Deep Earth: Some Cool Stuff and Some Hellabad Stuff

An Aboriginal Arunta man sits near Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia.
An Aboriginal Arunta man sits near Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia.

When push comes to shove, and it’s predicted that it will within the next fifty years, the earth’s wrestling match at the Cascadia subduction zone is bound to wreak havoc along the Pacific coast of the United States. Kathryn Shulz wrote an article in the New Yorker called “The Really Big One” that lays out a scenario of earthquakes and tsunamis as one planetary plate gives way to another. That sobering prediction sent me in search of some better news about the dirt under my feet.

Fossil at Burpee Museum of Natural History
Fossil at Burpee Museum of Natural History

Probably the coolest things the layers of the earth can cough up are fossils. Last week I saw a bunch of magnificent fossilized bones (and casts of bones) at the Burpee Museum in Rockford, IL. Some of the critters swam around here during the Cretaceous Period when shallow seas covered this land. Their shells and bones helped form our limestone and other sedimentary rocks. I especially enjoyed the fossils of little turtles and one huge guy, as you can see below.

This sea turtle fossil is the size of a Smart Car.
This sea turtle fossil is the size of a Smart Car.

A couple days after visiting the museum, I went to Cave of the Mounds in Blue Mounds, WI, and saw some more fossils, including a six-foot long shell in the ceiling of the cave.  That’s another cool thing about deep earth: caves.

Caves are literally cool. It was 90 degrees outside on July 30, yet the cave was 50 degrees, as it is all year round. That’s how our geothermal heating and cooling at our cabin works. We have pipes going 150 feet straight down, till they hit rock, and we make use of that cool air to control the temperature inside our home.

Cave of the Mounds, Wisconsin
Cave of the Mounds, Wisconsin

This particular cave was discovered August 4, 1989, while blasting the hillside for limestone. Because the cavern was enclosed before that discovery, there are no bats, blind fish, or albino spiders in there, like in some other caves. The only life forms are the tiny spring tail insects that seep in with the rain. I saw specks of their nymphs in a pool of clear water.

With all the stalactites and stalagmites growing toward each other in that cave, you can see how the earth is always changing, both on the surface where we walk around and deep inside where we rarely notice Mother Earth’s activities until they erupt to the surface. No wonder many people consider Gaia, our planet Earth, to be alive.

As that big turtle, archelon ischyros, found out, changes happen. Let’s prepare for the bad ones and appreciate the others. May you stay safe through it all.

The elder by the Uluru cave might tell us something like this.
The elder by the Uluru cave might tell us something like this.
Stalactite with calcite crystals, Cave of the Mounds
Stalactite with calcite crystals, Cave of the Mounds

 

 

Would We Maybe Miss Mosquitoes?

It’s a buggy time of year and I’m feeling swarmed and itchy. Mosquitoes are in the family Culicadae and a common genus around here is Anopheles. In Greek, ano means “not” and ophelos means “profit.”  By that term, mosquitoes are defined as “useless.”

The persistent critters seemed worse than useless to me when I was a kid trying to sleep and, no matter how many I swatted, there was always one last mosquito in my room humming the lullaby of the damned.  I’d wake up with more itchy bumps the next morning.

images-6

Those bloodsuckers (ectoparasites) are the female mosquitoes.  They need the blood to produce eggs.  The male sticks to sipping nectar and then swarms with the other guys at dusk until a female enters their midst to mate, an aerial bar scene.  A couple weeks later, they die.

I like to think that all the species in nature have their purposes and that we would miss them if they became extinct.  Bugs and other pests probably inspired humans to create shelter and clothing, so maybe architects, builders, and the garment industry should feel beholden to them. Also, without female mosquitoes, there would have been no Jurassic Park!  Their little bodies embedded in amber were the vessels for the DNA of long-extinct dinosaurs, brought back to life, or so the story goes.

I set out to look for arguments on behalf of mosquitoes and couldn’t find a single convincing one. Instead I found some widespread consensus that mosquitoes would not be missed if they were eliminated from the earth.  According to experts, their ecological niche would be filled in no time.  Certain animals that have evolved to eat the insects and their larvae, such as the mosquitofish, would miss them for a while until they found other prey.  Animals that I thought depended on a diet of mosquitoes, like bats, would not be all that affected.  When scientists examined the contents of bat bellies, they found mostly moths and only 2% mosquitoes in there.

A million people die each year from malaria carried by mosquitoes, and that is just one of many deadly diseases they spread.  In the Midwest, we worry about getting West Nile virus. Will we ever wipe out disease-carrying mosquitoes or will they wipe us out first?  We can tell them to buzz off and zap them with insecticide and, within a few generations, within less than a year, their species can develop resistance to it.

The Culcidae tribe has been around for at least 79 million years and it looks like they’ll be buzzing around our ears for a few zillion more.

 

Adopted by Dogs

“Where you goin’?” our dog, Cassie, seems to be asking as she watches through the screen.

Cassie keeps an eye on me from the porch.
Cassie keeps an eye on us from the porch.

Turns out canines have been tracking our whereabouts for tens of thousands of years.  DNA studies indicate that dogs, Canis familiaris, branched off from wolves at least 30,000 years ago.

Aidan of the Wolf Center Pack
My fuzzy photo of a wolf in Ely, Minnesota

We humans thought we domesticated dogs, or at least that’s what I was taught in school.  But research in the last few years indicates that dogs domesticated us, or, at the very least, it was a mutual process.  Our ancestors didn’t simply choose the boldest and cuddliest wolves to train; the wolves chose us for their own purposes as well.  Brian Hare, author of The Genius of Dogs, asserts that we did not adopt wolves and turn them into dogs; it is more likely that “wolves adopted us.”

It must have been the most patient and tolerant wolves that were willing to approach our campfires.  Hare says, it was “survival of the friendliest.”  (Isn’t that a refreshing alternative to “survival of the meanest” scenarios played out in media, business, and politics?  Maybe we can learn from our dogs in this regard.)  Those are the canines that evolved into our furry friends today.

I don’t know about you, but I never use my dog as a reserve food supply or to hunt or to keep warm at night, all of which our ancestors did.  We’re companions.  The two vestigial functions of dogs that I share with my ancestors is as an alarm system and occasional cleaning and sanitation service.  Those pesky food spills on the kitchen floor disappear in seconds!

Dogs benefit from their association with humans by having secure homes, reliable food supplies, and someone to pick off their burrs and ticks.  Canis familiaris has also managed to avoid being hunted to extinction as we’ve done to Canis lupus.  In fact, dogs flourish in so many forms and places, their overall success as a species seems guaranteed.  In spite of too many cases of animal abuse which need to be addressed, our pets are getting quite a lot for what they gave up in the wild.

White German Shepherd relaxing in a warm house on a cold day
Our white German Shepherd relaxes in our warm house on a cold day.
Part of the family
Part of the family

However we arrived at this extraordinary friendship between people and dogs, I’m hoping our evolution on both sides is moving us toward a more perfect union of harmony and interdependence.  If we can’t make peace for the sake of our fellow humans, maybe we can do it for our four-legged friends.  After all, we have thumbs.  They’re counting on us.

 

See the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for information about protecting animals.  For more on dogs’ wild relatives, see the International Wolf Center site.

 

With Modern Agriculture, Green Giant Not So Jolly

In southern Minnesota, the Jolly Green Giant soars more than fifty-five feet above Interstate 90.  Though modeled after the Green Giant brand “mascot,” he was erected by the Blue Earth community and stands for the prominence of crop production in the area.  Many farmers here make a good living from the soil, but often at a cost to the health of the environment and themselves that is not so jolly.

Green Giant
Green Giant

Through hail and thunderstorm, I drive over the flat plains of my home state.  In Martin County, I  talk with a resident who says, “This is the biggest ag’ county in the state, maybe the whole country.”  Evidence of agriculture is all around us in vast brown fields.  It’s April and the bare dirt awaits cultivation of corn and soybeans.

Average farm size around here is 443 acres.  The chemicals and machinery of modern agriculture mean bigger farms with fewer workers required.  The population of the 730 square mile county is just over 20,000 and has been decreasing.

Cancer, however, is on the rise.   The county lies west of Rochester, home of the famous Mayo Clinic.  “At Mayo Clinic,” the local guy says, “they see cancer and they say, oh, yeah, you’re from Martin County.”  Farmers here tend to make liberal use of insecticides, pesticides, and all those “cides” that can also lead to subtle, slow, unintended homicide and suicide.  They seem to be killing themselves and their neighbors with poisons.

Do such toxins remain in frozen peas and corn we buy at the grocery store?  That concern is one reason I buy organic when I can.

According to Scorecard that keeps track of pollution by area, Martin County is known as one of the worst counties in the United States for “air releases of suspected carcinogens,” along with endocrine toxicants and immunotoxicants.  In other words, substances designed to disrupt hormonal and immune systems in pests can affect us, too.

While people on huge combines and tractors profit off the land, they repay Mother Nature by altering just about every inch of her.  How do people earn an income while protecting an ecological system?  Is recovery possible?  Martin County is forever changed and will probably never be the prairie land it once was.  The bison and other factors that helped create the prairies are too long gone for that.  Poet Wendell Berry writes, As the machines come and the people go/ the old names rise, chattering, and depart.  We humans have the knowledge and ability to live well with the land.  Berry says, do not tell it to a machine to save it.  Reach back to other times and reach out to other cultures, beyond the corporate giants to people themselves.  The land teaches us, if we watch and listen.  If we take time.

Landscapes are slow to change, but we humans can change today by treating environments as our communities rather than our commodities.  In A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold wrote that our land ethic depends on our attitude: “man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.”  There is no separation between our health and the health of the soil, air, and water upon which we depend.

Let me end on a hopeful note for Earth Day (and Week).  The Martin County resident tells me he’s raising bees now.  He thought about the needs of the bees and started growing native plants for them to visit and pollinate.  One conscious, sensible, loving step leads to another, and that is jolly good.

Midwest farm
Midwest farm

 

Here’s the Kingsmen’s goofy song about the Green Giant, ho ho ho.

March Snow

Let me write about snow before it melts away with the coming of spring.

Sled on a snowy day, Huntley Illinois
Sled on a snowy day in Huntley, Illinois

I like snow!  I’m not a golfer but I spent a good part of of my childhood at the Northfield Golf Club because it had the nearest sledding hill.  My friend, Amy, and I would drag our sleds or snow saucers over to the golf course hill, just east of Prairie Street in Northfield, Minnesota.  Covered in boots, snowpants, parkas, mittens, and ski masks, we immediately hit the slope as if it was our job to smooth the entire hill into a cohesive, slippery mass.  We carefully walked up the same part of the hill each time so as to preserve the best runs.  Other children came and went, but we were the most devoted sledders, often staying till after dark.

The owners of the golf course put up with us, even when we tromped into the club house to use the restroom.  I remember coming out of a stall with my ski mask on as a startled woman said, “Oh, honey, the little boy’s room is across the hall.”  I must have looked more like an ice-encrusted abominable snowman than a little girl!

Even as an adult, I am always on the lookout for a good hill.  When our children were little, we had a slope behind our house that we enjoyed in winter.  It was nothing, though, compared to what one Minnesota family did in their backyard!  They engineered their own snow slide as if it was a winter water park.  I understand why people in D.C. recently defied the ban on sledding on Capitol Hill.  It’s a hill and it has snow.  What else is it for?

Some of us like the cold, white stuff we get for a few months of the year.  Here’s Robert Frost’s appreciation of snowflakes raining on his head:

DUST OF SNOW

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

Has given me heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

Winter walk
Winter walk

Yes, the fresh, sparkly snow can shine through our shadows of glumness.  When I start dwelling on the blooper reel of my life, ruing, to use Frost’s word, all my dumb mistakes, I need to reboot.  Snow does that.  It offers a clean slate and a shot at redemption, as Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) wrote in these stanzas of her poem, March Snow:

When winter dies, low at the sweet spring’s feet

Let him be mantled in a clean, white sheet.

Let the old life be covered by the new:

The old past life so full of sad mistakes,

Let it be wholly hidden from the view

By deeds as white and silent as snow-flakes.

Ere this earth life melts in the eternal Spring

Let the white mantle of repentance fling

Soft drapery about it, fold on fold,

Even as the new snow covers up the old.

The end of winter used to be considered the start of the new year in some cultures.  Hibernation is over.  New life begins!  It makes sense.  As for me, until the snow is all gone, I’m going to get out there and enjoy it.

Good skiing weather
Good skiing weather

Napa Crush: Joys of Northern California

Cabernet Grapes in Napa
Cabernet Grapes in Napa

I’m on the left coast of America and I love this fertile place beyond reason. Like the wine we sampled on our Schramsberg tour, Napa Valley contains joy that effervesces through my system, carried on the tiniest bubbles known to humans.

I lick the juice of sweet persimmon off my fingers so I can type this without sticking to the keys. Kaki, as my mother-in-law called them, hang from trees, round and shining like Christmas ornaments. I plucked one and brought it with me to our daughter’s cottage, cut the fruit into bright orange wedges and sucked the flesh right off the skin.

Persimmon at Larkmead Vineyard
Persimmon at Larkmead Vineyard

The vineyards stretch luxuriously here, the way cornfields do back home. This cottage, in fact, is in a vineyard. In October its Cabernet grapes were crushed into nectar of the gods. Now we can pick the stray blue-black orbs left behind and crush our own. My daughter’s boyfriend brings me a Mason jar of the stuff to swig and it is divine. I’m going out on a limb here saying this, but who needs the fermentation? It’s mighty fine as is. Alex will make it into “cranbernet,” his version of cranberry sauce, for our dinner. I swipe the ink of grapes off my lips and continue typing. But I am at a loss for a way to turn black and white characters into the burst of life and warmth that is California.

The smells alone undo me. Eucalyptus trees, yes. We smelled them when we went to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Then there was the straw scent of o-cha, green tea, in our cups as we sat in the Japanese Garden. But the year-round floral fragrances are what take me back to my family’s stay in Berkeley when I was four. Imprinted on me, coming from frozen Minnesota, were the flowers and fruit we could enjoy year round. Surrounding our clapboard house were fields of flowers where I wandered and looked for snails while my sisters went to school.

The California closet of my brain seems to hold potpourri from our family’s sabbatical year. Activated by each return trip, scent memories from my limbic storehouse make me goofy with delight as soon as I sniff the air. My mood is mellowed and my expectations are primed for more sensual delights to come. I feel woozy while I’m there and, upon departure, am struck by a longing the Germans might call sehnsucht and the Portuguese saudade, “the love that remains.” For the Japanese, this feeling is natsukashii, a good memory infused with melancholy, a nostalgia that is futokoro, felt in the heart.

We harvest Emily’s rosemary, marjoram and sage, to be rubbed with butter under the turkey’s skin, and carrots and peppers for my wild rice dish. Sweet potatoes are turned into latkes. I hear a buck bawling in the forest for a mate as we set the picnic table for our holiday dinner. Alex’s father serves curried persimmon soup and our outdoor Thanksgiving feast begins.

Whether in wine country or not, this state intoxicates me. My experiences of California tend to have all the elements of a memorable date: wine, succulent food, heart-stirring beauty, perfumed breezes, and scanty clothing. I feel in love and yet not committed. I will have a passionate affair, prone to quakes and upheavals, and then, honestly, I want to go back to the sturdy middle of the continent with its parkas, Sorel boots, and the smell of corn stalks plowed into the loam. Because it’s home.

(This piece is also available in the frisky and thoughtful online magazine, REALIZE.)

Golden Gate Bridge, San Fransisco
Golden Gate Bridge, San Fransisco

Faraway for the Holiday

At the gate to the National Marae (Meeting House)
At the gate to the National Marae

 

 

If you find yourself at the end of the earth at the end of November, stop before you get to Antarctica and have Thanksgiving. The Maori will feed you, as long as you observe protocol.

First, wait outside to be welcomed. By welcomed I mean that men rush toward you with clubs and spears. Try to maintain some dignity as they slap their naked thighs and chests and show their teeth. They glare at you and thrust their tongues down their black-patterned chins, but you remain calm and friendly. That’s when they invite you into their Meeting House.

Nov. 1996
Maori Haka in New Zealand

Next, it is important to notice the wooden carvings of ancestors, considered the keepers of the House. Greet them more humbly than you were greeted. In the dining area, you see leaf-wrapped vegetables and seafood lifted from an underground oven. Sit, eat, and get to know the people. You are in the living heart of this island’s culture, even if it is for the sake of your tourist dollars. You are with this land’s first people and they want you to know who they are. Give thanks, even without a turkey to carve.

Christchurch, New Zealand
Barb with carving of a Maori ancestor, Keeper of the Marae (gathering place)

After an alarming start, you relax and start to feel at home. You converse with the men and women. They turn out to be gracious and kind, yet they are tenacious enough, in governing New Zealand, to insist on upholding their treaty rights against great odds.

Lastly, your hosts escort you outside. They give you the traditional hongi farewell, pressing their foreheads against yours as if transferring kind thoughts into your brain. The moment feels timeless. When you turn at the gate to wave goodbye, you see their teeth again, but now they are surrounded by smiles.

*****

If you are like me, those smiles remain tattooed on your brain, beckoning you back to the people of Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud. Once you have crossed the bridge between hearts, distance means nothing. The end of the earth is not so far away.

Traditional hongi
Traditional hongi