© Copyright 2017 Jennifer Elliott, Ryerson University.
At first glance, this picture appears to be of some sort of precious gem or crystal. It is, but not one that is normally considered as such. It is a piece of rock salt that I found on the curb, scattered in one of the many piles that littered the curb. It appeared dirty and gross when I looked down at it from standing height. I crouched down to make a closer examination of it and in doing so made me consider how valuable salt actually is.
Rock salt is everywhere in wintertime, whether it’s crunching underfoot as you walk down the sidewalk or staining your shoes. In modern times, salt comes in a kaleidoscope of colors, flavors, textures, and sizes but they are all considered the same chemical – sodium chloride. The key difference is how they’re processed, such as evaporating sea water or boiling brine into crystals. Rock salt is coarser than the table salt we eat with because it comes straight from underground.
I don’t know where this particular piece of salt was mined, but I suspect it came from the Goderich salt mine that lies 4 hours away from Toronto. I imagine this piece of salt as part of the vast, ancient seabed lying over a thousand feet underground, undisturbed for hundreds of millions of years. Until the 19th century when a group of humans drilling for liquid gold discovered a fortune in edible diamonds instead. That silent, sleeping salt bed has transformed into an expansive underground city filled with the noise and grinding of modern machinery, hauling up thousands of tonnes of salt blocks daily that eventually led to the single piece I held in my hand.
Once upon a time, salt was a luxury and a primary form of currency and it influenced every aspect of human culture. You could tell a noble from a commoner depending on who had salt by their elbow at mealtimes. Humans settled in areas close to salt licks and forged the trails left behind by animals looking for the mineral. Wars were fought to obtain and control it. The word ‘salary’ comes from the Latin word ‘sal’ (salt), referring to the allowance Roman soldiers received with which they could purchase salt and eventually gave rise to the expression ‘being worth one’s salt’. Humans invented and created as they sought new ways to use salt. Using rock salt to de-ice roads and sidewalks only became a practice around the early 19th century as a response to the rise of the automobile and the paved road. To the aristocracy of the past, our way of preventing pedestrians and vehicles from slipping would be akin to scattering gold on the roads.
Now, salt is seen as a common object of daily life. Some view salt through a lens of distrust, scouring food labels looking for the health products that now market themselves as ‘salt-free’. Others view salt from an environmental perspective, worrying about salt leaching into the soil and precious groundwater, or corroding cars. Looking at this photograph, I prefer to view salt as a valuable testament to how far humankind has progressed.
Elliott, Jennifer. “Crave This Mineral” Photograph. Ryerson University. 6 February 2017.
Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. Routledge, 2008.
Kelly, V.R., et al. “Road Salt: Moving Toward the Solution.” The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. December 2010. www.caryinstitute.org
Pataki, Amy. “Salt at the source: A day in a Lake Huron mine.” Toronto Star. http://projects.thestar.com/projects/salt_mine_lake_huron.html
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.