Monthly Archives: July 2014

Turtle Chirps, Volcanic Whistles


Anathasius Kircher, a 17th-century German Jesuit priest and scholar, had interests ranging from fossils to hieroglyphics to micro-organisms and volcanoes, was above all a master of expressing wonder at the natural world.

He proposed, among many other things, the idea of a parabolic horn, an amplification system for sound waves. In the illustration below, the sound waves are created by human voices. We do so like to hear ourselves talk. And we like to think we hear everything around us.

Parabolic amplication  by Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650)

Parabolic amplification by Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650)

But consider all the sounds and songs we can’t hear without the help of other mechanisms, the technological great-grandchildren of Kircher’s giant seashell horns.

The low chirps and meows of sea turtles, which apparently have distinct songs for mating, laying eggs, and for setting off on their first ocean journeys. Turtle hatchlings were recently discovered to use vocalization to improve their odds of survival by migrating together, and they responded to vocalizations of adult females up to hundreds of miles away from their nesting beaches. If they could hear them over human-produced noise pollution, that is.

Here’s an incredible collection of animal sounds, the Macaulay Library, from around the world. I particularly like this haunting recording of a lone common loon.

Plants have been found to communicate with one another via sound frequencies – some even speculate that they use fungi networks in forest floors as sound switchboards.

A water-powered automatic organ by Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650)

A water-powered automatic organ by Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650)

There’s whistling lightning – not the cracks you might have heard during a storm, but very low frequency radio waves sent out by some (though not all) lighting strikes just before they burst. There’s an entire network devoted to listening for whistlers (listen here), which have also been found to be connected to volcanic eruptions.

And then there’s the music of the spheres – or at least, the sphere upon which we live, Earth. The rings of plasma which form part of the planet’s giant magnetosphere are bursting with radio waves, which produce a sound sometimes called Earth’s “chorus” (listen here).

Why do I mention all this?

Because I was thinking this morning, while listening to the dawn chorus of birds, about the fact that, even if it’s just out of our range, not necessarily intended for us and we can’t always hear it, there’s music all around.

Illustration of Earth's plasma rings. Source: FeelGuide

Illustration of Earth’s plasma rings.
Source: FeelGuide

Golden Bounty


I went for a run in a solid summer rain this afternoon, and returned home to the refreshment of some ripe mirabelle plums, straight off the tree. But the next couple of days will be devoted, at least in part, to picking and processing the plum bounty before the rain ruins them all.DSC02370

The mirabelle plum tree in our garden is small miracle. When we moved here almost 20 years ago, it was a stubby, dead stump. The previous owners told us the ‘peach’ tree that had been on that spot had long since succumbed to old age, they had just never gotten around to pulling up the roots. It was in a quiet corner of the garden, they had planted flowers all around, so the stump was left untended and unnoticed.

The pear tree, the green gage plum tree, the apple trees, the cherry trees, all the redcurrant bushes and raspberry canes: These got all the attention for many years. Then pear tree died one hot summer; the green gage plum tree started dropping large branches like leaves, and the raspberries were too shaded by a large cherry tree to produce. All are gone now.

But the dry stump? It sprouted after a couple of years, and we were curious to see what would happen. What happened was a mirabelle plum tree, the discreet bearer of a few tart, golden plums every year. Until this year, when the tree suddenly thrust out 10 kgs of delicious plums.DSC02378

The mirabelle plum (Prunus domestica subsp. syriaca) is thought to have been introduced to Europe from Asia Minor and was established in France by the 16th century.

The Lorraine region of the country produces 15,000 tonnes of the fruit annually, 90% of which is made into jam or eau-de-vie. A non-native crop that has, like many other favorite European fruits, thrived in its adopted home.images-PICASA9

My first batch of mirabelle jam, a simple concoction of plum halves macerated overnight in sugar, cooked up into a fine treat.

Today’s jam version will include a few sprigs of fresh thyme from the garden. Tomorrow’s mirabelles will go into making a few batches of different liquors: vodka, brandy, eau-de-vie. All to be aged and served up in winter.

A reminder of the rewards of patience when it comes to small miracles, and of time spent under a golden tree during a warm summer rain.DSC02369

Water Falls

This satellite image shows Colorado River-fed Lake Powell, the second-largest man-made reservoir (1963) in the United States, in 1999. Lake Powell  Source: NASA/Earth Observatory

This 1999 satellite image shows Colorado River-fed Lake Powell, the second-largest man-made reservoir (1963) in the United States.
Source: NASA/Earth Observatory

A crucible for past, present and future examples of extreme climate developments, the western part of the United States – and California in particular – continues to suffer under extreme drought conditions.

Drought is nothing new in California. What’s new (or rather, not very old in geological terms) is a culture and economy built on water profligacy and the presence of 40 million people in California alone. Add in a couple more tens of millions from other western states that all rely on the shared Colorado River watershed, and a drought today looks very different than it did a century ago.

Many of the water rights in California were, however, assigned over a century ago and they are still in force today. Half of all waterway claims in California are in the hands of just 4,000 owners, and more importantly, the water use by these owners is completely unmonitored.

So, while the recently announced California water rationing and fines for overwatering are important steps in gaining some control over water waste, they will not affect some of the largest users in the state (and region).

They won’t have much real impact on those who can afford the fines or whose usage isn’t monitored in the first place.

More importantly, they don’t get to the heart of the matter, the fundamental flaw in how we use water.

Black plastic water drainage pipes line the cliffs of Malibu Beach, running from the gardens and topsoil of the properties above. Photo: PK Read

Black plastic water drainage pipes line the cliffs of Malibu Beach, running from the gardens and topsoil of the properties above.
Photo: PK Read

Amid the talk of eight-minute lawn watering every other day, 500-dollar-fines for water waste and the dry, dry expanses of the famous California hills that should be golden at this time of year but are instead a dusty grey, we were surprised to see these water overflow pipes along the beach. Some were overflowing with what I can only assume was unrecovered excess garden irrigation water.

What a strange sight, the gardens following the erosion of cliffs and the ongoing supply of fresh water all the way down to the beach.

What a strange and outdated concept, this blithe assumption that water should be unlike any other key resource upon which we rely and in which we trade – arable land, forest, gold – and that it will never run out.

That we can just spill it as we please, never mind the consequences.

A cliff-top garden migrates down a cliff to the beach below, following the line of water. Unseen here is the large drainage pipe that was free-flowing water on a blistering day. Photo: PK Read

A cliff-top garden migrates down an otherwise rocky cliff to the beach below, following the line of water. Unseen here is the large drainage pipe that was free-flowing water on a blistering day.
Photo: PK Read

Past Cuts


We’re staying in West Hollywood with a good friend, and the back garden of his 1920s bungalow is bordered by an unexpected diagonal wall. It’s an odd angle that traces the boundary between this house and the next property.

On the other side of a large nearby street at the end of this quiet block, the diagonal transect continues, seemingly cutting a small property there like a wedge of cheese.

It’s not just the result of a whimsical land surveyor or careless property division.

It’s a bit of urban archeology, visible to all.

Pacific Kit Homes, 1925 Source: The Daily Bungalow

Pacific Kit Homes, 1925
Source: The Daily Bungalow

Back when Los Angeles was first being expanded over a century ago, smart real estate developers built streetcar lines from the established part of town out into the stretches of land they’d bought but which had no roads or reason to live there.

They’d sponsor ‘lunch and lecture’ events out in the middle of nowhere (relatively speaking), offering a free streetcar ticket, a lunch, and a real estate pitch for one of the new, modern ‘streetcar suburbs’.

The view of Hollywood and Cahuenga, not too far from where we're staying circa 1906. Source: Water & Power Assc.

The view of Hollywood and Cahuenga, not too far from where we’re staying circa 1906.
Source: Water & Power Assc.

As for the homes being sold on land carved out of the desert and farmland, many of them were pre-fabricated catalogue homes, shipped in kits by railroad and assembled on the spot. They were modern in the sense that they had indoor plumbing, central heating and electrical wiring.

And in neighbourhoods like Spaulding Square in West Hollywood, these charming little homes survived a century of ups and downs and assorted earthquakes. There are a number of neighbourhoods around LA that feature these catalogue homes, and many of them have been or are being renovated and restored to a charm that doesn’t seem dated at all.

Spaulding house. Source: LA Office of Historic Resources

A Spaulding house.
Source: LA Office of Historic Resources

The streetcar lines weren’t so long-lived. The rise of the personal automobile and car economy had begun.  Once the LA real estate had been parcelled and sold, the costly and profit-depleting streetcar lines were shut down, one by one.  Los Angeles became the epitome of automotive triumph (or disaster, depending on how you choose to view it) that it is today. There’s a nice piece on the rise of roads versus rail here.

A gated entryway that was once a streetcar line. Photo: PK Read

A gated entryway that was once a streetcar line.
Photo: PK Read

The diagonal alleys and odd property lines around the area are the remnants of old rights-of-passage maintained for a time, just in case the streetcar lines were revived. But by the time public transportation became a burning topic again, these old lines were mostly blocked off, too narrow to use again, or completely paved over.

The old alleyway that’s in my line of vision as I write this is a fossil, a small layer in the sedimentation of urban and commercial interest and investment.

Retired LA streetcars. Source: Inhabitat

Retired LA streetcars.
Source: Inhabitat

Beach Sandskrit


DSC02349We were walking on Malibu beach yesterday as the tide was going out.

It left behind a long tale of the previous few hours, written in seaweed and flotsam.

I didn’t count how many different types of seaweed left their notes on the sand, but from the number of red lobster shells in the receding water line, I’d say local birds, seals and otters have been feasting. And if there were no lobster claws to be seen, that’s because the California spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus) doesn’t have any in the first place.DSC02351

The high tide of our own past few hours was marked by an evening spent on a warm terrace with a good friend, and the Auchentoshan Triple Wood he pulled out to share with us.Unknown

As the name says, this Lowland whisky is matured in three different kinds of wood: Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks, bourbon casks and Oloroso sherry.

It has a combustibly sweet aroma, with a taste that echoes dark chocolate, applesauce, toffee and rum.

It was a delight, as was the day and the company.

One who knows how to read what's skirt in the seaweed.

One who knows how to read what’s skrit in the seaweed.


Chasing Wind


We drove across northern Germany a few days ago, following the A1 autobahn from Hamburg to Osnabrück through long stretches of low hills and lower fields lush with 1-2

The motorway forms the upper limits of the ancient Roman expansion into northern Germany, which was stopped in the great Battle of the Teutonic Forest, the Varius Disaster of the year 9 AD.

The battle was won when an alliance of Germanic tribes slaughtered three entire Roman legions. A dominating power that had seemed unbeatable was turned back. The future of the region was definitively altered .

Site of the Varius Battle. Source: Uhlenbrock/Klett

Site of the Varius Battle.
Source: Uhlenbrock/Klett

Now, it’s all peaceful farmland broken by deciduous forest – and endless thickets of massive wind generators.

Every field seems to have at least a few and their blades turn slowly through the skies as if responsible for the myriad white clouds that dot the blue.  photo 3-2

Germany has committed to phasing out nuclear power by 2022, and the wind farms a major part of the renewable alternative. Giant white trunks and engine housings the size of large semi-trucks.

These aren’t the big wind farms of the North Sea with their rows of turbines. These are small, independent groups of power generators, scattered allies that form part of a larger movement.

And so a new future begins.

Floor of Sand, Roof of Water

From the new book Shorebreak. Photo: Clark Little

From the new book Shorebreak.
Photo: Clark Little

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time (every possible minute) on the beaches of California. And one of my favorite activities was to run after the receding waves as far as I dared,, right up to where they were beginning another forward surge, and then turn and sprint back to safety. Or not, sometimes.

Getting away with nothing more than wet ankles counted as winning. Getting drenched or knocked over didn’t. Sure, it was a dangerous game. That’s what made it exciting.

One view I always wanted to see but never did (because I never dared or lost badly enough) was the dry sand beneath the roof of an oncoming wave. And here it is, courtesy of photographer Clark Little in his new book of waves, Shorebreak. Someone who dared to wait for the roof of water, and took a picture for the rest of us.

I worked as a translator on a film a few years ago that looked at the dry land beneath the waves, but in that case, the waves were frozen in icy forms. The film, Unter Dem Eis (Under the Ice) was a German-made documentary about the Inuit of the Canadian eastern seaboard and their tradition of gathering a bounty of winter mussels from beneath the frozen sea.

Gathering mussels Under The Ice, hastening before the sea returns. Source: Context Film

Gathering mussels Under The Ice, hastening before the sea returns.
Source: Context Film

The harvest was only possible for a few hours a year, on days of extremely low tide when the sea beneath the ice retreated enough to allow for a quick expedition.

It looks like walking under water, and in a way, it is. Or was. As the Atlantic Ocean warms and there are fewer days when mussels can be gathered without the ice roof collapsing, the tradition is fading.

Still, it’s a vision out of a dream, walking, or sprinting, on the floor of the ocean, however briefly.

Floating Farms


I always have a soft spot for illustrations of future visions. This image of seaweed carriers is no exception. A company called Seaweed Energy Solutions (SES) has developed and patented seaweed growing technology that it hopes will make possible the cultivation of seaweed on a vastly larger scale than we have seen thus far.

Mass Seaweed Carriers Source: SES

Mass Seaweed Carriers
Source: SES


Seaweed has so many uses – as I said on a recent post, some are calling it the potato of the 21st century when it comes to feeding large numbers of people. And it can be cultivated without the use of expensive land and water for irrigation.

Which brings me back to the SES floating farms. The goal for this kind of industrial seaweed farming is to grow enough seaweed to make biofuel. Ethanol, to be exact, using the high level of carbohydrates in the sea plants. It’s not the first time at the biofuel circus for seaweed enthusiasts.

Seagrapes (Botryocladia pseudodichotoma). From a great new book, An Ocean Garden. Photo: Josie Iselin

Seagrapes (Botryocladia pseudodichotoma). From a great new book, An Ocean Garden.
Photo: Josie Iselin

Like algae, seaweed has long been the subject of renewable energy attention, for the same reasons it might be an alternative potato: It doesn’t compete with other food crops for land space or resources and it practically grows itself given the right foundation.

Regions with lots of coastline and little arable land could use a prolific cash crop like that.

I don’t know enough about the topic to say whether there aren’t environmental arguments to be made against the industrialization of seaweed cultivation, although the mass production of any mono-crop usually brings with it some concerns. I don’t know at what stage the seaweed-to-fuel processing technology finds itself, or what distribution channels are already in place.

Maybe, as with many future visions, the idea of seaweed as fuel will float away in time without becoming reality.

Still, I deeply appreciate a technological design that so nicely reflects the very crop it is meant to support.




Redcurrant Cordial

The cordial. A big bottle for the fridge, a small jar for gifting (well, there were quite a few of these, most of them already given away now), and a glass for the cook.

The cordial. A big bottle for the fridge, a small jar for gifting (well, there were quite a few of these, most of them already given away now), and a glass for the cook.

I’d had a romantic vision in my mind about making redcurrant cordial, something more in keeping with the  word ‘cordial’. What I hadn’t anticipated was the 7 kilos (15 pounds) of redcurrants my single bush would yield under not very thorough picking.

The simple recipe (see below) became a more complicated logistical matter of our largest soup pot, two other large pots, stockings, and four hands. I completely failed at finding the picturesque muslin frame for draining fruit, or for that matter, finding any muslin in our rural area. Wine making tools, beekeeping equipment: no problem. Muslin and jelly frames? Forget it.

The simple notion of boiling a few redcurrants with water and straining them became a multi-step event that involved my partner in crime holding open a pair of (brand-new) knee-high stockings over a pot while I skilfully ladled large quantities of currant pulp into the waiting stockings. After two attempts and three skin burns, he stopped me.

What I didn't have, but what I will be ordering for future cordial-making. Source: Eatweeds

What I didn’t have, but what I will be ordering for future cordial-making.
Source: Eatweeds

“Where are those weird potato peeling gloves your late grandmother gave us ten years ago?” The ones we’d never used until now, still fresh in their original packing, right under the sink where we parked them in bewilderment at what we would ever need them for. Thanks, Grammy!360545351573_6 A few iterations later, the stockings were harnessed to the handles of the large soup pot, merrily straining the rest of the juices from the thousands of redcurrant seeds and bits of skin left behind. Sadly, I was too consumed in the making to document the picturesque sight of stockings filled with current pulp. Also, by that time it was almost midnight.

But the cordial is delicious – sweet, tart, full of summer flavor. Worth the effort. I made this Swedish version of the cordial from, but used a bit less sugar than called for because I like the tartness of the fruit.


500 g (1 lb) redcurrants, 180 g (6 oz) fine sugar, juice from 1 lemon

1. Rinse the currants, leave them on their stalks but remove any coarse stalks.

2. Put the berries in a saucepan and add 120 ml (½ cup) of water. Bring to the boil and let simmer until the berries have burst (about ten minutes, much longer if, like me, you have several kilos worth of fruit).

3. Line a sieve with muslin (or use a stand as shown above) and strain the cooked currants. I don’t actually recommend knee-high stockings as a sieve, but they work in a pinch. Wear thick gloves if you are holding open the stockings.

4. Return the juice to the saucepan and add the sugar and lemon juice. Bring to boil and let simmer for 3 minutes. Remove any scum from the surface with a spoon.

5. Pour the hot liquid through a funnel into a sterilised bottle. (Sterilise by washing and then placing in an oven at 120°C (240°F, gas 1) for 5 minutes.)

6. Cool.

We’ll be mostly drinking the cordial mixed with sparkling water, champagne or prosecco (at a ratio of about 1:8) but it can be used in salad dressings, poured over ice cream, frozen, or added to hot water for a refreshing hot drink.

Seaweed Squares


Seaweed Farms - Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia. (Digital Globe/Caters News)

Seaweed Farms – Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia. Click on the photo for the full image.
Photo: Digital Globe/Caters News

When I think of oceans, I think of movement and flow.

When I think of oceanic plant life, I have in my mind an image of free-form fields of seaweed in constant motion.

When life grows for itself, it tends to grow in loose configurations. When I think of tilled land fields, like the ones in my area, I think of grain rising in squared off parameters or the pristine circles of pivot irrigation.

In any case, when we grow for ourselves, we usually grow in geometric patterns. So the multitude of underwater seaweed rectangles in the image above, mirrored in the multitude of angular human dwellings on the neighboring land,  shouldn’t surprise me at all.

Still, these tidy plots, an oceanic harvest of what is being hailed by some as ‘this century’s potato‘ for its farming, nutrition and economic potential, look odd.

Illustration of seaweed farming. Source: Tracy Saxby/Integration and Application Nework

Illustration of seaweed farming.
Source: Tracy Saxby/Integration and Application Nework

Seaweed cultivation has been around for hundreds of years, most of that past spent simply, well, harvesting wild seaweed. Or drifting long ropes to attract seaweed growth, and then pulling in the ropes.

Methods have been improving, but what remains to be seen is if we can manage to farm seaweed without doing what we sometimes do to the places we farm: hacking down everything that was there before to replace it with only the plants we want in tight geometric configurations.

The ocean has a different set of rules from the land, but seaweed farming done right can improve biodiversity, improve air and water quality and feed a lot of people and animals, and maybe even provide a source of biofuel. More on that in a later post.

Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)

Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)