Category Archives: food

Homegrown subversive plots to feed the hungry and save the world!

It is passing strange to think that growing your own food in your own garden can be considered a subversive act! How did we come to this state, especially in the developed world, but also many cities in the developed world, that we are so alienated from the food on our own tables? Roger Doiron (see his TEDx talk below), founder of Kitchen Gardens International is correct though, in asserting that in our current industrialized global food production system, growing your own fruits and vegetables in your yard or balcony garden has become a subversive act. Because in doing so, we can take back some of the power over our own foods and lives that we have ceded to multinational corporations who control most aspects of global food production now: the policies, the money, much of the land, and the means of food production.

It is remarkable that we have lost power over something so fundamental as the food we must consume daily to survive. It was a mere 10,000 years or so ago that we invented agriculture, a huge step in humanity’s gaining power and control over our foods, and therefore our lives, by freeing ourselves from the vagaries of nature. That initial revolution fueled much of the growth of civilization and has brought us to where we are now – heavily dependent upon the industrial food production and supply system, and often with very little control over the quality of what we can put on our plates or how it is produced, or at what environmental and social costs. Yet this is one area where it should not be too hard for most of us to take back some of this power, some of the means of production: by growing our own little subversive garden plots! Doiron explains how we can do this and what we stand to gain through this subversion:



Hard to think of a downside to this, isn’t it? We need not stop with just our own little gardens in the small bits of urban space we may control – we can, and must, also work collectively to subvert public spaces towards food production, converting vacant lots and even lawns in public parks into edible landscapes that can feed the thousands of urban dwellers who may not have the space or the means to grow their own gardens. The city of Irvine in southern California (yes, the city in conservative Orange County) has done just that: opened up some effectively vacant land to growing vegetables, which apparently feed up to 200,000 people! Here’s a video tour:


To put it in terms of the activist metaphor of the moment, gardening for food is an effective way to occupy the global food system, begin to wrest it back from the corporations (even though they still control it through the sales of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and all the other paraphernalia that goes with gardening) – while simultaneously improving our health and building community. In the process, we may even begin to help heal some of the wounds we have caused in natural ecosystems, and restore some parts of local biodiversity, as is being shown by recent work on the ecology of urban gardens.

So – how would you like a little healthy homegrown subversion on your dinner plate? Give me a double helping, please!

Hungry for a highly evolved menu? Pull up a chair to the Carnival of Evolution #27

Carnival of Evolution #27 – Feed Your Head Edition

As your server for this evening’s Carnival of Evolution, allow me to introduce the offerings from a line-up of over two dozen chefs!

For your pleasure we have these specials . . . .

1. Chicken’s teeth, whale’s legs, and the tails of humans.

Thus begins a most appetizing (or stomach-turning, depending upon your culinary adventurousness) menu of evolutionary blog writing pulled together by your energetic host Andrew Bernardin, who’s pulled out all the stops for this 27th edition of the Carnival of Evolution. I hope you are hungry. Read your fill, for the next CoE is a whole month away!

Bon appétit!

Posted via email from Darwin’s Bulldogs

On the economics and growing pains of farming and consuming organic foods

I had the radio on while on a prolonged cleaning mission at home yesterday afternoon (having run out of the usual podcasts I listen to under such circs). I had what seems like a small moment of cognitive disssonance when, while jumping back from, and then stomping out a nest of Black Widow spiders hiding behind a trashcan in a dark corner of the laundry room, I caught fragments of a conversation on the radio about earth- and biodiversity-friendly organic farming practices.

The show was a world of possibilities, something I hadn’t heard before on our local NPR station. The fragments of conversation I caught were interesting enough that I had to go look for the whole hour online. And it turned out to be an hour well-spent, as I think you may agree too. Its about the growing pains of organic farming, especially in the current economic recession.

The second half of the program is particularly interesting when two organic dairy farmer from Northern California are interviewed. Fascinating if (like us) you try to consume organic foods as much as possible (or as much as the wallet permits), and even more so if you dabble in organic farming. We’ve been enjoying quite a harvest of veggies from our own, and several neighbors’ urban backyard farms – which has definitely eased the pressure on our furloughed bank balance this summer.

The dairy farmers raise one important question in response to complaints about how expensive organic produce is: why do consumers never complain about the ridiculously high prices of the latest iPhone/Droid/Wii or other gadgets they line up to purchase on the first day, but don’t want to pay a buck or two extra for food they actually put in their bodies? In a country where conventional industrial farming has been subsidised heavily to keep supermarket prices low low low, it has become rather hard for us to imagine – and pay for – the real costs of farming organically. The same advertising driven marketplace that plies us with cheap unhealthy foods also mesmerizes us with the shiny tech baubles to the point where our family budgets have become strangely skewed, with food eaten at home – which should be the very core of our lives – taking up a mere 7% of our paychecks on average, which is less than half what we pay to drive around our farflung suburbs! Take a look at this graphic of where the average US household paycheck is spent:

Where does the money go?
Click on the image (or here) for a larger version, courtesy of Visual Economics 

The other interesting question to ponder (and hope about) is whether the recession is changing people’s priorities in ways that might actually lead to healthier eating! I raised a related question in my reconciliation ecology class when I last taught it two years ago, thus: will the recession encourage more people to start growing their own vegetables in their gardens? I think, tentatively, that we have the answer now in the growing urban farming movement around the US, with more and more people like us growing our own veggies, and more often organically than not. I think the scale problem of organic farming – that it doesn’t scale up very well when you think of the mass market – actually works in our favor here, because we are scaling down to small yards where it is easier, and cheaper, to grow a healthy crop organically.

The recession may also give us some pause before plonking down the credit card for the latest non-food consumer items or gadgets. Although mainstream economists do not like that because they tell us we have to keep buying stuff in order to keep the economy running and growing again! And the sales figures of the new iPhone 4 (for example) don’t suggest that such discretionary consumer spending is down all that much even now. But, if you do cut down on this part of your budget, is it likely that some of the savings may actually go towards healthier organic foods? After all, healthier eating should also lead to lower healthcare costs in the longer run. Is there any evidence that people are changing their spending patterns, especially on food, in this more rational direction? Or are our brains too irrational and too severely manipulated by advertising and farm subsidies to be swayed away from all the shiny and “cheap” unhealthy highly processed/industrial edible food-like substances (to borrow Michael Pollan’s phrase) filling the supermarket aisles and food courts of America?

I’ll stop rambling now and let you listen to the conversation on the show. Let me know what your thoughts are too.

Organic agriculture has grown up.  A once-marginal movement of plucky and slightly eccentric home gardeners has bloomed into mega-farms that ship around the world selling at premium prices.  In this program we’ll examine both ends of the organic industry food chain — a mid-size organic farming family and the world’s largest organic food retailer.  We’ll see what growing mainstream has done for – and to — organic farmers, and what remains to be done to give farmers and consumers the sustainable food system we urgently need.
This program is funded by listeners like you.

Blake and Stephanie Alexandre, Alexandre  Family Dairies
Walter Robb,  Co-CEO,Whole Foods
Host: Mark Sommer
Senior Producer: Gregg McVicar
Associate Producers: Naihma Deady, Matt Fidler
Production Engineer: Michael Schwartz
Music in this program: “The Sinking Ship” – Jerry Douglas – Sugarhill Records; “A United Earth I” – Alan Stivell and Youssou N’Dour – Putumayo World Music; “The Bounty Of The County” – David Gans – Perfectible Recordings; “Commodity Cheese Blues” – Wade Fernandez – SBW; “One More Cowboy” – Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks – Surfdog Records.
Duration: 55 Minutes
Original airdate: 
Tue, 2010-08-10

Scientia Pro Publica #18: the last of the oughties edition!

028CF91C-54C2-4589-B5AF-CDD794950600.jpegWell, this carnival doesn’t really have much to do with the impending end of the oughties decade, but since everybody seems to be going on about it, compiling decadal reviews and best-of lists, I just tossed it up there. Caught your eye, didn’t it? But didn’t turn you off, I hope… 🙂

So, welcome to this (late) winter solstice edition of Scientia Pro Publica, and dig into a fair helping of hearty reading matter to keep you company by the fireside as this winter rolls you over into the double digit years of the new millennium.

Let us begin, for this is the holiday season, with some thoughts about food: about the diversity of our food sources, about how much we waste, and about how often we are hoist by our own petards in attempting to manage our precious natural – esp. food – resources. Let’s start with Jeremy Cherfas, who has over the past year taken us along on the journeys of N. I. Vavilov, that pioneering explorer and champion of agricultural biodiversity. Vaviblog makes for very interesting reading indeed, especially for someone like me who doesn’t know much about Vavilov. But here, Jeremy rather uncharacteristically lets loose with a rant about the difficulty of pinpointing the exact location of one of Vavilov’s collections in the Sahara, and takes us through the frustrations of finding information in GeneBank and other online databases that are supposed to make the life of the modern keyboard explorer much easier than that of people like Vavilov who, you know, actually went out to the frikking Sahara in pursuit of interesting plants! Without, mind you, GPS or iPhones or laptops, as one of his commenters reminds us. Still, what’s the point of all this talk about making information accessible to everyone if one can’t pinpoint and georeference where Vavilov found a particular plant a century ago? I want my data instantly, don’t you? Well, if you’re carried away by expectations of CSI like speed in modern data acquisition, let Heilochica bring you down to earth with a (hopefully) comprehensible explanation of something complicated!

But let’s stick with Jeremy a while longer and visit his another blasted weblog to read about a recent PLoS paper on how much food is wasted in America; some sobering statistics there, to be sure, plus the disquieting observation that there is no incentive in this country for anyone in the food industry to stop producing, consuming, and wasting food, environmental and human health consequences be damned! Ponder that while you tuck into the holiday treats. And if you have to bake wheat-alternative cookies because you or someone you know is allergic to gluten, Eric Olson shares a scitimes video about Celiac disease, which may be the most under-diagnosed health problem in America today (and something I’d never heard of back home in India!).

Meanwhile, we are losing the sources of biodiversity that form the basis of our food security, even as we blithely overproduce and throw away food! What’s a conservationist to do to change such odd human behavior? Well, not what they did in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where they encouraged coconut farming as a way to lure people away from fishing in order to relieve pressures on fish stocks! Find out what happened on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, in another post by Jeremy about the law of unintended consequences! Which bring me to the question from one of my own recent posts: what is it with these Pacific island nations and their penchant for such tragicomedies?

Lest you think this carnival is turning into mostly a one-man-show, let me assure you that there is plenty more that came not from Jeremy’s keyboard! For instance, continuing with fishy business, here’s a post that makes this one something of a meta-carnival, a Fishy Friday roundup of fish in tanks! And if you ever found yourself agreeing with Bertie Wooster’s assessment that Jeeves’ superior intellect was a result of a diet rich in fish, you may be underestimating his (Jeeves’ not Wooster’s) neuroplasticity, the subject of a fascinating interview with Michael Merznenich at SharpBrains on the applications of neuroplasticity to keep all our minds sharp even as we age.

Then there is Mama Joules with two poisonous posts: first, a disturbing one about the dangers of lead poisoning in your home, and the still high childhood exposure rate even years after lead based paints were banned in the US. Followed by a lovely introduction to venom & vomit in Tarantulas! Gotta love them.

Given the brouhaha over the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, I’m a bit surprised at the lack of submissions about anthropogenic global warming/climate change! Perhaps we are all over-saturated with COP15 coverage? Still, there is no shortage of controversy, genuine or manufactured, when it comes to climate change, as these two posts show: a kind of curiously provocative post that suggests nuclear energy may still become part of our green energy future – safely(?) (I have a more cynical take on the subject as I think we are addicted enough to energy in our technology-dependent societies that we are near a threshold where the marginal benefit of nuclear energy will outweigh the risks regardless of the environmental consequences. But that’s me being Grinchy again). Meanwhile, challenges us to ignore the pseudo-controversy over climate-gate and consider the climate change problem in the framework of Pascal’s wager: act as if anthropogenic climate change is real because the risks of not believing it are too great! Interesting thought that – and one that James Randi might consider, having rather startlingly fallen prey to AGW denialism in a manner worrisome to his most loyal supporters.

But, enough with the controversies and bad news. Let’s celebrate the season while we still can, while there still is enough biodiversity to stimulate, delight, and challenge us. For even as we worry about losing species, we continue to discover delightful new ones, like the world’s tiniest orchid that GrrlScientist (matriarch of this carnival) writes about. At the other end of the organismal size spectrum, Kevin Zelnio wonders why we don’t have even larger whales? What keeps the blue whales, for example, from evolving to even larger body sizes? Not the fluid dynamic challenges of using a volkswagen sized heart to pump blood, or the constraints of depending on the tiny krill for food – but a recent paper suggests it may be that their mouths would have to be too big (may already be too big, proportionally) to keep that humongous body fed! That’s why I love reading about evolutionary trade-offs and constraints, and allometry!

Let me leave you with two more posts that share the physical, emotional, and intellectual excitement of studying life on this planet of ours. Over on NCF’s blog eco logic, Manish Chandi describes his unexpected delight in discovering brooding geckos and gorgeous snakes while on a short focused ethnographic research trip to Chowra island in the Nicobar archipelago. And Hielochica expresses her excitement in studying hydrothermal vents – which she considers a mysterious love-child of geology and biology! What could be more fun than that?

So have a happy and safe holiday my friends, and I wish you all a wonderful, productive new year full of many an unexpectedly delightful discovery. And don’t forget to ring in the new year with the next edition of Scientia Pro Publica: issue #19 will be curated by GrrlScientist and Bob O’hara (submit entries per instructions here) and hosted at the latter’s Deep Thoughts and Silliness,

How many unhappy cows did the burger in my child’s happy meal contain?

Not that we ever feed our children any happy meals, but this news report in today’s New York Times is compelling enough to make one want to give up meat entirely and become a vegetarian! Although the fault is hardly the meat’s. Rather, it lies in how that meat is processed and delivered to us in neatly packaged chunks in brightly lit supermarket fridges! It was just such a package that destroyed a young woman’s life as described in the NYT story today (and see this video report if words don’t move you enough):

Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor, thought she had a stomach virus. The aches and cramping were tolerable that first day, and she finished her classes.

Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.

Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.

So what exactly did that seemingly innocuous home-cooked “angus beef” hamburger contain (besides the bacteria that sent the young woman to the hospital)? Check out this astonishing graphic accompanying the article. Not quite what you might guess if you try to visualize how beef might be ground up to make a burger patty in any normal, sane kind of process. But we live in insanely industrial times, so:

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.

Aren’t the scales of modern industrial food production just mind-boggling? Think about this the next time you bite into a hamburger: how many cows’ body parts am I eating? which bits of the cow? and what other meat derivative is in there besides cow? Holy cow!!

There are many reasons advanced for vegetarianism, from ethical to environmental ones, and this story (especially the NYT video) makes for a particularly graphic example to turn people off meat. I can’t say I’m going to revert to vegetarianism myself (I grew up as one in India), but this only reinforces our increasing attempts to avoid mass produced meat products! If we can’t visualize the path of our dinner meats from individual well-raised animals from their farms all the way to the curry on our plates, we are safer off not eating that meat, aren’t we?

Read Michael Pollan. Not his soundbites. Mostly books.

Interesting interview today on Democracy Now, where Amy Goodman chatted with Michael Pollan about the food industry, health, agriculture, and the environment:

Michael Pollan is one of the nation’s leading writers and thinkers in this country on the issue of food. He is author of several books about food, including The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and his latest, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. In light of what he calls the processed food industry’s co-option of “sustainability” and its vast spending on marketing, Pollan advises to be wary of any food that’s advertised.

While I agree with Pollan’s main message, and much of what he has to say in his books, I do have some concerns about his growing food-guru status. Don’t get me wrong, I like his books, and have indeed used his excellent “Omnivore’s Dilemma” as a text for my Human Ecology class. I worry, though, that sometimes in his activist zeal, and quite legitimate skepticism about food science (especially as it comes aligned with the food industry), he comes across as dismissing all food-related science. But, just because some/much of the nutritional advice was incomplete or wrong in the past doesn’t mean we can’t offer better advice now. We do understand our own evolved physiology much better than we did a decade or two ago, and that knowledge is still growing quite rapidly. Indeed Pollan draws upon much of the current science to make his case against the industrialization of food – and explains it all quite eloquently. So, I’m sure he understands the science well – but do people reading him (or simply hearing him) without adeaquate critical thinking skills or an understanding of basic biology (i.e., >70% of all who passed through high school in the US in the past decade) get the whole picture? Or are they, perhaps confirming their inherent suspicion of science, going to dismiss anything a medical practitioner or scientist tells them?

And this gets more worrisome as Pollan adopts more of a “guru” persona, dispensing simple soundbite advice such as “Don’t Buy Any Food You’ve Ever Seen Advertised” from the above interview. Back in January on Science Friday, Pollan advised, “Don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother would not recognize as food.” (Curiously conservative advice from a self-professed defender and lover of food – but more on this below.) His new book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” is quite the potent and timely polemic against the food industry, and is now oft-quoted for advice such as, “don’t buy high-fructose corn syrup” and “don’t buy products with more than five ingredients“. Then there is also his mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” All sounds good and wholesome doesn’t it? And I don’t actually have much of a quarrel with the basic message – but we live in a soundbite culture, so shouldn’t we at least think about what these soundbites mean?

Tiptoeing around the elephant-in-the-room of food/diet related health issues among our ancestors, my great-grandmother would most definitely not have recognized any number of things in my pantry/fridge as food – and not just because she was vegetarian (I’m not) or hadn’t travelled much. Our world, for better or worse, is much more globally connected, and however ardent a locavore you are, it is difficult to argue that we don’t have access to new kinds of wholesome food not available a few generations ago! Pollan is, of course, arguing against highly processed “edible food-like substances”, which I too avoid as much as I can – but surely there are plenty of non-processed foods, found even in my local farmers’ market that even my mom won’t recognize as food! Just as I’ve seen more than one mystified customer at Ethiopian restaurants prod uncertainly at the Injera, the traditional wholesome bread from that land of our oldest ancestors, upon which the main course is served! Little do they know that the teff that Injera is made from is perhaps one of the very first grains to be domesticated by us, remains very healthy to eat – and is now even grown locally in Idaho!

Food with no more than 5 ingredients? There goes a large portion of my traditional Indian cuisine!! I can’t even buy a tandoori paste or mango pickle? Does even Pollan really eat only foods with 5 ingredients or less? i’d feel sorry for him. Yet his message has resonated enough in the market to convince even Häagen Dazs to introduce a new line of 5-ingredient ice creams!

As for avoiding food that’s ever (ever?!) been advertised – that’s a good bias to nurture against industrialized food which is the source of most advertising. Indeed, you would do well to avoid buying anything based on advertisements. But wait, what about them happy California cows peddling cheese, etc. on my telly right now? Should I give up on dairy? More importantly, I think this also exposes Pollan’s rather shallow analysis of the socioeconomic constraints shaping consumer choice. its all well and good to call for a return to great-grandma’s simple foods, cooked fresh every day for your family using only the best organic locally grown ingredients (<5 of course) bought from the farmers' market. But is this really feasible for the average modern-day lower-to-lower-than middle-class parents, harried as they might be juggling multiple jobs, maxed-out credit cards, long commutes, and their kids' complex school/after-care/sports/dance/music/art schedules? And how do we apply Pollan's prescriptions to the increasing number of poor in this crashing global economy? Corporations may be evil, and the food industry has certainly actively changed the landscape of food choices available to us – but is there nothing to be said for the economies (and efficiencies) of scale when it comes to feeding (affordably) the large number of people now occupying this planet? Allow me to play devil's advocate, if you will, and ask: how many could we actually feed on the Pollan prescribed diet? (I’ll stop with just that one question, and brace myself for backlash from my environmentalist friends).

I’m all for renewing our seriously damaged relationship with food. But do you see my problem with the soundbites? Curious, isn’t it, that someone railing against highly processed foods has fallen into the trap of allowing his own complex thoughts and arguments to be reduced into highly processed soundbites: tasty, easily gobbled up, but not very nutritious soundbites!

How about some “Braised enterovirus” to round off your meal?

I hear it goes well with “Fuck a Cuttlefish zhai” (know someone who might like that one?)! Or perhaps you want to try “Fuck a Fish Head” instead?

No, I’m not offering these lovely dishes to or directing the 4-letter word against those upset over some of my recent writings on this blog. Well, I might offer them the food (peace offer) if it facilitates dialog, come to think of it.

As for the 4-letter words, they come courtesy of some peculiar mistranslations on Chinese restaurant menus owing to the linguistic tangles we all get ourselves into these days:


The Language Log and Effect Measure have the rest of this appetizing story of what can be gained and lost in translation. Now how would that menu sound if Chinese take-out places were to outsource their order-taking phone to India, I wonder?

On post-colonial shadow lines and having one’s 4th-of-July cooking blogged!

I don’t generally blog about my personal life here, although I’m sure it is reflected in some of my writing. I have to make an exception now, however, due to a rather unusual Fourth of July dinner we got invited to last evening. We got to hang out and swim with several friends, old and new, and their families, and savour a variety of delicious vegetarian foods from the grill and the frying pan.

You read that right, I did say vegetarian! That word in the invitation had already tipped us off that this was going to be something somewhat different: for the invitation came from our recent friend Samina, who happens to be a Muslim from Pakistan, with a rather interestingly mixed up subcontinental heritage. More on the heritage below, but first, whoever heard of a vegetarian barbecue for this great American holiday? And whoever thought there might be vegetarian muslims from Pakistan? And one who invites this carnivorous brahmin from India, to top it all?

As for Samina’s heritage, we learnt a bit about that from her mom and aunt who were also there for a short while, speaking to us in Bangla! For they hail from what used to be East Pakistan, and is now Bangladesh. But before that, they were actually from central India, where much of their family still is. Here was a family that had actually lived across the Shadow Lines, migrating from India to Bangladesh to Pakistan, to the US. Samina’s folks are rather more widely spread across the lines than my in-laws who also moved west across the border when Bengal was split in half by the British 61 years ago next month. So here we were, families from across the subcontinental divides of that carved up former colony, celebrating the anniversary of the occasion when yet another colonized people had thrown off the yoke of that same British empire… in what is now the hub of a neo-imperialist order (but let’s not go there now).

So we got to dust off some of our native tongues (speaking a heady subcontinental mix of Bangla, Urdu, Hindi, and English), and palates with some spicy desi food, in which I played a part. I like to cook, and have been known to get carried away recreating long-remembered flavors that are hard to come by even in these globalized distant shores. So yesterday, relishing the challenge of contributing something appropriate for a fourth-of-july barbecue meal, I naturally turned to my home-town’s popular street food, vada-pav, also known as Bombay’s answer to the burger, albeit one that has curiously remained local! To read more about the meal and even see pictures of my vada-pav (and of me wolfing one down) let me point you towards the foodie blog of a new friend we made at the dinner. Yes, for once, I wasn’t the only blogger at the party; and it was also good to meet another faculty member from Fresno State who blogs, among a party consisting largely of English professors from our campus – and us odd biologists!

Afterwards, we all wondered where the best place to see fireworks might be around Fresno, and dispersed without really seeing much. For such is this urban mosaic we live in here in central California, with its own shadow lines – a bunch of suburbs surrounding county islands still looking for that lost city center! And none of us knew of nor could see in the skies any evidence for any communal fireworks displays in this expanding suburban archipelago!! There were plenty of smaller, more anarchic/small family fireworks going on all over the town, however, as we drove back through somewhat smoky, and definitely rat-a-tat-tat noisy and perhaps dangerous streets. For that is the more typical use of fireworks in this area: we can all buy our own small-scale fireworks arsenals from roadside stands every June-July, and set them off all over the town, no doubt enhancing our already lovely air quality, but cannot seem to get our collective butts together to make a more spectacular city fireworks display (featuring more colorful-light than sound, and probably limiting the air quality impacts) happen. Such is the state of collective governance around here! So there we were, at the end of the evening, dodging bottle-rockets and weaving our way home through exploded, often still smoldering fireworks lined up along the edges of many smoke-filled residential streets, with flashes of light from explosions lighting up in cul-de-sacs, rather like some war-torn city elsewhere. Where else have I seen, and worried about, this before? Oh yes, during Diwali in Delhi (or every other town in India). Yet another odd blurring of the shadow lines this, a common experience from back home I had never expected to find here in California. But at least mine was a happier (if cough-filled) memory, of a popular festival, unlike Samina who has a hard time dealing with fireworks because of memories of the war she experienced as a child for Bangladesh’s liberation!

Small world! And Happy Independence Day to all the world’s formerly colonized peoples!!