Air Date: November 26, 1999
Going Hollywood/ Celeste Wesson
Environmental themes have been slipping into recent movies and television programs--a trend that isn't entirely an accident. Two Hollywood organizations have been lobbying writers and actors to green-up their work. Celeste Wesson reports. (09:45)
Host Steve Curwood speaks with Don Bixby, executive directorof the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, about some of the problems with current turkey breeding practices. The problem is overbreeding, which is diminishing genetic diversity. (04:10)
Dredging the Illinois/ Jonathan Ahl
There is so much sediment making its way into the Illinois River that many people worry it could soon turn into a mud bog. But new dredging technology may make it possible to effectively remove large amounts of mud from the river bottom. Jonathan Ahl reports from WCBU in Peoria, Illinois. (06:00)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about the gas leak, fifteen years ago, at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. (01:30)
Bike Vallet/ Deidre Kennedy
Commuters in Berkeley, California now have an incentive to ride their bikes, instead of driving their cars, to the BART subway station. The city has installed a bicycle valet cage inside the station, guarded by attendants --and it's free. Deirdre Kennedy reports. (04:25)
The Journey of the Great Auk
In 1991 Dick Wheeler fulfilled a life-long dream and paddled his kayak along the migratory route of the now-extinct Great Auk from Newfoundland to Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts. He teamed up with famed storyteller Jay O'Callahan to help him tell the story of the Great Auk, and both men join host Steve Curwood in the studio to recount Mr. Wheeler's remarkable journey. (20:40)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Celeste Wesson, Jonathan Ahl, Deirdre Kennedy
GUESTS: Don Bixby, Dick Wheeler, Jay O'Callahan
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Trend-setting Hollywood has a new darling to promote: environmentalism. On sets and in studios, a broad effort is underway to light up screens, big and small, with eco-advocacy.
HODGE: I was thinking about quitting acting because I wanted to dedicate my whole life to environmental activism. And I realized that the more famous I could become, the bigger voice I would have.
CURWOOD: Also, a new technology to deal with an age-old problem: the silting of rivers by soil erosion from farming and development.
PLATT: The idea of a new way to move mud is more than just about moving mud. It's about changing people's minds to believe that they can actually win this thing in the long term.
CURWOOD: Those stories and...
(Turkey gobble imitation)
CURWOOD: The great disappearing turkey, this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this hour's news.
(NPR News follows)
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you watch television regularly, you have probably noticed that some shows seem a bit racier these days-- even more sex and sensation than usual. It's not an accident. Welcome to the November sweeps, when the networks joust each other for Nielsen ratings and a bigger share of the advertising pot. Amid all the hype, though, you might notice a different kind of media message. Ever so often, television characters start talking about their love of nature, or the steps they make to get their take-out coffee in reusable mugs. As Celeste Wesson discovered, these moments don't appear entirely by accident.
(Theme music from "Frasier" up and under)
WESSON: Frasier Crane is one of America's most popular TV characters. And it turns out that he is an environmentalist.
GRAMMAR (as Crane): Excuse me, sir, you know, there's a place to recycle those cans right over there.
MAN: Oh, I know.
CRANE: On behalf of Mother Earth I thank you!
WESSON: In this scene, Frasier berates a stranger for tossing his soda can, and digs into the trash to recycle it for him.
CRANE: Just the sort of person that drinks chocolate soda.
WESSON: There are dozens of little scenes like this on television, moments of individual environmental responsibility. And some of it is due to the efforts of the Environmental Media Association, or EMA. The group formed ten years ago to persuade Hollywood writers to slip environmental themes into movies and television. EMA's Kelly Skumautz says the idea has caught on. Among her favorites are "The Simpsons" and "Home Improvement."
SKUMAUTZ: When they are refitting and remodeling homes, the Tool Time people did the right thing with energy use and recycled materials. The list goes on and on. The "X-Files" is another very conscious show. And I'm happy about some of the new ones. We have real potential for "Dharma and Greg."
MAN: Hi, you're here. Come on in.
WOMAN: Yes, sorry we're late. Strong headwind on the bridge.
MAN: You biked here?
MAN 2: Yeah. Yeah.
WESSON: Dharma's aging hippie parents are not very fit, but they are dedicated.
WOMAN: We don't want to participate in the fossil fuel addiction foisted on us by multinational corporations.
MAN 2: And -- and -- and -- and --
WOMAN: And so from now on we will use the energy of our bodies to transport us instead of exploiting the planet we live on.
MAN: What planet would that be, Larry?
WESSON: To encourage such moments, EMA gives out yearly awards and conducts a big briefing headlined by hit makers like David Kelley, creator of "Ally McBeal;" and Michael Crichton of "Jurassic Park." Proof that you can succeed in show business while promoting environmental responsibility. EMA also provides prop advice to individual programs, and, when it can, meets one-on-one with the show's staff.
SKUMAUTZ: If you want to leave these around your writer's room, here's that prop...
WESSON: Ms. Skumautz recently briefed the executive producers of "The Pretender," which airs Saturday nights on NBC, and whose star, Michael T. Weiss, has been active in EMA.
SKUMAUTZ: The easiest ones are props. This season already, the show "Jesse" was using both reusable lunch and grocery bags with her son. "Dawson's Creek" had an ecology club. And "ER" has the doctor standing in front of these cartons of recycled paper.
MAN: So the pro-strip mining show that Tommy's working on, just make sure he's recycling his paper.
(He and Skumautz laugh)
WESSON: Ms. Skumautz would like "The Pretender"'s lead character Jarod to take the environmental message beyond visual props. She suggests that creating bad guys for him to battle would be one way for the writers to do it.
SKUMAUTZ: Who are your bad guys this year? There's always the toxic polluters.
SKUMAUTZ: And, you know, with scientists, they can always do wrong. The cloning and the mutations.
MAN: The pilot of this show, Jarod shut down some people who had illegally dumped oil from an oil tanker.
MAN: I never agreed with the company about flushing our tanks at sea. I knew those chemicals had to be doing something nasty. Yeah, I'm kind of glad Captain Jarod turned us in.
WESSON: Another "Pretender" episode was set at a toxic waste disposal company.
(Dramatic music, sirens)
WOMAN: Questions remain about a deadly spill inside ECS, a private firm specializing in hazardous materials cleanup. We've obtained exclusive Fire Department footage taken immediately after a container of deadly MZT foam ruptured during routine storage...
WESSON: If the environment is high drama, and as the meeting continues, the producers come up with other environmental evils that Jarod can fight,ike a profiteer in illegal medical waste disposal. But there are limits, says executive producer Tommy Thompson.
THOMPSON: We're not autonomous here. We don't just do what we want. We have to run story lines by networks, and we have to deal with studios. And I tell you what, we run into people that -- they're not thrilled about environmental story lines, you know, because ratings are the bottom line.
WESSON: Ms. Skumautz says EMA is trying to arrange briefings with studio and network executives who can green light a green story line. She says television can shape public behavior, reaching back into television history, to "Happy Days," to make her point.
SKUMAUTZ: There is a great example, and it had to do with the Fonz going to the library with Richie and signing up for his first library card. The following week, the number of cards that kids went out and signed up for increased by 500 percent nationwide.
WESSON: There are other examples of television's power to inspire viewers to action, according to Barbara Olsen, who hosts a Los Angeles radio program on the media. Farrah Fawcett's TV movie "The Burning Bed," for example, multiplied calls to domestic violence shelters. However, Ms. Olsen says that putting environmental messages into entertainment programs may have a limited effect.
OLSEN: It is a little bit like tossing a lifesaver out into a very vast ocean. On the average hour of prime time television, you have at least 32 little mini-programs, better-produced than anything else you'll see on TV. And those commercials are selling everything but sensible consumer lifestyles.
WESSON: Not only must a green message compete with commercials, says Ms. Olsen, it is also in conflict with the subtext of the programs themselves.
OLSEN: All of these shows and commercials show us a lifestyle that we are expected to aspire to. And some of those values are really good values. Caring and sharing and honesty. They are also about status (laughs), about competition. And about consumption.
WESSON: It may seem an uphill struggle, but Hollywood activists aren't giving up. In fact, there is another Hollywood group, the Environmental Communications Office, or ECO, working on a different front. Their focus is creating public service campaigns for radio and TV stations and for movie theaters.
WESSON: At a premier party at Paramount Studios, ECO unveils its latest production: a one-minute trailer to play in movie theaters around the world.
MAN: So I'm going to be quiet for the next two minutes, and let's take a look at A Perfect Balance.
(Applause; trailer music up and under)
HUNT: It took billions of years, but it was perfect. New life coming from the old. Part of it hot, part of it frozen...
WESSON: Images of lightning and clouds, glowing lava, arches of Arctic ice, and then parched earth and collapsing icebergs, illustrate a message about global warming voiced by actor Linda Hunt.
HUNT: Nature is not doing this. We are. Nature cannot stop it. We can. But we have to start now.
(Music fading to applause up and under)
WESSON: Among the premier guests eating from the sustainable buffet and drinking organic wine are the cinematographers, editors, and producers who donate millions of dollars worth of footage and time to make ECO's spots. Also here are TV and movie stars whose contribution, says ECO's Rubin Aronin, is indispensable.
ARONIN: Folks like Patrick Stewart or Pierce Brosnan or Gene Hackman are given a certain amount of credibility because of who they are, and obviously we're able to get them on the airwaves. It is going up with a bullhorn and getting them out to so many more people than I could individually or any other single person that doesn't necessarily have the visibility that a celebrity does.
WESSON: ECO board member Christine Hodge, who starred in TV's "Head of the Class," says that with her celebrity status she can accomplish more than most environmental activists.
HODGE: I was thinking about quitting acting because I wanted to dedicate my whole life to environmental activism, and I realized that the more famous I could become the bigger voice I would have. Sting gets more done than our politicians do to help the environment. And when Tom Cruise went to the rainforest, people took a listen to what was happening in the rainforest.
WESSON: ECO boasts that over the years its messages have reached a billion people in 150 countries. Both EMA and ECO aim to get a basic message to a broad audience, to make it mainstream. Both groups are convinced they can use the machinery of Hollywood, the props, plots, spots, and stars, to make a difference. For Living on Earth, I'm Celeste Wesson in Hollywood.
(Music up and under; fade to turkey gobble imitation)
BIXBY: It's a sound that toms use when they're advertising for mates during the breeding season and to establish their territory.
CURWOOD: That's Don Bixby, executive director of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, imitating a call that most of us never get to hear: the gobble of a male turkey.
(Turkey gobble imitation)
CURWOOD: In fact, most turkeys never get to hear the call, because courting and strutting don't take place in the giant poultry factories that produce the more than a quarter billion turkeys each year in the U.S. Caged turkeys have no territory and are so overbred for breast meat that they are physically incapable of breeding. This process, Mr. Bixby warns, is causing genetic variety in our domesticated turkeys to die out.
BIXBY: The selection factors for industrial turkeys are very, very narrow. The point is to raise as much meat or muscle as possible in the shortest period of time. And so, when you select for one thing you reject other things. The things that have been rejected include hardiness and disease and parasite resistance and ability to forage and reproductive efficiency. And we've substituted chemicals and antibiotics and intensive husbandry and very refined nutrition for those natural attributes.
CURWOOD: Now how does all this loss of genetic variation in domestic turkeys affect us?
BIXBY: Well, all biological systems are dependent upon genetic diversity to be stable, whether it's rainforests or wetlands or farms, which are also a biological system. And once you lose genetic diversity, you lose the ability to adapt to changes in the environment or, in the case of turkeys, to market changes or changes in production. And evidence is accumulating that they also have decreased immune system efficiencies that lead to both explained and unexplained outbreaks of disease that will wipe out a large population.
CURWOOD: So you're saying we're really at risk of suddenly waking up one morning and the U.S. turkey population is boom, gone.
BIXBY: It is certainly a possibility, and it has happened with several of our crop varieties. Potatoes, for instance, in the Irish potato famine, and the corn blight of the early '80s. We haven't yet experienced that in our livestock species, but it doesn't take much imagination to imagine that this could certainly happen in a species such as the turkey that is raised so intensively.
CURWOOD: What's your organization trying to do about this?
BIXBY: The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy monitors all of the breeds in North America and produces each year a conservation priority list of the breeds most in need of conservation. We maintain a gene bank for many of the most endangered breeds. We work with breed associations and stewards, farmers, who are keeping these breeds alive. And we try to determine the best habitat for these breeds to be re-utilized, so that there is an economic incentive for keeping them.
CURWOOD: Mr. Bixby --
CURWOOD: Do you eat turkey?
BIXBY: I do.
CURWOOD: So, what did you have for your Thanksgiving?
BIXBY: Well, I had a free-range turkey that was given to me by a farmer friend who raised them outside, on range, all summer long. They are quite different than the birds in the store. They don't have this great, huge, white breast. But there are some other characteristics that make it much more desirable. The flavor is much more intense than we've become used to in our commercial birds. It's the same size when you take it out of the oven as when you put it in, because it's not plumped up with water and oils and some of the things that are used to increase the size of commercial birds. And the texture of the meat is quite different. You don't eat as much of it because there is a mouth feel that's much more satisfying than the soft meat that we have also become used to in commercial turkeys.
CURWOOD: So you ate just enough and not too much at your Thanksgiving dinner.
BIXBY: Well, I wouldn't say that.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Don Bixby is executive director at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Thank you, sir.
BIXBY: You're quite welcome.
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Just ahead: a new dredging technology to help get the dirt out of your local waterway. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Illinois River stretches for nearly 300 miles from just outside of Chicago to the Mississippi near St. Louis. More than a million people drink from the river, and it carries more than 35 million tons in barge traffic each year. With soil erosion from farming and development along its banks, the Illinois River is in danger of clogging up with sediment. But a new technology being developed promises a more efficient way to keep the flow open and clean. From member station WCBU in Peoria, Jonathan Ahl reports.
AHL: When farmers plow their fields near the banks of the Illinois River, or builders break ground for new developments, they kick up dirt and mud that is washed and blown into the water. That sediment is slowly turning the river into a mud flat. Mike Platt is the Director of the Heartland Water Resources Council, an environmental and conservation advocacy group based in Peoria. He says within 30 years the tide of sediment will destroy wildlife habitats and render the river useless for boating and drinking water. Mr. Platt says those aren't the only things that could go wrong with a river full of mud.
PLATT: You're talking about just a real change in the hydrology of the flow of the river. And probably, that's the most serious thing that affects us in the future, is the fact that as this thing fills up with mud and goes into trees, that you're going to have some very significant flood events.
AHL: Currently there are two ways to solve the problem of river siltation. The first is limiting agriculture and development near the river and its tributaries, making sure that less sediment gets into the river in the first place. A second is physically removing the mud from the river bottom. But that's not easy using current technologies.
AHL: A dredging boat is working on the section of the Illinois River where it joins with the Mackinaw, one of its major tributaries. The main boat is connected to pumps on platforms, and more than 300 yards of pipeline floating on rusted pontoons. This system of dredging is called hydraulic dredging, because there's a large amount of water taken out of the river. Kenny Brenner is a civil engineer tech for the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the dredging. He points to a massive iron cutter head with large teeth.
BRENNER: Right underneath and in back of the cutter head is the intake for the suction of the pipe. That's what that pump sucks water out of the river, and then therefore the suspended sediments, which the cutter head disturbs, and that's how you get the 15 percent solids and 85 percent water.
AHL: A slurry of water and sediment flows through this pipeline and is shot over a levee next to the river. From there the water runs downhill through grassland and eventually gets pumped back into the river without sediment.
AHL: Hydraulic dredging is a long, inefficient process. It can take weeks of dredging 24 hours a day just to remove enough sediment to add two feet of depth to the river for a stretch of a few hundred yards. And sediment is getting into the river faster than dredgers like this one can pump it out. But there is a new technology on the horizon that could drastically improve the process of removing sediment. Peoria-based Caterpillar, Incorporated, is developing a new kind of dredger. Instead of pumping out watery mud, it would scoop more solid sediment from the bottom of the river and carry it out on a conveyor belt. It's like the difference between a milkshake and a scoop of ice cream. John Marlin of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources says the material recovered by a non-hydraulic dredger has a major advantage.
MARLIN: These newer technologies are going to make it possible to move the sediment and handle it in what I would call an environmentally-friendly manner. Rather than just letting it ooze itself into backwaters, we should be able to actually form it into islands and move some of it off the floodplain for reuse by other means.
AHL: John Marlin says he's conducted studies that show crops will grow in sediment dredged from the river as well as the current topsoil. He says that would mean the topsoil that's washed into the river could be returned to the places it's needed most. But not everyone agrees that non-hydraulic dredging would solve all sediment problems.
MATHIS: We don't have enough data, I don't believe, to say we can just simply haul this stuff up and put it on the fields.
AHL: Bill Mathis is a professor of biology at Bradley University in Peoria. He says river sediment is full of pollutants like herbicides and pesticides from farm fields, and heavy metals like lead and cadmium dating back from the days when riverside industries would simply dump their waste into the river. He says that could lead to health hazards for people.
MATHIS: It's a well-known fact that some plants will take metals up. This could be a conduit to humans through the growth of various crops.
AHL: Bill Mathis says more studies need to be done before river sediment can be used for farm topsoil. But he says it's better to remove and dispose of the contaminated sediment than letting it linger on the bottom of the river. Mike Platt of the Heartland Water Resources Council says just the possibility that there is a better way to dredge has stepped up efforts to clean the river, and rejuvenated some people who until this news were resigned to the river becoming a mud bog.
PLATT: The idea of a new way to move mud is more than just about moving mud. It is about changing people's minds to believe that they can actually, actually win this thing in the long term.
AHL: Caterpillar's non-hydraulic dredger is still in the development phase, and will not likely be commercially available for a few years. But if the new machine becomes a more practical and cost-efficient way to dredge sediment, it could help much more than just the Illinois River. According to the EPA, more than several hundred million cubic yards of sediment must be dredged each year from bodies of water around the country to keep the water navigable for boats. Environmentalists say that number is much higher to keep rivers and lakes healthy and protect the wildlife they contain. For Living on Earth, I'm Jonathan Ahl in Peoria, Illinois.
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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 for reporting on marine issues; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.
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CURWOOD: Fetch my Motobecane, would you please, Jeeves? The bicycle valets of Berkeley, California, are next. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Barrett Communications, delivering strategic marketing communications and design for business worldwide: www.barrett.com.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: Fifteen years ago this week, tons of lethal gas escaped from the Union Carbide pesticide plant over the city of Bhopal in central India, killing 3,800 people. As residents slept, a disgruntled employee who hoped to spoil a batch of pesticide added some water to a chemical tank. The water touched off a reaction converting the liquid into a gas. The increasing heat and pressure blew open the tank, and the gas engulfed the city below.
Three hundred thousand people were injured in the incident, 11,000 permanently disabled, and an estimated 8,000 have died from long-term effects of the poisoning. The Indian government demanded Union Carbide pay $3 billion in damages, but after five years in Indian and American courts, the company was required to pay only a fraction of that. Union Carbide operated a Bhopal-like plant in Institute, West Virginia. As a result of the Bhopal disaster, the U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986. It requires states and localities to have emergency response plans and community notification in the event of any potential harmful chemical spill. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: In Berkeley, California, officials fighting smog and congestion are trying a new way to entice commuters into leaving their cars at home. If restaurants and hotels can park patrons' cars, why not encourage those who bike to mass transit with the same kind of pampering? So, at one subway stop in downtown Berkeley, the city will greet you with its new valet bike service. Deirdre Kennedy reports.
KENNEDY: Most cyclists who want to use the Bay Area Rapid Transit have two choices. They can tie their bikes up outside the station and hope to see them again later, or they could squeeze their two-wheelers onto a BART train full of angry passengers, that is, as long as they don't want to travel during the prime commute hours, during which bikes are banned.
KENNEDY: But cyclists who use the downtown Berkeley BART station have a new option. Now they can leave their bikes with all the trimmings -- bike pumps, lights, and even helmets -- in the city's new valet bike parking facility. It's a completely enclosed cage inside the station that provides secure parking for about 60 bikes, and it's free. Already the facility is about half full most days. Caycee Cullen is a public health care worker and manager of the downtown Berkeley BART station bike parking.
CULLEN: I'd say the majority of people who use the bike station are professionals who are commuting. I mean, if you look in the cage, most of the bikes are pretty nice. But, you know, we get older people and younger people, and I'd say a very diverse amount of people.
KENNEDY: Every day cyclists trickle in between 6 and 9 A.M., handing off their bikes to the attendants in exchange for a receipt.
WOMAN: This is the signature form.
WOMAN: Just so we have it on file in case you need your claim check.
KENNEDY: For most cyclists security is the most appealing part of the program.
MAN: Parking it on the street, I've had things stolen off the bike. I had a wheel stolen once. My son had a bicycle stolen right up above here, right in broad daylight.
WOMAN: I tend to be in such a hurry that I don't take enough precautions to lock my bike. So this is nice because I can be kind of slack about it but still know that my bike is safe, without having to put, like, a million locks on it.
KENNEDY: Bike theft is a major problem in the Bay area. In fact, Bicycling magazine recently ranked Berkeley third in the country, along with San Francisco, for bike thefts. But the bigger goal of the program is to encourage more people to leave their cars at home. Bima Sheridan is program director of the bicycle-friendly Berkeley Coalition.
SHERIDAN: If you start your car in the morning and drive to BART, it's like 95 percent as bad as just driving the whole way, because the majority of the pollution is emitted when you start the car in the morning.
KENNEDY: So far it's difficult to tell if Berkeley's valet bike parking has succeeded in getting many people to give up four wheels for two. A casual survey suggests that the bike cage is mainly attracting commuters who already would have pedaled to BART or work.
MAN: Oh, it's great. It's long overdue. Normally I take my bike on BART, but in the rain I don't want to ride in San Francisco if I can avoid it.
KENNEDY: Berkeley's valet bike parking is the third such facility in California. The others are in Long Beach and Palo Alto.
KENNEDY: But unlike those parking lots, BART's bike cage is down three flights of stairs inside the station. Cyclists aren't allowed to ride the escalators, and the elevators are frequently broken. So anyone who wants to park their bike there has to be something of an urban warrior. Facility manager Caycee Cullen says that may be a deterrent for some would-be cyclists.
CULLEN: We don't want to make bicycle commuting only for the strong, you know? I mean, like, we want everybody to feel like they can bike to work if they need to. If you're constantly being challenged with carrying all of this stuff, that is just another reason not to do it.
KENNEDY: Berkeley BART's valet bike parking is an 18-month pilot. After that, the city will have to come up with another funding source to continue the program. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which is helping to fund the project, is hoping the experiment will inspire other communities to make it easier for cyclists to use public transit. For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in Berkeley, California.
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O'CALLAHAN: Hey, hey! Dick Wheeler here. Dick Wheeler. Want to talk to you. I'm the Great Auk man. I got a call one day from Dick Wheeler, I didn't know Dick, said he'd heard a sea story of mine on the radio, wanted to talk to me about a journey. He wanted to make a 1,500-mile kayak journey, from northern Newfoundland, a place called Funk Island all the way down to Buzzard's Bay. Well, I've grown up by the sea, and I knew that was almost impossible.
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CURWOOD: That's Jay O'Callahan telling the story of one man's odyssey, to follow the migratory route of a now extinct sea bird. Dick Wheeler grew up on the sea in Marshfield, Massachusetts. The winter he was ten years old, he built a kayak with his brothers and his father. And though his life would take him in many directions, to college, to the Navy, to a lifelong career as an English teacher, building that kayak planted in him a dream he would never forget: a long paddle at sea.
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CURWOOD: A half-century later, at 60 years of age, Dick Wheeler was in his kitchen one night, dinner for his wife simmering on the stove, when he picked up a book he hadn't read in years. It was called The Great Auk, and it was about a bird of the same name.
O'CALLAHAN: Somewhere over five million years a decision was made inside the species of the Great Auk not to have hollow bones. It gave up flight in the air. The decision was for solid, dense bones, so it could be a great plunge diver. With the solid bones it could plunge straight down the sea 100 feet. That's a long way down. But if it needed 200, 300 feet, 400 feet, 1,000 feet, it could soar under the sea with the grace of an eagle and the ease of an eight-year-old girl in a swing. It was a magnificent bird, and smart.
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CURWOOD: That dinner never got cooked. Instead, Dick Wheeler had already put in for the adventure of his life: a paddle tracking the Great Auk's migratory journey south. His wife, Sandra, said simply, "Keep the land on your right." That began two years of planning and training for his trip. Along the way, Dick learned of storyteller Jay O'Callahan. He tracked him down and asked if he would help tell the story.
Recently, Dick Wheeler and Jay O'Callahan joined us in our studio, to tell and perform the story of Dick's remarkable journey. Dick told me more about the bird that inspired him.
WHEELER: Probably, the best diving bird the northern hemisphere has ever seen, perhaps in the world. It stood about two feet tall, mated for life, they laid just one egg a year, an enormous egg.
CURWOOD: The same dense bones that gave the Great Auk its miraculous diving ability also left it unable to fly. Most of the year it was safe in the water, but during the six weeks or so it needed to breed each summer, it was land-bound. And when explorers moved further into uncharted waters of the North Atlantic, the Auk was unable to protect itself.
WHEELER: They existed in such numbers that the earliest ship's captains, who were used to an abundance that we've never seen, became very emotional in their logs. There were so many of these birds, they'd say, "No matter how many we kill, there will always be more." And they filled boats with them, and then they filled boats with their eggs, and then they put their flesh into barrels, and then New England fishermen went up and took them and cut their breasts out for bait for codfish. And the final blow, or close to the final blow, came when the mattress industries that were developing in the United States, in Nova Scotia, needed feathers. And having depleted the eider duck populations, someone said let's go out to Funk Island and get those Great Auks. And so they did. And they got them all.
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CURWOOD: The first leg of Dick Wheeler's journey was a treacherous 40-mile paddle across the open ocean in from Funk Island, one of the Great Auk's summer breeding colonies. Then he headed south down the coast of Newfoundland in his 17-foot kayak, nicknamed "Aukie." Upon her bow he'd mounted a figurehead of the Great Auk he'd carved and painted himself. Storyteller Jay O'Callahan.
O'CALLAHAN: Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right, paddle up a wave and down the other side. Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right, paddle up a wave and down the other side. We're doing the dream, Aukie, we're doing the dream! Look at that, guillemots all around us. Beep beep beep beep beep! Well, Aukie, I'm tired. I'm going to put in right here. Look at that fisherman. Chin looks like a doorknob, looks like he's waiting for us.
"Hey boy, you're the one that come in from the Funks, boy?"
"How'd you know that?"
"Everyone in Newfoundland knows about you, boy. We heard about you on the fishing radio. You come all the way in from the Funk for nothing. I wouldn't go across the harbor in that thing, boy. How about some tea?"
Hey, when you're 60 and someone calls you "boy," makes you feel good. We went up to his house and aah, kitchen smelled good, children gathered round as if I was a Great Auk, and I sat down, had my tea, and then the woman of the house opened the oven. Took out a fresh loaf of bread. Gave me a knife. I sliced it. Steam came out and (laughs) I put potted berry jam. I love potted berry jam. (Laughs) Well, they kept looking at me, so I ate the whole loaf. An the woman of the house set down a whole plate of cod cheeks, big treat up there.
I ate that and said, "I can't move."
She said, "I would hope not, not before the caribou steaks."
"Two steaks! I said, "I can't set the tent up now."
"Of course you won't. You'll be sleeping in the bedroom."
"I can't do that; it's your bedroom."
"My husband and I love to sleep on the kitchen floor, good enough."
I call this aggressive hospitality. So the next morning, getting up she said, "Hey, boy, how far are you going today?"
"I'm still tired. Maybe ten, fifteen miles."
"Give me the chart, give me the chart, box, and I'm going to make a little "X" on the tickle. A tickle is a narrow opening in the rocks. You put in a tickle you'll smash up on the surf. Here you go. Now, boy, tell them, we shouldn't be catching the babies."
"Tell them we shouldn't be catching the babies. They're going to listen to you."
"Who's catching babies?"
"We're catching the baby codfish is what I'm talking about."
"Why are you catching the baby fish?"
"Because the government lets us. These are cold waters up here. It takes six or seven years for a cod to grow up or they don't grow up any more. Don't tell me to stop fishing; I've got the family right here. If I stop fishing everyone's going to say I'm crazy, and they'll keep fishing. But we shouldn't be catching the babies. Now tell them, please; they'll listen to you."
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CURWOOD: Dick, this is a recurring theme through your trip: don't catch the babies?
WHEELER: The best illustration of that is a blackboard that I saw in one of the ports on the way down, where they had painted over a blackboard, "We will accept no cod shorter than 24 inches." The "24 inches" had been crossed out,"23 inches" written in. Twenty-three had been crossed out. Then they had written in 22 and crossed that out. And when I got to the port they were down to 19 inches. And a 19-inch cod is a very small fish. A third of the fish is head. And in fact, that's the reason they stopped the offshore fishery. The mechanical filleting machines couldn't handle the small cod. So they stopped the fishery.
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CURWOOD: Dick Wheeler's trip had started out with a straightforward goal, to use the kayak as a symbol for the Great Auk and bring recognition to other sea birds. But it was quickly turning into a very literal, very immediate story about an entirely different species: fish that were not extinct but in trouble. As Dick moved south and crossed the border into Maine, he found that not everyone saw the problem in the same way.
O'CALLAHAN: Deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle dee. Aukie, we're in Maine, Maine, I love Maine, Aukie, smell that seaweed! My second home, Aukie, ho ho! Paddle on the left side, Auk you're going to go right up there. Bar Harbor. Going to go up and have a cup of coffee at that diner. When I went up, and this is late October but there are tourists all over, I could tell, they're dressed right out of the catalogues. Went into a diner and I felt uncomfortable, too big for the place. The place was jammed. Sat down to the counter.
"A cup of coffee, please."
And there's a prosperous looking couple in their late 50s beside me. The man had the half-glasses. He was reading the Times. His wife had the New Yorker. I couldn't resist. I tapped half-glasses on the shoulder and I said, "I notice the headline on the Times says Storm Wreaks Havoc With Environment. I always thought storms were part of the environment."
Half-glasses looked over his glasses;" I thought it was funny." Then the three of us looked up at CNN, the television, there was an economics professor. "We have to make choices, economic choices. For instance, if you're the whaling industry and you take a 15 percent profit for three years, the whales are gone. If you take a ten percent profit for three years, there's a sustainable yield. What do you take?"
And I said to half-glasses, "Well, of course, you take ten percent."
He said, "No, you take fifteen percent for three years. Then you reinvest the capital elsewhere."
"Then the whales are gone!" I hit the coffee cup. It smashed so I got out of there.
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O'CALLAHAN: I paddle along, said Aukie, look, look at that house, that's our savior. All the lights going on in that big house, it's a family come for the weekend in Maine. Maybe they'll let us tent out in the front yard. (Laughs) So I knocked on the door. A great big red-headed fellow opened up.
I said, "I'm sorry to bother you. I'm Dick Wheeler. Can I tent out in the front yard? I'm doing 1,500 miles in a kayak."
He said, "Come on in, Rick. Come on in, Rick. Step on the newspaper, will you?"
His friend is watching the game. "I'll be right in. I've got a fellow Rick, he's doing 15 miles in a kayak."
"Whatever, Rick, whatever. Listen, Rick, we've got to take care of one another. I'd be worried about you with a hard frost, so use the phone."
"Yeah, call the motel, Rick."
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WHEELER: I guess one of the things the trip taught me was that we have a different meaning for hospitality in America. You could just drift ashore in a log in Newfoundland and live in that place forever. They will truly give you the shirt off their back if it is the last shirt they have. America is quite different, and I always thought of us as a hospitable culture, but we fail if we compare ourselves to Newfoundland.
CURWOOD: And our sense of natural capital? This fellow said to you: well, if we use it up, we'll invest the profits elsewhere. What does it matter?
WHEELER: Oh, I think that's very true. You see that all the time. In our own fishing industry, when we deplete one resource we look around for something that is abundant. You'll hear people say well, we've fished out the cod, there are more mackerel out there than we'll ever be able to catch. Let's go get them. And you hear people say, well, when we've fished out the sea, we'll just learn to farm them. We did it on the land and we'll learn to do it with fish. We need to realize that the National Marine Fisheries Service has a lot of wonderful scientists in it, good, good people. But the fact is that it comes under the Department of Commerce. So the overall responsibility is to catch more fish, create more jobs, and find more markets for more.
CURWOOD: When the government brings out all the numbers about the catches and this and that, how does that resonate with you once you've been out on the water for this period of time? Do all those statistics mean anything when you ride the waves in a 17-foot-long boat?
WHEELER: The trip has convinced me that the problem is not an economic problem, as most people see it, but that it is a spiritual problem, in the sense that the relationship we have with the ocean is tragically flawed. The fact that we think it was put here for us, which links into the feeling that the best of us will get the most of what was put here for us. So there are some deep-seated spiritual values that are contributing to this, that need to change over time. And it will take time. It's going to take a dramatic change, and it will not come probably until there has been a collapse.
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CURWOOD: Dick Wheeler says a spiritual awakening is one part of his trip he had a hard time expressing himself. It's one of the parts he most needed a storyteller for.
O'CALLAHAN: It's a cold November day, but all we have to do is finish up. No more excitement. Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right. Be done in ten days, Aukie, beep beep beep beep beep beep. Aukie, did you hear some guillemots? . Thought I heard guillemots. Guess not. Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right. Beep beep beep beep beep beep. Where are they, Aukie? (Makes pursing sound with lips) Sounds like a razor belt . There's nothing here, Aukie. (Makes engine sound) My dear child, we caught the spawning fish. Tell them they're not coming back! Aukie, oh no, oh no, come on, let's finish it up, Aukie. Work up a sweat, Aukie, so you could tear me apart. Come on, Aukie, paddle on the left side. Listen, Dick. No! Listen, my honey. No. Listen Dick. No. Listen. All right, all right, all right! (Make shushing sounds) Tell them. Tell them I cannot do it any more. (Shushing) Tell them I cannot cleanse myself as quickly as they foul me. (Shushing) Tell them I cannot replenish all they rip from my womb. Tell them. (Shushing) Tell them. Tell them. Tell them. Tell them. (Shushing) Aukie, did you hear? What a beautiful voice. A tired voice.
CURWOOD: Dick Wheeler, you lived this, and yet Jay O'Callahan tells your story. How do you feel about that, and how do you think it works?
WHEELER: You know, I'm often asked that question. And the way I answer it is, this is the English teacher in me -- some people will say that Robert Frost has the voice of a farmer. And I say no, Robert Frost has the voice of the farmer who has Robert Frost's capacity for expression. And Jay has listened to me for hours and hours. I have told him more about the trip than I have told anyone. And he as an artist has taken that material and has captured my voice, but he has elevated it the way a good architect does, the way a good artist does. And he has created a work of art.
O'CALLAHAN: (Makes shushing sounds; sounds of wind) Beep beep beep beep beep beep. (Makes pursing sound through lips, more shushing)
CURWOOD: Portland, Maine, to Cape Cod was another 120 miles, and when Dick Wheeler finally paddled through the Cape Cod Canal, there were more than 100 people awaiting his landing.
O'CALLAHAN: November 16th, Aukie. Cape Cod Canal. That sand, look at all these people. (Laughs) Look at all these people! All you people came to (laughs) see me come in, thanks. You don't know what it meant to me. You gave me the courage to tell you what happened. Now I'm tired; I'm headed home. Dick Wheeler turned and eight of us without thinking picked up Aukie, put Aukie in the back of the pickup truck. Sandra was driving, so we watched Dick, and he was going to the passenger side, and he walked with that wonderful rhythm of the Great Auk. He got in, slammed the door. They drove off, and Dick rolled down the window. He was looking towards the sea. Deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle dee, sshhhhhh! Ssshhhh! (Wind sounds) Beep beep beep beep beep beep Ssshhhhh!
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WHEELER: I really did see it as if I was being tested by the ocean itself, you know, is this guy for real or is he a faker? And the way the wind went up, you could almost hear a click as the wind went up each notch. And once I got through that barrier, it was almost as if I was visiting another world each day and then coming ashore into the world that I'd grown up in. So I was getting different understandings that really changed me forever.
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CURWOOD: Since he completed his trip in November of 1991, Dick Wheeler has taken his message to hundreds of classrooms throughout the U.S. and Canada. Dick is teaching about the ocean and reminding them that even things that seem abundant can be very fragile. Jay O'Callahan's story "The Spirit of the Great Auk" is available from Artana productions in Marshfield, Massachusetts.
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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, it's a sing-a-long with killer whales. The West Coast artist strums his guitar and orcas join the chorus.
(Guitar and orcas)
CURWOOD: Jamming with the wild orcas, next week on Living on Earth.
(Music up and under: Debussy's "La Mer")
CURWOOD: We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Brent Runyon, Russell Wiedemann, Hanna Day Woodruff, and Kaneed Leger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert is our western editor. And Peter Thomson is special projects editor. Terry FitzPatrick is the acting senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.A. Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to eliminate environmental threats to children's health; www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
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