The Salt of the Earth

salted pines 3

“I shivered in those solitudes when I heard the voice of the salt in the desert.”

― Pablo Neruda

It was Earth Day and the environmental department that I worked for had planned a party celebrating the environmental movement. Unfortunately, no one had told the building landlord about it, and at 9 am a crew arrived to remove four tall pine trees outside my window. I read the email reminder about the Earth Day celebration as I watched the chain saws do their work.
To be honest, the trees were in pretty bad shape. Two sidewalks passed between them. It was a public building where the maintenance people spread plenty of salt in the winter and, later, when the ice melted, the salt washed into the adjacent grass or flower beds. Pine trees are very sensitive to salt levels, and had not thrived there for many years.

Salt lives on virtually every dining table across the country, and we each use lots of it on our food. What could be more innocuous than salt? We know about high blood pressure, but does salt have a darker side?

Rock salt is essentially sodium chloride — plain old table salt with other naturally-occurring minerals. “Salting the ground”, an ancient practice to complete the full demolition of conquered cities, was reportedly used by the Romans when they conquered Carthage.

The word salary comes from the Latin word for salt. The reason for this is unknown; a persistent modern claim that the Roman Legions were sometimes paid in salt is reportedly baseless, but it rings true to me. Those legionnaires must have been “worth their salt”.

Road salt is a major factor in highway safety, not to mention sidewalks or anywhere there is snow and ice. Trucks spread a measured layer and individuals with hand spreaders or buckets generously scatter road salt across paved surfaces across the country.

In his book Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky notes, “Medieval European etiquette paid a great deal of attention to how salt was touched at the table – with the tip of a knife and never by hand …. Both Jews and Muslims believe that salt protects against the evil eye. In Jewish law … it is explained that salt can only safely be handled with the middle two fingers. If a man uses his thumb in serving salt, his children will die, his little finger will cause poverty, and use of the index finger will cause him to become a murderer.”

Kurlansky explains further that “salt is often associated with fertility. This notion may have come from the observation that fish, living in the salty sea, have far more offspring than land-based animals. Ships carrying salt tended to be overrun by mice, and for centuries it was believed that mice could reproduce without sex, simply by being in salt.”

“Evil spirits detest salt. In traditional Japanese theater, salt was sprinkled on stage before each performance to protect the actors from evil spirits. In Haiti, the only way to break the spell and bring a zombie back to life is with salt.

Grennan Milliken reports on a recent study from the University of Wisconsin, “Scientists found that lakes near any kind of impervious surface — ‘as little as one road’ — are at high risk of becoming too salinized within the next 50 years for either freshwater life or human use. This includes 27 percent of all large lakes in the US.”

These days, in Colorado at least, we use mag chloride on our roads. Magnesium chloride is less corrosive than regular road salt and helps to prevent ice formation when sprayed on roads prior to snowfall. According to a study by the Colorado Department of Transportation, “application of magnesium chloride deicer … is highly unlikely to cause or contribute to environmental damage at distances greater than 20 yards from the roadway. Even very close to the roadway, the potential of magnesium chloride deicer to cause environmental damage is probably much smaller than that of other factors related to road use and maintenance, including pollution of highway surfaces by vehicles and use of salt and sand mixtures to promote traction in winter.

Magnesium chloride is present in fertilizers, cosmetics, bath salts, and tofu. And now, it’s present on Colorado roads in winter, to the benefit of all those trees.

At our house, the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends were for getting together with friends and family to cook out, visit and let the kids and dogs run amok. The kids took turns sitting on the ice cream maker to hold it down while the adults took their turns with the crank. Homemade ice cream is the best on a hot day, but you have to be careful not to let the salt water leak into it. We’d pack the ice around the ice cream container and layer the rock salt with just a little water and crank until it became almost too hard to turn.

I was always careful to wash away the spilled salt water and not dump the bucket on the lawn or garden, as the salt would kill the plants.

That also conveniently avoided resurrecting any of the zombies that may have been buried in the back yard in the old days.

You can’t be too careful.

Additional information:

Mark Kurlansky, Salt, A World History, 2002, Penguin Books

Prof. William M. Lewis, Studies of Environmental Effects of Magnesium Chloride Deicer in Colorado, November 1999, Western Environmental Analysts for the Colorado Department of Transportation Research Branch

Grennan Milliken, Road Salt is Turning North America’s Freshwater Lakes into Saltwater, Apr 11 2017, Motherboard


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