Monday, February 17, 2014

Fossil Hunting! A New Adventure at the State Capitol

To paraphrase Lily Tomlin: This year, our winter has been perverse—it can get warmer, but it won’t. I’ve been looking for things to do—but as you know, I’m not keen on ice, and there’s still plenty of that around.

So we found something incredibly fun to do! But first, you should know a little about the state capitol.

When I was a kid, and my family was visiting Grandma S (who didn’t have a/c), on some hot summer days my brother and I would walk up to the capitol and enjoy its cool, dark, marble hallways. It was like spelunking! It was like a mini vacation!

I still find the capitol a good getaway. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful building. As a public building, it’s ours, and we can go in there. I like to take walks around its pleasantly landscaped grounds, and look north at the train tracks and the river. I like to go inside and visit the museum. I also like to admire the art.

But last weekend, Sue and I had a new kind of adventure at the state capitol!

The winter 2014 issue of Missouri Resources, the magazine of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, had a neat article in it about the fossils visible in the polished limestone walls and floors of the capitol building.

You need to check this out! The article is “Capitol Fossils,” by Patrick Mulvany. You can see the article online, or (even better, I think), looking ahead to more neat articles, you can also subscribe to the magazine. Subscriptions are free to any Missouri resident (super-cheap for anyone else); you only need to sign up for it, which you can do here.

Why are there fossils in the walls of our state capitol? Well, anyone who took Geology 1 with Prof. Houseknecht at Mizzou should know the answer: it’s because the “marble” isn’t true marble. It’s actually limestone that’s been polished.

Limestone’s a sedimentary rock, which, as we Missourians know, can be chock full of cool fossils. You just walk down a creek bed, picking up rocks, and you can see oodles of fossil echinoderms, mollusks, and other invertebrates. These include crinoids (our official “state fossil”), brachiopods, corals, bryozoans, snails, nautiloids, and more.

These are what’s left of the hard shells and other structural materials of saltwater animals that lived here 335 million years ago, when this area was covered by a sea (in the Mississippian Subperiod, if you want to get technical). Here is what you often find in an Ozark creek bed:

True marble (which isn’t found in Missouri) is a metamorphic rock created when limestone undergoes tremendous pressure and/or heating. Any fossils, impurities, or other interesting inclusions that were in the original limestone lose their shape and are reduced to mere swirly patterns in the marble.

The limestone used to build our capitol is named “Carthage marble” because in the commercial stone trade, this hard, dense, high-quality limestone that can take a decent polish without crumbling is called “marble.” Carthage is the town in southwest Missouri near where this limestone was quarried.

By the way, you can find polished limestone used as architectural marble all over the state. As Prof. Houseknecht pointed out to us, the bathroom stalls in UMC’s Memorial Union south wing are made of polished limestone; he asked us to “go” in there and notice the fossils!

The restrooms at the state capitol are included! You might end up taking extra time in a stall examining the nifty fossils in the partitions! Only ladies are allowed to see this cool nautiloid (or maybe it’s just a snail; but look at the chambers within the coils!):

(Yes, I did! I stood there in a bathroom stall and took a picture!)

Another nautiloid is visible to everyone and is mentioned in the magazine article. This specimen is nearly a foot long! The creature that lived in this conical or cylindrical shell (Gomphoceras sp.?) looked something like a squid, tentacles and all.

So, there are these cool fossils at the capitol that you will miss the first 150,000 times you visit. Naturally, the bigger attractions at the capitol are the majestic architecture of the building itself; the museums; the artwork; maybe even the lawmakers, lobbyists, and other governmental denizens.

But there are copies of a veritable treasure map at the welcome desk. With it, you can hunt all over the capitol for the nifty fossils featured in the magazine article. And, more fun yet, make your own discoveries!

It’s a good idea to bring a flashlight and a hand lens. You’ll look a little funny examining the walls so closely, but really, it’s good for the legislators to see that. It helps remind them that they and their pet bills are not the gravitational nucleus of the universe.

One more thing: I was especially eager to go on this treasure hunt because I wanted to see some examples of a type of bryozoan fossil called Archimedes (the genus is named for the screwlike form that commonly remains of the animal).

I’ve recently educated myself about Missouri’s current, living bryozoan species (read more about Missouri’s living bryozoans here), and now I’m wanting to find all kinds of examples of them—fossilized or living!

(Oh, I’ve got big plans for this summer’s explorations, born out of a long winter’s cabin fever! But more on that later!)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Indian Cabbage and Peas

Mmmmmmm! I’ve found a new Indian recipe that I really like, and I think you’ll like it too. It’s incredibly easy to make with fairly standard American ingredients (there’s one substitution you’ll probably have to make, but it’s an easy one).

I’m not going to write it all out for you, because I want to encourage you to go to the source: Manjula’s Kitchen. Manjula Jain is a wonderful lady from northern India who moved to the United States in the 1960s. On her website, she graciously offers a ton of delicious and healthy recipes, with an easy-to-follow, how-to video for each one.

These videos are filmed, literally, in Manjula’s kitchen. I’m pretty sure it’s her husband or son behind the camera. She’s been making these videos since at least 2007. Her recipes include many traditional favorites as well as creative “fusion” dishes. For instance, she has some really good sandwich ideas.

Additionally, she’s just published a collection of her recipes as an e-book, available on Pretty nifty, huh?

Her recipes are all completely vegetarian. Also—and this is notable—she doesn’t cook with onions or garlic. Many Indian dishes begin with “chop up an onion . . .” Manjula doesn’t like the way onions and garlic can overwhelm the more subtle flavors of the food. As a culinary alternative—to add the kind of smooth, full flavor cooked onions would add—she uses hing, or asafoetida, pretty often.

Hing is an interesting ingredient. It’s a dried, ground plant resin (sap) that smells awfully bad, and strong, before you cook it. However, it usually goes into the pan right away, as soon as you have heated your oil. And when the hing cooks, its flavor changes dramatically—into something good. And you only need a pinch of the stuff for an entire dish.

So, take your choice: You could chop up an onion, wipe your eyes, and then sauté the onion in oil for a few minutes, or you could just heat your oil and fry 1/8 teaspoon of hing for about 3 seconds. I can totally see the logic in using hing!

I tell you about hing, because it is the one substitution you may need to make with this recipe. If you don’t have any hing around the house (believe me, you’d know it if you have it!)—and you don’t have access to it (it’s available at Indian and international grocery stores), then just substitute a small or medium-sized chopped onion.

So—getting around to the dish!—this is Manjula’s recipe for cabbage and peas, or bund gobi aur mater. This recipe is vegetarian, low-fat, incredibly tasty, and it looks great! It’s all beautiful shades of green!

Tonight we had it as a vegetable dish alongside some rice and some dal (Indian-style lentils).

Here’s the YouTube video for it! It’s one of her older recipes, done when she was a little less comfortable before the camera, and the video edits were a little rough. But even in her earliest videos, the content is clear and well presented.

I hope you’ll check out her website—I love watching her cooking videos, and I think you’ll like them, too. Every recipe I’ve made of hers has turned out beautifully. Her instructions are clear, her foods are delicious and healthy, and, well . . . she just seems so nice.

Thank you Manjula, for so graciously sharing your recipes!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Our Fake Fireplace

No, it doesn’t roar, and neither does it hiss and crack and pop. In fact, it sounds something like an electric fan, and that’s because it’s fake! But we really like it.

We got on this bandwagon last winter, and I think it’s a bandwagon worth getting on. We have a drafty old house, and a space heater for the living room is much better than cranking the thermostat for the whole house.

And the timing for our purchase last winter was just right: Sue had the flu, and I could feel myself starting to come down with it. So, knowing I was running out of time (“it’s now or wait until after we’re both well!”), I went to a nasty big-box store and got our little imported fake fireplace.

Drove it home in the backseat of my little Honda, wrassled it up all the steps to our second floor (where the living room is)—Surprise, Sue! Look what I got for us!

We pulled it out of the box, and . . . Oh, no. It had been damaged. The hole in the box should have been a clue that it might be damaged inside. But I’d been in a hurry. So back in the box it went; I worked it back down our steps, back into my car, and back to the big box store, where the employees helpfully assisted me in opening the box of another one (because all the boxes had tears in them) to check it before I dragged it home.

Got the new one into my Honda, carried it through the front yard to our door, and wrassled it up the steps again—and voilĂ !

Our fake fireplace is small enough there was no assembly involved—just had to plug it in!

With all that work, all in cold weather, my flu symptoms then came on with a vengeance, and it was compounded with strained back and shoulder muscles from all that wrasslin’ and liftin’!

But somehow, it didn’t seem so bad at that point to have the flu, since I could sit by our fake fireplace and warm my aching bones. It’s amazing how the image of a flickering flame makes a regular ol’ space heater seem not only warmer, but cheerier.

We haven’t had a TV in our living room for some years, now, and our fake fireplace offers a nice alternative—movement, a mild focal point but without the crying or yelling for your attention of a TV.

Anyway . . . it’s been really nice this winter, too, with all the snow and cold weather we’re having.

Now, I need a few more, for a couple of other rooms in the house!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Today, There Are Only Hungry Birds

Boy, we’re having a genuine winter this year, aren’t we. Sue and I just got in from shoveling our six or so inches of snow, which, thankfully, was fluffy stuff and easy to toss away from our sidewalks with my trusty lightweight aluminum coal shovel (which came with the house).

While the sun was out, and while we were getting our workout, it actually didn’t feel that cold. But now that we’re inside with damp hair, and not moving anymore, now that the sun has gone behind a cloud, it’s starting to feel like that zero-degree weather we’re supposed to be having.

A look out our bathroom window, and I noticed more and more starlings perching on the small length of horizontal drain pipe connecting one section of gutter to another, in a place that’s sheltered by the eaves and out of the wind.

At one point, I counted fifteen of them, huddling together.

Now: I’m far from being in love with European starlings—they are exotic, invasive, noxious weeds of the bird world—but when it’s this cold, this bitter, this deadly, things are different. I’m on the side of life.

It reminded me of something my hero Edwin Way Teale wrote in his book A Walk Through the Year (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978), for his entry for “January 4” (p. 326):

When we put out bird food these winter days we are as impartial as nature. The varied species compete, as they compete in the wild, for seeds scattered on the stone wall under the hickories and along the lane, for suet hanging in mesh bags from the apple tree, for food filling our different feeders. Bluejays share the sunflower seeds with chickadees and evening grosbeaks. Cowbirds feed among the tree sparrows. In these bitter winds of January, there are no “good” or “bad,” “beneficial” or “harmful” birds for us. There are only hungry birds.

Aside from the gray squirrels that we see coming in from the woods, bounding across the glitter of the ice crust, the birds, in their varied shapes and colors, are the most evident form of warm-blooded life today. And they will remain so all during the rest of the weeks of cold. The “dead of winter”—how much more dead it would be each year without the birds!

Birds can survive winter, provided they have enough food to stoke the fires of their metabolism. When there’s snow on the ground, birds can’t find food very easily. If you haven’t done so yet, go get yourself a bird feeder and some seed.

Because today, there are only hungry birds.