Essays and Articles

Pink Salt

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We have some salt of our youth in us.
William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor

I was born a freshwater child.

Growing up in Buffalo, with a father whose fascination was Niagara Falls, I couldn't help but be intimately linked with this wonder of the world. Not the Falls in themselves, although I've seen and loved them in every season; but the Falls as the passage point of one-fifth of the world's fresh water. There was always fresh water in abundance when I was young: for watering my grandfather's vegetable gardens, for filling the swimming pool (where my sister and I pretended to be mermaids; the irony never struck us), for washing clothes and dishes and cultivating tadpoles. (My mom wasn't as keen on this last one...) Fresh water surrounded the young me, falling from the sky in various forms, running under my feet in creeks and pipes, and hanging in the air on humid August days.

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I gradually became aware, however, of the presence of salt in my life. All extremes have their opposites; fresh vs. salt was one of my earliest dichotomies. First, it showed up in the abstract, in words: I heard phrases such as "salt of the earth", "take it with a grain of salt", and "He's worth his salt." A precocious word hound, I gathered these phrases carefully into my memory without really understanding their meaning.

Then, I noticed salt itself making its presence known to me. There was the salt cod that my mother's family has made for generations at Christmastime; we call it baccalà. Then, as my family traveled often, I experienced the gloomy thrill of descending into a salt mine in Salzburg, Austria. (They wouldn't let me lick the walls; I had to take my salt on faith.) As an adolescent living in the Rust Belt, the ubiquitous presence of road salt in winter caused me great distress - I remember coming home from school looking as though I'd been wading at the beach, as the salt lines mid-shin were a plain giveaway.

I also remember very clearly two incidences of salt during my freshman year of high school, in two very different contexts. My biology teacher, who somehow managed to stay enthusiastic about her subject in the face of teenage-girl apathy, mentioned during our overview of the nervous system that nerve impulses are transmitted via the release of sodium ions. I was fascinated by the idea that my brain was using salt to think about salt. Then, in my Global I class, we learned about the historical practice of "salting the earth," supposedly perpetrated by the Romans to punish the Carthaginians, preventing anything from growing on the maligned soil. Some salt, therefore, was essential, but too much caused death. I pondered that for a while, occupying my nerve salts for a time.

The Great Salt Lake is an ironical joke of nature—water that is itself more desert than a desert.
Dale Morgan

A day without an argument is like an egg without salt.
Angela Carter

Of all the flavors one eats, salt is indispensable; wherever one goes in the world, one’s mother is dearest.
Chinese proverb

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Salt, over the course of history, has had a mixed reputation. My experiences, with both "dry" and "wet" versions of salt, mirror the two ways that humans have discovered to obtain this essential mineral: by mining, and by brine evaporation. Used as currency (hence the word "salary") in ancient Rome and other time/space locations, salt was an early victim of artificial price control. It gave us Timbuktu (the farthest-away place we could think of, e.g. "We parked all the way out in Timbuktu," and a Saharan center of trade for many centuries), Liverpool (and therefore the Beatles - "Salt Can't Buy Me Love"?), Munich (and the fierce independence of Bavarians in general, in the face of German unification), the fall of the Confederacy at the end of the American Civil War (go look it up, it's true!), and Gandhi (marching to the salt water to protest salt itself). Fabric dye has been set for centuries using salt, and it contributed in no small way to textile and dye technology throughout the world.

Part of salt's usefulness to humans lies in its ability to draw water to itself and thereby desiccate (a.k.a. dry out) living tissues. The reason for this is that salt (sodium chloride) loves to split into its component parts, Na+ (a positively-charged sodium ion) and Cl- (a negatively-charged chloride ion). These ions tend to gravitate to opposite ends of a slightly polar water molecule, sort of like junior high kids of opposite genders at a school dance. Salt absolutely loves water, and tends to get jealous about it. This is to the detriment of living tissues, which have a basic need for water to remain living.

Most bacteria cannot survive in a highly saline environment (also known as hypertonic), as the water is sucked right out of them. This truth is the basis for the preservation of meats by salting; the pickling of fruits, vegetables, and eggs in brine; and the fact that, when you have a cut on your leg, and you swim in the ocean, your cut will sting like crazy but won't get as infected in the long run. (I had to learn this one the hard way.) In general, the smaller you are, as an organism, the more dangerous a run-in with salt proves to be for your continued survival. Nature, however, loves exceptions: Halophilic bacteria have learned to use this apparent menace of a compound to their distinct advantage in the competitive game of finding your own little corner of the world.

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
Matthew 5:13

All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea -- whether it is to sail or to watch it -- we are going back from whence we came.
John F. Kennedy, 1962

You shall find out how salt is the taste of another man's bread, and how hard is the way up and down another man's stairs.
Dante Alighieri

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In January of 2000, just after the informatic world was supposed to come to an abrupt end, I flew from Buffalo to Dakar, the capital city of Sénégal, the westernmost country of continental West Africa. (Don't tell my Gambian friends I said this; they'd want to discuss longitude lines for hours.) The reason for this trans-Atlantic jaunt was purely cultural: I wanted to experience the francophone world outside of France, and my college allowed credit for this sort of thing. During my five months in Dakar, I learned how to bargain in Wolof (the language traditionally spoken in that part of Sénégal that in no way resembles any other language that I speak); how to catch a dilapidated yellow-and-blue "car rapide" downtown and not get ripped off to the tune of fourteen cents vs. seven cents; how to pretend that I was married already when potential green-card-seeking suitors offered dowries of cloth shops and camels; how to politely and unobtrusively buy two eggs from the Moroccan vendor whose family is praying in the street in front of the shop, because it's Friday afternoon; how to eat fish, vegetables, and rice out of a bowl on the floor with friends, using a well-loved spoon, trying not to infiltrate others' sections of the bowl; how to be outraged one moment and laughing the next; how to understand women who choose to veil themselves (and are sometimes persecuted for it by their own families and friends).

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It was an amazing time. Mostly, my housemates and I were left to our own devices to find our way around the city and life there. There were, however, a few scheduled program outings, the first to Gorée Island (from where West African slaves were sent to the Americas), the second to a dance club (I never really did learn how to dance mbalax properly), and the third to a quite amazing pair of locations: a Gregorian monastery (half of the monks are Caucasian, half are African - they are well-known for their beautiful chanting) and a lake that, from far off, appeared to contain some sort of chemical contaminant, as it was bright orange-pink. Adding to the surrealism of the scene were pyramid-shaped heaps of what looked like sand, in varying degrees of white, surrounding the lake on all sides. "Check it out," said our guide, Moussa (half of the male population of Sénégal, it seemed, was named Moussa), "it's made of salt."

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Surely enough - it was made of salt. This was Lake Retba, the "Lac Rose," known in halophilic circles for its concentration of bacteria that have an enviable resistance to high salt concentrations in their surroundings. The local humans, of course, have no such luck. There is a brisk salt harvesting trade here, hence the salt pyramids. The men row out into the lake in pirogues (canoes), break off salt plaques from the bottom of the lake, scoop them into the boats, and row back to shore, where their wives and sisters make piles of salt and mark them with the family's initials. Anyone can harvest and sell salt from the lake - anyone, that is, with a healthy investment in beurre de karité, also known as shea butter. To keep their skin from shriveling from constant contact with the salt, they must put a thick grease barrier between the water in their bodies and the ever-thirsty salt in the lake. The salt concentration in Lac Retba is comparable to that of the Dead Sea; you couldn't drown in it, quite the opposite, really...

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The halobacteria who thrive here, however, are completely in their element. They are bacteria in the category of Archaea, our most ancestral bacteria, who have developed a rudimentary method (hey, it works for them) of photosynthesizing sugars from sunlight using red pigments that resemble those found in your retinas. They live very happily in this otherwise hostile territory. They belong to the group named "extremophiles," who live in excessive environments: some types love really high or low temperatures or pressures, some eat radioactive waste from nuclear plants, and some live in the absence of almost every factor that was previously considered essential to life. (My brother, who goes for months at a time away at college without home cooking, does not fall into this category. Sorry, Phil.)

These halobacteria, however, are similar to deep-sea fishes: if you put them into a more "normal" salt environment, they burst and die. They also don't take kindly to collection or cultivation in a lab; they're quite shy. They have, however, managed to live very contentedly in a place where all others have packed up and headed for the hills. And they have cousins all over the world, in salty places. There's even a strain of staphylococcus bacteria that are related to them; think of that, the next time you have a physical security breach.

So I, a freshwater child, still carry with me a lesson from the bacteria I met in a far-off land, and the salt that protects them: the imperative to "Bloom where you're planted." It's an idea I've salted away for later, anyways...

Suzanne Hasselback

Photography courtesy of Grazia Mazzarello, at www.graziamazzarello.com

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