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.
I have been working on a post about neonicotinoid pesticide toxicity to bees, but have decided to back burner that piece to bring you a post inspired by summer camp (and goats!)
This summer, I’m running around with elementary-age kiddos at a science & nature day camp in Ann Arbor, MI. We just finished our first week of camp with campers, included a few very hot days. To help me stay hydrated, I made my own rehydration solution (aka “Goat gatorade”) from a glug (1-2 tsp) of blackstrap molasses dissolved in 16 oz of water. At a muddy dark brown, goat gatorade not as colorful as the panoply of commercially available sports beverages, but there are significant nutritional and dehydration-prevention benefits to this unusual beverage.
Blackstrap molasses is produced from the third boiling of sugar cane (or sugar beets) in the sugar-making process, concentrating minerals such as Iron, Manganese, Magnesium, Copper and Potassium. It is also a great source of B-vitamins.
I first learned about “goat gatorade” when I worked helped with spring kidding (birthing of baby goats) at Adamah in March 2013. After a mama goat had given birth, we gave her a solution of blackstrap molasses dissolved in water to replace fluids, electrolytes and minerals lost during labor. The mama goats also really seemed to like the taste!
When I found myself getting dehydrated during field work at Adamah, despite what I thought was copious water consumption, our farm manager suggested I try drinking the blackstrap molasses rehydration mixture. I discovered I also liked the taste of the solution(sort of a slightly bitter burned sweetness), so I drank more of it than plain water. The solution also seemed to help ward off dreaded dehydration-triggered migraine headaches. I started mentally (then verbally) calling the beverage “goat gatorade” in a nod to the mama goats.
As an apologetic hipster, I have to admit that I’ve been enjoying my unsulphured blackstrap molasses glugs mixed with ground ginger powder, a dash of kosher salt and a pint of tap water shaken vigorously in a repurposed glass pickle jar. If you’re letting it sit overnight in fridge, you can even up your hipster points by adding 1 tsp of chia seeds for an interesting globby texture.
While I like the storage capacity of glass jars (pickle/mason/etc.) I learned that I may want to reconsider using them to transport beverages at camp. I hid my goat gatorade jar under a bench to keep it from getting knocked over during a camp activity. Little did I realize that the top of the jar was in exact place where a 6-year-old’s heels might hit if he or she was swinging them nonchalantly while sitting on the bench. Thank goodness the only casualties in the incident were a broken glass jar, a puddle of chia molasses liquid and my ego (after an embarrassed radio call to my camp director asking for help in cleaning up the puddle/broken glass prevent anyone from getting hurt.)
While the health and wellness blogosphere loves blackstrap molasses for its nutrition content, not everyone loves the taste or consistency. Some cooks warn not to use blackstrap molasses when a recipe calls for regular molasses, especially in baking recipes, because it will change the texture of the final baked good.
A quick search of Google Scholar and the NCBI database has not revealed much published research on blackstrap molasses solution for human rehydration on hot days. I mostly found information on blackstrap molasses as livestock food additive (because goats!), a feedstock for fermentation and other chemical processes, and as a plant-based dietary source of iron in nutrition journal articles.
Molasses seems to come in both sulphured and unsulphured varieties – the sulfur dioxide is added during the process as a preservative to keep the sugar cane fresh. I’ve try to avoid sulfur dioxide (I suspect it can trigger headaches), so I’ve been sticking with the unsulphured variety. (I also am not sure what causes the spelling changes from “f” in the chemical sulfur dioxide to the “ph” in “unsulphured” food product description.)
Fancier version of goat gatorade have been around for years in the form of switchel or haymaker’s punch. In The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder even describes a version of “ginger water” made with sugar, ginger and vinegar, that Laura and Pa drink while bringing in the hay harvest.
However, here at the Protopian Pickle Jar, I’m offering some reasons for blog-reading, clothes-wearing, oxygen-breathing, food-eating humans to get excited about soils!
Everything We Eat and Everything We Wear!
In TEVA, we taught the kids a chant: “Sun, Soil, Water, Air! Everything we eat and everything we wear!” Then, we challenged them to come up with an item that did not derive its existence from any of those things. (It’s rhyming version of the adage I learned in my undergrad earth science classes, “If it’s not grown, it’s mined.”) No matter what they came up with (plastic dinosaurs, fuzzy socks, water bottles) we were able to trace back its origin to a natural resource.
Every piece of clothing I’m wearing (including dyes, zippers, elastics and snaps)from my cotton underwear to my wool socks to my poly-blend shirt ultimately began with the soil. (Synthetics made from petroleum-based chemicals are mined from oil, which develops from long-dead marine algae, a kind of deposit of ancient solar energy.) Every item of food I eat – fruit, veggies, grains, meat, dairy, mineral supplements- began with the soil.* (Even food that comes from marine ecosystems is still linked to and dependent upon terrestrial soils.)
While I was busy playing with the internet, earth’s soil bacteria are running the planet’s biogeochemical cycles. These soil-dwelling microbes are quietly moving the Earth’s carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur (and other elements!) through the biosphere using a series of metabolic handoffs. The bacteria may just be trying to get some energy (we might say, “Eat!”) by moving a few electrons around. Collectively, these reactions produce the atmosphere we breathe, the greenhouse gases and feedbacks that drive our habitable global climate, and fix the soil nutrients required for plants to photosynthesize.
The Final Frontier
Not only do we rely on these soil microorganisms for the air we breathe and the food we eat, we don’t know very much about them. From the UN FAO Soil Portal: “Soil biology plays a vital role in determining many soil characteristics, yet, being a relatively new science, much remains unknown about soil biology and about how the nature of soil is affected.” We’re still learning how human activities affect soil microbes, often in unintended ways.
One the downsides of an abundant tomato crop is that the tomatoes ripen faster than humans can organize to pick them. This is especially true of a volunteer-run community garden project. Sunday morning, I agreed to come to help harvest ripe vegetables and to arrange logistics of delivery to food pantries. I hadn’t been to the Mitzvah Garden, a project growing food for local pantries, all summer. I discovered that after working all week at the Children’s garden, I couldn’t force myself to get up early on Sunday morning to … work in another garden. Only a special request from our usual organizer (who would be out of town) got me into my garden clothes for a 6th day of the week.
When I arrived Sunday morning, it was great to catch up with other volunteers whom I hadn’t seen all summer. However, it was finally time to get to work. Other headed for the bell peppers and the cucumbers. I grabbed a “slush bucket” and “good tomato bucket” and headed for the tomato forest. We were both blessed and cursed with a bountiful harvest of tomatoes. The tomato plants burgeoned with ripe fruit, but the humans weren’t fast enough to get them before overripe tomatoes became food for various invertebrates and microorganisms.
As the only tomato harvesting volunteer at first, I realized I need to move methodically down the rows, putting mushy tomatoes in the compost bucket, while keeping the solid citizens in a separate container. Then, I would transfer the good tomatoes to the flats I put strategically at the end of each row. Physically, it was pretty challenging, squatting or kneeling between the rows to reach low-hanging tomatoes.
However, I hadn’t taken into account the sheer … gloppiness of the endeavor. As I reached for tomatoes on the plants, it wasn’t always clear which ones were good tomatoes and which ones were rotten. Putting my hand around rotten tomato often resulted in its explosion, coating my gloves and clothing with stinking, rotten tomato juice. I tried to keep the stinky slush off the good tomatoes (which occasional got splattered) by wiping them off on my pants. Soon, I was completely marinated in a coating of fermented, rotten tomato slime, sweat and dirt.
Eventually, other volunteers joined us to help harvest tomatoes (and then some of them snuck away to do other activities.) I let other people deal with the good tomatoes and focused on the slushy ones. I made 4 separate trips to the compost pile to re-empty my bucket of rotten tomato paste. I also hadn’t counted on the sheer volume of tomatoes I was dealing with: Even with perhaps a 3 to 1 ratio of mushy tomatoes to good tomatoes, we still ended up with 8 flats of tomatoes for delivery! Though there was a silver lining to our adventure, I was too miserable and smelly by the end of the harvest to appreciate the mitzvah.
As I walked in to the house, I stripped off my filthy shoes, hat and clothing. Then I made a beeline for the shower. Maybe scientists will some day discover that rotten tomatoes are actually an excellent skin tonic. However, now I think I know why bad comedians are pelted with them: Soaking someone in rotten tomato slime clearly indicates the depth of one’s displeasure with the object. That is all.
It’s been raining for days and days. Today was the first sunny day in what seems like ages. The ground is pretty saturated, but it does make it easier to pull up weeds. And it’s always fun to go squishing through the mud, even when it feels like the mud might win by sucking the boots off your feet.
Today’s Horoscope (read while eating breakfast): Five Star Day! … If you are single, you could meet someone who knocks your socks off. A new beginning becomes possible.
Me: “I’ll wear my cleanest pair of Teva pants!”
I realized recently that Teva pants make up the bulk of my wardrobe. (For my UK Readers: Where ever I have “pants,” mentally replace with “trousers,” if you prefer. I realize “pants” can mean something different.) By “Teva Pants,” I refer specifically to pants that I have worn in the capacity as a farmer/gardener/outdoor Teva (“nature”) educator.
Most of these garments are made of quick-drying synthetic material that is opaque to UV rays and mostly impervious to bugs (especially when the cuffs are tucked into socks.) These are good for most weather, with addition of warm layers when it’s cold. I also have 2 pairs of ancient L.L. Bean flannel-lined pants that have helped me survive a New England winter. Teva pants are comfortable, allowing me to run, jump, squat, crawl and other bodily contortions without limiting my range of movement. They protect me from sticks and rocks and thorns and sun.
Some of my Teva pants have been purchased new from fancy catalogs and sporting goods stores, others have been picked up at thrift shops. Most of them have multitudinous pockets, which are extremely useful when out on the farm or in the woods. It is also very important to check the pockets of your Teva pants before washing, because God only know what will turn up in there (interesting rocks, magnifying glasses, rubber chickens, used hankies, multi-tools, popsicle sticks, yarn, film canisters, sharpies, etc.) My Teva pants have been washed a lot. They bear the record of hard use. Mysterious stains and wear marks offer clues to the liberal splotches of mud, blood, goat poop, chicken poop, tree sap, strawberry jam, rust, dust, paint, grease and grime that have coated them at various times.
Teva pants are rarely flattering. Aside from being beat-up hard-working pants, shoving stuff in the pockets tends to ruin the nicest of silhouettes. If by chance my Teva pants were becoming, I would retire them as Teva pants and save them for trips into town.
As an educator, I managed to shower at least once a week and put on clean, non-Teva clothes. As this usually coincided with the occurrence of Shabbat on Friday nights, so it wasn’t unusual to hear “You look so nice! You took a shower and put on clean clothes!” as a completely sincere compliment offered to housemates. One of my colleagues termed these “Shab-servations,” since they weren’t really compliments intended to flatter, merely observations of the fact that people tended to clean up before Shabbat.
Even when I’m not working as an environmental educator, I still love to wear my Teva pants out in suburban Kansas City. My well-meaning family members have tried to discourage this practice. They may have a point.
Teva pants don’t belong at a fancy dinner or job interview. Teva Pants are probably not appropriate to wear on a date (unless its a hiking date.) Teva pants do not tell other people, “This is an important person.” Instead, Teva pants favor function over fashion. They may be frumptastic, but Teva pants don’t care. They have rocks to climb and chickens to feed, slugs to examine and kids to teach. In my ideal job, I would wear Teva pants every day.
As a kid, Mama often met me on the back stoop as I came in from playing outside. With a broom in her hand she’d have me slowly turn in a circle while she brushed dirt from my blue jeans. She wasn’t against sweeping my bare legs either if I happened to be wearing shorts.
“Don’t bring that mess in this house.” She’d say. “Did you plan to get dirty?”
Well no. I hadn’t planned to. I was a kid. There was dirt. We met and fell in love. The end.
I remembered that this morning as I thought about where to plant some things in the yard. I still love dirt. Not potting soil in shiny garden-center bags. I don’t care for the sterile smell of plastic and perlite. I love real dirt. Earth.