Sauerkraut and saving slugs

Walking composition

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.” — Georgia O’Keefe (h/t to Annabel Abbs, author of Windswept, for that one)

Walking toward home the other day, I came across this slug eking its way across the footpath. It hadn’t gotten very far, so I decided to hang out until it was on the other side, just in case a cyclist or runner or something came along and didn’t see it.

A little while later a woman strolling behind her dog stopped when I pointed at the slug, and said the week before she’d come across another one on the path close to where we were and relocated it into the grass before moving on.

So random, two strangers on a lovely autumn morning chancing across each other to recount their spontaneous efforts to save the slugs.

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After many failures, I’ve finally managed a batch of edible sauerkraut. Sara Bir, a chef and author of the super fun book The Fruit Forager’s Companion, walked me through it during a Zoom call with our writing group; and thanks to subscriber Charlotte’s advice after I bemoaned my inability to churn out sauerkraut, I upped the salt to nearly 4%. It took about two weeks — Sara and I checked in a few times, and she figured that it was taking longer to ferment because my kitchen tends to be pretty chilly at this time of year. But we made it!

I still don’t think it should be this hard. Salt, cabbage, time. It seems like it should be far simpler than making yogurt, or sourdough bread, or decent soup for that matter, none of which I’ve ever had trouble with. Maybe I was just bringing the wrong attitude, or maybe I hadn’t cleaned my jars well enough. (I definitely wasn’t using enough salt.)

Salt is a strange thing. It’s the substance I most often think of when I wonder what luxury I’ll miss if climate change really messes everything up, followed by coffee, chocolate, and lemons. But salt is special. It plays a critical role in pickling and fermenting. It makes everything taste better — to me, at least, up to a point, after which it makes everything taste horrendous. It’s a vital nutrient for humans — my father has often told me the story of three women he knew who were driving across a desert, and one of them ended up in the hospital because she’d been virtuously hydrating with plenty of water while the other two ate chips and drank beer. She lost so much salt through sweat that she got hyponatremia. My mother-in-law is prone to hyponatremia and has to be cautious with her fluid intake. We need salt.

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Salt is also, of course, deadly to slugs. Because slugs are mostly water and their outer membrane is porous, salt leeches water out. Not everything needs salt. It’s one of the genius things about ecosystem balance and complex systems that becomes more marvelous the more you know about it.

It was the British salt laws that prompted Gandhi’s most well-known act of civil disobedience in 1930 — not only walking in protest, but extracting his own salt along the way, bucking the British salt monopoly and breaking the law. It turns out there’s a long history of empires (China, Britain, Rome) engaging in salt monopoly. Because salt is desirable as well as necessary.

I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about land ownership, but ownership, private property, snakes into every aspect of our lives, commodifying all that we need to survive but also what brings us joy, pleasure, and solace. It doesn’t pause to keep the slugs from being trampled — will, in fact, trample the slugs willingly if it would make a profit.

It starts with land but it doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t, as far as I can see, stop anywhere, not voluntarily.


Bonus photo: sauerkraut that isn’t horrible!

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Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • If you haven’t heard the This Land podcast, start at episode 1 of season 1 and keep going. It’s about the Oklahoma murder case that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court agreeing that most of the state is still Native land. I don’t think I’ve read or heard anything that has done such a good job of explaining the genocide, illegal theft of land and removal of people, followed by the devastation of allotment, that has led to Native American people having legal claim to such a tiny fraction of this country. It’s hard to listen to, hard to bear knowing how real it all is, but much harder to live through. (Season 2, which I’ve only just started, is about the court cases attempting to overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act.)

  • Along the lines of excellent podcasts, Vaccine: The Human Story, about the history of smallpox and the vaccine that finally eradicated it, is riveting listening. There is so much to quote from this, especially the ancient history I had no idea about, but mostly I hope never, ever to see a case of smallpox. It sounds horrific.

  • Vaccines, of course, lead to the realm of doubt and uncertainty. Complex systems professor David Krakauer wrote an interesting piece about doubt — specifically the difference between the kind of doubt that leads to scientific advancement versus the kind that heads down conspiracy paths — in Nautilus, and while I’ve had to read it a few times because I’m not sure how well the arguments hold together (Descartes always seems to make a subject slippery), it does evoke some graspable differences between the two: “Unlike scientific doubt that seeks to question what we know in order to make space for alternative simpler ideas, conspiratorial doubt challenges what we know with a metaphysics of inaction.”

  • Jamie McCallum writing in Aeon gets to the heart of where we go so wrong when hyping work ethic versus building a world in which people have access to meaningful work: “If there was a formula for obliterating the work ethic, giving people undesirable jobs with long hours and barely paying them sounds exactly like it.”

  • Thank you to Mike for sharing this excellent essay on a bear attack and our relationship to nature’s bite by Eva Holland. I used to read Eva’s work a lot when I was still doing travel writing and have somehow missed a bunch in the ensuing years. Reading her bear piece reminded me of a far more personal essay she’d written for Vela (a literary travel magazine by women) years ago. Anyone who’s ever been in a volatile relationship, or watched someone they care about go through one, might relate: “I understood abuse only as Hollywood had presented it to me: an Ike and Tina kind of thing. He was sick, I’d told myself again and again. Wasn’t he the victim, and wasn’t I the caretaker?”

  • I have no idea how I feel about the fact that the billionaire founder of Diapers.com wants to build a utopian city . . . founded on Henry George’s principals of land ownership? I mean, goodonya I guess and hooray for more people reading George, but I’m afraid my answer to anyone wanting to build a utopia or intentional community (as we call them now) anywhere is, if you can’t solve social problems where you already are, you likely won’t be able to avoid them somewhere else. But I also sympathize — I, too, fantasize about haring off to some land with people I trust because righting this ship feels so daunting. Problem is, you’re still on the ship, even if you’re hiding below decks pretending autonomy from the rest. Anyway: “‘If you went into the desert where the land was worth nothing, or very little, and you created a foundation that owned the land, and people moved there and tax dollars built infrastructure and we built one of the greatest cities in the world, the foundation could be worth a trillion dollars,’ Lore says. ‘And if the foundation’s mission was to take the appreciation of the land and give it back to the citizens in the form of medicine, education, affordable housing, social services: Wow, that’s it!’” Yes, it is it! It’s called society. Also, George-related tax systems have been enacted to somewhat good effect in cities that already exist, like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

  • I had the very good fortune to lead a discussion with Annabel Abbs for the U.S. launch of her book Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women with Madison Street Books in Chicago. Abbs is a wonderful, engaging speaker full of delightful and insightful stories about walking. If you missed it and would like to listen, it’s recorded and available here.

  • Becky Hagenston is probably my favorite living short story writer, and I was thrilled to find out that she has a new collection coming out, The Age of Discovery. Becky’s stories tend to be on the Bradbury-esque eerie side, or just a touch on the surreal, and there’s something about her writing style that pulls me right in, though I don’t usually love short stories. (I think I linked to her sci-fi Pushcart Prize-winner “Hi Ho Cherry-O” previously; it’s included in this new collection.)