Charging Solar/ Cheryl Colopy
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California is considering charging a fee to people who make their own electricity instead of buying it from utilities. Cheryl Colopy, of member station KQED, reports solar advocates are calling the idea an outrage, but regulators say they have a reason. (04:30)
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The United Nations Environment Programme recently launched two heavy metal pollution initiatives. Host Steve Curwood talks with UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer about the plans to phase out leaded gasoline in Africa and decrease mercury worldwide. (06:00)
Health Note/Larded Lunches/ Jessica Penney
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Living on Earth’s Jessica Penney reports that students may be eating too much fat from á la carte items in the school cafeteria. (01:15)
Almanac/Fete du Limon
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This week marks the 70th annual Fete du Citron in Menton, France. The Riviera town used to be the lemon capital of Europe and still throws a giant lemon party every spring. (01:30)
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Spent rocket stages and broken lens caps are just some of the junk littering Earth’s orbit, posing serious environmental and safety hazards. Host Steve Curwood talks with Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Observatory and contributing editor for Sky and Telescope magazine, about the dangers of littering in the final frontier. (06:30)
Occidio Installation/ Anna Solomon-Greenbaum
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Artist Tim Nohe goes beyond the science and politics of climate change by letting his audience see and hear it. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum visited with Nohe at his visual and sonic installation in Baltimore. (05:30)
Gap in Nature/ Tim Flannery
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In the latest installment in our occasional series “A Gap in Nature,” author Tim Flannery tells us the story of the Stick Nest Rat of Australia. (03:00)
Emerging Science Note/Ghost Nets/ Maggie Villiger
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Ghost nets are lost or abandoned fishing gear that drift through the ocean, causing big problems for marine creatures. Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports on coordinated surveillance technology that aims to track down and get rid of these errant nets. (01:20)
Journal of Sun/ Tom Montgomery-Fate
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Commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate considers the cycles of the sun as he watches the days lengthen and waits for winter to melt into spring. (02:45)
Sounds of Nature/ Guy Hand
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Join us for a visit to a nature sound recording workshop in the Sierra mountains of California. Photographer and producer Guy Hand tells us about learning to make the transition from sight to sound. (10:30)
HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Klaus Toepfer, Jonathan McDowellREPORTERS: Cheryl Colopy, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Guy HandCOMMENTATOR: Tim Flannery, Tom Montgomery-FateNOTES: Jessica Penney, Maggie Villiger
CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. It seems wherever humans go, we have the urge to litter. And outer space is no exception. There are thousands of bits of trash now in earth orbit. Trouble is, something smaller than a beer can could be deadly to spacecraft.
MCDOWELL: If you imagine that you have something that's only a few ounces, but it's traveling with a head-on collision of 20,000 miles an hour, that's the equivalent energy to being hit on the interstate by a two-ton truck.
CURWOOD: Space junk and unraveling the Columbia shuttle disaster. Also, from sight to sound -- how choices change and expand when one shifts from capturing nature with cameras to capturing it with microphones.
NOHE: It's time for the voice of the planet to be head. It's time for the voice of nature to be heard.
CURWOOD: And the seasons, they go round and round. Could that mean spring is coming anytime soon? That and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this.
[MUSIC: 01:01-05:55 Felt “Evergreen Dazed” CRUMBLING THE ANTISEPTIC BEAUTY (Cherry Red/Anagram – 1999)]
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and HeritageAfrica.com.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As California looks to pay for the energy crisis that caused rolling blackouts across the state in recent years, those who opt out of the power grid may find themselves paying special exit fees. The proposed levees would raise substantial amounts from large companies who generate electricity on site with diesel or natural gas, but would also hit those businesses and individuals who use renewable energy. That has solar advocates up in arms and looking for an exemption. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Cheryl Colopy reports.
COLOPY: The only way to see the largest solar array in Silicon Valley is to climb up a ladder to the third-story roof of Cypress Semiconductor in San Jose.
[MACHINERY MOVING AROUND]
COLOPY: You mean you guys couldn't have built an elevator just to get me up here?
SMITH: No, sorry.
COLOPY: Black and gray panels cover more than half the roof. David Smith manages Cypress's facilities. He says the multitude of photovoltaic cells here can generate up to a quarter of the building's power.
SMITH: During a peak day in the summertime, when the sun is right overhead and we're on a hot day, we're offsetting tremendous amounts of power cost to support this building. So, it does work out very well for us.
COLOPY: Smith says the solar array is saving 50,000 dollars a year on electricity. But solar is expensive. Under the best circumstances, it would take Cypress seven years to recoup the 1.5 million dollars invested in this roof. Now, it may take much longer.
The California Public Utilities Commission is considering whether to charge companies like Cypress a fee for the kilowatt hours they generate on site. Commissioners aren't calling it a tax. In power terms, it's an exit fee on a departing load. Cypress CEO T.J. Rodgers had been planning to put solar panels on all the buildings at this campus, but now he’s not so sure.
RODGERS: It's really unfortunate. We're just now there, where solar cells can contribute. And right now we're doing the dumbest thing I can think of, which is to put an economic disincentive for solar installation.
COLOPY: California has always encouraged solar power, so some people find it unbelievable that this state could with one hand give rebates and tax credits for solar installation, and with the other charge fees for each kilowatt hour ratepayers don't use. But Pacific Gas and Electric's David Ruben explains that the energy crisis in 2001 left the state with a large bill, and people can't just opt out of paying it.
RUBEN: They would also be reducing the amount that they are contributing toward the recovery of the state's cost, the cost the state incurred in order to buy power during the 2001-2002 period, and also going forward. So the question before the commission is, therefore, if these customers won't be repaying those costs, who then would be? And the answer is it would be shifted onto other customers.
COLOPY: The fee is not aimed at solar and renewable users. They make up only a fraction of off-the-grid producers. But there is a concern that large businesses might build a host of small natural gas plants, seeking to avoid paying high electricity rates.
RUBEN: What should be the responsibility of customers that are now reducing their usage by generating power on site? Again, the alternative being that if these customers don't make some contribution, all other customers are going to need to pick up that additional amount.
COLOPY: As for prospective solar users, Ruben believes the fees will be no disincentive for them. But some public utilities commissioners are sympathetic to the objections raised by the solar industry, and they think exempting solar from the proposed fees would be a good idea. California's consumer groups say be very careful where you grant exemptions. Matt Freedman is an attorney with the Utility Reform Network.
FREEDMAN: We have to start from the recognition that rates in California are at historically high levels.
COLOPY: In fact, the highest rates in the nation. Freedman says at least the burden must be shared equally.
FREEDMAN: We need to make sure that there are as few exemptions from paying for the energy crisis as possible, because the greater the exemptions, the more that average customers are going to end up taking this pain and having their rates stay high. And that's certainly not fair.
COLOPY: Freedman says his group does support the idea of an exemption from fees, but only for small wind and solar units. He likens installing a solar system at a home or business to buying a new energy-efficient refrigerator or air conditioner to replace an old energy hog. And the state would never contemplate charging people for the energy their new appliance isn't using. Everyone else, he says, must share the burden of California's staggering energy bill. For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy in San Francisco.
[MUSIC: Chris Whitley “Good Thing” Din of Ecstasy Sony Music (1995)]
CURWOOD: Talk, talk, talk. After the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last summer, many participants complained that these grand summits tend to produce more rhetoric than action. So the UN decided to take a break from big environmental conferences and concentrate on fulfilling promises already made. And that was the goal when the governing council of the UN Environment Programme recently convened in Nairobi. As a result, UNEP is going forward with efforts that range from rescuing the ecosystems of the occupied Palestinian territories to enhancing the popularity of green lifestyles in mass culture. And in some of the first concrete developments to come out of Johannesburg, the UN has also launched two programs to reduce heavy metal pollution worldwide. Joining me is Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme. Leaded gasoline is already banned in most industrial societies, but it's still common in Africa. And as I understand it, Dr. Toepfer, you have a voluntary scheme to phase out leaded gas there. What are the challenges?
| Klaus Toepfer, UNEPs Executive Director
TOEPFER: Very old cars. You see, the African countries are recycling places for the used cars of the developed countries. And then they have old motors, and then people are a little bit afraid if you have unleaded gasoline -- is that not bad for the motor? You have to convince people that this is not the case. Then you have to go, of course, to the industry and say, how can you make this happen? And I'm very happy to inform you that in Africa, for example, there is no price difference between unleaded and leaded gasoline. So it is also stimulated by technology, by the industry.
CURWOOD: Now tell me, why is it important to get rid of lead in gasoline?
TOEPFER: See, one of the most poisoning stuff, especially for children living in big cities, is leaded gasoline. Children are breathing more, and they are breathing deeper. And they have all those poisoning lead integrated with a lot of consequences for their mental development, a lot of problems also with other diseases. And of course there is also quite a negative influence on the environment altogether. So it is more than only a marginal topic. It is a very, very clear focus to decrease the burden of pollution to human beings. By the way, you know, at our Governing Council, we also concentrated to a second of those heavy metals, that is mercury. These are, as Kofi Annan once mentioned, travelers without passports. They are going really around the world. If you see the emissions from coal power stations -- coal has some content of mercury, and if you burn the coal, the mercury is going. It is going really around the world, so we need common action, and therefore United Nations is necessary to stimulate this.
CURWOOD: Methyl mercury comes from burning coal, some other activities as well, gets in the air, gets into oceans, gets into the food chain. How was it that the United Nations Environment Programme was able to get the goal of reducing mercury pollution worldwide? How were you able to get that implemented? And how is it being implemented?
TOEPFER: A very, very important step again was to make the science right. So we were asked, almost two years before, that we have to do a global mercury assessment. So we want to learn where is mercury coming from, where are the hot spots, what are the knowledge with regard to the repercussions of mercury to human health and to the environment. All this was necessary to bring together, so we integrated scientists, we integrated governments, so that nobody was taken by surprise.
CURWOOD: So this is a key -- nobody was taken by surprise.
TOEPFER: You see, if you go in another way, it will be very difficult to convince people to act. They must have ownership of this process as well. You must make it as transparent as even possible. There, again, are different interests, without any doubt.
CURWOOD: How do you do this? You have no treaty. You made this announcement. There's no international treaty or convention that requires this mercury program. It's just a pronouncement.
TOEPFER: First and foremost, if you would have the decision to make a legally binding program, then we wait for the next seven or eight years. So it's much better not to wait with actions until we negotiate, and implement, and ratification and, and, and. But it was very good to say, let's act, let's start, let's inform the people in the different countries where the lead is coming. If you go to Africa and the mining, lots of people are not aware of what is going on. We cannot go from zero to 100. We must go step by step and not, you see, to fight the little fly and not be aware of the big elephant on the other side.
CURWOOD: Your program, the United Nations Environment Programme, isn't handing out a lot of dough to do this. Who pays for this work?
TOEPFER: First and foremost, of course, we are always interested to make the ‘polluter pays’ principle a reality. That has a double-positive effect, because if you have this interlinkage to the polluter, you must have also the clear consequence that it is the polluter’s interest to change technology, to make the process already integrated those externalized costs until now, so that is a first.
Second, of course, is that the governments themselves must be aware that this is a good investment in human health, and so we need especially the change of technologies. Because there are better technologies. You can handle mercury, of course, in coal power stations.
And finally, also we have to work together where the resources right now are not yet available. We must make pilot project. We have to invest in this, not only for the advantage of those people there, but of all of people living around the world. This is quite a challenge. It's not a marginal topic.
CURWOOD: Klaus Toepfer is Executive Director of the UN Environment Program and Undersecretary General of the United Nations. Thank you, sir.
TOEPFER: Thank you so much as well.
CURWOOD: Just ahead, keeping track of trash in space. First this environmental health note from Jessica Penney.
[MUSIC: Health Note Theme]
PENNEY: School lunches have gotten a lot of bad press lately because of their high fat content. But a new study shows that lunches aren't the only unhealthy option for students. Researchers at the University of California at San Diego analyzed all the food available at 24 middle schools in Southern California. Their study is one of the first to determine the fat content of extra items available for students to purchase, such as chips, deserts, and pizza.
The US Department of Agriculture says these so-called “a la carte” foods should only supplement school lunches, but the researchers found that they accounted for more than a quarter of the fat consumed by students each day at school. The USDA recommends that students eat a maximum of about 20 grams of fat at school each day, yet the average a la carte item contained 13 grams of fat. Considering the average school lunch contained 31 grams of fat, it's easy to see how these extra items could push students’ fat consumption far beyond the recommended amount.
On the other hand, the researchers found that parents seem to do a much better job of providing healthy meals. The average brown bag lunch brought from home contained about a third less fat that school lunches. The researchers say they would eventually like to analyze individual students' diets to find out what really gets eaten.
That's this week's environmental health note. I'm Jessica Penney.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Chris Whitley “Good Thing” Din of Ecstasy Sony Music (1995)]
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
[MUSIC: U2 “Lemon” Zooropa Island records (1993)]
CURWOOD: When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. That could be the motto of Menton, France. This week the city on the French Riviera holds its 70th annual Fete du Citron, or Festival of Lemons. Menton enjoys a subtropical climate, and is lush with gardens. And nothing grows better in Menton than lemons, and theirs are sweeter than most.
The lemon festival began as a way to celebrate the peak harvest season. Now each year's festival celebrates a literary theme. This year it's Alice in Wonderland. There will be parties and parades, but the main attraction is a sculpture garden. The sculptures depict the creations of Lewis Carroll, and some are robotically animated. And, of course, they're covered with bright yellow lemons and some oranges for good measure. More than 100 tons of fruit are used. And waste not: when the festival is over, they're made into juice and preserves and given to the poor.
And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
CURWOOD: For decades, probes, satellites and other spacecraft have paved a path for space exploration, orbiting and collecting data from the far reaches of the universe. But in recent years that path has become littered with the trash and other remnants of these missions, posing a serious environmental and safety hazard. Weeks after the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, investigators have still not ruled out a catastrophic collision with space junk. And it may soon spark an international debate, as a panel of scientists from space agencies around the world prepares its recommendations to the United Nations for stetting up the first pollution guidelines in space. Joining me now is Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Observatory and contributing editor for Sky and Telescope Magazine. Welcome.
MCDOWELL: Thank you.
CURWOOD: How much junk is there out in space?
MCDOWELL: Well there's about 9000 objects that the radars track right now, we know their orbits and so on. But that's only the tip of the iceberg, because there's a lot of smaller stuff that the radars can't see. So we really don't know.
CURWOOD: And how big does it have to be to be dangerous to something like a spacecraft or a satellite?
MCDOWELL: Well, it's quite surprising. Even a rather small piece of junk a few inches across can be nasty. If you imagine that you have something that's only a few ounces, but it's traveling with a head-on collision of 20,000 miles an hour, that's the equivalent energy to being hit on the interstate by a two-ton truck.
CURWOOD: Now, where does all this junk come from?
MCDOWELL: Typically, when people throw things away on space walks, when they lose lens caps off of their camera, stuff like that, when they're on the space station, that reenters pretty quickly. The big problem is from rocket stages that blow up after they've been in orbit for some time. They have a little fuel leftover, they have some fuel and some oxygen, and it's in separate tanks. And after a few years the tanks crack, and the fuel and the oxygen go out on a date together, and so suddenly you have 100 new pieces of space debris. And that's the major contribution. There's also some military weapons tests that have left a bunch of shrapnel in orbit, which contributes to the population.
CURWOOD: Now, what kind of damage can this space debris cause?
MCDOWELL: Well, there was one satellite that we know of so far that's been damaged by space debris. It has its antennae broken off, it stopped working. But you can imagine that if you have a big satellite, like a Hubble telescope, like a space station that's in orbit for a lot of years, its chances of getting a nasty hit are quite large.
The thing that people are most scared of is up in geostationary orbit, where all the television satellites live. And there, even though it's a huge area of space, there are so many satellites that if you destroyed one in a collision you could get a chain reaction, and turn this area of space into a new ring around the earth, like Saturn's rings, but made up of lots of tiny pieces of very expensive television satellite.
CURWOOD: So far we've been talking about remnants of bodies of spacecraft, and accidental releases from operations, but what about plain, old-fashioned trash? How much stuff did people just dump out there from the shuttles, and the space stations, and the earlier trips to space?
MCDOWELL: Well, there's all kinds of trash. And, indeed, on the Mir space station, every few weeks we would see five or six new space debris objects be catalogued, and we eventually discovered that they were putting their trash in plastic bags and shoving them out the airlock. And so, that's happened all through the space program. On the Shuttle to the present day, they don't throw trash overboard, but they do jettison water. But in general, all of that stuff is in low orbit. It doesn't stay up very long, and so it's not a huge problem compared to the exploding rocket stages higher up.
CURWOOD: Now, who is keeping track of all this junk?
MCDOWELL: Well, the US Air Force, and also the Russians, have radars that track the bigger stuff. And they started off because they were worried, in the early days of the Cold War, that you saw things on your radar that might be nuclear missiles attacking the U.S., and so you wanted to make sure that you knew what was space junk and what was missiles. In fact, in the early days in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Russian Mars probe blew up and the U.S. radar operators saw 20 pieces come on their radar screens. And very quickly the computers figured out that, yes, this was in orbit and it was a piece of space junk that had blown up.
CURWOOD: How much does our design of spacecraft, space systems, contribute to all this junk? Do we just think trash? Are we designing for trash?
MCDOWELL: Well, that certainly used to be the case, and that was the mindset of people in the Cold War, particularly. The space program grew out of the military missile programs, to some extent. And when you first went into space, as for the first time that humans have gone anywhere, you think, wow, this is big, there's no way we can fill this up. And it's true, the distance between your average piece of space junk is about 1000 miles to the next one. But, nevertheless, you're traveling so fast you sweep out a large area, and pretty soon it starts to be a problem.
CURWOOD: So how are we doing, then, with understanding that hey, space is not infinite, that we can't just leave our trash behind.
MCDOWELL: I think there's been huge progress in the past 10 years. The United States and Europe have really taken the lead on this. There's been a number of international conferences deciding what are the sources of space debris, how do we stop making more of them. They began to take counter measures, in particular using up all your rocket fuel and making sure that rocket stages go into lower orbits where they'll reenter quickly, not throwing away your lens cap, putting it on a hinge instead of just jettisoning it.
There's also starting to be ecological concerns about the effects of space rockets during launch, when lower stages of the rockets fall downrange. Now, America launches eastward over the ocean, and our trash from the launch falls in the sea, where it's actually a pretty small effect compared to all the other ways that we foul up our oceans. But in Russia, they've been falling in the desert, and contaminating the water table, and causing health problems in villages. And so there's a move, for instance, to change the design of which fuels you use, so that you don't use nasty stuff like nitrogen tetroxide but clean stuff like hydrogen and oxygen.
But mother nature does give us a hand. The friction with the upper atmosphere -- space isn't completely empty, there's a very thin outer atmosphere that brings the satellites down over a period of decades and centuries. And what we have to do is make sure that the rate at which we dirty up things is slow compared to that natural cleaning time scale.
CURWOOD: Jonathan McDowell is an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Observatory and contributing editor for Sky and Telescope Magazine. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
MCDOWELL: Thanks for having me.
CURWOOD: Climate change is one of the most talked about environmental issues of our time, but it's easy to get lost in the politics and technical data. Artist Tim Nohe is trying to create a way for people to understand climate change, not only through abstract facts and figures, but through sight and sound. He's created an installation called Occidio, which is the Latin word for massacre. It's on display in Baltimore, Maryland. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum went to the exhibit and has our story.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You enter Occidio through a black velvet curtain. The only light inside comes from the video projector planted in the center of the room and aimed at a screen on the ceiling. The room is small, about 11 by 12, and on each of the four walls hangs a large, white canvas.
NOHE: On one panel there is a Baltimore oriole. On another panel there is a tiger mosquito. On another panel there are some horseshoe crabs. And on another there's a marsh plant that's found in the Chesapeake Bay littoral zone.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: All creatures, says Tim Nohe, affected by climate range in the Chesapeake Bay, the giant estuary abutting Baltimore. But the canvases are not as simple as they appear. In the center of each sits a black circle. It's a speaker. On the ceiling behind the screen are two theremins, an old and simple form of synthesizer that respond to heat, or in this case, light.
NOHE: The light of the projection going upward stimulates the two theremins. As light strikes the theremins, they produce sound, and then that sound is further modified by the computer to make something that sounds somewhat more musical to our ears.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The sound is triggered by a series of satellite images being projected onto the screen. The images track change over time.
NOHE: At the beginning of the loop we start in Baltimore, and we see things like impervious surfaces, and those impervious surfaces in some way affect heat pooling, runoff into the Chesapeake Bay system. And then we start to branch out from the United States to larger global systems.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Depending on the brightness of the image, the theremin will make a different sound. The brighter, the higher the note, darker and the note goes down. The ozone hole over Antarctica, for instance, looks from space like a blue blot. It sounds like this.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: This is pavement expanding around the city of Shenzhen, China.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Or Las Vegas sprawling into the desert.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The satellite images come from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. About ten years ago, Nohe's job was to photograph and video conferences for NASA.
NOHE: I was documenting conferences, frequently on global climate change, and I would leave those conferences so shocked by what I was hearing, and so stimulated by what I was hearing, that I always wanted to reintroduce that into my own art practice, but I wasn't really sure of how to do that.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Nohe started talking with scientists at NASA and looking at data on the Internet.
NOHE: And I had that “aha” moment that most artists hope to find, of combining my interest, first really embraced at NASA and then through this use of a theremin, to combine these two things in some way and to really bring home through sound the effect of climate change.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Some images aren't documenting climate change but cycles of nature that scientists warn will be disrupted by a warming planet, like one year in North America's vegetation cycle, where you can see a flush of green pulsating up the continent. Nohe lets the year run again and again so that the chords saw.
NOHE: I was particularly interested in images like this, because they constantly cycle through, and as they cycle through they sort of perform a different sound for us. We become aware of that kind of breathing rhythm of the planet.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In another image, a bright pink cloud expands and swirls over the North Pole. It's a cloud of acid, says Nohe, that's been linked to erosion of the atmosphere. He says it's this neon cloud that shocks people most when they enter Occidio. That's partly his intention with all the images.
NOHE: They're beautiful, but frightening at the same time. And you become acutely aware that the planet breathes, and that we're part of this larger system, and our impact on this larger system really describes massive change in some ways. So as we look at this cloud of acid over the pole, we understand in a fundamental way that this just isn't simply right. The hue is wrong -- why are we seeing this big, ugly pink cloud over the Northern hemisphere? And we understand that we contribute to that in some way.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Visual and sonic artist Tim Nohe. Nohe's installation, Occidio, is at the School 33 Art Center in Baltimore, Maryland through March 7th. For Living on Earth, I’m Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Oak Foundation, supporting converge of marine issues, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade twelve. And Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council.
CURWOOD: Living on Earth has been bringing you stories of animals that are no more. Author Tim Flannery has collected a number of these tales in his book, A Gap In Nature. Today, he tells us about the stick nest rat.
Lesser Stick Nest Rat
(Illustration by Peter Schouten)
While its nest was big, the rat was not. It was about the size of a young rabbit, and had a light-brown coat and a long tail. It also had an easily tamable and delightful disposition, judging from the writings of Gerard Krefft. The 19th century explorer wrote that he had frequently taken 8 to 10 out of a hollow tree, and tamed them so that they kept about the camp, mounting the supper table at tea time for their share of sugar and bread. Krefft also had the unique opportunity, among white men at least, of turning the tables of the rat and of having it for dinner. He recalled that the flesh was white and of excellent flavor.
The stick nest rat was a herbivore. When Europeans introduced cattle and sheep to Australia, it’s believed those animals out-competed the rat for food and led to its decline. 1933 marked the last verified sighting of stick nest rats.
The animals were collected by anthropologist Norman Tindale. Remarkably, the event was captured on film, unique in the annals of animal extinction. The rats, which are in the collections of the South Australian Museum, make the briefest of appearances in Tindale's black and white film. They're held aloft in the hands of their aboriginal captives, who had set their nests on fire and chased them through the scrub.
There's a faint possibility that the species survived until at least 1970. In that year, an experienced bushman deposited some equipment in a cave in the Australian outback. He covered it with a tarpaulin and when he returned several weeks later he found a large, and as he put it, attractive rodent living under it. He caught the animal but let it go. From his description, it's just possible that it was a lesser stick nest rat. None has been seen since.
CURWOOD: Tim Flannery is author of “A Gap In Nature: Discovering the World's Extinct Animals.” To see a picture of the stick nest rat, and hear other segments in our series, go to our website loe.org. That's loe.org.
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CURWOOD: Just ahead, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but sound can make you speechless. First, this note on emerging science from Maggie Villiger.
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VILLIGER: Ghost nets are lost or abandoned fishing gear that drift through the ocean. They can be miles long and are deadly for marine life, since they entangle creatures in the open sea as well as snare on coral and atolls. These nets are extremely difficult to track down, but now scientists are combining a variety of technologies to figure out where ghost nets accumulate, and how to rescue them.
(Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Honolulu Laboratory)
That's this week's note on emerging science. I'm Maggie Villiger.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Vernon Reid “Uptown Drifter” Mistaken Identity Sony Music (1996)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
[MUSIC: Kevin Volans “White Man Sleeps” Kronos Quartet/Pieces of Africa (1992)]
CURWOOD: The Cape of Good Hope is the southwestern-most point of the African continent, and in ancient times lions, elephants and leopards made their way to this amazing landscape, where the ocean meets brilliant blue sky. Today, the place is a bit more tame, but the first thing I remember seeing when I arrived there were baboons running rampant near what's called the Two Oceans restaurant. There are signs everywhere telling you not to engage them, and not to eat in the open, because the baboons see tourists as a source of food and fun.
But one young woman ignored the warning, and I saw a funny spectacle. She was walking down a pathway eating an ice cream cone, when suddenly a baboon with a baby on her back grabbed for it. Not thinking, she tossed her ice cream to her companion, who then became the unwelcome object of the baboon's attention. He quickly dropped the cone, and the baboon devoured the treat as she gave him a disapproving look. After all, the baboons are in charge of Cape Point, and we humans are there by their permission, as they see it. Indeed, as I encountered animals throughout southern Africa, I was reminded again and again that they haven't necessarily signed on to our concept of human dominion over all species.
Now, Living on Earth is offering you a chance to have your own African adventure. Thanks to Heritage Africa, we're giving away a 15-day trip for two on the ultimate African safari, with visits to several of Africa's most spectacular sights, such as Cape Point and the Serengeti. Please go to our website, loe.org, for more details about how to win this 15-day trip to visit some of Africa's most magnificent locales. That's loe.org for the trip of a lifetime.
CURWOOD: During these short, dark days in the deep freeze of winter, the transforming light and heat of the sun, and the promise of spring, can be difficult to imagine. Commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate looks ahead as he considers the sun's perpetual work of creation.
MONTGOMERY-FATE: As a kid I once watched a few bands of orange and red light meld and seep into an Iowa cornfield at dusk. As the glowing colors softened into night, the woods in the distance turned briefly to a silhouette, and then disappeared in the darkness. Sunlight is but an ordinary miracle.
If we seek evidence of the sacred, we need only pay attention to the world we are walking through. This year I'm keeping a journal of the slow wheel of the sun. In the fall, the days shorten, things dry out, fall apart, blow away. I watch the Queen Anne's lace on the prairie behind the farmhouse close into the tiny green bowls my daughters like to pretend are miniature bird nests, or chic earthy hats for their Barbies. The goldenrod withered, stiffened, and finally stopped waving at the robins. The leaves changed. The brown, brittle veined hearts scattered in the wind and settled somewhere to decay, the continuity of life and death made visible.
Today I'm dreaming of that cycle of light, of life, of those moments of transition, of winter melting into spring, of the April sun filtering through the barren trees and finding the dormant flowers lining the oxbow beyond the prairie, the blood wort, trillium, and Solomon seal. Soon the sun will awaken and raise them, ending their long crouch in the muddy weeds and shadow.
Writer Houston Smith once suggested sunlight embodies the inherent link between science and spirit. Light creates, he says, it pumps power into the spatio-temporal world. The immaterial light flowing from the sun is transformed into the earth's green carpet of vegetation. Because photons of light are situated on the cusp of the material and immaterial, they are not subject to our usual ways of understanding the universe.
That makes sense to me. I'm not sure why anyone would want to understand the universe in the usual way, to compartmentalize and measure to try and prove it exists. I would rather belong to it, awake, aware, connected to the light, water, air and heat that created me, that creates all life. Many cultures have worshipped and sung to the sun since ancient times, marveling at the great pumping heart of creation. It reminds us all year-round that we live on the cusp of the material and immaterial, of the sacred and the ordinary, and that what separates the two is more like a membrane than a hard line.
CURWOOD: Tom Montgomery-Fate teaches writing at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He's the author of Beyond the White Noise, a book of essays about living in the Philippines.
CURWOOD: Everything we know about the world -- the smell of pine, the feel of granite, the glow of distant stars -- comes to us through our senses. Photographer Guy Hand has found that favoring one sense over another can skew our perception of that world. He sent us this essay from a nature sound recording workshop in the California Sierras, where he tried listening to a landscape he had, up until then, only looked at.
[SOUNDS OF WALKING OUTSIDE]
HAND: It's five in the morning, and I can barely see the pine trees on the far edge of the meadow, and the mountains beyond. Twenty of us stumble out of our cars, half-awake, sip coffee and flick flashlights over a tangle of gear: headphones, recorders, mics, cables.
MATZNER: Keep your headphones on when you're recording and put them around your neck when you're not.
HAND: I'm here to get advice on recording birdcalls and waterfalls from the experts, but also to make a little comparison. I've switched careers, sliding slowly from photography to radio, from sight to sound.
MATZNER: Let's meet back here at ten o'clock.
HAND: When I first began fiddling with sound recording, I was struck by the similarities it shared with photography. I didn't even have to buy a new equipment bag, I just stuffed the old one with microphones instead of lenses, with digital recorders instead of cameras.
MALE: Oh, I see, so that's actually an external way that you can monitor the volume control.
HAND: Through the darkness, I hear another thing sound recorders share with photographers: a love of technobabble.
MALE: It comes out of here and goes into this box, and lets me do the switching and the volume control.
HAND: This new vocation feels familiar because sound, like sight, is a recordable sense, the only two of the five you can catch on tape.
MALE: You're hearing the snipe now.
HAND: But it's different, too. In the field, as soon as I put the camera away and pull on a set of headphones, the world seems to shift.
HAND: With a camera around my neck, I passed this meadow by a dozen times. I was oblivious to the swirling world of willets, swallows, snipes, and wrens.
HAND: I wonder what else draws people to nature sound recording.
HAND (In the field): So why are you doing this?
STORM: Well, because it's fun, because it's music. We're making music with creation, with the natural world.
STUART: Well, I think you can really sort of get into the moment, when you're sitting with your headphones on, and the birds are around you, and you're just enveloped.
Participants in the Nature Sounds Society workshop begin to record in a Sierra mountain meadow.
HAND: Shutting up is one of the things I really like about sound recording. It requires a kind of passivity, a willingness to settle in and let the world come to you. Photography, on the other hand, feels active to me, even predatory. After all, we use hunting terms to describe it: shooting pictures, taking photographs, firing off a roll of film. Maybe that's why when we really need to listen, we often close our eyes.
CHRISTOPHERSON: My family said, well, you're going to take the cameras? But no, no, this time I have no cameras. I'm not going to be distracted by the visual images. I'm going to just go for the sound images.
HAND: Arlyn Christopherson is only the first of many here who bring up photography as a potential distraction. They say that sight too often dominates sound, and in effect blinds us to all the other senses.
MATZNER: There's so little attention put in the world of sound, even when natural history is the topic.
HAND: But Paul Matzner, curator of the California Library of Natural Sounds and one of the workshop leaders, reminds me that sound can also be distracting.
MATZNER: Many people in the large cities like New York, they wake up every morning to the huge sounds of garbage trucks out in the streets at five in the morning. They wake up at the same time as our ancestors would have woken up to bird song.
HAND: Paul puts a finger to his lips, then cocks his head to a birdcall he can't quite identify.
HAND (In the field): Hear something?
MATTSNER: Yeah, I’m listening…
HAND: It takes him a moment to shift back to our conversation.
MATZNER: Um, I think that what sound recording does, and what the workshop does, is it helps to give us back our ears.
Richard Doell concentrates on the sounds he's picking up and isolating with a short shotgun microphone.
HAND: I know what Paul means. Just getting to this workshop required I run the auditory gauntlet of the Reno, Nevada airport, with its slot machines, canned music, and crowds.
HAND: But this forest of noise also made my arrival to the banks of this mountain stream that much sweeter.
STORM: One of the nicest places where you'll find delicate and beautiful water sounds are where the gradient is very shallow.
HAND: Jonathan Storm is trying to teach our group how to listen to the sounds of water.
STORM: Or where you have occasional gradient steps, like here, you have these little, these tiny little rapids with pools in between.
HAND: The way he floats over this stream, ear tuned to every little ripple and rill, I can't help but catch the excitement of seeing his eyes. I wonder why more people aren't hooked on the musicality of moving water.
STORM: It has a really nice low frequency, some mids and highs. It has a typical water sound people will recognize, as well as a little unusual water sound that people might not recognize.
HAND: As Jonathan critiques the creek, Rudy Trubitt, another veteran sound recordist, tells me why he thinks a picture of a stream is easier for most of us to appreciate than the recorded sound of that same stream.
TRUBITT: If you're looking at a piece of videotape and you pause the tape, what do you see? Well, you see a still image. If you're listening to a sound recording and you pause that sound recording, you hear silence. There is no way to experience an instant in sound, and spread that experience out over time in the same way that you can stare at a painting or a photograph for as long as you want. So that makes sound unique, in that it's more ephemeral.
STORM: That single little bit where it's bouncing up over the rock, and the air underneath it…
TRUBITT: Yeah, that little burbling.
STORM: That's making the burbling. That's pretty loud, though.
HAND: I begin fishing this high Sierra stream with my recorder, trying to hook the perfect little burble with a dangling microphone. But after an hour or so, boredom starts to seep in, like water into my boots. I mean, who is really going to listen to my little collection of slurps and gurgles anyway? But Frank Dorritie says, you never know.
DORRITIE: Every time you roll tape you're making a historical document. Some are more important than others, but some of them are really important. Some of them are profound.
HAND: Frank is a Grammy-winning audio producer and trumpet player. He reminds me that nature sound recording can capture nothing less than the fading voices of endangered species or the quiet call of some as-yet-undiscovered wonder.
DORRITIE: This is powerful stuff. You don't trifle with this. This is important, visceral…
HAND: Frank waves his arms over his head, turning his bearded face to the trees. Practicalities are only partly why he's here.
DORRITIE: How can you not be affected by this? You would have to be on novocaine not to be affected by the sound of that brook, or the sound of a meadowlark. Have you ever heard a meadowlark? I mean, I grew up in New York City. I never heard a meadowlark until I was 35 years old and somebody took me to Yosemite when I came to California. I mean, yeah, I know birds. I heard a pigeon, I heard a robin, that's a bird. No, no. You haven't heard a bird until you've heard a meadowlark. And once you hear that, you never forget that.
HAND: Frank thinks nature sound recording isn't as popular as photography simply because it hasn't been around as long. Way back when Kodak Brownies were snapping up every family vacation in America, an amateur recordist would have needed a trust fund or a truck to catch anything in the field with high-quality audio gear. Now, portable recording equipment is shrinking to the size and cost of a good point-and-shoot camera. Frank thinks this audio accessibility, coming at a time when so many voices in nature are fading, gives us an opportunity and an obligation to get out there and record.
DORRITIE: It's time for the voice of the planet to be heard, it's time for the voice of nature to be heard.
HAND: Diane Ackerman in her book “The Natural History of the Senses”, says that 70 percent of human sense receptors are devoted to sight. That certainly suggests that our preference for the visual is deeply biological. But Ackerman also says our senses work best in concert, not competition.
So if this nature sound workshop gives me back my ears, it's really giving me back my sensory balance. It's firing up some forgotten circuits in my head, and that feels good. After all, the universe speaks to us across a wide field of wavelengths, and it's only through all our senses that we can truly hear what it's saying.
HAND: For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand in the Sierra Mountains of California.
CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, the world's coffee price has fallen to its lowest level in 30 years. And Ethiopian farmers are among those who are having a hard time making a living.
MALE: We claim that God gave us coffee, and we gave it to the world. And for this gift it seems that the world does not pay us.
CURWOOD: Paying beans for java beans, next time on Living on Earth.
And remember that between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to loe.org. That’s loe.org.
[NATURE SOUNDS: Earth Ear “Sora dawn” The Dreams of Gaia Earth Ear Records (1999)]
CURWOOD: We leave you this week with sounds of a prairie dawn.
CURWOOD: Willets, wrens, shovelers, and a variety of ducks greet the day in a marsh in North Dakota. Lang Elliott captured their wakeup calls.
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org. Our staff includes Jessica Penney, Cynthia Graber and Maggie Villiger, along with Al Avery, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Liz Lempert.
Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Katherine Lemcke, Jennie Cutrero, and Nathan Marcy. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.
Our Technical Director is Chris Engles. Ingrid Lobet heads our Western Bureau. Diane Toomey is our science editor, Chris Ballman is our senior producer, and senior editor Eileen Bolinsky produced this week's program.
I’m Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.
FEMALE: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include: The National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded internet service. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation, and the Helmut W. Shuman Foundation, supporting the arts, education, health, and the environment.
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