Friday, April 8, 2011

Want: Oysters?

While Dr. Youman was certainly a smart cookie with lots of valuable things to say, the Dictionary of Every-day Wants is not without its WTF moments. Take, for example, today’s entry: “Oysters—are they healthy?”

Here’s what I know about oysters: they’re disgusting, icky splats of bottom-feeding mucus, and people tend to eat them not only raw, but alive. Youman, with his scientific bent, knows a lot more: Their juice is teeming with an assortment of microscopic animals, worms, and baby oysters—shell and all.

At first blush this seems laughably improbable, like Sarah Palin being a good president. And yet Mark Kurlansky’s 2007 The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell corroborates Youman’s seemingly fanciful tale. Oysters release eggs, Kurlansky reports, which in some species are then fertilized and grow, shell and all, inside the mother’s shell for several days before striking out on their own.

Youman is a tiny bit off the mark on one point, though; this only happens in European oysters, a fact that goes unmentioned in this book intended for an American audience. Breeds native to American waters release their eggs, which are then fertilized and grow externally. (Who knew?)

Whether oysters can actually glow in dark, I’m not so sure. This guy is, though.

This entry doesn’t really answer the question it poses: Are oysters healthy? But between the worms and the animalculae, I would say it leans toward no. And yet, what’s the very next entry?


Want: Good Roads?

Knowing the state of LAW’s driveway this spring, it’s no wonder her travels through the Dictionary of Every-day Wants would lead her here. . .
Here in northern New England, after a long winter of heavy snowfall, we are just entering the “fifth season” of the year: Mud Season. Villages have “load limit” signs posted on side roads, and our hardworking, dedicated snow plow operators find it harder and harder to clear spring snowfall from roads misshapen by frost heaves, surface cracks, and sinkholes. Soon the road crews will shift their efforts from plowing to repairing and resurfacing, in the endless struggle to make and keep roads smooth and safe for driving and biking.
Perhaps Alexander Youman was a New England lad, given his views on “ROADS, Repairing.” “Winter makes sad havoc in the earth roads which intersect the country in all directions,” he tells us—a reminder that our network of Interstate Highways is no more than 50 years old, a child of the Cold War mentality that saw an urgent need for wide, smooth highways to facilitate troop movements in a bipolar world.
In 1872 as now, the state of local roads must have been a favorite topic for conversation, second only to the weather. Youman becomes uncustomarily eloquent on the subject: “…frosts upheave, and the springs wash out deep gulleys and ruts, and when at last the reign of frost is over, that which was straight is all crooked; level places are changed into alternate rises and depressions, stones are left on the top, and, in short, these roads become sloughs of despond in which loaded teams wallow in despair, and where wagons are left standing for weeks up to the hubs in mud, simply because it is beyond the power of horse flesh to extricate them.”
 Absent the AAA membership, Youman and his neighbors had to fend for themselves to pull those wagons out of the mud. Another entry on the same page gives a helpful hint for how to proceed—“ROPES, Rules for Computing the Strength of” (“to find what size rope you require, when roven as a tackle, to lift a given weight. Divide the weight to be raised by the number of parts at the movable block, to obtain the strain on a single part; add one third of this for the increased strain brought by friction…”).
 Once you pulled your wagon clear, you might consider how to remove all those “stones left on top” of the road surface; the very next entry, “ROCK BLASTING,” comes to your aid with a recipe for a blasting powder with more than three times the strength of gunpowder alone. All it required, in addition to the gunpowder, was “sawdust of soft wood,” which you could undoubtedly find plenty of in any carpentry shop.
 Gradually the mud would dry up, and come summer, the local “road master” would summon residents “to turn out and work on the road.” There would be plenty of work to do, but at last the road would be “put into passable condition.” There might be as much a month or two of good driving conditions, until “the fall rains…again cut [the roads] all up, and the snow following hides them from view till the ensuing spring.”
(click to enlarge)