Posts by Big Pete

Random acts of kindness sign

This is what the world has come to: the best we can seem to manage is a hope, a wish, a plea that just one day a year some small percentage of us will be nice to other people without expecting anything in return. Well, I guess it’s a start. Be kind to someone, or better yet, several someones today. See how it goes. Remember how it feels. And you know what, you are totally allowed to do the same thing again tomorrow. Honest! The kindness police will not cite you for being nice on other days of the year. And if it turns into a habit, well, there are much worse habits.

Image credit: Heath Brandon [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden

Mining salt in Bavaria

Nowadays, we take salt for granted. Sold for a pittance, the most common of spices, we think of it as an everyday thing, when we think of it at all. It wasn’t always so. In fact, great empires and fortunes rose and fell according to its supply. It is hard to imagine a modern war being fought over salt. But consider these historical events, as recounted in Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner:

Morocco fought Mali in the sixteenth century for the mines of Taoudeni; the Venetians, whose salt interests are an historical study in themselves, destroyed Comacchio in the tenth century and the salt gardens of Cervia in the fourteenth; pirates throughout the centuries ambushed and raided the slow heavy convoys of salt ships.

There are plenty of other examples—all of which seem outlandish to us today, considering that the biggest battles fought over salt have to do with whether it should be spread over icy roads in winter. Salt has lost its nobility, its historical power—but from the salt-starved Vikings to the salt-greedy Romans, salt has played an important role in human history.

The Saltman Cometh

Nowhere does this seem more obvious than in the salt-rich environs of eastern Bavaria and western Austria. The de facto capital of the region, Salzburg (or “salt town”) was built by its first archbishop in the eighth century with profits from salt mining, but the practice of salt mining goes back even further, to the civilization of the early Celts. In his book Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky describes the discovery by local salt miners in the 1600s of a “perfectly preserved body, dried and salted ‘like codfish,’” believed now to date to 400 BCE. Dressed in colorful fabrics, this “saltman” and two others like him were found with the tools of their trade near them, proof of an ancient salt mining culture.

Salt of the Earth

This salt mining tradition continues in the modern salt works along the German/Austrian border, and it’s possible to experience some of what those ancient miners might have felt, deep in the mountains of salt. Founded in 1517, the Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden (“Berchtesgaden salt mine”)—located near Salzburg but on the German side of the border—once entertained only aristocratic visitors, but now welcomes the public to its underground facilities and caves. Berchtesgaden, linked in the public imagination with Hitler’s southern headquarters (although they were actually located at Obersalzberg, a small settlement further up in the mountains) is a town that developed in proximity to the Augustinian monastery that owned the Salzbergwerk. In the early 1800s the monastery was converted into a palace for the Wittelsbachs, rulers of Bavaria at the time, and the entire area became associated with this colorful family.

Mine Games

Still operational, the Salzbergwerk is a fascinating place to visit. When I was there years ago, we were given the traditional leather vests and helmets of the miners to wear (now visitors sport sturdy coveralls), making you feel as if you are a miner yourself. This sensation is heightened when, after a short train ride, you are asked to slide down a wooden chute into the mine itself, just as the miners would do.

The most memorable part of the tour for me was gliding across a large underground lake on a wooden platform boat, an experience that was both beautiful and eerie. I was wowed by the size of the lake, and also slightly disconcerted by the oppressive nearness of the stone “ceiling.” It was definitely not something you see everyday, unless you happen to be a Bavarian salt miner.

Worth Its Salt

Returning from the depths of the mine, it was hard to think of salt the same way again. It is, after all, the only rock that we eat, and with thousands of tons of it looming above your head, you don’t immediately think, “pass the salt.” Vital to the functioning of our vital organs, we would die without salt, yet we live in a salt-glutted world, so much so that we are told to reduce our intake, for the sake of our health.

In their song “NaCl (Sodium Chloride),” folk singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle make a case for the worthiness of salt. Describing the meeting, mating and melding of a sodium atom and a chlorine atom in the primordial sea, they ask us to “Think of the love that you eat, when you salt your meat.” Silly, meant to be taken with a “grain of salt,” yet it expresses the mystery of salt, the serendipitous compound that protects our cells, and fills the ocean.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on August 28, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on November 28, 2004.


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Roasted almonds

Almonds are, without a doubt, my favorite tree nut. I eat at least a few almost every day. I think I’ll eat more than a few today, since it’s National Almond Day. I’ve read that my home state of California produces about 80% of the nation’s almonds, and nearly half of all almonds in the world. You’re welcome. Almonds are rich in nutrients and high in fiber, making them (in moderation) a good part of a balanced diet. (Almonds covered in dark chocolate are pretty much the food of the gods.) Enjoy a handful today!

Image credit: Pxhere


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

House 8 of Skara Brae

House of sand and rock

The 2001 documentary Rivers and Tides showcases artist Andy Goldsworthy, who creates ephemeral works of art out of the natural materials around him. Whether it’s leaves, twigs, or icicles, Goldsworthy crafts them into breathtaking constructions that add to the beauty of the landscape while still remaining part of it. Although Goldsworthy invests significant effort in each work, after its completion he leaves it at the mercy of the natural processes of wind, rain, sun, and water, only taking a photo to document its momentary perfection.

Some of Goldsworthy’s most arresting works are the ones he creates out of stone. The film follows the progress of a few such projects, including one in which he creates an egg-shaped structure out of split pieces of stone, and another where he works with stonemasons to create a long serpentine wall in a park in New York state. While the wall is meant to be a permanent installment, the egg-shaped structure Goldsworthy creates in the film is destined to be carried away by the rising tide, showing the vulnerability of a material that most people would take to be among the most solid.

Although originally from England, Goldsworthy has lived for many years in southwestern Scotland, finding inspiration for his work in the local landscape. At the other end of the country, in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland, once lived a people who similarly worked in stone, but whose work has lasted over 5,000 years. Miraculously protected from the elements for millennia, the settlement of Skara Brae is Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic village.

Midden Earth

The ancient settlement of Skara Brae is currently located on the edge of the Bay of Skaill, on the west coast of the largest Orkney island (called the “Mainland”), but at the time of its construction (thought to be around 3100 BCE) it was situated far inland. Over thousands of years extreme erosion brought the coast to Skara Brae’s doorstep, and also created sand dunes that covered it and kept it hidden until relatively recently. In 1850, a severe storm removed some of the grass covering the mound of sand, revealing the existence of Skara Brae to the modern world for the first time. Some excavation work was done on the site at that time, but it was left untouched after 1868.

In 1928 an excavation of the site showed the full extent of the discovery. Skara Brae had remained remarkably intact, providing an incredible glimpse into the daily lives of its ancient inhabitants. Besides the protection of the covering sand, the fact that a lack of wood in the area had forced its builders to use stone instead contributed to Skara Brae’s longevity. Most other Neolithic structures, created out of wood, have not fared as well.

One of the fascinating aspects of Skara Brae is how it was constructed. To shield themselves from the cold, and to provide a stable foundation, the inhabitants of Skara Brae built their homes into a mound of midden, that is, the waste products of their community. While this may seem distasteful, their garbage was most likely similar to modern compost, made up of completely organic materials. Stones were laid on top of this foundation, creating an insulated and weather-resistant structure.

The settlement consists of eight houses connected by covered alleys, which allowed the inhabitants to remain inside during cold weather. Another notable aspect of Skara Brae is that seven of these houses are strikingly similar, with features common to all of them including a central hearth, two stone box beds (meant to be filled with heather), a dresser/shelf, and a waterproof enclosure built into the floor which might have held fish for bait or for eating.

Time and Tide

Because it gives such a clear picture of what life was like for its ancient residents, Skara Brae has become world-renowned, and is part of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” UNESCO World Heritage site. While Skara Brae is being maintained and protected as much as is possible, ironically it is now threatened by the wind and water that once helped to preserve it, because of its proximity to Skaill Bay and the fact that it is exposed to the elements. It may have withstood the ravages of time for the last 5,000 years, but like the ephemeral stone sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy, it remains vulnerable to change and the destructive power of nature.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on November 20, 2006.

Image credit: Wknight94 [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day