Modern society likes to think that it invented agriculture sometime in the not too distant past. And, yes, while we’ve made huge advances in our ability to grow food for an ever-expanding human population, what really happened is we precipitated the demise of native cultures, native crops, traditional farming, biodiversity, soil health and general environmental collapse. Our technological advances and cleverness are nothing but a façade for a failing agricultural industry.
Just over a century ago, in 1918, Fritz Haber received the Nobel prize for devising a method for creating the building blocks of artificial nitrogen. This led to the development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and the advent of the Green Revolution. Today, these fertilizers are used extensively around the world for productive but very destructive farming practices. Thankfully, there are those engaged in the growing movement of regenerative farming, which looks at old ways, ancient practices and wisdoms as a way to revitalize and regenerate the Earth and all that depend upon it. The old saying that what’s new is old and what’s old is new is certainly true for biochar, one of the oldest most beneficial tools we have for regenerative farming and revitalizing the planet’s arable lands.
Deep in the Amazon region there are soils referred to as terra preta, or black soil, which date back over 2000 years, suggesting that Amazonian peoples understood not only the value of rich soils, but actually knew how to make them. Terra preta are not soils of normal geologic processes, but rather amended with rich charcoal deposits and organic materials. So-called modern cultures knew nothing of terra preta until at least 1870 and only within the last 10 years has notice been given of its value to agriculture. Today, what we know is that biochar, a charcoal-like substance derived from organic materials, provides immediate opportunities for agriculture during these times of unprecedented change.
Biochar is derived from organic (most commonly woody) materials that are burned at very high temperatures for short periods before being extinguished. Once they are extinguished they preserve their rough exoskeleton and cavernous structure of internal micropores and channels where nutrients, water, and beneficial microbes can be “stored” in a sort of sponge used to absorb excesses in the soil and release them back again as the soil environment requires. They provide a balanced resilience against extremes that are often found in soils with low organic matter, low biological activity and inherent infertility. And while composts, wood chips and even the soil have inherent capacities to do similar things, the three-dimensional inner architecture of biochar gives it a buffering capacity and resiliency that is unmatchable. Even well-balanced soils benefit from the addition of this product. The biochar process accelerates the transformation of woody debris to useful material, whereas natural decomposition, for example compost, simply breaks down the material. As we have learned from the terra preta, biochar is a sturdy resilient product that can last for millenia.
If you think about the nature of plants, the stem, branch, trunk and even roots, they are made up of cellulose layers, pores, and channels. This network is an organic labyrinth filled with a complex of sugars, minerals, fats, and proteins. Some flow through, others comprise the very architecture of a plant’s skeleton. When these plants are burned for biochar, they are not burned to disintegrate them, but to evacuate them of their fluids and create an environment ripe for occupation by microbial life, minerals, sugars and gasses to be exchanged with and by the surrounding environment of soil, macro and microbial life, roots, water and air. Not to oversimplify, but biochar is a veritable living sponge that works to balance all that exists in the subterranean life. Too much outside and the biochar will absorb, too little and it releases to the relief of all that depend on its gifts.
In an age where we are rapidly learning the downsides to our agricultural stupidity, something Rudolf Steiner and others saw over a century ago, we have yet another tool as a way to bolster the organic and biodynamic practices many of us already use. Biochar, for all its complexity, is about as simple as it gets, and like compost, is something you can make in your own backyard. It doesn’t take much biochar to make a difference. As little as half a ton of biochar per acre–a mere sprinkling on the surface of your farm, garden or orchard–can make a difference in soil fertility.
Working in the garden has helped me conquer my fears and be one with the Earth and our ancestors. I talk and sing to the gardens while I’m weeding, watering or just checking on them.
I not only help them grow and feel appreciated, I also feel the ancestors with me. What I’m doing feels right and makes me proud. – Holly LaFrance, Kikawinno (Field-maker), Missisquoi Abenaki
Indigenous gardening is more than a Three Sister’s garden or a Green Corn Ceremony. It is a way of life that defines a person’s identity, health and home. The Wabanaki people, the People of the Dawn, have suffered 400 years of atrocities from disease, war, genocide and oppression, but there are still those threads of ancestral seed, field and farmer connections that have persisted despite all of this historical trauma.
Three pivotal events led to the repair of this almost-severed connection. In 2007, an unknown corn cultivar was restored to the Koas Abenaki people of the upper Connecticut River Valley by a family who had cherished it since the late 1700s. Two years later, Nulhegan Abenaki Chief Luke Willard shared his family’s ancestral upland conical mound and floodplain linear mound agro-engineering systems for his tribe’s state recognition documentation. In November of 2012, Haudenosaunee seed- and traditions-keeper Steve McComber shared seven Abenaki cultivars known to his people that needed rematriation with his eastern neighbors.
Immediately, these tiny leads connecting back to an almost forgotten garden world were explored and consolidated by the Seeds of Renewal Project under my supervision. New cultivars arrived in seed-collection jars from cold hill farms of Vermont, tiny multi-ethnic villages on the south shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and professional Native American seed preservationists from Alberta to Colorado. In 2013, the plants began to teach us ancestral botanical knowledge. We discovered that Morrisville sunflowers made perfect trellises for Norridgewock beans that had smothered three-foot-high Koas corn, and that tall plants did not like the Nulhegan-style floodplain planting mounds. We took the Green Corn song, Rain Dance, Four Directions chant and Sun Dance from the world of modern pow-wow performances and recontextualized them in their original setting and purpose.
In 2014, elders, knowing that we were on a good path, began sharing fragments of lost ancient horticultural ceremonies. First came the New Year’s Forgiveness Moon, which correlated the solar and lunar calendars. Then came teachings around the Harvest Dinner and Green Corn Dance. In 2016, an obscure, out-of-print Abenaki cookbook with recipes from elders long passed was discovered. In 2019, the Shooting Fire Solstice Ceremony was restored. Lapsed Abenaki names for crop, field, pest, nurture and ceremony were rediscovered from the pages of the Western Abenaki Dictionary and from traditional songs and restored to their own place, time and ecology. In a series of magical moments, we effortlessly learned from our elders and the plants themselves, thereby completing the first endeavour of an ancestral Abenaki Food System.
Thoughtful Ancestral Care
By 2018, the Vermont Abenaki community had enough fragments of their lost garden culture in hand to begin a noble experiment in biocultural restoration. We reunited Abenaki people, plants and ceremony as best we could and let them intermingle through the cycles and seasons of Sun and Moon.
Fields were opened at the Vermont Indigenous Heritage Center, the Intervale Center, and the University of Vermont Horticultural Farm in Burlington, Vermont. These fields were blessed with ancestral Abenaki ceremony and planted with ancestral Abenaki cultivars, by or under the direction of Abenaki gardeners. They were nurtured by Sun and ceremony and later harvested with Abenaki-made tools and baskets.
The plants either grew like weeds or stubbornly refused to grow, depending on the type of field, soil and fertilizer. We learned the value of fish fertilizer for the corn, the proper spacing of the mounds to allow for the enormous East Montpelier squash vines, and exactly when the Calais corn was ripe enough for the Green Corn Ceremony. We saw ecology at its best–Hardwick ground cherries prevented Japanese beetles from attacking the strangely susceptible Norridgewock beans.
Abenaki field-makers, including Holly, began to recapture ancestral wisdom from the memory encoded in the plants, soils and seasons.
Restoration of Wonder
The gardens were outside the rhythm of modern life. Their environmental and calendrical demands were simple, primal and direct: Care for us or you will fail your responsibility. As the growing plants taught field-makers to observe infinite nuances of growth, disease and growing conditions, the healing Indigenous eye, ear and heart slowly became aware of the wonders in and around the restored fields.
Eagles and ospreys, rarely seen in the Winooski River Valley, began doing routine flyovers. Sounds at the edge of hearing with wisps of mist and shadow in the corner of the eye and the fleeting aroma of long-extinct campfires made almost daily appearances. Indigenous people visiting from out west felt like they were at home in a faraway land. We do not know where the enchantment lay–in land, spirit, subconscious or heightened awareness of the seemingly mundane.
Restoration of Health
As wonder became normal and awe became routine, a heretofore mysterious balance was restored in that tiny evolving biocultural ecosystem in the Winooski Valley to the east of The Lake Between, now known as Lake Champlain. The most obvious effect was a reversal of yet unknown depth and breadth of the effects of centuries of intergenerational trauma, identity confusion and cultural loss.
Kikawinno Holly LaFrance says it best: …I didn’t know my heritage, customs or who I am. I was depressed and stressed. I’m coming out of my shell, by drumming and singing. I not only have hardly any stress, but my panic attacks are few and far between. I sleep better and no longer wake up with night terrors. I greet each day with a smile, smudge and thank the Creator for another day. I’m connected to the land in a good way. I used to be ashamed of who I am, now I’m proud.
Fred Wiseman is a paleoecologist who authored Seven Sisters, published by Earth Haven Learning Centre. This book shares his discovery of ancient seeds and food systems of the Wabinaki people and the Chesapeake Bay region in eastern North America.
Barefeet, dirty nails, cheeks caked with soil, clothes weathered by the elements, the smell of earth lingering in the air...getting lost in long grass, playing hide and seek in fields, singing camp songs while pulling out weeds...sitting under a canopy of blueberry branches while filling my mandatory bucket and having the occasional forbidden blueberry fight in the berry fields...
Dishes piled high and floors waxed with freshly-soiled feet as brothers and sisters run in and out of the house to fill tummies, and play in between the farm responsibilities of looking after animals, picking beans, sorting carrots and cleaning blueberries...
The long hot days of summers on the farm had a beat of their own. There was a seamless rhythm that flowed between inward contemplation and outward expression. Creativity and free play were encouraged while routines and expectations were simultaneously enforced....
This was my childhood. I am the oldest of 12 children. Our farm was the fabric that knit our family together and we in turn melded the farm. Growing up on Forstbauer Family Natural Food Farm in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia with soil built up between my toes was a journey of connection, advocacy and flow.
My dad, Hans, was the rock that laid the foundation for the farm. His gift was stewarding the land while sharing his wisdom, insights and visions with my mom. My mom, Mary, was his window to the world. She had the gift of listening, compiling and generously sharing his insights with nearby communities where they were discussed, explored and implemented.
Together, Mary and Hans, along with many of their friends in the organic community, created the framework and standards for certified organic growers and farmers in Canada. All the while, my parents incorporated biodynamic principles into their farming practices. Grandfather had studied Rudolph Steiner’s work and practiced biodynamics; it was a part of our family lineage.
Growing up I was drawn toward biodynamics because the philosophies and practices made sense to me on an intrinsic level. Without really knowing much about it, it just felt right…and I knew I wanted to learn more.
In 1990, I was 19 years old when I endured a concussion and some injuries from a car accident. I was having a hard time healing from these injuries, and within a year, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. My health was declining rather than improving.
Thankfully I met an incredible woman who introduced me to Polarity Therapy. After just 10 sessions I noticed an improvement in my health, memory and overall well-being. I went on to study Polarity and became a Certified Polarity Therapist.
What fascinated me about Polarity Therapy was how much it reminded me of biodynamics–the elements, the energy, the consciousness, the cosmos, planetary impact, thought-awareness and self-awareness.
Biodynamics taught me that Earth is a living organism that we are all a part of, not separate from it. Polarity taught me that energy, or the flow of energy is the blueprint of all health and that we are not separate from each other, or even separate from Earth for that matter, but that everything and everyone is connected.
I found great joy connecting people to their healing abilities and their inner wisdom. I practiced Polarity Therapy and went on to launch a coaching and speaking career in which I taught people about wellness and how to be healthy, even when they had no time.
In 2003, my life changed again. This time, I endured a major brain injury from another car accident. When I woke up I didn’t know my name, who I was or that I had just written my first book. My healing journey from that brain injury was long and arduous. It challenged my beliefs and learnings on every level.
It taught me that healing is not a destination, nor an endpoint. It is not a healed bone, illness or disease; it is embracing who we are and where we are in this very moment. That is healing. Healing is meeting ourselves and others with compassion and grace, no matter the circumstances.
In 2019, after my TedX talk, Brain Injury to Brain Upgrade, I was ready to share my story on healing from my brain injury to help others navigate their journey toward health and healing.
In 2019, I set aside three days to map out my business plan to help people heal from the inside out so they could live meaningful, fulfilled and healthy lives. I thought I would be teaching them all about brain health.
Partway through the planning session we did a visioning of our greatest calling. The vision I had made me pause and take notice. It was not of healthy people dancing, being active and living healthy lives. It was a vision of a new Earth where everything flowed. What stood out was the Earth.
The colours were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, vibrant, energetic, almost dancing. Energy was no longer taken or given but freely exchanged, shared and amplified. It flowed. Life flowed. All of Earth was in a balance.
There were new ways of living, growing food, building infrastructure, working in unity with Nature. All of Earth was in continual regeneration, harmony, sustainability, peace and love. Humanity lived with purpose, intention and unity for all. Our actions aligned with Nature.
It reconnected me to when I was 18 years old, to the time and place where I had witnessed the miracle of seeing dirt that had been destroyed by agrochemicals turn into living soil right before my eyes. That was when I discovered that Earth can heal itself and that healthy soil is teeming with life.
This vision showed me how my mission on Earth was to amplify the need for global regeneration and planetary health through the way we grow foods, the way we buy foods, the way we work with Nature and the way we nurture a more loving and conscious relationship with our home we call Earth. This is my calling.
We are not separate from Earth, but ONE with Earth. How do we manifest that and be co-creators with her? We let Nature lead. We come together. We share knowledge generously. We amplify what we are learning. We let go of what no longer serves us. We have grace, compassion and respect for ourselves and each other. We lift one another up. We connect with our hearts and regenerate the soil.
Now is the time to connect children, parents, farmers and gardeners to the magic of Nature and to the rhythms of Earth so that we can grow healthy food and have a beautiful vibrant planet to live on for generations to come.
From this vision I went on to launch Heart & Soil Magazine in January, 2020. The magazine’s goal is to amplify global regeneration and planetary health through the way we grow our food using regenerative, organic and biodynamic practices. Our magazine features farmers, gardeners, consumers, scientists, leaders, organizations and philosophers who inspire and motivate readers to think globally and act locally.
In 2015, my mom, Mary Forstbauer, left this Earth saying, “My biggest message is to teach children to love the land and to love the food they eat. In this way, they will become great people in the circle of life.”
Imagine a world where we love the land and love the food we eat.
Natalie Forstbauer is an organic and biodynamic farmer, trained in alternative medicine, a TEDx speaker and author of Health in a Hurry: Simple Solutions for the Time Starved. She is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Heart & Soil Magazine, a digital publication dedicated to regenerative farming and gardening. www.heartandsoilmagazine.com
The following video is an interview that appeared in Heart & Soil Magazine's December 2021 issue. Natalie Forstbauer, publisher of Heart & Soil Magazine engages with Rosemary Tayler and Kathryn Aunger, creators of the Celestial Planting Calendar to help readers and users of the planting calendar understand the unique colour coding and how to work with the calendar.