Air Date: May 29, 1998
Transport in the Money!
Congress has just appropriated the largest amount of money in history for public works; nearly $220 billion dollars over the next six years. The cash will go for highways, bridges, mass transit systems, and bike and pedestrian paths. Steve Curwood spoke to Roy Kienitz (key-nits) who is executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a group that lobbied for provisions that help to fight sprawl and save energy. He explains that in many cases, local governments will decide if they want more highways or more public transit. (05:35)
Toyota Boosts Green Energy/ Jeff Hoffman
In California, a giant corporation has taken the opportunity to pay a higher price for cleaner electricity. Jeff Hoffman reports from San Francisco on the unexpected boost to the renewable energy market by the car maker Toyota. (05:40)
Horse Whispering/ Wendy Nelson
The seven million horses in the United States owned for racing, showing, rodeo, leisure riding and polo are worked in a variety of different ways. Many trainers start the process by "breaking" horses into following commands which often involves some physical abuse. But others are bucking that trend, taking a kindlier, gentler approach. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson introduces us to a real life equine psychologist. This new method is getting some attention these days, thanks to a popular Hollywood film. (05:30)
Even a Flea/ Virginia Shepherd
Commentator Virginia Shepherd reflects on her earlier environmental education which would suggest she'd value all biodiversity: even fleas. Ms. Shepherd is a writer who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She comes to us via member station W-M-R-A. (02:30)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about... the science of Garbology. (01:30)
The Himalayan State of Skkim/ Alexa Dvorson
There are sections along the Himalayan Mountains trails of Nepal that have become so commercialized and heavily traveled that it's hard to feel the wildness of the terrain. But on the other side of the mountains, in the Indian state of Sikkim it's a different world. Half a day's journey north of the famous tea plantations of Darjeeling, Sikkim was an independent kingdom until 1975, and off limits to most tourists until 1990. Today, Sikkim trekking guides say they have learned from some of Nepal's missteps, such as granting too many climbing permits, and cutting too much firewood along the trails. They say they want to keep the mountain paths intact, both culturally and ecologically, and they showed producer Alexa Dvorson how they are going about it. (11:10)
Missives in response to recent stories on forestry, organic standards, and the Colombian village of Gaviotas. (02:30)
Mountain Home, With John Elder
In the Green Mountains just above Bristol, Vermont the notion of home and the wilds meet. A resurgence of trees, bear and moose there is obscuring traces of family homesteads. Once celebrated in the poetry of Robert Frost, the re-forested hills of Vermont have found a new voice in writer John Elder and his book "Reading the Mountains of Home." The work is based on Mr. Elder's hikes along the ridge of Bristol Cliffs. (11:05)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Steve Curwood, Jeff Hoffman, Wendy Nelson, Alexa Dvorson
GUEST: John Elder
COMMENTATOR: Virginia Shepherd
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Congress will be handing out hundreds of billions of dollars with very few strings attached. In many cases, local governments will decide if they want more highways, or transit.
KIENITZ: Everyone's just going to have to duke it out. There's a huge chunk of this money that can be used for any and all purposes, and so someone's gonna decide what those purposes are.
CURWOOD: Also, Toyota signs up for "green" energy in California, and, we meet a real-life equine psychologist. Hollywood calls his breed, "a horse whisper."
BAL: If you're beatin' on horses, y'know, and gettin' on 'em, and tryin' to ride the buck outa 'em, y'know, doin' it the old way, it's--it's living in the dark ages.
[Horse whinnies hoarsely]
CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this summary of the news.
(NPR News roundup)
[Music up and under]
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Congress has just appropriated the largest amount of money in history for public works; nearly $220 billion dollars over the next six years. The cash will go for highways, bridges, mass transit systems, and bike and pedestrian paths. Roy Kienitz is executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a group that lobbied for provisions that help fight sprawl and save energy. He calls the measure a victory, because it upholds the vision of a law passed by Congress 7 years ago. That law transformed the way government spends money on transportation.
KIENITZ: In 1991, we had a real victory in taking a federal transportation program that was really a highway building program, that gave the money out to state government and said, "Build highways with this money, and if you don't build highways, give it back." And that's now been turned into a largely flexible program in which we give money to states and local governments and say, "This is to solve your transportation problems. Do whatever you want with it."
CURWOOD: Do you think the highway lobby is as thrilled as you are about the new highway and transportation bill?
KIENITZ: Well, it's interesting. This is something in which there's been something in it for everyone. They are thrilled because the amount of money is going up, something like 25% to 30% And this is money that gets spent by giving it to them to do highway projects, and so that's something they're excited about. We're excited because we feel like we're getting a fair shake out of that. And the truth of the matter is, $20 billion a year is too much to spend if you spend it badly, and $25 billion a year can easily be spent well.
CURWOOD: Now, this new transportation measure calls for about a 43% increase in transportation spending for this year. I think it's a total of $217 billion over the next 6 years. Now, can you give us a rough breakdown of what portions are earmarked for new highways, what for transit, what is marked for flexible spending?
KIENITZ: Of the approximately $200 billion that's going to be spent, about 18% or 19% goes for public transit, about 25% goes specifically for fixing existing highways and bridges, about 9% or 10% goes for safety and environmental considerations, things like that, and then the large bulk of the remainder, which is probably about 40% or 45% of the money, is flexible at state and local option for any kind of transportation investment. And that ranges from bike paths, to sidewalks, to train stations, to buses, to light rail, to fixing existing roads and bridges, or building new.
CURWOOD: What happens now with the new transportation legislation? There's always this tension between the public transit crowd and the highway crowd. Is this now going to be fought out on the state and local level all across the country?
KIENITZ: That's exactly right. Everyone's just going to have to duke it out, in each state and each metropolitan area around the country. There's a huge chunk of this money that can be used for any and all purposes,and so someone's gonna decide what those purposes are.
CURWOOD: If someone listening to us right now wants a bike path built in their town, or would like to see more bus service come into their neighborhood, how would they go about getting their hands onto some of this cash?
KIENITZ: The good news is that the opportunity for input has never been greater. And, no longer can the bureaucrats use the excuse of "Well, I would love to help you with that, but the people in Washington won't let me." That used to be true; it is no longer true. The bad news is, of course, like anything else, if you want to get something done, you have to get involved. And people have to contact their local city council, contact the mayor's office, get a local neighborhood group together, go to your member of the state legislature, or the county commission, or whatever it is. I mean, all of these different government bodies now have a role, in most places, in deciding how money gets spent. Going to all these different people with an idea can actually result in some money being spent. For example, before the really revolutionary change that occurred in 1991, we were spending maybe $5 or $10 million dollars a year, of federal money on things like bike paths. Last year, that was $220 million. I mean, it's been an amazing change in the amount of money going into the kind of projects that people are most interested in.
CURWOOD: But, Roy Kienitz, I'm wondering what kind of effect do you expect this increased spending will have on how Americans get around?
KIENITZ: Well, one of the real advances we've seen in this bill, is the huge increase in demand for public transit; in particular for an investment in extensions of existing transit service, rather than just sort of maintenance funding to keep on doing what you're doing. In 1991, there were about 30 new transit systems, or extensions to existing transit systems, that were authorized in the bill that was enacted in that year. This time around, there are over 100. That is the potentially the biggest day-to-day effect on the way people travel. The enormous number of communities in which transit will really become a realistic option, where it has not been.
CURWOOD: Roy Kienitz is executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, in Washington, DC. Thanks so much for joining us today.
KIENITZ: Thanks for having me.
CURWOOD: Not everyone is happy with the new transportation act. Congress attached a controversial rider onto the bill in the final days of negotiations. The amendment will stall efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to control haze in the Grand Canyon, generated by the smokestacks of upwind industries. The EPA's final ruling on regional haze in national parks, mandated by the Clean Air Act, is already overdue. Now, this rider will delay its implementation for up to 9 years.
[Music up and under]
CURWOOD: The effort to open the electric utility business to competition has been promoted by many as a way to lower energy costs. And that's created concerns that comparatively expensive renewable and non-polluting energy could be squeezed out of the marketplace by cheap and dirty sources of power. But in California, at least one giant corporation has taken the opportunity to pay a higher price for cleaner electricity. Jeff Hoffman reports on the unexpected boost to the renewable energy market by the car maker, Toyota.
[Heavy machinery screams and grinds]
HOFFMAN: At the busy Toyota port complex in Long Beach, workers rivet, bolt, and put the finishing touches on 250,000 vehicles a year: 4x4's from Japan bound for US dealers, and US-built cars being shipped to Asia. Toyota Motor Sales, USA announced recently that it would completely power the port facility and other buildings in the Los Angeles area with "green" energy. The auto maker's deal with electricity provider Edison Source will add 10% to Toyota's multimillion dollar yearly bill. But Vice President Bob Pitts says it's worth it.
PITTS: Toyota wants to be a company that is an environmentally friendly company, and a good corporate citizen, and we feel very strongly that to be a good corporate citizen, in some cases you have to take the lead, and we feel that in this case, while there is a little bit of a premium for the renewable power source, we feel very strongly that that's the right decision for Toyota.
HOFFMAN: Toyota's move, by far the largest ever corporate purchase of renewable energy, is the equivalent of 5,000 households buying "green" energy each year. Renewable energy advocates were surprised, and elated, by the announcement, coming less than a month after the start of deregulation in California. Some say it will jump-start this nascent "green" market.
KELLY: So to have a company like Toyota Motor Sales step up to the plate like that, I think it is a home run.
HOFFMAN: Steven Kelly is executive director of the newly formed Renewable Energy Marketing Board in Sacramento.
KELLY: There will be lots of additional multi-sized companies doing that, I think, as our effort gets going, and as they become aware of the opportunities in the marketplace.
HOFFMAN: Already, other environmentally sensitive California-based companies are looking seriously at the green power option. Outdoor equipment dealer Patagonia says it's close to a deal to use only renewables. Kinko's, the copy store chain, and wine maker Fetzer Vineyards, say they're also interested in following Toyota's lead. The mix of power in the Toyota deal may include geothermal, solar, wind, biomass, and small hydro, but not electricity generated by environmentally suspect big hydroelectric projects. Through its purchase, Toyota will be helping to cut down on smog and greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, while bolstering its environmental credentials with consumers. Vice President Bob Pitts:
PITTS: Now when I think about environmental cars, we want them to think about Toyota. We've got the RAV-4, the electric vehicle, we've got the hybrid vehicle called the Prius I think this really just ties into what Toyota's trying to do on the product side, recognizing that there are environmental issues, and that we have to take a stand.
HOFFMAN: Still, even Toyota's commitment to green energy is limited. The automaker won't be using renewables to power an energy-intensive manufacturing plant in Southern California. And not a single manufacturer in the high-tech center of Silicon Valley has announced a plan to buy clean energy. Richard Bilas, President of the California Public Utilities Commission, says that in the near term, most firms that do switch electricity providers, likely won't be going green.
BILAS: One of the forces in bringing about restructuring in California was the high price of electricity, which was driving industry out of the State of California. So, at least initially, they're going to be looking for the best deal they can get.
HOFFMAN: According to Kevin Smith, energy policy director at the California Manufacturers Association, if green sellers want to make inroads with businesses, they'll have to convince corporate buyers the cost won't be prohibitive.
SMITH: If renewables are put on a level where they're cost- effective as other forms of generation, then they're going to be very attractive.
HOFFMAN: One way is to bundle green power with energy efficiency measures, such as windows that save on air conditioning, or assembly lines that draw less power. Steady advances in technology are bringing the cost of green power down. Hal Harvey, head of the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation, says that as green energy use grows, economies of scale will make it cost-competitive with conventional energy.
HARVEY: Over time, the cost of renewable energy sources has dropped dramatically. Wind now costs less than a quarter of what it cost 12 years ago. If more companies buy it, it will continue to become cheaper, because the more you learn, and the more factories you build, the less expensive it is to provide green resources.
HOFFMAN: Since deregulation is so new, nobody really knows how big the commercial renewables market could become. Michael Osowski , a Washington, DC-based consultant, surveyed several hundred US businesses, and found that 40% would pay a modest premium. He says that as the rest of the nation deregulates, California will serve as a proving ground.
OSOWSKI: California is said to be where all eyes are looking, and a lot of the companies, especially large national companies that have facilities in many states, are going to put their toe in the water, so to speak, and test out what they want to do, by testing it out in their California facilities.
HOFFMAN: Renewables make up about a tenth of California's energy consumption now. That percentage, already the highest of any state, is bound to rise. But by how much and how fast depends on whether companies, and homeowners, find it easy being green. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman, in San Francisco.
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CURWOOD: For a tape or transcript of this program, please call (800) 218-9988. That's (800) 218-9988 for tapes and transcripts. Just ahead, you don't have to shout to get a horse to do what you want; just listen to a horse whisperer. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood.
Pony rides. Rodeo. Dressage. Racing. Polo. The 7 million horses in the United States are worked in all kinds of different ways, but they all had to be trained to do what they do. Many trainers start the process by "breaking" horses into following commands. And breaking often involves some physical abuse. But others are bucking that trend, taking a kindlier, gentler approach. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson reports, their method is getting some attention these days, thanks to a popular Hollywood film.
[Hoof falls of trotting horse; neighs and whinnies]
NELSON: "Colors" is an aptly-named 9-year-old blue-eyed pinto. She sports big chestnut-colored spots over a pure white coat. Colors is a beautiful horse, but the first time Nancy Hamer saw this mare, she knew it had problems.
[Loud, long neigh]
NELSON: The horse was anxious around people. She wouldn't tolerate anyone in her stall. And she reared up if anyone tried to ride her.
HAMER: And she's just had this problem from day one.
[Trainers talking softly in background. Horse snuffling.]
HAMER: In fact, when I took my daughter to view her, for purchasing, she went straight up in the air then, and my daughter just said, she didn't care, she wanted her.
NELSON: So, Hamer bought the horse for her daughter. She figured, with the right training, everything would be fine. And, one trainer was able to correct the horse's behavior.
HAMER: And so, when we came to see her, she was a whole different horse, and we asked what method she was using to make such a change-about. She refused to tell us. She said, "You don't want to know."
NELSON: And Hamer didn't ask again, though she suspects the horse was whipped and beaten until she yielded.
[Whinnies, impatient hoof movements]
NELSON: But soon, the horse's old habit of rearing resurfaced. So when Hamer heard about an alternative training clinic, she signed Colors up, and that's where she met Frank Bell.
[Clopping of trotting horse]
BELL: If you had a 3- or 4-year-old child that was freakin' out, what do you do? You don't bale out on 'em, and say, "Good luck! Figure it out! When ya get it figured out, come back!" Ya nurture 'em. Ya hug 'em. It's kind of the same idea with a horse. You just show 'em a way to deal with it, and before too long, it's no big deal.
NELSON: Frank Bell calls himself a "horse whisperer." Chances are, you've been hearing a lot about horse whisperers lately, because of the Robert Redford movie. No one knows for sure, but Frank Bell says the term can be traced back to the mid-1800's, and an Irishman named Dan Sullivan. Sullivan had a way with problem horses, but never disclosed his technique. Legend has it his secrecy is what led to the name, "horse whisperer." But Frank Bell says what he does isn't a secret. It's just a gentle, step-by-step training method that builds a bond between animal and human.
BELL: We all know how to get a cat purrin' on our lap, and make friends with dogs, and have 'em waggin' their tail, and wanting to be with ya, and this and that, but, when you deal a 1,000-lb animal, typically people think that they have to get much more forceful, and it's exactly the opposite. In other words, the animal, first and foremost, just wants you to be their friend. They just want to be loved, and that's where my whole system started. And the first step is bonding with the animal. Ya gotta have a friend before ya can even think about gettin' on their back.
(Low sounds of an expectant crowd)
NELSON: Frank Bell just met Nancy Hamer's horse, Colors, a few minutes ago. He's demonstrating his technique for an audience in Jenison, Michigan. He's working with Colors in a round pen, twirling the horse's lead rope, tapping it gently against the saddle, to get the mare to walk.
BELL: Y'know, if the horse knows that you really care, and enjoys being around you, then the learning part should be fun. Just as we had good teachers in school, and bad teachers. And that's what it's all about, is making it interesting for the animal. So that the learning's fun.
(Patting sounds. Voice of Bell: "This is a great way to find out if the horse is ready to ride!")
NELSON: As he works with the horse, Bell makes shushing noises, and other sounds, to either encourage or discourage the animal.
(Bell explains to crowd: "You can make the wrong thing difficult, and the right thing easy")
NELSON: After about an hour of gentle encouragement and positive reinforcement, Bell mounts the horse, and rides her around the pen. It's hard to believe that for 9 years, this horse would rear up when anyone tried to ride her.
BELL: Most people avoid problems. They say, "Oh, you can't touch my horse's ears," or "Don't go over to that side of the barn if something scares my horse." When I find things like that, then I lovingly try to help the horse through their issues, so they can become, y'know, reach their full potential, so they can really blossom. But if you live in that zone, and you kind of enable them, and don't deal with those things, then before too long, the horse has a few things you can do, and a whole lot of things you can't do.
NELSON: Bell uses a lot of psychology buzz words. He talks about issues, and enabling. He says he tries to get inside the horse's mind, by reading its body language, and how it reacts to certain stimuli. He says, working with horses is much like human psychotherapy. In fact, before the term "horse whisperer" became popular, Bell called himself an "equine psychologist." Bell says anyone can successfully use his techniques, and he's seeing more and more interest in this training method. And he says, if the movement toward so-called "natural horsemanship" happens to be due mostly to a popular movie, well, so be it.
BELL: If you don't have an understanding of what this is all about, if you're beatin' on horses, and, y'know, gettin' on 'em, and tryin' ta ride the buck out of 'em, and, doin' it the ol' way, it's, it's--living in the dark ages.
NELSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson.
[Placid Western guitar music plucked, strummed]
SHEPHERD: Every night I find myself sitting on the floor, picking fleas off my dog, and exterminating each one by slow, soapy, death. I have no love for fleas.
CURWOOD: Commentator Virginia Shepherd.
SHEPHERD: As the dominant species on the planet, we love to play judge, jury, and 'executioner.' We decide whether or not an organism, be it flea, rattlesnake, or spotted owl, has the right to survive. But should we judge? Once, while I was on a biology trip in the Florida Keys, a young naturalist, calling himself "Cosmos X," introduced my 65-year-old biology professor to, "a tarantula." Miss Sprague nodded her gray head approvingly, as Cosmos X detailed his lady spider's natural history. Later, Miss Sprague pondered the oddness of the young man's "name," but never did she question his close association with 'an arachnid.' For Miss Sprague, nothing in the natural world was to be judged. All species shared in her affections equally. Most of us are not so generous. We squash a few bugs, drown a couple hundred fleas, and mash a few uninvited crickets. We only really get ourselves when we start believing in our 'most omnipotent' selves. We think we can live as richly and well without some species, when, really, we need them all. Every spring, Miss Sprague marched her students into the woods to gaze upon skunk cabbage and cardinal flower. Wearing stockings and sandals, and always a dress, she would bend over and peer into the underbrush. "How satisfactory!" she would exclaim. We'd seen them all the spring before, but it was as if with each rediscovery, Miss Sprague satisfied herself that all was right with the world again. Where there was life, there was still hope. That's what's missing, you know. We're short on hope, because we found we're not so good at tinkering with this old world after all. Perhaps we should sit back, and learn to marvel at our world, instead. But it's not going to be easy. I, for one, am not at all sure I can, "Marvel at a flea!?" Oh, Miss Sprague, you've got to be kidding!
CURWOOD: Commentator Virginia Shepherd is a writer who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She comes to us via member station W-M- R-A.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include: the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy, without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org. And Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility; the makers of Arm & Hammer baking soda, the standard of purity.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
CURWOOD: Just ahead, a land of no airports, soaring mountains, and a commitment to gentle use of the land: the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[Music up and under]
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include, Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, dedicated to your health and the health of the planet.
[Music up and under]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood.
[Music up and under]
CURWOOD: At the University of Arizona in Tucson, they're celebrating the chore of taking the garbage in. For 25 years, archaeologists with The Garbage Project have been analyzing the contents of trash, and their digging and sorting efforts have unearthed some surprises. They found 25-year-old newspapers, and other items that one might expect to rot, showing that land fills tend to mummify, and not compost our garbage. They've also found that Americans waste 10% to 15% of the food we buy. And, landfills are mostly filled with mostly recyclable materials, like paper, and construction debris. Garbologists also say that if you add up all the toxic products that households in a typical community send to the dump, it often equals the amount of hazardous waste produced by the same area's commercial sector. While residues from auto care, lawn, garden, and cleaning products are the major culprits, cosmetics also contribute to the toxic stew. Excavations reveal that Tucson residents alone, throw away 350,000 bottles of nail polish. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth almanac.
[Music up and under]
CURWOOD: There are sections along the Himalayan Mountain trails of Nepal that have become so commercialized and heavily travelled, that it's hard to feel the wildness of the terrain. But on the other side of the mountains, in the Indian state of Sikkim, it's a different world. Half a day's journey north of the famous tea plantations of Darjeeling, Sikkim was an independent kingdom until 1975, and off-limits to most tourists until 1990. Today, Sikkim trekking guides say they've learned from some of Nepal's missteps, such as granting too many climbing permits, and cutting too much firewood along the trails. They say they want to keep the mountain paths intact, both culturally and ecologically, and they showed producer Alexa Dvorson how they're going about it.
[Children chanting in native language]
DVORSON: It's off-season in Shangri-La. Yuksom, the origin of Buddhism in Sikkim, and the state's ancient capital, is where the road ends. From here, the foot path climbs toward Kangchengdzonga the third highest mountain in the world. There's a local saying in Yuksom, "The more clothes you wear, the more you feel the cold." That partly explains why the young monks chanting for the prosperity of this trekking lodge seem unfazed by the freezing night temperatures. With shoulders exposed in their maroon robes, and thongs on their otherwise bare feet.
[Chanting rises, ends with coughed-out word. Chanting restarts. Sizzling sounds]
DVORSON: Downstairs, while fish fry on an open hearth, lodge owner and guide Kinzong Sherep tells harrowing tales of his work with the local conservation group. After making garbage treks in neighboring Nepal, to remove over 200 pounds of litter from a popular trekking route, he hoped he'd never have to do the same thing in Sikkim, but recently, the committee went on a similar trip in this area, and came back with the same amount of trash. Still, Kinzong takes pride in Sikkim's topography, a diverse natural amphitheater where 4,000 plant species thrive, including black cardamom, a prime ingredient of Indian curry, and Sikkim's chief export. Travel brochures advertise Sikkim as a biodiversity hot-spot, home to nearly 1,000 species of orchid, and 40 species of rhododendron.
[Fish still sizzle]
DVORSON: To Kinzong Sherep, Sikkim is much more than that.
SHEREP: This is one of the unique places in our world. We think this is our heaven inside earth. At the present time, what I'm proud of is, we have good forests, a lot of species of plants, and you can see a lot of animals and butterflies, flowers, good mountains. It's not so spoiled, compared to Nepal, but if there's a lot of peoples, we can't control. If we didn't have here a limit, then it's spoiled within 5 years over here.
[Urgent voices in native language]
DVORSON: Some would say parts of Sikkim are already spoiled in a few places, such as the littered path leading to Kachepari Lake. This so-called wishing lake is considered sacred. No swimming or bathing is allowed. Instead, people of many different faiths have come here for centuries to pray and worship, despite the brightly colored Tibetan prayer flags that dot the shores, it's not unusual to see a Hindu priest making offerings. According to local belief, this is the only lake where people can expect their wishes to be granted.
[Priest prays in native language]
DVORSON: Nima Dorje, a monk and caretaker of the local monastery, explains the wishing-lake ritual in a local Tibetan dialect known as Bhutia. By quietly burning incense sticks, lighting a butter lamp at a small shrine, and making a wish with a pure and clear mind, he says, it's bound to be fulfilled.
[Priest chant rises and falls]
DORJE: This has been the tradition, and I believe this will hold forever. That's what he says.
[Priest exhorts, chanting]
DVORSON: Lakes aren't the only part of Sikkim's landscape deemed sacred. Kanchengdzonga is also considered holy. While part of the mountain lies in Nepal, reaching the summit from the Sikkimese side is prohibited. That may be the best thing that ever happened to a Himalayan mountain.
SHEREP: We pray for the mountains as a god.
DVORSON: Kinzong Sherep:
SHEREP: In Nepal, the mountains are commercial. Climb the mountains, give the money, but we don't have this. We, local peoples, we pray for these mountains, because this is God.
DVORSON: If mountaineers were allowed to climb to the summit from here, would that spoil it for you?
SHEREP: Sure, like if peoples climb like Everest, then our beauty of our mountain will be spoiled. We are not telling all the peoples, "Don't climb our mountains," but there should be a average, like one expeditions every 5 years, or 10 years. Then we can think of a renewable source of our income.
DVORSON: After years of restricted entry to foreigners, Sikkim tourism authorities now promote mountain biking, hang gliding, yak safaris, and river rafting, in addition to trekking. The majority of last year's estimated 17,000 visitors to Sikkim, were Indian nationals. Given the dire need for foreign currency, the tourism board would like to see more Westerners come here.
[Several voices in native language, laughter]
DVORSON: One of Sikkim's most experienced guides, Dadul Wandgi Targain, has witnessed Nepal's commercialism first-hand. He recognizes the yin and yang of luring more foreigners here.
TARGAIN: Tourism has got both sides. It has got dark side, and it has a brighter side also. So, how are we going to promote Sikkim is in a controlled and unique way. Responsible tourism is the call of the day. Through tourism, the areas could prosper, local people will have some benefit. There's still time, and I think we can do it.
[Sitar and tambla music]
DVORSON: Wedged between Bhutan to the east, and Nepal to the west, Sikkim sits like the tip of a thumb, jutting north from Darjeeling toward Tibet. To understand the direction Sikkim could be going, one needs only to visit the bustling Thamel district of the Nepali capital, Kathmandu which over the past decade, has come to resemble a miniature Hong Kong. Sipping kalo chyaa, or black tea, one of Nepal's most renowned mountaineers, Ang Rita Sherpa, has a relaxed attitude about Himalayan hype, which could be summed up in a phrase found on many T-shirts for sale in the tourist shops: "No problem." Ang Rita Sherpa has been trekking since he could walk. Having been to the summit of Mount Everest 10 times has earned him the nickname, "The Snow Leopard." He insists, the high rate of tourism hasn't altered the mountains that much.
SHERPA: There's no change, no changes.
DVORSON: No changes. But now you can get apple pie, and hamburgers, and everything you want on the trail. Before, it wasn't like that.
SHERPA: [Speaks in native language]
TRANSLATOR: What he has said is, "The feel of trekking is same, by intention, how the trekkers come to Nepal, is the same. Maybe slightly, culture, and then the people's daily life, maybe affected somehow since the tourists are here in Nepal, especially in the remote area, but the trekking feel is same, they have to climb, they have to walk, and that main theme is not changed.
DVORSON: Back in Sikkim, Kinzong Sherep and his family distribute flyers with 11 commandments for eco-trekkers. Bury human waste and carry out all trash; no fires; no alcohol; no photographing people without permission, and no smoking near sacred places. Trekkers are asked not to give anything to begging children, since that teaches them poor habits. Kinzong welcomes a greater influx of Westerners to Sikkim, as long as they respect his adapted philosophy.
SHEREP: If you are in Rome, act like a Roman, so we says, if you are in Sikkim, act like a Sikkimese people.
DVORSON: Which means what, then? What does it mean to act Sikkimese?
SHEREP: Our whole lifestyle is interdependence. If I have a problem, our nephews and all, they will come and help me. If somebody dies, then all the village community should go there. So this is like a custom. If you sit in a big star hotel, in Gangtok, then you can't understand what is the lifestyle of our peoples. In big cities, you'll give money, take service. But if you go to the village, if you are in Sikkim, it's "Give love, take love."
[Pause, then laughter, people speaking in native language]
DVORSON: The name "Sikkim" comes from some of the earliest settlers, from Tibet. They called this place "Sukhim," which means "Happy Home." The residents of today's Sikkim want to keep it that way.
[Laughter, joking, short songs in native language]
DVORSON: Tour and trekking guide Dadul Wandgi Targain hopes the villagers of Sikkim don't compromise their cultural integrity for the sake of prosperity.
TARGAIN: I'm proud to be a Sikkimese. It means to maintain my own identity, and not to be merged with the vast oceans of India. Not all the Indians will understand Sikkim as we do. We want to be in natural harmony with nature, but people in India are racing against time, it seems, for development and everything, and they want to catch up in a short cut way, in every way that is possible. They should have taken it slowly, one step at a time, like you do in trekking. We take one step at a time. We don't just sprint, unless you are out of time. [Wry laugh] So that's the difference, and there's always in a hurry, in a hurry, to catch up with something. But I don't know if they will catch it up.
[Chanting and music up and under]
DVORSON: There are no passenger airports in Sikkim. The conventional way in and out is by "share jeep." On the way, we pass workers splitting stones for road construction, who earned just under $2.00 a day. The hairpin turns through vertical hillsides would impress any engineer. Approaching the border with west Bengal, the first and last things to catch a visitor's eye are Sikkim's philosophical road signs, neatly spray-painted in English on the rock embankments. They seem to preach as much as they play with poetic language. At a sharp bend, one sign says, "Be gentle on my curve." Others proclaim, "Beware of shooting stones," or "Slow Drive, Long Life." But perhaps the sign most fitting to Sikkim's current challenge is the one that says, "Failure is Success--If We Learn From It." For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson, in the hills of Sikkim, eastern India.
[Man and woman singing in native language]
[Music up and under]
CURWOOD: And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners.
[Music up and under]
CURWOOD: Stu Cohen, of Woodbridge, New Jersey hears us on WNYC in New York City. He was interested in our story on a sustainable forestry project in Costa Rica called "Tuva," which only harvests fallen timber. Mr. Cohen says that method is an improvement over traditional practices, but he writes, "I'm afraid that the project scientists will eventually learn that the resources provided by fallen trees are needed exactly where they fell, by the forest itself. The forest simply can't participate in compromises. It needs what it needs."
In response to our story on the USDA's proposed organic food standards, we got a call from WMPN listener, Kendall Brown, of Jackson, Mississippi. He took us to task for only focusing on the big three issues of irradiated food, genetically engineered seeds, and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. "There were 60 different pieces of that regulation that are challenged, by Organic Watch, and by National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, and only 3 items were mentioned in your report."
And finally, Montrealer Louise Fabiani, who hears us on Vermont Public Radio, had this to say about our documentary about Gaviotas, the sustainable community in Colombia. "I had just been reading an article on the mining disaster in Spain," she wrote, "shortly after, Living on Earth played another installment of its water series. I suddenly felt so full of despair. But luckily, I walked back to the radio just in time to catch your piece on Gaviotas, and it gave me hope again. Hearing about the inventive ways they harness energy, grow crops, and reduce wastes, all in the spirit of egalitarianism, was truly uplifting."
We always welcome your comments. Call our listener line anytime, at (800) 218-9988. That's (800) 218-9988. Or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's email@example.com.
Coming up: In reforested New England, home is where the wild things are. Robert Frost, John Elder, and the mountains of Vermont are next, right here on Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood.
For many of us, home is where we return after forays into wild places. But in the woods that have grown back in much of New England, it's not so easy anymore to tell where the wild places end, and our homes begin. One place where the two worlds mesh is in the Green Mountains, just above Bristol, Vermont. A resurgence of trees, bear, and moose there is obscuring traces of root cellars, apple orchards, and old family homesteads. Once celebrated in the poetry of Robert Frost, the reforested hills of Vermont have found a new voice in writer John Elder in his new work, "Reading the Mountains of Home." The book is based on Mr. Elder's hikes along the ridge of Bristol Cliffs, using Frost's poem "Directive" as a guide.
ELDER: "Back out of all this now, too much for us, back in a time made simple by the loss of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off, like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather, there is a house that is no more a house, upon a farm that is no more a farm, and in a town that is no more a town. The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you who only has at heart your getting lost, may seem as if it should have been a quarry. Great monolithic knees the former town long since gave up pretense of keeping covered, and there's a story in a book about it, besides the wear of iron wagon wheels, the ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest, the chisel-work of an enormous glacier that braced his feet against the Arctic Pole. You must not mind a certain coolness from him, still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain, nor need you mind the serial ordeal of being watched from 40 cellar holes as if by eye pairs out of 40 firkins. As for the wood's excitement over you, that sends light rustle rushes to their leaves, charge that to upstart inexperience. Where were they all, not 20 years ago?"
CURWOOD: What a powerful poem. And this is Robert Frost, of course, describing these hills, once greatly settled, once greatly farmed; hills that you hiked--
CURWOOD: --in the course of putting this book together. And I, too, have hiked some in the hills of Vermont. I'm wondering, "Is this a good thing? Should our woods be filled with all this human history? Scored with, not just the motion of the glaciers, but also of the iron wheels of modern commerce?"
ELDER: My sense is that, much of our thinking in this century about conservation has been focussed on a sense of wilderness as absolutely separate from, human works and human habitation, and I revere the wilderness movement, and I'm glad for its achievements, but I think it's also important to appreciate the ways in which culture and nature are interwoven, and that's the story of Vermont.
CURWOOD: Wild places are so exciting, though! I mean, you grew up in California.
ELDER: That's right.
CURWOOD: You've been out there in the woods. Maybe you've been up to Montana, to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and there's just no people, there's no machines--it's, it's--untrammelled wilderness. I mean, here in New England, where we're talking now, I think, in your book, what did you say, "It's like hiking in a teacup."
ELDER: Yes. That was when I first moved to New England from California, someone said living in New England was like living in a teacup, and that felt right to me. Things felt smaller, closer together. There wasn't that sense of sublime expansiveness, and certainly the Western Wilderness is magnificent. I love it. In Vermont, I can walk out of my back door, and never get into wilderness that majestic or separate, but I can see bear tracks, moose sign, within a walk of my house. In some ways, there's a possibility for balance in New England that I also value--not to the exclusion of Western values, but also in no way secondary to it.
CURWOOD: So there are some who would argue that people, humanity as apart from nature, although many people today say we're now a part of nature. You'd put them kind of in the same camp as people who say that people who say that humans are somehow apart from wilderness, that you really can't make a dichotomy between the two; that we shouldn't treat the wilderness as some exotic place that's sort of "out there," but needs to be more a part of us?
ELDER: Yes, I would. It's complicated, because this is a controversial area, with a lot of heat on both sides.
CURWOOD: Of course.
ELDER: Many wilderness advocates resent what seem to them, environmental historians' reduction of everything to a social construct, and I do understand that. At the same time, my sense is, finally, that the more hopeful course for us at this point, is to understand that people are part of nature, and that what one group, for instance, more recent settlers, might call wilderness, another indigenous group that's been there longer, might find a book filled with the stories of their people. And I think that one of the projects of Americans today, when we've been so mobile, since World War II especially, is to recover the stories that will tie us to our place and make us care about it, make us steady and faithful on behalf of the balance of our place on Earth.
CURWOOD: One of the most powerful elements of your book, John Elder, is your own personal healing process. You use these hikes through the hills around Middlebury to deal with loss. Can you talk about this sense of loss that you're expressing here, and the connections to environmentalism, because that's often cast in terms of loss?
ELDER: Yes. It's interesting. When I began to write this book in the year that I especially set aside for hiking the Ridge and thinking about the poem, my father died at the beginning of the year and my mother became gravely ill, and actually died in the year after I finished, and there were other things, too, that made it a shattering year. And the idea, I guess, Steve, that connects this with wilderness is, that of grieving. I think that the same people who might worry that celebrating the Northeastern Woods would give license to those who would like to develop the rest of the world, I think of that as a kind of passive acceptance of whatever comes. And the same thing could be thought of grieving, that it's a passive lamentation. But my sense, from everything I've read, and the people I've talked with, and my own experience is, that grieving is work. That it's the work through which we respond to what's been lost and try to open up the possibility for a future. This is a time of tremendous environmental loss, not only in our recent past, but I'm afraid in our immediate future. And the challenge is, not to deny that, not to seek to find a way to transfer blame onto someone else, but to own it as ourselves in our world, and to try to work with it.
CURWOOD: In the course of all this loss, you decided to build yourself--a canoe. Didn't you?
ELDER: I did!
CURWOOD: This was a--with your own hands! I mean, a wooden canoe. You didn't go out and get a preform and a little fiberglass, or something, you--
ELDER: Right. I built a canoe, and it comes out of a dream, actually, I had, in which I saw a canoe dedicated to my father. This dream came when my father was dying, and so I built the canoe. It's a cedar strip canoe. And my thought was, at the end of the hike, between Frost's cabin and our house, I would take it into the pond there, Bristol Pond, and achieve some closure in my reading and in my hiking and in my grief. It turned out a little differently. I ended up going down a wild river ride with one of my sons. But building the canoe and hiking the Ridge became part of one larger project for me.
CURWOOD: Tell me more about what happened on this trip with your son, and what that ended up meaning to you.
ELDER: One of my sons, Matthew, just as I was finishing the book, asked me if I would take the Tribute, which is the name of my boat, both because it's dedicated to my father and it's from a favorite Frost line, down through the Otter Creek Gorge with him. This is a very wild gorge near our home, and it was after strong rains. So I did that.
CURWOOD: And this is, now, a cedar boat. You're risking everything. It's not like an aluminum canoe, that's gonna make a loud noise when it hits a rock. This is gonna--
ELDER: Yeah. It was a very shiny, beautiful, cedar strip canoe. So we went through the Gorge, and swamped it, of course, in ways that I tell about in the final chapter of my book.
CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much.
ELDER: You're welcome.
CURWOOD: John Elder's book is called, "Reading the Mountains of Home." John, I wonder if, before you go, if you could leave us with a reading.
ELDER: I'd be glad to. This is from the first chapter, entitled, "A Wilderness of Scars," and it's about the fact that, while many people in the surrounding metropolitan areas look at Vermont as a sort of green pastoral relic, actually it's a recovered wilderness. So this is a bit of the chapter that describes this forest history. "Present forest of mixed northern hardwoods has developed largely since the 1920's, while spruce, fir, and birch dominate above 2500 feet in the Green Mountains. These mountains are also now stocked with beech, oak, hickory, butternut, white pine, red pine, hemlock, and most notably each fall, with multitudes of maples. Durable kernels from the deciduous trees bided their time for years, in a buried seed pool, ready to burst upward from the ground exposed and torn by logging. The autumnal vividness that saturates the sky above me, now, is thus the offspring of 2 eradicated forests.
[Slow-paced fiddle music]
ELDER: "A sharp withdrawal of nitrogen scratches the match that annually ignites these mountains. Summer flares up in a vivid combustion before drifting down in embers through the branches bare gray mesh. The circle of the year turns, and is illuminated, in the transient glow of leaves. Over the coming weeks, as the Canada geese and snow geese pass southward, morning and evening through our lives, their calls will float down with those changing leaves. Familiar cycles of departure offer those of us who stay, a way to feel at home.
[More fiddle music]
CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our producers are George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, Daniel Grossman, Liz Lempert, and Miriam Landman, along with Peter Christianson, Roberta DeAvila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director, Peter Thomson heads our Western bureau, Joyce Hackel is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. We had help from Robin Hunneywell, Jim Frey, and Elsa Heidorn. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. And thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include: the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Surdna Foundation, the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues, and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.
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