A Day in Dharavi

That day slept in deep memory until Dharavi appeared in news reports about the threat of COVID-19. It wasn’t a Westerner’s curiosity about the plight of poor people that brought me in 2003 after an engagement in Mumbai; it was an introduction to a medical practitioner who worked in the slum. She cared for patients of all kinds, but after flooding from the monsoon she was treating dengue virus. I came with questions.

Mumbai, India

Not a million miles from Dharavi

A first visit to India is an overpowering experience. The immense crowds, poverty, religious spirit, stoicism, heat, and intense colors.

Dharavi squats between arteries of the rail network. As a visitor, I felt the alien I was, but the stares I received, mostly from teenagers in t-shirts, were invariably friendly and I never felt as threatened as in some American inner cities. It’s a community of many religions and none, so creed is less likely to explain low crime than the narrow wealth gap compared to our cities. A millionaire in Dharavi would be incongruous.

The biggest slum in Asia with half a million people crammed in a square mile wasn’t on the tourist trail then, although I hear of tours for inquisitive trekkers today, maybe encouraged by Slumdog Millionaire earning Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It would be a naff voyeur who came to photograph poverty, and some tour companies observe a strict ethical code.

Dharavi defies common notions of slum-living. It’s true that people live cheek by jowl in concrete homes under corrugated roofs beside narrow passageways for noisy streams of pedestrians and auto rickshaws. Overhead there is a tangle of power lines that would look alarming to engineers, polluted waterways horrify environmentalists, and piles of trash condemned by public health departments at home. There is an odor in the air, but it’s not fetid. Some children go barefoot, but most residents take pride in personal appearance and sloth is foreign to them. A beehive is an apt metaphor for the industry inside the maze. There are potteries, tanneries, tailors, shoemakers, food stalls, and recycling enterprises. Some lawyers and doctors reside there, including the one I visited. It is a vibrant community.

Above all, the crush of humanity was the most lasting memory. It’s hard to imagine how people can keep a safe social distance to avoid infection with the coronavirus or find access to facilities for frequent washing of hands. The risk of contagion is acute, and a reminder of the thousands who died of plague there in the 1890s. Remember Dharavi and places like it.


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Why So Many Hollow Trees?

According to legend, Robin Hood and his Merry Men hid from their pursuers in a hollow tree in Sherwood Forest during the harsh reign of King John (1199-1219). The tree still stands, albeit courtesy of props and wires, and called the Major Oak. Another veteran had hollowed out enough by the 18th century to provide room for seating 20 people with a plank floor and door. Thought to be over 1,000 years old, the Bowthorpe Oak survives in Lincolnshire. Across the Atlantic ocean in the same century, Jacob Marlin and Stephen Sewell were the first white pioneers to settle in the Greenbrier Valley of WV. When they fell out over a religious argument, Sewell separated to make a home in a hollow sycamore tree (later he was killed by Indians).

Southern red oak

Hollowed Southern red oak

A financial loss to lumber companies, hollow trees win our curiosity, even affection, as natural works of art and have inspired storytellers. Albert Bigelow wrote the children’s book, The Hollow Tree and Deep Woods Book (1898), which introduced as major characters Coon, Possum and Old Black Crow who struggled to live together amicably in the same tree.

My curiosity has been stirred by trees in our yard. If the angle of a side branch creates a cup for water and debris to accumulate or if a limb is torn down by a storm or sawn off doesn’t heal over, the rot starts as specialized fungi invade the heartwood to digest cellulose and lignin. They are followed by beetle and insect grubs that nibble channels and chambers, and they in turn become the menu for woodpeckers (7 species here) that carve out larger holes for nests. A growing menagerie includes invertebrate (called saproxylic), bird, bat, racoon, and even human occupiers.

Red maple

Hollow filled in a red maple

Trees that are not stressed by storms to breaking point can reach great ages from the strength of their shell of living sapwood, but they are often felled in parks for public safety. I minimize rot and hope to save mine by filling hollows with polyurethane foam, and apply a thin coat of tar to blend with the bole and provide waterproofing. Regrettably, some of the critters I like are thereby made homeless, or would be if I didn’t make nestboxes (next post)

A Swedish study of oak trees (Quercus robur) found <1% had hollows at under 100 years old, rising to 50% at 200 to 300 years, and all were affected at greater than 400. I recall few hollow trees in England and Scotland, except for rare veterans. Yet, here in Virginia I see them everywhere, and often in relatively young trees. A local dendrologist (academic tree expert) told me it is impossible to tell the age of the oldest trees because the inner rings of heartwood always rot out, although hardly a single specimen is more than 200 years old.

Why are hollows more prevalent here than in northern Europe? If a greater abundance of fungi and bugs exists in our warm and moist climate, trees with a natural insect repellent ought to be better protected. I asked a friend in Melbourne about Australian gum trees because eucalyptus oil is a powerful repellent (I spray it to deter insects and ticks). She replied, “I’ve seen lots of old dead trees with high up hollows where birds and possums nest, and quite a few living giants with a hollow at the base (such that a person can stand inside them, how the trees remain  standing is a miracle), and plenty of fallen trees/logs with hollows in them.” There dies a beautiful hypothesis. But I have another.

The same Swedish researchers noticed the fastest growing trees were most vulnerable, much more than oaks which age slowly and seldom have hollows until past middle age, like the famous “great trees” listed by the Woodland Trust. Trees grow faster in the mid-Atlantic climate, which probably means that less lignin, a hydrophobic, cross-linked polymer, fills spaces in cell walls. I’d be glad to hear a better explanation.

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Should They Who Pay the Pipeline Call the Tune?

We gathered along an empty country road to gaze at the wounded hillside. It now has an orange stripe of bare earth instead of a green canopy. The sight reminded me of how skin contracts from the path of a surgeon’s knife, leaving a trail of blood seeping from underlying layers of fat and muscle.

Natural gas from fracking

Atlantic Coast Pipeline in WV

After the dozers finished the cut, huge trucks and cranes laid sections of 42-inch pipes in a line for welders to join together. This was an advance section of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Our group of 30 observers were mostly from environmental organizations in West Virginia, along with a few locals and this correspondent.

A web of pipelines across the continent conveys natural gas and oil to ports and power stations. The ACP connects the fracking shale fields in the north-western region of the state to North Carolina over 600 miles away. It passes through private and public property, up and down mountains, and under hundreds of streams. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is another gargantuan project an hour’s drive west. Both have paused while the courts decide if they meet legal standards for crossing streams.

Before they snaked across our landscape, numerous homeowners posted NO PIPELINE signs in their front yards and petitioned lawmakers and federal organizations to rigorously examine the alternatives and risks, but permits were approved anyway. A few large landowners benefited from leasing the rights of way, but most rural folk objected to eminent domain that overrules their property rights, the disruption of quiet lives and despoliation of scenery, as well as pollution. Their interests were easily trampled over by corporations that want the shortest route (even if more hazardous) to save money and trouble from more argumentative folk nearer urban centers. Piping energy is a big business ($Bns) and offers rich dividends for investors.

Plans were published last year for an underground mine safety research facility close by. The site is adjacent to one of our friends, an ex-coal miner who lost a relative in a mining disaster. Safety must not be neglected while coal is still mined, but why plant a facility in this valley that will send shock waves like earthquakes through rock and underground rivers? I recall the prospectus calmly noted about 2.5 miles between the testing site and the pipeline, but I measured under 2 miles on a topographical map. We await news after I raised an alarm.

gas pipeline

US Energy Information Administration

This is the worst terrain for safety and the environment, and engineers have rarely struggled with it. Not only is it mountainous, but the geology is karst. Limestone is riddled with caves, sinkholes and underground waterways that are poorly mapped. Heavy rain causes landslides, more so after erasing the ground of forest cover and other vegetation. We worry that hydraulic fluid and oils will leak into groundwater to spoil drinking water in wells and springs. They threaten aquatic life, not only protected species but trout that attract fishermen from out of state to pristine streams that helps the fragile local economy.

I admit a personal interest. We have a home nearby and it is not comforting to be told we are just outside the two-mile blast zone should a spark ignite gas from a leaking pipe. Nothing engineered is 100% safe. A smaller pipeline in Beaver County, PA, blew up in 2018. A family had a narrow escape when their home was destroyed a quarter-mile away, and several high voltage pylons were toppled.

I won’t condemn pipelines out of hand. They are better than dispatching combustible fuels on trucks and trains (remember the explosion that killed almost 50 people in Quebec in 2013?). But I don’t have confidence in how decisions are made and executed. Corporate interests easily ride over country people, native Americans, Canadians, and other minority communities. Politicians should represent their constituents first, but too many seem closer to corporate executives with deep pockets. That leaves the courts as guardians of laws to protect public drinking water and protected species.

Some questions about other controversial pipelines now encircle the ACP and MVP projects. Why build them when we should cut back on fossil fuels and put the investment in renewable solar and wind power? Was there a full accounting of ALL the costs: economic, social and environmental? Is the industrial euphoria another gold rush for the few to profit and leave the environment degraded like 19th century California? It is awful to imagine how people will suffer if the coronavirus pandemic triggers an economic depression, but it may halt the pipeline craze. I know people who would be glad if pipes lie redundant in the ground, but they will sigh at the scars left on their beloved hills and mountains.

Next Post: Looking into Hollow logs

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Waxworms make Holey Shopping Bags

A shameless boast, I take fewer than a dozen plastic shopping bags home from the grocery store each year (a trillion are manufactured). Discarded in garbage for burial in landfill, this non-compostable stuff awaits a post-Homo sapiens archeologist who learns how Anthropocene people trashed their planet. But beekeepers have another option for disposing of polyethylene. A dead hive. Not really practicable, but the idea connects with a new channel for Earth care.

When a bee colony deserted the hive, I saved the frames containing honey, boarded the entrance, and didn’t return to clean the interior for several weeks.

I was gobsmacked when I opened the boxes. The combs eaten to shreds were festooned in silken threads. Wax moths had snuck inside.

Galleria mellonella

One hungry waxworm (Pixabay)

Greater wax moths (Galleria mellonella), originating in Asia and now worldwide, depend on beehives to reproduce. Their eggs turn into plumptious caterpillars gorging on beeswax, and only a strong colony can beat back the invaders. Along with mites and hive beetles, wax moths are the bane of beekeepers.

A few years ago, biologists noticed holes appearing in plastic bags used to collect waxworms. Trained to be inquisitive, they set up an experiment, finding the plastic was eaten at a rate of 2 holes per worm-hour. Their results were published and another paper appeared in Current Biology.

They spun some in a blender to test the effects of caterpillar mush on plastic. It degraded. So, the plastic was digested, not just chewed. It is likely that bacteria in their gut were responsible, and the process probably benefited them by generating energy for metabolism. The long chains of hydrocarbon that make polyethylene turned into ethylene glycol, a substance used as an antifreeze in automobile radiators that is rather toxic to us, although it degrades quickly in soil.

There are unrelated bacteria that digest plastic, albeit slowly. Neither they nor waxworms can consume the mountains of plastic we generate, but that a synthetic compound formerly thought to be stable for eons is biodegradable gives hope that genetic engineering will develop a more efficient agent. Perhaps that can soften absolutist objections some people have toward GMOs.

New Post: He who Pays the Pipeline Calls the Tune

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What Hatidze Knows

A woman in a desolate corner of North Macedonia claimed to be the last wild beekeeper in Europe made a splash at the Oscars. Her story told in Honeyland took three years to produce on a slim budget and was never expected to win acclaim. I rate movies by how long they stay in my head. Five minutes? Five hours? This time it was still ringing the next day. I recommend watching it.

In the first scene we watch Hatidze Muratova, a vigorous woman of about 50 years old and ethnically Turkic, climbing a rocky precipice to check a bee colony. She removes a covering stone with bare hands to reveal a yellow honeycomb covered with bees. The insects would normally attack an intruder, but not her.

Her life in a deserted village was a spartan existence in a stone shack. It might have been otherwise for the able and intelligent woman, but her father forbade marriage because the youngest daughter was expected to stay with aged parents at home. He had passed away and now she cared for a bedridden mother (who dies). A hard tradition, but Hatidze was happy and obviously sociable at the Skopje market where she bartered jars of honey.

When a family of nomads turned up with a herd of cattle to settle among the ruins of the village, the story moves from the tenderness of home to a tense relationship with new neighbors. They are poor but their lives are more turbulent from poor decisions. Since Hatidze made her living from beekeeping, they hoped to make more income by building an apiary. Later in the season when honeycomb should be saved for the bees in winter they harvested all the honey, forcing their starving bees raid Hatidze’s hives.

She was friendly with one of the sons, teaching him the art of beekeeping. Her philosophy was to take half the honey for herself and leave the rest for them. The boy took the message home, but his father didn’t listen.

This is not just the story of a fascinating character struggling to manage relationships. It was her elementary philosophy that stayed in my head—take half and leave half. It’s a fine mantra for earth care.

For countless thousands of years humans had a negligible impact on earth. Our numbers were low and technology was primitive. The lives of hunter gatherers were probably short, but they lived sustainably. Neolithic people gave up nomadism for settlements where they grew crops and grazed animals. These were more prosperous times but living closer to each other and to their animals promoted disease, theft and a social hierarchy. Choices require trade-offs.

Settlement meant the ability to store harvests and accumulate wealth, so greed and excess are corollaries. Not satisfied with sufficiency, forests are chopped down, sea-beds scraped by trawlers and valuable ore mined to exhaustion for maximum profit regardless of the interests of future generations. The beekeeper of Bekirlija leads a wiser life that seems no less happy for not being conventionally rich.

Next Post: Wax moths—Foes have Virtues too

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