I grew up in what has come to be known as the Silicon Valley, at one time a magnificent agricultural area called the Santa Clara Valley, just inland from the end of the San Francisco Bay. Filled with fragrant plum and apricot orchards, where you could pick and dry your own fruit at the end of each mild and fertile summer.
The orchards had already begun to disappear when I was a girl, and by the time I was a teenager, they were already mostly gone. The landscape became the suburban one now familiar to all of us, indistinguishable from much of metro Atlanta or even, unfortunately, much of Forsyth and Hall county, just down the road from here.
Part of the south bay had long ago been turned into landfill to build a large naval air station, Moffett Field, for the use during the Second World War. I remember being both awed by and rather afraid of the huge hangars and the constant noise of the military jets swooping in and out, just a few miles from where we lived. Especially during the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which took place when I was a young teen.
My best friend then, Janis, felt the need to tell me that her father, who worked for Lockheed, said that we were, of course, going to be one of the first places hit by nuclear weapons in the war that was going to happen any minute then between Russia and the United States.
My parents, indeed my whole family, had been active in the peace movement, and her parents were what we would now call hawks, and she wanted to let me know that it didn’t matter that we were living in a place where there was a lot of anti-war activity. Because of that air field, because of those monster hangars and the jets always landing there, we would be a target, you see. Any day now.
So, in those October days many years ago now, I remember that there were still things that were pleasant and comforting, like eating a dried apricot from your own tree. And things that were ugly and frightening, like the mammoth hangars at the airfield and the threat of being bombed.
And the things in between, the parts of life that were neither beautiful and peaceful nor ugly and frightening. Things that just were.
Ordinary plain things that you hardly noticed at all. Like the Leslie Salt flats at the very end of what was left of the bay.
Miles and miles, it seemed to me then, of mud and piles of raw salt, and sea gulls strutting about amidst them.
It was all just salt to me.
Now, I never was much of a salt person.
Perhaps if the salt flats had been cocoa bean fields, source of the Nestles crunch bars I so loved, I might have paid more attention.
Noticed them, or even appreciated them, like Belgian chemistry professor and author Pierre Lazlo did when he took a cross-country flight from Ithaca, New York, to San Francisco. As he took off from the airport in upstate New York, he remembers he could see the salt mine at Lansing, on the shore of a lake, extremely well, and then just before landing at the San Francisco airport, he could see those dirty gray-white salt flats at Newark, the ones near my hometown of Palo Alto. And he instantly made the connection between the two places, both owned by the same salt company.
My trip across the country had been framed by salt production, he writes in his exquisite little book, Salt: Grain of Life, just as the westward expansion of the United States had been fueled by salt and made perilous by the occasional lack or scarcity of this precious, indispensable resource.
The geography of our country, he observes, is sprinkled with salt, and its history is steeped and pickled in salt, from the Welsh settlers in the mountains of North Carolina, desperate for salt, who retrieved the precious substance from the floors of the little wooden cabins where they smoked hams, to the pioneers who were charged enormous sums along the way west for the salt they needed to survive the hot trail, for their daily needs, and to preserve meat and game.
Whoever had the salt to sell had the power to control the lives of thousands of people.
For this chemical explorer, salt has become his passion and his quest, giving shape and meaning to his life. He is fascinated by its composition and its colorful and complicated past and present.
How we have consecrated it, used it in religious ritual in nearly every faith tradition, from the Jews, whose Temple offerings included salt on the Sabbath, to the Catholic Church, where salt has been used in a variety of purifying rituals, including putting a small taste of salt on a baby’s lip at his or her baptism, to Buddhism, where salt is believed to repel evil spirits. Which is why it is customary to throw salt over your shoulder before entering your house after a funeral, because that scares off a spirit that might be clinging to your back.
He is not alone, of course, in noticing the significance of salt. Others have noted how we are as dependent on it as on air, earth, water, and fire, the other basic elements of life.
In earliest times, when we were hunters, we got the salt we needed from raw meat, as Eskimo hunters still do. When we became farmers, however, cereals no longer gave us all our salt, so the great salt hunt began. And the greed and violence that has accompanied it.
Reliable sources of salt became so critical to individual and collective survival that, indeed, the rise and decay of entire civilizations were intimately related to the availability of salt. The power to control the supply of salt was power over life and death.
A far-flung and profitable trade in ancient Greece involving the exchange of salt for slaves gave rise, one food writer noted, to the expression “not worth his salt.”
Salt has been used as money in many places throughout history. In ancient Roman times, soldiers were paid partially in salt, a salarium, from which the English word salary is derived. Twentieth century Ethiopia used salt disks for money. Stacks of them were kept in the treasury and in the past, in Sudan, where salt was scarce, it was traded for gold.
H.R. Malott, a field representative for the Salt Institute, wrote an essay about 30 years ago in which he noted that, while salt is abundant on and deep within the earth, the possession and control of this valuable commodity has often been an objective of war and, indeed, the cause of war. The early salt road via Solaria from Rosietta to Rome, he tells us, was constantly guarded by Roman soldiers who fought off marauders and hostile armies seeking salt. The Germans waged war for saline streams. In our own country, many of the Indian wars were fought over salt licks or salt springs, and the Indians protected them at all costs.
Throughout history, salt has been subject to government monopoly and special taxes. Salt taxes helped support the lifestyles of British monarchs, and thousands of British commoners were imprisoned for smuggling salt. French kings developed a salt monopoly by selling the rights to production to a favored few, who exploited their franchise to the point that a scarcity of salt was a major contributor to the French Revolution.
Indeed, more wars have been fought over salt than over gold.
Wars fought not just to obtain salt, but to obtain the freedom to produce salt without the tyranny of king or colonial ruler.
October is the birth month of Mahatma Gandhi, who declared his own war of non-violent civil disobedience more than 70 years ago against the British authorities in India who controlled the salt there.
I quote from Pierre Lazlo’s book on salt again, as he describes the momentous day on April 6, 1930. The scene was the Kathiwar coast of India, at Dandi:
It was an immense beach… A curious ceremony was taking place at the water’s edge in the early morning. A crowd, thousands of people dressed in white, was being led by a priest — or, at least, by a figure that a naive observer might have fancied as such.
Without removing the round spectacles he wore, he advanced into the water, though his faithful followers stayed back on the beach, silent.
The priest — but was he, indeed, one, or was he a mere preacher, some other sort of spiritual guide, or a tribal chief — entered the sea until he was knee deep.
He splashed it about his body and, for a few instants, made some ablutions as if to partake in a purification ritual.
Then the man in white returned to the beach and to the group of his numerous followers. On the way back, he crouched over one of the sea’s tidal leavings encrusted by the sun on an outcrop of dry mud, and scooped up a handful of that dry powder.
At the moment he held up those white crystals, a roar went out from the previously silent crowd, the realization that this was a successful culmination of a three-week-long March to the Sea by Gandhi and his followers to symbolically take back control of their own destinies, to dramatize the demand for his country’s independence.
For the Indians, as for so many other people over history, access to salt, essential to their diet and life, had been controlled by oppressors. Rich or poor, everyone was subjected by the British Crown to a tax on salt. And most unfairly so, since India produced its own salt, to prevent Indians from free and unregulated access to it.
Gandhi’s simple act of stooping on a mundane seashore and then holding up a common handful of salt, set off a great explosion, as Indians all over began collecting their own salt in a massive act of defiance. Even after Gandhi was arrested for his disobedient actions, thousands of his followers continued diligently and peacefully harvesting and distributing this grain of life.
There is a scene in the movie Gandhi which recreates the horrific scene where two thousand non-violent protestors walk toward the Dharsana salt production plant in an effort to take it over. As each column of marchers meet the ranks of police, their own countrymen, they are attacked with blows from steel-tipped whips. Struck, bloodied, and broken, they are picked up and nursed by the women.
Row upon row, hour after hour, until there were two dead and more than 300 wounded in the scorching heat.
It was this large-scale act of passive resistance by an awakened people, people who realized that they ultimately deserved to have, and indeed did have, power over their own lives, including control over such an ordinary and small substance, their daily salt, that ultimately won their independence.
They were, as the biblical scripture says, salted with fire, finding the passion within themselves to literally regain their own salt. As they did, cameras snapped and the rest of the world witnessed the contrast between the peaceful and humane fire within the Indian people, and the contrasting fierce brutality of the colonial government.
And there was no going back to the ways things were before.
Salt will undoubtedly never be the cause of dissent in contemporary America. This country has never imposed an extraordinary tax on salt, and it has become a cheap and plentiful commodity, abundantly sprinkled and added to almost everything on our grocery shelves and in our freezers. Americans, in fact, are doused in salt, in all the chips and cheese curls and French fries we inhale daily.
But Gandhi’s strategy, his identification of common-as-salt things and places which oppressed people could once again claim for their own, was used by activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. to take back restrooms, water fountains, and lunch counters during the Civil Rights Movement.
When people marched in great numbers and in civil disobedience to places like Selma, Alabama, and were met with whips and dogs and bloodshed.
The last time I was salted with enough fire to face any kind of real risk was too many years ago, when I marched with thousands of others in Oakland, California, to protest the Vietnam War, to take back control of the decision whether to wage war or wage peace.
I remember quite clearly the rows upon rows of police and guardsmen, batons and rifles fixed on the slowly moving crowd.
The wave upon wave of walkers: men, women, and children. The violence some met at the hands of defenders of that war. The arrests that followed.
There have been other marches and walks I have taken, but none since with such power to change our destiny.
This may, indeed, be a different time than any we have ever known, with the large-scale threat of terror and destruction in the world. Times when ordinary protests and concerns are put aside. After all, even Gandhi suspended his push for independence for the duration of World War II, in light of the pressing issues of global war.
Even still, in the midst of all this, there are actions to be taken, calls to each one of us, asking us to heed the warning of the ancient Chinese proverb, that “without salt, there’s no end to blandness.”
Which means we must expend or invest energy if we wish to resolve a problem, to right a wrong, to take back that which is vital to our lives.
Whether walking to continue to draw attention to the need for funds and health care treatment to cure and end breast cancer — as many thousands of people did last weekend — or walking to raise money and awareness of the need to treat and end AIDS.
Or to marching once more in loyal opposition when and if it becomes necessary to end this war on terrorism — if it harms and murders innocent Afghanis. Or deprives too many of our own citizens for too long of their basic civil and human rights. If the better, wiser course is one that stops the bombing and the killing.
In this month of Gandhi’s birth, on this day when we lift up the essential and sacred element of salt, what are we, each one of us, willing to march to the sea for, scoop up the salt for, stand in peaceful and brave defiance for?
Sing our life for?
How are our lives salted with fire?