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.


Urban Adulting for Suburbanites: Parallel Parking

Parallel Parking Magic by Geek2Nurse (2007) CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr
Parallel Parking Magic by Geek2Nurse (2007) CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

One of the adventures of living in an older neighborhood of duplexes (built early 1900’s) is that there are very few driveways. There *are* alleys, but you’re not allowed to park back there. (I’m not sure what the original purpose of alleys were. Maybe trash pickup? This will require more research). Instead, residents vie for limited street parking. On my street, you are allowed to park on both sides of the street, which makes traveling down the narrow corridor between parking cars fairly exciting. (It’s a two way street, so you happen to encounter another oncoming vehicle, one of you has to yield into an empty parking spot. Or, in extremis, back up.)

Finding a home for my car is a daily challenge for me, since despite having a compact car, I never learned to parallel park. Parallel parking is not on the Kansas driver’s test. I mostly was driving in areas where there are abundant parking lots (and driveways and garages) to park in, so I never bothered to learn. (I don’t think my driver’s ed instructor ever got around to teaching me, mostly because she was so frustrated with my inability to master normal things like backing up and 3-point turns.) This hidden fault – my inability to parallel park- has come up on trips to downtown KC, but has never been much of a problem. Until now.

Learning to parallel park has been a serious source of anxiety. It’s not just that your car might be kind of crooked, but you could seriously shmoosh up someone else’s car in the process. I even called a local driving school to see if I could pay an instructor to take me out for a couple of hours to practice. (They wouldn’t: Turns out you need a Michigan learners permit for the school to be covered by insurance. “Michigan learners’ permit? But I’ve had a KS driver’s license for 18 years!” Alas.)

It was after I received my first City of Detroit parking ticket (for parking too close to the crosswalk at the end of the block), I decided it was time to buckle down and learn parallel parking.
Instead of paying a human instructor, I turned to the internet. Turns out that YouTube has some very helpful videos and tips for practicing parallel parking. (Esp. the nice folks at Vehicle Virgins.) My roommate also gave me some helpful tips as I watched her parallel park on the street. I realized the only way I was going to get better at it was to Just. Do. It.

On a day off, I took my car (with its telltale KS license plates) over a few blocks to less busy side streets in my neighborhood. I picked a car parked along the street (with a lot of space behind it) and practiced backing in using the parallel parking steps outlined in the youtube videos. There was a lot of trial and error with judging the distance to the curb. Sometimes, I realized that the amount of oncoming traffic was greater than I had anticipated. (Detroit drivers are not so pleased with having to wait for newbies to get their cars from sticking out into even residential street traffic.)

I moved even a few streets over, where there were even fewer parked cards and even less ambient traffic. One of the neighbors walking down the street saw me and came over to say “Hi.” “Are you here for Megan?” he asked. “No,” I told him. “I’m just practicing parallel parking.”

“Oh, I can help you with that,” he said. So my new parking instructor called out instructions on how to turn the wheel as I attempted to back up behind a parked car. It was super nice, for a total stranger to offer to help like that, especially to a “new” person white girl like me. After about 5 minutes of directed parking assistance, I thanked my benefactor and went to try parking on another block. (After about an hour of parallel parking practice, I had a better handle on getting close to the curb, backing up and pulling into largish spaces. But I was exhausted.)

Since that day, I still haven’t managed to parallel park in an area with lots of traffic (still usually enough spaces where I can pull in, or I go around the block a couple of times). However, my newfound car spatial skills have certainly come in handy for turning around in tight spaces and getting close to the curb. I will make time to keep practicing (maybe early Sunday morning) so I can finally get my car into some of the more convenient parking spots I’d been avoiding.

DIY Detroit

knitting avocado seed coleus jam jar
Inspired by Detroit. by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015)

Greetings, Internets! It feels like it’s been a long time. I have been settling into my new city and new job, punctuated by various Jewish holidays. Even though I identify as an extrovert, the marathon of meeting new people and soaking up vast quantities of information about a place has been exhausting.

In order to process all this data into something approximating a meaningful “sense of place,” I’ve spent a good deal of time inwardly-focused, letting my brain sort things out. Also, as a practical measure, I’ve been figuring out a) how to acquire food, b) prepare food and c) attempting to care for/tidy up my new home.

Professionally, part of my job as an educator here is to inspire people to get excited about food and environment and outdoors by leading DIY projects (pickling, gardening, making stuff, etc). We’ve incorporated a few of these projects into our work time as training, which is awesome. It’s very empowering to be able to make something (bookbinding a simple journal! Knitting a dishtowel! Making soup!) even if it’s much easier, cheaper (and probably more practical) to buy it.

Since I do not know how to do many of these things, I turn to great Oracle and source of knowledge: The Internet!

So far, I’ve learned how to make old-fashioned rolled oats (we bought them in bulk, so there aren’t directions on the box.) Per the internets: Bring 3 1/4 cups water to boil. Add 2 cups oats. Cook until mushy. Grandma would be proud!

The internet also gave me a starting place for what do with a bag full of rhubarb. (Thanks, Martha Stewart website! You use too much sugar, but the idea of combining rhubarb with ginger to make fruit compote is delicious.) Also, really good with the oatmeal.

The internet also helped me develop “what’s in our crisper?” vegetable stock to make miso soup. (Various: Cut up various vegetables. Put the tougher ones in first. Boil until soup-like. Add tofu, chopped scallions, miso paste dissolved in a couple of tablespoons of water. Umami goodness!)

I’ve set up some avocado seeds with toothpicks in water (also, internet), rooting some coleus cuttings in cups on my windowsill (experience from this summer, which I looked up online).

Our home is feeling a little more homelike. My tummy is definitely feeling more nourished. These are a helpful counterweight to balance the “Alice-in-Wonderland” type experiences I’ve been having in this crazy, rough-edged, beautiful town.

Urban Adulting* for Suburbanites: Gas Stoves

#19 - Cooking with Gas by Taylor Bennett (2012) CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.
#19 – Cooking with Gas by Taylor Bennett (2012) CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

*With kudos to Kelly Williams Brown for popularizing the term “adulting”, meaning “acting like an adult even if you don’t feel like one.”

Slowly settling into life here in here the Motor City. Dwelling in an older home (early 20th century) has certain unexpected challenges. While I grew up with an electric range, I have used kitchens with newer gas stoves before. In contrast, our particular retro stove model has standing pilot lights, which I was surprised to learn, are always on, even if the stove is turned off. This means that parts of the range are often warm-to-hot to the touch (which can result in some singed fingers) and confusion over whether the stove knobs are attached correctly. (“I’m pretty sure the stove has been off for 6 hours. Why is it still hot?”)

This story of the stove begins the week after moving in. Upon returning home after being gone for several hours, my roommate and I were alarmed to notice the smell of gas and that our stove top was hot. We left a message for the landlord and contacted the gas company, who promptly sent someone to check out our complaint. We also opened all windows to ventilate the smell.

This video was very helpful in determining that the pilot lights in the stove and oven were still lit. Pilots continuously burn up gas, preventing any from leaking out. When a pilot goes out (and has to be relit) it can become an opportunity for gas to escape.

The gentleman from the gas company arrived with a gas detector with a wand that looked like something out of “GhostBusters.” He checked around the stove and the water heater with the detector, and then painted the pipes with soap suds to determine if any gas was leaking out. (Gas leaking out would create additional bubbles in the soap film). He even checked out gas meter and changed out the batteries in his gas detector, but didn’t find any leaking gas.

We agreed to check the next day (after closing up all the windows again) coming back to the house after several hours for any noticeable gas smell. The man from the gas company explained that mercaptan (CH3SH) was added to the normally odorless gas to alert people to the presence of a leak.

Mercaptan is a naturally occurring substance in humans, plants and animals. It can be produced by bacteria and contributes to “bad breath” odor. We didn’t notice any gas smell the next day upon returning home. But we did find some old kale decomposing in our crisper drawer in the refrigerator…

Detroit Street Fair

Upcycled sculpture building by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0
Upcycled sculpture building by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0

Today, I made my way down towards the central library branch to see if I could get a library card. However, I encountered a bunch of closed off streets, limited parking and ton of people making their way towards a massive party in midtown Detroit!

Instead, I took my car home and then walked up to Dally in the Alley, a Detroit neighborhood street fair tradition.

Dally in the Alley by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0
Dally in the Alley by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0

There were tons of people: Senior citizens, college students, kids in strollers. People of all backgrounds in every conceivable kind of outfit. There were at least 4 or 5 live bands playing different genres of music. All kinds of vendors selling every flavor of kitsch, crafts, jewelry, clothing, or fine art. People walking while trying to eat falafel sandwiches as big as their heads. A man walking two enormous harlequin Great Dane puppies. Kids laughing, couples holding hands.

I watched an artist build an armature of old paint cans, plastic tubing, scrap wood and wire into an amazing sculpture. A musical duo on the saxaphone and drumming on upturned plastic buckets played a wonderful set tucked away in an alley between two buildings, while hoola hoopers festively hooped along with the beat.

Buckets and Sax Buskers by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0
Buckets and Sax Buskers by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0

This town may be many things, but it certainly is never boring!

Destination: Detroit

We all love this guy. by Emily Flores (2009) CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Made it! I have a house, a housemate, a bed, a fridge full of eatables, and wifi. * Also, a job. Getting oriented to the city of Detroit and the amazing community of humans (and apparently, giraffes!) that dwell here. (This mural, in the above photo, was one of the first things I saw upon entering the neighborhood.) From what I hear, there will be actual pickle making (and yogurt making and bread making!) in my future.

*(EDIT: I added an oxford comma after “eatables” in the first sentence to correct the mistaken impression that my fridge is also full of wifi. I think the signal inside the refrigerator is actually quite poor.)