Waiting for a traffic light in Fredonia, I watched a truck pass. Looking like the tanker that carries gasoline, this was marked "liquefied sulfur."
A moment passed in silence.
"What's sulfur?" I ask the driver. "All I can think of is 'sulfur and molasses' and 'fire and brimstone,' and, come to think of it, I don't know anything about brimstone either."
Sulfur - where does it come from? What is it used for? I figured I had lots to learn.
I decided to start with the easy one: Brimstone. With "fire and" I learn that it's used in the Book of Revelations to describe a stinking burning lake where we good people hope not to end.
More of a surprise to me is that brimstone is a synonym for sulfur. Did some dusty recess of my mind know that when I automatically paired the expressions?
OK, Internet do your stuff.
Well, I can buy a pound of whatever it is for $40 or $50 so it's probably not terribly valuable. But what is it?
Once again I'm grateful for Wikipedia - and instantly embarrassed I did not recognize it as an early basic element. Have I forgotten all my chemistry? Even the periodic table? (Yes, number 16:S.)
Sulfur was discovered by the Chinese over 2,000 years B.C. Used in gunpowder it is what gives a flaming match its blue color and what causes the "phew" when we smell a skunk or garlic though I hardly find those odors comparable. OK, rotten eggs.
It is a byproduct of petroleum and other fossil-related fuels. Because plants thrive on it, it is highly valuable as a fertilizer.
(Whatever sulfate anion is, the model looks like a red beach ball stuffed into chartreuse briefs. What fun I could have with that! Ah, but I digress.)
I can learn how to make it - or buy it on the Internet. I've learned now that it only has to be heated to 120 degrees F. before it becomes a liquid, thick and light brownish. Higher temperatures make it lustrous and dark.
It's used in crops to boost yield. OK, fertilizer. Got that. It's vital for the plants' production of chlorophyll - green leaves instead of sickly yellowy ones. OK, got that too. And plants can't get enough nitrogen if they're lacking their sulfur.
Somewhere in all these pages I also read that forage plants with sufficient sulfur will have a higher amount of protein which leads to more milk, more meat and even more wool. It fattens them up faster too. Which in a very roundabout way takes me back to my original question.
All right, sulfur I get. But why ship it in liquid form?
It has to be heated to 290 degrees to keep it liquid, making the innards of that truck pretty darned hot. (It can explode when the temperature reaches 450 degrees and is a recognized transportation hazard.) (And up pops something about avoiding bananas if I want to reduce the fat around my belly. Ah, yes, the Internet!)
Sulfur is readily available as a solid or in powder form and nothing I've yet found indicates it's unstable. In fact, rocks of it are prized by collectors because of its pretty bright color and polyhedron shape.
So why not simply grind it up and put it on the plants? Sounds a heck of a lot safer - and easier - if you'd ask me. But don't.
Enough - only NOW I realize I totally skipped "sulfur and molasses." Well, that's a springtime remedy so maybe I'll check it out then.
Postscript. Sulfur ($15 for one pound, two thirds of that for shipping) does NOT burn. It would produce sulfur dioxide if it did which is highly poisonous. Just being close (not inhaling) gives one a tremendous headache. I know.
Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to email@example.com