Saturday, October 17, 2015

El Faro

Note: This program first aired October 17, 2015.

I work here in Maine, at a maritime college, a school who’s mission is to train young women and men to drive and power the thousands of ships sailing at any given moment on the ocean. Ships that transport consumer goods and bulk commodities, food and cars, oil, gas and coal, ships that carry humans from place to place, ships that ply every available waterway on the planet. It’s been a hard couple of weeks on campus, if you have been following the news, you will understand why. A ship carrying five alumni, including some very recent graduates, drove straight into the path of a major hurricane and sank. The entire crew of 33 was lost at sea.

Humans have had a relationship with the sea from the beginning of our existence. There is evidence that as we evolved in the open woodlands and grass lands of Africa, climatic shifts pushed us to spread out, and as we spread, we made it to the coast line and found the ocean. One hypothesis has it that it was the nutritional content of sea food that enabled our brains to evolve to what they are today. Evolution aside we are sea loving people. In the US over 39% of the population lives in coastal shoreline counties, over 123 million people. The numbers are similar if not higher world wide.

We have used the sea as a source of food, a medium for migration and trade, and even a spiritual well spring. Those most comfortable at sea are truly a breed apart, I see this in my students all the time. They can’t really explain it but they are happiest with the open horizon in front of them, nothing but water around them, the deck in motion under their feet. I once went to the Aran Islands on the west coast of Ireland, and it was the first place I had been where I felt in a visceral way that there was enough room for my head, enough space for my mind to wander. I suspect that is what mariners feel on the sea, that and freedom. On the sea the rules of land don’t apply, until of course, they do. The sea may make you feel free and invincible, but this, like nearly every human story, is an illusion.

I am reading Moby Dick with my students this semester, and Melville captures this essence perfectly, in the chapter called Brit he writes “…by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters, though but a moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; never the less, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.” And a few lines later it continues “Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.”

We developed bipedal motion to carry these big brains around, and these big brains have gotten us out of some pretty amazing situations (Apollo 13 anyone?). But its in our hearts where humility dwells, and I think we love the ocean for that reason, she is a wilderness and we set sail on her at our peril. Science and skill could not save the well trained mariners of the El Faro. Science and skill could not help the Coast Guard rescuers find the ship or crew, flying at the outer limits of possibility in nearly impossible conditions. We’ve got the equation all wrong, it isn’t our intelligence and ingenuity that is limitless, its the power of the sea.


On humans and seafood:

UN on coastal population

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Food Transformation or the Magic that is Bacon

Note: This program first aired October 3, 2015.

My friend Wendy and I were talking about food recently, and the topic of bacon came up. In some circles, bacon makes everything better. As we talked I described what amazing animals pigs are, and how they take stuff we can’t eat and turn it into bacon. And that is the essence of the magical transformation that is a food system. Everything has to eat something whether that something is plant or animal or fungus or bacteria. As humans we are omnivores, and have a wide range of foods available to us, and by available I mean food we can access, digest and find palatable. But there are lots of things on this planet we don’t eat or more significantly, can’t eat and that is true for all organisms. The wonderful thing about an interdependent food system is that other organisms can make use of things that you can’t, and if you able to eat the organism in question, you can effectively widen the radius of your available food sphere.

This is a common practice in agriculture. Many small progressive farms practice rotational grazing, where large animals are grazed on a plot of land for a period of time and then moved to a different pasture. They leave behind manure that enriches the soil, but more than that attracts flies which lay their eggs in the manure. Chickens are then rotated into the pasture. Chickens take things most of us don’t want to eat, like maggots, and turn them into things most of us do want to eat, like eggs. Now to be fair, we could eat maggots, and in some cultures, beetle larva are a prized food source. But if I have to eat maggots, I would rather have them processed through a chicken first. For a less gross example, cows take things we can’t eat, like grass, we can’t get any nutrition out of grass, it is indigestible for us, and cows turn it into things many of us can and do eat, like beef and milk. Even pigs, they take food no longer fit for human consumption, and turn it into bacon. If you hunt, wild animals do the same thing, transforming tree bark and leaf bud, hemlock needles and twigs into nutritious edible matter.

It isn’t just animals that perform this magic. You can be a vegan and still find wonder in this process. Mushrooms are heterotrophs like us, in that they don’t make their own food, they find it in the external environment. Mushrooms take stuff that is entirely inedible to us, wood, and turn it into something we can eat. Plants are the ultimate practitioners of this ancient art, they take air and make food. Yes, plants make food out of air. The energy stored in the food comes from the sun, but the material portion of that food comes literally from thin air.

If you think about it, this should feel like magic, and you should feel incredibly lucky that all of these organisms perform this magical transformation. In reality though, it isn’t magic, it is simply biology following the rules of physics. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, it just keeps getting rearranged. Life is the ultimate upcycler.

You’ve heard of recycling, taking trash and using it as raw material for something new. There is no trash in nature. But biology doesn’t just take old plastic bottles and make plastic lawn furniture and decking out of it. Biology is actually an up-cycler. Biology takes maggots and grubs and makes eggs and chicken, takes grass and hay and makes ice cream, takes rotting wood and makes chanterelles, takes air and water and makes broccoli, takes food waste and makes bacon.

Be a link in your own food chain. See yourself as the link in the food chain that you are, and realize there are no six degrees of separation when it comes to food. Your blueberry muffin, bacon breakfast sandwich, bowl of yogurt and granola or tofu veggie scramble are but one degree separated from things inedible. And in that one degree is what separates that which is living from that which is not.