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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

January 28, 2000

Air Date: January 28, 2000


The Latest Debate Over Genetically-Modified Foods / Bob Carty

International negotiators have been meeting in Montreal in an effort to establish rules governing the trade of genetically-modified products. Reporter Bob Carty gives us an update. (09:40)

Monarch Butterfly Habitat / John Burnett

In a story originally broadcast as part National Geographic's Radio Expeditions, John Burnett takes us to Mexico to profile the people who are trying to protect the fragile habitat of the migratory Monarch butterflies. (08:30)

Listener Letters

In the mailbag this week are comments on our profiles of the Republican presidential candidates, and some thoughts on people’s close encounters with animals. (02:45)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about -- Sir Ebenezer Howard, born 150 years ago in London and recognized as the father of the “garden city” movement in town planning. (01:30)

Lake Tahoe Logging / Willie Albright

A coalition of small businesses is trying to block a federal plan to increase logging in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Traditionally, business people have sided with the timber industry, but today they worry that logging will drive the tourists away. Willie Albright reports. (04:20)

Jamaica Kincaid's Garden

Author Jamaica Kincaid talks with host Steve Curwood about her passion for gardening, captured in her new book, "My Garden (Book):" (06:10)

Jamaica Kincaid's Garden Continued


Tribute to Hazel Wolf

Hazel Wolf, a longtime champion of environmental protection, died last week at the age of a hundred and one. Ms. Wolf was featured in our recent piece on centenarians. Living On Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum has our remembrance. (06:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: John Burnett, Willie Albright, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum
GUESTS: Bob Carty, Jamaica Kincaid

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.The world's nations agree on a treaty governing trade of gentically modified foods and other products. Nations retain the right to refuse shipments of genetically altered goods. But advocates say the next generation of bio-engineered foods will help spur popular demand.

WILBUR: So we think that as the benefits in the food, as the higher nutrition, become more apparent, then there will be an improvement in the whole view of what this business can offer.

CURWOOD: Also, the monarch butterfly at risk as its Mexican habitat continues to shrink.

BROWER: If the site deteriorates, and the butterflies can't make it through the winter here, then we're going to lose the whole migration. And I honestly believe, based on 22 years of research up here, that we're getting close to the no-turning point.

CURWOOD: Those stories and your letters this week on Living on Earth. First news.

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(NPR News follows)

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The Latest Debate Over Genetically-Modified Foods

CURWOOD: There is a new international treaty governing the trade of genetically modified foods. But it took almost a week's worth of talks in Montreal, one all night session, and a few compromises to get there. Supporters of genetically engineered products say they reduce the need for pesticides, keep us healthier and help to feed a hungry world. Critics warn of damage to humans and the environment with unintended toxins and allergens. And that theses novel life forms could overwhelm the wild gene pool of plants and animals. It's those concerns that led the European Union and most developing countries to fight to retain the right to refuse shipments of genetically modified products, even if hard scientific evidence of harm is not available. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey has details on the new agreement.

TOOMEY: Up until the final hours of these negotiations Canada and the US insisted these goods could not be turned away at the border unless they were proven unsafe. But under the new agreement countries can refuse GM products based on the precautionary principle. In other words, if there is reasonable doubt about their safety. Louise Gale, biosafety political advisor with Greenpeace, explains the reason behind the US, Canadian compromise.

GALE: I think they could see that this was a very very critical point for the rest of the world. All the other negotiating groups were absolutely adamant that they couldn't concede on this. The risks were too great.

TOOMEY: But in a concession of their own, the European Union and developing countries will allow imports to be labeled with the words "this product may contain genetically modified organisms." That eliminates the need to segregate GM ingredients from natural ones, a process that the US and Canada had complained would be costly and time-consuming. Louise Gale says despite the fact that the US is not a signatory to the biodiversity treaty this protocol is part of, the agreement will impact US exports.

GALE: There is language in the protocol which obliges the countries that are parties to the protocol to make sure that any dealings they have with nonparties have to be consistent with the objectives of the protocol. So there are going to be it's sort of like a defacto, inevitable fact that the US is going to have to respect the protocol because otherwise the countries importing from the US will be in breech of the protocol.

TOOMEY: Of the more than one hundred thirty negotiating countries fifty of them must ratify the agreement before it can take effect. For Living on Earth I am Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty is a reporter with the Canadian Broadcasting Company who's been following the debate on gentically modified foods and covered the negotiations in Montreal. He told me it's important to remember that the talks were held under the auspices of the U.N. Biodiversity Treat and that the connection between that treaty and genetically modified products can be a strong one.

CARTY: The basic concern is that a genetically-modified organism can affect the entire ecology of the world. Like non-native species do. These zebra mussels are an example I really like. You know, a critter that came from the Caspian Sea ended up in the Great Lakes because it was unintentionally released. And it went on to multiply and clog up intake pipes and cost millions of dollars. With genetically-modified grains, for example, they can be sold in a marketplace, say, in Mexico. People buy them for food, but could also buy them to plant. And then, as they grow, they could cross-pollinate, could crowd out existing native varieties, and in the end create super weeds or resistance among pests. That's the fear, it would reduce biological diversity.

CURWOOD: Well, we know from the recent World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, the trade talks these days can inspire rather rowdy protests. What was it like in the streets of Montreal?

CARTY: There actually was some chat before Montreal began that the Battle of Seattle would become the Brawl of Montreal. It didn't happen that way, though. Everything was very, very peaceful. There was a demonstration of about 300 people, with an eight-foot cob of corn devouring a monarch butterfly. But it was quite peaceful. And inside the conference hall, things were very, very relaxed and informal, but extremely intense. Press conferences going on every which way by different factions of countries: pro-biotech farmers, anti-genetically-altered food farmers, scientists on one side and the other. A lot of media attention for an event that is really about a very technical and legal document.

CURWOOD: There is a lot at stake, though, here, isn't there? I mean, some people call these Frankenfoods. There's fear that these genetically-modified foods in particular are really dangerous. And some food processors and importers are simply refusing to buy them, right?

CARTY: That's correct, there's tremendous market upheaval, and for the United States in particular, which grows about 75 percent of GM crops. I think some statistics show that the United States has now lost about 96 percent of the corn market in Europe. That's hundreds of millions of dollars. About one billion dollars in sales of soybeans have been lost as well to Europe. Many more nations are thinking of restrictions on these products, and labeling measures. Companies like Gerber, as you mentioned, have restricted the use of GM inputs to their foods. And grain buyers like Archer Daniels Midlands want to segregate these crops.

CURWOOD: So what does all this mean for farmers?

CARTY: Well, for farmers it's creating a lot of confusion and forcing them to make some tough decisions. This is the time of year, by the way, when they're deciding what to plant in the spring. I went down to see a farmer to try to figure out how he was making that decision. I went to see a man by the name of Stan Vanden Bosch in eastern Ontario here. And he actually grows some genetically-modified corn. He likes it. He says it helps him fight the corn bore. But he's not going to grow any genetically-modified soya, and that's because he now gets a bonus if it's GM-free. But he has to assure the buyer that it is GM-free, and so he has to test it. And Stan Vanden Bosch took me out to his barn to show me how he does that.

(A door opens; a buzz in the background)

VANDENBOSCH: Okay, we've got a kit here that we can check soybeans as to whether or not they are genetically-enhanced or the regular soybeans.

CARTY: That's the soybean there.

VANDENBOSCH: Yes. Visually you can't tell any difference. We take and crush a bean up and add a few drops of a solution to it, and then we put in a piece of material that looks almost like litmus paper. If the soybean is genetically-enhanced, we'll get two small red lines. If just one red line appears, then it's non-GM soybeans.

CARTY: Stan, how do you feel about the debate about safety of genetically-modified foods?

VANDENBOSCH: I consider them safe at this point.

CARTY: So your decisions as to what to plant, what not to plant, are based on what?

VANDENBOSCH: Strictly on what our customers are going to want in the coming year. And at the moment, that's up in the air.

CARTY: That's Stan Vanden Bosch, a farmer in Eastern Ontario. And I should mention, Steve, that he's not the only one who feels things are up in the air. A straw poll of some American farmers suggested that plantings of GM crops this year will be down 15 to 25 percent.

CURWOOD: Wow. This is really a meltdown of the market for these products for the biotech companies. How are they responding to this?

CARTY: Some people in the industry are now admitting, Steve, that there was a mistake made in how these crops were sold, or how they were packaged, how they were presented to the public. The first generation of GM crops was designed to supposedly benefit the farmer, would mean that he would use less pesticides or he'd get better output, better yield. Those claims, by the way, are now being disputed by some new data. But the point is that the first generation of GM products was supposed to benefit the farmer and not the consumer. There's nothing in it for the consumer. It's not a healthier food. It's not a cheaper food. So why put it in your mouth?

CURWOOD: So what's the solution?

CARTY: From the point of view of the biotech companies, the solution is to create a new generation of GM foods that do have something for the consumer. I talked to a stock market analyst about this very point. He's Jim Wilbur with the firm of Solomon Smith Barney in New York City. And he says companies like Monsanto, which have lost about a third of their stock market value in recent months, can still turn things around if they introduce these kinds of new generation products. Here's Jim Wilbur.

WILBUR: If consumers understand that by, you know, eating soybeans, for example, they can lower their cholesterol, and if the benefits of those soybeans have been created through a biotechnology, you can then trade off the risk against the reward of a longer life. So we think that as the benefits in the food, as the higher nutrition become more apparent, then there will be an improvement in the whole view of what this business can offer.

CARTY: And that's Jim Wilbur, a senior stock analyst with Solomon Smith Barney in New York.

CURWOOD: Now, what do you think is the outlook or the future of genetically-modified foods, given this international diplomatic atmosphere?

CARTY: I think they're going to have a lull for two or three years, until this next generation comes along. In that time there may be new science that either proves them safer or proves them more hazardous than we expect. In any event, I think the nations of the world will continue doing what they're doing now -- that is, setting some limits on how these products are traded around the world, which in any case will be necessary because the Protocol will take years to implement.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty is a reporter with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Thanks, Bob.

CARTY: You're welcome, Steve.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead, the magnificent monarch butterfly at risk. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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Monarch Butterfly Habitat

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The monarch butterfly is one creature that may be at risk from genetically-modified organisms. Researchers have found in lab tests that pollen from corn designed to produce a moth-killing toxin also kills monarch caterpillars. An industry-funded study disputes that result. Even so, the EPA recently announced that seed companies must now ask farmers to plant a buffer zone of natural corn around genetically-altered crops to help assure butterfly habitat. Poison pollen or not, the monarch faces other real threats as well, as we hear in this National Geographic Radio Expedition from Mexico, where the butterfly spends the winter. NPR's John Burnett reports.

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BURNETT: In the maddening heart of Mexico City, it's possible to imagine this metropolis as a super-mound, an insect colony out of control. With relief, our VW van lurches through the brown haze and over the lip of the Baya de Mexico. We're on a journey to see how another species manages to survive in countless multitudes. Rising in the distance are the volcanic mountains of Michoacan, the winter home of los monarcas. At the wheel is a tall, rumpled man in a ski sweater and corduroys who maintains a secret stash of Milky Ways and a lifelong infatuation with Danaus plexippus, the monarch butterfly. Dr. Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College in Virginia has trekked to these mountains nearly 50 times.


BURNETT: We turn off the pavement, climb a bumpy road, and unload in a butterfly reserve almost two miles high, called the Sierra Chinqua.

BROWER: We've gotten all our gear together, and we're up here in the Yanas de Villa Lobos, which is the staging area just below the ridge of mountains where the monarchs form their colonies. And it's about a mile walk from here to the butterflies.


BURNETT: All around us are Oyamel firs, where some 250 million monarchs will over-winter in a normal year. Stopping along the way to refuel on nectar, they fly from Canada and the United States east of the Rockies in a huge migrational funnel that ends in the Oyamel forest. No one is sure exactly why the monarchs pick these mountains. It may be because, as a rare east to west range, they're a natural barrier with the right vegetation and altitude.

BROWER: We head off this way to the left.


BURNETT: How the butterflies find their way here is another mystery. The fall arrivals are the great-great-grandchildren of the generation that departed eight months earlier in the spring.

BROWER: So they have no memory of how to get here. It has to be in their genes.

BURNETT: And then we see them, hanging in great gray clumps like Spanish moss drooping from fir boughs. They remind Brower of feather dusters. When the sun hits a colony and the insects warm up enough to fly, they look like pieces of black and orange stained glass, and sound faintly like the whispers of saints.

(Wings fluttering)

BROWER: So here we are now, approaching the center of this colony. And this colony here is about two and a half hectares of butterflies. So we're talking about 21 or 22 million butterflies that are just surrounding us here.

BURNETT: As many butterflies as the population of Mexico City, hanging here, quiescent, from November to March, until longer, warmer days jump-start their gonads. Then they surge into the air for a month of frenzied in-flight lepidoptrous lovemaking. Afterwards they ride the northward winds back across the Rio Grande, to lay eggs on milkweed plants from Brownsville to St. Augustine.

BROWER: It's very beautiful, and to think of an insect that weighs about as much as a penny flying all the way down here from Toronto, Canada, and then getting back, surviving the winter, and getting all the way back to the Gulf Coast, laying its eggs and setting the stage for the next generation.

BURNETT: Brower and other researchers are worried the monarch's forest habitat is threatened by compasinos who conservationists say cut the protected Oyamels with impunity and run their cattle in the forests. He's noted the colonies are half the size of last year's, which could be related to timber cutting as well as to recent forest fires and the drought. We're traveling with a friend of Brower’s, Mexican poet and environmentalist Omero Aregis. He was largely responsible for the Mexican government setting aside this and several other mountaintops as butterfly reserves. He sits on a fallen tree and looks up at a cluster of sleeping butterflies.

AREGIS: We were allocated to respect the masterpieces of human beings through history, Michelangelo, and the museums. But we don't respect the masterpieces of nature, and the monarch butterfly is a masterpiece of nature. And the phenomenon is fantastic, fantastic.


BURNETT: Brower is trying to understand why the Oyamel firs are so important to the butterflies, and in the process he wants to create more reasons to protect the forest. To that end we climb a narrow path lined with fragrant wild sage and pink thistles, to a stand of large trees.

BROWER: The reason we're here is because I want to measure the temperature of the trees, to see if they can act like a hot water bottle. We want to test this hypothesis, because when it gets very, very cold, the butterflies that are on the tree trunks show the highest survival rate.

BURNETT: He drills a hole in a trunk and inserts a thermal probe. It will register the tree's temperature for the next 40 days.


BROWER: Will you hold that? Okay. So, we need to get the diameter of the tree, but let me get this hole under control. Okay. (Grunts) We have to try to get this hole in as straight as possible. (Hammers)

BURNETT: The butterfly reserves have never been popular with the local people. The mountaintops used to belong to them. Now they try to make money from tourism, charging admission, hiring out as guides, renting horses, and selling souvenirs.

(Ambient conversation)

BURNETT: But if you ask people here at the stables on the edge of the reserve, they'll tell you they want to be compensated for the reserve land or allowed to take out more wood.

MAN: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: The falling timber just rots, and our children don't even get to benefit from it. They won't let us cut anything, not even haul out the fallen wood. What we need is permission to restore the forest and plant new trees, so the forest is beautiful. It's newer, and so the butterfly would be happier here.

BURNETT: Researchers are skeptical the local compasinos are as conservation-minded as they sound.

BROWER: Basically, what we are seeing here in Mexico is the Achilles heel of the whole migratory phenomenon, because of the dependence on these forests. This is the entire seed crop of the monarchs that migrate back into the United States and Canada. So if we lose this, if the site deteriorates, and the butterflies can't make it through the winter here, then we're going to lose the whole migration. And I honestly believe, based on 22 years of research up here, that we're getting close to the no-turning point.

BURNETT: If the Aztecs were right, these monarchs will never leave because they cannot. The ancient Mexicans believed the butterflies to be the souls of dead warriors. An Aztec scribe wrote this.

BROWER (reading): Perpetually, time without end, they rejoice. They live in abundance, where they suck the different flowers. It's as if they look drunk with joy and happiness, not knowing, no longer remembering the affairs of the day, the affairs to the night. Eternal is their abundance, their joy.

BURNETT: Eternal, Lincoln Brower suggests, as long as the Oyamel forest is safe. I'm John Burnett for Radio Expeditions, in the Sierra Chinqua, Mexico.

CURWOOD: Our report on the monarch butterflies was produced by Jessica Goldstein and recorded by Leo Del Aguila for NPR's Morning Edition, and originally broadcast as part of the National Geographic Radio Expeditions series.

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CURWOOD: And now time to hear from you, our listeners.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: Our profiles of Republican presidential candidates George W. Bush and John McCain drew most of our recent comments. Pam Phillips, an environmental scientist who hears us on KERA in Dallas, Texas, appreciated our report but said we missed one of the governor's major environmental sins. "Mr. Bush and the Republicans in the state legislature," she wrote, "nixed a new vehicle inspection system after it was set up, resulting in the highest lawsuit judgment against the state in history. In other words," adds Ms. Phillips, "the more gasoline we burn, the better the petroleum industry likes it."

And KQED listener Phillip Marty of Escolon, California, called to say he was thinking about voting for John McCain, but the candidate's derogatory description of some environmental leaders as, quote, "far left and liberal," changed his mind.

MARTY: McCain seems like an honorable man, but after listening to your show and him talking about the fringe people? God, if anyone is fringe, it's been the Republicans, way, way out. They just don't get it.

CURWOOD: From Hill City, Kansas, KZNA listener J.F. Stover wrote that our feature on hand-feeding wild birds reminded him of his close encounters with animals in Europe 30 years ago, "Birds," he wrote, "hardly hesitated to land on our hands and fly off with raisins. Squirrels climbed our trousers and ran along our outstretched arms to perch on our wrists and eat shelled walnuts. The fresh connection to wildlife reformed my relationship to all nature. Thanks for the memory."

And finally, KUT Austin, Texas, listener Carol Belmont called with this response to our feature on driving rats from federal buildings in the nation's capital.

BELMONT: I have a suggestion that might help the situation. I feel that every government office building in Washington should employ one to three homeless cats. Now, these cats would undoubtedly rid the rat population, and it would give each one of these homeless cats a meaningful job.

CURWOOD: Well, whether you think we're the cat's meow or something the cat dragged in, your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to Living on Earth, 20 Holland Street, Suite 408, Somerville, MA 02144. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15. Or you can hear our program on our web page at www.loe.org. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Surdna Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity; www.wajones.org.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up: author Jamaica Kincaid takes us to her Vermont garden. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: A hundred and fifty years ago, Sir Ebenezer Howard was born in London, and, along with him, the modern town planning movement. Sir Howard became famous for designing small, self-contained communities surrounded by open space. He called them garden cities, and they combined the best of city and rural life by integrating homes and gardens with civic and commercial interests. The Utopian idea appealed to industrial nations suffering from urban congestion. So, the garden cities of Letchworth and Welwyn were developed outside of London. As generations passed, Sir Howard's ideas swept across the sea to influence American planners Lewis Mumford and Clarence Stein. The towns of Greenbelt, Maryland, and Radburn, a section of Fairlawn, New Jersey, were built upon garden city principles. The early garden cities were pedestrian-friendly and centered around rail transit. In motor-age garden cities like Radburn, cars were kept out of sight, behind the houses. Other legacies include curving streets and cul-de-sacs. And one of Sir Howard's nineteenth century designs has become a fixture on the suburban landscape. He drew a cluster of stores enclosed under a glass arcade. And so was born the shopping mall. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Lake Tahoe Logging

CURWOOD: The long-standing debate over how best to manage national forest land in California's Sierra Nevada is beginning to shift. The National Forest Service is preparing a new management plan for the region, and many Sierra business people are speaking out against an industry they used to support whole-heartedly: logging. Now they favor tourism. Reporter Willie Albright explains why.


ALBRIGHT: From the casinos and ski resorts of Lake Tahoe to the white waters of the American River, tourism is replacing industries such as logging as the primary economic force here in the Sierra Nevada. The mountain town of Truckee is a case in point. Its lumber mill closed more than 10 years ago. Now, in its place there's the Unique Boutique, the Cafe Meridian, and the Sports Exchange.

(A cash register rings; a receipt prints and is ripped from the roll)

DILLON: Whether you're a housekeeper or you work at McDonald's or you work in our store here, it's all based on tourism.

ALBRIGHT: Paul Dillon owns the Sports Exchange.

DILLON: Almost everybody in this community is here because it's a nice place to live, and tourists recognize it. And that's why they're here, too. And if there weren't tourists here, it probably wouldn't be such a nice place to live.

ALBRIGHT: Tourism has become such an important part of the local economy that many small businesses are worried about the effect of resource extraction industries. They have formed a coalition to block Forest Service plans to increase logging on public land, arguing that logging will drive the tourists away. Erin Noel is an environmental attorney with the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, who is organizing business opposition to the plan.

NOEL: What's at stake is management of national forests in the Sierra Nevada, and whether or not we want to have sustainable logging occur around the things that we most want to protect. The streams, the rivers, and the wild areas we really care about as a culture, not just here locally but throughout California and the United States.

ALBRIGHT: Erin Noel got 52 businesses to sign a letter to the Forest Service. The letter argues that the plan fails to protect old growth forests, spotted owl habitat, or roadless areas. If these were logged, she says, the region will lose its appeal to tourists, and that will hurt the economy far more than lost logging jobs.

(Industrial noise)

ALBRIGHT: Logging is on the decline in the Sierra Nevada, accounting for only four percent of the economy as compared to 59 percent generated by the tourist industry. But logging proponents argue that lumber mills, such as this one north of Truckee, pay far better wages than resort jobs. Forester Mike Yost says the debate should not be about logging versus tourism. He says that logging on public lands is essential to control the threat of wildfires. And he says burning forests are very bad for tourism.

YOST: The trade-off is more than just are we going to damage the forest by logging or not logging. If we don't deal with this fuel problem one way or another in the forest, what's going to happen, the fire ecologists tell us, sooner or later we're going to have very intensive fires everywhere. Like some of the ones we had this summer.

ALBRIGHT: Fires which Mike Yost says cost the Forest Service $30 million to fight and kept tourists away in record numbers. Environmentalists say logging does little to control fires because only the larger, more profitable trees were taken. But Mike Yost says new technology makes it economically feasible to go after small trees. Falling between the two camps is the Sierra Business Council, the largest business organization in the area. Council director Lucy Blake says both viewpoints need to be incorporated into a long-range vision for the Sierra Nevada.

BLAKE: We've got to move away from either-or. It's not environment versus economy. It's environment and economy. And it's only by investing for both economic health and environmental health that we're going to produce truly prosperous communities in the Sierra Nevada.

ALBRIGHT: About 60 million tourists visit the Sierra Nevada each year. Lucy Blake says tourism is creating its own environmental problems -- traffic congestion and air pollution to name a few. In addition, more people are living in the Sierra Nevada than ever before. The population here doubled to 650,000 in the past 20 years. That number is expected to triple by 2040, and some environmentalists say this rapid population growth is the biggest threat of all. For Living on Earth, I'm Willie Albright at Lake Tahoe.

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Jamaica Kincaid's Garden

CURWOOD: Jamaica Kincaid is best known for her books The Autobiography of My Mother and Annie John. Both works chronicle life on Ms. Kincaid's native island of Antigua in the Caribbean, where it's always warm and often hot, and where gardens are tended year-round. Ms. Kincaid now lives in Vermont, where it's cold much of the year, and gardening is a short but passionate affair. Gardening is the subject of Jamaica Kincaid's latest work, My Garden Book. And I asked her to tell me how it all began.

KINCAID: My husband gave me these tools he bought at Ames department store for Mother's Day. I never asked him why he chose that. For some reason he gave me those things, those tools, and some seeds. And I just went outside. I can remember that Sunday very well. And dug up the ground, put the seeds in, and nothing happened.

CURWOOD: Because?

KINCAID: That's not how you make a garden.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) It isn't.

KINCAID: You really have to prepare for the thing you want. You have to till the earth. You have to prepare it in ways that I did not know. I just thought, well, you put things in the ground and they come up. And mine did not come up. And the end of that year, we moved to another house where I then started to garden seriously, obsessively. And even madly.

CURWOOD: Even madly. So, those seeds that didn't germinate somehow germinated a seed in you.

KINCAID: Absolutely. I hadn't thought of it that way, but yes.

CURWOOD: And you said, well, wait a second. I'm Jamaica Kincaid. (Kincaid laughs) These things don't grow. What's going on here? I can make something grow. I don't have a black thumb, I have a green thumb.

KINCAID: Oh gosh, well I have to say first of all I never say to myself, "I'm Jamaica Kincaid."

CURWOOD: Well, if you're not Jamaica Kincaid, who is?

KINCAID: Well (laughs) I am to somebody else. But to myself I'm just sort of this bumbling person. I bumble into everything. I did, when we moved to the new house, I did all sorts of wrong things. I put lime down in my garden, and it turns out that Vermont is very limey anyway.

CURWOOD: Yeah, it's very sweet soil.

KINCAID: Yes. So that's not what I needed. I did all sorts of things that were wrong. Because the other thing is, I've always determined not to read books about what I should do. Because I like to sort of discover what it is I should do through my own experience. So I didn't read any books, I just sort of did this and did that. When I began to read about the garden, it wasn't how-to books. It was, you know, the lives of people who had made gardens, which led me to history, which led me to geography, which led me to think that gardening is always something that's done by people who are well off. People who are not well off and grow things are involved in agriculture.

CURWOOD: So gardening is for the privileged, and farming is for the real.

KINCAID: Yeah. I wouldn't say for the privileged so much as it is a luxury. And that only happens in privileged societies.

CURWOOD: And so, your need to garden is not, then, for the food, but part of your connection with nature? Part of a spiritual thing for you? E.O. Wilson says there's a biophilia urge, what he calls the Biophilia Hypothesis: that we need other species and that people need to grow plants in part to be in touch with our need to be with other species. Is that what's happening for you?

KINCAID: I think, for me, it's an extension of why I read books. It's a pursuit I want to say of knowledge, and a pursuit of pleasure. Pursuit of a lot of things that are necessary for me, but not a lot of it I can articulate, or even want to, because it sounds so self-indulgent. No one really needs me to garden.

CURWOOD: Gardens are very personal.

KINCAID: They are indeed.

CURWOOD: How have you arranged your garden in Vermont? What does it look like, it's shape?

KINCAID: Well, the shape of it, it looks like a map of the Caribbean, and that was unknown to me when I was doing it.

CURWOOD: Unknown to you.

KINCAID: Yes. I made the most oddly-shaped beds. They have uneven, wavy borders. And I came to see that they looked like something I had to stare at every day of my school years. A map of the world, really, with the parts that were British in pink. But in particular, the map of the West Indies is what it looks like.

CURWOOD: Does this garden provide a way for you to remember certain events in your life?

KINCAID: I don't know if it provides me with memory or if my memory provides it. It's not clear to me.

CURWOOD: I have a section of your book I'd love you to read. If you could look on page 57, actually this is about the end of fall and the arrival of winter, which is the season which we're passing through right now, indeed.

KINCAID: And where should I begin? In early September?

CURWOOD: In early September.

KINCAID: Okay. (Reads) In early September, I picked and cut open a small, soft, yellow-fleshed watermelon, and I was suddenly reminded of the pictures of small girls I used to see in a magazine for girls when I was a small girl myself. They were always at a birthday party, and the colors of their hair, and of the clothes they wore, and of the light in the room, were all some variation of this shade, the golden shade of the watermelon that I had grown. I would wish, then, to be a girl like that, with hair like that, in a room like that. And the despair I felt then that such a thing would never be true is replaced, now, with the satisfaction that such a thing would never be true. Those were the most delicious melons I have ever grown. The leaves turned yellow and red and brown and then fell. The days grew short. The heat from the sun grew thin, then just wasn't there any more at all. I planted six different kinds of fritillaria and some flag iris and some peonies -- ordinary ones, not trees, that looked spectacular in the catalogue I had ordered them from. Then one day the long chill arrived, the chill that no heat can penetrate. Winter.

CURWOOD: My guest is Jamaica Kincaid. Her new book is called My Garden (Book): We'll be back in just a moment.

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Jamaica Kincaid's Garden Continued

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. With me is Jamaica Kincaid, and we're talking about her new book. It's called My Garden (Book): Let's go out into your garden.

KINCAID: Very well.

CURWOOD: And if we go out into your garden, I find a number of plants, don't I, that ordinarily don't grow in southern Vermont, in Zone 5, right?

KINCAID: Well, that would be true. One of them would be my Franklinia, named after Benjamin Franklin by a botanist and plants man named William Bartram. John and William. I think William is the father and John the son. But this tree called Franklinia -- I may have gotten them backwards -- but this tree called Franklinia, it's a shrub, was only seen in the wild by the Bartrams. Apparently, all the Franklinias in the world that are in cultivation now are descended from that one tree that he first grew. So yeah, that would be something you wouldn't find in a Zone 5, or you wouldn't find someone in a Zone 5 garden attempting to grow it. But I always like to do that. I always like to attempt things that people will say you can't do, you can't do, that will never do here.

CURWOOD: Do you have plants from your native Antigua that you try to grow in Vermont?

KINCAID: Yes, but of course I have to bring them in. I actually have a couple of bulbs, a native of the amaryllis family, and it's grown mostly on top of graves in Antigua. And my brother died in 1996, and I was tending his grave. And they just grow all over the graveyard, and the graveyards in Antigua are not very well taken care of. And I brought back a couple of those bulbs, and one of them bloomed, which was very surprising. And then I grew all these different witch hazels.

CURWOOD: Witch hazel? (Kincaid laughs) Have you tried banana?

KINCAID: (Laughs) I do have a moussa, Lord Cavendish, that I bring in, too. Moussa is banana in Latin. When I first started to garden I said, "I will never learn the Latin names of anything. It's so pretentious." And I made this vow with a friend of mine that we would never learn the Latin names. And then without being able to help myself, I did learn the Latin names, and I've never told her.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Now, your book is broken up in to sections here. Some of them are about the seasons. So I have to ask you, do you have a favorite season in the garden?

KINCAID: Yes. Spring.

CURWOOD: Spring.

KINCAID: Absolutely my favorite. When things are just coming in. I wish spring would last for six months. A rather long, slow spring. And then an equally long summer, and then a longish fall. And winter would be one day.

CURWOOD: One day of winter. That's generous. I thought you would have said ten minutes.

KINCAID: (Laughs) No, no. One day would be enough.

CURWOOD: You really don't like winter, do you? I'm wondering if you could just read from your book there, on page 60, where you talk about winter coming and the snow.

KINCAID: (Reads) It was a day in late October, and I had $2,000 worth of heirloom bulbs to place in the ground. The daffodils, Empress of Ireland, Beersheba, Beryl, Telmonius plenus, Queen of the North; The tulips, ‘Mrs. John Scheepers’ Queen of the Night, when almost one foot of snow fell on the ground. I do not like winter or anything that represents it. Snow, the bare branches of trees, the earth seeming to hold its breath. But snow will occupy all the spaces you know, the spaces above the ground, the space below the ground. And if you turn inward, as long as it is in front of you, it will occupy that space, too. For me to look at a landscape covered with this substance is to look at despair, and I cannot find anything in the history of human beings to make me feel that my view is merely personal. I grew up on an island in a climate that is tropical, and therefore I am prejudiced. All I see when I look at the history of human beings is that people who find themselves living with this substance, snow, and the stilled landscape that comes with it, go south or long for the warmth that comes from living in the southern hemisphere. I feel that I can state this with some certainty only after helping my son make a map of the travels of Eric the Red and Lucky Leif Erikson. This is the evidence I have for my feelings, but my own history contradicts this. I come from south, far south. I come from the West Indies, of where I now liVe. And I love the event called spring, and accept that it comes after winter. And that it cannot come without winter.

CURWOOD: Now, during the winter, you spend a lot time going over those seed catalogues, huh? (Kincaid laughs) Are there any that you recommend? I mean, what makes a good seed catalogue?

KINCAID: Oh. The best catalogues, as I say again and again, are usually the ones that have no beautiful pictures. They just have the entry, the plants man's prose. To see them express right about these plants, it's as if the grocer had to write about the different butter. There are catalogues to recommend. My favorite, all-time favorite, would be the Herons Wood catalogue by a man named Daniel Hinkley. They're in Kingston, Washington. His catalogue you have to get just for the prose alone. He's a writer also and a plants man, in the sense that almost everything he offers he's collected the seeds himself in the wild, and grown and tried.

CURWOOD: We don't have much time, but I have to ask you.


CURWOOD: Do you have any gardening tips for our listeners?

KINCAID: (Laughs) Yes. Grow what you like and then see -- not just what you like. Grow what you love, and then see how it works. See how it survives. See if you and the thing you are growing will be friends. But the best thing is never to listen to anyone, including me.

CURWOOD: My guest has been Jamaica Kincaid. Her book is My Garden -- parentheses -- Book -- close parentheses -- and a colon. Thank you.

KINCAID: Thank you.

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Tribute to Hazel Wolf

CURWOOD: Recently news came from Seattle that Hazel Wolf had died. You might remember Ms. Wolf from our feature we broadcast at the beginning of January on centenarians. She was the one who summed up an entire century's worth of changes with this astute observation.

WOLF: The biggest change I've seen is in swimsuits. You better believe it.

CURWOOD: Along with her great wit, Hazel Wolf was well-known in the Pacific Northwest as an avid environmentalist. For 34 years she ran Washington State's Audubon Society, and she was editing a publication called "Outdoors West" when she died on January nineteenth at the age of 101. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, who brought us the feature on centenarians, has this remembrance of Hazel Wolf.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The day I met Hazel Wolf she was intent on the TV. Coming to her hospital room from just a few blocks away in downtown Seattle was coverage of the World Trade Organization demonstrations. She said hello, and started filling me in on the street scene. She called out and waved when she saw friends in the crowd of protesters. Her enthusiasm didn't falter when we turned off the set. Hazel was willing to talk about anything: her work organizing labor unions, her first and failed marriage, her thoughts on globalization, her atheism, even her frustrations with her fax machine.
She asked about my life, too. I pointed out that my birthday was two days after hers.

WOLF: Oh, really?


WOLF: Oh, then you're younger than I am. (Both laugh) You're two days younger than I am.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Both Pisces, right?

WOLF: That's fish.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Yeah. I think it's a good sign.

WOLF: Yeah, if we don't lose the salmon. That's not a simple issue. The dams are one of the greatest obstacles to the salmon. It leads to the salinization of the soil. The rivers become polluted, and the land becomes barren.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's what Hazel was like. She wasn't afraid to get personal, but she always had her eye on the bigger picture. She was unapologetic, even aggressive about her politics. But at the same time she was gentle. The other day I read about a timber industry official who wrote Hazel a letter after hearing her speak at an industry conference. "You say the most offensive things," he wrote, " in the most inoffensive way." I spent only a few hours with Hazel, but they were magical. Here was a person with a broad vision and a huge soul. I got the sense that she had managed to live with little judgment, and a rare kind of wonder. She wasn't naive in the slightest, I don't mean that, but she was wide open, willing to try or listen or see anything.
She had reached out to people who were different from her, like the young people she spoke to in the schools, encouraging them to vote and protect the environment.

WOLF: They're only written about if they do some dangerous things, such as shooting each other. That makes the press headlines. But the reality is that they're planting trees, they're picking up litter, recycling. Doing all these things. I know about that. That's not in the press. That's not reflected in the press.

STARBUCK: She erased a great gulf in age.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's Susan Starbuck, Hazel's biographer.

STARBUCK: The impact on young people was to make life seem whole and age not scary, but something that is fun. And they'd ask her questions like, "Do you still have your own teeth?" and, "Do you have a boyfriend?" And she'd always treat their questions seriously and answer them and say she was looking for someone who could cook, to take care of her, but she hadn't found any man who could cook for her yet.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hazel spent much of her life forging bonds between disparate groups, seeing links that needed mending, recognizing people who were being treated unfairly. One minute she talked to me about places like India and Nicaragua and Vietnam, the next about Seattle and the trees outside her apartment. She talked about watersheds and crime in the same breath, about politicians she despised, entertainers she loved.

WOLF: Everything is connected. You just put your hand down there someplace and it's different.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: As we talked, I started to understand: Where most people see divisions, Hazel saw gaps waiting to be closed. When I asked her what it was like to be a woman now compared to 100 years ago, she answered by jumping straight into a book she'd been reading.

WOLF: It starts way back, 300 years ago, with a woman in India. She gave her life to protect trees. There was a sacred grove, belonged to a big landowner. And he's a little short of cash, going to cut down these sacred trees. And the women came out, put their arms together like this around the trees, and the axe man came and cut them, killed them. And he stopped it. He stopped it. That was 300 years ago. And so, right up through the ages, women played a very important part in protecting the environment and the lives of their children.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The amazing thing was that even as Hazel talked her way through politics and history and the latest scientific research, she stayed grounded. At one point I asked her a sort of dumb question about how she liked to spend her time. She looked at me with a little glint in her eye. "I just had a hip replaced," she said. "I'm trying to get out of this hospital so I can get to work on the magazine." It was as simple as that: some perfect balance she seemed to have, a perch from which she could look down on this planet and see how funny and serious and big and small and light and dark we are.

WOLF: Eve is my role model. Had it not been for Eve and her initiative and creativeness, we'd still be in that stupid garden pulling up weeds. (Laughs) So we owe everything to Eve. She wanted to know what that apple tastes like. I don't blame her. When you have a fruit sitting around on trees and somebody says I can't eat it.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Environmental activist Hazel Wolf, who died on January nineteenth in Port Angeles, Washington, at the age of 101. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

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SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: When Hazel tells her life story, she usually begins with this story called the Boogey Man: "I was born fighting the establishment. I was told I tried to bite the doctor when he smacked my behind to start my breathing. Hazel Anna Cummings Anderson. I never did like being named after a nut. My mother, like all parents at that time, tried to discipline me with the Boogey Man. I remember this stormy night. I was real small, maybe four or five, and I don't know what I did. Probably wouldn't go to bed or something awful like that. She said the Boogey Man was out on the front porch with a big sack and was going to take me away if I didn't do this and this and this. And I'd had it. That night I'd had it with this Boogey Man. I opened the door to check it out. And there's nothing out there, nothing. And that taught me something that I needed to know: the Boogey Man is never there. So I open all the doors.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Kaneed Leger, Stephen Belter, and Emily Sadigh. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane is our science editor. And Peter Thomson is special projects editor. Terry FitzPatrick is the acting senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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