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Richard Schiffman's Posts

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Thanks, giving: Reflections on generosity, hunger, and the power of a shared meal

xmas dinner
Jeff Berman

There is one Thanksgiving that I will never forget. It took place at my Mother’s apartment on New York’s Upper Westside. It was the last Thanksgiving dinner that she hosted, and I was her only guest.

By then, permanently bedridden and unable to cook, mom ordered sliced turkey with all the fixings from a gourmet market. The catered meal was tasty, but lacked the home-cooked character of past feasts. What made this Thanksgiving memorable was not the food, but what happened after dinner.

During the elevator ride back down to the lobby, it suddenly occurred to me that there were people in the city who wouldn’t be celebrating Thanksgiving that night. I was gripped by a strange (for me) impulse to feed somebody like that -- a quixotic desire for a lifelong bachelor who is barely capable of feeding himself.

You can imagine my amazement when I was met at the door of my mother’s upscale condo by a disheveled woman and her young daughter. “Give us a chicken dinner,” she demanded, as if sent there by divine central casting. In a state of mild shock, I shepherded the two of them to the nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken and ordered the fast-food version of a Thanksgiving feast. What surprised me was not their joy at this modest meal, so much as my own in providing it.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living

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The Southwest’s forests may never recover from megafires

Valles Caldera, N.M., after the 2011 Las Conchas Fire.
Larry Lamsa
Valles Caldera, N.M., after the 2011 Las Conchas Fire.

If you doubt that climate change is transforming the American landscape, go to Santa Fe, N.M. Sweltering temperatures there have broken records this summer, and a seemingly permanent orange haze of smoke hangs in the air from multiple wildfires.

Take a ride into the mountains and you'll see one blackened ridge after another where burns in the past few years have ravaged the national forest. Again, this year, fires in New Mexico and neighboring states of Colorado and Arizona are destroying wilderness areas.

Fire danger is expected to remain abnormally high for the rest of the summer throughout much of the Intermountain West. But "abnormal" fire risks have become the new normal [PDF].

The tragic deaths of 19 firefighters in the Yarnell fire near Prescott, Ariz., last month shows just how dangerous these highly unpredictable wind-driven wildfires can be.

The last 10 years have seen more than 60 megafires over 100,000 acres in size in the West. When they get that big, firefighters often let them burn themselves out, over a period of weeks, or even months. These fires typically leave a scorched earth behind that researchers are beginning to fear may never come back as forest again.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Oh beehive: This pollinator porn will make you fall in love with bees

Yep, they're doing what you think they're doing.
More Than Honey
Yep, they're doing what you think they're doing.

There’s a new documentary out about bees that you’ll want to see if you’re into the little buggers -- and who isn’t? More Than Honey, which is currently showing in New York City, and will travel to theaters around the country in July, is quite possibly the most lavishly filmed insect flick ever.

And let's face it, bees are the most charismatic -- and cinematic -- mini-fauna around. Which is frankly a little surprising. After all, with their Darth Vader eyes and weirdly segmented teletubbie bodies, bees are not about to win any beauty contests. Not to mention, they sting, they swarm, and the entirely regimented nature of bee society means that they have got even less personal freedom than the folks in North Korea.

Still, we humans have a predilection for seeing ourselves reflected in bees, finding them industrious, tolerant, devoted, self-sacrificing, tidy ... you can fill in the blanks. And did I mention the honey? Bees also pollinate over a third of the fruits and veggies that we eat. (Check out this recent Grist post to see what one supermarket looked like when they removed all of that good stuff from their bins.)

“If bees were to disappear from the globe,” Albert Einstein is said to have mused, “mankind would have four years left to live.” These words, quoted in the film, could be prophetic: Bees are dying in record numbers, for reasons scientists don’t fully understand.

Given the fact that agrochemicals are high on the list of known villains, writer/director Markus Imhoof could have produced an apocalyptic rant about how the chemical-agricultural complex is cynically poisoning our pollinators to hustle a quick buck. But he offers us something better, and more memorable: a work of art and, at moments, breathtaking loveliness.

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What the frack do we know? Not much, it turns out

Remember the scene in the movie Gasland where the guy lights his tapwater on fire? No? Here it is:

That footage helped ignite the grassroots movement against fracking, a controversial technology that shoots a slurry of water mixed with sand and laced with toxic chemicals into underground shale formations to shatter the rock and release natural gas.

The only problem with this by-now-iconic image is that the faucet pyrotechnics may actually have been made possible by a natural phenomenon: The guy’s house is perched thousands of feet above a double seam of coal, according to the Colorado Department of Environmental Protection, and methane from underground coal and gas formations occasionally bubbles up through cracks in the earth and into people’s water wells -- no fracking required. (Kids in Pennsylvania have apparently been torching their water for generations.)

Then again, the flaming tapwater may indeed result from fracking in the Colorado man’s neighborhood. The point is, nobody knows.

There are a lot of things about fracking that we don’t know. And a lot of what we think we know we don’t. Not yet, anyway. This is the unsettling conclusion of a major new study published today in the journal Science.

Read more: Climate & Energy