Consider the Mussel

 

Consider the mussel.  Not the invasive zebra or quagga mussel – those freshwater invasives that plug sewers and ruin turbines in the midwest – nor the foul tasting ribbed mussel that buries itself in salt marsh mud and tastes just like it.  No, consider the blue mussel, Mytilus edulus –  “edulus” from the latin: edible.

 

So edible, in fact, that Moules et frites  is one of Belgium’s national dishes.  A Belgian restaurant in Washington D.C.  we ate in once had what seemed like dozens of delicious-sounding variants on the menu. Moules marinière, Moules natures, Moules à la crème, Moules parquées, Moules à la bière, Moules à l’ail, etc. – the blue bivalve seems to electrify the culinary imagination.

 

Once steamed open, there are two distinctly different types of mussels – yellow and orange.  They taste identical and there are about equal numbers of the two colors. Turns out that the creamy white ones are male while females are described as being of a “warmish orange”.  It makes one wonder if our species’ propensity for racial bigotry might evaporate if the sexes of us humans were similarly divided by color.  

 

Blue mussels epitomize the word sedentary –  spending their adult lives stuck fast to the surface they first settle on – but “sedentary” doesn’t do justice to the tenacity with which they adhere to structure.  Wresting them off the rocks to which they typically anchor themselves can be nearly impossible thanks to a two part system involving a unique glue laid down at the ends of multiple thread-like structures known as “the beard” to mussel eaters and byssus to marine biologists.  For eaters, the beard is a bother. It feels like a foreign body in the mouth and tastes and feels like chewing on sewing thread. Attached to a muscular organ in the muscle’s innards it needs to be forcefully removed before the mussels are cooked. But to bioengineers and inventors, what byssus is made of and how it is formed is a beckoning path to fame and fortune.   The threads are unique among fibers since they combine bungee cord elasticity (stretchable to 160% of original length) with Herculean strength (5 times stronger than the human Achilles tendon) – an extremely unusual combination of fiber properties. https://www2.clarku.edu/departments/biology/biol201/2002/LBrentner/byssal_threads.html,https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124319594

 

How byssus fibers adhere to rocks has been another active focus of scientific investigation. There are mighty few good glues that can be used under water, yet mussels know how to make an excellent one.  Sadly, they never patented the process. Now, after slicing, dicing, crushing and otherwise murdering to dissect bushels of mussels, bioengineers from Genex and Bio-polymers have done just that. Soon heart  surgeons may have a glue to close bloody wounds, the U.S. Navy may be doing underwater glue repairs and we may someday see a ruptured Achilles tendon replaced with a byssal cable stuck to our heel and calf muscle with mussel glue!  Stockholders in Genex and Biopolymers will smile but it’s unlikely that marine ecologists studying mussel dieoff will see big grants based on mussel royalties.

 

We H. sapiens are not the only ones with a taste for Mytilus edulus. Like our own species a blue mussel typically spends its youth drifting around aimlessly – though these little mussel trochophores, veligers and pediveligers face armies of filter feeders ranging from sunflower seed-sized crustaceans to schoolbus-sized  whale sharks. And even after they settle down and stick themselves fast to a huge chunk of granite they remain vulnerable to being harvested and being boiled alive by us, swallowed whole by diving ducks, crushed by the toothy jaws of blackfish, drilled into by dog whelks,  or subjected to the dismal fate of being pried open by a starfish’s arms and then hosting that creature’s whole stomach which the echinoderm has everted onto the mussel’s newly exposed innards.

 

As a child, summering on the Rhode Island coast where the rock-drop from receding glaciers makes perfect mussel habitat, I could pick a meal’s worth in half an hour.  That was well before they started showing up in supermarket seafood cases in the ‘70’s followed soon after by appearances in NYTimes recipes. Since then, I’ve watched their price steadily increase and their numbers among the rocks steadily dwindle to the point that a summer supper of wild mussels is now almost unheard of.

 

Speculation about the causes of the decline includes over-harvesting, pollution, ingestion of microplastics, higher water temperature, excessive non-human predation, degradation of native DNA by the escaped gametes of coddled farmed mussels, a mussel epidemic or some villainous mix of all these usual suspects.  Scientific consensus seems to be settling on the fact that the decline’s causes are multifold and man-made, a fate now being suffered by untold numbers of other species. One peer reviewed paper documented that the southernmost edge of the blue mussel’s range drifted 350 km northward from Cape Hatteras North Carolina to Lewes, Delaware between 1960 and 2010.  In Rhode Island now, if we find any they’re hidden in deep crevices on the northeast side of rocks – protected from the intense heat of the afternoon sun. And now when we bring home a meal’s worth of mussels, they come from farms in colder Canadian waters.

 

It’s humbling to consider the mussel while watching surf crash on  the Rhode Island boulders where a few still remain . Here is a species that seems to have been around for about 200 million years.  It spends its infancy drifting defenseless in the ocean currents. Then after two or three months when it finally decides to settle down it typically chooses a spot regularly bashed by three or four foot waves every 15 seconds and by twelve or thirteen foot rogue rollers whenever an angry coastal storm comes along – and apparently loving it.  The fact that this hardy creature is now in trouble, as are so many other fellow travelers on spaceship earth is telling us something.  

 

Credible investigators  https://www.livescience.com/24805-undiscovered-marine-species.htm put the number of different species in the ocean at about a million, with about three quarters yet to be discovered!  Meanwhile we go on turning up the ocean heat with our greenhouse gasses and producing plastic from fossil fuel at a geometrically accelerating rate with annual production rising from zero to 400 million tons between 1950 and today https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution.   One can only wonder what kind of miraculously useful substances like byssus and mussel glue will come from those yet to be discovered marine creatures if we can just get to them before warmer oceans cooks them out of existence  or we clog them to extinction with plastic. 

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On Not Heating With Wood

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Heading home after an early morning meeting on  a recent wet, raw October day I found myself looking forward to building a fire in the wood stove. Then I recalled that we were planning to avoid wood fires for a while to see if it made any difference in the symptoms of a family allergy.  So I’d just have to rely on the oil burner.  But  I was surprised by how disappointed I felt.  What was the trouble?

 

It wasn’t entirely the cost.  It wasn’t one of those ten below zero days when the furnace would grind away ninety percent of the time to keep the house tolerable.  It would only take a few minutes to warm up the place, and because of all the weatherization we’ve done over the years it would remain warm for quite a while before the thermostat called for more heat.  And anyway the price of fuel oil is way down because of all the shenanigans of the marketplace.  I do admit to being pretty thrifty but it wasn’t all the cost.

 

And it wasn’t guilt, even though  I’m plenty concerned about climate disruption and the environmental degradation from burning fossil fuels.  After all, I drive a Prius, I look for Energy Star appliances whenever one needs replacing, and, thanks to my wife’s urging, we have lots of solar panels.  I also try to do my part to persuade our elected officials to ignore all those bogus arguments and huge campaign contributions from the oil, gas and coal folks.  So a couple of pints of heating oil on a raw fall day won’t tarnish my crown in heaven too much.

 

It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but I think I finally did.  I was disappointed because I like the process of firing up the woodstove and feeling the results of what I’ve done.  I like crumpling up the newspaper – not so tightly that it resembles a log, but loosely enough that the ratio of air to compressed wood fibers permits rapid combustion.  I like laying on just enough kindling – not enough to smother the burning paper but enough to sustain the fire as I lay on larger wood. I feel competent when I do those things and as I do, I am reminded that the wood came from a local tree which has a set of its own amazingly efficient small green solar panels that capture the sun’s radiant energy and store it as chemical energy in the covalent bonds of cellulose being laid down silently all summer right beneath the tree’s knobbly bark – no associated air pollution, no multimillion dollar XL Pipeline, no terrorist threats.   Thinking about all that as I make the fire is better than watching some morning TV talk show.  But missing that process, it turns out, is only part of my disappointment.

 

Another part, I think, has to do with having a broader understanding of my world and where I fit in.  When I build that wood fire – and this is especially true if I’ve cut down the tree and worked up the wood myself – I understand some of the implications.  I know, sort of, how long it took that tree to grow.  I think about how big my woodlot is and whether the steady growth of the hardwoods is greater or less than the rate at which I am taking trees down. In short I have a pretty good idea of whether my woodburning is sustainable.   I also know that by harvesting a tree when I do, instead of letting it die in place, that tree will no longer provide a home first for woodpeckers and then, perhaps a kestrel;  that I’ve messed with the ecology of my woodlot; that it’s not quite as rich a habitat as it would have been were the tree  left standing.    I understand those tradeoffs in a much more immediate way than the tradeoffs involved in opening the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.  And I also have a pretty good idea about the real costs of staying warm through a whole New Hampshire winter – how many person hours it takes to get that wood down, cut up, split, processed and moved into the cellar before the snow flies.

 

But I’ve saved the best ‘til last.   I realized that the biggest reason I was disappointed by not building a fire in the woodstove when I got home is that I am a control freak. I like to be in charge. I like knowing how to do stuff and calling the shots on how it is done.

 

So, aren’t I in charge when I turn up the thermostat?  Well, no, not really.   I  don’t have much of an idea about how to find oil – though I do know that it sometimes involves setting off underwater explosions which risk blowing out the eardrums of some of earth’s biggest and most mysterious creatures .  I don’t have a clue about how to drill for oil – though I am aware that doing so creates some pretty ugly international relations and often involves opening up pristine wilderness.  I don’t have any idea where to buy a drilling rig or how to set it up or where to hire the crews to man it or who to schmooze with to get the best price when and if the stuff finally comes up out of where it’s been for the last hundred million years.  I don’t have any idea about how to hire a tanker, or determine whether or not the tanker skipper is likely to be drunk when he approaches some reef.  I just know that when I call up my oil company they deliver some oil so my burner comes on when I turn up the thermostat.  All the rest of the stuff is under somebody else’s control and I just don’t like it.

 

So as soon as we figure out that those allergy symptoms aren’t related to the wisps of smoke that occasionally escape while I’m stoking the stove, I’m going back to heating with wood.

Tilting at Windmills

I was discussing renewable energy a while back with a neighbor.  His politics are a bit more to starboard than mine, but he’s a thoughtful fellow and has reached the conclusion, as have I, that climate change is a significant threat.  We both agreed on the need to develop a portfolio of non-fossil energy sources.  As we enumerated the costs and benefits of each type, we got to wind.

“Now there’s a technology that has a lot of promise.  Cheap, clean, and plenty of it to go around.  But I read the other day that there’s a noisy lobby against it.  Seems there’ s a bunch of people afraid that windmills are going to kill too many………” he paused dramatically and then his face contorted into a look of astonished disbelief   “……birds!   Can you imagine?  Holding America’s energy needs hostage because windmills may knock off some…….birds!”

Here was a tough choice.  Take on a set of values very different from mine and risk ruining the conversation, or move on to solar.  Coward that I am, I chose the sun.  But it got me thinking.

What is it, after all, that made the tradeoff such a no-brainer for my neighbor.  Was he unaware of the mountainous havoc our species is inflicting on Earth’s biodiversity?  Should I tactfully suggest he might enjoy reading  The Sixth Extinction in which Elizabeth Kolbert makes a powerful argument that our impact on the planet’s flora and fauna  is comparable to the asteroid collision of the Cretaceous–Paleogene era which wiped out three quarters of earth’s species and, irony of ironies, allowed Homo sapiens to evolve and flourish in the resultant vacuum?  Might information like this shift his values?

Or is it more a matter of religion?  Is he following his God’s directive to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”  If that’s the case, I should have steered the conversation towards what “having dominion” means.  Common parlance would have us think of mankind lording it over the rest of creation but there is clearly an element of husbandry and protection in that word.  After all, if rulers fail in their responsibility to keep their charges safe they don’t remain rulers for very long.

Or perhaps an economic argument would have appeal.  One of the things taken for granted about birds – bats as well – is the prodigious amount of pest control they perform – at no cost to farmers and no increase in the health risk or the price of food to the consumer.   An article in the March 2013 issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin, researcher K. Shawn Smallwood estimates the number of birds killed by wind turbines in the US in 2012 at 573,000.  And in the December 2013 issue of the Journal BioScience researcher Mark Hays, in a peer reviewed article, calculates current bat deaths from wind turbines in the US to be between 600,000 to 900,000 individuals.  That translates into a lot of boll weevils, corn borers and fat green tomato hornworms still munching away.

And then there’s  the contribution to the national economy of all those birdwatchers buying binoculars, birdhouses, spotting scopes and sunflower seeds.  That might have some sway, especially if my neighbor has some stock in Nikon or Bushnell

Of course none of these pragmatic considerations gets at the heart of what bothers me about  those half million plus birds getting smacked out of the sky each year.  For me and, I think, a good many similarly-wired folks, it’s a bit as if a bunch of Van Gogh paintings were tossed in the dump, or copies of The Sun Also Rises got burned, or the Olympics got cancelled one cycle, or TV programming was reduced by a couple of hours a week – stuff like that.  If one of those batted birds happened to be the brilliantly sun-struck black and gold oriole whose bell-clear note sails down at me from a tall tree as I walk out my door in May,  my world would definitely lose some of its richness and beauty.  In fact, now that I think of it, I’d even be willing to pay a couple of cents more on my electric bill each month so long as that oriole keeps coming back.

There’s an interesting difference between the paintings, the books, the sports accomplishments, the programming coming from a big flat screen TV and that oriole.  Those first four things are all creations by us, and their subjects, for the most part, happen to be……us.  The oriole, on the other hand……. but that’s a subject for another blog.