Whales, wheat and Wonderland

Alice’s True Adventure “There was never a March Hare, a Cheshire Cat, or a hookah-smoking caterpillar. The mushroom upon which the caterpillar sat, however, is real. The iconic Amanita muscaria,…

September 13, 2012 | | Autumn 2012 | Back Issues | Countryside Digest | Departments | Environment

Alice’s True Adventure

“There was never a March Hare, a Cheshire Cat, or a hookah-smoking caterpillar. The mushroom upon which the caterpillar sat, however, is real. The iconic Amanita muscaria, with its red cap and festive white polka dots, contains hallucinogens that cause the size of objects to appear distorted. Lewis Carroll was not unfamiliar with the effects of A. muscaria at the time he wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and mushroom intoxication is one of the few of Alice’s experiences that an intrepid reader may replicate.” From “Fungal Fruiting Bodies and Fanatics” by Linnaea Ostroff in Science, 30 March/12. sciencemag.org

Light Out

“Canada’s oldest operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes still shines its warming beacon from the western tip of Lake Ontario’s Simcoe Island. The Nine Mile Point Lighthouse was built in 1833 to guide ships safely into and out of Kingston Harbour.

“…the tower has been declared surplus by the Government of Canada. Even though the Nine Mile Point Lighthouse Preservation Society has nominated this historic landmark for designation under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, its future is uncertain.”
Marc Seguin in Canada’s History, June-July/12.

Boom and Bust

“Since 1996, over 1.2 million hectares of Paraguayan forest have been cleared and replaced with large swaths of treeless soy fields. Paraguay is currently the fourth largest exporter of soy, and much of the harvest is shipped to Europe and China as cattle feed and biofuels. According to the World Bank, however, undernourishment affects 10 per cent of the population in Paraguay. Regardless of Paraguay’s booming US $1.6 billion soy export economy, 40 per cent of the population still lives in poverty.” nourishingtheplanet.org

Bat Death

“A European bat disease has found its way to North America, probably on the boot of an unknowing tourist, runs the speculation. White-nose syndrome is a fungus that’s been in Europe for years seemingly without much effect. But here in North America it’s been devastating, already killing as many as 6.7 million bats.

“The fungus strikes hibernating bats, leaving a fluffy deposit on their muzzles and lesions on their wings. It kills by causing the bats to wake up too often during their winter sleep. They lose their fat stores too quickly and essentially starve to death.

“The average bat eats up to 1 kg of insects in a year.” Shirley Byers in Small Farms, July-August/12.

Leviathan Indigestion

“Ambergris begins to form when the sharp, undigested beaks of ingested squid cause irritation in a sperm whale’s intestines. In response, the whale produces a secretion that surrounds the beaks, forming proto-ambergris. A lucky whale might pass the growing mass likes feces, or the concretion might eventually cause an intestinal blockage so complete as to be fatal. Either way, the black, sticky, fecal-smelling mess of fresh ambergris may end up floating in the ocean. There it matures by degrees over a period from months to years, lightening in color to gray and then white and changing odor until it achieves a scent that is, by all accounts, distinctive and hard to describe, yet not unpleasant. Eventually, the ambergris might be washed up on a beach almost anywhere, found, and collected. Prized, at various times, as a perfume ingredient, a medicine, or a spice in gourmet recipes, its value can rival that of gold.” From Stacy DeRuiter’s review of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergri, by Christopher Kemp, University of Chicago Press, 2012, in Science, July 20/12.

Growing Concern

“When grain growers in Western Canada first started shipping their grain to market, they were vulnerable to middlemen who overcharged them for shipping, milling and marketing their crops. For years they struggled to obtain a fair price for their grain.

“Soon after the First World War, some of the farmers in the three Prairie provinces decided that a co-operative system would offer strong economic advantages and provide them with greater control over their own destiny. They developed a plan to replace large for-profit corporations with farmer-owned provincial wheat pools that would jointly market their crops.”

In 1924, “…wheat pools were formally organized in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. In 1935, Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett established the Canadian Wheat Board to market the grain collected by the provincial pools. The present Conservative federal government voted to abolish the Wheat Board’s control over grain marketing effective August 1.” Charles Hou in Canada’s History, June-July/12.


“It is the Latin duplication of the initial letter of a noun to indicate plurality. The Latin copia was, in medieval use, an extra copy of a land tenure document, and cc indicates more than one, as in LLB (Bachelor of Laws) – and pp (pages).” Letter from Peter Golding in New Scientist, June 18/11.

Death by Eating

“The most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that the frequency of foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States has not improved over the past decade, despite the passage of the most recent Food Safety Modernization Act. According to the CDC, an estimated one in six Americans became sick last year from foodborne pathogens. Of the 48 million Americans who contracted foodborne illnesses, 128,000 were hospitalized and 3,000 died.” nourishingtheplanet.org

Icicle Thief

“Police in Chile recently arrested a man for stealing five tonnes of ice from the Jorge Montt glacier in Patagonia to sell as designer ice cubes in restaurants.

“Deniers have cited other explanations for shrinking glaciers, but theft – until now – was not one of them. It may be the only case in which both sides agree that human activity was to blame.” From The Guardian Weekly, quoted in CCPA Monitor, May/12.

About the Author More by Douglas G. Pearce

Douglas G. Pearce is a retired scientist who lives in Mono, you can read more miscellany in other issues of Countryside Digest.

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