Archives for the month of: April, 2020




Trees are dying in New Mexico due to drought and rising temperatures. One of the first signs might be hydraulic failure, leading to a disruption of sapwood water transport. Xylem and phloem, the two vascular bundles, responsible for transporting water and nutrients up, and transporting food produced through photosynthesis to leaves and other parts down, respectively. 

Eventually, the system stops.

Pinon is not the only one. It is estimated that by 2050 the vast majority of New Mexico forests will have disappeared. Nor is New Mexico, or the southwest the only place where desertification takes place. It is happening in numerous other places around the world and affects the ability of the planet’s tree cover, as we can think of it as one big organ, to effectively circulate moisture around our globe. It is detrimental to our collective ability to grow healthy foods. If you think it is not affecting you, think again, get with the mantra, xylem, phloem… 


My favorite time of day, no longer sleeping, but not quite awake, I am woken up in the morning by the avian chorus and enjoy listening during my liminal state. When the woodpecker starts to do her/his thing in one of the cottonwoods It is time for me to get up. I live in the city, but close to the foothills. Santa Fe is the oldest city in the US, and even though gentrification is in full swing like everywhere, the strict heritage rules ensures that the new houses mix in well with the historic buildings and old residential houses. Many of the residential roads are unpaved, giving the city a rural vibe, especially in absence of traffic these days. The bird calls can be received, loud and clear. The coyote’s call at night.

I am reminded of my work in Italy. Through a common interest in land-based knowledge, I met Dr. Almo Farina, who is many things, but most notably a specialist in ecoacoustics. Even more specific, he has been recording bird sounds to investigate the song patterns of birds: the time of day the sing, but also how birds manage not to interfere in each other’s communication channels. Super cool.

When we met, we started talking, and wondering whether such patterns would also be present in biochemical communication, the odors given of by flowers to attract bees and butterflies. Surely, some parts of the day, the season, must be better than others to do that. 

In the area I lived in Italy (Montefeltro), you can smell and see it, so many wildflowers, but not all blooming at the same time. It is harder to show the patterns of the aromatope however than the sonotope recorded by Dr. Farina, even in this wonderful smelling landscape, let alone in urban areas. Chemical transformation, sonic interference, it is all part of the game. Along with the loss of biodiversity, we also lose wonderful sounds and aromas.

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It was in one of our conversations on birds and smell that the Venice masks came up, You have probably seen them, the white masks, in the form of a bird beak, associated with Commedia dell’arte. Dr. Farina told me that those masks did not have a particularly festive function originally. These bird beak masks were stuffed with aromatics, to prevent any kind of swirling diseases from entering the respiratory system. The story stuck with me.

If you look closely to the Venice mask, it might have an inscription, Medico della Peste. 

In fact the mask was traditionally part of an outfit that furthermore consisted of an ankle length overcoat and was worn by plague doctors, also known as the ‘beak doctors’ in the 17th century. Especially in France and Italy, but also further north. The mask was shaped like a bird’s beak, and held in place by straps, with the main purpose to keep away bad smells, known as miasma. This ‘bad air’ was considered the cause of diseases.

Besides the mask and clothing,  the plague doctor was equipped with another essential item: the cane. This was used to examine patients without touching them, and to keep people at a distance.

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The mask technology remains basically the same, but surely we can now do better than the stick.

Even if it all sounds frighteningly similar, we now laugh at the idea of ‘bad air’ causing infections, because we know it is caused by germs. But I wonder, how much do we actually know, do germs give off odors, could we possibly smell them? Maybe we should not throw this baby out with the bath water. 

Strange times indeed, based on our current scientific insights, we comply with rules, directing us to keep a certain distances, and wear face masks in areas where closer contact is not always avoidable. Surreal, we speak with muffled voices, unless communicating through digital channels. I start wondering, would I not be more comfortable with a beak mask, instead of a muffled voice mask in the long term. One that I can stuff with aromatics, as long as they are still available, such as fresh rosemary and lavender. Maybe then we can become sources of ambrosia!!!

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I am trained in things digital and virtual as it continues to hold promise for the work of the archaeologist. Even though we study old things, we have always been at the forefront of new technologies, and virtual reconstructions no different. Imagining how past lives played out, simulated based on the scarce physical clues we find. Even though I always found this exciting, to enter past worlds in this way, it is not a world I ever desired to inhabit myself.Yet now we find ourselves more and more living in such worlds. Our physical world restricted, we find comfort in digital and virtual spaces.

 I really enjoy the other part of archaeology, the part where you cross the land, being able to get lost in space-time, and stumble upon new things to add to our human history. The outdoor part. During the last 10 years or so, the outdoor has taken over and I have become ‘addicted to places where I can see mountains, can smell wildflowers, and breathe normally. Every choice comes at a price though, and often I have to forego the conveniences of modern lifestyle: heating, wifi, making a phone call, all take some effort. But I love the feeling of being alive, of feeling human, free to run around. In a way I guess I was/am fleeing from the busy, congested life of the smart citizen.


Around Santa Fe, New Mexico, breathing fresh snowy air in spring

A few years back I attended a digital heritage meeting in Krakau, Keeping up my running habit, on the way back from my morning run I went into a health food store to pick up some breakfast. To my surprise, next to the natural looking products, there was a futuristic looking mask displayed. It was advertised as an exercise mask. It turned out, the air in Krakau was so polluted that exercise outdoors does more damage to your health than good. This was a rude wake-up call. Even though Krakau may be badly polluted, it is certainly not the only city, not then, not now. I felt my ‘flight’ response was justified,  I just want to breathe normally, as a human. Call me selfish, I even want to breathe fantastic air! Like clean water, clean air should be a basic human right.

Spending so much time inside our homes these days, within our digital worlds, our outdoor air has cleared up a bit. We are bombarded with updates of the toll of our common – invisible – enemy and emergency alerts on our phones on how to behave. This all helps us respond responsibly and get a grip on our current situation,

BUT, maybe now is also a good time to gain some perspective. The World Health Organization estimates that each year seven million people die prematurely from the effects of air pollution. SEVEN MILLION. 


It is hardly in the news, we can’t see it, but it fills our lungs. We go on with our business anyway. Do we actually know what it is, breathe normally, as humans? The last hundred years have not been the first time that our species have impacted our atmosphere, but it has certainly been the most extreme. But now, in a world gone virtually mechanically silent, I am sure I am not the only one enjoying hearing the birds clearly, appreciating bluer skies. Hopefully we feel free to breathe again soon and learn some lessons. 

Let’s go for TOP AIR!

  something I wrote a few years ago….inspired by my Krakau experience




It is ironic. Farm workers, mostly invisible, undervalued contributors to our societies have now become essential workers. As if that was ever different. People everywhere need to eat, a fundamental necessity,  it only now becomes apparent apparently. 

Although, those who hope this pandemic will alter our societal relationships toward more equitable ones, may be disappointed. I am hopeful, but still skeptical, especially after reading the United States new policy of providing immigrant workers a letter that allows them to work. A good thing, you think, however, deportation is still part of the risk. What has changed, only the fear there are not enough workers to work the land and harvest the coveted crops. It is far from a solidarity measure.

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As someone who has worked in the field and in organic food production, I’m aware of the lurking disease-causing pathogens. It is always there, salmonella, listeria, you name it, it keeps you on your toes to make sure your herd is healthy, your crops are strong and retain diversity. Minimize pharmaceutical ‘aids’ to times when there is no other option, as these can compromise our immunity when we most need it. Awareness of a delicate balance is a constant, trying to nurture a rich beneficial microbial ecosystem, something we can’t normally see, just feel, that will be our best ally in keeping harmful intruders out.

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Back to ‘farm hands’, the people who are invested in making sure the fields are worked and harvested, often risking their own health, now more than ever. They deserve as much applause as our health care workers and hopefully we realize that exposing our farm workers to dangerous practices, such as using toxic pesticides,  can have a trickle down effect. Healthy food is a requirement for maintaining healthy populations, a no-brainer. Respect life, all life.