Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Glacial Change

Last September (this is how far behind I am in writing blog posts) - last September, I was in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. I’ve said it before: I am a child of the West. I feel most at peace among the mountains, the forests, the vast empty spaces that make you feel tiny and expansive at the same time. 

Ready for adventure, we set forth one day to see the Columbia Icefield, a massive expanse of cold that straddles a triple continental divide. When we got there, I was reminded of the fact that I don’t actually like the cold. Plus stark white expanses are not exactly photographable, at least not by amateurs. So this story turns out not to about the icefield, but about what we learned of glaciers along the way. 

(If it sounds like an icefield would be the same thing as a glacier, you’re not far off: an icefield is basically a bigger and more permanent glacier.)

The jewels of Banff are not so much the mountains - remarkable though they are - but the brilliant lakes that stretch between them. (Don’t worry, I’m getting to the glaciers). The lakes are a stunning, surreal aquamarine color:

But such snapshots don't do these lakes justice. They are beautiful. 

Turns out these are all glacier-fed lakes, and it is the minerals and debris deposited by the glaciers that cause the lakes to reflect sunlight in such a way that all we see is this narrow but spectacular sliver of the color spectrum. (In other words, it’s science.)

So why are glaciers depositing minerals and debris into innocent mountain lakes? Because glaciers, contrary to my preconceived notions (I won’t assume anything about yours), are always moving. In fact, the very definition of a glacier requires constant movement. I guess I assumed that the cliche “glacial change” meant, well, that things weren’t really changing. But glaciers can change rapidly. I mean, relatively speaking.

So that got me thinking about what kinds of change could be considered “glacial.” Like slow, constant evolution or progress towards an outcome, the intermediate steps of which aren’t really visible, but then one day you wake up and - holy cow! That lake is BLUE!

Not quite the same, but it made me think of how we woke up one morning in Banff (and mind you, this was in late September), and the season had changed from fall:

to winter:

Just like that. Except not really because the seasons are a continuum, and we build up to the next one even if we aren’t noticing the subtle signs.

New Year's is kind of like that, too: an arbitrary holiday we use to demarcate and distinguish the slow buildup of days from the past to the future, when we will be surprised by how things have changed when we weren't looking. Happy new year, by the way.

So I’m going through my own sort of glacial change right now. I’m about half way through my first pregnancy, and after months of feeling almost nothing and worrying that I’d forget I’m pregnant and start downing stiff drinks like I’m an ad exec in 1962, I can now feel the baby kick (often too much so) at all hours of the day and night. That is, over the course of five months, I’ve grown a frickin' human being in my belly - albeit in severely miniature form - without any daily awareness of what’s going on in there. 

Nine months is a long time. I can imagine myself, come late April, being ripped from my complacent, work-focused daily existence to the sudden realization: O. M. G. It’s a BABY! And just like that, the world will look completely different. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

This Isn't Your Farmer's Market

Way back when, I visited an old friend in Boston only to discover she had turned a sickly shade of yellow. "Holy cow," I said. "Do you have jaundice?"

"No," she replied. "I just eat a lot of carrots."

Erica had discovered Boston's Haymarket: not a riot, more than just a T stop, Haymarket is a nearly 200-year-old tradition in the heart of Boston's downtown. I think I lived in Boston (meaning Cambridge) for eight years without ever going to the Haymarket. This was probably because, back then, the Haymarket lived in the shadow of Boston's central artery, the elevated freeway that used to divide downtown Boston from its harbor. Everything around the central artery was super-sketch and generally unpleasant.

No more. Whatever else one might think of Boston's infamous Big Dig, it did succeed in opening up this core slice of central Boston. In place of the looming concrete jungle of pollution and noise, we now have a human-scaled park and a sense of openness in the midst of the city. This makes the Haymarket rather more appealing as a Saturday morning field trip. 

The Rose Kennedy Parkway: Much more pleasant than a freeway.
I don't know what the Haymarket was back in the 1800s, but today it is Boston's discount outdoor produce market. This ain't no farmer's market: you will find no organic produce or $3 doughnuts here (a staple of Harvard's farmer's market, the $3 doughnut stand always has a line). No, Haymarket is the landing place for the produce the grocery stores don't want any more, those still-edible fruits and vegetables that need a good home, stat. And if you do get hungry while shopping, hole-in-the-wall pizza and falafel joints line one side of Blackstone Street (I can't recommend any of them, but at least you can get a full meal for your $3).

I love an outdoor produce market. With surly vendors, mounds of bright vegetables, and a cross-section of Boston's diverse population, Haymarket reminds me of a scaled-down version of the Hague's Turkish Market. The Haymarket isn't nearly as impressive, but the food is at least as cheap. On a recent Saturday, we were buying 8 apples for a dollar, a pound of pickling cucumbers for just over a dollar, healthy bunches of parsley and cilantro for 25 cents each. Of course, none of it would last past Monday.

So what do you do with ample, cheap produce that isn't going to keep - at least, if you don't have ten mouths to feed that night? You can pickle it, like Jeff, who recently made quarts of refrigerator pickles out of mini-cucumbers. You can jam it, like a colleague of mine who decorates his living room with different colored jars of preserves. You can bake it, like I did with those twelve-cent apples. (OK, so maybe I intended far more baking and sauce-making than actually occurred - best of intentions...) And then there's stock-making, stew-freezing, and good ol' massive stir-frys. 

I recognize that cheap, hit-or-miss, nonorganic produce is not everyone's cup of tea. Toto, we're not in Whole Foods anymore. But here's a couple things to consider: First, while this produce is in no ways "sustainable," the Haymarket does help save it from total waste. If we're going to fly in planes full of peppers from Chile, we might as well use them. Second, not all of us can afford to shop at Whole Foods. Third, a bit of savvy shopping will get you a long way. Bring small bills (this is a cash-only world) and browse the stalls and prices before you buy; insist on picking out your own produce (let me reiterate: insist on picking out your own produce); don't do business with vendors who are rude to you; and keep in mind the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen - those fruits and vegetables you should always buy organic vs. those that  carry the least amount of harmful pesticides. We never buy the former at the Haymarket, but we'll stock up on the latter.

Still, your mileage may vary. If nothing else, the Haymarket is a scene worth seeing before moving on to the Rose Kennedy Parkway (a.k.a., the Big Dig's final legacy) and fresh cannoli in the North End.

Haymarket runs pretty much every Friday and Saturday. The closest T-stop is, unsurprisingly, Haymarket - but it's also walking distance from most points of interest in Boston's compact downtown. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Fall in(to) Cambridge

Cambridge is made for fall. From the university campuses to the tree-lined streets, fall in Cambridge means two months of bright blue skies and flaming leaves set off against the red bricks of school buildings and sidewalks. I first came to Cambridge fifteen years ago as a freshman in college, only to find that fall in New England was a fundamentally different concept than fall in Portland.

First, a New England fall is sunny. In Portland, on the other hand, the rain starts around October 1 and doesn't let up until sometime in May. 

Second, thanks to the clear skies, the leaves in Cambridge crunch. If you grew up outside the Pacific Northwest, I assure you - you underestimate the miracle of crunchy leaves. All through my childhood, fall just meant decomposing piles of sodden brown leaves beaten down by weeks of rain. You didn't rake leaves as much as push them into sad little piles that vaguely resembled something scatological. 

Third, because fall is a true shoulder season here - a distinct change from what came before, but not so sudden that you just want to hide indoors - there are super-special fall festivities, annual traditions keyed to the gradual shift in season. These traditions make the fall for me. After the difficulty of moving back across the country and starting a new job this summer, fall in Cambridge was like a warm and fuzzy welcome mat. Year after year, these are my favorite (free) fall traditions:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Oregon: Off the Beaten Path

Part of my family recently spent a weekend in the Wallowa Mountains, in the northeastern corner of the state. Stuck in Boston, I can only contemplate how I have never been to the Wallowas. Indeed, a proud native Oregonian, I have never been to many parts of the great state. Behold the richness of the American West: more majesty than we can experience in a lifetime.

In 2009, when we still lived in D.C., I dragged Jeff on a big tour of Oregon: the Columbia Gorge, Mt. Hood, Bend, the Willamette Valley wineries, and my favorite stretch of the Oregon Coast around Newport. These are like the state's golden oldies. But things got most interesting when we traveled (way) off the beaten path, down to a part of Oregon as new to me as it was to Jeff: Steens Mountain.

Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert

"The Steens" sits in the southeastern corner of Oregon, a full day’s drive from anything resembling a town. There’s not much out there, once you pass Frenchglen (population: 12). The mountain is a long, jagged gash of rock in an otherwise flat landscape of sage brush and emptiness. To its east stretches the Alvord “Desert,” a bright white playa that is home to the mineral-rich Alvord Hot Springs. The hot springs are more surreal than substantive: a tiny tin shack in the middle of the flat playa, where campers come to bathe in the steaming water while watching the sun set over the Steens.

What does one do in "the Steens"? Hike (but beware the heat, and bring gallons of water). Contemplate existentialism. Camp on Bureau of Land Management territory (just about everything here is owned by the government). For those without camping equipment, the historic Frenchglen Hotel on the other side of the mountain provides quaint lodging and home-cooked meals. But you lose something of the extreme solitude and vastness of the landscape if you don't spend the night alone under the stars, surrounded by nothing in all directions.

Oregon is full of extreme and surreal beauty once you get away from the evergreens and rolling farmland. I can't vouch for all of these - like I said, there's still much of the state that I have never seen - but here's a partial list of Oregon's greatest natural treasures:

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

God Is in the Barren Places

Maui's famous road to Hana was everything I thought Hawaii would be: verdant rainforest, waterfalls, vistas of undulating coastline and azure ocean, bright tropical flowers and hidden swimming holes. 

Yes, that was nice. But it was the road that stretched beyond Hana that swept me off my feet. 

Here was the inverse of everything that had come before, a barren and empty land of rocky soil, the occasional windswept tree, and very little evidence of human presence other than the rutted road. There was almost no living thing out there - just gold, grey, brown, and sun-bleached stones. It was like I had eternity all to myself.