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

November 27, 2009

Air Date: November 27, 2009



Bilateral Strength in Copenhagen

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The UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen is just around the corner. President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen now say they plan to attend. Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, talks with host Steve Curwood about what to expect in the upcoming weeks, including the importance of forging a strong relationship between China and the U.S. in order to get the job done at Copenhagen. (05:30)

Biofuel Bugs

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Genetically modified microbes are the new thing in biofuels. Some university labs and high-tech startups say they’ve engineered organisms that can make fuels like ethanol and diesel with just sunlight and carbon dioxide. It’s called direct solar liquid fuel. The technology is a long way from commercial development but it’s already creating a buzz in the biofuels business. (06:30)

Cool Fix- Light Pollution Solutions

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Urban residents are urging their city governments to turn down the lights. Quincy Campbell reports how to stop streetlights from trespassing into the night sky and your bedroom. (02:10)

The Bronx is Reviving

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Community activist Majora Carter has helped bring environmentalism to New York City. Carter made a name for herself by turning a dump into a park and starting one of the first green jobs programs in the country. She talks with host Steve Curwood about the social challenges of making the South Bronx sustainable. (09:00)

A Hundred Bronx Tales / Ike Sriskandarajah

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The Bronx Grand Concourse, a wide, tree-lined boulevard modeled after Paris’ Champs d’Elysées, recently turned 100 years old. For its birthday it got 100 stories about 100 of its most beloved trees. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah went to the Bronx to listen to the Tree Museum. ()

The Eagle Soars / Jay O'Callahan

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At the age of five, J.C. High Eagle had a vision - he would someday help Americans travel to the moon. Against great odds, the Oklahoma Cherokee Indian's vision came true and J.C. High Eagle became an engineer for Apollo missions at NASA, the nation's space agency. Renowned storyteller Jay O'Callahan tells the story of J.C. High Eagle. It's part of Jay's larger work, commissioned by NASA for its 50th anniversary, called Forged in the Stars. (15:35)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOSTS: Jeff Young, Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Timothy Wirth, Majora Carter, Jay O’Callahan
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Ike Sriskandarajah,
COOL FIX: Quincy Campbell


YOUNG: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth.


YOUNG: I’m Jeff Young - and I’m Steve Curwood

CURWOOD: Countdown to Copenhagen – and the focus for the U.N. climate change conference is on what the U.S. and China can concretely offer….

WIRTH: So if we can figure out together a joint program for moving toward a greener and ultimately low-carbon economy then you know we have an opportunity together to really salvage the world.

CURWOOD: Cutting carbon at Copenhagen – and turning to nature to create the fuel to power our cars –

YOUNG: Also - finding natural beauty in the urban jungle - A new museum in the Bronx honors its trees....

HOLTEN: Its really beautiful, I tell people, I say the Bronx is pretty and they think I'm crazy and they come up to visit and they stand here and they go - Wow it’s gorgeous.

YOUNG: Living history - trees that tell you their stories – We’ll have tree tales and more this week on Living on Earth. Please - don’t leaf!

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ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and StonyField Farm.

[MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]

Bilateral Strength in Copenhagen

Timothy Wirth the President of the United Nations Foundation (Photo: the UN Foundation)

YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. The long awaited U.N. Climate Change conference in Copenhagen is nearly upon us, with more than 65 presidents and prime ministers scheduled to attend.

YOUNG: And President Obama will be among them—for a day at least. The president will speak on day three at Copenhagen—no major decision’s expected till the end of the two-week summit. Many question whether much can happen at Copenhagen to curb emissions from the world’s biggest carbon polluters—the U.S. and China.

CURWOOD: U.N. Foundation President, Tim Wirth, a former U.S. Senator and Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs, joins us now. Mr. Wirth, welcome to Living on Earth.

WIRTH: Nice to be with you again, thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Now, in a recent statement that you made on U.S.-China relations you said that the urgency of the green opportunity should be the lynchpin of the relationship between these two global powers. What would it take to forge this type of relationship?

WIRTH: Let’s look at the reality of the situation, Steve. That we’re the biggest developed world, they’re the biggest developing country; between the two of us we have about 50 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. So, if we can figure out together a joint program for moving toward a greener and ultimately low-carbon economy, then we have an opportunity together to really salvage the world.
So, how well we work on such issues as developing natural gas, working on various carbon sequestration issues, really getting a renewable energy economy, and of course increasing energy efficiency. These are some of the ingredients, each of which we have a big stake in, and they’ve got a lot to offer, we’ve got a lot to offer and together it seems to me we can hook up and make a huge difference.

CURWOOD: What about natural gas – what kind of capability does the U.S. have, and what about China’s?

WIRTH: Well, the U.S. has huge reserves of natural gas, and the Chinese have also very large reserves. And natural gas is less than 50 percent of the carbon content of coal. It’s a lot cheaper in every way too, when you’re finding natural gas and producing it, you don’t end up mountain topping, you don’t end up with massive amounts of coal sludge, you don’t have all the heavy metals that result from coal production.
So it makes a great deal of sense from an environmental and public health point of view to move to natural gas. And we’re the country that has the capability to develop those reserves, so this is another area where the U.S. and China ought to be working together very closely.

CURWOOD: What kind of numbers do you think the U.S. government is going to put on the table in Copenhagen? We’re the last major player here to come up with numbers that we’re willing to work with.

Timothy Wirth the President of the United Nations Foundation (Photo: the UN Foundation)

WIRTH: I think that the U.S. can put on the table a number of what we would call building blocks. They can put numbers on related to efficiency, related to renewables, related to deforestation, related to substitution of natural gas for coal, and related to automobile efficiency.
You add all those up and they get you to about a 20 percent reduction. And if you look at the legislative strategies on both the House and the Senate side, each of them are close to a 20 percent reduction. So, I guess I’d be surprised if whatever announcement the U.S. makes isn’t in the neighborhood of a 20 percent reduction.

CURWOOD: How much money should the U.S. offer developing countries to help them meet their emission reduction goals?

WIRTH: One of the most important parts of the agreement is going to be the funding that the developed world gives to the developing world to help them adapt to climate change. I mean we’re in this terrible situation of those that were least responsible for climate change are those who are going to suffer the most, particularly the poorest countries. So, I think if the developed world puts together a pool initially of about three to five billion dollars to help the developing countries begin to adapt to the climate change that’s already built into the system, that - that would be a good number, that would be a good start, and would be an acceptable part of a final agreement in Copenhagen.

CURWOOD: If the Congress of the United States doesn’t move forward in the next year, how likely do you think it is that president Obama will use regulatory authority under the EPA to begin to cutting back on the use of coal?

WIRTH: Well, the president currently has very significant authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon, and the Supreme Court has said that it can do so. So, the president has a lot of authority to do this and that is ultimately the most important weapon in his arsenal.
Of course, there are many in the industry that want to preempt that authority and I suspect there’ll be efforts on Capitol Hill to take that authority away from the public, away from the president so that the government can’t regulate carbon. If that were the case, then I think we’d lose an enormously valuable tool.

CURWOOD: Now, you’ve been at this question of climate change since…well, I know in the United States’ Senate you were at those hearings that NASA scientist, James Hansen came to, back – what is that? – 1988, here it is some 21 years later and we’re still talking about putting a limit on carbon.
How optimistic are you that it’s going to happen?

WIRTH: I think we’re getting to the point where the public’s going to start saying to the carbon industry, ‘You can no longer pollute the atmosphere the way you’ve done it in the past’. And the 64-dollar question, of course, is are we going to do enough fast enough? And that’s why Copenhagen becomes so important, it’s directionally right. That’s why it’s so important we follow up, that’s why it’s so important the president sustain his authority to regulate carbon, and that’s why we all have to work together internationally, particularly the U.S. and China to move us toward a low-carbon economy, to avert the catastrophe that truly is just around the corner.

CURWOOD: Timothy Wirth is president of the United Nation’s Foundation and formally led the U.S. delegation for climate negotiations back in the time of Kyoto. Thank you so much, sir.

WIRTH: Thank you very much, Steve.

Related link:
To learn more about the UN Foundation click here

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Biofuel Bugs

Scientists at Joule Biotechnologies say their mystery microbe spits out ethanol and diesel in the lab. This is how the Joule system might work in the field. (Courtesy Joule Biotechnologies)

YOUNG: America has long dreamed of growing its way to energy independence—ethanol, biodiesel and other plant-based fuels to wean us from climate-changing, budget-busting oil.

But biofuels have baggage. They take lots of energy, fertilizer, farmland and water. Well now some university labs and hi-tech companies promise a way past those problems. These ambitious scientists and entrepreneurs use genetic engineering to get fuel straight out of tiny plants and microbes. It’s a process called direct solar liquid energy.

[Walking steps]

YOUNG: Joule biotechnology’s CEO, Bill Sims, gives me the tour of his Cambridge, Massachusetts lab.

SIMS: So, in this lab we are actually testing our solar converters.

YOUNG: Sims points to tabletop sized rectangular, plastic frames, each with dozens of clear, skinny tubes running their length. Each tubes bubbles with a greenish liquid.

[Bubbling sounds]

YOUNG: The bubbles are carbon dioxide; the greenish color comes from a tiny, genetically modified organism. Plants or bacteria, maybe. Sims won’t say just what.

University of Minnesota biochemistry professor Larry Wackett’s team won support from the US Dept. of Energy for their approach to direct solar fuel. Wackett’s wants to mimic symbiosis in nature by teaming up microbes. (Courtesy UM College of Biological Sciences)

SIMS: So, we use the tools of synthetic biology in order to start with a base organism, but actually by modifying pathways, create new organisms that we have engineered to directly secrete fuels and chemicals.

YOUNG: One engineered organism can make ethanol. Another makes diesel fuel. Sims envisions these panels in a sunny somewhere soaking up CO2 from a power plant, and sending a constant stream of fuel-laden water to a separation facility. He says an acre of the solar converters could produce many times what biofuel crops do.

SIMS: So there’s no intermediary like cellulose or like algae that has to be grown, has to be processed as part of their process to create fuels or chemicals. We also don’t require fresh water, we don’t require agricultural land. We are converting CO2, and what is viewed by most people as bad into something good: renewable, clean fuel.

YOUNG: So let me see if I’ve got this straight. CO2, sun, your genetically tweaked organism – poof -- out the other end comes fuel?

SIMS: Yep, this is revolutionary technology, there’s no doubt about it. Call it what you will, transformational, game changing, etc. But it’s an entirely new way, using the power of the sun in a unique way, we aren’t converting sunlight to electrons, we’re converting sunlight to liquid fuels in a cost-effective manner that has essentially and unlimited supply.

YOUNG: I’ve got to say, it sounds a little too good to be true. But, you’re saying this works for real.

SIMS: It works for real. We get continued improvements on our productivity, and we’re finalizing our negotiations to break ground on a pilot plant in early 2010.

YOUNG: But, you’re still not going to tell us what the organism actually is?

SIMS: That’s right, the critter is still a secret.

YOUNG: But, it’s not an algae?

SIMS: It is not algae.

YOUNG: Is it duckweed?

SIMS: All we say is that it’s a highly engineered, photosynthetic organism that’s not algae.

YOUNG: Sims is tight-lipped when it comes to intellectual property, a common trait among the handful of companies trying this technology. In academia, things are a bit more open source.
Biochemistry professor Larry Wackett leads a team at the University of Minnesota, taking a different approach to direct solar fuels. Wackett says, no matter how much you modify an organism, you can only teach it so many tricks.

Scientists at Joule Biotechnologies say their mystery microbe spits out ethanol and diesel in the lab. This is how the Joule system might work in the field. (Courtesy Joule Biotechnologies)

WACKETT: If you try to engineer that organism to do many additional things, it puts stress on it and it’s often very difficult to highly engineer that to do all of the things that you want.

YOUNG: Wackett’s working on a bacterial buddy system. A genetically modified cyanobacteria, the ancient bugs that were the Earth’s first photosynthesizers, and a bacteria called Shewanella, which is good at churning out the building blocks of hydrocarbon fuels.

WACKETT: Now if you take a photosynthetic organism, something that harvests sunlight and then you take another organism that will now take the energy from the photosynthetic organism – the carbon – and convert that into something that you want like a hydrocarbon, this could be a very effective team.

YOUNG: Are you kind of mimicking symbiosis in nature, here?

WACKETT: Yes, we are. In fact, in a way we’re kind of learning from nature. We want to see how nature does things then more or less adapt it to a specific task. So rather than trying to fight this, we’re saying, hey, let’s go with the flow and use it.

YOUNG: Professor Wackett’s Minnesota team was among three universities to win highly competitive grants last month from the Department of Energy to develop direct solar liquid fuels. And the Minnesota lab has spun out a small company called, BioCee.
I called up Jim Lane to get a feel for how these direct solar startup companies are doing. Lane keeps tabs on the industry as editor of the Biofuels Digest. He says the companies already have a nickname: “The Magic Bug Guys”. And they’re generating a lot of buzz.

LANE: The energy has been building up for several years in research. And the two companies that have gotten a lot of attention lately: Joule Biotechnologies and also BioCee – they’ve really proven at the bench-scale that their technology really works.

YOUNG: So, what is the general reaction within the industry to what Joule and other companies say they can do here?

LANE: The idea that there are a couple of companies out there that are getting close to doing it and may have actually come up with a solution is incredibly exciting. But there is of course that healthy skepticism of any company that is not yet, at this point, building out to scale.
If you compare this to, let’s say, the Apollo Moon Shot program, we’d be in about 1962, which is when the Saturn Five was first announced. We’ve got a long ways to go before we’re actually landing on the Moon and can declare victory, but we’re at a milestone point, for sure.

YOUNG: Lane says the Magic Bug approach is attracting a lot of venture capital; bets that the answer to our biggest energy problem might come from a very tiny package.

Related links:
- Joule Biotechnologies
- University of Minnesota research
- BioCee
- Biofuels Digest

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

YOUNG: And I’m Jeff Young. Just ahead – a conversation with South Bronx green guru Majora Carter – but first this cool fix for a hot planet from Quincy Campbell.

Cool Fix- Light Pollution Solutions

[MUSIC: Mozart’s Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star]

CAMPBELL: If you live in an urban area chances are your starry nights are at least partially obscured. The culprit may be light pollution – and you’re probably paying for it.

[Cool Fix Theme]

CAMPBELL: Outdoor lighting disturbs the circadian rhythms of the natural world, affecting everything from bats to plants to people. We can efficiently light our homes using timers and motion sensors, but streetlights remain on through the night. Organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association recommend only lighting what needs to be lit, without sacrifice to safety.
But many streets and public areas are lit with high-glare bulbs that can create unsafe dark patches outside of the light. Strapped city governments are increasingly reliant on residents to pay for that lighting – which can account for up to 40 percent of a city’s electricity cost. So, you end up footing the bill for streetlights and the light pollution.
But some cities are heeding residents’ calls for more efficient lighting. Many will install light shields for those glaring lights upon request – focusing them downward instead of outward. And in some places, they’ll even replace the light bulb with a lower wattage or more efficient, low-glare LED bulb.
So, how many people does it take to screw in a light bulb? That question has many answers, but it may only take a few to reduce harmful lighting and save money, as well. That’s this week’s Cool Fix for a Hot Planet. I’m Quincy Campbell.

[Cool Fix Theme]

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YOUNG: And if you have a Cool Fix for a Hot Planet, we'd like to know it. If we use your idea on the air, we'll send you a shiny electric blue Living on Earth tire gauge. Keeping your tires properly inflated can save hundreds of dollars a year in fuel costs. So call our listener line at 800-218-9988, that's 800-218-99-88. Or email coolfix—that's one word—at loe dot org. coolfix@loe dot org.

The Bronx is Reviving

Majora campaigns for green jobs at Hunts Point in the Bronx. (James Chase)

CURWOOD: From the hot planet to a burning borough. About 30 years ago the poor African American and Latino neighborhoods of the South Bronx were burning – landlords were torching apartment buildings for insurance money. And there was plenty of pollution, violence and crime, as well.

An aspiring young filmmaker named Majora Carter first escaped the South Bronx to go to an elite private college, but then she headed back to the ghetto and ended up sparking a crusade to clean up its environment. I asked her why go back to the South Bronx after she and her parents had worked so hard to get her out?

CARTER: I was broke, basically. I started graduate school and I needed a cheap place to stay and my parents, you know, one of my parent’s bedrooms was the best place. I was the youngest of ten kids and my family had just gotten – we were all gone at the time, but fortunately, they allowed me to move back home.

CURWOOD: So, if you left mid-town and came home, where would you get off the subway and what would you have to walk by to get to your house?

CARTER: My subway stop was the Hunt’s Point station on the six line, and then we – I had to walk over about, oh let’s see, three, six – oh my gosh, about 12 lanes of highway to get into the community, which has one of the shortest walk signal times you could ever possibly imagine.
So, you’d literally see little old ladies running across the street for fear of getting hit and it was one of the most dangerous intersections in the Bronx, actually. Lots of storefronts that had been closed because there was so much financial disinvestment in our community. And you saw people who wished they lived some place else.

CURWOOD: So, what motivates you to – to do something about this? I mean, you went home because, hey, the rent was right, but usually people in a case like that say, hey, as soon as I get my act together, I’m out of here again. Why didn’t you bounce?

CARTER: Well, I did bounce, but then I bounced back because the forces of the universe were just like, you need to go home. I realize that all the things that I thought about my community, that we were this poor community that just got into the situation that it was in because it didn’t care enough about itself.

And that absolutely was completely untrue. The point is that there were huge forces generating from outside of the community, you know policy makers, many elected officials.

We unfortunately had a state environmental department that had never seen a permit for a waste facility they didn’t allow to come into this community. We saw the evidence of it in terms of the asthma rate and it was one of those things that just hit me like a ton of bricks. We I realized that all the things I thought to be true about myself and my community actually were not.

Majora speaks at the TED conference

CURWOOD: Yeah, you’ve got to think in a place like the south part of the Bronx, where joblessness, and violence, and a lot of other pressing social problems are still clambering for attention; it’s got to be kind of tough to get your voice heard about the environment?

CARTER: Well, it’s not so tough when we pitch it the way that we do, which is about how do you create wealth and health for people? We actually learned the lesson a long time ago that in our community we don’t really talk about the environment – we talk about things like public health; we talk about things like job creation. And starting one of the country’s first green jobs training and placement system, right here in the South Bronx, we were able to do that because we listen to people talk about what was important to them. And, in particular, economic empowerment via i.e. jobs was a huge thing. What we wanted to do was help them see how they’re both economic, as well as their personal self interest was tied up to make the environment a better place for them and their families.

CURWOOD: Now, this is I know a difficult question, but you’ve been very successful in telling this story and been widely recognized for this. I’m sure it’s helped you economically – how do you deal with how your neighbors in the South Bronx now perceive you because there’s this sort of prejudicial view that well, those environmentalists, they’re rich folks that have the time to do this. I would guess that you look kind of rich to your neighbors?

CARTER: To many of them, obviously I am, but that’s why it’s important for me to be in my community. I love being in my neighborhood, I really do. I know my neighbors, they know me, many of them watched me grow up. They understand that what I’m trying to do is ultimately there to benefit them.

CURWOOD: And what I was getting at is – how do you get the message across that you don’t have to be well-to-do to be an environmentalist?

CARTER: You know, look, I gotta tell you that many of the folks that came through our Green Jobs training program, many of them had been arrested, many times over in some cases, for selling weed on the street. These guys - and gals - are not making huge amounts of money, so when many of these folks were able to get jobs 25,000 dollars a year, with bennies, they were thrilled.
You know, whether they were putting green roofs on or doing wetland restoration or urban forestry management or cleaning up contaminated lands - these people should be viewed as the heroes that they are.

Majora campaigns for green jobs at Hunts Point in the Bronx. (James Chase)

CURWOOD: Why do you suppose it is that so many people in the inner city, and I’m thinking particularly of people of color, don’t feel that they have a connection to the environment?

CARTER: You know, I think that it was removed from us as part of the great migration. It’s just so interesting that at the turn of last century more than 90 percent of black folks actually lived in the South doing some kind of agricultural work, now most of us live in urban areas. Sometimes people think that doing work with the land means that you’re still a slave in some way. I like to remind people that having a connection to the land is our birthright – all of us. I mean not just people of color, it’s everybody.

CURWOOD: To what extent do you think the traditional conservation movement in the U.S. pushes people of color in the inner city away from it? And I’m think in particular of Teddy Roosevelt’s book, “The Winning of the West,” at one point in which he says, the west won’t won until it’s rid of the red, yellow, black, and brown man.

CARTER: [Laughs] Oh, Teddy. Teddy, Teddy, Teddy.

CURWOOD: Or the Sierra Club that supported whites-only national parks up until the 1920s?

CARTER: Interestingly enough, I actually know T.R. the Fourth, and who is also a conservationist. Actually, we’re on the board of the Wilderness Society together, and I know things change. The environmental movement of the past, I think, has done a pretty terrible job of helping to integrate. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why like many people will call, even poor white people, I got to tell you, don’t really see the environment as something that’s important to them.
So, I think that was easy to do when it was just like, okay the environment only exists in a national park. That’s not a helpful thing when you’re really trying to help people understand the value of it because most people don’t have that experience. I mean, I remember, you know, and it wasn’t that long ago when I was referred to only as an environmental justice activist and not an environmentalist. And, I remember having to very carefully and gently always remind people, I’m an environmentalist, just like you guys. And just reminding them that it’s going to take all of us to move this forward. And so I think that we still have a long ways to go, in terms of really fully embracing all different types of people.
But I’ve seen some very encouraging things happening and that gives me much more hope than it did a few years ago, frankly.

CURWOOD: When we were getting ready to talk with you Majora, one of my producers came to me and asked this question: She was studying to be an actor before she became and activist, how do you think her performance background helped her as an organizer? So, I have to ask you the question - hey, how did going to study acting help you become an organizer?

CARTER: Well, actually I started studying acting, realized I didn’t like to be on stage in front of people and decided to go into film production. So that’s what I got my degrees in. But it’s because I love the idea of actually creating stories for people to change their thinking about how they feel about stuff. This is creative work.

CURWOOD: So, today, if you were to make a movie, what would it be about?

CARTER: I’m actually trying to work on a sitcom, believe it or not.

[Curwood laughs]

CARTER: And it is literally “Good Times” meets “Inconvenient Truth”. We actually had a lovely meeting with Norman Lear who is the god-daddy of sitcoms that actually taught people lessons, like whether it was “All in the Family”, or “Good Times”, or – it just looked at people were living and dealt with this social mobility and racism, but in a comedic way. And he – the greatest advice we got from him was, just like, you know what all the stuff that you’re talking about, it’s got to come from the mouth of a child. Because otherwise they just won’t be able to handle it. So, I was like, well, thank you, Mr. Lear, I appreciate that.

CURWOOD: And, thank you Majora Carter.

CARTER: Thank you very much. Have a great day.

CURWOOD: Majora Carter is president of the Majora Carter group, and the founder of Sustainable South Bronx. She comes to us courtesy of our partnership with the U.S. EPA Smart Growth Program and the National Building Museum. And to learn more about the smart growth speaker series, go to our website loe dot org.

Related links:
- Majora Carter Group LLC works on green initiatives around the world
- EPA Smart Growth program
- EPA Smart Growth Speaker Series

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A Hundred Bronx Tales

A 7 inch Tree Museum marker

YOUNG: The Grand Concourse is a broad, busy thoroughfare running north from Manhattan into the Bronx – and it turns 100 this month. But instead of 100 candles, the concourse has a hundred stories about its most loved trees.
Each story is inspired by a particular tree, and told by some of the Bronx finest – from architects and historians to DJs and beekeepers. It’s called the Tree Museum and Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah went to check it out.

[Sound of traffic]

SRISKANDARAJAH: On a rainy afternoon I’m in Joyce Kilmer Park standing on an island of green in the heart of the Bronx. To my right, the new and old Yankee stadiums loom over a strip of Popeye’s and Burger Kings. In the corner of the park closest to the stadiums stands a Cherry tree with a green disc pasted to the ground in front of it.

HOLTEN: There’s tree number 21.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Wow, see, I would’ve walked right over that – and, in fact, I did walk right over that.

HOLTEN: Yeah. So they’re kinda of, um, it was tricky… trying to put something out on the streets of New York is really not an easy task.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s Katie Holten, she put the neon green disc on the sidewalk and 99 others just like it in front of other trees in the Bronx.

HOLTEN: So this is one of the side walk markers and it’s a seven inch diameter disc that’s basically glued to the sidewalk and it’s right in front of this Cherry tree that’s overlooking the old Yankee stadium. I knew immediately, ok this has to be a Yankee story right here because you’ve got this amazing view. And even the sounds when there’s a game on you can see the fans inside of the stadium and you can hear the roars of the crowd.

[Cheers, baseball hit, flying though the air, landing]

HOLTEN: And so the marker has the name of the tree, Kwanzan Cherry, and so you can dial the number 718-408-2501.

[Dialing the number (7-1-8 4-0-8- 2-5-0-1 dialing sounds)]

HOLTEN: You hear:

[“Welcome to the Tree Museum”]

HOLTEN: You know, the basic introduction.

[Phone: (basic introduction)]

HOLTEN: And then if you press the extension number, with this tree is 21 pound, then you hear that story.

[Extension (2-1 #)]

HOLTEN: And this tree happens to be Bernie Williams who’s…uh, I don’t know if you know Bernie…

WILLIAMS: Hi everyone, this is Bernie Williams. If you look to the west, just a couple of blocks away, you’ll see the side of the old Yankee stadium, where I had the honor and privilege of playing for 16 years, as well as the new stadium where new memories are being created everyday.

A 7 inch Tree Museum marker

SRISKANDARAJAH: There are stories like this at every one of the stops. The Tree Museum is a dynamic delivery of an old story. The history of the borough as told by the people who lived it. The only physical footprint here are the markers that measure the length of the Grand Concourse, a broad boulevard that runs through the Bronx.


HOLTEN: You can see how wide it is, you know most of the other streets, it was kind of based on the Champs-Elysees in Paris so it’s got this grandeur.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Katie’s right, though the noise and fumes of passing busses undercut some of that grandeur.
The Grand Concourse was built at the turn of the century at the peak of the city beautiful campaign, a progressive movement that created handsome spaces in urban settings. It wasn’t beauty for beauty’s sake. The idea was that ornate parks and promenades could make every city dweller feel like royalty. The Grand Concourse was the gilded pathway for Manhattanites to convalesce from the grittiness of city life. And it did make people feel better.

HOLTEN: This was one of the special things about the Bronx was that it was a green place, that it was a getaway from the city. Manhattan was crowded, polluted, filthy, so people would get sick and they’d leave to come up here to get the fresh air. So, it’s really ironic, that they come up here to get away from it all and recover.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Standing at 165th Street it’s impossible to imagine, but 100 years ago the Bronx was all pasture.

HOLTEN: The project really came alive once I went to the archives and saw the photographs, and I got goose bumps because it looked like the fields around my mom’s house in Ireland – green, trees in the distance – but basically the area was all farmland, and that’s where it got its name, Jonas Bronx was a farmer.

DSC15 Katie Holten stands next to a Tree #21 in Joyce Kilmer Park.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And Katie wanted to remind people that despite the trash facilities, and despite the gangs and arson that have plagued the Bronx, the borough has clung onto some of its roots, as I learned when I dialed tree number two.

[Phone extension 2-#]

WOMAN 1: Hey, if you look southbound, right across the street, you’ll see our South Bronx urban farm. That’s right, an urban farm in the Bronx! How cool is that? We are bringing farmland back to our borough”.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So over two years, Katie had hundreds of Bronxites call in by telephone. And through those stories, she turned the four and a half miles of the Grand Concourse, in a trip through time. If you start at tree number one at 138th street down at Deacon Rock you’ll hear that the Jonas Bronx quietness.

MAN 1: “Deacon rock park. Quiet ponds. Quieter at the off ramp.”

SRISKANDARAJAH: Bronx contemporary life, like the Puerto Rican drummers at tree number 27…

[Drumming through phone]

SRISKANDARAJAH: At tree 50, an early hip-hop DJ…

MAN 2: “You know the Bronx, back in my gang days we did a lot of running up and down this area, right here on the cross Bronx expressway. I spent a lot of time in traffic. So, it’s fitting that my tree would be dedicated on this spot right here, as we speak.”

SRISKANDARAJAH: A 95-year-old woman remembers when the concourse was young.

WOMAN 2: “As a little girl, in the 1920s, my father took me to the Grand Concourse to visit a tree that had been planted in honor of his brother, Jack, who died in World War One and thought it was a great way to honor his service and his life.”

SRISKANDARAJAH: When the Concourse was opened up in 1909, the trees which lined it were stars. Now, they are largely hidden in plain sight. But the Tree Museum and its stories lift these giants from the urban jungle. And the diversity of stories matches the diversity of nature.

HOLTEN: Norway Maple, Red Maple, Northern Red Oak, Pin Oak, Ailanthus, Green Ash, Crabapple, Chinese Elm, Hawthorn, Little Leaf Linden, Sophora and Sambuca.

[Phone number tones]

SRISKANDARAJAH: For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah in the Bronx, New York.

[Phone hangs up]

Related link:
Hear more about how to you can listen, talk and even text to the trees at

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[MUSIC: Various Artists/Les Boogie From The Bronx “Our Planet” from Marq Spekt Presents Lex Boogie From The Bronx (Godsendant Music 2008)]

YOUNG: Just ahead, looking to the heavens for inspiration – how the race to the moon revolutionized the life of a young Native American – stay with us on Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living On Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living On Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

The Eagle Soars

Jay O'Callahan (Beverly Hall Photography)

YOUNG: It's Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

[Apollo 11 lift off]

CURWOOD: When NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – was preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary, it handed storyteller Jay O’Callahan a mission: write a love letter to the space agency. Well, it took 18 months, 30 books, 40 interviews, a course in Astronomy, and a thousand pages of emails and transcription. But now Jay has come up with what might be the most researched love letter ever, which he calls “Forged in the Stars.” Jay O’Callahan joins me now in our studio. Hi, Jay.


CURWOOD: So, what got you interested in space exploration to begin with?

O’CALLAHAN: I’ve grown up with it, as has much of my generation. But I also lost a deep interest like much of my generation. And when I got the commission, and began to take this course in astronomy so I can see, I can see Saturn. I talked to a professor at Harvard. He said, ‘I’m so excited we can see the rings of Saturn as clearly as the grooves in a record.’ Well, it kind of let me expand and realize we as a human race are expanding, and we haven’t caught up with it. I’m so intrigued that when Armstrong and Aldrin went around the earth after landing on the moon people would run up, and they would never say, ‘You did it,’ –‘We did it! We did it!’ The sense of this is humanity’s achievement and perhaps it can help pull us together.

CURWOOD: You get the commission, how do you go about doing the research for this story?

O’CALLAHAN: NASA was very helpful. My boss, Ed Hoffman – we went down to Houston together and interviews were set up. A lot of interviews with very different people: people responsible for food, people responsible for the chairs the astronauts sit in, for engineering; so a lot of interviews. And then, we’re going off to Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and I thought, ‘This is going to be boring.’ These people were responsible for robots – unmanned space, they were fascinating, they were passionate! It was one of the things that struck me, these people were passionate. Almost every person said, ‘I love working here, I’m so lucky to have this job, I dreamed about this as a kid!’ So that passion, I think helped me become passionate about their work and wanting to tell their story.

CURWOOD: Well, I understand you’re now going to perform an excerpt from “Forged in the Stars” for us. What are we going to hear?

O’CALLAHAN: You’re going to hear about a young man, who had a vision. And I love that he had a vision because for thousands of years it’s been this vision of maybe we could go there, maybe we could go to the moon, maybe beyond. And this is a five-year-old boy who has a vision and you’ll see in the story he’s encouraged. He’s not written off - go out and play. He’s listened to, and he pursues the vision.

In 1948, in a working-class neighborhood in Oklahoma City, a five-year-old boy ran into the kitchen, he said, ‘Mom, I heard a voice.’
‘A voice?’
‘Yes, it was coming from way up by the sun, it said I was going to have something to do with getting people to the Moon!’
And she said, ‘That’s a vision.’ And she said that because they were Cherokee, Osage. She said, ‘You’re going to have to work for the vision.’ Working meant being good at mathematics and physics.
His name was J. C. High Eagle--that was his Cherokee name. His name in the white world was Jerry Elliot. He did well in high school.
Then, J.C. High Eagle, 1961, went to the University of Oklahoma, 18, excited – physics, mathematics! And, he found a lot of students didn’t want him there.
‘What’s the Indian kid doin’ here?’
A lot of professors didn’t want him.
‘You’re a fine young man, but see nature hands out gifts indiscriminately, and your people don’t have, well, the mental wherewithal to be engineers, scientists. You’re wasting your time.’
He was hurt, but he had the vision and he stayed with it. He did very well. In 1966, J.C. High Eagle decided to go to graduate school – physics, mathematics! But, there was no money. Stepfather had died, his mother was working.
So, this young man, J.C. High Eagle went down – this is Norman, Oklahoma – to the police station.
‘I want to be a policeman.’ They gave him a test. He scored as high as anyone has ever scored. He became a full-time policeman and a deputy sheriff. That meant he could take two courses a semester. Nine o’clock, ten o’clock was Electrical Engineering. He wore his uniform with a loaded gun to class. But, it was Oklahoma.
One day, his mother called and said, ‘There’s a telegram.’
‘Open it, Mom.’
‘It’s from the army – you have to report for your draft physical.’ He passed. She called again.
‘Another telegram for you.’
‘Open it.’
‘You’ve got to report to boot camp in 15 days –Vietnam. Ca—call your grandfather.’ J.C. called his grandfather – wise old man. Called him at his wheat farm.
‘Granddad, J.C. I’m going to boot camp in 15 days.’
‘They won’t take you.’
‘Oh, no. I got the piece of paper.’
‘I don’t believe in paper. They won’t take you. Had a hard time getting the calf born last night. [Laughs] I had to hitch the tractor up!’
‘Granddad, I’m going to boot camp.’
‘They won’t take you. Let me tell you about last night! [Laughs]’ His granddad went on and on, J.C. was furious. Hung up, called his mom:
‘He didn’t listen to me, said they wouldn’t take me. Went on and on about a calf.’
‘He’s my – my father. I’m with him.’ J.C. was furious; the two people he trusted didn’t listen to him! 15 days, 14, 13,12, 11, 10. On the tenth day, there was an angry drunk. He got a backpack, they arrested the drunk, and the drunk said to J.C. High Eagle, ‘Arrest me, I will kill you.’ They arrested him.

Jay O'Callahan (Beverly Hall Photography)

They found out the drunk had been released from Macalister after serving 30 years for killing a man. The drunk paid his fine, he was off.
Nine days, eight days. On the eighth day a letter came to the police station. The drunk was going to get J.C. High Eagle. So, J.C. is looking over his shoulder.
Seven days, six days. The sixth day he finished class, 11 o’clock, Electrical Engineering – walked down the corridor, several students are waiting outside the Dean’s office. And there on the bulletin board – NASA interviewing today!
J.C. got in line, said to the student, ‘What do you got?’
‘You got to have a NASA application, a government application, and your resume. They won’t talk to you if you don’t.’ There’s no time to get that. The line melts down, J.C. steps in. The NASA man is packing his briefcase.
He looks at this cop, ‘What can I do for you, officer?’
‘I want to put people on the moon.’ He looks at this cop.
‘I’m working my way through graduate school.’
‘Well, listen; I got a plane to catch. Write down your phone number there, your name. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ The NASA man is off. Five days, four days. His mother calls.
‘J.C., a man, Bernie Goodwin, from NASA, he said he talked to you. You ought to call him right now. Here’s the phone number.’
He calls, ‘Mr. Goodwin, J.C. High Eagle.’
‘You’re a bright young man. I checked on your record, you’re brilliant. You got fire, we need people like you. In fact, we want you to work for us. Monday morning, Manned Space Center, Houston.’
‘I can’t.’
‘Why? The draft?’
‘Yes, sir, the draft.’
‘Well, you’re a policeman; you know possession is nine tenths of the law. You come, we possess you. Who runs the draft there?’
‘We have a colonel.’
‘Well, we have a general. Our general will talk to your colonel. Monday morning, Manned Space Center.’
‘Yes, sir!’ J.C. High Eagle, tells his mother.
She says, ‘Call your grandfather.’ He calls his grandfather.
‘Granddad –’
‘I told you they wouldn’t take you.’ J.C. High Eagle gets his guitar, borrows his mom’s car and he heads to Houston. And he’s thinking, ‘Granddad must have negotiated a different fate for me with the Creator.’
Nine o’clock monday morning he is hired as an engineer at NASA.
A few weeks go by. Chris Craft, who becomes the famed flight director, comes over with a big cigar and says to J.C., ‘How do you like it here, son?’
‘I love it! I love the responsibility, but one thing, sir…’
‘What’s that?’
‘I’m used to reading books to learn what I should – what should I read?’
‘Son, we don’t read books here, we write them.’
Soon enough, J.C. High Eagle is writing the Aegena Systems Handbook. J.C. High Eagle is an engineer in Flight Control Center for all the Apollo missions, for astronauts landing on the moon. He has achieved his vision. And there’s a coda. Apollo 13 is about to lift off, and J.C. High Eagle gets another paper. This is for jury duty in Houston. He goes down to Houston. Nobody gets out of jury duty with Judge Singleton.
There’s a pregnant woman saying, ‘Your honor, I’m pregnant.’
‘The baby will wait. And what’s your excuse?’
‘It’s not an excuse, your honor. I’m the lead – the lead retrofire officer for Apollo 13.
‘What’s a retrofire officer?’
‘I calculate the reentry of the command module. If it’s too steep, they burn up. If it’s too shallow, they flip off, they do not come back.’
‘I don’t usually make exceptions. I’ll make an exception in this case if you do me a favor.’
‘Yes, sir?’
‘Bring them back alive.’
‘Yes, sir!’
Apollo 13 lifts off. It goes up and up, it’s two hundred thousand miles up. All is fine. J.C. High Eagle finishes his shift at Flight Control Center, goes out, gets in his car, turns on the radio. There’s been an accident in space.
Turns the car around, runs into Flight Control Center. Men are running around, some men are crying, something very serious has happened. They’re not sure what.
And somebody says, ‘They’ve got to abort.’
‘No!’ said J.C. ‘No! Don’t abort!’ He’s afraid the engine may be damaged. And if they do a u-turn in the command module, he’s afraid the engine won’t get them back.
He says, ‘No, you’ve got to slingshot them around the moon! Use the gravity of the moon to help slingshot them back to the earth.’
J.C. High Eagle helps get people to the moon and helps them get back to Earth. He’s achieved his vision.


CURWOOD: Wow, Jay, that was great! I never heard of J.C. High Eagle before. What was he like when you interviewed him?

O’CALLAHAN: He was very warm and looked very young to me. Of course, he was in his early-20s when he was hired, and he worked 40 years as an engineer there. He was very warm. He was cleaning out his mother’s house in Oklahoma City – she had died. And we had a wonderful time together. He told me this story that I’ve told you as we were driving downtown. Then we got back, I said, ‘I’d better record this. Tell this again, J.C.!’ And every since, I’ve been emailing about this detail, that detail. And just recently he told me how hard it was at the University when people didn’t want him. So, we’ve become old friends.

CURWOOD: So, how did doing the background research for this story, and putting it together, change your views about space exploration?

O’CALLAHAN: Changed my views in a number of ways. February 14th, 1990, Voyager II was beyond Pluto and took a photo of our solar system. And in that solar system, Earth is a speck. And I was fascinated that we are so small and so precious.
And I, like many of the astronauts, was struck by the fact that we can see Earth from a distance. And perhaps, if that sinks down deep into all of us, we’ll begin to realize it’s finite, it’s precious. And we’ve got to – we’ve got act to take care of it. So, that was a huge change. Another one was the beauty – the beauty of the solar system. I feel very close to Europa – it’s a moon of Jupiter. And Europa has a crust of ice, but there may be a salt sea, maybe life.
Now, that’s so fascinating to me. That this adventure’s produced surprises, scientists were not aware of these surprises. So, the beauty. And finally, the fact that we are – we are reaching out into the universe. It’s never happened.
In the last 50 years we have reached, and at this moment as we speak, the Voyagers are close to leaving the solar system, going into interstellar space.

CURWOOD: I understand you’ve taken your storytelling about NASA, you call it “Forged in the Stars” – you’ve taken it on the road, and recently your performed it for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. You’ve been out to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. And you have another performance coming up in December at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. What’s been the response to your show?

O’CALLAHAN: The most exciting response was Jet Propulsion Laboratory because it was the first official. And there was standing room only, and they listened well. And I finished, and then they stood up. They stood up applauding.
I got to talk to some of them and said, ‘You listened so well.’
And one woman said, ‘Listen, I’ve been here 30 years, and of course, we listen well, we’re intelligent. And when something captures us, we listen well, and you told our story.’
And that – that meant the world to me, that’s what I want to do. These people are proud of their work, and NASA is not greeted by this culture the way it was in the 60’s. And yet, the work goes on and they’re proud of what they’re doing.

CURWOOD: Jay O’Callahan’s a storyteller based in Massachusetts. His new work is a love letter to NASA, “Forged in the Stars”. Thanks for joining us, Jay.

O’CALLAHAN: Thank you so much, I’ve loved it Steve.


CURWOOD: And you can hear a live studio performance of “Forged in the Stars” – right here on this public radio station, the last week in December.

[MUSIC: Various: Llewellyn “Peace” from Reiki (New World Music 1999); NASA “Voice OF Earth” from NASA Voyager Space Sounds (NASA 2009); Various Artists: “Us And Them” from Vitamin Piano Series Plays Pink Floyd (Vitamin records 2005)]

CURWOOD: And here’s preview of Jay O’Callahan’s story.

O’CALLAHAN: There are two Voyagers – headed out into space. They are ten billion miles away; they’re carrying a record, a golden record with music of the Earth and 55 ‘hellos’. So, in a sense the Voyagers going out saying, ‘Bonjour! Ni hao! Ciao! Hello, hello, we want to say hello! We want to say hello to you!’
The Berlin Wall falls, the Voyagers continue: ‘Hello, hello!’ Nelson Mandela released from prison after 27 years, the Voyagers sail on: ‘Hello, hello, we want to say hello!’ And the Voyagers are sailing on at this moment.

CURWOOD: And you can hear Jay O’Callahan’s live broadcast performance of “Forged in the Stars” – his love letter to NASA, right here on Living on Earth, the last week in December.

[Reverb, vibration sounds]

YOUNG: We make touchdown this week to the Earth’s vibrations.

[Big explosion]

YOUNG: This subterranean recording – captured by a global network of digital seismographs – is sped up 10,000 times to put it in the range of human hearing. Our vantage point is a thousand miles below the North Pole….with bubbles, chirps and pops of earthquakes and aftershocks. This planetary music comes to us courtesy of seismologist and sound artist John Bullitt and his CD “Earth Sound.”

[Bubbles, vibrations, explosions]

YOUNG: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskanderajah, and Mitra Taj, with help from Sarah Calkins, Marilyn Govoni and Sammy Souza.

CURWOOD: Special thanks today to Dana Chisholm. Our interns are Quincy Campbell and Nirja Parekh. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org. I’m Steve Curwood.

YOUNG: And I’m Jeff Young. Thanks for listening.

Related link:
Storyteller Jay O'Callahan's website

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