In 1804, a young naturalist named John James Audubon tied silver threads to the legs of the eastern phoebes, tiny white-and-brown songbirds, that lived in a nest near his home near Philadelphia. The birds soon flew away for the winter. The following spring, two returned with threads still attached. The experiment marked the first recorded use of bird banding in America, a technique for studying migration patterns.
More than two centuries later, technology, particularly the wonder of GPS, has turned silver threads into tags, sensors, and other devices capable of tracking all kinds of species around the world. Today, researchers get text-message alerts from collars worn by elephants in Kenya. They can stick tags under the shells of turtles or attach sensors to the fur of seals that transmit information with the help of satellites. They can even glue tiny barcodes to the backs of carpenter ants.
These are just a few of the projects described in Where the Animals Go, a book by geographer James Cheshire and designer Oliver Uberti, out this week in the United States. Cheshire and Uberti spoke to dozens of scientists tracking animals, from owls and elk to pythons and hyenas, and turned their data into a collection of 50 beautiful maps.
The maps show the paths the animals take as they cross desert, forest, ice and ocean to feed, breed, and survive. The maps reveal what Audubon couldn’t see when he tied his silver thread to the birds: a journey. Some are especially quirky, as in the case of the seagulls who made daily trips to a city in France that was 40 miles away from their breeding colony. When researchers visited the site to investigate, they found the gulls feasting on discarded food outside of a potato-chip factory.
I spoke with Uberti and Cheshire about animal-tracking technology and the strange places it takes us. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Marina Koren: So your book introduces us to a fairly new era of tracking animals using technology. Can you tell me about the era that we’ve left behind? How did humans track animals before they could stick GPS tags on them?
Oliver Uberti: If you go way, way, way back, tracking involves looking for footprints, looking for fallen feathers, broken branches, droppings—any sign that an animal has passed through. Then around the past couple centuries, you start to get people like John James Audubon, who are tying threads to the legs of songbirds to prove that they’re actually returning to the same place every year. And then in the 20th century, you start to get people doing some real DIY tracking where they’re attaching cameras to pigeons or radio transmitters to a duck. But it’s only really been in the past 20 to 30 years that GPS has come on the scene, and then after that the miniaturization of computing power and the internet and satellites—it’s literally just exploded what you can do in a really tiny device.
James Cheshire: We’ve really transitioned from monitoring animals as a resource to be exploited to monitoring them as individuals within a species that we can collect a myriad of data from. One of the biggest data sets collected on whales came from where we killed them, from whaling ship logs. There’s now sensors that they’ve got on whales that collect more data points than the sum total of the data collected in the previous five decades or more of research.
Koren: What kind of technology do we use today?
Uberti: There’s really no “one size fits all.” Scientists tailor tracking tags to the species and to the study, and that all depends on the environment that the animal lives in. GPS doesn’t penetrate underwater, so if you’re tracking a marine animal like a shark or a turtle, you need to have a device that can transmit when the animal comes to the surface and gets a brief, sometimes split-second window to shoot up to a satellite and transmit. Or you need a device that can release off the animal and float to the surface and then transmit. If you’re talking about songbirds, there’s protections in place to make sure they’re not taking tiny little songbirds that weigh only a few grams and saddling them with a giant computer. You talk about tracking plankton—you’re not even using a computer. You’re setting up an environment in an aquarium, you turn off all the lights, and you inject the plankton with a fluorescent particle like they use to track cancer in some medical technologies. And in the darkness, the individual plankton fluoresce and, by recording that with cameras, [scientists] can watch the illuminated animals move up and down the water column in response to UV light.
[At the Save the Elephants organization,] they can get text messages if they think elephants are in danger, if they’re moving too slowly, which is often a result of being shot by poachers or herders who’ve been scared because the livestock are coming close to these elephants and they don’t know what to do. If the animal is moving slower than it’s expected to move, the GPS tags notice and their accelerometers inside notice. It’s much like the way Google Maps can track different traffic patterns on the road by how fast they’re expecting you to be moving. If the elephant moves below a threshold, then it sends out an alert and Save the Elephants can dispatch rangers and law enforcement to check on the animal immediately.
Koren: How did you go about visualizing the immense data sets from the sicentists you talked to?
Uberti: When the data comes out raw from the tags, it’s an immense hairball. Tracks of many, many mountain lions, for instance, are all tangled on top of each other. To really tell any story of what the animals experienced or what the scientists are investigating, we try to turn big data into small data, and highlight one or two individual animals and walk you through or swim you through or fly you through what that animal experiences. It was a lot of editing down, taking out extraneous tracks, and really zeroing in on the lives of a few individuals.
Cheshire: Getting the right base-mapping information, all of the contextual stuff that goes around the tracks—that was a huge amount of effort, actually. It was probably more work than dealing with the actual animal data itself because we needed to make sure that what we were showing on those maps was relevant to that particular animal. We wanted to create maps that conveyed some of the environmental conditions. For example, when we mapped snowy owls over the Great Lakes, the satellite imagery we used for that roughly comes from the same as when the owls themselves were flying over them, so you could see the same ice floes that the owls are seeing.
Koren: What was it like to look at a completed map, see a bunch of squiggles, and know that that’s an animal going about its life?
Uberti: This all goes back to an elephant named Annie, who I first met years ago. I saw where her GPS tracker stopped recording in [southeastern Chad], where she and a number of her companions had been killed by poachers. Mapping her moving through her environment, waiting till nighttime to cross the roads, to avoid interaction with humans, and then just watching her life stop on a map—that was the first time a map had connected me to an individual animal. It’s easy to think of animals when you hear about them, when you watch nature specials on TV, as furry robots that are just kind of preprogrammed, moving about the earth, doing what they as a species are assigned to do. And when you look at these tracks, you see in each individual path animals making decisions that are unique to them—what they like to eat, where they like to go.
Koren: The maps in the book really make clear how animal migrations transcend borders, whether it’s of national parks or nations. Has your idea of borders changed after seeing just how irrelevant they are for animals?
Uberti: It confirmed my own assumptions that borders don’t exist in the natural world. A great example of that goes back to the first GPS tracking study in Africa, where Cynthia Moss was doing research on elephants in Amboseli [in Kenya]. Some of her elephants were leaving and crossing the border into Tanzania into wildlife hunting ground and were being shot. When they confronted the Tanzanian government and the hunters about it, the hunters said, oh, no, these are our elephants in Tanzania, they’re not yours from Kenya. So Moss got Ian Douglas Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants, and he put two [sensors] on two elephants, and sure enough, one of them crossed over the border into Tanzania. Here you had this undeniable proof that animals don’t follow human borders.
Border walls and pipelines make headlines, but far more insidious in their effect on animal behavior are freeways and fences. Mountain lions in Los Angeles are completely marooned on genetic islands in the Santa Monica and the Santa Ana Mountains because of this web of freeways, many of them eight, 10 lanes long, that the animal can’t get across. And if they can’t get an influx of DNA from animals from outside their population, they’re doomed to extinction by inbreeding.
Cheshire: It’s certainly true that animals don’t care about national borders, but the national borders themselves and the geopolitics around them still have big impacts on animals. We have a story about a wolf named Slavc who walked across Europe and starts in Slovenia and finishes in Italy and goes via Austria. Each of those countries had different laws and different attitudes toward large carnivores and whether they could be hunted. So for the researcher who was tracking Slavc’s progress, it was a real roller coaster, because as soon as Slavc stepped over the Austrian border, the chances of him getting hunted were bigger because there are laws there that mean you can hunt stray dogs. An animal doesn’t have to show a passport to cross from one country to another, but the impacts, when they do, can still have a big difference on their life chances.
Koren: What does the future of animal-tracking technology look like?
Cheshire: Stuff is going to get smaller and more powerful and cheaper to deploy. But the real interesting stuff is going to be what the researchers are able to do with the data when they get back to their labs, and start crunching through these big sets of numbers they’ve got, and see if they can look at the health of an ecosystem almost in real time. Researchers are now looking into how animals interact with one another, with predators, with prey. It’s those interactions that dictate how successful an animal is—are they getting enough food, are they able to hunt, are they able to breed? [Researchers] are beginning to tag enough animals within an ecosystem to see how those interactions are playing out.
Koren: Has working on this book changed the way you look at animals in your everyday life, even just a squirrel on the street?
Cheshire: For sure. There’s a tree in my backyard that has songbirds in it that come and go. Before, I didn’t pay them much attention, but now I’m wondering how long they’re going to hang around for, where they’re going to go, where they’ve been.
Uberti: The Wallace Stevens stanza that we excerpt kind of sums it up for me. “When the blackbird flew out of the sight, it marked the edge of one of many circles.” Working on this book just made me think that way about all the animals I see in my day, whether it was a roebuck that jumped past me while hiking in Slovenia, to a lizard that skirted out from underneath a trash can here in Los Angeles, or the brown widow spider I saw last night outside of my flower pots in my backyard. So much is happening outside of what we can see for ourselves.
The past few weeks have been incredibly busy for our family. Not only has Sarah returned to teaching from her summer break, our children have also returned to school and several fall activities have begun. On top of that, a particularly nasty virus of some kind flashed through our family, bringing a consistent set of symptoms and knocking each family member (except me, somehow) out of commission for a few days. The lazy days of summer are long gone.
Because of that rapid change in daily routine, it has become more and more difficult to consistently get a family meal to the table for dinner each night. We often fall back to relying on very simple staples that Sarah and I can prepare almost on automatic – things like spaghetti with marinara sauce and steamed vegetables or slow cooker lasagna.
Perhaps the most efficient solution to this problem of all, however, are frozen soups.
In our deep freezer, we have a bunch of soup containers, each containing about a quart of soup. By simply reheating two of those containers, we provide a nice bowl of soup to each family member, which can be complemented with a sandwich or a breadstick or some other similarly simple accompaniment, something that we can prepare during the few minutes while the soup is reheating.
This is a fantastic solution on a lot of levels.
First, homemade soup is pretty inexpensive. You can prepare homemade soup at a very low price, as most of the ingredients are things like beans, rice, and raw vegetables. Even in soups that use meat as an ingredient, you’re actually using a relatively small amount. The ingredients just don’t add up to a big expense.
Second, most homemade soups reheat extremely well. The main problem with most reheated food is that it gives off moisture and that some of the solid elements break down a little bit. Neither of those issues are really a problem for most soups. Furthermore, frozen meals that are later thawed and heated often meld their flavors together, which usually helps soups. There’s a reason people often prefer chili reheated, after all.
Third, reheating a soup is about as simple as you can get for family meal preparation. Seriously. If you remembered to pull a container out of the freezer that morning, you literally put the ingredients of that container into a small pot or saucepan, put it over medium heat, and let it warm up, stirring it every once in a while. Meanwhile, you can set the table and take care of other tasks. Even if you forgot to thaw it during the day, you can quickly thaw it in a microwave. There’s almost no effort in bringing a container of soup to the dinner table.
Fourth, the original preparation (and storage) of the soup is pretty easy, too. It’s not very hard to make a big batch of homemade soup, from which you can not only feed your family dinner but also package up a container or two of soup for the freezer in the future.
So, how do you pull all of this off? It’s actually pretty easy.
Make Soup in a Slow Cooker (or Otherwise)
The first step, obviously, is to make some soup. You can use pretty much any recipe that you like, as almost any soup is freeze-able. The key is to make sure that you make plenty of the soup. Make a double batch, if possible.
But how do you make a big pot of soup and cook it if you’re busy? It’s easy. Just put all of the heavier ingredients in a slow cooker in the morning – things like potatoes and carrots and meat – and season it appropriately and add the liquid. Turn it on low and leave it cooking all day. Then, when you get home, immediately add softer ingredients – you can leave them out so that it’s easy to do when you get home. Add things like pasta or tofu or kale at this point. Then, turn it on high and then just serve it half an hour or an hour later – you don’t have to do anything else.
That basic structure works well for almost every soup known to man. We use it for everything from chili and stews to curry soups and bean soups. As long as you just put all of the dense ingredient and the liquids in the slow cooker in the morning, leave it on low all day, then add the softer stuff as soon as you get home, it’s ready to serve an hour later or so. It’s easy.
Save Your Leftovers in Freezer-Safe Containers
When you’re done with eating soup from the slow cooker for dinner, you should have a lot of leftovers. Hopefully, you filled that slow cooker high, so there’s plenty remaining!
All you do at this point is fill up a freezer container or two with the remaining soup. Personally, we use these reusable containers that can go from the freezer to the microwave to the dishwasher without any problems. We bought them as a bulk purchase (24 of them) a while back and they work like a champ.
So, grab one (or two) of those containers and fill it up with soup, leaving about an inch or so of air at the top of the container. Put a lid on it and stick it in the fridge.
The next morning or evening, when the soup is nice and cold, burp the container by just opening it enough to let air in or out, then put a piece of masking tape on the container. Write what kind of soup it is and what day you made it on the label, then pop it in the freezer. You’re done. That’s it.
When You Need an Easy Meal…
Whenever you need an easy meal in the evening, something that can be prepped in just a few minutes, just grab one (or two) of those soup containers from the freezer the night before or even two nights before and put it in the refrigerator. (If you forget, don’t sweat it.) Having the soup thawed when you get home makes it even easier to get it to the table.
So, you come home, you have a container of thawed soup in the fridge. Just pull out a saucepan or a small pot, pour the soup in there, and heat it on your stovetop over medium heat, stirring it whenever you happen to walk by. When it’s bubbling, it’s ready. That’s it – homemade supper is on the table.
What if it’s frozen? That’s easy, too – just thaw it on the low setting in the microwave until it’s mostly liquid (you’ll want to stop the microwave and stir it regularly when doing this), then put it in a saucepan or a small pot on the stovetop over medium heat. Stir it whenever you walk by, then when it’s bubbling, serve it. That’s it – homemade supper is on the table.
If you used the recommended containers above, cleanup is easy, too – you just put the saucepan or pot along with the soup containers in the dishwasher and then they’re ready to be used again.
Some Soup Ideas
Honestly, almost every soup or stew or chili variant you can think of works well with this strategy. I’ve tried it with slow cooker chili, creamy potato chowder, minestrone, white bean stew, and others; my wife’s made chicken curry soup and beef stew this way, too.
You don’t just have to use slow cooker recipes, either. Most soup recipes work fine in the slow cooker provided that you just save the softer ingredients for the last hour or so.
You can, of course, also prepare a big pot of soup without the slow cooker if you’d like, on a lazy afternoon, and just save the leftovers, too.
Other Things to Serve
We have soup with a lot of meals this time of the year because it’s so convenient and so inexpensive. Having things on hand to serve with it, though, can require a bit of creativity and preparedness.
Our default pairing is to have soup, salad, and sandwiches. While the soup is heating, we make a few sandwiches and prepare a salad for everyone to share. The salad and sandwich are served on a plate alongside the soup bowl.
Sometimes, I’ll make breadsticks to go along with it, baking them in the oven or even cooking them in advance and storing them. You can find premade breadsticks at the store, but it’s not hard making them – you just need a simple bread dough recipe and then, when the bread is done, you form the bread into breadstick shapes and bake them on a baking sheet. They turn out wonderfully.
A final trick we use is to turn it into a bit of a “soup bar,” where we put out a lot of things one might want to add to their soup – things like diced green onions, crackers, cheese, bits of diced ham, and so on. This lets everyone “personalize” their soup a little and also bulk it up so it feels more like a hearty meal.
I’ll be perfectly honest – without soups in the freezer, we would likely fall back on prepackaged meals some nights, which are quite a bit more expensive, or else we’d order delivery or takeout, which is a lot more expensive.
This simple soup routine saves us a lot of money during the busy times, because it means that we’re having a very cheap dinner – soup – instead of a far more expensive dinner. It works because it almost completely eliminates prep time in the evenings, making it very manageable even on the busiest nights.
If you find yourself with crazy evenings on a regular basis, consider this “soup stockpile” strategy. It’ll save you a ton on food spending while still giving you a delicious home cooked meal when you want it.
The post The Soup Stockpile: An Easy Route to Having Tons of Convenient Freezer Soups appeared first on The Simple Dollar.
When Tom isn't traveling, he's with me during the week, but spends most weekends going places with his fraternity or visiting his parents. This means for the six months he's in town, I get perhaps one weekend.
We are saving for a house, and Tom's constant recreational travel is cutting into our budget. I want our couple time back, as well as time to take care of things at home. I've suggested compromises (such as two weekends away and two weekends home), but things always come up that he "has to do." Two months ago, I was let go from my job. That same afternoon, Tom left on a trip with friends that could have easily been cancelled. I can't use those same weekends to visit my family because they are too far away, so I spend a lot of time sitting home alone.
I know nothing unsavory is going on. Tom is a wonderful guy. I have no intention of leaving him. I knew when we met that his job would require a lot of travel, but these personal weekends are difficult for me. I know he hates being inactive or staying home, but it seems excessive. How can we come up with a workable solution? -- Home Alone
Dear Home: Tom thinks he already has a workable solution and has no incentive to compromise. After all, he sees you all week. Right now, his schedule is a minor hardship for you, but if you marry and have children, it will be a major problem. You'll have to revisit this issue then.
Meanwhile, we are never in favor of sitting home alone moping. Please find things to occupy yourself during the weekends when Tom is absent. Look for part-time work. Take classes to bone up on your skills. Go biking. Accompany him when he visits his family, and get to know them better.
What did I do INSTEAD of reading? I wish I knew. Part of this, I think, is getting back into the "Back to School" mode. Mason was sick with a cold late last week (he missed school on Friday), and then Shawn promptly caught it. So I've been doing a lot of nursemaiding.
Ugh. Work just called. They wanted me to go into New Brighton's' branch tonight and work 5 to 8. I probably should have said yes, but I work both tomorrow and Friday.
Also? It's MasterChef's finale tonight.
I know this sounds stupid, but ever since Mason was very small we have, as a family, been fans of MasterChef. It's the one network TV show we actually tune in for. All three of us gather in the TV room upstairs and adjust the rabbit ears so that we can watch the show. It's not even all that great. Most people would probably prefer The Great British Baking Show or Iron Chef. Not us. We're faithful to Gordon Ramsey and his disappointed looks and rants about things that are "rawr."
For once, too, the contestants left standing at the end are all weirdos. There's one white guy, but he's fully tattooed, bleach blond, and heroin-addict skinny... and a super-odd, with very Italian-American from Brooklyn accent. Currently, I'm rooting for Jason, an Asian-American guy who comes with a male partner, kind of BECAUSE he's gay (though he is one of the most cheerful people they've had on). The other contestant is Eboni, a black woman from Chicago. We like them all. This is one of the few times where we won't be disappointed with whoever wins.
Skipping work for TV, though? Probably I'm going to hell.
It was late into the audience hours when the royal Consort and his cousin unexpectedly turned up in line.
Anduin almost had to look twice when their names - sans title or any other fanfaire - were called, the surprise making him slow. They were both of them in travel clothes, leathers worn smooth and supple, ragged and stained, the sort of clothes for hunting, fishing, and sleeping out on the road. They had obviously been out somewhere; Elwynn forest, Anduin suspected, part of Hardwire's ongoing campaign to train Ren back into some semblance of fitness after the birth of the babes. There was dirt and what looked like fresh blood stains on their clothes, and there would probably be venison or roast boar on the dinner table.
Dirty and disheveled, and Ren, at least, was visibly tired, and both with small gift boxes in hand and the most shit-eating grins Anduin had ever seen. He didn't, in that moment, know whether to kiss them or box their ears.
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