Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua trees against the mountains. (2017) by Protopian Pickle Jar. CC BY-SA 2.0

Back in January, I had just returned to cold, snowy Michigan from a few days in California, including a detour to Joshua Tree National Park. Southern California was unseasonably warm and dry (which was pretty good for a vacation, but not so great for the long term hydration of plants, animals and humans.) I was amazed by the alien landscape of prickly plants and fantastical rock formations.

Eroded monzogranite rock formation with human.

Toby and I explored at the different sites through the park. The whole National Park is quite enormous, the only parts that are easily accessible to visitors are located off the major road. Being the week between Christmas and New Years, the park felt packed with human visitors from all over the world. However, just moving a little distance down the path, we were able to get a sense of the wildlife and plants in this transition zone between Mojave and Colorado desert ecosystems.

Desert varnish or just natural coloration on rocks?
Desert trumpet (Eriogonum sp.) flower in bloom .
Tiny desert home in dry wash near Quail Springs.

Sometimes the strangeness of the surroundings felt like being on another planet, or being on the bottom of a deep ocean.

Humans outnumbered by cacti at cholla gardens.

Snow pants, ready!

These steps may be closed for winter, but the outdoors are wide open! Steps closed for winter by Protopian Pickle J (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

retro legwarmers

One of the things that I have learned since moving to Michigan is that cold & snowy weather is not really an excuse for staying inside. Instead, you wrap your shivering limbs in multiple layers of warm clothing, then top everything off with an insulated and waterproof shell of coat, gloves, boots and snowpants.

Photo left: A good first step. Now to get off the couch and get outside! Retro legwarmers by Protopian Pickle Jar (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0.

(Also important: hats, scarves or other face covering, but need not be waterproof if inside your crunchy tardigrade*-shell of outer gear.)

Tangent: Tardigrades are microscopic animals, also known as water bears, that are tolerant of extreme cold, dessication and other environmental insults. I also think they are extremely cute. Photo below : Water Bear by Aditya Sainiarya (2015) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Between the ages of 1 and 6, I lived with my family near Milwaukee, WI, where a similar winter climate necessitated my adult caregivers bundling me up in many layers of protective insulation. At some point, I must have learned how to bundle myself, because I remember pulling on bib-style snowpants, “moon boots,” lovingly-knitted wool hats, and those mittens that would clip to the inside of your coat sleeves with metal alligator clips.

tardigrade baby
Bundled baby in the snow. Cute snowsuit provides slight resemblance to a tardigrade. Public domain via Pxhere.

Maybe my early years in Wisconsin are the source a vague sense of nostalgia I felt when pulling on my snowpants and snow boots to staff winter break camp at the Nature Center. During first week of January 2018, daily highs hovered around 10 deg F (-12 deg C). To determine a safe amount of time we could spend outside in the cold, we referred to the NOAA windchill chart. As long we were in the “safe zone” with regards to air temp and wind speed, we could let appropriately bundled kids stay outside up to about 30 minutes.

Our day was a mosaic of inside/outside transitions around planned activities.

  • Kids Arrive: Take off coats, snowpants, boots etc for morning stations and welcome circle indoors.
  • Morning Activity: Put on snowpants, coats, boots etc. for morning hike outdoors.
  • Warm-up interlude and snack: Remove boots, coats and snowpants.
  • (Repeat with additional indoor/outdoor activities, warm up interludes including lunch and afternoon snack, until 5:30pm when parents arrive to pick up kids.)

Which leads to the following exchange:

New Camper: This is my first time at winter break camp! What do we do here?

Me: Well, we have a lot of cool activities planned. But we mostly put on and take off our snowpants.

Our nature center, accordingly to popular acclaim, hosts one of the finest sledding hills in Ann Arbor. This means that we incorporate sledding as an outdoor activity whenever possible during the course of the day’s activities.

Terminal displacement

Cancellation & rebooking of my connecting flight at Chicago – O’Hare airport cause a distinct sense of displacement. I find air travel disorienting at best. The unexpected 5 hour layover until the next flight to Detroit just adds to the dreamlike feeling of unreality. 

Hydroponic airport garden. By PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

Airports, with their continual flow of humans in transit, in between destinations, are liminal spaces. 

Here, the boundaries between Buffalo and Hilo, Hawaii, between tropical & ice-bound, between here & there, are blurred. 

 The usual confines of time and space, which keep memories at bay, are but fragile membranes.  Amid the crowds of strangers with intersecting paths, there lie possibilities of unlikely encounters. Exes, enemies, frenemies…who knows what stray glances might meet in the fray of holiday travelers? 

I walk, feeling strangely light while carrying my heavy parka. I surreptitiously scrutinize strangers, both hopeful & fearful of finding a familiar face.

I slurp the sweetened tapioca slugs of iced bubble tea through an oversized straw, an airport treat.

 I do not recognize anyone.  

A strong sense of relief washes over me at my apparent anonymity.  It seems my past (though I carry it with me like my battered backpack), will not confront me tonight. 

Past precipitate

It’s been a week since my last post and I’m still thinking about salt.  Salt mines. Road salt. Sea salt. Waking up in the middle of night and drinking several glasses of water because dinner was too salty.   (You also can’t make a batch of lactofermented pickles without some salt.)

All aboard the salt train! Salt in cars on train tracks underground in a Carey Lyons salt mine, By undergrounddarkride CC BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I was disappointed to find out that the salt mines under Detroit are not open to the public for tours.  However,  if you head to Hutchinson, KS (also home to the Kansas
Cosmophere), you can check out the tours at Strataca: The Kansas Underground Salt Museum. These Wellington formation salt deposits are the remnants of another inland sea that once covered part of Kansas 275 million year ago during the Permian Era.

I remember learning in 6th grade social studies that salt was a major trade item in the kingdoms of ancient Africa. Check out this National Geographic video from Taoudenni, Mali of salt mining and transportation, similar to the process that took place hundreds of years ago. The workers cut slabs of salt from the beds, which traders load onto camel caravans to transport across the desert to Timbuktu.

Salt Selling at Mopti Mali by Robin Young (2003) CC By 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Taoudenni salt deposits are relatively recent Holocene (geologically speaking). Lakes covered this area about 9000-4000 years ago. As the climate changed, the lakes eventually evaporated, leaving salt deposits behind.

To produce sea salt, harvestersevaporate seawater in shallow ponds. (Technically, mined salt is also sea salt, from sea water that evaporated a really long time ago.) Various dissolved salts precipitate (crystallize) out of seawater at different rates.

Satellite photo of San Francisco Bay salt ponds, taken in 2002 {{PD-USGov-NASA}} via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the challenges of producing modern sea salt is the presence of microplastics left behind by evaporating seawater. Karami et al (2017) tested 17 commercially produced sea salts from 8 countries for microplastic particles. These tiny bits of plastic wash out in our laundry wastewater, or photodegrade from larger pieces of plastic floating around in the ocean. Eventually, ocean circulation brings those tiny plastic bits to even remote locations (like the very bottom of the ocean). From the report, “Due to their low density and slow degradation, plastics are becoming the chief cross-border contaminant that often travels far from their original source. Hence, [microplastics] found in the salt samples of one country could have been produced by another country thousands of miles away. ”

For more about microplastics pollution, check out my posts here and here.

Memories of an Ancient Shallow Sea

Running low on salt, by A. Drauglis, (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr.

This morning, I woke up to the rumble of salt trucks and snow plows. Southeast Michigan is experiencing the first significant snowfall of the season this week. The mood is varied (depending on who you ask) with emotions of delight, annoyance and resigned acceptance (sometimes all mixed together).

While the kid part of my personality checks the school closings for a snow day first thing (810 today in Metro Detroit!), the grownup part (with the driver’s license) is very grateful for my car’s snow tires, the snow removal crews and copious amounts of rock salt sprinkled on the roads. Salt, when added to the wintry roads, keeps the slush and melted snow from re-freezing by depressing the freezing point of water. When salt molecules dissolve in a film of liquid water on top of ice, these dissolved substances alter the way that water molecules can line up to freeze. It takes a lower temperature to freeze water with stuff dissolved in it.

Much of the rock salt used this area is actually mined from salt deposits 1100 feet beneath Metro Detroit. (For more about the history and mining process of the Detroit Salt mines check out The Detroit Salt Co. page.)

These salt layers are what remains of a shallow saltwater sea that once covered this area around 410 million years ago. This ancient “Great Lakes region” (which is a little confusing, because the Great Lakes wouldn’t form for another 400 million plus years), was located near the equator. Coral reefs allowed some water in, but limited exchange with the larger ocean. The seawater got saltier and saltier as the water evaporated in this hot climate.

salt deposits at the Dead sea
Maybe the salty sea looked something like this. Halite deposits on the western Dead Sea coast, Israel. by Mark A. Wilson (2012) CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually, the salt (and other minerals) would precipitate in layers from the super salty water that sank to the sea bottom. By the end of the Silurian period (390 mya), this inland sea completely dried up, leaving only the salt deposits behind. (I highly recommend checking out MSU Prof. Randall J. Schaetzl’s online resources about Great Lakes geology.)

I like to think about how the salt spread on the local roads (even though it contributes to potholes, cars rusting and water pollution) is a connection in deep time to sunny days on an ancient sea. Right here, in this place (but not this latitude), now and 400 million years ago.

Soil Carbon Stash and other stories

From the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, via

In case you missed it, this past Tuesday, December 5th, was World Soil Day! (I realize I  commemorated it belatedly last year, too.) Maybe soil is a little like the heroine of “Sixteen Candles,” ignored on her birthday while chaos rages all around her. It’s easy to take soil for granted, even as it stands as this firmament beneath our feet. But don’t worry, soil, whether you’re caught in our fingernails or nitrogenating below a blanket of snow, plenty of folks are thinking about how awesome you are.

In the New York Times, Jacque Leslie wrote a cheerful editorial on the potential of managing agricultural soils for carbon storage. The Twitterverse brought it to my attention as one of my colleagues declared a resolution to begin worm composting in the New Year. (Does adding worms or worm castings to soil increase net soil carbon storage? Possibly.)

Red wigglers
Earthworms make terrific pets! Red wigglers! by Protopian Pickle Jar (2017), CC-BY-SA 2.0, on Flickr

Marcia DeLonge at the Union of Concerned Scientists has a great blog post up with links to interesting soil news around the Web.

Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura describes how windborne dust contibutes nutrients to plants in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

At Forbes, Jeff McMahon explores the incentives Texas farmers could use to manage their property for carbon sequestration.

The amazing folks at the Land Institute in Salina, KS are doing some pretty nifty research on creating prairie agricultural ecosystems, including the development of perennial crops. These perennials plants help stash more soil organic matter conventional agriculture with annual plants. One of these perennial grains they’ve developed, Kernza, is now available fermented into beer!

Comparison of wheat roots to those of Thinopyrum intermedium in four seasons
By Dehaan (Jerry Glover) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

We love you, soil. We might call you “dirt” sometimes, but we mean it fondly.

New England Utopian Gothic

bare tree with bumpy trunk and branches
Winter tree on Johnson Road, Falls Village, CT by Protopian Pickle Jar (2013) CC By-SA 2.0 on Flickr

This weekend, I am returning to Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT for the ADVA (ADamah-TEva) Reunion. I am excited to reconnect with fellow alumni of these farming and environmental education programs.  I fully expect to use the phrases “transformative,” “sitting with it,” and “liminal space” unironically.  I hope to eat copious amounts of delicious fermented vegetables, hug the goats and tactfully admire the chickens (because chickens don’t really enjoy being hugged all that much.) I want to go for a walk in the woods,tell jokes about lichen, give nitrogen to a tree and pet the moss on the rocks.

And I’m bracing myself for the inevitable (but brief) sense of displacement and disappointment, because the Isabella Freedman to which I expect to return doesn’t really exist outside my imagination. The real Isabella Freedman is pretty great (and I’ll be able to immerse myself in all of the above activities in beloved holy community.) However, Nostalgic Isabella Freedman exists somewhere shared between my mind and the collective memory of fragile New England Utopias.

Colorful compost bucket by Protopian Pickle Jar (2013) CC BY-SA 2.0, on Flickr

While Isabella Freedman is at its heart a Retreat Center for people from the city to come hang out in nature, the life of its farming participants and on-site staff evokes shades of the idealistic communes dotting the landscape of 19th century New England. There’s the Oneida Community (1848-1881), famous for complex marriage and their successful flatware business. Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women)’s father founded the short-lived Fruitlands in the 1840s. Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter), was a founding member of Brook Farm.  Hawthorne based his novel, The Blithedale Romance, on his experiences at Brook Farm.

I first read The Blithedale Romance shortly after my experiences as a ADVAnik at Isabella Freedman. At that point, I missed the place so much I was toying with the idea of writing a series of fan fiction stories about a retreat center called “Isadora Feldman” where crunchy, privileged idealists pet goats, sustain unrequited romantic crushes and eat buckets of fermented vegetables. And maybe encounter supernatural and creepy folkloric circumstances while immersed in a cheerfully gothic New England community.

Anyway, reading the Blithedale Romance made me realize that Nathaniel Hawthorne had beaten me to the punch by about 160 years. I was astonished by Hawthorne’s eerily accurate description of the residents’ sartorial choices:

[W]e all of us seemed to have come to Blithedale with the one thrifty and laudable idea of wearing out our old clothes… in short, we were a living epitome of defunct fashions, and the very raggedest presentment of men who had seen better days. It was gentility in tatters… Little skill as we boasted in other points of husbandry, every mother’s son of us would have served admirably to stick up for a scarecrow.

How did he know that we dressed in a combination of thrift store finds, remnants from the retreat center lost-and-found bin, and communal garments bequeathed from cohort to cohort in the Beit Adamah coat closet? In the words of Kohelet, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

clothing drying on clothesline near pine trees
Clothesline by Protopian Pickle Jar, (2013) CC by SA 2.0, on Flickr

Anyway, so I’m packing my wool socks and long underwear for my trip. My nostalgia is coming along too, with its layer of cracking yellowed varnish. Maybe something new and wonderful is waiting in those woods and fields. I’d also take old and comfortable, like well broken-in pair of boots. And occasionally fizzy, like a jar of lacto-fermented pickles. Because you can never have too many pickles.