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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
We love you, soil. We might call you “dirt” sometimes, but we mean it fondly.
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.
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.”
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.
I admit that I am a Twitter novice. I signed up for an account back in 2015 shortly after creating a WordPress blog, mostly out of idle curiosity, in an attempt to get the Twitter widget to work on my WP page. I mostly use Twitter for reading articles (Yay Science Twitter!), following authors I like, and retweeting funny pictures of cute animals and/or inanimate objects. I have tweeted links to my (very occasional) new PPJ posts, but per my WP stats page, am not sure this has actually had any effect on readership.
On Twitter, as on all other forms of social media/electronic interaction, I attempt to be pleasant and polite. I don’t want to be a troll! (Unless I can be one of Ursula Vernon’s bridge trolls). But somehow, my real-life social awkwardness also translates into the digital realm. I don’t leave many replies, so I was particularly surprised when upon leaving what I thought was a fairly innocuous (if inarticulate) message, resulted in being immediately blocked from the original poster’s feed.
This hurt my feelings, which I realize is kind of ridiculous. Maybe the Twitter immune system read me as either “Troll” or “TwitterBot.” Or the original poster thought my comment was dumb or offensive (It wasn’t intended to be, but I concede that it might be!) While I feel a certain kinship with the poster after following their Twitter feed for a few months, it is definitely a one-sided relationship. They do not know me, aside from the handle @ProtopianPickle, which in retrospect, is the kind of nonsensical name associated with AI-generated accounts.
So Twitter users, I am sorry. I will try to do better next time! And leave more intelligible, and less awkward, replies.
The internet over the last couple of weeks have been chock full of reports that very hungry caterpillars have been observed eating holes in plastic bags. These caterpillars, known as “wax worms,” have also been shown to make holes in plastic film when applied as a ground-up smoothie, indicating that their digestion is due to some chemical factor inside the caterpillars and not just a solid pair of chomping jaws.
It may be a little too early to hail the humble wax worm caterpillar as a panacea for the Earth’s plastic pollution problem (or that eating plastic is not terrible for wax worm tummies!) This report triggered the memory of an almost entirely irrelevant, but amusing, anecdote from my Shmita Adventures.
During the Summer 2013, TEVA sent me to work as a wandering nature educator for day camps at the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds on Central Long Island. My aunt kindly hosted me in a guest room at her home in the Five Towns. However, I was not the only house guest that summer. It was shortly after Hurricane Sandy that year, when many of my aunt’s neighbor’s homes had been seriously damaged.
The humans and dogs from one family of neighbors’ had temporarily relocated to a hotel until they could repair their house for habitation. However, they needed a quiet place to house their geriatric leopard gecko. That is how my aunt came (who is otherwise understandably squeamish about small reptiles) to host Snippy the Leopard Gecko in her upstairs guest room. Snippy became my roommate when I moved into the guest room for my summer job at HKC.
After Hurricane Sandy, Snippy’s human would come by once a week or so to feed Snippy live food and clean his cage. However, I had been my aunt’s lodger for about a couple of weeks when I realized I hadn’t seen Snippy’s human the entire time I’d been there. I asked my aunt when the last time Snippy had food, she was pretty vague on the subject. “I don’t ask too many questions about the gecko,” she said, “but it may have been a while. I’ll give them a call.”
Leopard Geckos are tough little critters, but I had developed a certain amount of affection for my reptile roommate. In the interest of science and roommate solidarity, I took it upon myself to ensure Snippy had adequate nutrition. After camp, I went to the local pet store reptile section to purchase live food for my scaly friend.
Upon consulting with the salesperson, I returned to my aunt’s house with a take-out container of live crickets, a tube of vitamin powder (for dusting the crickets) and a special treat of high-fat live wriggly wax-worms for fattening up the possibly-undernourished Snippy. My aunt saw me stashing the take-out container with the wax worms (with air holes) in her basement (extra) refrigerator.
“Do I want to know what’s in there?” she asked, warily.
“Nope!” I responded, cheerfully.
Anyway, Snippy enjoyed the wax worms (he ate them immediately when I put them in his cage), and found a newfound-bond with my reptile roommate. I told my aunt that would continue to feed Snippy for the rest of the summer. And my aunt was relieved that she didn’t need to ask too many questions.
Oddly, only friction in my relationship with Snippy came from the crickets: In order to feed live crickets to Snippy, I would add the crickets to a plastic bag filled with special reptile vitamin powder, and shake the bag gently so that the crickets were well-dusted with powder.
I put the disoriented, white-frosted crickets immediately into Snippy’s aquarium. The crickets’ grogginess and disorientation gave Snippy time to snap a least a couple of them up, but the survivors would continue to hop around the aquarium, disconsolately chirping throughout the night.
I think the re-oriented crickets were generally too spry to be of interest to Snippy. It took several days for him to either get around to consuming them, or for them to succumb to other causes.
When asked how living with Snippy measured up to other roommates, I explained, “He was very quiet and tidy, and I got to feed him live food!” A win for everyone!
I would be remiss if I failed to mention my interest in the topic (as a clothes-wearer, water-drinker and eater-of-food) started with a series on articles on plastic pollution by science writer Lola Gayle at STEAM Register and Science Crush (Read some of them here, here and here. ) Thanks, Lola!
In addition, outdoor retailers like Patagonia and environmental advocacy organizations such as The Story of Stuff have been generating awareness about how wearing and washing synthetic fabrics can contribute to this pollution stream.
Check out some citizen scientists sampling microfibers from Puget Sound aboard the schooner Adventuress:
But as a science-educator and a concerned citizen, being informed about the problem isn’t enough. I also want to know how to take action. What can we (both as individuals and society) do to both reduce microplastic pollution and mitigate its effects?
One reader suggested that nudity (ignoring for a moment the issues of frostbite and indecency laws) could solve the problem of washing clothing made from synthetic fabric (It seriously reduces the volume of dirty laundry!) This suggestion would also possibly improve one’s Vitamin D levels by increasing overall skin exposure to sunlight.
Other suggestions have included only purchasing clothing containing natural fibers (i.e. cotton, wool, silk, hemp), whose fibers will biodegrade more readily when discharged with waste water.
But what if you already own a lot of synthetic-fiber based clothing and want to keep wearing it? These fibers seem to be in everything, from yoga pants to t-shirts to wool-blend socks.
1. Reducing washing frequency and intensity.
This cat won’t let you wash his fleece!
Suggestions from Patagonia and researchers at UC-Santa Barbara include washing your fleece outerwear less frequently, and using a front loading washing machine.
Any machine washing will wear down the fiber and cause micro-bits to break off. If you wear your stuff a little schmutzy (as any TEVA educator will attest), you don’t have to wash it as often (ergo, reducing breakage potential in washing machine).
If you use a front loading machine (vs. a top loading machine) it lowers the intensity of the laundry agitation, reducing impact on the fabric and breakage of fibers.
The folks at Plastics Pollution Coalition also add: Washing in cold water (is less tough on the fibers), using liquid detergent instead of powder (ditto) and drying on slower speeds (less impact during tumbling.)
2. Improved filtration of wash water.
Another strategy is improving filtration of the washing machine water to remove as much of the microfibers as possible before the effluent is released down the drain.
Some filters, like this one, are installed on the washing machine itself to catch microfibers from the water. The filters must be periodically cleaned out and have the microfiber clogs disposed of in the trash. These were originally designed with septic systems in mind, because plastic microfibers don’t break down in a septic system’s biological digestion process and clog up equipment.
If you can’t modify your washing machine, the folks at GuppyFriend have developed a wash bag (like a lingerie bag) that will catch synthetic fibers coming off your clothes. Users put laundry in the bag before putting it in the machine. Then after you remove your laundry, you clean out the bag after each wash and dispose of fibers in the trash. GuppyFriend bags started with a crowdfunding campaign, and do not yet appear to be available to the general public for purchase. Will keep you posted.
Since we’ve been washing synthetic fabrics for awhile, a lot of plastic microfibers have ended up in our bodies of water, as well as in our farm fields (fertilizers made from treated municipal sewage sludge may contain laundry-borne plastic microfibers). The plastic microfibers are out there in the world.
Some organisms may be adapting to consuming and breaking down plastic fibers in our soil and water. For example, researchers have discovered that mealworms (darkling beetle larvae) appear to be able to eat styrofoam (polystyrene) due the special Exiguobacterium sp. of bacteria that live in their digestive tract.
A team in Japan discovered a species of bacteria, Ideonella sakainesis, in wastewater and sediment samples at a recycling plant. These bacteria can eat a thin film of polyethelene (PET)- the same plastic used in water bottles and polyester fleece- given enough time and the proper temperature.
It is still too early to tell if any of these organisms (or others like them) will be able to tackle the massive amount of plastics humans have dumped into the environment. The fact that these critters exist gives me hope that microfibers may not be floating around forever. However, it is still better to try to keep microplastics out of water in the first place.