Saturday, November 24, 2012

My Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day began with a morning cleanup of the house that extended well into the afternoon. The beneficial effect of guests takes hold well before their arrival, as the powerful host-reflex snaps us out of our laissez faire policies towards dust and debris and transforms us into cleaning machines. Once the necessary implements and liquids were located, that free-loader Entropy was sent packing, out the door and well beyond the boundaries of the driveway, to hang out among the fallen storm debris in the backyard until our diminished state of vigilance in coming days allows it back in.

I experience the host reflex as such a powerful motivator that it is tempting to promote its use for wider applications, such as improving the efficiency of government agencies that might otherwise tend to lose vigor with time. They should throw dinner parties in remote departments of obscure agencies and invite the people in for hors d'oeuvrs and a look around.

As the home interior began to shine, the air became suffused with a marvelous aroma of my daughter's home-baked pies. Still, I was so caught up in the satisfying momentum of restoring order that I could not lure myself into starting the turkey. Truth be told, I have long been intimidated by the prospect of cooking the great bird. The youngest of a largish family, I had traditionally positioned myself during holidays somewhere distant from dinner preparations, immersing myself in arguably constructive activities, perhaps composing at the piano or chopping wood, while others did what they have always done so well in the kitchen.

The downside of this highly successful evasion confronts me now every holiday, as I stand before a 14 pounder with a feeling of dread, helpless to escape. (The turkey, of course, must have felt something similar and all the more keenly just a few days prior.) If the bird, through some form of luck, emerges from the oven in edible or even highly edible condition, there is still the gravy to make--a task I had decided must be exceeding complex. I would read the many contradictory descriptions in various cookbooks, and feel all the more lost.

Over the past couple years, however, it has dawned on me that this sense of intimidation is unwarranted. Last year I cracked the gravy conundrum, realizing that it's basically just a matter of heating some fat, mixing in some flour, and then adding stock to get the right consistency, essentially how I've been making creamed chicken for decades.

The bird this year, however, still looked worrisomely pale and vulnerable to mishap. Should we cook the stuffing in the bird or separately? Why hadn't I taken it out of the frig sooner to warm to room temperature? And would the guests, their arrival surprisingly imminent, still be awake when it's done? I reread the reassuringly brief passages in cookbooks by Bittman and Alice Waters, decided to half stuff the turkey, rub it with butter, cover it with foil for the first hour or two, and hope for the best. Rather than wait for the button on top to pop up, I managed to find a meat thermometer and follow directions. Meanwhile, a collective effort, lubricated by wine, was underway by others to prepare all the bird's accompaniments.

It was at this point that I remembered a third component--beyond bird and gravy--that once again had been overlooked. It would have been easy to take our knives to the local hardware store for sharpening, but in family tradition this is a home-grown art, maintained in mind but, unfortunately for this occasion, not in act. Carving the bird, in my family growing up, was an honor given to a different family member each year, and done at the head of the dinner table with all assembled, the better to admire the skill of the carver. Special knives, ornate and well-honed, were brought out for the purpose. This year, with childhood long gone and the bird miraculously done, I cut the meat in seclusion, with a knife so dull I might as well have used my fingernails to claw off chunks of flesh.

Despite all of this, the food we gathered at the table to eat proved better than any of us could remember. I could use less of the fretting and uncertainty, but for the time being they seem to be necessary ingredients, like herbs and a bit of salt, that heighten the flavor and make me, with family, friends and good food harmoniously converged, supremely thankful.

Leaves and What's Left Behind

A big pile of leaves always brings back memories: the colorful dance of dry crisp leaves before us as we raked them off the yard and into a pile at the edge of the woods, the joy of jumping in said pile, of fluffing the pile back up and jumping in again. Sometimes we'd burn a small pile of leaves where the fire couldn't spread, and watch the flames in all their complex beauty, curling upward or exploring inward depths of red and orange. We'd throw acorns into the flames and wait for them to explode. Smoke was not pollution back then, but a fragrance that would scent the fall air of our small town, as much a part of life as Halloween and homecoming parades.

Later, in my 20s, needing organic matter to loosen some clay soil for a tomato patch, I found it in the deep, black, improbably rich "leaf mold" at the bottom of a leaf pile that the owner had topped with new leaves year after year.

All this was a celebration of endings and beginnings in the endless cycling of life, one few children will experience today.

Now, this joyous process is left to machines, beginning with landscape crews wielding leaf blowers to insure the ignominious leaves never disgrace their owner's property again. The leaves await their fate on cold asphalt until The Claw arrives to lift them into another machine, which will carry them into extended exile at a remote location outside of town, where still larger machines line them up in windrows and hasten their march back to a form society will find more presentable.

I doubt that leaf burning will return any time soon. Just yesterday, sirens screamed after a fire spread from cigarette to leaves to house on Moore Street. If machines are available and gas is affordable, people will use them. The machines do a good job, it must be said. The giant Claw is an uncanny merging of brute strength and delicacy as it heaves great gobs of thick branches into a waiting dump truck, or pauses to pluck a discarded geranium blossom from the curb.

Maybe I should look upon leaves and feel discontent and fear, and wish my childhood memories not be so persistent. But in time the machines as currently powered will prove the ultimate naivety. Subsidized ease will bring future hardship. And we'll wonder why we spurned and outsourced the wealth, beauty, exercise and meaning nature offers every fall.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nature Walk This Sunday, Nov. 25, 1:30pm

(Also posted at All are welcome to join a post-Sandy "Turkey Trek" I'll be leading this Sunday at 1:30pm, along trails in Community Park North and Mountain Lakes Preserve, cleared by FOPOS trail committee volunteers. We'll survey the changes in the woods brought about by the storm, and also visit the dams in all their restored glory. The walk will be accompanied by a TV30 film crew who are putting together a feature on Mountain Lakes. No need to arrive in finest feather. Just look natural.

Meet at Community Park North parking lot, on Mountain Ave. just off 206. Entry to the parking lot is right next to the 57 Mountain Ave driveway that leads up to the Mountain Lakes House. Wear some good walking shoes, and in the meantime, happy thanksgiving to all.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Frugaline, Climate and Energy

Relevant to the post Hurricane Sandy realities, I've compiled some older posts on climate change and ways to make one's home less energy-dependent at the whimsically entitled

A distillate of space and time, Frugaline is the energy of the past, present and future, available in vast deposits anywhere and everywhere. Unlike other renewable sources of energy, which require considerable mining, manufacture and transport of various contraptions for their capture, frugaline is harvest-ready, within us and all around us. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Princeton's Mountain Lakes Dam Restoration Story

Quite a story will be told this Thursday, Nov. 15, 7pm, at the Princeton Library community room, about the reservoirs that once provided Princeton with ice in pre-refrigeration days. Engineers identified the need for restoration of the dams as far back as the 1970s, but only when an anonymous donor came forward with several million dollars was the project able to move forward, in 2010.

Here's a description of Thursday's event:

"Created as an ice pond in 1884, Mountain Lake gradually filled in with sediment and the severe deterioration of its dams threatened to drain it altogether. Princeton Township engineering staff and consultants review Mountain Lake's ice harvesting history, archaeological discoveries, and the careful rehabilitation over the last two years that has restored the beauty of this National Register site and has preserved it for future generations."

The Mountain Lakes Preserve is one of Princeton's best-kept open secrets. Despite being in the middle of Princeton geographically, Mountain Lakes feels tucked away, accessed down a long driveway at 57 Mountain Ave, not far from town hall, across 206 from the Community Park fields.

You can access a pictorial and descriptive history of the restoration project at this link (scroll to the bottom and work your way up chronologically), but I'll show a few photos here.

The small wooden posts in the foreground of the above photo show where a ramp once conveyed big blocks of ice out of the lake and up into barns that once stood three stories high just below the dam. The barns, insulated with straw, could store ice for up to two years. The ice, of course, was delivered to people's homes to cool their ice boxes, in those more sustainable days before refrigeration became widespread in the 1930s or so.

Mountain Lakes House, built around 1950 and now used for weddings and other events, has a beautiful view of the upper lake and dam.

Dredging of the thick sediment during restoration apparently uncovered a rich seedbank of native wetland rushes, sedges and wildflowers that carpeted the lakebeds while the lakes remained drained. Friends of Princeton Open Space board member Tim Patrick-Miller led efforts to rescue some of these plants prior to refilling the lakes. They now make a fine native border along the upper lake.

Native woodland asters flourish along a lakeside trail in an area we cleared of invasive shrubs. All trails are open to the public.

Archeologists used metal detectors to find some century-old tools buried in mud in the lower lake, left over from the ice cutting era.

Though the restoration was primarily the work of Princeton township engineers, consultants and the very capable contractor who did the elaborate stonework and concrete reinforcement needed to restore the original beauty while bringing the dams up to current standards, I was able to contribute to the project in various ways.
As resource manager for Friends of Princeton Open Space, I was able to give some input. Using some pre-20th century technology--a kayak and a bamboo pole--I helped determine the lakes' original depths, correcting misperceptions caused by malfunctioning 20th century instruments. I also was able to get great cooperation from the township engineers to protect areas near the dams with rare native plants. The restoration team also came to agreement on the importance of restoring not only the two main dams, but also the smaller dams just upstream that had served to capture stream sediment before it could reach the two lakes.

Restoration of one of these upstream dams, built in 1950, was made possible by additional funds from the anonymous donor. Now cleaned of seven feet of sediment accumulated in its first 60 years, it should substantially increase the life of the two main lakes.

I also encouraged the township to dig several vernal pools nearby to serve the local frog population that had previously thrived in the muddy shallows of the silted-in ponds. State regulations may have bogged down those plans.

If you haven't been to Mountain Lakes, take a walk out there some day to see the award-winning dam restorations, an occasional great blue heron, "Devil's Cave" at the top of the boulder-strewn slopes of Witherspoon Woods, and maybe even hear the call of a pileated woodpecker. It's one of the finer meetings of nature and culture, wild and tamed, natural and man-made beauty.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hurricane Hair

A web search shows hurricane hair to be a fad hair style for young men. But older people can be afflicted as well. Here's an alternative definition.

hur-ri-cane hair

noun     1. A condition in which hair sticks out in all directions, typically following ill-advised backyard reconnaissance during a violent windstorm. Can be exacerbated by oily conditions due to unavailability of hot showers during power outages. Recent breakthroughs in medical research show a higher incidence of hurricane hair among geniuses, rendering Princeton particularly vulnerable.

Here, a typical backyard scene in Princeton, NJ, following Hurricane Sandy, in which a homeowner not yet recovered from hurricane hair inspects a partially blown down tree, wondering what farm the exotic fowl might have blown in from. Could this be the new normal?

The Hurricane Next Time

With each power outage, most spectacularly by the cain raised by two hurricanes in two years, we learn a little more about our house, and how incredibly vulnerable our domestic lifestyle is to disruption. Routine life literally hangs by a wire. Here are a few things we're considering for future power outages:

Emergency Radio
           We unfortunately ignored advice to get a battery-powered radio. A friend showed me an impressive-looking American Red Cross emergency radio, which has built-in LED flashlight, a solar panel and handcrank as backups to keep the radio and light going if the batteries run low, and several emergency weather channels in addition to regular AM/FM. The version I saw appears to be this FR360, but many different versions can be found on the internet. This Eton product supposedly gives 15 minutes of radio time for one minute of cranking, and can be used to recharge a cell phone.

Backup Lighting
         My daughter loves bringing out the candles during a power outage. For a bit more light, word has it that the local Rite-Aid pharmacy sells very inexpensive oil lamps (I haven't confirmed this, so it's worth calling ahead), which look attractive and actually put out a good light. A post I found on the internet points out, however, that a slender glass oil lamp can be easily knocked over, and that a less elegant but more stable version is the Dietz #90 lantern. Here are some images.

Land Line Phone
          Some insight here, but no particular solutions. Anyone with Verizon's FIOS internet and phone service will have by now discovered that, when Verizon replaces the old copper phone line with fiber-optics, more will change than the speed of your internet. The old copper line carried a little bit of energy with it to keep your land line phone working even when your power goes out. Fiber optics doesn't carry that energy, so instead they put a box in your basement with a backup battery that keeps your land line phone working for a day or two, after which your phone stops working. That box also draws a steady 20 watts of energy year-round adding a little bit to your baseline energy use. Fortunately, our ATT cellphones continued to work, though I hear some other wireless providers lost power.

Water Use
         During the massive power outage after Hurricane Sandy, both the water plant and the wastewater plant that serve Princeton struggled to keep going. The wastewater plant had to truck in 9000 gallons of fuel oil every day to run its backup generators, at a time when fallen trees were blocking roads and damaged transfer stations were squeezing fuel supplies.
         The best thing homeowners and businesses can do at such a time is to draw less water from the tap and send less wastewater down the sewers. Because so much energy is required to clean water (Princeton's annual production of wastewater takes well over a million dollars in electricity and natural gas to treat), higher efficiency toilets, shower nozzles, and faucet aerators can be thought of as energy-saving devices.
        It's also important to direct sump pump water to the yard (preferably a raingarden), or to the street, but not into the sanitary sewer.

Heating the House

        Just as everyone learned how gas stations can't pump gas without electricity, most gas appliances in the house were also rendered useless. It can come as a surprise just how much electricity a gas furnace or oven consumes. As they cycle on and off, some 600 watts of electricity is needed to heat up the little metal element that then ignites the natural gas. The furnace fan that circulates air through the house can take 500 watts. Though a typical water heater has a pilot light that allows it to function without electricity, I hear some models have fans that make them dependent on electrical power.
       During four days without power, and not wanting to plague the neighborhood with another noisy gas generator, I kept wondering whether there's some way to take advantage of the car's power. One option I've been told about, and plan to look into, is to buy something like the Duracel Powerpack 600, which is left plugged in so that it is well charged when a power outage comes along. It's essentially a big battery that can be adapted to plug into the furnace and run it for a half hour, after which the battery must be recharged via the cigarette lighter in the car. It doesn't have enough power to start a refrigerator and other appliances with a high start-up load.
          It's possible to hook the powerpack up to a solar panel, as in this product. Sounds like a first step, but there really should be some sort of backup system--a scaled up version of that Red Cross radio--with a sizable battery fed by a few solar panels, a bicycle-driven generator in the basement, and some way to tap the car's energy, that could keep critical home functions going during a power outage and even reduce our dependency on the grid year-round.
       Until the future arrives, we were fortunate to have a wood stove that puts out a great deal of heat, keeping the house warm and also serving to heat water, cook popcorn, etc. Old technologies can be positively civilizing. Its radiant heat travels surprisingly well from room to room. Modern wood stoves have primary, secondary and tertiary combustion chambers, burning very cleanly if the wood is dry and well seasoned. Wood pellet stoves are even better, I hear, and lead to the thought of converting all those downed trees into pellets for wood stoves, so that we become less dependent on these troubled and troubling legacy energies--the underground sources that are feeding nature's fury above ground.

Note: A friend told me his next door neighbor helped him out with electricity from a natural gas generator that automatically starts up during power outages. It's a smaller version of what public schools and other institutions have. A NY Times article puts their base price at $4500. Nice, for a price, but still is just one more way to burn more of the fuels that are getting us into trouble.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Snowman Survives Transfer To Hard Drive

Nor'easter + young boys = neighborhood snowman. Math is such a fine thing. Blame a doctor's appointment for the delay in photographing this fellow, which means it must now live forever in something less than the optimal health I had found it in earlier in the morning. Still, it sports two woodchip eyes, a nose and two arms, one with particularly impressive reach--all of which will stand it in good stead for as long as the distant hard drive where this blog resides may continue to prosper.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Sports Analogies and Climate Change

How much can human-caused climate change be blamed for Hurricane Sandy? Sports analogies to the rescue! One useful analogy is the use of steroids in baseball. No individual home run can be attributed to steroids, but their use was clearly linked to an increase in home runs. You can find that analogy frequently used on, and also by the president-elect of the American Meterological Society yesterday on the radio program Science Friday. Instead of steriods, of course, it's all that harmless-seeming carbon dioxide and other climate-affecting gases our machines have been collectively injecting into the atmosphere for the past couple centuries--increasing concentrations in the air by an improbable 40%. (It seems entirely unfair that our collective power to unintentionally mess things up is so great, but on the other hand, it suggests that if we actually put our collective heads together, we might be able to achieve extraordinary change in a positive direction.) Relevant links showing graphs are here and here.

To better understand the impact of rising sea levels on the likelihood of flooding, consider that raising a basketball floor will increase the number of slam dunks--the slam dunks here representing massive flooding of coastal cities like New York. That metaphor I heard for the first time on Science Friday yesterday.

In an opinion piece I had published in the Star-Ledger this past Sunday (Hurricane Sandy supported my premise while thoroughly distracting all potential readers), entitled "Why government regulators matter: a sports analogy", I contrast the acceptance of strict regulation and enforcement in sports with the anti-regulatory ideology common in politics, and compare the NFL's reality-based response to the danger of concussions with the nation's irrational non-response to the dangers of climate change. (If the Star-Ledger link is no longer open, the piece can be found here.)

Thursday, November 01, 2012

A Post-Hurricane Run On Gas

Two nights after Hurricane Sandy swept through, I was riding my bike down Nassau Street when I came upon a line of cars. Someone holding up traffic while waiting to turn left?
It turned out to be a line for gas, 12 cars long, with another line extending down Murray Place on the other side of the Gulf Station. Many stations in the area have gas, but no power to pump it, making Princeton's gasoline alley the place to be for far flung storm refugees.

There is at least some good fortune for locals in living in a small town where, despite the deprivations of the storm's aftermath, it is possible to stay off the gasoline treadmill for a few days, and get where one needs to go under one's own power.