Air Date: December 25, 1998
Winter Solstice Past and Present: Return of the Sun
John Matthews is a connoisseur of ancient celebrations and author of The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas. The book traces many of today’s solstice activities and legends back to their roots. Mr. Matthews speaks with Steve Curwood about winter solstice past and present, and what the shortest days and darkest time of year has represented to various cultures over time. (06:15)
Feast & Family/ Bob Carty
To help while away the dark, dreary days, Producer Bob Carty prepared this sound portrait of families gathering together to bring festivity to the holidays. (14:15)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about... It's been 25 years since the Endangered Species Act became law. (01:30)
Toxic Fertilizer/ Terry FitzPatrick
A new alarm is being sounded about some of the chemicals used to grow America's food. Toxic industrial waste is routinely used to make fertilizer. It's been happening for decades, but only now is coming to light after complaints by farmers in Quincy, Washington. Their allegations have prompted a nationwide effort to examine the safety of fertilizer derived from waste. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports. (15:10)
Florida's Winter Birds
Around 160 different species of birds live year round in Florida and around another 160 varieties arrive in the winter for nesting. But, the bird count in the Sunshine state has been hit with steep declines in recent decades. Kenn Kaufman, our guest ornithologist, talks with Steve Curwood to identify and discuss a few of Florida's flyers and waders. (06:35)
Winter insects/ Sy Montgomery
Sometimes it takes the eye, of a trained naturalist, like Living On Earth commentator Sy Montgomery to point out the more subtle characters in daily life like the bugs of winter. Sy Montgomery is author of "Life's Everyday Mysteries". She comes to us care of New Hampshire Public Radio. (02:50)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Bob Carty, Terry FitzPatrick
GUESTS: John Matthews, Kenn Kaufman
COMMENTATORS: Sy Montgomery
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
From the icy fjords of Finland to the snow-covered caps of the Rockies, the days surrounding the Winter Solstice have become a time of joy and merriment. But it wasn't always that way.
MATTHEWS: At one time, this time of year was a time of fear. It was a time when you weren't so sure that the sun was going to come back. That the warm weather would ever return. And that you wouldn't be eternally locked in the grip of winter.
CURWOOD: A remembrance of solstice past and present is just ahead. And gather 'round the table for a celebration of feast and family.
WOMAN: It always ends up that we're 20 people, all in the same spot. It's craziness. It's chaos. It's loud. It's fabulous.
CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this update of the day's news.
(NPR News follows)
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For much of modern western society, the Winter Solstice and the darkest days of the year have become inextricably linked with the traditions of Christmas. But as those traditions themselves have dissolved into commercialism and materialism, there is a push to revisit winters of old, when the return of the sun was the gift most people wanted. John Matthews is a connoisseur of ancient celebrations and author of The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas. The book traces many of today's solstice activities and legends back to their often unexpected roots. Take Santa Claus.
MATTHEWS: One of the images that comes up again and again is the idea of the shaman climbing up the outside of the house or the tent, or the hut or wherever it was you lived, and coming down through the chimney. Coming down the smoke hole, with the gift of wisdom or the gift of knowledge, which he had acquired from the other world, from the spirit world. And if you sort of forget for a moment all the things you know about Father Christmas, and think just of, you know, a red-suited figure coming down the chimney with a sack on his back, suddenly the whole image changes. Immediately, you begin to realize that this character that we're so used to thinking about, you know, as I say, the jolly giant who comes down the chimney with presents for children, goes back much further.
CURWOOD: What has happened to our solstice celebration over these many years?
MATTHEWS: Well, it's become overlaid by many different traditions from many parts of the world. If you go back as far as you can in time, then you can imagine people maybe sitting in a dark cave waiting for the sun to return, lighting a fire, perhaps singing songs, perhaps chanting, calling out to the sun to return. Since then, of course, a great deal has happened. So we have many different kinds of historical overlay in this. You know, we have the idea of the Christian Christmas. We have celebrations borrowed from ancient Rome. We have celebrations borrowed from the Greeks and the Turks, from all over the world. And wherever you go, now, you find a real hodgepodge of traditions, a real mixture of traditions. Some of which are understood and many of which are not understood at all.
CURWOOD: Any in particular that stand out for you?
MATTHEWS: Well, I'm thinking perhaps of the whole idea of giving gifts at this time of year. We tend to think of that as coming, again, from the Christian tradition, from the idea of the Three Wise Men. In fact, it goes back to Roman times, again, when at this time of year there was a holiday, and the master of the house would give the slaves the day off, would give gifts to them. Would often give them green boughs in token of the return of the year, the turning of the old year into the new.
CURWOOD: Do you suppose the Romans got up the day after this holiday with their credit cards stretched to the limit and not a whole lot of money in the bank?
MATTHEWS: (laughs) It's certainly possible. I think they probably all got up with hangovers in the way we do today as well, because a lot of celebrating went on. And a lot of (laughs) a lot of fun, I think.
CURWOOD: What was the Roman holiday? Who's the god?
MATTHEWS: Saturn, the god Saturn. They had Saturnalia. And it was generally considered to be a time when, you know, anything went, basically. Things were reversed. Masters waited on servants. And everyone had a really great time. I mean, there was feasting and drinking and generally disporting oneself as much as possible at this time of the year over that holiday.
CURWOOD: Sounds rather naughty to me.
MATTHEWS: Well, it probably was a bit. I mean, I think quite a bit of naughtiness went on in that time as well. But it was all part of the idea that you were celebrating in every possible way that you could, with as much abandon as possible, the return of the sun and the beginning, indeed of the new year. Because all of this runs on into the celebration of the new year, the start of a new period of time.
CURWOOD: What's your favorite solstice celebration?
MATTHEWS: There's a wonderful one which actually takes place a little bit after the solstice, but which is certainly part of the celebrations that go on at this time of year, and that's called Wassailing. And what you do when you wassail is you get a group of people together, and you go out and you sing to your apple trees. And this is supposed --
CURWOOD: You sing to the trees?
MATTHEWS: You sing to the trees. And the idea is that you make as much noise as possible. You don't always have to sing tunefully or harmoniously, and sometimes people even take out old tin lids and dustbins and things like that and bang on them and make as much noise as possible. It's a very jolly ceremony. And the idea is that you're supposed to be driving out any evil spirits that might have been hanging around your trees, to make sure that your trees will give plenty of fruit in the coming year. And you may be interested to know that this tradition has now been brought into the Americas, because someone was visiting here a few years back, a farmer, and he saw this taking place. And he thought it was such a wonderful idea that he decided to import it into the US, and I gather that it's now catching on. And that in certain parts of the country, now, you can hear people wassailing their apple trees and singing the same chants and songs that they'd been singing here for hundreds of years.
CURWOOD: I have an apple tree. I'm wondering if you would teach me a song, John, that I could go out and sing to my apple tree this time of year.
MATTHEWS: Oh, goodness. Um, well, I could try, although you probably wouldn't want me to sing it. But I can certainly --
CURWOOD: Why don't you give it a try?
MATTHEWS: I'm looking quickly through the book here. Well, here's one, goes something like this: (sings) Here's to thee, old apple tree, when thou may spurt and whence thou mayest blow. And whence thou mayest there apples in now, hats full, caps full, bushel, bushel, sacks full. And my pockets full, too. Huzzah!
MATTHEWS: I don't know what that sounded like. But you know, it's one of those great things and, you know, there are, people will go around towns and villages still in England and sing those songs. And I think if they're beginning to be sung in America, that's great.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today. John Matthews is author of The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas. Thanks so much for joining us.
MATTHEWS: Thank you. Glad to be here.
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CURWOOD: Coming up: we head home for the holidays and take our place at the table for the annual ritual. A celebration of feast and family is next. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And I'm probably going to weigh about 10 pounds more after all of this. Because it's that time of year, the year of good china and fine linen and polished silver, and special serving dishes and food. Lots of food. And of course lots of people. It's the time for the family feast, that yearly occasion that conjures up images of hearth and home and happiness. But not always, and never easily. Be it Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, or whatever, the mega-meal reflects all that is blessed, but also all that is burdensome about the holiday season. Bob Carty prepared our soundscape of feast and family.
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WOMAN: I take a week off work before Christmas and all I do is cook. Cook and wash linens and starch and clean silver and wash antique plates. It's not the rest that (laughs) everybody thinks it is!
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CARTY: Bring on the memories. Join in the fun. Welcome the relatives one by one. Make way for laughter, the hugs and smiles, food by the basketful, coats by the piles. Celebrate good times we spend all together. Share in the moments we'll cherish forever. Hallmark Cards, Incorporated.
(Music up and under; fade to a dog barking and a doorbell ringing.)
WOMAN: Hey, Susan, shush!
MAN: Merry Christmas!
WOMAN: Hi, how are you?
MAN: Gee, is it ever cold out there!
WOMAN: It was the first Christmas that I was going to be spending with my husband's family, not my own family. And there were tears. So I cried all the way over to his family's house in the car, tried to compose myself. And we walk in. And his family is there, Merry Christmas! Hello! Come in! And his mother says, "What's the matter with you?" And I said, "Well, I'm just a little bit sad, because it's the first Christmas that I won't be with my family for dinner. But everything's fine." And his sister looks at me and says, "Well, I wasn't with my brother on Christmas Eve, so now we're even."
(A champagne cork pops)
WOMAN 2: Oh, that sounds good. (Laughs)
WOMAN 3: You know, I refuse to be a few people at Christmas. It's just not worth the effort. It's a tiny house but it doesn't matter because, like, it's filled to the rafters with drunken people and little babies, and it's a little Dylan Thomasesque, I guess.
MAN 2 (reciting): Mistletoe hung from the guest brackets in all the front parlors. There was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessert spoons. And the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers. And some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edges of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.
WOMAN 4: Your mother's not very well? Dave has shingles.
MAN 3: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
WOMAN 5: Before I got married, I brought my husband home, my partner, to meet my family, and it was Christmas Eve. Where I'm from is Bible Belt, and my grandmother is Evangelical, and she's the matriarch of the family. And my partner's Catholic. And so it was this big question of how was this going to be received? And we all knew that grandma was going to pop the big question, which is, "Have you been saved? Have you been born again?" And so, she comes walking in. And so here she is. And grandma's starting to have conversation with Joe. First of all, she's found that he's Canadian, and that in itself is a bit touch and go, you know. So we're all waiting for the big question to be popped. And all of a sudden there's a knock on the back door. And in walks my great aunt Ruth. And here great aunt Ruth comes walking in, and what's she wearing? Well, she's 85 years old, and what she's wearing, she's wearing a miniskirt. And so we all look, and we can't believe this. And then behind her comes this man, and she turns and says, "And I want you to meet my new husband." And her new husband was 24 years old. (Laughs) And so because of that, my poor grandmother was so taken off guard that my grandmother never found out that my partner is Catholic, and she went to her grave without ever popping the question. (Laughs)
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MAN 4: There can be some tension as over who does what and when. Can anybody help you with this? I'm not here to just work all day, you know, that kind of thing.
(Milling voices and cooking sounds)
WOMAN 6: Oh, nice!
WOMAN 7: I think those beans are done.
MAN 5: And the turkey is the big center of attention, I think. Because either it's ready in time, or it's not, and that's what determines when you're going to eat.
WOMAN 8: Frozen turkey, fresh turkey. The great marital debate. I grew up with fresh turkey, he grew up with frozen turkey (laughs).
MAN 6: Twenty minutes a pound?
MAN 7: Thirty minutes a pound.
WOMAN 8: Three-twenty-five?
MAN 7: (laughs) Three-fifty!
MAN 6: Dry stuffing or wet stuffing?
WOMAN 8: Stuffing or dressing? Dry stuffing, wet stuffing. Big debate. (Laughs)
WOMAN 9: I have been here 5 years. I came from Moldova, it's the former Soviet Union. I like so much especially turkey. Still I can't do that, really. I don't know, it's easy, but still I can't do that! (Laughs)
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CARTY: The Internet home page of the Canadian Turkey Marketing Agency. "A Christmas turkey, all dressed and golden on the dinner table, is the perfect centerpiece for the holiday festivities. Cooking times may vary, depending on the temperature of the bird going into the oven, how many times the oven door is opened, and the size of the bird in relation to the size of the oven."
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WOMAN 10: Well, when we go down to visit my mother, you walk in the door and the first thing that you're asked is, "Well, do you want something to eat?" And you say, "No, no, it's okay, I'm not hungry right now." "What would you like? Would you like chicken soup? Or would you like the gefilte fish, or the chopped liver?" "No, I don't want anything to eat right now." "Okay, well just come sit at the table. And oh look, here I have some potato pudding." There's just no getting away from it.
MAN 7: (Laughs) We eat malis, which is corn flour with some kind of sauce. And turkey meat in the middles. And this year, my family and me, we are going back to Guatemala. My grandfather is 96 and he's waiting for me. Still, having the hope for being alive in the moment we will meet all the family together.
WOMAN 11: Okay, dinner's on the table! Everybody ready? Everybody hungry?
(Much assent from the others.)
WOMAN 11: We eat in the basement because that's the biggest room. We have an old kitchen table, and my father years ago went out and bought a sheet of plywood, and then my mother decorates that with linen. And usually, it always ends up that we're 20 people all in the same spot. It's craziness. It's chaos. It's loud. It's fabulous.
CHILD: The adults have a big table and we have a little table that we sit on, which is not fair. It feels like we're so small, but we're not.
(Chimes, fade to music up and under)
MAN 8: Grace became a wonderful thing for us, because my son invented our grace out of the blue. Because he didn't speak until he was just after 3, but to hear Gareth say that, after not speaking for so long, it was wonderful. Do you remember it, Gareth?
GARETH: Thank you for our food. Thank you for our friends. Thank you for our family. God bless us everyone.
MAN 9: To the first day of Christmas.
(Much assent, glasses clinking)
MAN 9: To Rifka [name?], to me.
MAN 9: For Christmas dinner, we always ask people we know who may not have anyplace else to go, and I've invited 2 friends of mine from Burundi for this Christmas dinner. And I think one of the things that makes Christmas dinner always a little nervous, you always know that they're probably sad that they're not with their family or their friends at that time of year. I remember one occasion, my daughter and I joking about some little thing, and us both really laughing. And I looked across the table and our friend at the table's eyes were just filled with tears. And no one said anything. She had lost her own child.
CHILD 2: Could you pass the cranberries please?
(Clinking of plates)
WOMAN 12: This is really delicious.
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CARTY: Etiquette, by Emily Post, chapter 14: table manners. "Table manners should be practiced whether alone or at dinner with family members. Ideal posture at the table is to sit straight, but not stiffly, leaning slightly against the back of the chair. Your hands may lie in your lap, which will automatically prevent you from fussing with implements. Slouching, or slumping at the table, is most unattractive. Tipping one's chair, a most unfortunate habit, is unforgivable."
(Harpsichord music up and under)
WOMAN 13: I guess my mother's absolutely fanatical that we use, you know, the fork down and the knife, even when you're using, eating peas. So, I mean, you're not allowed to use your fork as a spoon, like in a spoon-like way, when you're eating your peas. Makes it, like difficult. I remember one meal, I don't think I said anything, because I was just frowning at the plate, trying to get the peas on the fork, you know, not spooning it, and then chewing, and then remembering to chew with my mouth closed. Usually I just give up.
CHILD 3: My dad hates when I talk with my mouth full. Don't put your elbows on the table. No throwing up again. (Laughs)
WOMAN 14: (Laughs) Well, he threw up right on his Christmas plate! I never had somebody throw up at a meal that had taken me 72 hours to prepare (laughs). My beautiful, beautiful food and the garnishes and the plates are exquisite and the china we use once a year, and I'd gotten it out and washed it all beforehand. And we have this beautiful grace, and it's a prayer and tears and oh, it's so beautiful. We all sit down in the candlelight and this child goes, "Daddy, I think I'm going to be sick." And then he throws up (laughs). But he managed to keep it all on his dinner plate. (Laughs) I was amazed. And now we're good friends, and the child hasn't thrown up since, so they get to come back.
(Music up and under)
MAN 10: You always have someone in the family who is suffering in some ways. Sometimes it's just a personality that doesn't realize its effect on other people. And so you're sitting at the table, wondering when an unexpected explosion will happen. And I think that's a grind, I think, that a lot of families face. And because it's a celebratory meal, an occasion, that can turn into a blackmail on the rest of the family. And often there's nothing you can do about it. If they were non-family members, you could walk away from it or you could, you maybe not care quite so much. The problem comes from -- from love.
MAN 11: You spend the first 15, 20 years of your life fighting it out on a very intimate level with your siblings, with your brothers and sisters. If you were to get right down to it, probably the death of a sibling would affect you in a very strong way. So, when you look at it that way, then thinking about it and valuing those family members while they're alive and having at least one occasion, if not a couple per year, where you get together and celebrate, it is a very reaffirming kind of thing to do.
MAN 2 (reciting): And after dinner, the uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large, moist hands over their watchchains. Groaned a little. And slept. The dog was sick. Auntie Dorsey had to have 3 aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard singing like a big-bosomed thrush.
(Music up and under)
WOMAN 15: After dinner is finished, the women do a great walkabout outside. As raging feminists I don't know how we inherited this tradition, but it's something my grandmother -- my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother always did, which was to go outside after Christmas dinner in the dark, and walk in the snow. And I do it, too, and the women in the house leave with me, and we take the children, and we walk down to the river. And the children and everybody comes home exhausted and happy and bright- eyed. And we come home, and expect the dishes to be done. And it's really magical, really quite special.
(Music up and under; fade to door opening)
WOMAN 16: Goodbye! Thanks so much!
WOMAN 17: It was nice having you.
(Various voices; fade to music up and under)
CURWOOD: Our soundscape of feast and family was produced by Bob Carty. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.
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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. CURWOOD: Hundreds of factories are turning toxic waste into fertilizer. They claim it's safe, but many scientists say poisons don't belong on the farm. That story is coming up here on Living on Earth.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, profits for the planet, supporting initiatives that protect the Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: It's been 25 years since the Endangered Species Act became law. It requires a Secretary of Interior to list species in danger of extinction. And then, the US Fish and Wildlife Service must develop a recovery plan. In 1998, their budget of $90 million to do that was smaller than the amount needed to construct 4 miles of interstate highway. Success stories include the bald eagle and the California condor. But other birds, like Bachman's warbler and the ivory-billed woodpecker are gone forever. Today, more than 1,100 species are listed as threatened or endangered, half of them flowering plants. Loss of habitat is the greatest cause of plant and animal extinction. One oddity of the Endangered Species Act, in certain lawsuits such as marbled murrelet vs. Pacific Lumber Company and loggerhead turtle vs. County Council, the species themselves are the plaintiffs. Who said animals don't have rights? And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: A new alarm is being sounded about some of the chemicals used to grow America's food. Toxic industrial waste is routinely used to make fertilizer. It's been happening for decades, but only now is coming to light after complaints by farmers in Quincy, Washington. Their allegations have prompted a nationwide effort to examine the safety of fertilizer derived from waste. From our northwest bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick has this encore report.
WITTE: Good morning, girls. [inaudible]
FITZPATRICK: As the sun sets along Washington's Columbia River Valley, Tom Witte is doing what thousands of farmers do each evening. Feeding and milking the cows.
WITTE: (whistles) Get on in here! There you go.
(Clanking sounds amidst more lowing)
FITZPATRICK: Several years ago, disaster struck the Witte farm. The hay and alfalfa harvests fell by half. Several cows died of cancer. Mr. Witte wondered if something was poisoning his fields.
(Knocking sounds; more lowing)
WITTE: Yeah here's the tank, here's, this is the old fertilizer tank right here.
FITZPATRICK: So the fertilizer from inside here went out on the land?
WITTE: Yeah. Yeah.
FITZPATRICK: Mr. Witte decided to have his fertilizer checked. He sent residue from his tank to a lab, which discovered a smorgasbord of dangerous metals.
WITTE: There's lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium --
FITZPATRICK: Inside a fertilizer tank.
WITTE: Yeah. Yeah.
FITZPATRICK: It turns out that some fertilizers are made from industrial waste. The waste can be a cheap source of beneficial minerals like zinc and iron and copper. But often it also contains potentially toxic tag-alongs. In high enough concentrations these contaminants can cause birth defects, neurological problems, immune system disorders, and cancer. To Mr. Witte and a handful of neighbors, this discovery was a shock.
WITTE: The basic belief is there's nothing wrong with fertilizer. It's kind of an article of faith, you know: fertilizer is good.
FITZPATRICK: But now, Mr. Witte claims the impurities forced his farm into bankruptcy.
WITTE: Mostly it makes you mad, you know. Mostly it's disgust.
(A dog barks in the distance)
FITZPATRICK: Mr. Witte has no scientific proof to back up his claims. And so far there's no groundswell of farmers from other towns complaining of similar problems. But Tom Witte's story has sent shockwaves throughout the fertilizer industry, by shedding light on a little-known practice. It's prompted several states and Congress to look into the safety of waste-derived fertilizer.
FITZPATRICK: The factory-to-farm connection begins at facilities like the Holnam Company in Seattle.
FITZPATRICK: A huge kiln is cooking limestone and sand to make cement mix. The kiln is fired by coal, used oil, and shredded tires. The process produces a gray, dusty waste that's loaded with lime, a beneficial element for farming. Plant manager Nick Stiren collects the dust from his smokestack filters and sells it to a fertilizer company.
STIREN: The dust is used in the Northwest to control the acidity of the soil. The material is good; it's a good material.
FITZPATRICK: Government agencies have encouraged using waste like this in fertilizer rather than throwing it away. Bill Chapman is the Holnam Company's attorney.
CHAPMAN: The early 80s was a period in which people searched for ways to recycle as many household and industrial products as they could. And I sat in meetings with environmental agencies saying isn't there some way to recycle more of this? So markets were opened and sold with people saying go, go, go.
FITZPATRICK: The cement kiln dust contains toxic substances like dioxin, lead, and arsenic. But it's not classified as hazardous because the level of contaminants are low. The company says it's safe to use directly on farms. But even waste legally classified as hazardous is allowed to be blended with other ingredients to make fertilizer. Hundreds of companies have recycled their waste this way, including steel foundries, paper mills, even a uranium processing plant. According to a study by the Environmental Working Group, industrial wastes containing 270 million pounds of potentially dangerous heavy metals were sent to farms or fertilizer factories between 1990 and 1995. Ken Cook, the group's director, says at least a third of the shipments had enough metals to qualify as hazardous.
COOK: This is an example where recycling is causing many more problems, probably, than it's solving. A factory that's producing the waste has two big choices. You can either spend a fair amount of money to deal with it as a hazardous waste, have it treated, have it disposed of in a landfill, or you can make a little money by shipping it to a fertilizer company because you've called it material for recycling or reuse.
FITZPATRICK: Under Federal rules, any kind of waste, no matter how toxic, can be used to make fertilizer, so long as the resulting product wouldn't be considered hazardous waste itself. Ken Cook complains the practice is loosely regulated. There is no Federal registration for fertilizers, or screening for contaminants. Companies do not have to disclose ingredients on the label.
COOK: So we really have sort of a situation that's custom-made for mischief. And the people who end up bearing the risk are the farmers who buy it and put it on their land.
FITZPATRICK: American farmers use 52 million tons of fertilizer every year.
FITZPATRICK: Each spring applicators as big as dump trucks spray the land with brightly-colored pellets.
(Engines and spraying)
FITZPATRICK: Industry officials say less than 4% of the fertilizer used in the US is made with industrial waste. They're the mineral supplement products, containing zinc and other micro-nutrients. There's no evidence this fertilizer is dangerous. In fact, says environmental toxicologist Allan Felsot at Washington State University, micro-nutrient fertilizer is used so sparingly that impurities are drastically watered down.
FELSOT: There's a tremendous dilution effect. So you may have in the product itself what looks like on paper high levels of cadmium or lead, but once you dilute this out, it's very, very tiny. In essence you've diluted it to essentially near background levels; that's what's naturally there anyway.
FITZPATRICK: Research has shown these tiny concentrations can be taken up by crops. But that doesn't necessarily make the crops unsafe to eat. One test showed you can even load the soil with drastic levels of cadmium and have only a tiny effect on how much ends up in the plants. Professor Felsot says that's's because for the most part these metals are in a form that won't dissolve in water, so plants can't absorb them.
FELSOT: We know that some of these metals are toxic, and we figure that oh, gee, if the metal's there, therefore it must be toxic. But that is not how toxicology works, and certainly that is not how risk assessment works. Therefore, if you're going to analyze what's in the soil and try to decide gee, is this a hazardous procedure or not, you better not only analyze the total metal but you better also analyze the amount of metal in solution. Because that is what's going to control the hazard.
FITZPATRICK: Other scientists, though, are alarmed industrial waste is finding its way to the farm, and feel there hasn't been enough research to prove the practice is safe. Only three crops have been tested for toxic effects, and soil scientist Bill Liebhardt from the University of California at Davis says a whole range of heavy metal risks has not been explored.
LIEBHARDT: We don't know if they're staying in the soil. We don't know if they're moving up the food chain into animals and people. And we have no idea if they're leaching into rivers or groundwater or things like that. So it seems to me like in a sense we're kind of playing Russian Roulette with the food supply.
FITZPATRICK: Dr. Liebhardt also complains no one has study whether repeated use could eventually cause metals to build up to a potentially dangerous level. The fertilizer industry insists this won't happen, but Dr. Liebhardt, who used to work for a fertilizer company, isn't convinced.
LIEBHARDT: I can understand what the fertilizer industry people are saying. They're trying to make people feel that there's no problem. But when you come right down to the bottom line, they don't know. They really don't know. And I don't, either. That's the bottom line in this whole thing.
FITZPATRICK: The unknowns are even greater for a fertilizer made with wastes containing dioxin. Research shows that people and animals can tolerate small doses of heavy metals, but it's an open question if a tiny dose of dioxin is safe. The EPA is currently reassessing dioxin hazards. Two other studies currently underway might answer some of the other questions about waste-derived fertilizer. One is funded by the industry and the other by the state of Washington.
(Horns and traffic sounds)
FITZPATRICK: The current scientific uncertainty has torn apart the town of Quincy, Washington. A few residents fear the effects of waste-derived fertilizer. But most folks do not.
(Man: "Kind of a bird's-eye view...")
FITZPATRICK: In a wooden barn at Quincy Farm Chemicals, owner Pete Romano shows me fertilizer made with tire ash and steel mill waste.
It's black and greenish brown. (Sniffing) Doesn't smell at all.
You're not concerned that what comes out this hopper here might be poisoning the land around town?
ROMANO: No, not at all. Not at all.
FITZPATRICK: Mr. Romano says recycling benefits the environment rather than harming it. Reusing minerals reduces the need for mining. It cuts the cost of fertilizer and saves space in landfills.
ROMANO: What's better, put it in one big hole? Or to process it and put it into a form that is usable and spread over many, many acres at very minute levels? What makes more sense?
(A milling crowd)
FITZPATRICK: Most of Mr. Romano's customers seem to agree. Recently, they gathered to hear from fertilizer makers and farmers like Murray Michael came away convinced recycling is safe.
MICHAEL: It's a lot of much ado, I believe, about very, very little in terms of the levels of heavy metals we're actually seeing in the fertilizer.
FITZPATRICK: Have you used these materials?
MICHAEL: Yes, I have.
FITZPATRICK: It hasn't hurt your land?
MICHAEL: It hasn't hurt my land that I'm aware of. No, it hasn't.
FITZPATRICK: Others aren't so sure. Patty Martin, who until recently was Quincy's mayor, is afraid that waste-derived fertilizer threatens both the town's economic base and the health of its residents. Quincy's schools are across the street from two fertilizer distribution companies.
MARTIN: I think it's wrong to unnecessarily expose populations of people to toxic chemicals without first proving that that exposure is safe. And children are the most vulnerable of those populations that are going to be exposed. And I think that's wrong.
FITZPATRICK: When she was mayor, Ms. Martin asked health officials to investigate Quincy for any unusual patterns of illness. They found nothing out of the ordinary. But the mayor's inquiries and subsequent press coverage prompted state officials to scrutinize the use of recycled waste. Environmentalists wanted the state to ban waste-derived fertilizer. Short of that they asked for explicit labels warning of any toxic tag-alongs. Ultimately, though the legislature adopted less stringent measures. All fertilizers sold in Washington will soon be screened for nine dangerous metals, and must meet new state standards. Labels will bear a general statement that the product has passed the test. These new rules make Washington the first state to regulate waste-derived fertilizer. But in Quincy, former mayor Patty Martin is disappointed. Dioxin screening will not be required, and it's not expected that any products will be taken off the market.
MARTIN: The fact that Washington State's putting their seal of approval on it and potentially setting a very weak example for the rest of the country, I don't feel good about that at all. I don't feel good about that at all.
FITZPATRICK: Farmer Tom Witte is bitter, too. He's sworn off fertilizer and relies on manure instead. However, Mr. Witte says he hasn't been able to avoid heavy metals altogether. He still feeds bags of mineral supplement powder directly to his cows.
WITTE: I ran a test on this mineral about a year ago. It has a high level of arsenic in it. It's not listed on the label or anything, but the level of arsenic that was in it was high enough to cause the lab concern. It's a cumulative poison, see, and here I am feeding it.
(Cows keep lowing)
WITTE: There you go.
FITZPATRICK: For Living on Earth I'm Terry FitzPatrick in Quincy, Washington.
CURWOOD: Since we first aired that report, Washington State's new regulations have had some unexpected consequences. Rather than meet the state's testing and labeling requirements, many companies are withdrawing their products from stores. More than a hundred different fertilizers, mostly the home and garden variety, will not be available next year. But one home and garden product that officials had threated to ban will continue to be sold. Ironite, which is made from mining residue, has a new package that meets the regulations by telling customers to use less of the product than before.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: We welcome your comments on our program. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or send us an e-mail at LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And you can find our Web page at www.livingonearth.org.
Birds of a feather flock together, and this time of year that usually means see you in Florida! Birding in the Sunshine State is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Many birds and birdwatchers alike are in Florida this time of year. Perhaps 160 different species of birds live year-round in Florida, and that many again show up in the winter for nesting. But the bird count in the Sunshine State has been hit with steep declines in recent decades. Wild places have been paved over, and water flows for the giant marshes and wetlands have been disturbed and polluted. Still, Florida is a popular spot for birding and Kenn Kaufman, our guest ornithologist, is here to talk about a few of Florida's flyers and waders. Welcome.
KAUFMAN: Thanks, Steve.
CURWOOD: Kenn, you say the wood stork is one of the most beleaguered and beloved birds of the Sunshine State. Let's listen to its call.
(Wood stork calls)
CURWOOD: Boy, that's quite a racket. I thought that was maybe an editorial meeting here at Living on Earth. But it turns out to be young wood storks? Because I didn't hear the adults make much noise.
KAUFMAN: That's right. The adults are virtually silent most of the time, but you get around a nesting colony and there's quite a bit of noise going on.
CURWOOD: It's a very impressive bird. It's what? mostly white but it's got black underfeathers on it and some sort of is it spotted on the head? Or what is it exactly on the head?
KAUFMAN: Well, they don't have any feathers on the head, so what you're seeing is the gray skin with black mottling. They were called flintheads by the locals.
CURWOOD: Now, there are not too many of these wood storks, right? I mean, it's less than what? Five or ten thousand or something?
KAUFMAN: It's thought that the total population in North America now is down to around 10,000.
CURWOOD: Wow, not many birds. I've seen a few in the cypress swamps. These giant nests in the trees, it's quite something.
KAUFMAN: They're really impressive, yeah. They'll nest in a variety of situations. They'll be in mangroves or they'll be in big cypress trees. But they're really sociable in their nesting. Like a lot of the wading breeds are.
CURWOOD: Now why is it that they're disappearing? This has something to do with the water quality changing in Florida, like in the Everglades?
KAUFMAN: It's more a matter of water levels. They do their foraging by touch. They walk around, they wade around in shallow water and just swing their heads back and forth with their bills open. And when they encounter something they snap their bills shut. And so they do their most effective hunting when the water level is dropping and the fish are more concentrated. And so, at one time there was a, just a natural cycle. But with the manipulation of the water levels with all the canals and things in Florida, it's changed that annual cycle of water levels. So some years they don't have the good hunting conditions, so they won't nest at all.
CURWOOD: Is it just fish they eat?
KAUFMAN: No, they'll eat crayfish and crabs and insects and snakes and they'll eat small turtles, they'll eat baby alligators.
CURWOOD: Alligators? Birds eating alligators?
KAUFMAN: Yeah, well, turnabout is fair play. (Curwood laughs) A baby alligator isn't that large, so it's not that much of a challenge for a huge bird like a wood stork.
CURWOOD: All right, let's listen to a couple of other birds here. Let's listen to the limpkin and the snail kite.
(Limpkin call, followed by snail kite call)
CURWOOD: Well, very different calls, very different lifestyles. But they share one very important thing, according to your book. That is their main food source. Tell us about that.
KAUFMAN: That's right. They both feed heavily on the pomacius snail, the so- called apple snail, which is really a large snail, has a lot of meat in it. But it's hard to get out, and they've both got adaptations for digging that snail out of its shell.
CURWOOD: But their hunting styles are very different, right?
KAUFMAN: Oh, completely different. The snail kite, it's a kind of hawk. It doesn't fly fast like a lot of birds of prey. It's a snail in more ways than one. It soars around slowly over the marsh and it will just, when it sees a snail, well it sort of swoops down and picks it up in one foot.
CURWOOD: Hmm. And the limpkin?
KAUFMAN: Limpkins will wade around and pick up snails either from the surface or from underwater and then carry them back to shallow water to extract them from their shells.
CURWOOD: Now, they have pretty interesting beaks, both of them, for eating these snails. Can you describe these for us please?
KAUFMAN: Well, I should describe the snail first. There's a lot of meat inside the shell of the apple snail, but it's attached to the inside of the shell with something called a columeler muscle. And then the snails get sort of a doorway called the operculum, and so when it pulls up into the shell it's hidden inside there. The snail kite, the upper mandible is long and very narrow and very curved, it's like a long hook. And it can hook it around inside that operculum and pry it open, and then use that hook to cut the muscle to get the snail out of the shell. On the limpkin, its bill actually curves slightly to the right at the tip. They're all right-handed. And the snails are also right-handed. If you have them with the opening up, they curve around to the right. So, when the limpkin jabs into that opening, its bill goes naturally around the corner to cut the muscle.
CURWOOD: Boy, they've had this relationship for a long time, huh?
KAUFMAN: Apparently so.
CURWOOD: Now, the limpkin has a long plaintive call. That's pretty easy to recognize, and kind of scary, really.
KAUFMAN: Yeah, yeah, wonderful call. It's often described as being sort of a banshee call. And then you have to back up and say, well what's that? And in Irish mythology, the banshee was a female spirit that would come wailing around the outside of the house if there was going to be a death in the family. So obviously not something that you wanted to hear. But when you're out in the swamps at night in Florida and you hear the limpkins, it can really be a blood-curdling cry.
CURWOOD: Ooh. I guess if you're a snail, you don't want to hear that call, either.
KAUFMAN: Definitely not.
(Limpkin cry continues)
CURWOOD: Well, Kenn, thanks for taking all this time with us today.
KAUFMAN: Well, happy to talk with you.
CURWOOD: Kenn Kaufman is author of Lives of North American Birds. And today's bird calls came from the CD Florida Bird Songs, by Jeffrey Keller. That's a production of Cornell University's Library of Natural Sounds.
(Woman's voice: "Osprey," followed by osprey call. Fade to music up and under)
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's not just birds that go south each winter. So do many insects. Most, though, do stick around even though they can be hard to find with the naked eye. Unless, of course, the eye belongs to a trained naturalist. Like Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery.
MONTGOMERY: A few insects like monarchs fly off to Mexico. Some dragonflies, like the familiar green darner and the peripatetic wandering globetrotter, migrate sometimes by the millions to winter in Florida. But most insects actually stick around. The reason we don't see them is, in many cases they've solved the problem of winter by turning into something else. The larvae of the showy cecropia moth transforms itself into a chrysalis. You might find this fist-sized gray silken pouch hanging at the tip of birch or alder at the edge of a swamp.
Some insects actually change the contents of their blood for the season. They replace much of their normal body fluids with glycerol, similar to the glycol used in automobile antifreeze. Some also thicken their blood. These measures lower the freezing point of their blood to minus 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Thanks to this chemistry, the familiar black and brown woolly bear caterpillar, the larva of a tiger moth, can wait out the snow under just a few inches of leaf litter.
Saw flies hide just beneath logs. Perhaps most miraculous of all, the fragile violet-brown morning cloak butterfly survives almost completely exposed. With wings closed, showing only its drab undersides, it's nearly invisible against logs or the dark bark of trees. And after a punishing winter, the morning cloak is one of the first insects to fly again in spring, often even before the snow melts.
Other insects construct shelters. The larch case bearer hollows out the tip of a larch needle, backs into it, and wears it like a camouflage suit of armor. Leaf rollers use silk like a combination of thread and glue. You'll know one of these caterpillars was at work when you notice a leaf that looks like a hand-rolled cigar.
As we rush about shoveling snow and hauling wood, it's good to be humbled by the far more elegant solutions to winter devised by the insect world. They may have brains smaller than the head of a pin, but they have the wisdom of the ages on their side. After all, they've been around 400 million years, and they've seen and survived almost everything the earth has to offer.
CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery is author of Life's Everyday Mysteries. She comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.
(Music up and under: "I don't want to worry there, insect. I do not want to fight." Backup singers: "Hey there, little insect. Hey there, little insect." Lead singer: "That's right. I don't even want to worry about an insect bite." Backup singers: "Hey there, little insect." Lead singer: "I don't." Backup singers: "Hey there, little insect." Lead singer: "See, I don't want to worry, so please come down. So we can have fun and fool around." Voices go Bzzzzz...)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, and Miriam Landman, along with Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Bree Horwitz, and Julia Madeson. We had help this week from David Winickoff, Alexandra Davidson, Stephanie Pindyck, and Laura Colbert. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. 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.
(Music up an under)
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture.
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