For the last few days, I’ve been reading articles about the newest report from the IPCC and the imminent consequences of human inaction on climate change. I also just received an email survey directed towards alumni of my Jewish Day School. The questions included “Rate how the school prepared you for college…life…career…”

My Jewish Day School education did not prepare me for this.

In general, K-12 Community Jewish Day Schools like the ones I attended for 13 years are not in the business of preparing their graduates for eventual zombie apocalypse or ecosystem collapse.

They want you to have a love of Jewish tradition, familiarity with Hebrew language and Jewish texts, and sufficient secular academic acumen to propel you into college or career. They hope you’ve turned out to be a mensch (a decent human being.) And maybe to produce some Jewish grandchildren?

Facing human survival on an uninhabitable planet Earth? Not so much.

My teachers hoped I would learn the tools of critical thinking, analysis and problem solving. Go to college. Get a job. Be a productive adult. No one asked me to save the world.

Today, I work as an environmental educator teaching kids and families to explore science and nature. Though I don’t think about it much, my worldview is fundamentally propelled by my earliest inculcation with Jewish traditions and Jewish values. This Jewish educational blueprint has become part of who I am, even if I have thus far failed in my community’s ultimate goal of producing Jewish grandchildren.

Above all, I endeavor to be a mensch. But in a crisis, how does my personal behavior translate into useful action? What metaphors in this ancient library of reference texts can be useful tools in the challenges that lie ahead?

A prophet wandered the streets of a devastated Jerusalem. Job railed against the whirlwind. We were strangers in Egypt (in Babylonia, in Europe) but no
strangers to famine, flood and drought that forced human migration.

In our time, we may be spectators to fire, storms and violence that drive people from their homes. Glaciers melting, oceans rising. How does an entire civilization make the sacrifices necessary to prepare and adapt?

I don’t expect a divine yad khazaka v’ zeroah netuyah (strong hand and outstretched arm) to free humanity from the Mitzrayim (“narrow place”) upon which we balance.

I think this one is up to us. And damn, do I feel unprepared.


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 https://flic.kr/p/xzhiYD

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 https://flic.kr/p/xh4Qz3

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.

Visit to the Conservatory

When I imagined what Michigan looked like in the winter, it was something like this:

Icy Marsh at Crosswinds by Protopian Pickle Jar (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/PKfTvB

Turns out, as long as you put on long underwear, snow pants, sweaters, parka, hat, mittens and boots, it’s pretty fun to romp around outdoors in the snow on a sunny day. Even when temperatures are well below freezing.

But sometimes, the interminable stretches of cloudy days, intense (and not-so-intense) cold, snow and ice just start to *get* to me. Even though I put snow tires on my car, put a happy light in my living room and increased my dietary intake of Vitamin D, I begin to wonder if winter is my punishment.

To deal with the bleakness, I have been longingly poring over photos of gardens in high summer or ogling observations of tropical flora and fauna posted on iNaturalist.

After a rough few weeks, I think I have found another method of coping with Michigan winter: The Conservatory at the Matthei Botanical Gardens.

Pink flower pop by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

I had a meeting early on Friday morning in Ann Arbor, but decided to check out the Conservatory directly afterwards. The temperature on the thermometer on my car dashboard read 13 deg F (-11 deg C). I entered into the main lobby of the Conservatory and gradually unbundled from my coat and other insulating layers. (They provide a handy coat room to stash winter accoutrements.)

As I opened to the door to the conservatory itself, I was greeted with a blast of warm humid air and the smell of green growing things. Towering green palms and bright color pops came into focus. It felt like entry into another world.

cacao pod closeup by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

My body (and my soul, too) soaked in the surrounding warmth, humidity and lushness of the tropical biome section. However, I couldn’t resist long before taking out my cell phone to record images to tell the story.

Fluffy pink flowers by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

My amateur smartphone photography expedition made it through the temperate and desert biomes before I finally ran out of battery.

For more images of my brief escape from winter (and the strange organisms that live there!), you can check out Protopian Pickle Jar’s Flickr Album Conservatory at Matthei Botanical Gardens.

Paleoproterozoic Rust Belt

banded iron formation
Jaspilite banded iron formation (BIF) (Vulcan Iron-Formation, Paleoproterozoic, ~1.8 Ga; Iron Mountain, Menominee Iron Range, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, USA) by James St. John, (2011) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/oWHUNf%5D

As a human being living on Planet Earth in the 21st century, the physical surroundings of every place I encounter have been deeply modified by the passage of other human beings. Our cities and infrastructure, our farms and factories, are changing the chemistry, ecosystems and physical face of our planet. In Michigan, as in other Rust Belt places of former manufacturing glory, the shuttered factories and rusting machines are starkly visible as a symbol of decline and decay.

Rusty factory in Cleveland
Rust Belt Reflection by Bob Jagendorf, (2009) CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/7eZ3p5

But humans are not the first organisms with the power to massively modify their environment. We’re not even the first to create a Rust Belt.

About 2 billion (that’s a 2 with 9 zeroes after it) years ago, colonies of photosynthetic bacteria figured out how to use sunlight to capture energy contained in the shared electron bonds between the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water (H2O) molecules. This metabolic innovation opened up a whole new source of food for prokaryotic organisms, but there was a problem. The chemical reaction produced a toxic by-product: Highly reactive oxygen gas. The atmospheric oxygen (02) molecules exhaled by the bacteria, as well as the UV radiation from Sun, were harmful to the membranes of the living cells. However, the bacteria were safe as long as they stayed submerged under a protective layer of seawater.

However, a dramatic effect occurred when enough free oxygen gas accumulated to react with ferrous iron (Fe2+) ions dissolved in the oceans. The oxygen combined with the iron to create iron oxides (aka Rust.)
Let me emphasize this. The oxygen gas the bacteria were breathing out was not just poisoning the atmosphere with a toxic gas that would steal your electrons, it was literally rusting the planet. The precipitated iron oxides settled to the bottom of the ancient oceans, producing what geologists call Banded iron formations(BIFs).

I first learned the story of the oxygen-producing bacteria in my undergraduate biology class. It was shocking to me because it illustrated how tiny living things changed the face of the planet (i.e. “Once there was no oxygen, now our atmosphere is 21% oxygen *and* we need it to breathe!”) However, it was even more jarring to realize that this vital substance I take for granted, oxygen, was toxic to the first creatures who breathed it out. It seemed incredible that my ancient bacterial ancestors ever survived their own success in exploiting a new energy source, in the face of causing such widespread atmospheric pollution. (But that is a story for another blog post.)

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the abundant iron ores that enabled the state’s mining and manufacturing industries of the 19th and 20th centuries come from Banded Iron Formations. The automobiles and steelworks of the Motor City owe their existence (in part) to the oxygen exhalations of 2 billion year old cyanobacteria.

This brings us to the modern parallel of how humans are contributing to changing the atmosphere by our burning of fossil fuels, super handy energy source in our civilization. While as oxygen-breathing organisms, we breathe out CO2, we’re adding it even more quickly to the atmosphere through burning the ancient sunlight stashes of coal, oil and natural gas. This year, we hit the atmospheric CO2 benchmark of 400 ppm. It’s been a long time (in human reckoning) since the atmosphere has held that concentration of CO2.

We’re seeing some of the effects in changing weather patterns, warming temperatures and increased ocean acidification (carbonic acid produced from greater concentrations of dissolved CO2, like in seltzer water.) The corals of the oceans’ great reef ecosystems have been hit pretty hard.  
I think about this each time I fill my the gas tank on my car, so I can drive to work. I think about how the oxygen produced by the ancient bacteria, in addition to rusting the oceans, triggered a possibly planet-wide ice age known as the Huronian Glaciation (named for sediments discovered in Lake Huron), aka “Snowball Earth.” If the ancient photosynthetic bacteria could change the face of the planet so drastically, what does that say about us humans who are at least beginning to understand the effects of our collective actions?

Order of Increasing Chaos

Naive Chaos by Dr. Motte (2006)CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/i3DUy
Naive Chaos by Dr. Motte (2006)CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/i3DUy

In the Norwegian fairytale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a young woman accidentally spills three drops of wax as she peers at her sleeping husband. (Whom she’s never actually seen in his human form before because he spends the majority of his time as a giant polar bear.) Anyway, this is a major plot point in the story, because in order for the couple to be together, the heroine must ultimately wash the wax stains from the spill out of her husband’s shirt. (It could be a commercial for laundry detergent! Wait, maybe this is the real origin of the soap opera?)

Meanwhile (while the heroine is off solving complicated quests in order to get back to her sometimes-human, sometimes-polar bear beau), three troll women each try their hands at washing the stains off the shirt. However, as much as they try, the shirt only gets dirtier and dirtier.

I came to a realization today: I am a troll woman. No, not literally, but everything I do to increase order seems to only produce more chaos. I have been sorting and donating stuff for the past several days in order to prepare for my move out of my parents’ house. There is a lot of stuff. Alot.

Some of these items were retrieved from my parents’ storage unit. (After 2 1/2 years of not noticing their absence, I finally decided it was time to get rid of them.) Other of these items have been accumulating in slow drifts around my bedroom and closets. Some of these items were originally my possessions. Others acquired by my siblings, but have been deposited in clutter middens co-mingled with my stuff. All of them need to find new homes.

It would be simpler if I just stuffed everything into gigantic trash bags and was done with it. Sayonara, stuff! Bon voyage to the landfill! (But that is not how I roll.) Instead, I am trying to maximize the utility and lifespan of the items (some of which are quite nice pieces of clothing, books, and art supplies). You can check out my list of KC-area reuse and recycling resources. Only after items have been assessed unfit for donation or recycling, are they deposited into the Black Trash Bag of Doom!

I have made quite a few donations since Monday (books, clothing, household items, art supplies, etc), but even as I get rid of many boxes and bags full of items, the place only seems to get messier and messier. I despair of ever hitting bottom. So instead of actually cleaning, sorting and packing, I have decided to drink tea and compare my frustration to the lot of troll women in a dimly-remembered fairytale.

This process is rather time and effort intensive. Part of my problem is that though remorseless, I lack method. I get easily distracted by each new treasure trove I encounter (“So that’s what happened to my essays from sophomore year Western Civ…”). Instead of strategically clearing one area before starting on the next, I’m falling all over the place: Tripping on overlapping piles and conflicting intentions, in a miasma of dust and misplaced nostalgia.

Maybe it’s best to get some sleep and start over in the morning. I just wish I had some tangible notion of progress, instead of the vague idea that my room is just becoming more and more filled with things. (Mysteriously multiplying like tribbles when my back is turned!)

Remorseless, but lacks method

July 30/10 cleaning by Judith Doyle (2010)  CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4148/4845751420_860c2648ce_b.jpg
July 30/10 cleaning by Judith Doyle (2010) CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4148/4845751420_860c2648ce_b.jpg

By that time Sophie had swept and scrubbed herself into a state when she could hardly move. … That was Sophie’s trouble. She was remorseless, but she lacked method.

– Diana Wynne Jones, “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Yesterday, I appeared to pledge to the internets that I would spend the weekend in a state of jellified ooze, absorbing nutrients and entertainment by osmosis, to enter of state of s(ub)lime relaxation.

That did not happen.

My parents were scheduled to return from vacation Friday afternoon. Friday morning, drinking my first cup of french pressed coffee, I noticed the bare soles of my feet made “sucking” sounds as I moved across sticky patches of the kitchen floor. “This is not good,” I thought.

As in every teen movie (possibly ever), I said to my brother, “We need to clean up before the parents return.” (The difference in this case is that we are both college-educated adults, who *should* be responsible enough to maintain a home in a relatively livable state for a week or so.) We have been washing the dishes, taking out the trash and recycling, bringing in the mail and newspaper.

But there were still drifts of detritus/crumbs/sticky spots on the kitchen table, the counters and especially, the floor. First, I cleaned off the crumbs and sticky stuff from the table and counters (figuring whatever fell onto the floor would be picked up by the vacuum.) Then, I vacuumed the kitchen floor. Finally, I spritzed the sticky spots on the kitchen floor (around the sink, fridge, stove, table, trash) with hardwood floor cleaner. Since I couldn’t find the dust mop, got on my hands and knees to wipe the floor clean with old towels.

Then I drank a 2nd cup of coffee and:
1) cleaned out the kitchen sink and backsplash
2) folded laundry
3) washed all the towels/rags I used to clean the kitchen
4) worked on my mom’s knitting project that involved double-pointed needles that had been vexing her.
“Can you take it into the knitting studio and ask for help?” she said.
“Ha, I bet I can figured it out,” I replied nonchalantly.

The process resembles what the sheep in the drawing is doing:

Alice and the Knitting Sheep by John Tenniel, from "Through the Looking Glass" (1871)  via Wikimedia Commons
Alice and the Knitting Sheep by John Tenniel, from “Through the Looking Glass” (1871) via Wikimedia Commons

After some trial and error, I finally figured it out. Working on double-pointed knitting needles (in the round) is a somewhat advanced skill. You have to be able to maintain the appropriate amount of tension on the yarn, while juggling 5 double pointed needles in a circle (instead of the just the normal two knitting needles.)

Then I realized we didn’t have anything to eat for dinner and my parents would be home in an hour! So I defrosted a package of frozen chicken quarters in the microwave (yay autodefrost poultry settings!) and threw it in the oven with garlic powder and paprika. Then I cut up a salad of cucumber, tomatoes, radishes and bell peppers.

And collapsed into a chair.

While I was pleased with my knitting victory, some edible food and a clean-ish kitchen, I was now absolutely exhausted, but still twingeing with my caffeine-induced productivity.

I took a look at the newspaper (which I finally brought it by late afternoon). My horoscope said:
“You intuitively know what to do. Pace yourself and recognize that you are not a superhero. Tonight: Know when to say, “Enough is enough.”

To which I said, “Amen.”

Columbia Coda

Facade of Butler Library Windows and engraved authors' names
Butler Library by Susan Sermoneta (2006) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

It’s that time of year when pictures of proud graduates grace my social media feeds and inspire upwellings of nostalgia. After relating my fear of not living up to the promise of my fancy education to a college friend, he responded with the following:

“Well, in freshman chemistry, the professor told us that the purpose of a Columbia education (e.g. the Core Curriculum) is to educate people who can make intelligent conversation at cocktail parties. By that measure, I would say you are an extremely successful Columbia graduate.”