Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cross Training: Of Bikes and Biochar

Having just returned home with my panniers full of groceries is proof that, despite my lapse of blogging, I haven’t quit biking. But for the last few weeks my biking distances have barely exceeded my swimming and walking. No, I’m not training for a triathlon, not that I know of anyway. In fact, my physical prowess has slowed down to where I can almost hear the grim reaper swishing the air around me with his scythe. In fact I swear I can feel him hacking away at my right arm now trying to chop it off.

Well, maybe it isn’t that bad, but it is now with difficulty that I put on my coat and sling my pack over my back, let alone load my bike on a metro bus. That’s because of a flare up of my polymyalgia rheumatica resulting in a huge increase in pain and stiffness. The doctor suggested that I go back on prednisone which is a steroid. I have refused to do that. Instead I’m trying everything from massage to castor oil to Chinese herbal medicine, but what seems to be helping most is my new triathletic cross training.

I can’t believe my good fortune that, as a senior citizen and Group Health member, I am eligible for free membership in the YMCA which has a swimming pool and hot tub. Getting there and back requires a couple of miles walking to and from the light rail station. Why don’t I bike the two miles? I would except that Cherry Street between the Pioneer Square Station and the Y is a virtual cliff.

Partly to keep my mind off such petty woes, I have also been sitting around in classrooms lately doing some cross training of the brain, getting myself boned up on weightier matters like climate change (the planet’s pain). Previously I had thought bicycling instead of motoring would make the greatest possible individual impact on reducing climate change. But this past weekend I rode Amtrak with my husband down to Portland and attended a four day conference called Ecoconvergence. There I learned so much my brain hurt almost as bad as my other muscles. I attended one panel on climate solutions expecting someone to at least mention alternative transportation, i.e., bicycling. Instead they were pushing something I had never heard of: biochar. I have just discovered my spell checker hasn’t heard of it either. Have you?

Jerry Adams, the guy touting biochar, said that all human activity combined emits substantially less CO2 than does the plant matter rotting in the world’s farms, forests, and compost piles. That includes the ones in your back yard and mine. To make biochar they take dry, dead plant matter and burn it in a contraption that doesn’t let the smoke and fumes out but rather uses them to keep the plant matter smoldering. The type of burning is called pryolysis. There are elaborate machines designed to make biochar, but Jerry said you could make a simple device in your back yard out of a covered barbecue pit.

By making biochar instead of letting plant matter rot, you prevent CO2 from getting into the air and warming the planet. What’s left after you burn the plant matter is biochar which is an extremely rich fertilizer that could enhance the soil for hundreds to thousands of years. Jerry said the Pre-Columbian Amazonian natives used to make biochar to enhance soil productivity by smoldering agricultural waste. My explanation here is, of course oversimplified, but if you want to learn more go to:

No, I’m not going to stop biking and start cutting down the jungle of blackberries and knockweed in my back yard to make biochar. Instead I’m going to bike and blog around talking about it. I hope to help promote WECHAR, the Harvesting and Restoration Act of 2009 which has been introduced into the US Senate. Maybe I could even convince the City of Seattle to use its yard waste collection to make biochar. That way they would not only cut CO2 emissions in the City air, they could even sell their extra biochar for profit. Maybe that would boost the City budget enough that the wouldn’t have to cut any bike lanes or trails.


John said...

Hello "Old Lady on a Bike",
I thought you might be interested to know that I am about to publish my new book called Biochar Gardener. Details will soon be posted at ... seems like you and I are thinking along the same lines.

Lucy said...

Thanks for the info on biochar. I hadn't heard of it before. It sounds like a good technique for "we the people" to make a difference with our own gardens and with yard waste. I have sent the info to my husband in Senegal where we have a farm to see if he can create a way to use the method and pass the info along to other farmers he works with via a manual he is part of writing on organic agriculture for Africa.