Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Zoo of Processed Meats

And speaking of "real food" and the imperative of being more aware of where your meals come from, Banksy has opened a new pet store where a lot of industrialized critters have been rescued from the freezer case to wait for a good home. Sort of like a humane society for processed meats and lab bunnies. It's only open until Halloween in NYC's East Village - go if you can!

Find more domesticated consumer products - not just processed foods - in terrariums at the Village Petstore and Charcoal Grill.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Church of Michael Pollan

Last night I joined Portland Psst! and the Jordans Meats Mycologist on a trip to Bates College in Lewiston for a free lecture by Michael Pollan, the journalist who's become a guru for the organic/local foods movement by virtue of his three most recent books, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire.

The Bates College chapel, allegedly the largest venue on campus, was ridiculously packed, with at least seven hundred people of all ages in attendance. The fire marshall made about a hundred people in the aisles leave before the lecture could begin.

Pollan was an engaging speaker, and had a quiver of entertaining anecdotes about the food and nutrition industries. His main arguments were aimed to dispel the notion that we can understand human dietary needs or dietary evils as discrete sets of chemical nutrients. Real foods, he pointed out, are complex, living systems, much like the human digestive system. Principles of "nutrition" are little more than articles of faith.

In fact, Pollan's opening remarks laid out a number of similarities between the nutrition industry and organized religion. I found the metaphor a bit ironic, given the fact that he was standing in the pulpit of a chapel and speaking to hundreds of eager disciples. I completely agree that we spend too much time obsessing over what we eat (mostly, whether it has trans fats, or omega threes, or corn syrup, or animal products, or whatever). But at the same time, as the huge crowd attests, the American obsession with food has been very, very good for Pollan and his book sales.

What Pollan is really asking us for is for a different kind of obsession over our food. Instead of poring over abstract "Nutrition Facts," we should think more about where our food comes from and the natural and human resources that brought it to us. If we knew more about the differences between a home-cooked meal and a processed TV dinner sourced from feedlots and agribusiness factories, or the differences between an organic apple shipped from New Zealand and an unlabeled apple from the orchard five miles away, then our economy, our environment, and our bodies would probably all be a lot healthier.

As someone who obsesses over where my sewage goes, I'm only too happy to explore where my food came from. And as an aspiring interpreter of the urban environment, I'll be curious to see how Pollan convinces the rest of America to become agro-naturalists.

Pollan's dietary advice boils down this seven-word incantation: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." To which I would only add, "And get over yourself already."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

San Francisco Bay, in 1915 and 2008

Source of historic map: San Francisco History Index, by Z Publishing.

Some landmarks of note: Treasure Island, which does not exist in the 1915 map, is an artificial island originally used as an airport and built from landfill that was dredged from the bottom of the Bay during the Great Depression.

The Port of Oakland was also constructed from landfill on the northern side of San Antonio Creek. Some landfilling work is already evident in the 1915 map. The airstrip on the south side of the Creek in the 2008 view is the Alameda Naval Air Station.

To view the entire map overlay in Google Earth or Google Maps, I've posted this overlay as a KML file on the Google Earth Community.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Opossums, William Howard Taft, and an important book for your survivalist cache

Continuing an occasional series of posts on urban wildlife, here is everything you need to know about North America's native marsupial, the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana).

Not playing possum: a roadside opossum carcass in suburban Yarmouth, Maine.

One benefit of riding my bike to work in the suburbs is my frequent sightings of urban and suburban wildlife species. Most of them are roadkill.

Because of roads, fragmented habitat, and other characteristics of urban landscapes, the wildlife habitats in which humans are the dominant species tend to favor critters like the opossum, which, like the Norway rat, has a short life span, a flexible diet, and large litters of offspring. Thanks to suburbanization, the Virginia opossum's range is actually increasing, north into Canada and to the west coast.

It's unclear why, but the opossum is frequently associated with hillbilly culture. Abroad, other opossum species are a popular game animal, and as late as the 1960s, opossums were a common enough source of food to warrant this recipe in the Joy of Cooking:
"If possible, trap 'possum and feed it on milk and cereals for 10 days before killing. Clean, but do not skin. Treat as for pig by immersing the unskinned animal in water just below the boiling point. Test frequently by plucking at the hair. When it slips out readily, remove the possum from the water and scrape. While scraping repeadedly, pour cool water over the surface of the animal. Remove small red glands in small of back and under each foreleg between shoulder and rib. Parboil... 1 hour. Roast as for pork, page 421."*
At the turn of the last century, there was an effort to market "Billy Possum," which was associated with William Howard Taft's presidency as the "Teddy Bear" was with Roosevelt's.

Unfortunately, none of the "Billy Possum" references I found were able to provide context for the phenomenon. I'm sure there's scholarly research, somewhere, on whether the "Billy Possum" was a legitimate marketing effort from the stuffed animal industry or a Democratic Party insult against William Howard Taft. Either way, Billy Possum didn't catch on.**

Here's a fact that doesn't really fit anywhere in the narrative, so I'll make a cheap pun and stick it here (and here): the "Didelphis" in the opossum's scientific name refers to the animals' bifurcated sex organs.

There's an Oppossum Society of the U.S. which laments the plight of opossums in urban habitats: "As development of once rural land increases, the opossum continues to be pushed out of its natural habitat and forced into closer proximity to people, often with injurious consequences to the opossum."

The OSUS has an unusually cute picture of an opossum on their home page, but come on: these are animals that survive 2 years, at the most, in the wild. Providing "for the care and treatment of injured and orphaned wild opossums for release back into the environment," as the Opossum Society does, kind of seems like coddling an adult human in a nursing home for twenty years, then dumping him naked in the Alaskan wilderness for his retirement.

*By the way, according to the source of this passage, the 1962 edition of Joy of Cooking also includes this illustration of how to skin a gray squirrel:Urban survivalists, take note: a mid-century edition of The Joy of Cooking is an essential addition to your apocalyptic supply cache.

**Taft didn't catch on, either: he received the worst reelection drubbing in American history when he finished a distant third behind Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. His post-presidency honors are pretty scant, but the town of Moron, California did decide to honor Taft by changing its name after a big fire in the 1920s (according to Wikipedia).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Edward Burtynsky's "Manufactured Landscapes"

For the next month, Bowdoin College's "Center for the Common Good" is hosting a number of events centered around the "Manufactured Landscapes" photography of Edward Burtynsky.

Edward Burtynsky: Oil Refineries No. 18,
Saint John, New Brunswick 1999

Burtynsky is an Ansel Adams for 21st-century environmentalism. Like Adams, he produces stunning, large-format photographs that are beautiful and can induce a sense of vertigo from their epic scale. While Adams was closely associated with 20th-century environmental groups like the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club, and was a strong advocate for preserving an idea of "pristine" nature, Burtynsky makes the human use of nature - in places like mines, Chinese factories, and landfills - his primary subject. Burtynsky is also aligned with the vanguard of 21st-century environmentalism, (check out this video he made for them).

Edward Burtynsky: Bao Steel #2,
Shanghai, 2005

Unfortunately, I'm afraid the internet can't do fair justice to these photographs. Luckily for those of us who live in Maine, an exhibition of Burtynsky's photographs will run at Bowdoin College in Brunswick from October 23rd to Christmas, in conjunction with a number of lectures and screenings of Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary of Burtynsky. Here's the schedule of events.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Urban Hiking: Portland's Stroudwater Trail

A few weeks ago I needed to pick up my newly-repaired camera at the FedEx warehouse out on Hutchins Drive, in Portland's industrial park fringe. So I hopped on my bike and rode to Stroudwater, where Portland Trails maintains a lovely hiking path through the woods next to the Stroudwater River. Following is a photo-illustrated guide to the hike. Since I didn't have my camera until the return trip, these photos are shown in the opposite order in which they were taken.

As the map above shows, the trail begins just off of Congress Street in a subdivision called River's Edge Drive. A Portland Trails sign marks the trailhead. You go down a hill to the actual river's edge, and wind along there just out of sight of suburban backyards. One of the Rivers Edgers has ingeniously appropriated a city sewer vault as a canoe rack. Who cares if your canoe smells a bit like sewage? Especially if you're paddling the Stroudwater, which includes a couple of sewer overflow outlets and cow farms along its banks?

Since the trail follows the river, it takes substantially longer to follow its loopy course than it would to walk a parallel route along the road. But soon, the terrain gets hillier as the bank leading down to the river also becomes steeper and the trail diverges from the riverside. Unfortunately, my own hike was too long ago for me to remember many of the trees and forest types I was passing through, but I do recall a lot of hemlock trees in this stretch, in the damper, shaded soils along the riverbank's north-facing slopes.

Fairly suddenly, you'll break out of the darkish coniferous forest into an open deciduous forest carpeted by ferns, and not long after that you'll walk through this clearing:

This is the pipeline corridor of the Portland Pipe Line Corporation, Quebec's primary oil lifeline, which connects tanker ships in Portland harbor to oil refineries near Montreal. So in theory, you could follow this path all the way to Montreal, but you'll have to cross a number of rivers along the way (like the one a few yards to your north here) without the benefit of bridges, and besides, as the signs here will tell you, trespassing in the pipeline corridor is not allowed.

Continuing west, then, you'll soon return to the riverbank by walking along boardwalks in the soggy floodplain. Across the river here is a pungent meadow, where the City of Portland's last resident cows chew their cud in sight of the Maine Turnpike.

The trail soon leaves the floodplain and climbs uphill again, until it reaches another clearing hemmed in by a spectacular wall.

Beyond this wall is an eleven acre parking lot - one of several asphalt plains that surround the UNUM headquarters. On the trail's side of the wall is a small wetland filled with cattails and other grasses that help filter the parking lot's toxic doses of stormwater runoff. Also note the sumac in the left side of this photo - it's a sun-loving pioneer species that's frequently found at the edges of meadows and other disturbed areas in temperate deciduous forests.

You'll barely leave the great wall of parking behind when you arrive at another, louder clearing: the bridges where the Maine Turnpike carries four lanes of freeway traffic over the Stroudwater River.

But as soon as you put the Turnpike behind you, there's a time warp! It seems as though you've stumbled into the early nineteenth century... from every parked car, you expect to see emerging a barrel cooper, or a blacksmith, or a fugitive slave bounty hunter!

No, you're still in the year 2008. But here at the Sturbridge Yankee Workshop, history really seems to spring to life! Inside, skilled craftsmen are practicing a time-honored American tradition: distributing decorative accents and furniture that have been shipped from China.

The trail leaves the Workshop's parking lot and descends to a small parking area at the end of Blueberry Road, which leads back to Congress Street. Continuing along the trail, though, you'll enter the woods again, although a razor-wire fence soon appears in the woods to your left. Beyond emanates a steady industrial thrum:

This is ecomaine's waste-to-energy incinerator, which burns the majority of the Portland region's garbage and uses the heat to produce electricity. This is a place that deserves a blog post of its very own, and I plan to write it soon. As the trail passes opposite the incinerator's huge smokestack, you can find a mysterious PVC pipe emptying a steady drip of unknown liquid onto the trail (the pipe seems to lead straight towards the incinerator).

Past this point, the trail is closed in the winter, since the woods beyond the incinerator contain some of Portland's only winter habitat for white tailed deer. The trail winds through upland forests for another half mile or so and passes a minor power line corridor before reaching Hutchins Drive.

The last fifty yards or so of Hutchins (pictured) are barricaded from traffic and overgrown with ten to twenty years' worth of encroaching plant growth. It's kind of neat to see the forest overtaking the no parking signs and guardrails. Even in the middle of the street, weeds are beginning to take over from widening cracks in the pavement.

The trail continues a bit further on to the Westbrook town line, but this is where I turned around. If you're reading this on the blog, just scroll up and read this whole post backwards to get back to where you started.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Canadian Mineral Commodity Flows, 1979

For the last 2.5 million years, periodic ice ages have scraped away Canada's mineral resources and deposited them here in the northern USA. During the current interglacial period, an elaborate network of railroads and ports is selectively depositing Canada's most valuable minerals in widely-scattered moraines located in industrial centers all over the globe.

Click these for more detail:


Black dots are mines. Red lines are railroads; blue lines are water-borne shipments.

A: Asbestos, crude [use of asbestos in construction was not widely banned until the mid-1980s]
Al: Alumina, bauxite ore
C: Coal
Cu: Copper ore
Fe: Iron ore
G: Gypsum
K: Potash
mc: other ores and concentrates
NaCl: Salt
Ni: Nickel-copper ores
P: Phosphate rock
Pb-Zn: Lead and zinc ores
pr: other mine products
S: Sulphur
GS: Sand and gravel

A link to the full map, from the Atlas of Canada.