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Black Soil: An Ash Wednesday Reflection
Learning from biochar about the possibilities of new life
When the colonists first came to the depths of the Amazon, they did not find an empty space, occupied by natives in small bands and temporary dwellings. Instead, they found the structures of empires, the remains of large cities where people thrived in the thousands in the midst of the jungle depths.
It was strange to find such large settlements there because to live for any length of time in one place requires a sustained source of food, and such sources were beyond the capacity of hunting and gathering, even in the abundant amazon. Such settlement required some form of agriculture, but agriculture, also, seemed unlikely in the Amazon. With its highly acidic soil type and abundant rainfall, soil nutrients were quick to leach out under any cultivation. How was it, then, that the native people of that place were able to sustain large populations in such difficult conditions?
The answer, it seems, is ash. The Portuguese called it the “Black Soil of the Indians.” Modern agriculturalists call it biochar. Whatever the name, it is little different from the charcoal you use on a backyard grill—the remains of wood and other carbon rich materials burned in a low oxygen fire. When that charcoal was mixed into the soil, it had an almost miraculous effect, changing the carbon structure of the ground, creating a way to hold onto nutrients and become a haven for the myriad microbes that make a soil rich and life giving.
With the addition of carbon rich ash, the natives of the Amazon created a new soil ecosystem to support the life of the food they needed to grow, recognizing that their life depended on the flourishing of other lives. It worked because the charcoal, with its many pores and passages, created space for soil organisms to live. These soil organisms in turn unlocked the nutrients in the soil, emitted electrochemical pulses drawing plant roots down, and fixed nitrogen from the air for the plants to utilize. The charred wood also helped to retain water and it began to change the nature of the soil itself, allowing it to hold onto more nutrients by changing its chemistry.
Ash, when used in the right way, is a source of sustaining hope—a means by which we take what was dead and open it toward new life. But there is another kind of ash. When the colonists came, enslaving the native peoples of Latin America, raiding their villages for goods, the people had to flee. They went deep into the jungle, and they were unable to maintain the rich, soil feeding program of biochar. Instead, they began to engage what is now called slash and burn agriculture, where a patch of forest is cut and burned and is then used for agriculture for a season or two until the soil nutrients are depleted. The ash from this method is not the rich carbon of biochar but is instead the quickly burnt material of a people exploiting the natural world under the yoke of oppression. Such agriculture is still practiced in many places today, where the control of land is in tension and the poor are denied permanent access to the land.
Ash, then, can be of two kinds: it can be the sustained basis for life and growth, or it can be a part of the exploitation of quickly depleted land. Ash can be a source of renewal and flourishing, or it can be a source of exhaustion and abuse.
Today, priests across the Western Christian world will take ash, the black carbon of burned palm fronds, and they will smear it in the shape of a cross across the foreheads of the faithful saying “remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.” To remember that we are dust is meant to be a reminder of our status as mortal beings, but more so as human beings. The understanding of our scriptures is that our life and all animal life finds its basis in the soil, that we come from it and live from it and will return to it.
But remembering who we are and what we are, does not always turn us toward the kind of humility that renews our flourishing. To remember our death can just as well breed a rebellion against our end, against the joining of our lives with the soil, as it can be a call toward our living out the goodness we learn from the ground. All too often we seek to escape death by pretending that we are gods and since we are not, we must exploit the world for all the power we do not possess, putting down other lives, human and otherwise so that we can continue to live at a scale far beyond what is proper to the human capacity for love and care.
Our ecological crisis, the rising seas and burning forests and mass extinctions quietly underway every minute, are a result of such hubris. So are our wars, and all our varied exploitations of people near and far for profit and gain. It is hubris that makes it so that some of us can have lives of entertainment and distraction, busy striving and an excess of possessions with their myriad waste, all in an attempt to hold at bay the truth that our bodies will soon be soil, despite our best defenses.
But there is another way. It is the way of true humility, rooted in a closeness with the humus, the earth from which we came. It is the way of spiritual biochar, the path of cultivating flourishing of life from the soil of our soul so that space is made for more life, so that life giving water of our Baptism is held for nourishment and the nutrients of the way of Jesus are retained in the soil of our hearts for growth. When we receive this ash, it will depend on how we use our remembering as to whether it will become a source for us of renewal or a path of exploitation. Will we remember our death and then hold our lives lightly, giving freely, risking for the freedom of others? Or will we realize our mortality and do all we can to hold on to our lives, exploiting others and the Earth so that we can have more power and more things to insulate us from our inevitable end?
In humility and love, we are offered ash as an opportunity to cultivate the life of the Earth and one another. Will we kneel in this first step of our bending toward the ground, acknowledging our home is with the soil? Will we receive this ash as an invitation to the work of justice, the work of renewal for the Earth and all its creatures? If we do so, the prophet Isaiah promises:
“you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.”