Expanse and plastic

Walking composition

“And are not men than they more blind, 
Who having eyes yet never find 
The bliss in which they move”
—from “Walking,” by Thomas Traherne (1637-1674)

I broke a bunch of Mason jars last week, nice ones, through sheer stupidity or ignorance or—my preferred interpretation—to create science lessons for the kids.

I know that liquid expands when it freezes. When I fill a container for the freezer, I leave space for that reason. But sometimes (most of the time) my grasp of physics has gaping holes, like not realizing that expansion can happen in all directions, not just into available space but also into unavailable space.

There’s a metaphor in that, but then there’s always a metaphor.


Sometime back when I started this newsletter I wrote a piece about the flaws in the ways we teach science, how it’s too abstract and not hands-on enough and that’s a big reason why you get things like climate denial and anti-vaccination arguments and unregulated water pollution, because it is really hard to intuitively grasp cause and effect when you don’t have a hands-on experience of it. One of the most memorable books I read in the last decade was Frank R. Wilson’s The Hand, which makes the argument that the human brain evolved to be so large because we use our hands so dexterously, not so that we could use our hands. Our hands’ ability to manipulate things, he argued, drove our brain’s growth and evolution.

By putting all our learning’s weight in the brain, we shortchange our capabilities for understanding. We are missing and misunderstanding most of reality because we don’t give ourselves chances to fully engage with it, especially as children.


I’ve been trying for years to reduce our household plastic. One of the consistent holdouts is the freezer, so when I made chicken broth recently I decided to try freezing it in Mason jars instead of Ziplock bags partly because of the plastic and partly because every single Ziplock springs a pinhole leak when I thaw chicken broth, meaning its usefulness a second time is seriously reduced and I’m convinced they make them that way on purpose. They didn’t used to spring a leak and it’s the same spot every time, in a bottom corner.

Anyway, you might know where this is going. I thought I was being smart partially filling half-gallon Mason jars with broth and placing them uncovered in the freezer. Space to expand! is what I thought. Every single one of the jars shattered in very interesting patters and I lost both the jars and the broth. At least it was a direct demonstration for the kids of what “liquid expands when it freezes” means, but I wish I’d done it with just one jar. (That had occurred to me when I was filling them, but I’m just as much of an idiot as anyone else most of the time.)

Plastic is flexible, pliable, moldable and so very, very useful. I almost never have to worry about finding pools of frozen chicken broth in the freezer when I dispense it into plastic bags. But when I look at the pools of waste and contamination that plastic leaves behind in air, water, soil, and human bodies, the space it takes up is so large I can barely grasp it.

What if all of reality is just metaphors expanding into one another’s spaces?


Bonus photo: the evidence


Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • This piece by Ian Gilligan in Aeon about how the need for clothing—rather than food—might have spurred the development of agriculture was really fascinating, and engagingly written: “The pattern of clothing in Aboriginal Australia can challenge a number of cherished theories about the origin of clothing. For one, routine Aboriginal nakedness implies that humans didn’t invent clothes due to some inherent sense of modesty. Neither, as hunter-gatherers, did we need clothes for the sake of appearance.”

  • Serendipitously, someone in another newsletter forum recommended a podcast episode that then led me to this one with Erin You-Juin McMorrow, author of Grounded, a book about . . . soil. Considering the responses to that post about soil, I think a lot of people here might enjoy it. There’s a lot in the interview about the divine feminine, which you can skim over if that’s not your thing, but the parts about soil definitely made me want to read the book.

  • An acquaintance sent me this Atlantic article on the role that minimum parking requirements play into the housing problems so many of our communities face. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—parking is an unseen plague and if we want vibrant communities we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with it: “The trouble with parking requirements is twofold. First, they don’t do what they’re supposed to, which is prevent curb congestion. . . . Second—and more consequential—parking requirements attack the nature of the city itself, by subordinating density to the needs of the car.”

  • Martin Tisne writing in MIT Technology Review about the desperate need for collective data rights: “Individuals should not have to fight for their data privacy rights and be responsible for every consequence of their digital actions. Consider an analogy: people have a right to safe drinking water, but they aren’t urged to exercise that right by checking the quality of the water with a pipette every time they have a drink at the tap.” (I agree, but also wonder if the author fully comprehends that the privatization of every single thing that we rely on to survive is the overall point.)