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The Smells of Summer
Remember the road trip on a hot summer day, one traffic lane closed with a man in a hard hat holding a sign that just turned to “STOP”? The sign finally turns to “SLOW” and you creep forward in a line of cars. To the left, a large dump truck pours viscous, black sludge onto the road, and men are raking it into potholes or a new black surface. Maybe you see a gigantic steel roller compressing the asphalt. I’ll bet you remember that distinctive smell of asphalt.
In front of my tiny house on the north shore of Lake Tahoe this summer, Placer County is putting a new water main down our street. The mornings are cool but by noon, the temperature is a whopping 80 degrees (sorry, Texas). The road crews are digging short 3-foot trenches, and our street has become a sticky, smelly patchwork quilt of old road and new asphalt.
Asphalt is made of polycyclic hydrocarbons – a thick tarry by-product of petroleum refining. It smells like crude to me – crude oil which comes straight from the Earth and hasn’t been yet been refined into a bevy of useful products.
I only know the smell of crude oil because my father had an oil well when I was a child. We would drive down to Jumbo on occasion, climb the metal stairs on the side of the oil tank, lift the small cover, and smell the dollars – hoping “our ship had come in”. I still love the smell of unrefined oil. Needless to say, the oil boom of Lincoln County, Kentucky in the 1950s never made the international news (and that wasn’t our ship), but when my cousin and I drove to Jumbo a couple of years ago, the occasional oil well is still pumping away.
I wanted to write about Earth’s smell as it’s July, and I associate road repair with hot summer days when the viscous asphalt is soft enough to spread and tamp down. Asphalt is a mixture of tar with sand and gravel. And even though the tar has a memorable smell, color, and ability to stick to our shoes, it is the other part of the mixture, the aggregate, that is more valuable.
In 2021, from 2400 stone quarries, 1400 U.S. companies produced 1.5 billion tons of crushed stone valued over $19 billion and another 1 billion tons of sand and gravel values at $9.9 billion. With all the talk of sourcing critical minerals for EV batteries and the price of gold at just under $2,000 per ounce, humble sand and gravel don’t get much press. However, demand keeps rising with 2021 demand up 6 percent over 2020.
I find humor in the sweet aroma of asphalt plunging me into a morning of reading about commodities. I also find it amusing to have googled “aggregate supply” and aggregate demand” and discover it is a macroeconomic term- a bit like googling “karst” and coming up with a Canadian rock band.
Check out your state - you might find something surprising in the United States Geological Survey recent publication Mineral Commodity Summaries, 2023
And yesterday in Boulder, five out of six people in my book club met in person for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Our talk turned to the anomalous weather in Boulder this summer. I had just declined the rental car’s comprehensive insurance at the risk having hail dent the car top. The saleswoman admitted she had thrown her body over the top of the new Mercedes to protect its roof from the hail storm. At bookclub, my friend opined her newly planted yard was completely shredded and the asphalt roof shingles destroyed – little bits of black material on the patio furniture and tiny piles of black sand resting at the bottom of downspouts.
The conversation turned to more resilient roofing tiles. When someone asked what the tiles are made of, the architect and I glanced at each other – we both knew what asphalt was – tar and aggregate.
My friend’s home insurance is paying for her roof replacement. The next question was when the next big hailstorm would come with changes in climate provoking larger and more frequent extreme weather events.
My little house at Lake Tahoe, California is losing its insurance this year due to extreme fire events in California. Homes in Florida have lost their flood insurance. Residents in Maui are wondering how insurance will help the individual homeowner recover from the devastating fires. How many roof replacements will it take for Boulderites to lose their roof insurance?
And something fun
Watch my very short video and then watch this video of a guy from Indiana who shows his collecting on the Green River - you can see what the gravel and geodes look like in situ. This video is about 10 minutes but you go collecting on the Green River, Kentucky.
More about Earth to Susan
I am writing a book about how people experience the Earth in different ways. I will bring science, poetry, music, theology, literature, philosophy, history, geography, politics, and economics to these pages – all in relationship to Earth.
This month’s newsletter is how we perceive the Earth through smell.
I believe that helping people understand that we all see the Earth in different ways will open conversations to help find solutions for the many issues facing the planet we call home.
I plan on one newsletter per month, although I’ve skipped a few months recently, and I hope you will continue to read this and share with your friends! It’s free.
Until next month,
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