Category Archives: water

Monster or member of the family?

My most recent reading about tamarisk trees was in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, which is about two French missionary priests serving in New Mexico in the 19th century. In Santa Fe their house has a garden, with poplars and tamarisks:

On the south, against the earth wall, was the one row of trees they had found growing there when they first came, — old, old tamarisks, with twisted trunks. They had been so neglected, left to fight for life in such hard, sun-baked, burro-trodden ground, that their trunks had the hardness of cypress. They looked, indeed, like very old posts, well seasoned and polished by time, miraculously endowed with the power to burst into delicate foliage and flowers, to cover themselves with long brooms of lavender-pink blossom.

Father Joseph had come to love the tamarisk above all trees. It had been the companion of his wanderings. All along his way through the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, wherever he had come upon a Mexican homestead, out of the sun-baked earth, against the sun-baked adobe walls, the tamarisk waved its feathery plumes of bluish green. The family burro was tied to its trunk, the chicken scratched under it, the dogs slept in its shade, the washing was hung on its branches.

Father Latour had often remarked that this tree seemed especially designed in shape and colour for the adobe village. The sprays of bloom which adorn it are merely another shade of the red earth walls, and its fibrous trunk is full of gold and lavender tints. Father Joseph respected the Bishop’s eye for such things, but himself he loved it merely because it was the tree of the people, and was like one of the family in every Mexican household.

You know how people are always trying to figure out just what the manna was, that God gave the Israelites to eat in the desert? Some think it was the sap of the tamarisk tree, as Wikipedia tells us: “At the turn of the twentieth century, Arabs of the Sinai Peninsula were selling resin from the tamarisk tree as man es-simma, roughly meaning ‘heavenly manna.’ Tamarisk trees (particularly Tamarix gallica) were once comparatively extensive throughout the southern Sinai, and their resin is similar to wax, melts in the sun, is sweet and aromatic (like honey), and has a dirty-yellow color, fitting somewhat with the biblical descriptions of manna. However, this resin is mostly composed of sugar, so it would be unlikely to provide sufficient nutrition for a population to survive over long periods of time, and it would be very difficult for it to have been compacted into cakes.”

But honey that bees make from tamarisk nectar — that’s for real and you can buy some right now. Rusty on her Honeybee Suite site calls it a “dark secret,” and says it tastes like “malt and molasses topped with overtones of horehound and citrus—and not excessively sweet. It had a lingering, smoky, slightly bitter aftertaste.”

Honey that is not excessively sweet? I guess it’s all relative. Emily Heath on Quora explains: “Nectar, which honey bees collect to create honey, varies considerably in the types of sugars it contains – some nectars are mainly fructose, some mainly glucose, some mainly sucrose, others roughly equal mixes of the three. This causes variation in the sugars present in the honey, depending on which nectars the bees collected… An average honey which has not been tampered with by humans might contain 17-19% water, 38-40% fructose, 31-35% glucose and 1-3% sucrose.” Here is another interesting site that compares many varieties and benefits of honey: Honey Varieties.

Wedgwood “Tamarisk”

It was when I began to look for photos of tamarisk trees that I found warnings about their invasive and supposedly thirsty qualities. People say they take more water from the ground than native trees, and also crowd them out. After searching for a deeper analysis of their current place in the arid ecosystems of this area, I was thankful for an article in Discover Magazine, “The Battle Over the Tamarisk Tree,” a few paragraphs from which I’ll share below. It explains about the complex interrelationships of the flora and fauna, including the current dependence of the Southwestern willow flycatcher on the tree. At first, local and federal agencies attacked the trees with bulldozers, herbicides, fire and chainsaws; then they found an also non-native insect pest to help with eradication.

I should mention that the genus Tamarix includes 50–60 species of flowering plants. The one that is of most concern in the Southwest seems to be Tamarix ramosissima.

Southwestern willow flycatcher

“In 1930, [the tamarisk] was a cure-all for erosion concerns in the West. Before long, it was vilified as a water-hogging monster. And by the 1950s, federal and state agencies had galvanized to bring the monster down.

“But tamarisk isn’t quite the monster it’s been made out to be. Sure, it’s highly flammable, and it may salinate the soil when it drops its salty leaves. But water hog? Turns out, it uses roughly the same amount of water as native riparian trees like willows and cottonwoods.

“Since the middle of the 20th century, humans have dramatically altered western rivers and made it harder for native trees to compete. We’ve built dams and diverted water, and we’ve tamed the periodic floods that once spilled over riverbanks to sprout new generations of willows and cottonwoods. As we engineered the rivers, tamarisk increasingly had the upper hand.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture began searching for a tamarisk biocontrol in the mid-1980s. By 2001, they’d launched the tamarisk beetle program, releasing the insects at 10 different sites with the caveat that no releases would be permitted within 200 miles of a known flycatcher nest.

DSC-NT0318_05“But by 2008, after an unsanctioned beetle release in southern Utah, Diorhabda carinulata reached the Virgin River: flycatcher habitat. Ecologists worried the beetles would destroy the tamarisks that this unique bird had come to rely on for nesting. And in 2010, the USDA ended the program.”

The beetles did not go away, and some people are still monitoring their numbers, hoping that they will help to restrain the tamarisks a bit. I guess the flycatchers don’t eat beetles that munch away at their homes; they like winged insects best.

Flycatcher nest

An older article at Terrain.org, “The Thirsty Tree,” explains in more detail how our human impact on rivers created the situation in which the tamarisk, also known as salt cedar, could dominate:

“Groundwater pumping, overgrazing, and the construction of dams altered the natural pulse of a river’s seasonal cycle. Was it possible that salt cedar, well-equipped to deal with salt and drought, simply moved into niches where native trees could no longer take root?”

“Water savings—that goal meant everything to the politicians and resource managers of the Southwest. To ‘save’ water meant not to conserve it, but to rescue it from rivers and aquifers and make it available to humans.”

“The old idea of ‘plant as machine,’ a monster of our own making, imagines salt cedar roots drinking from a deep bucket of water, easily reallocated to human use. The reality is much more complex. Stark numbers ignore the intricate workings of tree, rain, soil, river—not a machine whose parts can be scrapped for other uses, but a delicate dance of interrelationships.”

The history of water use in the American West is fascinating and depressing. If you want to understand more about it, Cadillac Desert is a must-read. More primitive peoples didn’t use water the way we have in the last couple of centuries, so there was no reason to see the tamarisk tree as anything but a blessing. Our holy forefather Abraham was of this mind.

The tamarisk tree is mentioned more than once in the Bible, but maybe the most striking reference is in Genesis 21:33, where we are told that “After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.”

Botanists and scholars think it was probably the Tamarix aphylla, or athel pine, that Abraham planted, and I have read in some places that it takes hundreds of years to get to its full height. It takes several generations, at least. As has been noted, you don’t plant it for yourself, but for your grandchildren, and beyond.

Abraham truly had the long view. No doubt his friendship with God, and the truth of things that he could know from closeness to his Creator, gave him the ability to look toward the future and make provision for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he planted more than one tamarisk tree in his life. And it seems likely that after the Israelites endured 400 years of slavery in Egypt, and wandered in the desert another 40 years before entering the Promised Land, they were very glad to find tamarisk trees waiting for them, and to sit down in their shade.

Tamarisk in Beersheba

Walking in shining drizzles.

I haven’t walked in a downpour yet, but for a few days now I’ve been walking in drizzles and showers, and it has been a watering for my soul. When you live where there is perpetual drought, because it’s not the kind of environment that was ever suitable for this much population, it makes you grateful for every drop.

One day it was a cloud that wrapped me in dampness,
and made a pearly backdrop for Queen Anne’s lace still standing blackened from winter.

All of the plants and animals are happy, too. I saw two pair of mallards carrying on some kind of loud quacking communication, swimming toward each other in the creek, then away from each other… I wondered if they were arguing about who would be hosting whom for the better meal of bugs and polliwogs?

This morning that stream was high and deep from last night’s heavy rain. Frogs rejoiced.

All the blossoms are dripping and shining.

At home, euphorbia flowers were cups offering me baby sips, and the iris that opened in the night was like a canvas showcasing a multitude of raindrops in different sizes.

Now in the afternoon, the sun has come out,
and I’m considering taking a sunshiny walk to round out the day!
That would be a very Spring-y thing to do, wouldn’t it?

The high and the low.

Kate took me to South Mumbai last week to visit some Must See sites, which I’m sure I could write a book about if I only had enough lives to live. I tell you truly, this exciting life with its realms of experience and knowledge that I can only manage to dip my little toe into is wearing me out. My understanding of many things I present here is slight, and my photos are not as good as you can find other places online. But they are what I’ve seen with my own eyes, and we had good reason for going to these spots, and I was so glad we did.

I’ll start my report with one of the High things, the Gateway of India, which is hard for someone as unskilled as I to photograph, looming as it does so huge at the edge of the sea. The British built this monument to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911, and it was completed in 1924. When the last British troops departed India, they passed through the arch, ceremoniously relinquishing power.

Kate and I walked all around, and she took my picture in front of this icon of Mumbai, under which one is no longer permitted to walk. We also had our picture taken with various groups of Indian tourists. But then we sped away, because there was so much to see…

The next High thing on our agenda, which often appears in photos with the Gateway, was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This five-star hotel opened twenty years before the Gateway was completed, having been commissioned by the Tata group, a conglomerate founded in 1868 by the man considered “The Father of Indian Industry,” Jamsetji Tata. A staircase leads up to a bust of this patriarchal figure.

I didn’t notice when I took my picture of the exterior that I was including a row of men posing for someone else, but I was happy to have them come along! That picture shows the original building and the tall addition, which between them have more than 600 rooms and suites. “The Taj” is the place where John Lennon, Oprah, and Queen Elizabeth stay when they are in town.

In 2008 a terrorist attack on Mumbai focused on the Taj, where the attackers holed up for days, and where many staff were killed. This garden, which has a waterfall not in the picture, memorializes those who lost their lives:

We wandered around for a little while, appreciating the artful opulence. In the restroom each patron has a clean and folded cloth napkin with which to dry her hands. Everything was elegant and serene and orderly.

I could imagine the lovely dresses in the clothing shop, but I was concerned that Kate not get worn out, so we left The Taj pretty soon and went to lunch at a famous Parsi café called Britannia & Company. “Parsi” refers to the Zoroastrian Persians who emigrated to India centuries ago to escape persecution. There is a large Parsi community in the Mumbai area, from which the Tatas are descended, by the way, and much good Parsi food available. Pilau is probably the center of a good Parsi lunch:

In the rankings of high to low, our lunch was not high cuisine, but it was a high point of the day, and Parsi food ranks high on my list. The next places I’ll tell you about, though, are both low in different ways, which I dare not begin to muse on philosophically. It’s another book to be written.

I have to mention that it was in this busiest part of the city that I saw the most cows, three strolling through one intersection alone.

Dhobi Ghat… In Hindi, ghat means “steps leading down to a body of water.” (It also means “mountain,” as in my last post.) Dhobi is the name of a caste of washermen. Dhobi ghat can refer to any laundromat, but in Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is the giant open-air laundry that Kate and I visited. My first picture above was part of the view as seen from the road on one side; after, we walked down into the area of washing pens and flogging stones, where drying laundry hung in close rows above us.

Our tour was very informal: we entered what in essence is a little village, started looking around, and a young man asked if we wanted a tour for 200 rupees, about $3, each. We said okay, and paid, and then he walked us through very fast and told us some things about the laundry. I missed much of what he said because I was hanging behind taking pictures, and just generally being overwhelmed and spacey from barely believing that I was in this place. I love doing laundry, but it seems ludicrous for me to say that in the context of Dhobi Ghat. These people take the task of washing clothes to a level that is outer space. But the whole affair lies so low as to be hardly noticeable as your gaze is carried upward by the skyscrapers all around.

Our guide told us that 400-500 people live here, and that he had been born at the “laundromat” himself. Internet articles say that their clients are “neighborhood laundries, wedding decorators, garment dealers, mid-sized hotels, clubs, and caterers.” I believe those things. But so much else that you can read, or even hear residents of Dhobi Ghat say in YouTube interviews, is contradictory or contrary to recorded history, so my questions only multiply and are unlikely to be answered to my satisfaction.

Some of my pictures are dark, because it was dark, especially in a passageway under tarps or some kind of roof, where in the space of five yards motorcycles and a bicycle were parked, a young man was cooking a big pan of potatoes, and an old man was pressing jeans with a vintage iron.

I came upon a man flogging a large wet item on a stone, his back to me, and when he lifted it each time to slap it down again, washwater fell in a shower behind him and on my path. So I timed my crossing, and managed to scoot past between slaps. In places there were little puddles or ditches to hop over, but we got through the busy laundry without getting wet.

It was noon, a clock in my photos tells me, and this man with one hand on the door of a big washer has a small glass of masala chai in the other hand. As we walked the lanes and streets we saw little apartments where the workers and their families live; some of them had a curtain pulled across, but in one doorway a woman was sitting on the floor preparing a salad. In the work area we walked past the occasional man stretched out sleeping on a wide shelf.

 

Dhobi Ghat was built by the British in 1890. Washermen own their wash pens and hand them down through the generations; some of them have installed modern washing machines and dryers. How they manage to keep track of the 10,000 items they collectively process every day is completely beyond me.

I thought the little girls I saw headed to school must be going off-site, but I learned in my research that the residents started their own school after one of their children was in an accident traveling to school elsewhere, and now they also have families from neighboring areas sending their children to the Dhobi Ghat school.

I count it a privilege to have had fifteen minutes in the presence of these hard-working people. When I am home again where I can hang my garments on the clothesline after letting my machines do almost all of the hard work, I will continue to think of them with admiration.

The last stop on our touristy outing was the lowest of all relative to sea level, because it was sea level, Girgaum Chowpatty or Chaupati Beach, a famous beach in Mumbai, but not for swimming. Festivities surrounding the favorite Hindu god Ganesh are held here, and at the end of the yearly celebrations effigies of Ganesh are plunged into the Arabian Sea, unfortunately adding to the trash problem. I found this photo online showing the event:

If I didn’t have a growing sand collection, I would not have taken the time to go to a beach in Mumbai, because a beach where the water is toxic is so disheartening. It’s not just trash, but sewage that pollutes these waters. And did I even want to collect sand from it? We had been trying to fit in a trip to an Indian beach ever since I arrived, and I was grateful to Kate that she insisted I not miss the opportunity.

We didn’t go on to the wet area of the wide beach. I theorized that the dry sand far away from the shore would have been washed by the last monsoons and not be the dirtiest. Nonetheless, when I got a sample home I washed and disinfected the sand with bleach, and then baked and dried it in the oven before filling my little bottle. 🙂

When you read here or elsewhere about all of the air pollution, water pollution, trash, you might think, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” The problems are complex, but sometimes simple baby steps can improve the situation.

We were only on the beach for a few minutes, during which time we were surprised to see big coppery urns — what could they be for? Kate asked a young man nearby, and he said they were waste bins! Many of the trash cans that have been installed all over the city are bright blue plastic barrels, but these elegant receptacles were both functional and beautiful. I did think of how a child would not be able to use them — oops! I guess that’s a design flaw.

While the government and environmentalists keep working on the source of the problems that humiliate the water and the sand, it makes me happy that someone has honored the beach with these trash urns. When I showed Tom my picture of Kate below he said, “Cute wife looking into the greatest trash can in India!”

We drink and breathe in Mumbai.

Nine of us sat down one day in a very popular restaurant where everything looked clean and spiffy, even the classy uniforms of these waiters who were in abundance to meet our needs. Kate’s (American) Indian friend who was visiting from Saudi Arabia brought us to this place because they had the wonderful South Indian food, different from the Punjabi fare you typically get in the U.S., they say.

While we began to look at the menus, glasses of water arrived on our tables — but were sent back to the kitchen immediately by our host with instructions to bring us bottled water. The glasses were removed, and a couple of liter bottles were brought. The same glasses came back, having been emptied but with drops of water clinging to the insides.

So all our party without comment grabbed paper napkins and began drying the glasses thoroughly, after which we filled them with the good water. Maybe the restaurant water was good, too, but who knows? Water quality is one of the things critical to health that is not reliable in India.

In this household we have a large distiller with a tap from which we take all of our water that is used for cooking, drinking, and teeth brushing. For a month I have been practicing not doing the thing I’ve done once or twice a day my whole life through, to the point where I don’t think about it at all: Turn on the faucet in the bathroom and wet my toothbrush. Now I have to think about it with all my power, and be methodical and slow. So far I don’t think I’ve forgotten, in the bathroom. Then there is the kitchen. Even though the distiller is right there, I have once or twice begun to rinse vegetables in tap water at the sink.

Talking about washing things, we do wash dishes in the sink with that common water, and use them again when they are dry. The kitchen here has one of those handy drying cupboards above the sink.

Breathing is a human activity even more fundamental than drinking, and I have always had a generally healthy respiratory system, and have not stopped breathing without thinking, or comfortably. But if you have asthma, it would be best not to live in Mumbai or Delhi.

For most of my stay the air quality has been typical for wintertime when there are no monsoons to wash the air — that is, the worst. My first week here we took a little trip to the Bandra Fort area where you can look across Mahim Bay to see South Mumbai on the other side of the causeway. Sometimes, but not that day. Tom found an old photo to show the contrast with last June.

Tom and AQI contrast

I got my own view of South Mumbai across the bay last week, and it was middling.

I’d guess the air pollution is the worst thing about living in Mumbai. Heat and humidity are forces to be dealt with, but they are not unhealthy in themselves. The particulates in the air cause respiratory illness and worse. Most days when I see it the Air Quality Index is between 100-200, but a few times it’s been under 100. This site www.aqicn.org starts you in India, but has a search tab that makes it possible to compare various cities of the world that use that particular formula and guide. Here is one of the pages pertaining to Mumbai showing real time information this afternoon when I am writing.

If you haven’t had to be aware of the AQI where you live, you can be thankful! Many Indians who live in Mumbai have their head in the sand about the situation and call the white skies “fog” — because what can they do? In Delhi, where children have been seen throwing up out of school bus windows and schools must close on the worst days, they can’t so easily ignore the realities. I haven’t seen anyone wear a mask, and I haven’t worn the cute one that Kate provided for me as a good expat host must do here. But then, I am not out and about for more than a few hours at a time. When I am, I notice my eyes burning.

In the apartment we have several air purifiers, so we don’t suffer while we’re home. Air conditioners keep the temperature down, and dehumidifiers reduce the moisture  in the air that would cause everything to get moldy during the monsoon especially. Even in this dry season, the one in my bedroom sometimes collects a gallon of water in less than a week. These helpful machines collectively emit plenty of white noise, which people living in cities usually count a good thing.

The difficulties of air and water were some of the stresses I was anticipating coming here, but I have suffered little, for which I am very thankful. Water and air — what simple and delicious blessings they are!