Sunrise and sunset on the solstice.
To the east, the sun breaks a new day above the sharp peaks of the young Alps.
To the west, the day comes to its end as the sun sets behind the gentle slopes of the ancient Jura range.
By now, most people have heard about the vast amount of plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans, and how, once there, plastic bags, wrapping, toys, really all the stuff we make and use in this Age of Plastic, gets ground and beaten into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic until it is no longer recognizable as a human-made item, just a ever-tinier piece of material that is nonetheless non-biodegradable.
Which is one of the characteristics that makes petroleum-based plastic so very different from most other human-made utility products on the planet. It takes hundreds and thousands of years to break down the wrapping or plastic sack which we produce to be used for perhaps a few weeks or months, or even just once.
The images here show the turbulence of hot gases around a match as it is lit and then blown out – the unseen flow that takes place before our eyes, when all we see is a flame lit, and a flame extinguished.
Below is a map of the flow of ocean plastic around the world – researchers estimate the plastic refuse that was quantified and charted accounts for perhaps 1% of all ocean plastic. The rest is out there, getting up to all kinds of incendiary environmental nonsense – and while it’s right there in front of us, we are unable to see it.
The weather over the last week has turned decidedly seasonal-appropriate, with a dusting of snow on the Jura range and wind that is anything but gentle.
The bird feeders are out, the garden is tucked in against the cold, and it was time for some comfort food.
Pumpkin soup, fortified with Gruyère cheese.
Usually I make a simple stock using the pumpkin seeds scraped from the squash interior, carrots, turnips and celeriac, with a bunch of parsley. And I went to do exactly that yesterday, but found I was lacking a couple of ingredients, namely, the turnips and celeriac that give the soup its earthy, rounded flavor.
It was a lazy day, I didn’t feel like going to the store since the pumpkin was already roasting in the oven, so…I turned to whisky.
I sautéd onions until they were glassy, then deglazed them with a couple of shots of Famous Grouse (no, I wasn’t about to use one of my good single malts for this one).
The result? Subtle, but tasty. A fine alternative, and also, a new thing I hadn’t tried before, an added positive.
The recipe is a bit fussy for something as simple as cream of pumpkin soup, but it’s both tasty and hearty, so here it is:
Heat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Cut and scoop a flavorful pumpkin (I usually use a red kuri squash). Keep the seeds and scooped bits.
Without peeling the pumpkin, rub the flesh with olive oil, place it flesh-down in an oven tin, and let it bake until completely soft. Remove it, let it cool, and you should be able to peel the skin right off the roasted pumpkin.
While the pumpkin is roasting, cut up a couple of yellow onions and sauté them in a pan with olive oil. Once they are glassy, add fresh thyme and sage, stir a bit, then deglaze with whisky.
Add the roasted pumpkin to the onions with a ladle’s worth of the broth, stir for a few minutes, then strain the broth into the pumpkin/onion mix until you get the consistency you like. Give it all a stir to get anything sticky off the bottom of the pot, then purée until smooth. Add a few dollops of cream (or milk), then slowly add a couple handfuls of grated Gruyère cheese, stirring the entire time. Not too much or you end up with stringy cheese soup (unless you like that, then add more).
Salt and pepper to taste.
Note: I’m celebrating my 500th post with this one – thanks for visiting!
Some smooth orange music to go with the soup:
It’s a strange partnership, the one between mining companies and beekeepers in West Virginia. Under mine reclamation programs, the mining companies that dug coal from mountains collaborate with initiatives to re-establish the honeybee populations decimated by pollution, disease, habitat loss and, yes, coal mining operations.
Mention coal mining and the mental image used to be one of dark tunnels, mining carts, countless miners carrying fragile lanterns into deep mountain recesses.
Much of coal mining today, though, happens above ground. Since the 1970s, in particular, massive equipment and small teams start at the top of a mountain and work their way down.
There are a few terms for the top-to-bottom removal process of coal from mountains, but I find most of them to be a bit euphemistic.
‘Surface mining’ makes it sound like the mining just lifts coal from the surface of the earth. ‘Strip mining’ almost sounds like the mining just takes place on narrow tracts of land, or perhaps that the mountains are de-robing and exposing their coal for the taking. I would suggest ‘topographical tampering’, but that sounds both perjorative and playful at the same time.
Perhaps the most apt term is ‘mountaintop removal’, which at least describes part of the process: the actual removal of entire mountains. In the Appalachian region of the United States, over 500 mountains have already been removed. Around the world, thousands.
And ‘removed’ is also a term that can be toyed with, because ‘removal’ implies that the mountains have been taken away, when all that’s really been taken away is the coal.
The remaining mountain material hasn’t been removed so much as ‘reconfigured’. Usually into adjacent valleys or rivers, in a process that is very clearly described in the term ‘valley fill’.
This shuffling around of all non-coal ‘debris’ usually includes the forest itself – trees are rarely even harvested for timber in the rush to mine coal – as well as all the topsoil.
Even in the ever-declining areas where the coal seams are close to the surface, the trees and topsoil (not to mention any other resident ecosystems, obviously) have to be…removed.
Another process that resonates with optimism is ‘mine reclamation’, a sunny-sounding term that implies the mountains will reclaim their former shapes and life once the small amount of coal that was within them has been hauled away.
In the United States and many other countries, there are laws that mandate the reclamation of mined land. Mining companies are compelled to set aside a fund for the re-greening of de-topped mountains, but often, government waivers are granted when the time comes to replace the mountain.
In West Virginia, this is where the bees come in.
Maintaining a pollinator corridor on reclaimed mining land is the goal – honey harvesting for out-of-work miners and retired military veterans, honey sales and production for local industry, and support for both struggling pollinators and the plant ecosystems to which they contribute.
Mining advocates hail mine reclamation as mountain building, confident that Humpty Dumpty really can be made whole again.
It seems petty on my part to compare the tiny investments made in reclamation of this kind with the amount of money made by the companies on coal; equally petty to compare the level of reclamation with the damage done, or to imply that projects like this allow mining companies to improve their environmental credentials at little financial cost and no threat to business as usual.
So instead, I’ll say that this sounds like a silver (or golden) lining, a tiny step made forward on tiny wings and pollen-laden feet.
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