Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Boat Parade

In September 1609, a sailing Dutchman named Henry Hudson happened upon the eponymous Hudson River. It was a beautiful day, all blue skies and warm breezes.

By the time Hudson's crew rolled in, they were cold and mutinous... they'd just tried and failed to forge a route through what is essentially the North Pole. (Sadly, this route is now navigable due to climate change.)

The crew set up camp on an island the local Lenape tribe called Mannahatta, "island of many hills." (The Lenape had obviously never seen San Francisco.)

On a warm day in September, my own crew set sail on the Clearwater, a gorgeous old sailboat with a mast constructed from a single tall tree. The idea for the Clearwater was conceived by folk legend Pete Seeger and built in 1969. Today, it has a vast wooden deck, a kickass educational program, and a slew of passionate interns and volunteers.

The Clearwater composts all of their food waste at the awesome composting operation at Red Hook Community Farm. Who says nonprofits can't network with the best of 'em?

My crew and I arrived at the dock behind the Red Hook Fairway at 09:00. After a group effort to hoist up the sail, we proceeded through the Buttermilk Channel to the Battery Harbor for-- and I'm not kidding-- a boat parade for the prince of the Netherlands.

I imagine the prince in his castle declaring his desire for a full-on flotilla in NYC. "Your wish is my command, sire," his loyal servant would pronounce.

We wondered aloud: what if the prince was 3 years old and had a poopy diaper? Did he wear a crown? Was he single?

The Clearwater got in formation behind old-looking boats with whimsical names like The Peacemaker.

The prince's boat was a ginormous... we thought we spotted him in a pink tie for a fleeting moment, but machine guns (see below) deterred us from hoisting ourselves into the water and throwing ourselves at his feet like teenaged Jonas Brothers fans. Instead, we did the wave. Classy.

We proceeded to sail in incredibly close quarters around the harbor. It was more than evident that the real crew was stressed by the proximity certain unruly boats. Many flotilla vessels had either sailed from Holland or stuck their boats in containers and shipped them to New York. The small ships below are called Flying Dutchmen, which seemed enough to warrant their participation in the Dutch celebration.

It is easy to forget that this crazy city is, at its heart, a maritime wonderland. Until you take to the water, that is. Reality check 101.

The Clearwater aims to illuminate this fact. Getting to experience the city from the water provides the passenger a privileged view of the importance of healthy waterways.

If this isn't a privileged view, I don't know what is.

The Clearwater accepts volunteer educators, apprentices, and crew to join its ranks, and frequently opens itself up for public sails!

*The Supreme Court decided that streams and wetlands are exempt from protection from the Clean Water Act. Sign the petition to advocate for change! Streams and wetlands may not be grandiose as lakes and rivers, but they're just as important for a healthy ecosystem!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Up On The Roof(top Farm)

We've seen what farming on a cement baseball field looks like. This is what farming on a Brooklyn rooftop looks like:

Imagine if every single rooftop in Manhattan looked like this one. Think of the bounty! The fresh air!

Think of the views from above... a green mosaic...

This hearty kale wouldn't look so monstrous if seen from an airplane...

...although it does look monstrous in real life.

I've never seen such happy chard!
With a view like this, who wouldn't be inspired?

I do not envy those sitting in cubicles across the river, even if they are makin' bank.

Perfect serenity:

All photos were taken at Rooftop Farms in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Volunteers are welcome!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Royal Jelly

One day in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, a vendor extolled the virtues of royal jelly, the substance created by honeybees to feed their queen, to a glamorous Italian woman. My sister, incogneets, of course, watched as he demonstrated the topical application on his own face, likened royal jelly to the fountain of youth, and promised that regular use of the substance would erase years from the Italian woman's life. The vendor had found his target population for sure: foreign, with money to spend, and deeply concerned about wrinkles.

Royal jelly has been touted as a miracle substance for centuries. I've often wondered how, back in the day, anyone thought that a cactus might be edible. I feel the same way about royal jelly-- who came up with this idea of bee food as topical cream? I imagine some wacky Ancient Egyptian beekeeper discovering the queen's special stash of R.J. in the hive and smearing it all over her face. Why? We'll never know. But something stuck, because royal jelly is hawked worldwide as a miracle, from Burt's Bees products to vendors in the Mekong Delta.

Personally, it seems a bit too precious of an idea to be true: only food fit for a queen contains the secret of youth, blah blah blah. As I've mentioned many times before, the queen ain't all that. She's a baby-making machine, so her food must be pretty nourishing, but it still doesn't follow that it makes sense to smear it on the outside of one's body. Conceptually, perhaps. A conception that, like so many, falls apart in reality.

The seller had an answer for haters like me: "You can eat it too!" he explained of the 2 oz. bottle of royal jelly that cost more than the aggregate costs of my sister's six month journey through Southeast Asia. Although theoretically, eating royal jelly makes more sense to me in terms of deriving health benefits, it seems strangely naive to liken the nutritional needs of a queen bee to those of an adult human. In "Royal Jelly" by Ronald Dahl, a father forcefully feeds his underweight newborn royal jelly. (It is an incredibly creepy, yet strangely informational short story that is highly recommended reading.) The father explains to his wife:

"Practically nobody in the world can afford to buy royal jelly just for eating except maybe one or two multimillionaires. The people who buy it are the ones who make women's face creams and things like that. They're using it as a stunt. They mix a tiny pinch of it into a big jar of face cream and it's selling like hot cakes for absolutely enormous prices. They claim it takes out the wrinkles."

We are obsessed with youth! Why youth? What I mean is, why is youth so cherished, why is aging so desperately feared? Fine, aesthetics. Health. But we tend to collectively forget most of the unsexy aspects of youth, like having to go to bed at specific times, having to eat things we didn't like, puberty, braces and, later on, being broke. Plus, is there no beauty in a lined face?

All worker bees follow the same lifeline. They begin their lives as nurse bees, then become builders, architects, until finally they become foragers. Bees must go through a training period before foraging. During this period they practice flying short distances, presumably learn the waggle dance, build up their wing strength, you know, normal bee stuff. You can tell which ones are foragers-in-training outside the hive: they're the tentative little dudes (gender neutral, because all foragers are necessarily female) making circles that grow over time.

Foraging, in my opinion, is the best part for honeybees, a pleasure afforded only to the oldest folks in the hive. They get to go explore all the flowers in the hood! Healthy honeybees will forage until their bodies wear out: tattered wings, limbs missing, cockeyed, perhaps. Hopefully they die in the fields among the flowers. Otherwise they'll be carried out by their sisters and deposited as far away from the hive as possible. (Honeybees are impeccably tidy.)

Bees got it right, in my opinion: save the best for last. Imagine if we were constantly looking ahead, waiting for wisdom. We'd be excited by wrinkles and balding. We'd write songs called "Forever Old." Retirement would be like spring break in Cancun.

I might eat royal jelly if, and this is a big if, I realize, somebody convinced me that by eating it I would become a bee, like in Dahl's story, but only for one day and not in the winter. Imagine the secrets that would be revealed to me! Who is behind the hive mind?!?

The same sister, plagued with unquenchable wanderlust, loves this quote from Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible,and I believe it is an apt way to wrap up this rambling post:

"To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know. In perfect stillness, frankly, I've only found sorrow."

I don't want to be obsessed with youth when I am old. I want to enjoy it now, live it, use it, celebrate it. But when it's gone, and I'm not sure that it ever really leaves, I will look in the mirror at a face marked with change, and hopefully I will smile with the knowledge that I really, truly lived the life I'd imagined.