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. 


A Busy Summer

It’s nearing the end of October, and I realize I haven’t posted in a while.

Dried out sunflower heads
Dried out sunflowers by Protopian Pickle Jar (2017) CC-BY-SA 2.0, on Flickr

From abandoned draft post from August:
“It’s been a busy summer. During the week, I spent my daylight hours outside working at camp or admiring my garden. On the weekend, I attempt to recover from the week! I do a lot of laundry (camp gets clothes very dirty), hoard recyclables for projects, purchase more yogurt and granola bars, and hopefully, sleep.

Lots of things have fallen by the wayside: Email correspondence, house cleaning, reading library books… and blog posting.”

My summer job at a nature center summer camp has morphed into a fall job as an educator at the nature center’s school and public programs. My hours are more flexible and am starting to have time for many of the activities I put on the back burner over the summer.

So here’s to more stories and photos and posts!


Snow Hike

Steps closed for winter by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

Shakes head at news. Closes computer in disgust. Puts on many layers, then snowpants, snowboots and parka. Goes for a hike in the snow. It is 25 deg F in Ann Arbor, MI.

A short time later, hiking around trails at Matthaei Botanical Garden:

Winter Stream Running by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

Me: “This feels much better!”

Hears strange chittering in the woods. Is it a bird?  No. Is it a frozen tree trunk squeaking in the wind? No.

There!  Three squirrels (maybe Fox Squirrels?) chasing each other around the branches of a very large tree.  Attempts to focus with cell phone camera prove futile.  Oh wait, there are now just two squirrels chasing each other.   Now they’ve stopped. … Oh, that is what is happening. I’ve turned into a squirrel voyeur!

Continues galumphing through snow for another hour. Am happy and cold and sort of tired.

Spots alien-like skunk cabbage sprouting at edge of stream.

Skunk Cabbage crop (2017) by PPJ CC BY-SA 2.0

Enters Conservatory lobby. Removes parka & several layers, which are temporarily stowed on coat rack. Opens door to Conservatory, the smell of tropical plants and damp soil predominates.

Admires orchids.

Goes home. Opens computer. Starts to upload photos from walk and conservatory to social media. Starts to look at news again

Me: “Wait…”

Edit 2.9.17: Edited for formatting (replacing asterisks with italics) and correction of typographical errors.

Vit D: The sunshine vitamin

Vitamin D Pills by essgee51, (2010) CC By-NC 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/8XGA8R

There are few things more miserable, albeit non-deadly, than a cold. I was sitting on my couch, nostrils taped open with a “Breathe right” strip, my achy body wrapped in an afghan. By then, I was feeling quite sorry for myself, blowing my nose, and tossing a heap of crumpled tissues into the waste basket.

As I cradled a steaming cup of tea in my hands, my phone rang. I glanced at the caller id.It was my Dad. I picked it up.

“Hello?” I hoarsely croaked into the receiver.

“Are you sick again?” My dad asked. “Haven’t you been taking Vitamin D?”

“I’ve been taking 2000 IU a day!” I protested.

“Hmmm,” he said. “Maybe you should take more.”

Vitamin D is probably one of the most underratedly awesome contributors to human health and well-being. It helps build bones, and regulate the immune system. (Aranow, 2011.) Vitamin D may also help prevent heart disease and play a role in preventing certain cancers. (Harvard School of Public Health). As a human living in a northern latitude (approx 42 deg N) during the wintertime, I am the first to admit that I am not up to synthesizing all my own Vitamin D from sunlight and/or food consumption.

Humans synthesize Vitamin D from sunlight when UVB rays hitting skin convert precursor 7-dehydrocholesterol into Vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 travels to the liver and kidneys, to be come an active form of Vitamin D (Source: Harvard Medical School, 2009)

One of the ways in which Vitamin D may boost the immune system is by activating t cells, the guardians of the immune system that spring into action when they detect “non-self” invaders (i.e. pathogens) in the body. Per 2010 research paper at the University of Copehagen, after t cells detect traces of foreign material, they must become “activated” in order to become sensitized and effective fight that specific germ. T cells send out a chemical signal that triggers production of the VDR protein. VDR brings Vitamin D into the t cell, “activating it to hunt down and bind to pathogens. TL;DR: Not enough Vitamin D? T cells will not be marshalled as quickly to fight nasty germs.

So what’s a winter-bound, higher-latitude-located human to do? I could ingest more food sources of Vitamin D, like the injured Viking chugging fish oil in the extremely entertaining historic skiing movie, The Last King. Getting naked outdoors in subfreezing temperatures for maximal epidermal sun exposure is a no-go. (Frostbite, possible arrest due to violation of public decency statues.) Also, my relatively high latitude geographic location (Michigan!) in winter would reduce the incident angle (and Vit D synthesizing effectiveness) of sun exposure.

(It probably doesn’t help that my melanin-deficient skin’s causes me to cover up even in summer. This is what I usually look like when I plan to spend any time outside even in warmer months. )

It looks like the Vitamin D tablets are my new best friends. P.S. Cold symptoms subsided after a weekend with tea, soup and self-pity. Also, probably Vitamin D.


Regular readers of my blog may notice that I’m a little preoccupied with trash. Here on the Protopian Pickle Jar, I’ve been negotiating my relationship to all the Stuff in my life. Reducing and reusing get reframed as a moral component of consumption.  Composting becomes a personal virtue! Upcycling provides a creative outlet for the human-made objects I just can’t let go of.

Residential garbage trucks dumping a load in Savage, Minnesota, USA. At the landfill by Redwin Law (2007) CC by 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/JMKJ9

I spend a lot of time thinking about trash. And then I found out that some people do it professionally! At the Discard Studies Blog, I got a glimpse into the work of academics examining the many different issues surrounding waste and waste disposal.
Thanks to the Discard Studies feed, I read a blurb posted on a new book, Waste Away by Joshua Reno, focused on the author’s experience working at a Metro Detroit landfill. Having recently moved to the area, I was curious about the massive landfills “rising like ziggurats from a flat glacial plain.” (I was particularly pleased with that metaphor.) Thanks to the magic of interlibrary loan, the folks at my local public library were able to source me a copy of the book. Twice. (Thanks MeLCat!)

Reno (now a Prof at SUNY Binghamton) was a grad student at the University of Michigan in anthropology, when he got a job at local landfill as part of field research for his dissertation. As part of his deal with his employer, he disguised the names and identifying features of the landfill and surrounding communities. So even if I don’t know the particulars (there are many large landfills in this area of western Wayne county), Reno’s descriptions of his work at a laborer at the landfill and communities impacted by it, offer a fascinating glimpse into a major local industry within a historical and cultural context. I especially enjoyed sifting through the local clues in the book to try to figure out what towns/landfills (or composites thereof) the author was *really* talking about.

I also learned the word “taphonomy,” the formative process by which an item (dinosaurs, shucked oyster shells, used plastic tableware) is buried and later discovered. It means slightly different things in the paleontology and discard studies subdisciplines. I am going to try to subtly sneak it into casual conversations whenever I can.

Edit (Dec 9, 2016): I found one!

The Onion, America’s Finest News Source, delves into taphonomy with their (satirical) article, Man’s Garbage To Have Much More Significant Effect On Planet Than He Will.

Tangents for this post:

Oscar the Grouch singing I Love Trash!

The Rule of Names

Pink slime
Wolf’s Milk Slime by Jason Hollinger, (2007) CC By 2.0, via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/2Yn956

In Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, knowing a person or animal or object’s “true name” gives a wizard power over him or her or it. Therefore, humans (and other sentient beings, like Dragons) take particular care to avoid sharing their true names with others, lest they be compelled by a power-hungry wizard.

I first learned about Linnean taxonomy, and the practice of classifying organisms by binomial nomenclature (e.g. Homo sapiens) in my middle school science classes. This was also about the same time I was reading the Earthsea books. Not surprisingly, these two concepts, The Rule of Names and the taxonomy of biological naming, remained linked in my mind for a long time.

field notebook sample
My field notebooks looked sort of like this. DG_1_023 Myristicaceae by Aber TREC, (2014) CC By-NC 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/py7Eae

In my field science courses in college, I was an omnivorous species identifier. Samples of Sonoran desert plants (well, the ones that would smush flat) made their way into my field notebooks, with carefully labeled common and scientific names.  With each new named species, it felt like I was slowly mastering control over my unfamiliar environment. If only I could learn all the names, I would know everything about the ecosystem.

When I got to TEVA, teaching environmental education, I was surprised that we were discouraged from telling kids an organism’s names (common or scientific) outright in response to the question, “What is that?”

Instead, of answering with “Oh, that’s an Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis,)” our training was to turn the question around to the kids.
“What do you notice about it? What about its color, smell, or texture can you describe?”

The best part was that kids would come up with their own names for plants based on their observations and continue to identify them for the rest of the time we were on the trail. For example, Eastern Hemlock became “Dragon Tree” (because of its large floppy wing-like branches and white-striped scales). It was only later that we told them the “real” names of the organisms, or let them look them up in a field guide by characteristics.

Striped white scales of “Dragon Tree.” Eastern Hemlock by Seabrooke Leckie, (2010) CC By-NC-ND 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7BKVjY

Some of my favorite names students came up with were Bubble Gum Slime (aka Lycogala epidedrum – a pink slime mold); Smurf Caps (aka Lactarius indigo – a mushroom that oozed blue goo); Ghost Roses (aka Monotropa uniflora – a flower-like bleached white plant); and Velcro balls (aka Arctium minus – burdock seedpods  covered with tiny hooks that snared hair and clothing.)

Had we told them the “real” name outright, the kids would have heard a name and promptly forgotten it.  Maybe even thought that the label encapsulated everything you could know about the organism. We would have missed a tremendous opportunity for kids’ exploration and engagement with the natural world.

Most recently, I get my nature fix by going on walks outdoors here in Michigan.  Sometimes, if I see something that I haven’t seen before,  (or that just looks really cool), I take out my cell phone and snap a picture with the camera.    I could (and often do) look up the species in a field guide.  I also started uploading my photos to the site iNaturalist, to source community identifications for my observations. By adding my photos, with dates and geographic data to the online database, it provides a record that other members can refer to. It’s a resource for researchers and a form of participatory citizen science.

I also have been learning to identify new species from the system, as well as tagging “Unknown” photos with high level identifications (i.e. “Plant” or “Fungi”) in order to make the photos more widely searchable to community members who can provide more detailed identifications. It’s a form of social media in some ways as addictive as Facebook or online dating sites (but instead of rating pictures of potential dates, I attach a label if I think it’s a vertebrate.) There is also definitely a serotonin hit when other members agree with your identification, or provide additional comments on an observation that is as potent as the “FB like” button.

I wonder (dubious seratonin hits aside), if I am I reverting to an earlier understanding of “Name *ALL* the things” vs. a more nuanced engagement and exploration of the natural world. Sure, the site has leaderboards to track which members have made the most identifications or posted the most observations. Is it a competition ala a birder’s Big Year or just creating a sense of order in a chaotic and messy world? And are either of these appropriate forms of interacting with nature? What about if they are tempered by the sense of wonder and Radical amazement that I feel on my walks, or looking at pictures of really, really cool organisms?

A Sense of Place

I’ve lived in Michigan for a little over a year and and still trying to figure out my “Sense of Place” here. Every geographical location I’ve lived in over the past few years (rural Connecticut; suburban Kansas City; Long Island, NY) has been an opportunity to engage with this concept, which is something both inherent to a place and held in the perceptions of the people who live there. It’s more that just being able to navigate successfully through a town’s maze of streets or identify plants in local ecosystem (though these are part of it.)

Photo by Joe Loong (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. https://flic.kr//82G4u5

“Sense of Place” in a particular locality is something you can feel, just like proprioceptors give you a sense of your body in space. However, the internet (which is usually so good for this stuff), offers no quick and pithy definitions for this lived experience of being in a particular spot.

From Wikipedia’s entry on Sense of Place: “… a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual’s perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence.”

Wallace Stegner (1992) cites Wendell Berry’s observation, ” ‘If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.'” Stegner continues, “[Berry] is not talking about the kind of location that can be determined by looking at a map or a street sign. He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe. … He is talking about the knowing that poets specialize in.”

As environmental educators, we talk a lot about “place-based education.” It’s the idea that for kids to learn effectively, they need to have a connection (historically, geographically, ecologically, emotionally) to the space that immediately surrounds them. We are not only connected to the land through the air we breathe and the water we drink, but the stories of the people and creatures and rocks that came before us.

I experienced successful place-based pedagogy as undergraduate at Biosphere 2 Earth Semester in Oracle, AZ. Not only we were studying the physical topography and ecosystems of the Sonoran desert, we also studied the human stories of the Southwest. We learned the stories of the Tohono O’odham people, and those of the Spanish ranchers of the hacienda to the Anglo-speaking tuberculosis sufferers who came to “take the air” at the mountain resorts in the early 20th century.

Fifteen years later, here in Michigan, I am now attempting to learn to learn the stories of the humans, animals, plants and rocks of this place. For my first few months in Detroit, I was plunged into the human history and culture of the city, acutely conscious of my status of newcomer and outsider. I attempted to absorb as much as I could from reading articles and from talking to residents. And to try to fill in the details about what was left unsaid.

Everything was strange, from how “going Up North” (which is not the same as going to the Upper Peninsula) was an acceptable description of weekend plans, and “the Michigan left” required a U-turn around a boulevard rather than waiting for a left-turn arrow in a turn lane. It was especially how Michiganders explained the location of their hometowns by using the palms of their right hands as a map of “Mitt.”

I have now moved from midtown Detroit to the outlying Wayne county. I have gradually become more acclimated to the practical realities of navigating the metro sprawl, such finding the grocery store and post office. I continue to remain mindful of the quirky details learned from living in this place.

I am fascinated by invasive Phragmites reeds that clog roadside ditches, and the historical routes of the highways through downtown Detroit and outlying areas. I’m even curious about the landfills of western Wayne County, that rise like ziggurats from the flat glacial plain. You can easily see them (and their attendant flocks of gulls on the active surface) as you drive down I-275 freeway.

I’ve checked out library field guides to the flora and fauna of the area, read about the geology and repeated glaciations, traced the watershed of the Huron River and walked the wooded trails of the state parks in a succession of seasons. My attempts to recognize the landscape, and to identify its human and non-human players, all contribute to my slowly accreting sense of place in Michigan.

Additional Links:

Rebecca Solnit’s Detroit Arcadia, published in Harper’s Magazine in 2007, was among my first introductions to the history of Detroit.

Jennifer E. Cross (2001) has a good analysis of the different relationships humans develop to a place.