A gift from the New Zealand sky

“The Milky Way” by andyspictures

The first time I touched the universe, I stood outside the Paparoa Marae near the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, surrounded by dozens of people I barely knew. I was thirteen and almost ten thousand miles from home on a three-week trip with People to People Student Ambassadors. After our traditional Maori dinner of meats and vegetables slow-cooked by heated river rocks in the ground, I looked up at the sky.

The milky way, clear as the sun during the day, spread out in gentle waves above me, and I am sure that every single star visible to the naked human eye from the Southern Hemisphere burned its mark on my soul. I felt like I must be looking at a photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, because I couldn’t believe something so beautiful, so expansive, so true, surrounded me.

My world stood on the edge of change. In a few days, I would experience my first kiss under those same stars. In three weeks, I would return to the United States and start high school. In two months, the World Trade Center would fall and my country would launch a war that would, in many ways, define my adolescence.

Left alone, I would have been happy to sit outside in the cool winter air, staring up at those points of light. The longer I looked, the more individual stars became clear, each one a gift from the night. In return, I gave something to the night that I still cannot put into words, something beyond words.

I didn’t understand the significance of that exchange right then, but from that moment on I tried to get back to that feeling of complete connection with the universe. I wanted to feel like I was a part of something, like I mattered, like my words mattered.

I mostly failed for the next seven years. Things seemed to disconnect all around me: in domestic politics, environmental degradation, an ongoing war that echoed Vietnam, the angst and endless existential crises of teenagehood, a failing belief in the religion I’d grown up with. It took another trip across an ocean for me to find that feeling again in its purest state.

On that second trip I finally understood the gift, the wisdom the stars meant to give me: You do not need to travel across an ocean to touch the universe. You simply have to be open, and it is easier to be open when you have crossed an ocean, don’t know anyone, and are worn down and ragged from travel and jet lag. But if you know your walls are there, you can choose to take them down, and the stars will reveal themselves to you wherever you stand.


#FridayReads: “Salt Sugar Fat” by Michael Moss

saltsugarfatI love food, and I love reading about food. I also believe that purchasing and cooking food is a political statement, whether you want it to be or think it is or not.

Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us explores the three big ingredients that give us cravings, make us fat, and dictate how we think food should taste—even though a lot of processed foods can hardly be called food (in my opinion).

This book has been on my to-read list since Moss came to Pittsburgh a few years ago. I wasn’t able to attend his lecture, but it put his book on my radar.

(Authors take note: The publicity from your book tour has the potential to lead readers to your book even if they don’t come to your reading.)

Salt Sugar Fat is broken into three sections, one for each of the ingredients. I’m still in the first third of the book, but already Moss has covered corporate mergers, competition between brands and corporations, the “bliss point”—which is the optimum sugar level for an individual—how companies “optimize” drinks like Dr. Pepper, and more.

Moss’s reporting is sharp and on point. This is no conspiracy theory type book about how the food industry is trying to make everyone fat. It’s another terrifying addition to the growing body of literature documenting corporate neglect of our planet and our health in the interest of driving profits and the negative effects of eating processed food (see also anything by Michael Pollan and the awesome documentary Food, Inc. Also Forks Over Knives, King Corn, Genetic Chile… there are so many good ones).

This is my favorite kind of food book, because it’s accessible and interesting. Moss interviews many food scientists and former food corporation employees and tells their stories without demonizing them or casting them in an unfair light. He shows us that really, what food scientists have done is pretty amazing from the scientific point of view, if not the nutritional point of view.

I’m listening to the audio book version, which is read by Scott Brick. Sometimes he gets into a pattern of reading every sentence with the same inflection, which goes right up to the edge of being annoying without quite crossing over. But the material he’s reading is fascinating, so I hardly notice.

Nature blog: Tying up some loose ends on Heaven’s Hillside

This post originally appeared on April 15, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.” This is the final entry.

As our early spring progresses, more and more plants pop up every day on the hillside. The robins are singing this morning, and there’s a slight breeze. The sound of a neighbor’s lawnmower drones on behind the birdsong, wiping out the sound of cars on the highway. It’s cool, but it’s the kind of cool that promises heat later in the day. The stinging nettle now completely blocks off the back half of the yard, and the Japanese honeysuckle is about to go into bloom. The rose of sharon shrubs have shed their seed pods entirely and unfurled leaves all up and down their gray-brown branches.

A budding black willow tree

The black willow. You can also see the dead tree of heaven and a Boston ivy vine.

What I assumed was Japanese honeysuckle vines climbing the trees of heaven nearest my house are not. Now that the leaves on the vines have grown, I see that they are broad, flat, and triangular, nothing like the long, thin leaves of the honeysuckle. I think it’s Boston ivy, also known as Japanese ivy or Japanese creeper. Another invasive species introduced from Asia. Boston ivy got its nickname from its use in that city on the sides of brick buildings. By allowing the plant to climb the sides, it provides shade and reduces heating costs in the summer.

In looking closely at the tops of the two trees of heaven closest to the house to try to figure out what kind of vine was climbing them, it looks like one of them is actually dead. If it isn’t dead, at the very least, it’s dying. It doesn’t have any buds. I didn’t notice at first because its branches intertwine with a few other not-dead trees of heaven. It’s bark has fissures on it as well, which is a sign of age in trees of heaven. They only live about fifty years, so it’s not surprising. The one next to it is probably not much younger.

Boston ivy is growing along the right-hand fence, though there it appears to be much thicker and vibrant. The vines growing on the trees of heaven don’t seem very healthy, though, as not many leaves have grown from the vines. I wonder if this has anything to do with the chemical the tree of heaven releases to impede the growth of other plants. In addition to the Boston ivy, common ivy, the dark green ivy frequently seen covering the slopes in front of homes, also grows in my back yard. The stinging nettle and various other plants keep it in check. Before I moved to Pittsburgh, common ivy was the only type of ivy I’d ever seen.

After clicking through almost every tree on the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources online list of common trees of Pennsylvania, I finally deduced that the not-dead tree is a black willow. Its leaves hang down from the branches in long, graceful clusters. A chunk of the willow’s trunk hangs off, like a gaping wound, but otherwise it seems healthy. The wound doesn’t go deep, so I hope no insect invaders nor fungi find a way to take advantage.

A new bird song that I haven’t heard before picks up. Although it’s become harder to see birds in the foliage of the yard, they chase each other back and forth constantly. I catch flashes of movement, a wing, a tail. Even now my presence doesn’t bother them, when it did in the winter. They zip around, back and forth, back and forth. Today it’s the sparrows chasing each other, but I hear at least half a dozen species chirping and singing. I imagine it’s good to be a bird in the spring time.