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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

August 16, 1996

Air Date: August 16, 1996

SEGMENTS

Understanding the Asthma Epidemic

Host Steve Curwood discusses the urban asthma epidemic with Dr. Mike Lenore, head of the Allergy Service at San Francisco General Hospital. (05:04)

The Geography of Childhood

Steve explores the relationship between kids and nature with five children and Steven Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan, authors of the book The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places. Nabhan and Trimble argue that children need contact with nature for healthy emotional and physical development. This feature is part of Living on Earth's ongoing exploration of the relationship between nature and the human mind, also known as Biophilia. (14:10)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... fireflies. (01:15)

Blanton Forest / John Gregory

In the eastern United States, old-growth forests south of where the glaciers ended are fragments of an ecosystem perhaps a hundred thousand years old. In Southeastern Kentucky, a 2300-acre tract known as Blanton Forest is just such an ecosystem — and state and private organizations want to turn it into a nature preserve while developing eco-tourism for the region. John Gregory reports. (07:07)

Kudzu Medicine / Ruth Page

Commentator Ruth Page makes the case for conservation, with kudzu! This exotic weed which is overgrowing in the southern U.S. has long been recognized in Chinese folk medicine for its powerful cures. (02:26)

Lawn Outlaws / Jeff Rice

Producer Jeff Rice explores the whys and wherefores of our culture's obsession with lawns, and Salt Lake City's law that every house has to have one. His inquiry leads him from the savannas of humans' early history to the homestead of Mormon pioneer Brigham Young to the front yards of some Salt Lake residents who are living outside the law. (08:15)

Active Listeners

Steve Curwood speaks with a listener who uses the original lawn grasscutter for his two acres: sheep. (04:53)

A Look Ahead to Next Week's Show: The Last of the Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers

A documentary report by reporter Brenda Tremblay. ()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Stephanie O'Neill, Jennifer Schmidt, Kelly Griffin, John Gregory, Jeff Rice GUESTS: Dr. Mike Lenore, Steven Trimble, Gary Paul Nabhan, Gary Finnelli COMMENTATOR: Ruth Page

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

There's an epidemic of asthma sweeping the country. It's linked to pollution, parents who smoke, even cockroaches. And most often it strikes black kids in the inner cities.

LENORE: It is true that if you look at the statistics at who gets sick and dies, the numbers in many instances across America are shameful. In most instances African-American children die 3 times more often from asthma.

CURWOOD: Also, as exploring the woods is replaced by sitting in front of the TV set, some researchers say that even a little contact with nature is still crucial for kids.

NABHAN: Little kids don't need big wilderness. It's those small places, the park, the gully, summer camps, gardens. That's where they make their connections. It's any direct contact.

CURWOOD: The geography of childhood this week on Living on Earth. First the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. A Federal judge in Utah has okayed an Army plan to fire up the nation's first chemical weapons incinerator. Environmentalists sought to keep the Tuella facility south of Salt Lake City from burning the highly toxic material, but the judge denied their request for an injunction, citing studies suggesting that burning the weapons would be safer than storing them. Environmentalists are considering an appeal of the decision.

The agency in charge of controlling Southern California's air pollution is reeling from the surprise resignation of nearly all its scientific advisors. The scientists say they're fed up with the agency's lax approach to the smog problem. Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles.

O'NEILL: Nine of the eleven economists, health experts, chemists, and other scientists who act as advisors to the South Coast Air Quality Management District have together walked off the job in a stinging rebuke of the board's air pollution policies. A tenth advisor who will remain with the Agency through the summer had already turned in his resignation. The advisors, who are among the nation's most respected air pollution authorities, quit after learning from news reports that board members had unveiled a new smog plan, one drafted without their input, and one the experts say will fail to protect south end residents from the nation's foulest air. The advisors also cited a long list of other concerns about the AQMD, including the recent failure to crack down on air pollution regulations, and failure by the board to adopt any major new air pollution programs in the past 2 years. The agency once had a reputation for innovative and stringent air pollution policies, and is credited with greatly cleaning L.A.'s air during the past 2 decades. But since 1994 it has fallen under heavy pressure from politicians and business leaders, who fear the smog policies are harming the state's economy. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

NUNLEY: Freon, the ozone-depleting refrigerant used in car air conditioners, has become the second most common contraband smuggled across the Mexican border. According to the US Customs Service only drugs come across in greater amounts. It's illegal to manufacture Freon, and as supplies dwindle the price is soaring.

A public employee advocacy group says the US Justice Department has done an inadequate job protecting Federal land managers in the west. From Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt reports.

SCHMIDT: The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PERE, has compiled a list of more than 50 recent incidents of violence against public employees, particularly Federal land managers. Last year a molotov cocktail was discovered outside offices on a national forest in Washington State, and this spring a group of ranchers in Arizona beat up a Forest Service worker. PERE executive director Jeff DeBonis says the Justice Department has failed to pursue many of these cases.

DE BONIS: When those kinds of incidents can be gotten away with, when these bullies can do those kinds of things to employees, then no employee is safe trying to go out there and do his job.

SCHMIDT: But the Justice Department says it's taking all these incidents very seriously. Assistant Attorney General Peter Koppelman.

KOPPELMAN: Now it may take longer to process a complaint from the Forest Service through the US Attorney's Office than people like, but we have to be very careful in how we respond to these incidents.

SCHMIDT: The Justice Department says there's already a Federal task force to deal with threats to public employees, but PERE says it wants a special strike force to focus on the west. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.

NUNLEY: The black-footed ferret, whose population dropped to just 18 a few years ago, is on the rebound, in captivity at least. The US Fish and Wildlife Service reports a record 231 ferret offspring survived this year in breeding programs. But as Kelly Griffin reports from Denver, that's only half the battle.

GRIFFIN: The survival rate of the ferret offspring is 20% higher than any year since the program began a decade ago, but researchers say the real test will be whether the ferrets can survive in the wild. Peter Gober, who directs the ferret recovery program for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says the captive ferrets must learn to hunt prairie dogs and to fear predators. And that's what has Gober most concerned.

GOBER: If they're accustomed to a lot of disturbance and people coming and going, that may not be the best sort of experience for them when they get out into the wild and are exposed to coyotes and other predators.

GRIFFIN: In fact, Gober says as many as half the ferrets reintroduced in previous years have been eaten by predators. About 70 ferrets will be released later this year in Montana, South Dakota, and Arizona. Gober says finding sites is difficult because prairie dogs, on which the ferrets depend, are themselves threatened by development, disease, and eradication by ranchers who consider them pests. For Living on Earth, I'm Kelly Griffin in Denver.

NUNLEY: That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Understanding the Asthma Epidemic

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth. This year, 5,000 people in the US will die from asthma, many of them children and many of them in the inner city. Asthma is up sharply in the past decade, and according to doctors, many of these deaths are preventable if people recognize the signs of an acute asthma attack in time to get the victim medical help. Doctor Mike Lenore heads up the allergy service at San Francisco General Hospital. I asked him how parents can tell if their child is developing asthma.

LENORE: Well I think most parents recognize the seriously ill child with asthma because that's a child that's difficult to ignore. That's a child who has air hunger. You can see them working to breathe; you can hear the wheezing sometimes audibly. Where we see children who have had asthma who, their parents have not recognized, the symptom is almost always chronic cough. A child who coughs when he runs or coughs when he laughs or coughs incessantly or all the time at night, that's the child that we often miss with asthma.

CURWOOD: What causes this? Does this come from air pollution? Does it come from infectious disease? Where does it come from?

LENORE: Well I think the first thing we'd have to say is it comes from your parents, because most people with asthma have either an immediate family member or another family member who also has asthma. So that's one thing. The second thing is that a number of people who have asthma develop it because they become allergic to certain things: things like pollens, grasses, trees and weeds, house dust, mold, animal dander and in some cases even foods. And then once you have the sensitization to asthma, once you have the problem, there are a number of different things that could aggravate you. Infections of any type can make people with asthma much worse: smoke, smog, changes in weather, even emotional upset can trigger asthma symptoms.

CURWOOD: I see. So this is really a " the connection between pollution and asthma is one that if you've already got it and there's some pollution, then you're in trouble.

LENORE: Absolutely. With the, whenever we have these inversion layers all over the country, you notice that a number of people with asthma, the number of people in the emergency room and the number of people in the hospital, those numbers increase.

CURWOOD: So why has there been such a rise in asthma among the young, and particularly among African Americans in the city?

LENORE: Well, I think there's been a rise among young people and African Americans for a number of socioeconomic reasons. There is no data to suggest that, from a genetic point of view that African Americans or Hispanics have an increased predisposition to asthma. But it is true that if you look at the statistics for who gets sick and who dies, the numbers in many instances across America are shameful. In most instances, African American children die three times more often from asthma. There are some studies to suggest that even in the same city, that an African American male in East Harlem has 10 times the death rate than other males in New York City. Now the reasons, I think, are, I think, if you analyze the dynamics in an urban inner city, you see that there's more crowding. There's more pollution. There's more smoking. There's more increased exposure to allergens like cockroach, especially, tends to be a very difficult one. And importantly, there's decreased access to quality health care.

CURWOOD: People are allergic to cockroaches?

LENORE: Cockroach is a real big one. You know, I grew up in Texas, where we always gave great credence to the cockroach.

CURWOOD: You have Texas-size cockroaches there, I suppose.

LENORE: We had Texas-size cockroaches there. But, and I always felt that they would be a major contributor to allergy and in fact, over the last 15 years we've started to recognize how important they are in developing sensitivity that leads to asthma.

CURWOOD: What can parents do to cut down their child's risk of getting asthma?

LENORE: Well I think that's a very interesting question and one that we haven't quite answered yet in medicine. Because we do know that if you take young children that tend to have asthma on, basically from 2 different, 2 major reasons. One is that they get viral infections, which somehow change the airway. The other cause is certain types of allergens: house dust and food. Now let's take the food and the allergen situation first. It's pretty clear that breast-fed infants have less problems with allergy as infants. You can reduce some of the symptoms by keeping their bedroom dust-free, keeping that favorite animal out of the toys, out of the child's face, and also not buying animals that tend to cause problems with asthma, particularly cats. In terms of viral infections, it's very difficult in a modern society to get away from viral infections because of the crowding. But you also have to look at the kind of daycare center you select for your child, the number of children in that daycare center, who is around that child on a regular basis. And in households that smoke, the seriousness of symptoms, the increase of symptoms with asthma and deaths from asthma is very significant. A child who lives with asthma who lives in a house where anyone smokes, even outside, has many more emergency room visits and many more hospitalizations.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks for taking this time with us. Dr. Mike Lenore is Chief of the Allergy Service at San Francisco General Hospital. Thank you, sir.

LENORE: Thank you for asking me.

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CURWOOD: Exploring nature may be more than just good fun for our kids; it may be part of what we need to grow up fully human. The geography of childhood, coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

The Geography of Childhood

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Children: "What did you get?" "I caught a frog!" "He's jumping around." Laughter. "I caught a butterfly." "Let's see if he eats radishes!")

NABHAN: Children need wild places for several very important reasons. I think that the first of those is as a place of refuge, as a place for restoration. A place where we can maintain our self-esteem. A place that's non-judgmental that we can go to. And of course, nature is a great place to be; it's a joyful place to be.

(Child: "I'm going to be put my hand in here..." Scream. "I don't feel anything.")

CURWOOD: That's Lee, Cynthia, and Adam Foley, in their suburban Boston back yard. They're with friends Anna and Christina Barbo, doing what many kids still do on a late summer's afternoon: chasing frogs and one another, exploring the woods, and getting wet.

(Child: "Whoa, he's sloppy!")

CURWOOD: They're the kind of children Steven Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan have written about in their book The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, published by Beacon Press. Both authors are professional naturalists and parents. Gary Nabhan says to grow up healthy, children need to connect with wild places and wild creatures.

NABHAN: Our species has evolved in contact with the natural world. Throughout the course of our evolution, our sensory capabilities, emotions, and rational faculties have been triggered in response to natural phenomena. In the absence of contact with the natural world, I believe that those faculties and capabilities atrophy and that human life is impoverished because of it.

TRIMBLE: You know, this is just about the only time in history when we can even discuss such issues. Less than 2 percent of Americans now live in the country, and that number's dropping all the time.

(Child: "I saw a blackbird. But it flew away.")

CURWOOD: What about a sense of place? Is that important for children?

NABHAN: Oh, I think a sense of place is incredibly important for children. We make that first bonding with our home landscape as kids. And I think all of us as grownups can think back to the place where we first made that connection. The open fields at the edge of town or the stream at the edge of the local park. Of connection with frogs, as they might catch frogs along an irrigation ditch. Or lying down in the grass at the edge of a field and watching the clouds go by behind a big sycamore tree. All of us have those kinds of images from our childhoods, and treasure them.

(Child: "Can you pass me the branch?" "I can't; I have a frog and a radish in my hand.")

CURWOOD: I'm wondering: what's the difference between children who are exposed to a fair amount of nature and those children who are not? What does that mean for their lives?

TRIMBLE: Let me give you a very concrete example. Children of Inuit communities, the people that are commonly known as Eskimos, for centuries have had very good long distance and short distance vision. They very early on go out on hunting expeditions with their parents and grandparents and deal with long vistas. They also have to learn how to hold a knife and help with butchering and manipulate items very close to them, often in poor light. With the advent of television and books in Inuit communities, and this is within one generation's time, over 50% of the children in some of those communities have developed myopia. Why? Because the stimuli that they needed to allow their eyes to develop the full range of vision were lacking. They were exposed to stimuli immediately in front of them: TV screens, books, as the primary source through which they obtained information about the world.

(Footfalls. Child: "We're going in the woods here. This is woods. There's woods around here." "There's buttercups, and you see if there's any glow and see if you like butter." Laughs. "That's what my sister did." Laughs.)

CURWOOD: Tell me, how does the outdoors affect emotional development in children?

NABHAN: Kids start out in early childhood and begin to explore away from home base. We hope they start from the safe environment of their family and then move outward from there, and there's this constant tension between what they know and what they don't know, and the safety of home base and the growth and independence that come from moving outward. And as we navigate our world, we begin to think of the world in terms of mental maps.

(Child: "I like to walk through the grass 'cause it's nice and tall. And sometimes I like to go out to that big table over there. And sometimes I go in the real big woods. There's a trail that you follow out here..." "I sometimes find bats, and there's one bat house or bird house, I forget, over there.")

NABHAN: They learn a little bit differently than if they're learning to negotiate mazes on a video screen than if they're negotiating the bushes in the local park.

(Child: "I'll take you where I like to play on, that tree that fell down. Because a lot of trees fell down on top of it, so it's really fun to climb.")

TRIMBLE: They're much more engaged with the immediacy of the natural world right in front of them. The smallest animals, leaves, sea shells, burrows of animals.

(Child: "And some of the leaves near here, like those ones, are sticky. Sometimes I play house on this, and that's the fireplace in there. I always show my friends this spot and they always say cool." "Will you help me up?" "I can't!")

TRIMBLE: Children, when they're not told what to do, tend to go towards the shrubbery on the edge of the playground and make little nests, and burrows, and refuges. And look out. They're basically going through nesting behavior, and finding a very secure, small place that makes them feel comfortable, and keeping a lookout for wolves and other threats out beyond that nest.

CURWOOD: That sounds very primal, doesn't it?

TRIMBLE: It is very primal, almost universal behavior among children.

(Child: "Girls like to do different things than boys, like the girls that I play with, they, like, don't know how to climb as well as me.")

TRIMBLE: There is a tendency for boys to challenge one another more to go out of the nest and grab something and bring it back without being seen, and for girls to engage in, say, making something together within the nest. Or looking out, showing each other things beyond the nest, and discussing those. Those are very, very preliminary generalizations, though.

(Child: "Matthew, he likes to do wild things like climbing and sliding and things. But girls like, that's one of the things that girls do, too, but he likes to act really wild when we play tag and things.")

NABHAN: We just don't encourage our girls to be out there turning over rocks looking for spiders the way we do our boys. In one piece of research done in a small New England town in the 1970s, the researcher found that boys were ranging freely more than twice as far away from home as girls all through elementary school. And even when they begin to have small jobs, boys deliver papers and they learn the lay of the land, and girls start to baby-sit and they're often driven to that baby-sitting job. We deny the freedom to our girls that is going to lead to confidence. And that all accelerates as they reach adolescence and we tell even the tomboys to come down out of the trees that they love. And we do that at the very time when their self-esteem is assaulted by the society.

(Child: Let's go back to the house so we can explore some more things." "Yeah, there's too many bugs back here." "Yeah, let's go." "Whoa, I'm trying to chase the butterflies!" "Sometimes, it's really noisy because we have parties at our house anyways. And like, whenever it's really noisy, or I'm not having fun because, like, someone's being mean to me, I go outside to play by myself.")

CURWOOD: Can you give me an example here of some child who's had this kind of outdoor experience and what's happened to them as a result?

TRIMBLE: Well, I don't want to single out any child. But we had asked a number of urban children if they had ever been alone for more than a half hour in a place devoid of human beings. There was one young woman that I interviewed with my children who grew up in a very remote part of the desert, and when we asked this young girl this question, she said no, then yes, then no. And then finally said, "Well what do you mean? Every night at sunset I take my pony and we gallop out as far from the house as we can and watch the sunset and watch the wildflowers and the mountains and watch the ravens come over the crest of the mountains. But I don't think of that as being alone. I think of that as being with my horse; it's almost as if I'm with another person." And that kind of intimacy, as well as the self-esteem to say I have the capability of going out and discovering the world with my own imagination and with my own relationship with this other animal, I thought was a remarkable statement.

(Child: "My favorite kind of flowers is smell, is forsythias. I can't say it." "Forsythias?" "Yeah. And I sniff the air because I think it smells good.")

NABHAN: I'm afraid that a certain amount of alienation from nature is bound to creep in, as we have fewer and fewer direct experiences with nature. Fewer and fewer direct experience with birth and death of animals and watching plants grow from seeds. Another thing that kids lose is they have most of their experiences with nature simply by watching television, is a sense of patience. You know, when you go out in the field and go looking for birds or hope to see big mammals, you find that not a lot happens, and you may go a long time between seeing birds or mammals or any other creatures. And when the entire life histories of animals are sandwiched into the half an hour between two TV programs, it's a very different sense of reality.

(Child: "I like wolves and coyotes and dogs and stuff. I see them in pictures and on TV and the encyclopedia.")

NABHAN: To be full, fully developed human beings, to be sane and humane human beings, we do need a connection with the earth. The biologist E.O. Wilson at Harvard suggests that this is built right into our genes, and he calls that biophilia, a love for other creatures. And to think inclusively, to think as members of a planetary society, really, that includes all cultures and all creatures, rather than simply as humans setting out to dominate all other creatures, is a value that I think can't help but do good for us.

(Child: "Well, we were making a little home for it. And I, I got a bunch of dirt and grass and made a home for the caterpillar.")

CURWOOD: I'm wondering: how wild do these wild places have to be? I mean, will a suburban lot do? How about an abandoned city lot?

TRIMBLE: That's a great question. I think the places that we call urban waste places that may have weeds and a few rodents and a few birds can give many kids that sense of discovery and participation in nature.

(Child: "It has white spots and see that orange one right there, that has orange eyes?" "Uh huh." "And it has blue. I don't know how many legs it has.")

NABHAN: Little kids don't need big wilderness. It's those small places, the park, the gully, summer camps, gardens. That's where they make their connections. It's any direct contact.

CURWOOD: Steven Trimble and Gary Paul Nabhan are the authors of The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, from Beacon Press.

(Child: "They make the cocoon." "And they turn into a butterfly. Ooh, there's a bug on my shoe.")

CURWOOD: Lee, Cynthia, and Adam Foley catch bugs and frogs with Anna and Christina Barbo in their back yard in Reading, Massachusetts.

(Child: "And we have a nice ant..." "Step on it." "Try catching...")

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CURWOOD: Our story was produced by Kim Motylewski. Special thanks to KUAT, Tuscon, and KUER, Salt Lake City.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation for reporting on science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: A walk through an old growth forest that gives us a glimpse of America more than 100,000 years ago. That's coming up in the second half of Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Chasing fireflies is a classic childhood summer experience. Also known as lightning bugs, there are 2,000 species of fireflies inhabiting every continent except Antarctica. Each species is characterized by the rhythm of its flashes. Some tropical species congregate in groups and flash in unison. Controlled by the nervous system, firefly light is caused by the instantaneous oxidation of a substance located on the underside of the insect's abdomen. Firefly light is described as cold light because it contains very few infrared and ultraviolet rays. All firefly larvae, and in many cases their eggs, give off light. The term glow worms refers to the larvae and flightless females of some species. During the summer the adults spend the day resting on vegetation, but from dusk until about midnight they fly around flashing. The males do it to attract mates. The flashing may also be a protective mechanism to remind predators of their bitter taste. Still, some frogs eat such a large number of fireflies that they themselves glow. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Blanton Forest

CURWOOD: Despite heavy logging for centuries, there are still pockets of old growth forest in the eastern United States. Perhaps the oldest can be found in southeastern Kentucky, deep in the heart of Appalachian coal country. It's called Blanton forest. And in one sense it's tiny, about 2,300 acres. But it is big enough to give a real taste of the original wild America, where giant sloths and even tigers might have roamed. Now state and private organizations in Kentucky are working to purchase Blanton forest. They want to turn it into a nature preserve and help local citizens develop eco-tourism enterprises in this economically depressed region. John Gregory has our report.

EVANS: Okay, we'll get moving in a ways. This is flat, and when we start going up the mountain, well, you'll know it.

(Footfalls and ambient conversation)

GREGORY: On a steamy, late summer afternoon, botanist Mark Evans leads a tour through a portion of Blanton forest. The trail starts out easy, but soon gets steeper as it ascends the southern slope of Pine Mountain near Harlan, Kentucky. The air in these woods is thick, still, and quiet, trapped between the dense rhododendron thickets that blanket the ground and the treetop canopies some 150 feet above us. Evans greets the trees like old friends, gently patting and rubbing them as he walks along the trail.

EVANS: This right here is an American chestnut. This is all that remains of what was once a very mighty forest tree that grew very, very large. It was a very important tree, so with the demise of the chestnut that greatly altered our forests.

GREGORY: Evans says Blanton is the way a forest should look: a chaotic jumble of lush undergrowth, massive rocks, and huge trees. Some straight and tall and others dead and decaying. He identified this old growth forest 3 years ago while conducting a state-wide inventory of natural areas for the Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission. As the trail crosses a rock outcropping, Evans points to an expansive view of the Cumberland Mountains.

EVANS: Everything you're seeing here is old growth, original forest. This is the same thing that Daniel Boone saw, Simon Kenton, everybody else, all those other good explorers.

GREGORY: The forest is named for Grover Blanton, a local dry goods store owner who bought the property around the turn of the century. It's said that Blanton liked to visit his woods on Sunday instead of going to church. He gave the land to his children, urging them to protect it from people wanting to mine coal around it or cut trees off it, and as the timber boom swept across the Appalachians from the 1880s to the 1930s, Blanton Forest was one of the few relatively large and fairly accessible pockets of old growth that remained uncut. Again, botanist Marc Evans.

EVANS: A lot of the old growth forests that are left are high elevation, spruce-fir forests, which have stunted trees and were not economically important in terms of logging, when the big logging boom went on.

GREGORY: Blanton, on the other hand, has 23 species of commercially viable trees, some as much as 300 to 400 years old. Evans credits the survival of the forest to the Blanton family and to the rugged topography that made the woods difficult to log. Because of its pristine nature and scientific value, he was immediately concerned that Blanton should be protected from logging and from damage done by all-terrain vehicles being driven around the forest. Evans helped start a $4 million fundraising campaign to purchase Blanton and surrounding lands. It's the single largest conservation effort in Kentucky history.

(Traffic, church chimes)

GREGORY: Blanton forest is just a few miles outside of Harlan, Kentucky, population 2,686. At noon the bell tower of the Methodist church serenades the townspeople with a favorite hymn. They call Blanton forest "the jungles," and it's been a favorite campground for local Boy Scout troops for generations. Harlan Mayor Danny Howard develops a boyish grin as he recalls his own youth in the jungles searching for bears, cougars, and Indians. As an adult, though, he recognizes the financial benefits to developing an eco-tourism industry based around Blanton forest.

HOWARD: We need every job that we can get in this area. So right now, any outlook of putting people to work, you know, we're just tickled to death. We're just trying to keep our heads above water.

GREGORY: Harlan was once known as the coal capitol of Kentucky, but the industry is now in a steep decline and the area has an unemployment rate that is more than twice the national average. But state tourism officials estimate that promoting Blanton forest as a travel destination could bring more than $2 million a year into the local economy. And it could help generate new jobs in hotel, restaurant, and recreational facilities. Harlan Mayor Danny Howard.

HOWARD: For kids to come out of school and be able to stay in the area and work, I hope will be very, very rewarding for the area.

GREGORY: The trick, though, says Amanda Hilee, is creating the kind of jobs that will provide long-term growth for the area. Hilee is the development director for the Blanton Forest Project and a consultant with the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, or MACED. The group helps local people build sustainable communities in Kentucky's Appalachian Mountain region, and it's one of several organizations that have joined the state in the fundraising effort.

HILEE: If it results in more people owning small businesses, to have a piece of the tourism industry like a bed and breakfast, like a local camping equipment rental place or canoe equipment rental, where a lot of different people have a real piece of the economic design, that's the kind of development that MACED would like to see the most.

GREGORY: Even though the property is not yet open to the public, Harlan has already seen some benefit from Blanton Forest. Scientists traveling to the woods to do research have kept the local hotel nearly full. State officials are eager to provide an economic boost to the area, but they say their first priority is to protect the woods, even if that means eventually limiting visitors. And as much as he wants his community to benefit, Mayor Danny Howard doesn't want Harlan to become too commercialized. More than 23,000 people drive through this region each day on Interstate 75, and some local people fear Harlan could become another highly developed tourist town like nearby Gantlenburg, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains. In the meantime, though, Howard says he's happy the Blanton forest itself will be preserved.

HOWARD: To be back in that area as a child, you know, you can, your imagination just runs wild with you, and in my older years and going back in there there's a peace and serenity that you can get from a day's walk back in -- in that hilly, wooded area, that I don't think you can find in a lot of places.

GREGORY: About half of Blanton forest has already been purchased by the nature preserve's commission and officials are working to acquire the other half as well as a 4,400-acre buffer zone around the old growth tracks. It's hoped that parts of the preserve can be open to the public within the next 2 years. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory.

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(Music up and under)

Kudzu Medicine

CURWOOD: The smarter we are, the more we know what we don't know. And the one thing we are profoundly ignorant about, says Living on Earth commentator Ruth Page, is the value of species. Even common weeds.

PAGE: For centuries, oriental healers have used 2 ordinary plants to alleviate diseases that still baffle our Western doctors. Southerners hate kudzu plants; they're like Genghis Khan marching inexorably across any and all open landscape. But kudzu root has long been used in the Orient to cure alcoholism. Tests here show it contains 2 chemicals, daidzin and daidzein, that may do the job. Given a choice between dishes of water and dishes of liquor, hamsters that imbibed the chemicals go to alcohol dishes only half as often as their untreated siblings. Researchers aren't sure why, but suspect the chemicals interfere with the breakdown of alcohol in the body.

The other Chinese remedy battles Alzheimer's disease, one of the most dreaded, difficult, and expensive afflictions in human society. Oriental folk doctors learned that people who drank tea brewed from a certain club moss, Huperzia serrata, found their memories perked right up. If they release that stuff here I'm getting in line.

In recent years researchers at a Shanghai institute isolated a natural compound in the tea that inhibits -- are you paying attention? -- the formation of acetylcholinesterase. We'll call it ACE. ACE is an enzyme that breaks down AC, acetylcholine, which is a key chemical messenger in the brain vital for memory and awareness. The club moss chemical keeps ACE from forming. Science News says the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, is studying the compound, called Huperzine-A.

The human brain needs the AC, acetylcholine, part of ACE, but addition of the E, esterase, destroys it. So during the centuries when the Chinese drank their club moss tea, they were protecting their memories; and modern Western medicine has finally recognized that as fact, not just folklore. Mayo has licensed use of the club moss chemical to a New England company that seeks permission to test it on humans this year. There's been so much of this kind of news lately, it makes you want to save everything from extinction, doesn't it? Who knows what other super cures, or even symptom relievers, nature may be waiting for us to discover in some weed or other greenery that we may not even have heard of yet?

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Ruth Page lives in Burlington, Vermont, and comes to us courtesy of Vermont Public Radio.

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CURWOOD: The hissing of summer lawns. There's more to it than you might think. Coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Lawn Outlaws

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Have you ever stopped to think about your lawn? I mean really. Not that feeling of dread on the weekends. I mean, have you really wondered why the lawn is such a totem of American culture? In India, grass is seen as a weed. But here in the United States, we spend some $25 billion a year on the care and feeding of lawns, not to mention all those weekend hours. Despite its desert climate, Utah is no exception. In fact, Utahns may be even more obsessed with their lawns than the rest of us. Producer Jeff Rice set out to find out why.

(Music up and under: woman singing, "He rakes and trims the grass. He loves to mow and weed. I cook like Betty Crocker...")

RICE: If you're like a lot of people, suburban utopia means living somewhere that's green, in a house with a lawn. And if you know anything about Utahns, you know we're serious about our turf.

(A lawn mower runs)

RICE: Despite the fact that Utah is the second driest state in the Union, there are green lawns here as far as the eye can see. My guess is you can hit a nine-iron from yard to yard here for the rest of your life and never hit the same shot twice. I grew up pushing a lawn mower, and as a young entrepreneur I was recognizable by my stained-green tennis shoes and my regular bouts of sneezing from my allergies to grass clippings. Lawns are second-nature to me, but one day I woke up and couldn't help asking: why are we so obsessed?

(A mower motor comes to a halt.)

RICE: In the spirit of cultural anthropology, I started checking around. One biologist I read about suggested that on a grand scale our deep attachment to the lawn comes from humans' early evolution on the savanna grasslands. That was where we spent our formative evolutionary years, he reasons, and may explain our current choice of grassy habitat. Not a bad theory, and it may also explain the phenomenon of the backyard barbecue. There is, after all, nothing more primal than the combination of fire and meat. Still others hold for a more recent origin.

(Water sprinklers running)

RICE: A lot of Utah's early settlers came from the Midwest, where it actually rains on a regular basis. So, according to this theory, Utah's desert settlers were homesick for green, and this led them to become some of the greatest irrigators that ever lived. Or, it could be our pioneering need to control the land, our distrust of wilderness, our conquering nature. All these are valid possibilities, but I think I came upon the most pressing reason at the City and County Building. The reason there are so many lawns in Utah is, because that's the law.

(A gavel is banged.)

TAYLOR: Section twenty-one point eight o point two hundred of Salt Lake City Code, and that's from Title 21, which is a zoning ordinance.

RICE: Randy Taylor is the zoning coordinator for Salt Lake City.

TAYLOR: Yes, it is the law in Salt Lake City and every other city in Utah that I know of, at least.

RICE: Everybody has to have some green grass in their front yard.

TAYLOR: Well, everyone to be in compliance should, yes.

RICE: A quick look into Salt Lake City legal history revealed that probably the first example of civically mandated grass planning was the grass on the roads during the days of the first settlers. Grass served to hold the soil together so wagons and oxen wouldn't get bogged down in the mud on the rare occasions when it did rain. Later, grass became more fashionable and moved from the street to the front yard.

(Sound of a wagon being pulled.)

RICE: The epitome of Utah's love affair with the lawn seems to be the estate of pioneer Mormon church leader Brigham Young. Today, people can tour the estate on covered wagons. I did this recently and I noticed that, sure enough, the yard has a nicely manicured lawn of Kentucky bluegrass. I could picture it: Brigham Young tending to the barbecue, one of his 55 wives bringing him a glass of cold lemonade as they smile happily in their green oasis in the desert. But it turns out that there was a dirty little secret beneath that grass. The tour guide didn't really like to talk about it, but I dragged it out of him.

GUIDE: The Historical Society, when you look at old pictures, you know, it's dirt and you've got weeds growing up here and shoots of grass here and there. That's about what it was.

RICE: It turns out that when it came to his lawn, Mr. Young was not with the program. This is a fact that the park seems to have gone to great lengths to conceal. No doubt they suspect that if people found out that the founder of the community himself did not have a lawn, it might unravel the very fabric of our current system of lawn law. And it got me wondering. Is there anybody out there now who is so far out on the fringe of society that they don't even have a front lawn? Are their lawn outlaws?

(A car door closes; a motor revs up.)

RICE: It was a long search, but sure enough, I began to find what I was looking for. The warm glow of cultural consensus was beginning to fade. Here, in a hillside residential area, was a house with, of all things, native flora, and not a blade of grass to be found anywhere. In short, illegal.

WOMAN: I just don't know how to respond.

RICE: This woman was understandably cautious when I told her about the law.

RICE: Consult your lawyer, perhaps?

WOMAN: Yeah, yeah, I better consult him first. (Laughs)

RICE: Another woman was proud to show me her yard.

WOMAN: I've got a lot of, like, natural landscaping. I have pine trees and ground cover and fitzers and quaking aspen, and some...

RICE: Until I told her about the law and pointed out the dearth of grass in front of her house. The things people will say to weasel out of trouble!

WOMAN: We inherited these (laughs) this design. It was some reverend that owned our house before. (Laughs.) It was Reverend Johnson. (Laughs.) He moved away a long time ago. (Laughs.)

RICE: And then there was one case where I just wasn't sure what to think. As I passed by one yard bordering a busy street near the University District, I had a vague sense that something wasn't quite right. It was green, yes. But ... I walked up to it for a closer look.

(Sound of brick landing on cement)

RICE: The brick test clinched it. I checked with one of the tenants.

TENANT: We have a landlord who had a cement patch in front of his apartment building and he wanted it to look, I suppose, a little more homey. And so he had some friend of his come in and paint it green, to make it look like a lawn.

RICE: So I'm wondering, like, are you guys lawn outlaws?

TENANT: Well, I -- I never really thought of it that way. It's sort of a romantic idea, really.

RICE: I asked him if, perhaps, by painting the front cement green, his landlord was making an ironic statement on the dominant paradigm. Maybe it was a coercive gesture. Or maybe it was just an attempt to fool the lawn police.

TENANT: It's a fake-out, is what I'd say. Because I think the first thing you said about being coercive, I think that's far beyond our landlord. So yeah, it's a fake-out. That's all it can be now that we know about the law. I'm glad to be in on it.

RICE: So if you've ever wondered why there are so many lawns in Utah, now you know. And if you're allergic to grass or you prefer the low maintenance of green cement, consider yourself warned. The lawn police could be out there.

(Lawn mower revs up.)

RICE: For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Rice in Salt Lake City.

(A police siren is superimposed on the lawn mower.)

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Active Listeners

CURWOOD: My next guest doesn't really have to worry much about mowing the lawn; he's taken an interesting approach to keeping his yard trim. He's brought in some sheep. Gary Finnelli, welcome to Living on Earth.

FINNELLI: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Most of us who have to push a lawn mower from time to time thing about ah, it would be wonderful to get a sheep or a goat to do this. But I mean, we think about it but we don't do it. I mean, what possessed you to actually get some sheep and try it?

FINNELLI: We have just under 2 acres, and I spent so much time mowing it, and out of frustration I decided to look into alternatives, and driving around the countryside I saw these places where people had some sheep. I noticed the grass was kept short, and I started asking a lot of questions. I thought I'd try it.

CURWOOD: Gary, are you married?

FINNELLI: Yes I am.

CURWOOD: So what did your wife say when you --

FINNELLI: She and my other relatives weren't so sure about this. I guess they thought I was a little crazy.

CURWOOD: What benefits have you noticed from having sheep cutting your grass? Aside from saving you time, of course?

FINNELLI: Well, there's quite a few advantages, such as very low maintenance compared to mowing. That's an obvious one.

CURWOOD: Now is it really? I would think that you have to get up every morning and feed -- you don't have to feed them, what am I talking about?

FINNELLI: Well, in the wintertime we do. I just purchase some hay and have it delivered. It costs me $1.75 a bale. And I find that the cost of hay and feed for the sheep is much less compared to the cat food and cat litter. So the cost is not that high.

CURWOOD: How does it compare to the care and feeding of a lawn mower?

FINNELLI: Actually, the initial cost was probably comparable to getting a riding mower, which we would have had to do if we had to keep that large of an area down. But over a couple of years I see it as cheaper, with the periodic repairs needed to mowing, the gasoline, eventually a new mower. Whereas our healthy sheep really get sick, actually they've never gotten sick from me, and reproduce, so there's never need to buy new ones compared to a riding mower.

CURWOOD: Yeah, that's an advantage. I mean definitely your lawn mower won't make another one for you.

FINNELLI: Right. Also, they produce their own fertilizer for the lawn. So it's better for the environment than commercially produced fertilizer, which I used to buy before I had the sheep. And you can't beat the bucolic quality of it. I mean we sit on our deck and watch the pleasing scene of a small flock of sheep grazing, who are cutting my grass for me.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) It's sounds wonderful. What's the down side?

FINNELLI: They will eat things that maybe you don't want them to eat, such as your shrubs, small trees. Another thing we learned the hard way was concerning rams. We have 5 ewes and 1 ram. When the ram became sexually mature it lost all interest in being a pet to our children and became extremely interested in our ewes. A ram will fight for dominion of the flock. Our ram had no other rams to direct its natural instincts, so it started to show its aggression towards my wife and our children. Our mistake was having the ram become a friendly pet where it lost all fear of us. We have another ram that I encouraged my kids to chase, since it was very young, so as not to become friendly with it. This ram still protects its ewes but it has a healthy fear of my family, so my kids can go about the yard without being bothered by him.

CURWOOD: Now, we have to go but I have to ask you this question.

FINNELLI: Sure.

CURWOOD: What happens to these lambs? Do they wind up on your kitchen table?

FINNELLI: No. (Laughs) No, they all have names. They all have names and they all become pets. The one ram that was butting our children, it did wind up to be somebody's meal, and my wife even cried with even that ram. But no, we don't keep them for that purpose. We keep them for keeping our grass short.

CURWOOD: And are they on your backs any place literally? I mean, do you knit their wool and wear it?

FINNELLI: We have a large amount of wool. My wife was going to get into spinning it. I've bartered it, some of it. You want some wool?

CURWOOD: (Laughs)

FINNELLI: I can send you 3 bags full, actually.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Thank you so much for taking this time with us.

FINNELLI: You're very welcome.

CURWOOD: Gary Finnelli lives in Wassaic, New York, and has gotten rid of his lawn mower.

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CURWOOD: If you or someone you know is doing something interesting in regards to the environment, tell us. Give us a call. Our listener line number is 1-800-218-9988. That's1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That'sLOE@NPR.ORG. And our postal address: Living on Earth, Post Office Box 639, HarvardSquare Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Post Office Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238.

(Music up and under)

A Look Ahead to Next Week's Show: The Last of the Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers

(An old recording plays, with bird calls)

CURWOOD: The only known recording of the ivory billed woodpecker, made in the hardwood forests of Louisiana in the 1930s.

MAN: Like all other groups of birds that are endangered and becoming extinct, it's always the largest one that's most endangered, like the whooping crane, the largest crane, the trumpeter swan, the largest swan, the ivory billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker.

MAN 2: The ivory billed woodpecker was probably not a bird that was following such a narrow path that it was doomed to extinction. In all likelihood it has to do with human manipulation of the habitat.

CURWOOD: Most scientists think the ivory bill is extinct. But the specter of North America's largest woodpecker continues to haunt hundreds of professional and amateur bird watchers. They refuse to give up hope that some of the terodactyl-like birds, with their 3-foot wing spans, might be hanging on deep in some southern swamp. Next week on Living on Earth: the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, and a journey through the cultures of those who have made it their own holy grail.

(Music up and under)

MAN 3: Well, you know what the holy grail is, don't you? It's when you go out seeking something that's maybe not possible or not there, but you still go out to see if it's possible. (Laughs)

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Ousenior producer is Chris Ballman. Our senior editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. We also had help from Heather Kaplan, Paul Masari, and Jennifer Sinkler. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are John Marston and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major support from the W. Alto Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; and the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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