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

December 24, 1993

Air Date: December 24, 1993


Tracking Nature in Winter / Pippin Ross

Reporter Pippin Ross follows wildlife tracker Paul Rezendes and his students through the winter woods of Massachusetts. Winter tracking gives Rezendes information about the creatures and their habitat — and insight into how human beings fit in. (06:03)

Natural Noises / Steve Curwood

Steve Curwood talks to recordist Peter Acker about the pleasures and challenges of capturing sound in the natural world. Acker says it's getting more difficult to record nature without the noises of civilization intruding. He's lobbying for noise-free areas to be set aside in national parks as refuges for nature's sound (06:48)

Fruitcake Follies

It's holiday time, and with the holidays comes fruitcake — and a letter of protest from cranky Uncle Wilbert. Host Jan Nunley reads us a "letter" from her “uncle” warning of the environmental evils of fruitcake, along with some unusual solutions — yeah, it’s a satire (02:34)

Repairing Russia's Rivers / Reese Erlich

Reese Erlich reports from Moscow on the plight of Russia's polluted rivers. In an innovative project, American and Russian scientists team up to solve the problem using a combination of Soviet and US technology — and a dose of grassroots organizing. (05:44)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c)1993 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Jan Nunley
NEWSCASTER: Peter Thomson
REPORTERS: Ramona Deering, Betsy Bayha, Pippin Ross, Reese Erlich
GUESTS: Peter Acker

(Theme music intro)

NUNLEY: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley.

In the woods of New England, an animal tracker teaches his craft. His students discover evidence of the region's changing mix of species - and they also discover something about themselves.

RESENDEZ: I'm talking about the quality of attention that we bring to our lives, maybe similar to that of a wild animal in the forest that is incredibly present. But I think what's happened to human beings is we've kind of migrated and moved out of our senses and up into our intellects.

NUNLEY: Also, tracking down places where you can hear undisturbed nature - it's becoming harder and harder to do. And, combining US environmental technology with Russian military hardware to clean up Russian rivers. This week on Living on Earth. First, news.

Environmental News

THOMSON: I'm Peter Thomson with this week's environmental news.

Eastern Canada's fishery crisis has taken a turn for the worse. With groundfish stocks continuing to plummet, Canada has expanded its ban on cod fishing to include virtually all of its Atlantic coast. The move is more bad news for the province of Newfoundland. From St. John's, Ramona Deering has the story.

DEERING: Five thousand fisheries workers on the east coast are the latest victims of the cod crisis. Over the past year and a half, thousands more have been told there's just not enough cod to catch or process. Canada's Fisheries Minister, Brian Tobin.

TOBIN: God knows 35,000 displaced is a disaster of Biblical proportions.

DEERING: No one knows whether the stocks will ever recover. Scientists are looking at ecological factors such as unusually cold water. But many believe Canada and other countries caught too much. Canada will try diplomacy to end foreign over-fishing, but if that doesn't work, it's warning it will act on its own. Many say that means sending out gunboats. For Living on Earth, I'm Ramona Deering in St. John's, Newfoundland.

THOMSON: Meanwhile down the coast in New England, US officials are on the verge of taking action to shore up flagging haddock stocks. Options range from a cutback to an outright ban on haddock fishing for 90 days. One Federal official has said that overfishing has created a "desperate" situation. Cod and haddock are both groundfish species which have fallen off dramatically in recent years.

The Alaska Oil Pipeline Company and a private security contractor will pay up to five million dollars to an oil industry critic who cultivated a network of whistleblowers inside the company, and then passed reports of environmental and safety violations on to Federal regulators. The company acknowledges that it spied on Charles Hamel and tapped his phone, but says it was only trying to retrieve stolen documents. However, the judge in the case likened the tactics to those used in Nazi Germany. The companies didn't acknowledge any wrongdoing in the out-of-court settlement. Still, some observers say the case will expand protections for whistleblowers.

A new Federally-commissioned study says global warming could cause drastic reductions in water supplies in the western US. From San Francisco, Betsy Bayha reports.

BAYHA: The study, commissioned by the EPA, is based on the most reliable climate projections currently available. It shows that a 2-to-4 degree Celsius increase in temperature would reduce the available water in the Colorado River basin by as much as 20 percent. Water from the Colorado is shipped to cities and farms in the southwestern US and Mexico. Lead researcher Peter Glick of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, says the drastic reduction would hit the Colorado basin very hard.

GLICK: Every drop of water in the Colorado is already spoken for, sometimes more than once. And because of that, if there were even slight changes in water availability, they'll be felt very strongly throughout the system.

BAYHA: Glick says water managers should start including global climate change predictions in their water policy planning. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha in San Francisco.

THOMSON: This is Living on Earth.

Persian Gulf veterans suffering from "Gulf War Syndrome" will find it easier to get Federal care under a new law signed by President Clinton. Thousands of Gulf vets have complained of fatigue, muscle pains, rashes, short-term memory loss, and other problems since returning from the region. They'll now be guaranteed free and priority treatment, even though the Pentagon still doesn't know the cause of the ailments. Many vets - and a number of doctors - believe the problems are due to exposure to smoke from oil well fires, pesticides, and other toxics during the war.

For the first time, Australian aborigines may now file land claims. New legislation passed by the Australian Parliament restores some land rights to descendants of the continent's original inhabitants. The law allows claimants to argue against new commercial activity on land now owned by the federal and state governments, but only if they can prove an unbroken connection to the land since the arrival of European settlers 200 years ago. The law also would not restrict existing activities, nor would it apply to privately-held land.

There may soon be a new element in your daily weather forecast...

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Ozone values are slightly below normal over southern Canada. This week's ozone values for the Canadian ozone monitoring network over Vancouver... (dip under text)

THOMSON: That's a report from Canada's ozone monitoring network. It's one of the most sophisticated in the world, and it's a model for a similar project which will soon be coming to the US. The effort was sparked by increasing concern that the thinning of the ozone layer will allow more dangerous ultraviolet radiation to reach the earth. Druscilla Hufford of the EPA's stratospheric protection division says the agency is still working out just how to present the new ozone information.

HUFFORD: The message needs to be clear, and it needs to be not an alarming message. It just needs to be something people can use to decide how to protect themselves from potential exposures to damaging UV radiation.

THOMSON: High UV levels can cause skin cancer and cataracts. Hufford says four ozone monitoring stations will be up and running in early 1994, but it may take a few years before the information is available every day.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Peter Thomson.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Tracking Nature in Winter

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood.

As winter settles in over most of the US, life in the woods and the mountains is slowing down. But there's still a complex interplay of life in the wild areas. Reporter Pippin Ross recently spent a day in the New England woods with a man who teaches animal tracking. His students learn about the animals they're following, and about themselves.

(sound of people talking)

VOICE: When I think of a raccoon, I always think of hands. So I was looking for tracks that had a hand-like quality.

ROSS: Paul Resendez and five other people are sitting on the living room floor of his small house in central Massachusetts. They're studying a ceramic tile covered with the tracks of all sorts of animals. These people - school teachers, a 14-year old boy and his father, and a wildlife painter - have come from as far away as Canada to spend their Sunday in one of Resendez's advanced animal tracking classes. To Resendez's surprise, these weekend workshops for both beginner and advanced animal trackers are booked right through the winter.

RESENDEZ: They're naturalists, they're birdwatchers, they're people from like - they might belong to Audubon Society, or they might be skiers who just got sick of not being able to identify the tracks. So there's a really awful lot of people out there who are interested in these hunting skills but yet are not interested in hunting the animals down.

(sound of footsteps)

ROSS: It's been raining hard for about 24 hours. As the group moves outdoors, Resendez tells them he doesn't expect to find many tracks. Animals tend to hole up in the rain and most tracks have probably been washed away. Perfect conditions, he says, for an advanced group of trackers.

RESENDEZ: For instance, today we're looking at tracks in sand, and I just wanted to bring these people to some sand. But again, we don't even need these tracks. Like when we go in the forest - our New England forest, for example, has nothing but pine needles and leaves and it's very hard to find tracks. You don't need one single track to know what's going on.

ROSS: Despite the rain, there are tracks, but they're vague and the group can't depend on their knowledge of what animals' paw pads look like, where their claws hit, and the distinct patterns left by front and hind feet. Determined to mount the challenge, the trackers begin measuring the distance between prints. So specific is each animal's track pattern, knowing the length of their gait reveals the species.

VOICE: To me it looks like red fox, but I'm not sure we've got all the tracks here. Just on the basis of those, it looks like a rotary loping pattern...

ROSS: A coveted treasure of the animal tracker is feces - what trackers call "scat." A highlight of the day is a small pile of coyote scat.

RESENDEZ: That looks like porcupine quills...

VOICE: Or feathers, feathers...

VOICE: Been eatin' some grouse?

RESENDEZ: Should look at the garbage this animal's been eatin'...

VOICE: Tin foil!

ROSS: In the company of people who walk slowly and look everywhere, the woods become a series of surprises that tell the story of nature's order. Here, a collection of tracks and broken eggshells reveal a raccoon's plunder of a stash of buried turtle eggs. The trackers are amazed the raccoon has left behind two intact but lifeless victims.

VOICE: Look at that.

VOICE: Awww, baby turtles...

VOICE: A little turtle. That's amazing.

VOICE: I would think that was a snapper...

ROSS: For these trackers, following an animal seems to be much more compelling than actually finding one. Resendez says that's because the process of the hunt tunes people's senses in ways we seldom use them these days. In the process of paying attention to every detail, Resendez says we become more like an animal.

RESENDEZ: I'm talking about the quality of attention that we bring to our lives, maybe similar to that of a wild animal in the forest that is incredibly present. But I think what's happened to human beings is we've kind of migrated and moved out of our senses and up into our intellects.

ROSS: Resendez says the woods are rife with signs of animals that were one nearly extinct here. Populations are growing, thanks in part to people's efforts to return species that were driven away by the clearing of New England's forests for farmland. But, Resendez says, the future of many species is uncertain.

RESENDEZ: Beavers were gone from New England. Otters were basically gone. Fishers were gone. They're all back now, and some of them in abundance. It wouldn't be hard to turn that around again. I mean, this time we're not making fields out of our forests. We're making malls. That doesn't grow back up. I mean, it's one thing to tell a person, "hey, you're that environment out there. What's happening to that environment's happening to you." It's another thing to be on your hands and knees here, learning that intimately.

ROSS: For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross in the woods of central Massachusetts.

RESENDEZ: What we're looking at, I'm sure everybody's figured out, is wild turkey tracks. But what are they, male or female?... (fade out)

Back to top

(music up and under - sound of water)

Natural Noises

ACKER: My recordings I liken to portraits. They're audio portraits of undisturbed natural wilderness.

NUNLEY: That's sound recordist Peter Acker. This selection is called "Winter's Final Bow," and it's from his latest CD, "Sounds from the Water's Edge."

(music up - sound of crows)

NUNLEY: Peter Acker tracks down places in the pristine wilderness where there is only the sound of the wilderness - no people, no cars, no planes. Then he records them, using a stereo microphone mounted in a plastic human head which he affectionately calls "Fritz." It's even got two rubber ears, so that it can pick up sounds the way people do. But in his quest to capture the sound of the wilderness as accurately as possible, Acker says it's getting harder and harder to escape the growing audio impact of humanity. He spoke recently with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.

ACKER: Noise-free listening is quickly becoming a thing of the past as man develops, as man moves into wilderness areas, or the outskirts of areas to develop land. Noise-free listening is slowly being lost. If there's a location that I can record for five minutes of uninterrupted nature, I'm very lucky.

CURWOOD: Now, you have with you some samples of recordings that you've made...

ACKER: Yes, I do.

CURWOOD: Some have been absolutely quiet, and then some with some problems. This first one here that was recorded on the coast of Maine, can you tell me what we're about to hear and why it didn't go exactly right?

ACKER: This was up on Cape Elizabeth, Maine, not too far from Portland. And it was a dawn recording of Crescent Beach. And I happened to locate a spot where there was a fresh water supply that was running into the ocean. But as I settled - this was about 5:30 in the morning - as I set up and started the tape rolling, I was really enjoying this picture. And then all of a sudden, whoosh, a jet airplane from the Portland airport some 15 miles away...

(sound of water and airplane)

ACKER: At that point, the noise-free environment was lost and the world was waking up, especially around Portland. And unfortunately I had to scrub that one.

CURWOOD: How often do you run into this kind of trouble with your recording? You're making a face - you can't see that on the radio!

ACKER: Unfortunately, it happens fairly often. You know, we are desensitized because of the constant din of humanity. We're desensitized to what quiet really is. I remember as a child, I grew up on Long Island. And my family would come up to New Hampshire for summer vacations. And I remember looking out over a lake and there were motorboats off in the distance, and I was saying to myself, "This is wonderful! It's so quiet up here."

CURWOOD: Motorboats and all!

ACKER: Motorboats and all.

CURWOOD: What is it that we lose with this noise?

ACKER: Well, aside from losing an indescribable experience, I think you lose a sense, in the grand scheme, a sense of yourself. When you consider that generations and generations and generations of people literally survived in great part by their listening skill, and they were very much in tune with the world around them. And in native cultures, many places had names, were given names simply by the sound that was found there. I don't know how far back this goes, but the Thunder Hole at Acadia is an example of a location that got its name from the auditory cues that are present at that one location.

(sound of waves)

CURWOOD: What's being done to protect the audio integrity of the wild places?

ACKER: Recently, very recently, a study was conducted by the National Park Service, at Holiokola National Park in Hawaii, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon. And what has come out of this study is there is a growing sensitivity to noise intrusion. And as a result of that there will be some legislation, hopefully, introduced. To the extent that a location within a national park, say the Grand Canyon, where one wants, where they want to preserve pure listening. A spot is identified and a bubble is, in essence, raised over that spot and extends outward - effectively, a noise-free area where airplanes cannot cross, where there's no traffic of any kind. And this is part of what we call the setting aside quiet places, the quiet places system where individuals can go to enjoy the pure sound of nature without the human element, so to speak.

(sound of birds)

NUNLEY: Sound recordist Peter Acker has put out two CDs of his nature recordings, on his own Natural Rhythms label, based in Windsor, Vermont.

Back to top

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(music up)

Fruitcake Follies

NUNLEY: Speaking of letters...The holiday season is a magical time for most people, but - let's face it - somebody will always find something wrong with it, usually cranky old Uncle Wilbert. 'Course maybe he's right this time. You decide. Here's his latest letter:

Dear Jan, (he writes)

You ought to warn your listeners about fruitcakes, and you could use some of this advice yourself. Everyone loves to give 'em...but no one seems to want 'em. In fact, there are so many fruitcakes going straight from the store to the Christmas tree to the trash can that they're causing a major ecological crisis.

Now, take the ingredients. First up, there's sugar - from sugar plantations that the government says are polluting the Everglades. Then there's the alcohol - that's rum, another sugar byproduct, and Cognac - made from grapes. Look out for the pesticides. Then you have those little bits of neon-glazed fruit. 'Nuff said there.

Then there's transportation. No one ever gets fruitcake from the neighbor next door - they always seem to come from a relative halfway across the continent. Do you know how much carbon is pumped into the air by all those 18-wheelers and airplanes hauling fruitcakes?

Well, then of course there's the disposal problem, which I won't bother to go into 'cuz I know you don't have a lot of time on your show. I just bet that if all those fruitcakes were stacked up they'd go higher than the NPR satellite.

Well, Uncle Wilbert goes on:

It's not like there's nothing you can do about this mess. My "reduce, re-use and recycle" credo applies, as usual. Your Aunt Dora and I are putting out the word this Christmas - our house is a "fruitcake-free space." Meanwhile, the fruitcake you and the others sent last year are doing a pretty good job of propping up the garage. Then there's recycling. The family across the street has been passing around a single fruitcake since the Depression - it's seen more use than an old Coke bottle.

Now what I like, [Wilbert writes] is a new solution from the grand tradition of the American entrepreneur - a fake fruitcake, ready for disposal. They're called "Grandma Keenan's Flaming Fruitcake" - would I kid you? - they're combustible fruitcakes made from recycled products, designed to go straight into the fireplace. I think Grandma Keenan may have hit on something. It may add a bit to global warming and airborne particulates, but at least it'll give us something to keep away the chill on those cold winter nights. Now that's something I know your listeners can use.

Your loving uncle, Wilbert.

Back to top

(music up and out)

Repairing Russia's Rivers

NUNLEY: Many people had hoped that the end of the Soviet Union would bring environmental reform to a region where for decades huge industries had virtually free license to pollute waterways. But political instability has led instead to even worse dumping. So a group of Russian scientists and political leaders are joining forces with some American business people in an effort to clean up some of Russia's rivers. Reese Erlich reports from Moscow.

ERLICH: Old tires, trash, and machine parts lay all over the banks of the Yauza River, once a scenic Moscow waterway. The river is seriously polluted from industrial waste dumped from nearby factories.

About 100 yards from the river bank, the Uhanov family grows cucumbers, tomatoes, and potatoes on a small plot of land. Victor Uhanov knows from his own experience that the river is polluted. He works as an electrician at a nearby textile factory that pours hundreds of gallons of waste chemicals into the river every week. Uhanov says he would never irrigate his family's garden plot with the river water.

(Russian with translation)
TRANSLATOR: The river water is very bad, he thinks. They carry water from the swamp that is next to their plot of land. They believe that the water is cleaner there. Because the level of the swamp is higher than the river.

ERLICH: But that belief is wrong. Scientists say the swamp water is just as polluted as the river. Now, however, a group of Russian scientists and Americans have begun an effort to clean up the Yauza and other Russian rivers.

(sound of Dixieland band playing in the Metro)

ERLICH: Vitaly Chelshev is editor in chief of the environmental newspaper, Salvation. Walking in this Moscow Metro station, Chelshev notes that everything American is popular in Russia these days - from music to technology. Playing off the song lyrics, he says Muscovites really do think "you can get anything but love" from the United States.

CHELSHEV: I think that Americans have now good technology for cleaning up programs. They have good testing machines and testing stations for monitoring. It will be very useful for our new situation.

ERLICH: This technology is coming to Russia through a project dubbed "Operation Twinkling Star," or OTS. American engineers will contribute technical expertise in fields such as monitoring river pollution and will later send technology to reduce effluent from factories along the rivers. For their part, the Russians will contribute sophisticated military technology for aerial mapping, which will then be interpreted by US computers and software. Alan Cibuzar, a Minnesota environmental consultant, says the combination should help him and other project organizers get a detailed picture of the river pollution.

CIBUZAR: We'd like to see pipes pouring pollutants. We'd want to see barrels, sizes of barrels and where they are laying. Dump sites and what's in those dump sites. Hopefully this winter we can track organic pollutants and where they are falling on the snow.

ERLICH: The project includes more than sophisticated technology. The Americans also bring a whole new political approach to environmental cleanup in Russia. In a pilot project 150 miles south of Moscow, Operation Twinkling Star emphasizes organizing people at the grassroots rather than imposing change from the top. Eugenia Pastuchova is the Russian director of Operation Twinkling Star.

PASTUCHOVA (Russian with translation): First they collected their opinions and saw if the population wanted the project to work in their district. After this, they would start working. So this project is made on the level of people. And this is the most important.

ERLICH: The whole community will get into the act. Teachers will design lesson plans about river cleanup. Newspapers will run regular articles on its progress. Local residents formed an environmental group to keep up the political pressure.

ERLICH: So far Cibuzar and American companies are donating their time and equipment, But their long-term interests are not purely humanitarian: there's profit to be made later on. Newspaper editor Vitaly Chelshev explains.

CHELSHEV: It is first steps in a great Russian market. It's very good for many American firms and scientists, too, I think.

ERLICH: Back at the Yauza River, the Uhanov family continues to pick their vegetables. Victor Uhanov says he and other residents hope joint American-Russian cooperation will help end the water pollution.

(Russian with translation)
TRANSLATOR: He said some time ago, many years ago, he saw how people swam in the river, washed clothes in it. He saw it in movie and he was surprised there were such times.

ERLICH: If Operation Twinkling Star succeeds, perhaps those times will return once again. For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Erlich reporting from Moscow.

Back to top

(music up and out)

NUNLEY: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our director is Deborah Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and the program is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. A special thanks for Uncle Wilbert's letter to Chris Page. We had help as always from Kim Motylewski, Colleen Singer Coxe, Jessica Bella Mura, and Stacy Curwood. Our engineer this week was Louie Cronin. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. The executive producer is Steve Curwood, who'll be back next week. I'm Jan Nunley.

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the National Science Foundation for coverage of science and the environment; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - Stonyfield Farm Yogurt is made with milk from family farms to feed the local economy; the Pew Charitable Trusts; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Support also comes from the Bullitt Foundation for reporting on the Pacific Northwest, and the German Marshall Fund of the United States for expanded coverage from Europe.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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