Black earth, rich and moist, a chocolate cake of decayed plant matter and minerals, the “tsar of soils,” the mother of Mother Russia and the womb of grass and grains in the great plains: chernozem. Where chernozem lies there are few trees but much grass and whatever farmers plant. It is a soil found in a wide dark streak from southeastern Europe across the Urals into southern Siberia, and in a smaller curved stroke in the heart of North America, and in just a few other places – though similar soils are found elsewhere; the terra preta (also ‘black earth’) of Brazil, for example, is a rich black soil that traces back to clearing and burning more than a millennium ago by the indigenous peoples.
The black earth belt of chernozem in Ukraine and Russia is also thought to be the birthplace of the Indo-European languages, a family including nearly every language spoken in Europe (excepting Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, Sami, and a few others) as well as several spoken in Asia (including Hindi and Farsi). Language: our Promethean fire, speading a culture’s knowledge and particular way of speaking about the world – the staple crop and food of the mind. So what language does chernozem come from? Russian: чернозём, from чёрная ‘black’ (said like “chornaya”) and земля ‘earth’ (said like “zimlia”). In Russian it’s pronounced more like “chirnazyom” – that ё, so often mistakenly transliterated as e, is really pronounced more like “yaw.” In English we tend to say chernozem like “churn a zem” because we don’t know any better, and it would be quite unexpected in English to say it the Russian way given how we spell it. The black marks on the page may be there to record the words that passed through the air, but once they’re planted the speech roots itself in them.
Humans have been growing things in chernozem for longer than we have been writing things down. Notwithstanding that, chernozem has lately been threatened with loss in some places – in Russia, for instance, thanks to heavy mechanized agriculture that leaves the soil exposed, heavy planting that uses up the nutrients, and loss of windbreaks that would help keep the soil in place. Revised land management policies and replanting of windbreaks are helping to reverse this. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, although the land can’t legally be sold, the earth is being sold: in what could be used as a metaphor for the spread of Indo-European languages, the black soil is being loaded onto trucks to be taken elsewhere for planting.
It’s not that you can’t grow in other soil. But good earth is good earth. This is why the early Indo-European speakers lived there, it would seem: it was good for growing. Only… was it there because they were there? Remember the terra preta I mentioned above? Studies in the past 20 years have found that central European chernozem contains burned biomass dating to several millennia ago: grass and brush fires and perhaps forest fires. The fires could have been set by lightning or by humans (or, of course, both).
We don’t know whether the early humans chose to grow crops where there were chernozems, or whether there are chernozems there because that’s where they chose to grow crops, as is the case in the Amazon basin. But the Promethean gift of fire, for good and for bad, fostered the culture that spread across Europe and into India and took its tongue with it, ultimately acquiring from Afro-Asiatic languages the gift of letters, and so giving these black marks I am writing and you are reading, displayed by means of glass and enslaved lightning. From chernozem, ultimately, comes this: chernozem.