• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

March 22, 2002

Air Date: March 22, 2002

FULL SHOW

(stream/download) as an MP3 file

SEGMENTS

Dioxin Debate / Diane Toomey

(stream / mp3)

For years, environmentalists in Michigan have been pressuring the state to clean up what they say are dangerous levels of dioxin in the soil of Midland, where Dow Chemical Company is headquartered. Dow says there’s no danger and the state has proposed easing dioxin cleanup standards. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to soon release its long-awaited report on dioxin’s health hazards, and by most accounts, it will say that dioxin is more dangerous than current regulations assume. Living On Earth’s science editor Diane Toomey reports. (07:00)

LA Bus Riders / Ingrid Lobet

(stream / mp3)

The transit authority in Los Angeles fought a bus riders’ union all the way to the Supreme Court so it wouldn’t have to buy more buses. Ingrid Lobet reports how that could happen in a city in which traffic congestion and air pollution are major concerns. (04:00)

Health Note: Chewing Gum and Memory / Jessica Penney

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Jessica Penney reports on how chewing gum may improve your memory. (01:15)

Almanac: Fragrance Strips

(stream / mp3)

This week, facts about the first fragrance strip. Today’s perfume-filled magazines owe their fashion scents to a pioneering ad that first appeared in newspapers sixty-five years ago. (01:30)

Organic Food Benefits

(stream / mp3)

A new study shows that organic produce may have some nutritional advantages over conventionally-grown produce. Host Steve Curwood discusses the study’s findings with author, Dr. John Paterson of the Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary in Scotland. (04:45)

Precision Agriculture / Jeff Horwich

(stream / mp3)

Instead of kicking back during the winter, many farmers are now keeping busy—at the computer. They’re using global positioning systems to do what’s called "precision agriculture," which uses satellite coordinates to help map their fields. As Minnesota Public Radio’s Jeff Horwich reports the use of this technology is helping to make planting crops a precise science. (05:30)

March Hares / Sy Montgomery

(stream / mp3)

Commentator Sy Montgomery weighs in with her theory on why the month of March is a time of madness for hares. (03:30)

Jeep Ad / Jonathan Ahl

(stream / mp3)

From the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, Jonathan Ahl reports on a television ad for the auto-maker Jeep that’s led to a brouhaha between animal rights groups and hunters. (03:00)

Technology Note: Travel Pod / Cynthia Graber

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on a new system of public transportation – the travel pod. (01:20)

Winship Tribute

(stream / mp3)

Host Steve Curwood remembers friend, mentor and World Media Foundation board member Tom Winship. Winship, the former editor of the Boston Globe, died earlier this month. (01:30)

Preserving Languages / Clay Scott

(stream / mp3)

In the United States, a number of Native American languages are in danger of becoming extinct. Clay Scott looks at two tribes—the Crow and the Blackfeet that are trying to keep their languages alive and pass them on to the next generation. (11:00)

Wild Horses / Verlyn Klinkenborg

(stream / mp3)

The Bush administration is planning to remove half the wild horse herds from public lands in the West. Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg argues the horses are fundamental to the country’s landscape and history, and should be left alone. (03:30)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Diane Toomey, Ingrid Lobet, Jeff Horwich, Jonathan Ahl, Clay Scott
COMENTATORS: Sy Montgomery, Verlyn Klinkenborg
GUESTS: John Paterson
UPDATES: Jessica Penney, Cynthia Graber

[INTRO THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Years after Dow Chemical acknowledged hotspots of dioxin on its property in Midland, Michigan, the state has yet to test soil around neighboring homes. Activists say such tests will be a good idea, but Dow disagrees.

FEERER: If someone came to your door and wanted to sample your property for dioxin, is that something that you'd even want to have done? It's not that we're opposed to doing more sampling. It's just that it's not really even scientifically relevant anymore.

CURWOOD: Also, a Native American tribe mounts a campaign to save its language from extinction.

KIPP: Well, why would you want to speak Blackfoot? They don't speak it in Great Falls. They don't speak it in New York. And they don't speak it at the universities. I think that's really missing the point entirely. If it speaks well in my own soul, then that's really what it's about.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this.

[THEME MUSIC]

Back to top

 

Dioxin Debate

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Years ago, soil sampling in Midland, Michigan revealed high levels of dioxin on the grounds of Dow Chemical and in nearby playgrounds and parks. Midland is Dow's world headquarters. And dioxins from its chemical plant came from making such products as saran wrap, Agent Orange, and various pesticides.

Despite the test results, little has been done by Dow or the state of Michigan to clean up these sites. But as the public learns more about dioxin contamination in Midland, a debate is heating up. How much dioxin is too much? Living on Earth's science editor, Diane Toomey, reports.

TOOMEY: Under Michigan law, dioxin soil concentrations greater than 90 parts per trillion may indicate a possible health hazard. Dioxin has been linked to a range of health effects, including cancer and reproductive damage. Many of the soil samples taken in the city of Midland tested above the state's trigger level. But environmentalists complain there was not state follow-up to those results. Regulators say that's not true. They put the onus on Dow to do more research. So the company commissioned a study to look at something called the bioavailability of the dioxin. That means the percentage of the toxin that's actually released from the soil and enters the human body if someone, say a child, ingests it. Jeff Feerer is the senior environmental projects manager for Dow Chemical.

FEERER: We essentially hired a contractor, someone who is a dioxin toxicologist, Dr. Dennis Pastenbach. And, his group essentially built a model, or a simulation, that replicated the conditions inside a human stomach and intestine. And what they found that, lo and behold, only about 25 percent of the dioxin was actually extractable in the conditions of the human stomach.

TOOMEY: This bioavailability study, Dow says, proved to the state that Midland's dioxin problem wasn't serious. Linda Birnbaum is director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Experimental Toxicology Division. A dioxin expert, she reviewed the Dow study.

BIRNBAUM: They used an in-vitro technique to estimate bioavailability. And my concern was that this technique has not yet been validated for dioxin-like compounds. It's been shown to work quite well for some other kinds of chemicals, but not for the dioxins. I was very concerned about that.

TOOMEY: Dow maintains this method replicates the human digestive tract better than any animal experiment, although the company admits this is the first time the test has been used on dioxin. And there are other ways to be exposed to dioxin in soil, including inhalation and absorption through the skin, although Dow also downplays the dangers posed by those pathways.

But a recently released federal health assessment says there's not enough data to determine if the Midland soil poses a health risk. For instance, no backyards in Midland have ever been tested for dioxin. The federal report recommends the state should carry out residential testing. But Dow doesn't agree. Again, Dow spokesperson, Jeff Feerer.

FEERER: Any time you sample residential areas, it's a tremendous upheaval and worry for the residents that are being affected. And, we're still trying to figure out whether this recommendation makes any sense to us, given all the sampling that's been done in Midland. But, think about it, that if someone came to your door and wanted to sample your property for dioxin, is that something that you'd even want to have done? It's not that we're opposed to doing more sampling. It's just that it's not really even scientifically relevant anymore.

TOOMEY: Complicating the Midland situation is a proposal by Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality to raise the dioxin concentration that requires investigation, from 90 to 150 parts per trillion. Ken Silfven is the spokesperson for the department. He says when the state recalculated how much actual soil exposure there is for Michigan residents, it became apparent that the standard should be eased.

SILFVEN: One of the exposure factors was, like if you wear shorts and sleeveless shirts and that nine months out of the year, in Michigan that just is not a reality. So I think some of those types of inputs were being adjusted.

TOOMEY: Silfven acknowledges that staff at the Department of Environmental Quality voiced descent about the change. In one email, a state toxicologist writes, "The more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I get." Nevertheless, the department went ahead with the proposal.

DEFUR: I think it's a most peculiar time to do it.

TOOMEY: Peter Defur is a professor of environmental studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He says any changes in state regulation should wait for an impending report from the Environmental Protection Agency. The so-called dioxin reassessment has been more than a decade in the making, and could likely alter the regulatory landscape for dioxin. Defur co-chaired an outside panel that reviewed the report.

DEFUR: The conclusions are that dioxin is more carcinogenic than we had previously believed. That each one of us in the United States carries a body burden that is greater than EPA would consider to be safe. That the non-cancer effects are at least, if not more, problematic than are the cancer effects. None of these are captured in current regulations and in the way we set our current standards.

BIRNBAUM: Dioxin might be thought of as another lead.

TOOMEY: EPA toxicologist Linda Birnbaum says dioxin's most insidious effects include learning disabilities and IQ and immune system suppression that may arise from prenatal exposure.

BIRNBAUM: We believe that the most sensitive organism to the effects of dioxin is the developing embryo or fetus. And partially, it's because dioxin appears to interfere with very key developmental processes. And the kinds of effects at background levels that we're looking for are not things that are going to be picked up in a visit to the pediatrician.

TOOMEY: Peter Defur says the comparison of dioxin to lead is an analogy that can be carried into the area of regulation.

DEFUR: It means that EPA will now have to face a couple of policy decisions that are rare. And the first one is how you deal with a contaminant that covers the entire United States. The other policy problem EPA is going to have is addressing the cleanup of contaminated sites. They would be undertaking a massive effort.

TOOMEY: Given that the release of the EPA's final dioxin reassessment is already long overdue, there's no guarantee it will be made public this summer, as is now expected. For now, states have a wide berth when setting their dioxin standards and dealing with contaminated sites.
Michigan regulators are currently evaluating public comments received on its proposal to ease its dioxin standard. And as for the city of Midland, those same regulators say they've yet to determine a timeframe for sampling of residential areas near the Dow site. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

Related link:
here for Part 1 of the Dioxin story on last week's show (Story #1 on "Saginaw").">

Back to top

 

LA Bus Riders

CURWOOD: Bus riders are usually an isolated bunch. They're often buried behind newspapers or covered with headphones. Not much of a community, you might think. But, when the Transit Authority in Los Angeles tried to eliminate monthly bus passes a few years ago, bus riders there formed a union, and blocked the move. Then, the riders used civil rights laws to demand more buses to ease crowding and to improve service to poor neighborhoods. The Transit Authority and Bus Riders Union dispute went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And now, the bus riders have prevailed. From Los Angeles, Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.

[SOUND OF BUS]

LOBET: That's a sound bus riders in Los Angeles say they're sick of hearing, a bus so crowded it can't or won't stop, leaving them stranded.

PETTIT: My name is Shepard Pettit. And, last week, I was catching a bus going to King Boulevard. Eleven buses passed me up. The first three were overcrowded. We waited more than an hour. And I was so frustrated that these buses were passing me up.

LOBET: Pettit, who uses a wheelchair, says if there were more buses, there would be more room in the aisles, and he'd have less stress trying to maneuver. Today, he's out at a busy L.A. intersection with fellow members of the Bus Riders Union. They're wearing yellow t-shirts, and handing out pamphlets in English, Korean and Spanish demanding more buses, and more bus routes. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, on the other hand, wants more emphasis on light rail. Even though the bus riders have won in court, they say their effort is ongoing.

ROJAS: We're the Bus Riders Union. Today, we are here. And every bus rider should be documenting the collisions on the buses.

LOBET: Cynthia Rojas says it's not that she has anything against trains. "They're fine if you happen to live near one," she says. But most people don't. And the tracks seem to go in places where people already have a way to get to work. That's what got her involved.

ROJAS: It was such a clear example of a separate and unequal transportation system. Rail lines came on time. You had room for your laptop computer. You had room to sit and read the newspaper. You look at the bus system, people are crawling all over each other.

LOBET: But Mark Littman, a spokesman for the MTA, says it's inaccurate to divide transit users between those who take the train and those who take the bus.

LITTMAN: The same people who use the buses use the trains. It's not an either/or. And this notion that the poor and people of color only want to ride buses in Los Angeles is bogus.

LOBET: Littman says buses are already scheduled every two to three minutes on some routes. They're beginning to cause their own congestion. And people may think of light rail as more expensive than buses. But over time, he says, bus routes actually cost more.

LITTMAN: It takes about $200,000 a year to operate a bus. So you may get federal dollars to buy a bus. But they're not going to pay you to operate the bus.

LOBET: So, the way the MTA sees it, each time it's lost a legal fight with the Bus Riders Union and been ordered to buy another bus, that's another $200,000 a year it has to budget. And, Littman says, that's a problem.

LITMAN: You're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of taxpayer monies to respond to a dictate that really had no basis in good transit planning.

LOBET: On the other side, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund has been representing the Bus Riders Union. And western regional counsel Erika Teasley sees an ulterior motive in the MTA's preference for rail projects.

TEASLEY: The MTA is a political body. And I think that the politicians would really like to have rail coming through their neighborhoods. And they can say, "I brought this rail into this neighborhood."

[SOUNDS OF CHANTING IN SPANISH]

LOBET: The long, legal fight has brought changes. There are more buses now, and more routes. And all 2,100 buses in the MTA fleet will run on cleaner burning, compressed natural gas by the end of this year, reducing diesel fumes and particulates throughout the region. Observers say this dispute between the MTA and the Bus Riders Union is partly a question of whether the MTA should focus on luring people out of their cars or giving those who have no cars a reliable way to get to work. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.

Back to top

 

Health Note: Chewing Gum and Memory

CURWOOD: Coming up, a new study finds that organic foods may be better for you than you think. First, this Environmental Health Note from Jessica Penney.

[THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

PENNEY: Your teacher may have frowned upon it in class. But, chewing gum might just improve your memory. Researchers at the University of Northumbria in northern England had been noticing advertisements, touting gum's ability to help people concentrate. And they decided to check out the claim.

They had 75 people take a series of computerized tests. Twenty-five of the participants chewed sugarless gum, another 25 chewed nothing, and the remaining 25 were a sham chewing group that just moved their mouths and pretended to chew. Contrary to gum advertisements, gum chewers didn't do any better at concentration tests. But they did do about 35-percent better on memory tests than the other participants.

The researchers aren't sure how all this works. It might be because chewing gum raises heart rates, which could increase blood flow to the brain. And it is know that chewing stimulates the production of insulin. And there are many insulin receptors in a key memory area of the brain. But scientists don't know what role these receptors play. They also don't know what part of memory gum chewing helps. It could improve making memories in the first place, or it could also help in retrieving those memories. So until further research is done, you might want to chew a bit of gum to help you remember this week's Health Note. I'm Jessica Penney.

[MUSIC UNDER]

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Sarastro Quartet, "Massig Bewegt," SRE SELECTION (SRI - 1998)]

Back to top

 

Almanac: Fragrance Strips

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Moog Cook Book, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"]

CURWOOD: Sixty-five years ago, the noses of American newspaper readers sniffed something more than just ink and paper. The morning news came with the distinct scent of roses. The fragrant strip had been born. A drug store used it to advertise flowers. But the perfume industry quickly grabbed the idea, to the delight of some, and to the dismay of those with chemical sensitivities.

The fragrance industry has come up with all sorts of novel ideas to put scent to paper. There's soap-based film infused with perfume oil that releases an aroma only when touched. And perfume oil can be encased in tiny bubbles that burst when applied to the skin. The next generation of paper-based scents isn't quite as sweet. Children may be attracted to the smelly old history of the world. A series of books packed with historical whiffs, including a sweaty aroma, and a rotting crocodile mummy, and Henry the VIII's diseased toe.

But who needs paper when digital smells are on the way? They include printers that spritz scent rather than sentences. So you can e-mail a virtual bouquet to that special someone. Why pick when you can just point and click? And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC UNDER]

Back to top

 

Organic Food Benefits

CURWOOD: Nutritionally speaking, organic fruits and vegetables have not been considered better for you than food grown conventionally. But a study just published in the European Journal of Nutrition suggests organic fruits and vegetables contain more of a substance that helps reduce the risk of colon cancer, and some forms of heart disease. The research was conducted by Dr. John Paterson.

He's a clinical biochemist at the Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary near Lockerbie, Scotland. And the key, according to Dr. Paterson, is a compound naturally found in plants called salicylic acid.

PATERSON: If a plant is attacked by infection or stress, it synthesizes salicylic acid. And the salicylic acid that's synthesized in the plants then switches on various defense genes within the plant, and helps protect the plant against the infection.

CURWOOD: Now, I'm wondering why you decided to look at the differences in the salicylic acid between organic and conventionally grown foods.

PATERSON: Curiosity, but with some reasoning behind it. I wondered if plants that were grown organically were likely to have more salicylic acid. And the reason for that is that they're more likely to get infection because they're less likely to be sprayed with pesticide or insecticide.

CURWOOD: So, what did your research find out?

PATERSON: We found out that vegetables soups that had been produced from organically grown vegetables had, indeed, higher salicylic acid levels than those grown from non-organic sources.

CURWOOD: What could be the other possible explanations though?

PATERSON: There are other possible explanations. These include the different amounts of spices in the soups. Spices and herbs have particularly high amounts of salicylic acid in them. And if the organic soups were more heavily spiced than the non-organic, than that may account for the difference. And, other possibilities include different methods of preparation of the soups, etc.

CURWOOD: Now, I'm wondering if you tested any of the organic foods before they were in the soup pot to see if there was a difference in the salicylic acid levels between those and conventionally grown?

PATERSON: No. We didn't do that. Scotland is not a country that's renowned for its fruit and vegetable consumption. We tend to take a lot more in the way of vegetable soups in this country. There's a famous saying in Scotland. And the question is, what's a Scotsman's favorite vegetable?

CURWOOD: And the answer?

PATERSON: A sausage.

CURWOOD: [Laughter] Okay.

PATERSON: And that, maybe, explains why I was more interested in looking at vegetable soups rather than fruits and vegetables directly. But that's something that someone should do.

CURWOOD: How possible do you think, based on this research that you've been doing, that organically grown fruits and vegetables have higher levels of salicylic acid?

PATERSON: I think it's a reasonable premise and the fact that we have found differences in the foodstuffs concerned, then it raises, at least, a possibility.

CURWOOD: So, what evidence is there that there is a health benefit to being a vegetarian, and one that leans heavily on organic foods?

PATERSON: We know that if you take in more fruits and vegetables, you have a reduced risk of bowel cancer, and of cardiovascular disease. That's fairly well established. And, I've been surprised at how many opinions there are in regard to the benefits, or otherwise, of organic food. But it's based on almost little evidence in terms of scientific work. There's been very little scientific work carried out. And I think until that's done, no one will really know.

CURWOOD: Dr. John Paterson is a clinical biochemist at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary in Scotland. Thanks for speaking with us.

PATERSON: My pleasure.

Back to top

 

Precision Agriculture

CURWOOD: There was a time when winter on the farm meant equipment tune-ups, cleaning the house, and spending time with the family. But, for a growing number of farmers, winter is being spent in front of a computer screen. Global Positioning Systems, and something called "precision agricultural," are taking more of the guesswork out of growing some crops. Minnesota Public Radio's Jeff Horwich reports.

HORWICH: Chris Dunsmore is a serious farmer, a serious farmer who spends 20 hours a week playing on the computer.

DUNSMORE: Anything that's got a cord on it, I love. And that's part of the reason I spend a lot of time working here. Because I enjoy doing it. I enjoy working with software and computers. It's a daily challenge.

HORWICH: So, you're kind of a technology junkie, in any case.

DUNSMORE: Pretty much so. Yeah.

HORWICH: Dunsmore's PC shares a sunny room in the farmhouse with the washer and dryer. On the screen, he pulls up the irregular outlines of a farm field, covered with tiny neon dots.

DUNSMORE: On this field here of about 110 acres, we have 16,000 data points to work with within that one field.

Photo: Jeff HorwichChris Dunsmore uses his computer, and the
global positioning system, to plan how to use
his land. (Photo: Jeff Horwich)


HORWICH: What's a corn farmer doing with 16,000 data points? During the harvest, Dunsmore's combine took a measurement every three seconds of how much corn it was bringing in. An antenna on top of the cab linked up with the Global Positioning System satellite to record the exact position of the combine on earth at each moment. Put it all together, and you get 16,000 readings, fading from red to yellow to blue on a computer screen, telling you how well your corn did at any given spot.

DUNSMORE: You can see here, the lower yielding areas of the field. These here, we already know that there are drainage concerns.

HORWICH: Dunsmore and three other farmers jointly farm 3,500 acres in central Minnesota. Modern farm equipment and GPS readings break their land down for them into hundreds of thousands of smaller units, hence the term "precision farming." Put simply, the patterns revealed by the tiny units lead to much more specific prescriptions. For seeds, for fertilizer, for drainage, it's more efficient and, arguably, better for the planet.

ROBERT: We like to say that we do the right thing, at the right place, the right way.

HORWICH: University of Minnesota professor Pierre Robert was there in 1982 when some local soil sample data was plugged in to one of the first IBM PCs on campus. Robert considers that day, in St. Paul, the world's first glimpse of precision ag.

ROBERT: The Midwest, it is where the concept started years ago. But it is also the area where the precision agriculture is certainly well adopted. There are areas in specialty crops, like sugar beets in Northwest Minnesota, where we have about 40-percent of the farmers using some aspect of the concept.

HORWICH: Precision ag spread gradually as equipment prices came down, and technology allowed farmers and researchers to become more precise. With more mainstream crops like corn and soybeans, Robert guesses ten percent of Minnesota farmers are using it. Individual farmers may be looking at their bottom line. But researchers, like Robert, are also excited about potential environmental benefits. Farmers confronted with computer maps of their fields are finding many places where they can cutback dramatically on fertilizer and other chemicals.

ROBERT: In a previous project, we strongly could show that we are capable of reducing by at least 50 percent the use of herbicides. And of course, that has a strong potential to reduce excess into surface water.

HORWICH: By now, the first wave of enthusiastic, progressive farmers, like Chris Dunsmore, have mostly come onboard. But current commodity prices are discouraging the next wave of farmers from making an expensive investment in new technology. It costs around $9,000 for the basic GPS receiver, crop yield monitor, and software it takes to get started in precision farming.

[SOUND OF TRACTOR STARTING, BEEPING]

HORWICH: Dunsmore climbs up into his tractor to show off some of his newest equipment. It's a yield monitor for his sugar beet harvester, installed last year. When he fires up the tractor, a screen near the roof of the cab glows a phosphorescent blue. He punches a few buttons on it to walk through some common operations.

At harvest time, it measures how much he's pulling up, and how much moisture is in the crops. It's a critical piece of the puzzle that shows what's working, what's not, and where money's being wasted. For years, Dunsmore had been raising varieties of corn and soybeans he thought were doing well. But a detailed look at the numbers showed they just weren't performing in certain fields.

So far, the biggest savings of all have come from cutting back on fertilizer where he doesn't need it. He estimates he's saving five dollars per acre each year because of precision farming. At 3,500 acres, that's more than $17,000--nothing to sneeze at. Still, Dunsmore says farming in the information age is both a blessing and a curse.

DUNSMORE: We've got just oodles of information. That's one of the biggest problems we have now is we're getting so much information that we're having a hard time breaking it down.

HORWICH: Information overload might be the biggest of Chris Dunsmore's worries. But precision farming may accelerate some much more intractable issues facing American agriculture as a whole. For one thing, economies of scale, and the cost of new technologies make precision ag accessible mostly to large farms, which then only increase their competitive advantage. Even Dunsmore teamed up with three neighbors to make it pay off. And some say America's farmers are too efficient already, producing more food than the world is willing to pay for, and keeping commodity prices perpetually low. This frustrating paradox of efficiency is one problem precision farming may only make worse. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Horwich in Central Minnesota.

[MUSIC: Hector Zazou, "Persephone," INVOCATION (Six Degrees - 1997)]

Back to top

 

March Hares

CURWOOD: As Lewis Carroll sat writing "Alice in Wonderland" back in 1862, he faced a dilemma. Just who should host a mad tea party? His inspiration came from the proverbial expression "mad as a March hare." It may seem an obvious choice. But, as commentator Sy Montgomery suggests, like everything in nature, there's a method in the March hare's madness.

MONTGOMERY: Quiet and shy, the hare is seldom glimpsed except at dawn and dusk here in New England. Even then, it's hard to see with a coat that varies with the season; white to camouflage it in snow, and brown the rest of the year.

It would seem that the snowshoe hare upholds all standards of lapine sanity and propriety. But come March, hares go haywire. Symptoms of insanity appear mid-month. Hares dare to dash about in full daylight. They pick fights with other hares, and engage in boxing and kicking matches, and high-speed chases.

And as the month wears on, as Alice might say, "things get curiouser and curiouser." The strangest scene takes place when male and female meet. After sniffing each other out, one hare will leap over the other. And the one in mid-air releases upon the one below a shower of urine. These airborne aerobics go on until both animals are thoroughly soaked.

And for hares, this is apparently a huge turn-on. Mating follows several times over the course of the next few hours. It's not exactly flowers and candy, folks. But, urine does contain important chemical information about potential mates, including levels of sex hormones. If you thought human courtship and child raising was complicated, hares have a lot more to deal with.

Hares produce up to four litters a year, driving a dramatic boom and bust population cycle. In the northern half of the continent, hare numbers increase up to a hundred-fold, roughly every five years, and then abruptly crash. This ten-year cycle has puzzled researchers for decades. Most astonishing is that the hare boom is synchronous across the northern 4,000 miles of its range throughout the evergreen forests of Canada.

But in more southerly climes, with more varied forests and many different predators, most experts agree the hares either do not have the same boom and bust population cycle, or the cycle is far subtler and more complex. But the picture is even more complicated. Recent research shows the hare cycle also involves subtle changes in the relationships between plants and animals, parasites and hosts, and, perhaps, even events 93 million miles away.

Among the latest findings, as growing numbers of hares begin to decimate their grassy food, plants respond by manufacturing new chemicals to make themselves less tasty. Malnourished hares are more susceptible to parasites, like stomach worms. And weakened, they fall prey more easily to predators.

And finally, new work from Canada suggests sun spot activity, a ten point six year cycle, might affect weather patterns which could control plant growth, which could affect hare numbers. So, perhaps the hare's mysterious March madness isn't so hare-brained after all, but an expression of a strategy brilliant and perfect beyond our comprehension.

[MUSIC: Magnetic Fields, "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits," 69 LOVE SONGS]

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of the new book, "Encantado: Pink Dolphin of the Amazon."

[MUSIC UNDER]

Back to top

 

Jeep Ad

CURWOOD: And you're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. A recent television ad for a car company has created a battle between hunting interests and animal welfare groups. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Jonathan Ahl reports.

AHL: The ad in question features a group of hunters admiring two seemingly dead deer tied to the roof of a Jeep. The vehicle's owner then drives into an area marked "No Hunting." He unties the deer, and they leap off the Jeep and run to safety.

Within hours after the ad's first airing, Jeep's parent company, Daimler Chrysler, was inundated with calls from hunting groups, complaining the ad made them out to be the bad guys. Kelly Whitley is a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association.

WHITLEY: We don't think it reflected hunters accurately. They weren't interested in buying a Jeep after they saw the ad.

CURWOOD: So, Jeep pulled the ad. And animal welfare and rights groups started e-mailing their members, asking them to call a toll-free number where a poll was underway on whether to restore the ad.

MALE: If you would like to register your comment about the Jeep deer hunter ad, please press one.

[SOUND OF PHONE MESSAGE]

AHL: While it appeared to be a poll concerning the ad, the information was not being passed on to Jeep. The company that handles calls for Daimler Chrysler set-up the automated system to deflect callers wanting to complain about the ad so that customers with questions about their Jeeps could get through to live operators.

Daimler Chrysler spokesperson, James Kenyon, says, the company didn't authorize the fake poll. He also says Jeep won't be putting the ad back on the air.

KENYON: The ad was intended to do one thing. People saw something else that was not intended to be there. And, we've even heard from people who felt that since that ad ran, we should run a pro-hunting ad. Well, that misses the point again.

AHL: While Kenyon says Jeep will not take a stand in the debate on hunting, he does acknowledge that hunters make up a substantial part of the company's customer base. The automated poll was taken down about an hour after our interview with Kenyon.

Animal welfare and rights groups, meanwhile, say Jeep had an opportunity to sell their product in a positive way but were bullied by hunting interests. Karen Coangelo is a spokesperson for the ASPCA.

COANGELO: I don't think that they're specifically not looking at what people are saying about the ad itself. I think they're just worried about business, in general, which is somewhat unfortunately.

AHL: Coangelo says she's disappointed that Jeep listened to the concerns of hunters more than the concerns of people interested in protecting animals. She also says the ASPCA will do a better job of checking the validity of phone polls before calling on members to respond to them. For Living on Earth, I'm Jonathan Ahl.

[MUSIC: "Cavatina" DEER HUNTER (soundtrack)]

Back to top

 

Technology Note: Travel Pod

CURWOOD: Just ahead, bringing a Native American tongue back from the brink of extinction. First, this Environmental Technology Note from Cynthia Graber.

[THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

GRABER: It's white, it's light, and it'll zip past traffic to get you to your destination. It's your own travel pod, part of a new public transportation system called "Urban Light Transport," or ULTra. Cardiff, the capital of Wales, is the test site for the ULTra pods that will be posted at designated stops along the city streets. Commuters hop in and program their destination into a computer. The pod, which fits four passengers, glides along at about 25 miles per hour. A computer system keeps it from colliding with other ULTras along a network of tracks that take up only about half as much space as a car lane.

When you reach your desired stop, the pod door opens and out you go. Designers say the ULTra system should cost about half as much as a conventional light rail system, while providing reliable and regular service. And since they'll run on batteries that recharge at every stop, the pods will reduce inner city pollution, along with congestion and the need for parking space. The first system should be running Cardiff by 2004. Advanced Transport Systems Limited, the company developing the pods, is already in discussion with governments around the world about bringing ULTra travel pods to other cities, maybe one near you. That's this week's Technology Note. I'm Cynthia Graber.

[MUSIC UNDER]

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujeah," GRACE (Sony - 1994)]

Back to top

 

Winship Tribute

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And just ahead, the dilemma of wild horses. But first, I'd like to remember an old friend. Tom Winship, the former editor of The Boston Globe, died recently. He was on the board of the World Media Foundation, the parent organization that produces Living on Earth. And without him, this program might not be on the radio today.

When I was first shopping around the idea of creating this show, I got a variety of responses, most of them fairly skeptical. "Living on Earth?" someone asked. "Won't you run out of environmental stories? You'll be Dying on Earth in six months."

But when I pitched the idea to Tom Winship, he didn't miss a beat. "Go for it," he said instantly. "That would be super." And then he asked if he could help. But of course, he had already. I learned journalism in The Boston Globe newsroom, captained by Tom Winship. He led The Globe in defiance of the Nixon White House, and printed the Pentagon papers. He guided the paper through the searing years of school desegregation in Boston. And he brought home Pulitzer Prize after Pulitzer Prize. Most important, he taught me that the press needs to speak for those who would not otherwise be heard. And that the best stories aren't handed to you. You have to find them. And when you find them, they can be unpopular. Run them anyway. Just be sure that you are fair, accurate and timely.

The last time I saw Tom Winship, I knew his health was running out on him. But he seemed as fresh as I had ever known him. "How's it going?" he asked. I really didn't have a chance to answer when he said, "You've got something going there, Steve. Don't give it up." Thanks, Tom. I won't.

[MUSIC: Jeff Fahey, "Amazing Grace," DEATH MARCHES]

Back to top

 

Preserving Languages

CURWOOD: As many as 6,000 languages are spoken in the world. And nearly half of them are in danger of extinction. The disappearance of a language is the loss of a unique system of communication. But, it also means the loss of a culture, an expression of human experience.

In the United States, of the 300 or so Native American languages spoken before the arrival of Europeans, half are already gone. Most of the rest are vanishing fast. But, there's a movement to revitalize tribal languages. Clay Scott reports.

SCOTT: The Crow Indian Reservation sprawls over two and half million acres of mountains and high plains in Southeastern Montana. In the center of the reservation is the town of Lodge Grass. The community school, a combination elementary and high school, sits on a hill overlooking the Little Big Horn River in the Wolf Mountains beyond. In many ways, Lodge Grass is much like any other American school. But there's no mistaking that this is a Crow school. Along the corridors, posters and inspirational sayings remind the children that they are a unique people with a unique culture, history and language.

[SOUND OF CHILDREN IN SCHOOL]

SCOTT: Between classes, the hallway chatter is in both Crow and English. But while most teachers are more comfortable with Crow, the students speak only in English. And that mirrors a growing problem on the reservation as a whole. Plenty of people speak the language, but very few young people speak it. Mary Helen Medicine Horse, the school's bilingual director, worries that an entire generation may be losing its language.

MEDICINE HORSE: Well if we don't bring it back now, today, then in the future they're going to lose it all together, the language and the culture.

SCOTT: As recently as the 1960s, more than 80 percent of Crow children spoke the language. Today, say teachers here, that figure is closer to ten percent. And even children who are fluent, typically those raised by grandparents, are often reluctant to speak Crow outside the home. At Lodge Grass School, and elsewhere on the reservation, teachers are trying to reverse that trend.

Photo: Clay ScottSuzie Bird in Ground, teaching
Crow. (Photo: Clay Scott)


[CHILDREN LEARNING CROW]

SCOTT: In this third grade class, teacher's aide, Suzie Bird In Ground, is going over colors and numbers in Crow. As part of the school's fledgling bilingual program, fluent Crow speakers spend half an hour twice a week with students of all ages. What Suzie hopes to convey to the children, she says, is that the language is more than mere words; that it cannot be separated from who they are, and where they live.

BIRD IN GROUND: We want the kids, the students, and the Crow young people, to learn it because it's such a beautiful language. And it goes with everything, the land, what it is here. Crow country, it's got names for everything, places, and rivers, and the constellations. And, it's all in Crow. And the students and young people need to know that.

[CHILDREN LEARNING CROW]

SCOTT: But an hour a week is not enough to create real fluency. And despite growing awareness of the problem, the number of young Crow speakers continues to plummet. There are many reasons for the decline. Increased marriage outside the tribe, for example, as well as a prevalent feeling on the part of some parents that children who concentrate on English are more likely to succeed in the outside world. But the biggest factors, say many Crows, is the encroachment of mainstream American popular culture--from TV, to music, to sports.

[HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL GAME, CROW CHEERLEADERS, RAUCOUS CROWD]

SCOTT: Tonight, over a hundred Crows have driven to the town of Laurel, Montana for a high school basketball tournament. One of the reservation teams, the Plenty Coups Warriors, is playing Fromberg. In the Crow rooting section, emotions run high. War cries erupt at every Crow basket, steal, or blocked shot.

Cheering as loudly as anyone else is Dr. Russell Stands Over Bull. At halftime, standing outside the gym, he talks with pride of the young Crows' success on the basketball court. But, even that, he says, comes at a price.

STANDS OVER BULL: I can guarantee you that it's not cool today to speak the language amongst the youth. They look at Michael Jordan. They look at the latest hip hop artists. And, they don't see natives on the billboards. They don't see natives on MTV. But the culture that's coming in is forcing a lot of the young ones to really assimilate into the mainstream society. And to assimilate, in their mind, is to let the language go.

SCOTT: Without enough young speakers, it's extremely difficult for any language to regenerate itself. And while the Crow language is still far from reaching the point of no return, several neighboring tribes seem to have already passed it. Languages like Assiniboin, for example, or Gros Ventre, are close to extinction with no more than four or five elderly speakers each.

Until recently, many people put the Blackfoot language in the same category. But in the town of Browning, Montana, along the east front of the Rocky Mountains, a revolutionary experiment is taking place.

[TEACHER AND CHILDREN IN CLASSROOM]

SCOTT: This is the Nitzipuhwahsin, or "Original Language School," a privately funded language immersion school. Here, 36 children from kindergarten through eighth grade learn almost exclusively in the Blackfoot language. A sign in the entrance, in Blackfoot and in English, reads "Please do not speak English here."

The school's ambitious goal is to create a new generation of young people fluent in their ancestral language. One of those young people is thirteen year old Jesse Durocher, who wears his black hair in traditional braids. I asked him why he's learning Blackfoot.

DUROCHER: Well, everybody should be unique. And, if we don't have a language, then we're just like everybody else. They wouldn't know that we're Blackfeet because we didn't speak our language no more. We just speak English. And, I want to keep our language going. It's been dying off. And I want to keep it going so it doesn't die off like some other reservations. They don't got their language no more. And I just want to pass it on, and try to keep it going.

Photo: Clay ScottJessie Durocher is learning Blackfoot
at the Nizipuhwahsin language immersion
school. (Photo: Clay Scott)

SCOTT: The founder of the school is Darrell Kipp, a Blackfeet who spent most of his adult life away from the reservation. After a tour in Vietnam, a Master's degree from Harvard, and another from Goddard College, he finally got homesick, he says. But when he returned, he found the language of his childhood was dying. He decided to try and do something about it, despite lack of funding, and despite surprising resistance from many of the Blackfeet themselves who told him it was a waste of energy.

KIPP: Someone's going to say to you, "Well, why would you want to speak Blackfoot, or relearn it? They don't speak it in Great Falls. They don't speak it in New York. They don't speak it at the universities." I think that's really missing the point entirely. If it speak well in my own soul, then that's really what it's about.

Photo: Clay ScottDarrell Kipp in office, Browning,
Montana. (Photo: Clay Scott)


SCOTT: Creating fluent young speaker where none exist is no easy task. Teachers need to be trained. Textbooks need to be developed. Then there's the issue of how to bring a tribal language like Blackfoot into the present while respecting its past. Shirley Crow Shoe, one of two full-time teachers at the school, says she feel free to coin new words and expressions. But, each new addition to the language must first be approved by tribal elders.

CROW SHOE: Look at all this technology. Computer. We have to find a word, a Blackfoot word for computer, fax machine, microwave. All this modern technology, we're making up words. We had to explain to the elders what a computer does. And one of the things that they said was, as you write, as you're writing, it comes back in a rapid form, something like that.

SCOTT: How do you say that in Blackfoot?

[CROW SHOE SPEAKS IN BLACKFOOT]

SCOTT: The Nitzipuhwahsin School may be small. But it's already had an effect far beyond the boundaries of the Blackfeet reservation. Members of dozens of tribes from around the country have come to visit the school. And many are planning their own language immersion programs. Darrel Kipp says there's a revolution underway in how young Native Americans view themselves, their history, and their language.

KIPP: They'll simply not be carrying the excess baggage and the prejudices that we had to get rid of first. They'll develop their own dialects. They'll develop their owns ways and styles of speaking. They're going to develop their own idioms. They're going to develop all of these things in our language. And they're going to refresh our language.

SCOTT: But not even Darrell Kipp believes the Blackfoot language will ever replace English on the reservation, or even that a majority of Blackfeet will learn to speak it again. When the children walk out the doors of the school, they enter an English-speaking environment. In fact, of more than 10,000 people on the reservation, only 25 or so fluent speakers remain. Many of them spend their afternoons at Browning Senior Center, sitting in the corner unfolding chairs, telling stories in quiet voices. Robert Many Guns comes here almost every day to speak the language he fears is about to vanish.

MANY GUNS: It's getting pretty near. It's getting just a little ways from us. And then, it'll be too late. Because right now, we have a handful of elders, from 60 to 65, my age. We're the next group. But it's just skimpy in there. Some people can understand. That's what I'm talking about. They can understand, but they can't speak. The next generation after him, there's not going to be nothing.

SCOTT: The elders are a crucial resource in the fight to retain the language. While they applaud the efforts of the teachers at the Nitzipuhwahsin School, they say something is missing. The language the students are learning to speak still sounds foreign to them. It doesn't have the richness and depth of the language they, themselves, learned from parents, grandparents, great grandparents.

The kids can say a lot of words, says Robert Many Guns, but they don't put them together right. There's a gap of more than 50 years between the last generation of fluent speakers, and the pioneering efforts of Darrell Kipp's school. The only way to bridge that gap before it's too late, says Robert Many Guns, the only way for Blackfoot to be passed on is for the children to spend time with the old people, sit quietly, and just listen.

[MANY GUNS SPEAKING BLACKFOOT]

SCOTT: For Living on Earth, I'm Clay Scott in Browning, Montana.

[MUSIC: Steve Roden, "Straight Arrow (Navajo Prayer)," IN BETWEEN NOISE (Inverted Tree Projects - 1993)]

Back to top

 

Wild Horses

CURWOOD: Another sign of the vanishing old west, wild horses. Ranchers call the horses a menace. The federal government is planning to round up nearly half the herds for adoption. But animal welfare advocates say many of the animals will be slaughtered instead. Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg explains what's at stake.

KLINKENBORG: A few summers ago, I watched a band of wild horses in the mountains above Lovell, Wyoming. They came and went, grazing and bickering, always keeping a possible horizon in mind, just in case they wanted to gallop over it, and out of human sight.

I've seen a lot of horses. But standing on the slopes of Pryor Mountain, I realized that this was the first time I had ever seen them moving in the natural family groupings they'd form in the wild: a stallion, and a band of mares and foals. The chance to see wild horses means a chance to see just how bitterly contested their very existence is. Nearly everyone who comes near them is an advocate, or an opponent, or trying desperately to straddle the fence.

The advocates range from practical horse people to the farthest fringes of animal protection circles; people who wouldn't dream of training a horse, much less actually getting on its back and riding it. The people who resent the wild herds tend to be mostly ranchers who hold large leases of public land through the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM has tried unsuccessfully to accommodate both sides. For years, it's conducted wild horse roundups to keep populations at a level acceptable to ranchers. The roundups have nearly always been controversial. They can be brutal to the animals. And the Bureau's Wild Horse Adoption Program is, at best, a mixed success. People have a hard time making sense of a tame horse. And most Americans have no idea just how wild a wild horse really is.

The old rationale at the BLM was to keep wild horse populations stable. The new plan is to cut them in half, from some 46,000 animals to 24,000. Some ranchers complain that the horses are hard on fences, and native vegetation, and water sources. Some say that these are animals that no one who knows horses would want to buy anyway. All these arguments boil down to the fact that nobody really makes money from them. Unlike elk, they can't be hunted for sport. And they're too remote for tourism.

It would be one thing if this were private land in question. But the vast majority of wild horses live on BLM land in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana and Oregon. Ranchers hold low-cost leases on this land. But it's public land. And the public deserves a say in how the wild horses are managed.

Most of the horses in America have owners. That's what domestication means. But it makes it hard for many people to think of wild horses as truly wild. Wild is a word that implies native. And these horses weren't native to America. But when Americans pushed westward in the 19th century, the territory was filled with the descendants of Spanish horses brought here in the 16th century. They're as emblematic of that time and place as bison are. Now, wild horses live only in the farthest corners of the west. We need to keep room for them there.

[MUSIC: Peter Gabriel, "San Jacinto," SECURITY (Geffen - 1984)]

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for The New York Times.

Back to top

 

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, some of the country's worst air isn't in cities like Los Angeles and Houston, but in the nation's vegetable basket, the San Joaquin Valley.

MALE: Right now, I would tell them don't bring your children here until we get this problem squared away. That's a terrible thing to say. But, it's how I feel. It's that bad.

CURWOOD: How a farming valley could become the asthma capital of California. Next time, on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC UNDER]

[SOUNDS OF HUMPBACK WHALE SONG]

CURWOOD: Before we go, a humpback with a broken heart. On a calm afternoon, in the seas off Mexico's Baja Peninsula, Kathy Turco recorded this lonesome male applying his mating calls against the background chatter of snapping shrimp.

[Kathy Turco, "Song of Youth (Humpback Whale)," DREAMS OF GAIA (EarthEar - 2002)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with Harvard University. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for coverage of Western issues, The National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education, and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded internet service.

MALE ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

This Week's Music











 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.