I get an email from my friend David late on the night of November 3rd, 2014.

“Yo,

Met this lady at the dog park today, Joyce. She does research around energy and ag at UW (University of Washington). Works with big data…her eyes lit up when I mentioned biochar. I told her you may be in touch.”

I shoot Joyce an email, and get a response at 4:45 am the next morning.

“Hi Kai (and David)

I had a project some years ago on biochar that moved forward to a MS thesis in the School of Forest Resources…although I am interested in all things sustainable my current research is on crops for food and biofuel…it seems you might start with Tom DeLuca, who is a great guy and may have some ideas for you.

HTH,

Joyce.”

 

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I’ll admit to not really researching Tom before I met him. When I walked into his office I realized I should have. The walls were filled with paintings of old white men, all slightly turned to the side, each with a far off look in their eye as though they were still thinking about what they’d just read. The sign on the door said: “Thomas DeLuca—Dean of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

It was 4:30 on a Friday night. He asked me about myself and I stumbled over a derailing narrative about homesteading in the San Juans and doing a journalism project on charcoal. I didn’t even mention Forage. Deans of graduate schools have things to do, and I could tell he was thinking about them.


How easy it would have been for him to give me 15 minutes, as I was what stood between him and his weekend. For all he knew, I was just a young guy interested in charcoal, a young guy he wasn’t getting paid to talk too. Instead we talked for more than 90 minutes.

 

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Dr. DeLuca took me through the experience of a forest fire. Let’s say it’s a dry August night in the San Juans and lightening hits a tall Douglas Fir. The tree torches and the fire travels to the smaller trees surrounding it. These trees, unlike mature ones, have not developed fire retardants in their bark. Small firs and cedars are basically large matches.

These smaller trees spread the fire among themselves, thinning the forest. These trees, along with the fallen logs and branches on the ground, turn to a combination of charcoal and ash. Ash is, in essence, highly concentrated nutrients. Charcoal works like a sponge for this nutrients. Holding a positive ionic charge, it bonds with the minerals and disperses them to plant roots over time, keeping these minerals in the top soil layers. The relationship between charcoal and ash means this nutrients will be available for other plants, and burning gives the more developed trees room to grow. We think of forest fires as a problem, but they are a part of the forest just as much as the trees. 

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