Friday, September 4, 2015

Of Earth, Wind, and Fire

Identity is a funny thing. Of course there is no doubt in my mind that I'm a Seattleite, born and raised less than 30 miles from the city. Despite not really having lived there in the last decade (we'll just ignore the nearly a year of underemployment spent at my parents' house), I still hold to very strong perceptions developed through the eyes of my childhood self. The emphasis on weather is particularly apparent, and perhaps explains the ease with which I have settled into a country with a decided preoccupation with commenting and speculating on the weather. These ingrained notions that a gray, gloomy, drizzle dominates for a solid ten months of the year, with a brief respite of brilliantly sunny and yet not-too-warm summer days, provide sufficient fodder for heated discussion when reality deviates from the norm. And yet, regardless of our green inclinations, this also makes it difficult sometimes to grasp that we may be facing a 'new normal'.
These days, when I read in the news about the droughts and fires taking place on the west coast of the US, this is exactly what comes to mind. It is temperate and humid in Seattle, and every now and then there is a slightly drier year in which we can't set off fireworks on the 4th of July. But this just demonstrates how removed and romantic I have become about the weather in Washington. Spring and summer have been dry, and likely to remain so. More record-breaking, wild fires this summer have made news (even in the Guardian) as the largest in State history. These are not your controlled burns to manage dead and dried understory brush. Winds have helped fires to spread, making them more dangerous and difficult to control. Even the wettest part of Washington, the rainforest on the Olympic Penninsula, the place of absolutely soaked childhood memories, felt the heat and burned this summer.

But it is not just about precipation, which many see as the defining feature of the Pacific Northwest. This year was the warmest winter on record in Washington State. Yes, it rained; but because of above-freezing temperatures, by April 1st snowpack in the Cascades and the Olympics was 25% and 3% its normal level, respectively. Timing is everything, as the western US relies on snowmelt to fill reservoirs and replenish streams. Combine unusually low stored water and a lack of spring and summer rainfall, and that makes for a dangerous situation. Fires, for one, destroying vast swaths of forest, threatening homes, and affecting air quality. But also, reduced stream flow hinders the spawning of salmon (the other PNW icon) and puts pressure on an already threatened group of fish. And of course, our agricultural systems need water. A $2.5 trillion irrigated agriculture industry at risk, in fact.

Stay tuned next week: how to make a vegan 'mud' pie
But let's take a small-scale example. Some farmer friends wrote a really telling blog post on what water shortages mean for farms in a State that takes abundant water for granted. Usually able to rely on a 'high water table' and the local rivers, farmers face elevated costs associated with more intensive irrigation. Water is also a limiting factor in good establishment of seedlings, particularly young tender vegetablets. What this post also alluded to were the extended economic implications - absence from markets and inability to meet demand for CSAs and restaurants during this usually bountiful period. It is in the nature of farming to require flexibility, versatility, and the capacity to shift from year to year to meet variability. But at some point, longer term and more drastic innovation is required to respond to what very much seems like a new normal. 

While we're stuck with some level of climate impacts, I think what people are currently experiencing is making the necessity of mitigating actions even clearer. Perhaps wishful thinking. So I will conclude this post with a dash of hope, as we start to see a bit more emphasis, a bit more urgency, placed on the serious challenge that climate change presents for our current and future ways of life.

Read More: 
Water Resources - Washington Department of Ecology

Friday, August 28, 2015

Let Them Eat Bread

You may have figured I fell down a rabbit hole or got lost on the way to library. And while either of those things are likely to happen here in Oxford, I can sadly use neither as an excuse. Rather, it just so happens that the more work I have - the more looming deadlines, the more time spent sitting in front of a computer screen - the more I bake (and the less I apparently write on this blog). Friends know this to be the case, and often benefit from a plethora of carb-laden delights that one person should never (and yet, sometimes does) consume alone.

It's a strangely meditative and calming activity, which requires patience and planning. Operating literally by feel, it is also a very personal pasttime, one in which many of the bakers I know have strong opinions and preferences about process of kneading (or not), fermentation (how long), and composition (how hydrated). Luckily for you, I am not one of those people - though that might explain my bread-baking's inconsistent results. And I'm also not here to wax on the joy of baking, in spite of appearances to the contrary.

On a Skype not too long ago, my father (yes, I know you're reading this) commented on what a challenge it must be to make bread without a breadmaker or a stand mixer and breadhook. While surely those modern amenities facilitate and standardize the production of bread at home, they are by no means necessary. In fact, this comment made me pause, and reflect that actually people have made bread without mechanical aids and in much less optimal conditions for thousands of years. So of course this prompted the ensuing storm of Google searches. 

Now, many of you are familiar with baking using packets of dried yeast that you then activate in warm water with a pinch of sugar. But that 'invention' of packaged and ready to use yeast happened only in the last century and a half. Bakers have used the 'wild' yeast present in the air for much longer. Often referred to as a sourdough 'starter', the naturally occurring Saccharomyces species of yeast metabolize the sugars in grains to produce carbon dioxide and leaven the dough, while the presence of Lactobacillus bacteria create a distinctly sour flavour. Saccharomyces is also used for alcoholic fermentation in wine and beer; in fact, some theories have wine and beer as the first leavening agents in bread!

Bread is one of the foods that marks our species' transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists over 10,000 years ago, initially the result of baking a porrige-like concoction of grain and water on hot stones. The flatbreads (think pita and corn tortillas) still form the basis of diets in many cultures, and must have developed independently in places as different as the arid Levant in the Middle East to the humid forests of South America. Then as far back as 6,000 years ago in the bread basket of ancient times, and likely by accident, that fateful mixing of yeast and ground grain results in a leavened loaf.

It's interesting to reflect on the evolution of this staple food over millennia. What is required of me today - mix flour, water, starter, and a bit of salt; let the dough sit for a day or so; and then preheat my oven and bake - is far less arduous than for my predecessors, even without an electric mixer. But I think perhaps less recognized and yet just as drastic is the change in substrate - from coarse whole grains ground with rocks to finely sifted milled flours. The clean white dust, which we call 'All-Purpose' in the US or 'Plain' here in the UK, bears little resemblance to its ancestors (and is of little use in baking a good loaf of bread). And perhaps for that very reason there seems to be a resurgence, even a rennaissance, of artisan baking of late - both in the home and as businesses. After tasting difference, it's not hard to understand why!

Read More: 
A Brief History of Bread - The History Channel
The Rise and Rise of Sourdough Bread - The Guardian
Bread and Women - The New Yorker
The History of Bread - The Science of Bread Making
The Story Behind a Load of Bread - Botham's of Whitby (artisan baker)
Yeast Fermentation and the Making of Beer and Wine - Nature Citables
What Makes Whole-Grain Bread So Hard to Bake? - Smithsonian
Sourdough Bread-Baking: The Levain - Chef Turned Soldier

Monday, June 29, 2015

Leap Second Post

This actually has very little or nothing to do with June 30th's 'leap second'. Rather, I am posting this really quickly since it has been ages. Don't worry, more substance will return when brain capacity returns post thesis! In the meantime, we can turn to tasty things. The more I have to do, the more I tend to bake. As an example, in the past three days I've baked a pie, a loaf of bread, and a pan of brownies. I'm also supposed to have a reasonable excuse for a draft thesis by Friday...

Anywho, these brownies turned out really fudgily fantastic, so now you too can procrastinate with tasty baked delights.
Not-In-The-Least Healthy, Time-Wasting Brownies
1/2 vegetable or melted coconut oil
1 heaping tbs peanut butter
1/4 cup almond milk
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup whole meal flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup chocolate chips (optional)

1. Whisk or use a fork to mix the first seven ingredients until everything is incorporated.
2. Fold in dry ingredients until the batter is smooth.
3. Pour into a small greased square brownie pan. Bake at 180C (375F) for 20-30 minutes, until the outside is firm to touch. Remove and allow to cool. Don't overbake!!!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Can Biodiversity and Development Ever Get Along?

It’s the 14th celebration of the International Day of Biological Diversity, with the theme of sustainable development. I feel like these ‘days’ often focus on the developing world, the hotspots of biodiversity in the tropics, how we can ensure that ‘nature’ remains intact as incomes grows and standards of living improve. But the past week has caused me to think much more about biodiversity and America’s not-so-sustainable development.
Wheat fields of central Montana
As you know from my last post, I spent the better part of Saturday through Tuesday on cross-country trains. For miles on Monday afternoon we passed immense monoculture of wheat. The park service docents who hopped onboard at the border of Montana pointed out the occasional pronghorn or fox that dotted the landscape (though I was hard-pressed to see where they might make their permanent residence). Yet this vast swath of grain at one point was prairie grassland, an often underappreciated and misunderstood biome. It was home to bighorn sheep, wolves, grizzly bears, and elk up until the early 20th century. According to The Nature Conservancy, over the last 25 years 25 million acres of grassland has been lost and conversion to cropland stands as its greatest threat. As one docent informed, even up until the drought (AKA Dust Bowl) in the 1920/30’s, homesteaders maintained a relatively diverse holding of different wheat varieties, hay and fodder fields (for their draft animals, of course), and home gardens. After water scarcity downsized the pool of farmers, the State’s wheat market consolidated to a ‘family-owned’ corporate system that now dominates most agricultural production in the US.
Early 20th c. logging around Lake Sammamish
So there’s your agricultural example of unsustainable and anti-biodiversity development. But the harder hitting case for me rests much closer to home, and involves Washington ecosystems, including its forests, which house a sizable array of plants and animals. Just a little background – I grew up in a suburban plateau outside Seattle, on the cusp of rural Puget Sound and surrounded by floodplain farmland. The road running from Redmond to Issaquah (through the not yet founded city of Sammamish) looked like a page out of national park brochure when we first moved to the area 27 years ago (though the irony is the area was heavily logged in the late 19th century…). It has changed at a frightening pace in my lifetime; however that didn’t make the vision of rapid development from my bus window yesterday any less heart-rending. What were hillsides of evergreen ecosystems not more than five or ten years ago, have been reduced to an assortment of townhouses, big box franchises, and roads. This mode and rapidity of development embodies a lifestyle reliant on fossil fuels and focused on consumption, while insensitive to the long-standing culture and character of the area.
So while I applaud the United Nations’ attempts to tie together awareness on biodiversity and sustainable development, I mourn a lost opportunity to look more broadly at the challenges inherent in development. We need to really think long and hard about the tradeoffs between our current consumption patterns (particularly in the ‘developed’ world) and diversity - whether that's in ecosystems, flora and fauna and crop varieties, or even the types of transnational enterprises that seem to coincide with the process of development. 
Photo credits: (top) me! (bottom) Sammamish Heritage Society.

Monday, May 18, 2015

On a Train

Greetings from somewhere between Williston, ND and Wolf Point, MT. I've been en route from DC to Seattle since Saturday afternoon. It's an interesting place to be - on a train for days, glued to a literal window to the outside world. It's also not the most efficient way to travel across the US, in terms of time, pulling over and waiting for freight trains or 'our sister train' heading east to pass. And unlike the Western Europeans, we are working with rail technology that restricts speed to less than 80 mph (let the Amtrak crash last Tuesday be a warning to speeding with the current system). And yet our government may have just voted to slash the infrastructure budget, leaving the likelihood of an updated faster and safer railway more for the imagination. At this point, I suppose it is best to embrace our old school ways here, our four hour delays, and just enjoy the luxury of time. No place to be, no place to go.
In all this not going anywhere, it's been interesting to observe the change in landscape, and even to contemplate what it must have been like when the first transcontinental railroad made its voyage (more buffalos, I'd assume). We've made our way through forests and woods, across the great Mississippi River valley, and to the plains of the central states. We slept to vibrant purple and red skies, and woke to a white dusting on the ground and flurries in the air. Newly disked fields and acres of pasture now seem to stretch as far as the eye can see. It's a big country, to say the least. But it is quite a wonder to watch it pass by. Looking forward to Glacier National Park, though it may be too dark to see much, and then home sweet home on the morrow.