Built to Last

A few days ago, I came upon a technique for preparing chicken. It was a fairly simple thing, butterflying chicken filets, and I hadn’t even been looking up how to do that (I don’t know what I had in my search term anymore, but it definitely contained the word ‘butterfly’). There were a few images. Cut open the filet, open it, cover it with cling wrap and then pummel until tender. No big deal, as meat preparation goes.

And yet, the final image caught my eye.

Butterflying chicken.
Source: BBC Good Food

And I wondered: Why the cling wrap between the meat and the tenderizing roller?

This is a process that takes a few short minutes. Sure, the roller stays clean and the chicken meat perhaps a bit more shapely if cling wrap is used.

Consider this: That strip of cling wrap is only used for a few short minutes before being thrown away (and quickly, because it is covered in chicken remains and within a few hours can potentially infect anything it comes into contact with). Yet it will go on to have a life-span of anywhere from ten years to a few decades, depending on how it is disposed of. Unless it’s incinerated, in which case it might release toxic gases.

All that for a few minutes of use, in a process for which it’s not even necessary. If it’s keeping the roller clean that matters, well…wash the roller afterwards. It worked for centuries, it can work today.

When I was a teenager and deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up (not realizing I would ever fully do either of those things), I considered a future in archeaology, the science of looking back. A friend invited me along on an archeaological dig along the California coast that was part research, part salvage mission.

The remains of a Pomo village located an eroding cliff above a beach in Humboldt county were crumbling, year for year, onto the sand below and being washed away by the Pacific tides. At least, I remember it being a Pomo village. Or Miwok. We found a lot of palm-sized notched stones, sinker stones used for weighting fishing nets, basket remains, net fragments. Much had already been reclaimed by the land and sea.

Sinker stones, Colombia River.
Source: Homestyle/Arrowheadology

One afternoon, I was sifting beach sand through a large sieve. What remained in the sieve was usually large bits of shells, rocks, seaweed. I remember very little plastic. This was in the mid-1970s, so I imagine there was plastic, but it didn’t stand out. What did stand out was a shiny shard of red obsidian, a stone that wasn’t otherwise found in that area. As it turned out, that little shard provided a sliver of proof that this village had traded with tribes to the east of California.

Everything we found had a utility, and we could trace it back to that specific utility. A tiny piece of beach-buried obsidian told us a story.

Now, consider this, a video by Sustainable Coasts Hawaii of another sand-sifting moment, decades and thousands of miles away from my own. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to be exact. Look what gets left behind in the sieve.

The vast majority of those plastic shards are now unrecognizable. They’ve degraded but not into something that can be considered safe – on the contrary, they are both useless and dangerous to sea and land animals. It’s safe to say that most of the plastic likely came from items that had a brief life in terms of usefulness for humans. Deodorant containers. Straws. Plastic plates or forks. Processed food packaging. Oh, all the one-use packaging. The stuff we use to carry other stuff once, maybe twice, then throw away so it can continue a life unseen, slowly falling apart, outliving all of us.

We build obsolescence into the things we need to last, like big appliances and phones, and build the disposable items as if we’ll need them forever.

Consider what we learned from a couple of weeks about a village by sifting along a beach and looking at what they left behind.

What will the world know of us, hundreds of years from now, when our plastic is still filling the world’s beaches?


*If, maybe in honor of Earth Day on April 22, you decide to make the move away from cling wrap, here’s a video on how to make a substitute. And before we lose a tear about the convenience of disposable plastic to our daily lives, think about how, once made, we never really get rid of plastic, and how inconvenient that is.

Fewer Footprints

When we were out on the Pacific Coast in California a couple of weeks ago, two things in particular caught my attention:

One was the lack of shorebirds, the skittering types that chase waves and scurry in tight huddles. Maybe it was just the wrong season. There were signs posted indicating that snowy plovers were nesting in the dunes, although we didn’t see any from the waterline where we walked. The estuary between Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach holds a diverse population of wild birds, so maybe we were just unlucky or unobservant.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

While there were seagulls, great egrets and turkey vultures–we even saw a red-tailed hawk diving for fish and carrying off a squirming catch–we saw a sum total of five sandpipers.

Researchers only really started noticing a general decline in shorebirds around twenty years ago, when counting got underway in earnest. It’s hard to know just how much the populations have declined – but I can say that compared to when I visited my favorite beaches thirty years ago, the number of birds has dropped dramatically. There were far fewer footprints in the sand from birds than I remember from my youth.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

There are a number of reasons for the decline in shorebird and migratory bird populations. Loss of migratory habitat has to be the most relevant. There’s just so much more land development and reclamation along coastlines and wetland areas, the very places the great internationalist shorebirds stop to rest, to eat, to breed.

Another aspect, though, is the amount of plastic in our seas.

Birds eat plastic, presumably because it looks like food, and can end up starving to death with a belly full of plastic. Between 60-90% of birds in shoreline regions have been found to have plastic in their bellies. At this point, it’s probably more surprising to find a bird without plastic in its stomach.

Which brings me to the other thing that caught our attention on our numerous beach walks:

An estuary tree blooms with great herons. Photo: PKR

An estuary tree blooms with great herons.
Photo: PKR

Back in the 1980s, when there were more birds, I also used to notice large pieces of junk on the beach. Wrecked picnic coolers, plastic containers, styrofoam appliance packing, plastic bottles galore. This time, there were very few pieces of large plastic. This might be a positive side of the recycling movement.

Microplastics. Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

What I did notice, however, were countless pieces of plastic flakes that looked almost like shell flotsam, the kind that’s always there in a receding tide. Except the flakes were all the wrong colors. Blue, bright green, pink. And such an edible size for smaller animals.

Today is World Oceans Day. The focus of this year’s awareness is plastic in oceans.

The next time you take another plastic bag for produce, or buy a plastic box of cut vegetables instead of cutting them yourself, or throw away plastic in general, think of where it might end up. Even if you live far from the sea, chances are, at least some of that plastic will end up in a waterway, and at some point, in an ocean.



Comfort Zones

I’d be the first to admit that my knowledge of tequilas is mainly limited to the stuff I did in shot form back in college in the tradition of salt on the hand and lick (to kill the taste), toss back the shot (grimace), bite the lime (to kill the taste).

I haven’t spent much time revisiting the drink except in the occasional margarita, even if some of those were made with excellent tequila and a variety of juices besides lime. I had a smoky pomegranate version at some point, and the fact that I can’t remember where is an indication of just how good that cocktail was (I want to say it was in Los Angeles? Maybe London?).

Fresh, handmade tortilla chips in a variety of flavors. Addictive. All photos: PKR

Fresh, handmade tortilla chips in a variety of flavors. Addictive.
All photos: PKR

Here’s a suggestion that margaritas assume the new role as the drink of New Year’s Eve, and while I can’t say I’ll be exchanging my champagne flute for a margarita glass at the stroke of midnight, it’s a legitimate proposal.

On a recent trip to Baja California, I had the pleasure of getting outside my comfort zone and into some really good tequila, the kind of stuff that isn’t easy to find outside the country.

My father happens to live near Ensenada, and if he’s as much of a whisky fan as I am, he’s also become something of a tequila aficiodano.

Religious candles, shoe polish and insect spray, an unexpected combination of cylinders.

Religious candles and shoe polish, an unexpected combination of cylinders.


One of the tequilas he pulled from the shelf was the Herradura Ultra, a newish addition to the Herradura premium line that is a mixture of añejo (aged 1-3 years) and extra añejo (aged over 3 years). In the case of the Ultra, a 25-month-old añejo is mixed with premium extra añejo that’s been aged in bourbon barrels for up to four years in American White Oak barrels.



The common brown hues are filtered out, some pure agave nectar is added, and the result is a clear drink with a crystalline taste that rings like a bell. It’s got a lovely oakiness, with sweet hints of vanilla, almond and fruit. Meant to be chilled and then served neat, just the way I like the best spirits.

This stuff is so smooth, it has almost no resemblance with the stuff I knew from way back when. Salt on the hand and a lime? Banish the thought!

I was smitten.

Tequila Herradura, as the Grupo Industrial Herradura is generally known, was founded in 1870 in Amatitán, Jalisco, Mexico. The distillery is now owned by U.S. run Brown-Forman, but Herradura continues its traditional production from growing the agave to the finished product, and the spirit is still made from agave hearts roasted in clay ovens, then fermented with wild yeast.

Clown cupcakes, perfect for anyone trying to combat coulrophobia, fear of clowns.

Clown cupcakes, perfect for anyone trying to combat coulrophobia, fear of clowns. Also perfect for anyone trying to induce coulrophobia in others.

We bought two bottles at a supermarket in Enseneda to bring home to France, a place that had a range of tequilas comparable to the whisky shelves in good European supermarkets and which opened my eyes to everything I must be missing. I’m sorry to say that we won’t be drinking our imports all to quickly, because at the time of this writing, Herradura Ultra isn’t yet available in Europe.

You might be wondering why this post doesn’t have any images of the tequila itself in our glasses, or the tequila shelves.

An inexplicable cake and cupcake set featuring what I suppose a Santa's belt cake and elf cap cupcakes. At least, that's my interpretation. There's nothing like going into a large foreign supermarket to get out of your comfort zone when it comes to food assumptions.

An inexplicable cake and cupcake set featuring what I suppose a Santa’s belt cake and elf cap cupcakes. At least, that’s my interpretation.
There’s nothing like going into a large foreign supermarket to get out of your comfort zone when it comes to food assumptions.

Those images, which I had dutifully recorded in anticipation of this post, were lost along with my phone when I dropped it into the Pacific Ocean on an early morning walk. I was dodging an unexpected wave that swamped the shore and took my phone back out to sea with it when it retreated. The images here were from our other camera.

One thing I won’t be dodging in the future is premium tequila.

The phone-thieving and ever unrepentant Pacific.

The phone-thieving and ever unrepentant Pacific.




Inadvertent Visitors

When I was a kid in northern California, we used to go to the ocean beaches of Marin County on the weekends. The long, sweeping scythes of Drake’s Beach and Limantour still count among my favorite ocean shorelines. Beachgoers wore swimsuits on warm days, but we could always tell the tourists from the locals because the tourists were the ones trying to swim in those suits instead of wade or sunbathe.

Locals usually considered swimming the Pacific water too cold for our tender hothouse skin, even in summer. Non-neoprened swimmers venturing into the waters for a swim were a rare sight.

Drake's Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore Photo: Richard Blair

Drake’s Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore
Photo: Richard Blair

This year, researchers and fishermen have seen even rarer sights: Several species that would normally be found far south have been observed in northern waters. An endangered green sea turtle, usually at home in the waters of southern Mexico and around the Galapagos Islands. The tiny striated sea butterfly and a Guadalupe fur seal, both of Baja California, Mexico, common dolphins, blue buoy barnacles and purple-striped jellyfish of southern California.

Striated Sea Butterfly (Hyalocylis striata), collected offshore from Bodega Marine Laboratory. Photo: Eric Sanford/UC Davis

Striated Sea Butterfly (Hyalocylis striata), collected offshore from Bodega Marine Laboratory.
Photo: Eric Sanford/UC Davis

It’s an influx of inadvertent tourists, animals that would normally encounter the cold water barrier of the northern Pacific and turn around, much as I used to do on the beach when I waded in above the knee level.

According to several sources, water temperatures are 5-6 degrees Fahrenheit (2-3 °C) higher than average this year, likely due to a slackening of winds from the north that would normally keep warm waters further south. The annual winds would also normally cool and push surface waters down, causing colder water to churn up from below (‘upwelling’).

And what about the local species that like it cold? The krill, the salmon? They are scarce, as are the animals that feed on them, the whales and birds.

It’s a 30-year autumnal anomaly, which most expect to pass and with it, the strange and wondrous visitors.

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.

Amassed Lights

This NASA satellite image shows large clusters of moving lights far away from any human settlement, and far away from any land. Out in the middle of the ocean, where one might assume there shouldn’t be large gatherings of human-generated light. Most of the articles I found were playful: What could possibly be out there – submarine gatherings, aliens, Atlantis, military testing?

In 2012, a global composite map of Earth’s night lights revealed human activity well offshore from South America.  Caption/Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA National Geophysical Data Center

In 2012, a global composite map of Earth’s night lights revealed human activity well offshore from South America.
Caption/Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA National Geophysical Data Center

The answer, provided by NASA, is easy. Fishing fleets, of course. Fishing fleets out harvesting Illex argentinus, a species of short-finned squid. I’ve written about them here.

But how massive must these fleets be to form entire metropolises of light? How many fish could they possibly be harvesting?

And for that, I refer to another article out this month, the one about Newcastle yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen. An experienced sailor, he recently sailed from Melbourne to Osaka, a trip he had taken ten years earlier.

The differences between the two trips were stark. Where his boat had been followed by flocks of birds the first time, the second time there were none. On the first trip he’d only had to dip a line into the water to catch a fish for dinner, the second time he was only able to catch two fish in 3000 miles (4800 km). On the second trip he had to navigate his boat through a silent sea of large debris and garbage patches.

Image: NOAA

And then he met up with a large fishing trawler.

The friendly fishermen offered him bags and bags of by-catch fish, the stuff that got caught in their nets but wasn’t the tuna they were harvesting. They said they simply throw away anything not on their shopping list – in this case, massive numbers of any and all creatures in their fishing zone.

So, back to the NASA images. One look at the comment section of one article shows that a large number of readers don’t believe the fishing fleet story. They would rather believe that the lights are evidence of underwater volcanoes, or alien forces amassing offshore with destructive intentions – because how could there be so many fishing boats?

And I guess from the point of view of the marine animals, an alien invasion would seem a pretty plausible explanation.Image credit: anterovium / 123RF Banque d'images

The problem with both perspectives – that of the silent sea, and that of preferring the explanation of aliens or Atlantis over massive fishing fleets – is that they can have the potential to paralyze us into fear and inaction.

And as an antidote to that, I propose this excellent article by Carlos Duarte, Director of the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia. He suggests that it isn’t the oceans which are dead (not yet, anyway), but that consumer behavior is broken and must be altered on a fundamental level.

And if these images and the story of Ivan Macfadyan’s sobering voyage have any effect, then I hope it is to inspire action rather than resignation.