Even here in Xu Ling, where the air is relatively fresh, one needs to shower daily or the scalp itches. Yesterday we were asked in a class making Oregon cob whether you could use bean vines instead of straw. “Yes, but then it would not be Oregon cob. It would be Zhejiang cob,” we replied.
A woman from the Southwestern mountain region tells us she has only rock, not soil. “How do you store carbon in a place like that?” she asks. We ask where her rice comes from. “Far away,” she says. So we tell her that her yard would be a good place to build soil and store carbon. It is not a very satisfactory answer so later we find her and resume the conversation. We ask if her home has wooden doors and window shutters. It does. “That is stored carbon,” we say. We tell her that if she makes biochar and builds garden beds she can grow food almost anywhere and also store carbon. If she has a wood stove to heat her house and modifies it into a wood gasifier, she can be taking carbon out of the atmosphere while making fertilizer all winter. She could even get a little power for her house.
We didn’t bring along the Biolite so we have to settle for showing the Beaner and using the whiteboard to diagram how thermocouples make electricity. We find an old community kitchen wok and make biochar from dried bamboo splits, baking some potatoes while we do. We are informed that the Chinese word for “cool” is “ku.”
It is more than a little odd that some of these crafts have been so recently forgotten. In a recent study of composting practices for the State of Washington Department of Ecology, the authors recall the contributions of USDA scientist Frederick King:
Farmers of Forty Centuries. Dover, p. 193). As an indicator of the commercial value of this human waste he found that the city of Shanghai sold concessions to waste haulers, charging one contractor $31,000 in gold for the right to collect 78,000 tons of human waste for sale to farmers outside the city (p. 194). He found compost making to be a high art in Japan where prizes were offered in each county for the best compost. Winners at the county level went on to compete for a prize for best compost in the prefecture (p. 397). Although he did not specifically describe the use of charcoal in these composts, he observed that ash materials were added in large amounts. Moved by the thrift and care for conservation of nutrients that he observed on his travels, King expressed his frustration with the wasteful practices of his own country, "When we reflect upon the depleted fertility of our own older farm lands, comparatively few of which have seen a century's service, and upon the enormous quantity of mineral fertilizers which are being applied annually to them in order to secure paying yields, it becomes evident that the time is here when profound consideration should be given to the practices the Mongolian race has maintained through many centuries" (p. 193). Contrasting these Asian practices with those in America he said, "The rivers of North America are estimated to carry to the sea more than 500 tons of phosphorus with each cubic mile of water. To such loss modern civilization is adding that of hydraulic sewage disposal..." (p. 197).
Nor was mixing biochar into smelly wastes to remove the smell confined to Asia. "Poudrette" comes from a French term meaning "crumbs" or "powder," the main ingredient, after humanure, being powdered charcoal. As European city sanitary standards gradually improved, the contents of "dry closets" (as opposed to "water closets" that flowed into cesspools and sewers and thence to the river) were emptied and their contents hauled to the outskirts of cities and mixed with ashes, peat, gypsum, clay, lime and more charcoal. It seems likely this was also the origin of the dark earths of the Amazon.
“A dead rat, nicely buried in a cigar box so as to be surrounded at all points by an inch of charcoal powder, decays to bone and fur without manifesting any odor of putrefaction, so that it might stand on a parlor table and not reveal its contents to the most sensitive nostrils” (Unknown Author, The Garden, 1873).
“Charcoal also possesses the property of absorbing and retaining the odoriferous and coloring principles of most organic substances... From this deodorizing property, charcoal is frequently mixed with night soil, and other decaying manures; which it keeps free from smell, and at the same time aids in preserving, by absorbing the gases which would otherwise escape.“ — A Cyclopedia of Agriculture (Morton, 1855)
This exercise of raw power causes all manner of dislocations, as when the time-tested methods of organically farming these terraces for millennia were suddenly reversed by edicts from local authorities, requiring collection and “disposal” of all biowastes. That policy has reduced soil fertility and increased chemical dependencies, as well as burdening the already weak sewage treatment infrastructure.
Another example is when the Xu Ling labor force was suddenly uprooted and sent off to work in Apple and Microsoft gulags in Shenzhen. Now that these earnest young farmers know they must begin to rework the neglected hillsides to manage bamboo and mixed forests in order to restore biodiversity and save the valley’s fragile climate and water, will they be allowed?
We don’t know the answer to that, but we suspect they will. We are told Xi Jinping’s government plans to convert 5 billion square meters of Beijing reinforced concrete real estate into natural buildings. One of the students who has tracked China’s role in the Paris Agreement says that is probably the reason why. Another student has taken a Ianto Evans-style cob course from a US instructor named Leo. Leo apparently was pretty good because the kid knows his stuff. He could teach the builders that will be needed to transform that district in Beijing.
At first we enjoyed the simple diet here, which is predominantly vegan after the tastes of the ecovillage founders. But it began to wear thin after the first week of sameness.
There are more than 40 different kinds of tofu here, but we have to say the real Godsend for us was the kind that is fermented to taste like miso. Chinese are particular about their rice, and since they eat it three times a day we have found it passing strange that while tofu comes in all styles, textures, flavors and colors, rice comes in only two: fluffy and soupy. Never is any salt or other flavoring added. You are supposed to discern the subtle flavors in how rice is bred or grown in much the way a sommelier knows wines.
For us that little red cube was the perfect addition to bland, soupy rice. Our chopstick skills that we thought were pretty good (sushi being a favorite food for us) suddenly seemed pretty lame, as the mute testimony of our shirt-front confirmed. While we were dropping greasy asparagus tips and picking our lima beans from the lotus roots and slimy okra stir fries in our lap, our host Haichao was sipping soup with his chopsticks after the fashion of a kitten lapping milk from a bowl. Personal highpoint: the baked lotus tunas that look like sunchokes except that you are supposed to peel them before eating.
The second week we concluded the first permaculture teacher training workshop in rural Zhejiang and left behind a few dozen certified permaculture teachers. We travelled North to Nanjing to attend a seminar hosted by the International Biochar Initiative and the Asian Biochar Research Center at Nanjing Agricultural University. While living in a rustic mountain village has not been easy, spending time in a busy Chinese city is not something we are looking forward to.
On our final day we decide to visit the grandmother who is the village tofu maker and watch her perform her weekly ritual. She starts very early boiling the beans and skimming off the skins, then grinding the milk and bringing it back to a boil. For a small, frail woman with skin like leather, she refuses to let anyone help her as she moves heavy buckets and stirs her cauldrons. The boiling milk is ladled into a wooden basin and she doses it sparingly with a liquified potassium salt to get it to curdle. It takes several small adjustments of the curding agent before it begins to separate the way she wants, and then she ladles off the curds into her pail — an old 5-gallon metal paint can — and carries the full bucket of hot curd out to an alley, where she sets up the wooden press and lines it with a well-worn cheesecloth. After several more trips, the press is full and she squeezes the cloth and sets a wood lid on the press and a full bucket of whey to weight it down. The tofu will sit this way for perhaps a few hours to form a solid block, which she then comes back to invert onto a tabletop, unveil, and slice into half-kilo bricks. As we wait for the pressing, we look around her shop at the tools, the old Mao posters and calendars, an award of some kind from her younger days, and the barred windows that keep thieves from stealing her soybeans.
Seasons come seasons go
Good years bad years all flow
This tofu is excellent
— Xu Ling Village, Zhejiang, October 14, 2016
This is third in a continuing series.