Awake at 4am,
the radiator whistling like
a Colorado windstorm.
I used to sleep through louder noises.
How tempting to seize the day,
having been given so many hours of consciousness
before the city stirs.
But the hours before sunrise are best left alone.
The streets are too wide without traffic;
the shuttered shops are reminders that
you are companionless in these moments.
Digital clocks advance noiselessly.
Instead, time is heard through the clatter of buses,
increasing perceptively as more lights alight.
I imagine bleary eyes fixed on coffee cups.
This is sunrise in the city.
It has been a long time since I have sat down to write, and as I stare at the blank page before me with only a few hurriedly typed, potentially inspirational notes topping the page, I try to remember how to write a poem. The beginning is always hard, when I feel that the entire poem should already be formed in my head, ready to emerge in complete form beginning with that first word. I hem and haw and decide that maybe I won’t write a poem, or maybe I have chosen the wrong topic about which to write my poem. I thought I wanted to write about winter, but perhaps I’ve been deluded by the persistent reminder of December, because it is not even 9 30 in the evening but the sun went down five hours ago, and the radiator is banging so loudly that one wonders if it might be better to just put on a third sweater instead. As soon as the radiators begin their insistent banging, the house heats up with great abandon, until someone runs back to the thermostat, and, like steering a large ship, tries to direct the air temperature on an acceptably straight course. Children never appreciate the joys of programmable thermostats when they have them. Winter, instead, was about snow and snow days and that feeling when you have just woken up and think that just maybe it snowed a whole lot the night before, and, ever so slowly, you lean out of bed and toward your window, hoping to see a tell-tale white shimmer instead of the typical dark gray shingles looking back at you. Too many times I have been fooled by roofs of very light gray, which, when one is hoping for snow, can seem to be the right color white for just a moment. There has only been one snow this winter, the kind that barely sticks to the ground and is gone by morning, but still causes flights to be canceled. If only that was as exciting as watching the long list of school cancelations scroll by on the television, and, just occasionally, rejoicing as a snowy day became a snow day.
I must admit that there are few things I love more than having a couple hours on Sunday morning to read the New York Times, have my breakfast, and slowly wake up with my coffee. This morning I was especially pleased to read an editorial entitled Back to the Land, Reluctantly about a single mother with a small to nonexistent paycheck embarking on her own version of a bit of urban homesteading. Her motivation was not fitting in with the latest trends of local food and home cooking, but rather the obvious (but often forgotten) fact that growing and making food at home is simply cheaper than buying processed foods. And by processed I don’t just mean frozen pizzas and ready-made-meals, but also items like bread and granola. The cost motivation for eating whole, healthy, home-cooked foods ties well with the Slow Food $5 Food Challenge. The Slow Food movement is more traditionally associated with, say, expensive cheese and elaborate meals, so it’s great to see them using their name for a more populist cause.
I, too, make my own bread and granola, although my motivations are slightly different. After spending a year in New Zealand, I found that most American foods were simply too sweet for my tastes. This has led me to make more of my basics at home for two reasons: the first being taste, but the second being that I realized there must have been a reason that I lost my sweet tooth in New Zealand, despite not changing my eating habits dramatically. One theory: there are a lot of basic foods in the States that have sugar (or high fructose corn syrup) in them that simply shouldn’t. The best example, in my book? Bread. And with a large body of research on the negative health effects of sugar, I’d rather keep my sugar intake to times when I know I’m eating sugar (and enjoying it more than I do when it’s tucked away in my tomato sauce.)
My point, after all this? Simply to share two recipes, for bread and granola, that are extremely easy and cheap to make. I hesitate to claim health benefits – granola does need oil and a sugar of some kind to be granola, after all – but you know what you’re eating, and can adjust as you like. Credit where credit is due: my mother is the true perfecter of these recipes, and the bread is based on Mark Bittman’s no-knead bread (although he uses all white flour).
The great thing about making your own granola is that you can put whatever you want in it, but here’s how I make mine, as a starting point. The one non-negotiable is the magnitude of oil – if you use less than suggested, your granola will burn rather than brown. Adjust the amount of sweetener for your own tastes – I lean on the 1/3 c. side of things.
6 c. oats
1 c. raw almonds
1 c. pumpkin seeds
2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 c. canola oil
1/3-1/2 c. combination of honey, maple syrup, agave, etc.
1 c. raisins
1 c. unsweetened dried coconut
Pre-heat the oven to 350 F. Coarsely chop the almonds (if you are using raw almonds – if not, wait to add until after baking) and combine with the pumpkin seeds and oats in a large bowl.
Add the oil, sweetener, and vanilla, and mix well. Spread out on a large baking sheet, so that the granola mixture is not thicker than about a half an inch on the sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, turn the mixture to expose another layer to the surface, and bake for another 10-15 minutes, or until it’s golden brown on top. Let cool, and then add coarsely chopped raisins, coconut, and whatever else you like! If your almonds were not raw, add them now, coarsely chopped. And you’re done!
Whole-wheat no-knead bread
Like the granola recipe, you can really adjust this one to your tastes, but here’s how I do it. In this case, the non-negotiable is the amount of white flour you need to use to avoid the bread being too dense.
3/4 c. white flour
3 1/4 c. other flour-like ingredients*
1/4 tsp. yeast
1 1/2 tsp. salt
~1 1/2 c. warm water
* Here’s what I do:
2 c. whole wheat flour
1/4 c. wheat bran
1/4 c. oat bran
3/4 c. cooked oats. I use steel cut, but you can also use regular
Mix yeast and 1/4 c. of the warm water, and set aside. Combine all dry ingredients (including the cooked oatmeal) and mix together. Add the water with the dissolved yeast, and continue adding water until the dough sticks to your hands a little bit. If you add too much, no worries – just add a little more flour into the mix.
Put your dough ball in a bowl that has steep sides and is the width of or only slightly wider than your dough. (This is important, because it allows your dough to ‘crawl up’ the bowl as it rises.) I spread a little bit of canola oil in the inside of the bowl, so the dough is easier to remove after rising. Cover with a cloth, and let rise for 8-12 hours.
After rising, use a flexible spatula to remove the dough from the bowl without bursting too many of the air bubbles, and place on a lightly floured surface. Shape the dough into a log the length of your bread pan, lightly oil your pan, and gently place the dough into the pan. (No kneading, hence the name.) Cover the bread pan with aluminum foil, and place in a cold oven. Set the oven to 450, and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil, and bake for another 15 minutes, or until the top is browned and a bit crispy. Eat!
And there you have two ways of making food that is truly food, without hidden sugar or added expense.
A side of Washington State that I didn’t know existed before our graduate student geology field trip last month:
If you get in your car in Seattle and proceed to cross over the Cascades, you’ll probably run into this landscape – dry, desert-like, a far cry from the lush abundance of coastal Washington. The reason is clear – the rain shadow to the east of the Cascade mountain range – but I was expecting a landscape much more similar to the eastern plains of Colorado.
But I digress from the above landscape, Dry Falls, and how it relates to my book-of-the-moment, Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery by Imbrie and Imbrie. The Dry Falls are a dramatic erosive feature, a large-scale valley with nearly-vertical valley sides. How would you imagine that these were formed? If you were J. Harlen Bretz, you would hypothesize that the Falls were formed due to large-scale catastrophic flooding, and in this case, you would be right. It seems that the Dry Falls were formed when an ice dam broke ~20,000 years ago, releasing a flow of water about ten times greater than that of all the current rivers of the world combined. Hard to imagine? Indeed – and one of the reasons that Mr. Bretz had to defend his theory for much of his life against skeptical peers.
The human capacity to intuit the non-intuitive from geologic evidence has allowed for inferences such as Bretz’s. But the process seems far from strictly logical – one must be able to imagine a place that looked dramatically different from today. As I read through Ice Ages, I am struck by the great (and sometimes) entertaining variety of explanations that were made for glacial features left in the record. And while it is easy today to accept the current theories as sensical and the remainder as absurd (and often, too catastrophic), the distinction is in part due to time alone. Imbrie and Imbrie write
One inference, however, was so extravagant that it cast doubt on the theory as a whole. For Adhemar argued that the gravitational attraction of the Antarctic Ice Sheet was large enough to drain the water from the northern hemisphere ocean and create a sea-level bulge in the southern hemisphere. Painting a dramatic picture of what would happen if temperatures in the southern hemisphere began to rise, Adhemar predicted that the huge Antarctic ice cap would soften and rot until finally – eaten away at its base by the warming ocean – it would be left standing like a giant mushroom. At last, the entire mass would collapse into the sea, creating a huge iceberg-laden tidal wave that would sweep northward to engulf the land. (pp. 73-5)
Absurd? Catastrophic? Yes on both counts. But it takes a bit of the same disposition to think of the huge tidal-wave theory and the enormous flood theory. The key is having both the imagination and the ability to rein it in, given data and a bit of common sense. Just remember that there’s some chance that anything you can imagine may have happen in the earth’s past.
And finally, an interesting fact that I’d forgotten about – the Northern Hemisphere gets more sunlight hours per year than the Southern Hemisphere, thanks to its greater distance from the sun during spring and summer. (Remember Kepler’s Laws? The orbit of the earth must draw out equal area in equal time, demanding that the earth moves more slowly when it is farther from the sun.)
I have had the great fortune of living near two wonderful libraries within the last year – the Wellington City Library during my year in New Zealand, and now the Cambridge Public Library (above, during a recent warm end-of-summer night). I began going to the Wellington library shortly after I moved to NZ in recognition of the high cost of books in the country, to say nothing of the high cost of bringing those acquired and treasured books back across the Pacific. But my love affair with the library really flourished during my final months in Wellington, when I was writing my masters’ thesis. Days of writing were much improved when I was able to spend them sitting amidst a diverse crowd of Wellingtonians, looking out over Civic Square and taking breaks walking along the nearby waterfront. At the library, I saw school children deciding to spend their holidays reading, businessmen negotiating deals with the dreaded Australians, and older women reading books on art history. I was reminded that a library does not need to be a place of work, of stress, as it often felt during the college years. Rather, those around me at the Wellington library were, by and large, there to read materials that they were interested in without needing to financially invest in the words. At the library (when I probably should have been writing said thesis), I re-discovered my love for the New Yorker and its in-depth discussions of topics that are both random and apt, and my time there morphed from laptop-bound hours of writing to weekend afternoons of pleasure reading.
I’ve already mined the Cambridge Public Library for their New Yorkers, although I subsequently decided to split a subscription with a friend and so will no longer need to find it on the shelves. The next forgotten or undiscovered treasure can’t be too far away, though. I intend to continue my library patronage, despite the resources in Harvard’s own libraries, to remind me that the pursuit of knowledge is not one that should be wound up in the stresses of the Ivory Tower. Rather, I’ll sit among a community of which only a small minority will be studying for their qualifying exams, that spans ages and careers and interests, and with whom I might have to fight over the last copy of Harper’s.
Makara Beach, a short 30 minute drive from home:
And a sunset on the way back to Wellington: