Monthly Archives: September 2013

A Different Apple


Photo: PK Read

Apples are hanging heavy on our apple trees, although their numbers have been greatly diminished by a series of storms interspersed with very hot weather. The apple tree which holds pride of place, in the middle of our garden, is of a local variety. Or at least, local in the sense that my late neighbor, a gardener of unique talent, planted it there himself some fifty years ago with cuttings from his own garden – and that garden dates back well over a 150 years.

The apples are crisp, sweet and tart, and make delightful apple pies. Our neighbors (the children of the gifted gardener) still homepress vast quantities of juice and cidre for local sale from their orchards.

A study published this summer finds that apples – at least, the Japanese apples used in the study – are changing with the climate. According to the paper, this kind of research poses specific challenges, and “detecting long-term trends (…) requires data from apple orchards in which there have been no alterations in cultivars and management practices for extended periods.”

Studying 30-40 years of apple data, and carrying out a range of objective experiments on everything from acid concentration and fruit firmness to peel color and blossom dates, the study’s authors conclude that today’s Fuji and Tsugara apples are indeed different from the fruit that went to market four decades ago.

They are less flavorful, mealier, and more disease-prone, to be exact.

This doesn’t mean that other cultivars can’t pick up the slack when it comes to providing a wonderful taste and textural experience.

What it does mean is that apple trees, like everything else, must adapt to climate change.


Scientific Papers studyChanges in the taste and textural attributes of apples in response to climate changes by T. Sugiura, H. Ogawa, N. Fukuda & T. Moriguchi

Late Harvest


Image via

If you’ve ever felt the need to get to know your champagne from the ground up, now is your chance – the Champagne region started the annual grape harvest this past week, the latest start in over a decade. A late and cold spring, hailstorms and rain led to vineyards problems like coulure, unpollinated flowers and falling berries, as well as millerandage, unevenly developed grape bunches. Not to mention outright destruction when it came to a couple of severe hailstorms in late July.

Still, in light of the excellent weather for most of July, the Comité Champagne (CIVC) is predicting a harvest decline of only 4.5% compared to 2012.

A late season and smaller harvest don’t mean the final result won’t be excellent, however. According to Dominique Moncomble, technical director of the CIVC, “Since 1950, the Champagne region has seen at least twenty harvests that started after September 25, and several of them were some of the very best quality”.

The general attitude seems to be one of cautious optimism. Or maybe cautious hope.

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

Around 120,000 seasonal workers are employed for the harvesting of 34,000 hectares (131 sq. miles) of vineyards in the region, starting with pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, and moving to the later-ripening chardonnay blanc.

The pay, from what I can tell on the French employment website, is €9.43/hour, with some vineyards offering a bonus for quick pickers, and others paying by basket harvested. The harvest contract lasts for between one and two weeks.

So, if you have the inclination see grapes up close and really get the feel of Champagne, put on your boots, grab your tent, and get picking.

For those who like the notion of harvesting but only for a day, and who don’t mind having to paying rather than being paid for their work, I found this harvest party site – I haven’t tried it, but it offers an hour or so of vineyard picking, a tour, and a large vineyard feast.

Charonnay grapes Photo: Gayle Keck

Chardonnay grapes
Photo: Gayle Keck


Check out Been There Ate That For a good post on the harvesting experience.

Drinking, Water and Sand


I’ve been looking at some recent and major water discoveries, here and elsewhere, and for me, they are all part of the same story.

When we talk about life, we talk about water.

Red Water

Pockets of water ice on the southern pole of Mars. Credit: ESA

Pockets of water ice on the southern pole of Mars.
Credit: ESA

The fine dust of the Martian planet surface, gathered, cooked and analyzed by Curiosity, has revealed itself to be “acting like a bit of a sponge and absorbing water from the atmosphere,” according to Laurie Leshin. Leshin is the lead author of a study showing that surface soil on Mars appears to contain approximately 1 liter (2 pints) of water in every 0.03 cubic meter (1 cubic foot). The Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM) aboard the spunky NASA rover, taken together with information from other robotic explorers previously sent to the planet, indicate that this soil is probably distributed across the planet in similar composition.

But before you put on your space boots and prepare for lift-off, it should be noted that the soil also seems to contain a fair amount of toxic substances such as perchlorate as well, a challenge that would have be overcome before humans could consider any form of manned mission or colonization.

More on Martian water, from the ice caps to why there is no visible surface water, here.

On a related note, to get an idea of what can live in one cubic foot on Earth, about one large shovelful of soil, it’s worth having a look at the fascinating A World in One Cubic Foot by David Liittschwager.

Deep Water


Lake Turkana, Kenya
Photo: Piotr Gatlik

Two deep underground aquifiers have been discovered beneath the Turkana and Lotikipi basins in northern Kenya using radar, satellite technology, and verified through UNESCO supported test drilling. Together, they are estimated to contain up to 250 billion cubic liters of water. The area, home to mainly nomadic people, has been subject to extreme water scarcity and drought, while Ethiopian dam projects on the other side of the border could potentially reduce the levels of Lake Turkana itself.

“This newly found wealth of water opens a door to a more prosperous future for the people of Turkana and the nation as a whole. We must now work to further explore these resources responsibly and safeguard them for future generations,” Judi Wakhungu, cabinet secretary in the Kenyan ministry of environment, water and natural resources said at the start of a water security conference in Nairobi.

Lake Turkana is located in the Kenyan Rift Valley and is the largest desert and alkaline lake in the world. Large numbers of primate fossils have been found in the area, and the lake is widely regarded by anthropologists to be the origin of the human race.

In other news, large oil reserves have been found in the same area.

Less Water

The water supply stress index (WaSSI) model considers regional trends in both water supply and demand.
Credit: K. Averyt et al via IOP Science

On the other side of the water discovery coin, there’s the United States, where most people might assume that access to clean, fresh water is a given in a country with a long history of water distribution. But according to a report by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, one in ten watersheds in North America are ‘stressed’, i.e. “demands for freshwater sources outstrip natural supplies”. The pressure on watersheds is likely to increase with the impact of climate change, according to CIRES.

“We hope research like this helps us understand challenges we might face in building a more resilient future,” said co-author James Meldrum.

Cerumen Core Archives


Blue whale
Credit: Denis Scott via NPR

A group of researchers recently published the interesting approach of examining a large plug of ear wax (cerumen) taken from a male blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) that had been hit by ship.

By analyzing the waxy layers built up over the whale’s life, which they compare to growth rings in trees, they came up with a lifetime profile of the chemicals to which the whale had been exposed, as well as a profile of its maturation process and stress levels. This particular earplug was 25.4 cm (10 inch) long, a lot of wax to examine.

Caption and credit: PNAS/Trumble et al

Caption and credit: PNAS/Trumble et. al.

The team is encouraging the examination of archived ear wax plugs, some dating back to samples harvested from various whales in the 1950s, to create a multi-generational database that could be used to assess human impact on both the whales themselves, and on the marine environments where they live.

For me, the earplugs less resemble the growth rings on trees, and are more like the core samples taken to research glacial ice, or sediment or rock, for insight into historical composition. Except that with the whale’s waxy earplug, the core sample has been created naturally.

Gold core samples.

Gold core samples.

Humans have always liked to gather things, all manner of things. A bit like the proverbial magpie, but our interest isn’t limited to shiny objects.

I suppose what surprises me most about this story isn’t the innovative approach to marine research – it’s the fact that there are entire archives of whale ear wax plugs to which the new method can be applied.

Whale ear bones.

Whale ear bones.


PNAS paperBlue whale earplug reveals lifetime contaminant exposure and hormone profiles by S.J. Trumble, E.M. Robinson, M. Berman-Kowalewski, C.W. Potter & S. Usenko

GuardianExpress article – Blue Whale Ear Wax Shows Beast’s Hormone Profile by James Fenner

Space Salad


Most science fiction notions of humans living in space, at least the ones that aren’t all white-walled and minimalistic, involve at least one image something like this:

Toroid Colony
Illustration: Don Davis via Discover Magazine

NASA announced that later this year, the International Space Station will, for the first time, practice space farming. Six heads of romaine lettuce, to be exact, grown in Kevlar pillow packs filled with something like kitty litter.

From the ISS web site: “The Vegetable Production System (Veggie) is a deployable plant growth unit capable of producing salad-type crops to provide the crew with a palatable, nutritious, and safe source of fresh food and a tool to support relaxation and recreation.”

So, something a little more modest. Like this:

Lettuce in Grow Bags Image: GardenGirlCT

Lettuce in Grow Bags
Image: GardenGirlCT

Success with lettuce (or lessons learned) could even lead to radishes, snap peas, and a strain of tomato bred for modest space (!) requirements.

I especially like that one of the benefits defined for space gardening, beyond the more sterile standards of ‘nutrition’ and ‘safe food source’ is the more ephemeral potential for ‘relaxation‘. Assuming, of course, that the astronauts doing the tending actually like to garden.

Even though the gardening will be done in a tiny enclosed living area with limited water and soil, I’m pretty sure this doesn’t yet count as urban gardening.

Wolf Trap


I was sitting in a very inviting pub the other day, The Rusty Bike, enjoying a plate of locally caught fish and a glass of wine, when the conversation at the next table turned to the real differences between wolves and dogs. What was interesting about the conversation wasn’t its conclusions – because there weren’t any – but the manner of the discourse itself.

The point under dispute was this: While dogs and wolves might be almost genetically identical, are they fundamentally different due to thousands of years of domestication? Two people at the table said yes, dogs are different; one man said no, it’s all just a matter of early training (i.e., given a pup at an early age, any canine can be domesticated).

What struck me was that the fellow arguing for no major differences between wolves and dogs wasn’t interested in real answers – he was interested in winning, nothing more. It didn’t matter that others had excellent arguments, a few verifiable facts at their fingertips, and a willingness to discuss. (And, in fact, they were correct. A longish but fun article on the topic here.)

And so to the current U.S. administration moves to delist the gray wolf as an endangered species in the United States.

After three decades of protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has decided to turn the management of wolf protection over to state authorities. In areas where wolves have lost some of their federal protection over recent years, there have been drastic reductions in the wolf population due to widespread hunting. In particular, alpha wolves are prized targets, thus putting entire packs at risk.

An apt illustration of a wolf and its ecosystem.
Image: Anna Emilia via Wolfeyebrows

Another aspect of this is the key role top predators play in ecosystems as a whole. Their elimination tends to have wide and negative ripple effects.

I can’t claim to understand the source and motivation of current anti-wolf sentiment. According to several articles I’ve read, the USFWS intentionally excluded the participation of several wolf specialists – even those who had done most of the federal research on wolf conservation – because none of these scientists agreed that wolves were recovered enough as a species to be de-listed as endangered.

Nonetheless, this plan is moving forward.

Because for whatever reason, this doesn’t seem to be about the facts. It seems to be about winning, and winning only. At least, for those in favor of wolf hunting.

To end this post on a happier note, if you’re ever in Exeter, UK, check out the charming and unpretentious Rusty Bike ‘gastropub’ – a place I’d visit on the regular if I lived anywhere nearby.


Over on Summit County Voice, Bob Berwyn has written a number of excellent articles on the issue of wolf protection and de-listing.

If you want to take action, there will be public hearings held on this issue in three U.S. cities – you can find the dates and locations here.

Any de-listing proposal allows a period of public comment. This has been extended until 11:59 p.m. on 28 October, 2013. Comments can be submitted here. Other comments can be sent here.

Finally, think about taking a minute and signing a petition in support of continuing one of the potential success stories of the Endangered Species Act.

Summer Farewell


A walk during the last evening of summer on the Autumn Equinox.

The images aren’t as sharp as they could be, much like my memories of this long season.

Mont Blanc across the Lake  Geneva basin. Photo: PK Read

Mont Blanc across the Lake Geneva basin.
Photo: PK Read

Welcome autumn, season of harvest and provision, of warm golden days and crisp evenings.

Jura mountains, facing the Rhône Valley. Photo: PK Read

Jura mountains, facing the Rhône Valley.
Photo: PK Read

A favorite season, the season of new seeds ready to be hardened by winter in the trust that, against all expectations, they will sprout in spring.

Autumn field, just plowed for winter planting. Photo: PK Read

Autumn field, just plowed for winter planting.
Photo: PK Read

Garlands of Hops

Hop garlands at the Fat Pig Freehouse. The garlands were brought in to celebrate the brewery opening on Sept. 14, but will last several months, growing more golden as they age. Photo: PK Read

Hop garlands at the Fat Pig Freehouse. The garlands were brought in to celebrate the brewery opening on Sept. 14, but will last several months, growing more golden as they age.
Photo: PK Read

Over at the Fat Pig Freehouse in Exeter, UK, the place is draped in long garlands of fresh hops, green and fragrant. The Fat Pig is a homey pub, no televisions, no sports, all food locally sourced and freshly made in the kitchen. It claims to be Exeter’s first brewery pub, with a spanking new beer brewery on the premises. I can’t verify that as I don’t know Exeter all that well, but I can state that the Fat Pig India Pale Ale is light, herbal and very tasty.

Although I got quite lost trying to find the Fat Pig – it’s tucked down an ever-so-slightly dark and dodgy side street at the far end of a large shopping area – arriving there was a pleasure. Warmly lit, friendly crowd. I got pulled into a Big Life Questions kind of conversation by the neighboring table almost immediately, and that’s always a fun introduction to a place.

I was sent down to the Fat Pig by the Tiny, barkeep at its sister pub the Rusty Bike (more on that another day), mainly because the whisky collection at the Fat Pig was supposed to be quite extensive – and it didn’t disappoint.

Hop garlands. Photo: PK Read

Hop garlands.
Photo: PK Read

As to the whiskies, I tried out the Speyside Singleton of Dufftown 12-year-old first, and was pleasantly surprised by its sherried brown sugar and burnt apple smoothness, with a bit of oakiness at the end. This is such an easy whisky to like, I would almost recommend it for anyone wanting to try single malt whisky for the first time.singleton-of-dufftown-12-ans

It was so smooth I almost decided to stick with that, but fortunately I decided to try a Highland Island single malt instead, the limited bottling of the Arran 16-year-old.

The Arran was less sugary than the Singleton, a bit less smooth – but rich, creamy, honeyed and for my palate, more interesting. Notes of various spices, especially nutmeg, and citrus. 16yo-BottleTube-Single

That and a plate of house-smoked pork ribs – from pigs raised by the Fat Pig’s owner – completed a really good evening.

As it turned out, finding my way home was much easier than finding the pub in the first place. I know my way now, though, so I can find it again on my next visit.

And in honor of the mellow mood at the Fat Pig, here’s a smooth bit of mildly pork-related jazz by Charles Mingus for a lazy Sunday, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.

Sticky Stories


When I started out today, I had planned on writing a peppy post on the use of bees to monitor pollution around European airports. It’s an upbeat story that pops up from time to time in the news. This week, it was Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague. Over the past couple of years, several airports in Germany have implemented beehives as a part of air-quality controls. The idea is that pollutants will show up in the honey, and that clean honey means clean air.

Honey produced by bees at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague is checked for its quality and presence of pollutants in the environment. Caption and credit: REUTERS/David W Cerny

Honey produced by bees at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague is checked for its quality and presence of pollutants in the environment.
Caption and credit: REUTERS/David W Cerny

It’s a pleasant thought, the use of bees to check on air, and what could be sweeter than honey?

So, as I checked for a few back-up articles or papers, I came across a 1990 Associated Press article, republished in the Seattle Times – Honeybees May Help To Monitor Pollution.

In the article, former University of Montana professor Jerry Bromenshenk describes bees as “flying electrostatic dust mops.” Along with nectar and water, the bee’s surface electrical charges and body hair also pick up everything from heavy metal particles to toxic pollutants.

Unfortunately, the article also states that “honey is the least useful of all beehive products for monitoring pollution. Bromenshenk (said) contaminants are rarely detected in honey or found only in the parts per trillion range.”

So how are bees best utilized as pollution monitors?

By grinding up their bodies and testing the resultant material.

Okay, so now the story is a little less sweet.

Bees in a field near my house. Photo: PK Read

Bees in a field near my house.
Photo: PK Read

A 2011 article in PRI’s The World quotes a bee expert involved with biomonitoring at Frankfurt Airport as saying that since honey samples taken from beehives stationed the airport, a busy freeway and a rural forest all showed the same low level of pollutants, maybe bees have a built-in detoxification process that renders the honey rather useless as a biomonitoring tool – although it would make bees an even more interesting study subject in terms of pollutant processing.

So why the cute stories of beekeepers on runways?

I admit that I don’t know much about bees or the very latest in bee research. I’ve written about them in various contexts on this blog, but this biomonitoring is new territory for me.

Another few minutes of fact-checking revealed that Bromenshenk himself, a long-time expert and proponent of bee and bee health, has come under fire for receiving funding from Bayer Crop Science, one of the main producers of the neonicotinoid neurotoxin that was banned this year in the European Union. But does that discredit his work done in the 30 years before he received that funding?

Image: Honeymark

Image: Honeymark

This all just reminded me that when it comes to environmental issues and how they are discussed in the media, things are rarely as straightforward as they seem. And while the truth might be hidden somewhere in there, we can always find stories to support our favorite arguments.

I know a good public relations move when I see it.

But now I want to know: Is the captivating notion of bee biomonitoring to validate the clean air around airports any more than a charming story meant to soothe worried minds?

Seasonal Spiral


Summer doesn’t officially end in the Northern Hemisphere until September 22 this year.

But as it is my official back-to-work day after a very long summer, I thought I’d put this Jim Denevan beach spiral up to remind myself that the tide that washes away also brings renewal and a fresh start.