All We Grow Around Here Is Salt
You could call it a marsh
From above, the low plain where I live spreads like burned butter from gnarled mountains to bright blue sea. Studded with broad shallow ponds, the etangs, where flamingos redden like cigarette burns and spherical little crabs creep along battlements of slimy seaweed.
But zoom in closer. The big etangs with their islands and fishing nets and crumbling ghost towns are the progenitors of smaller ones. Nothing in nature is this orderly, this square. It takes a human hand and eye to draw a straight line on a round Earth and mark off the space with walkways and fences. An ancient system of waterwheels and weirs and sluices traps the water that rolls in from the sea, flooding the low-lying beach when the moon drags it over the sand.
The salt ponds trap the water. The sun does the rest.
Outside the sea, salt is naturally hard to come by. Thousands of miles from here in the high, dry Rocky Mountains, sheep lick salt from the roads, oblivious to the cars of gawking tourists that crawl by.
Before the cities and the farms, we got it from the blood and meat of our fellow mammals. Build a big brain that way. Sodium channels run like canals through networks of cells, enabling the coordination that lets you scratch your nose or stand on two feet or form a mysterious self-aware consciousness from the inert lump of your brain.
The Romans didn’t know that. But they knew that without salt, we die. They knew they needed it to preserve food long before refrigeration was invented. It’s a popular myth that Roman soldiers were paid in salt, giving rise to our word for salary, from Latin salarium. They weren’t. But the lie has caught fire because it’s believable. Because salt, common as it is, is essential.
What keeps us alive can also kill us
That’s true of everything. Drink more than a liter of water an hour for several hours, and you’ll start wobbling and twitching like a black-livered junkie on Welfare Wednesday. Take a hit of pure oxygen, and your lungs might explode. Salt, like anything else, like life itself, is a poison in strong enough doses.