saying “You can’t,” my teacher had said, “It’s going to be hard, but here are the ways you can.”

Maybe, as a computer technology teacher, he just didn’t know the ways. Maybe, within the confines of the assignment, he just felt that “being a writer” was going to over-complicate things – we were supposed to be creating some sort of ten-year plan for our future, complete with a household budget, which is admittedly difficult to build on an unreliable artist’s paycheck.

But that’s exactly why I needed him to say “here’s how” instead of “you can’t.” Because I was never going to change what I wanted to do. I’ve always been good at writing, and I’ve always wanted to do it for a living. Fifteen years later, I’m still not sure how, and I no longer have the disposable time and energy I had back then for trial and error.

I’m sure my teacher wasn’t taking the assignment that seriously. I’m sure he didn’t expect any of the kids to take it that seriously. It’s not like any of us were going to actually take this ten-year plan with us to high school, college, and the distant, hazy “real life” beyond.

I guess I’ve always taken things too seriously.

For the assignment, I compromised and said I would become a journalist, silently swearing that, in real life, I would never compromise and become a journalist. But then I grew up and still didn’t know how to “be a writer,” so I compromised and became a journalist.

As I expected, there aren’t any dragons or spaceships in journalism. Instead of princesses in castles, I write about millionaires and the mansions their neighbors won’t let them build. Instead of finding water on a faraway planet, I write about finding enough water for my town to drink in the drought. Instead of evil villains, I write about politicians – which some would say is the same thing, but it’s not. Not at all.

I’m exactly as happy as my 12-year-old self, thought I would be. It’s writing. It pays the rent. I’m trying, on the side, to find the time and energy to pursue what really matters to me, but most days, it takes everything I have just to survive my day job.

Would things have been different if my teacher had seized that teachable moment and given me some goals to work toward, even then, as young as I was – back when the stakes were so low, when staying up all night to work on a story was exciting, not exhausting? Maybe, maybe not. That moment in tech class was one of many, many moments that shaped me. Most of those moments were good. I can’t, and won’t, blame this one for where I am (or am not) today.

So it might be taking longer than I thought. I might not be famous yet. Or ever. I still don’t know where I’m going or how to get there, any more than I did when I was 12. But there’s something else that hasn’t changed: I still believe I can.

I’ll take the starving; just give me the art.

This post originally appeared on the Odyssey Online.