Air Date: May 3, 1996
Oswego Fish/ Brenda Tremblay
Aside Lake Ontario lies the small city of Oswego, New York where the economy has turned to sports fishing tourism. Despite warnings that contaminants from industrial waste have rendered fish from the Great lake a dietary health hazard, some local people eat the fish because they're free. Over recent years a study has been conducted comparing the development of newborn and infant children whose mothers eat a diet including Lake Ontario fish, to those who don't. Brenda Tremblay reports on the study's findings which is seeing a correlation between eating fish and lowered average I.Q.'s, and some scientists fear the childrens' endocrine systems are being disrupted by toxins in the fish. (13:10)
River of Words: Poetry in Motion/ Katie Davis
In an annual contest sponsored by the International Rivers Network in Berkeley, California, school children were asked to submit poems and posters with their impressions about rivers. The young winners all picked up their awards in Washington, D.C. recently where producer Katie Davis asked them to discuss their artistic interpretations. (07:28)
The Living on Earth Almanac
Facts about... the plant hemp. (01:15)
Antarctica Series, Part 4: An Ice Journal/ Terry FitzPatrick
In this final installment, reporter Terry FitzPatrick shares a personal audio journal of his experiences and impressions while traveling to Antarctica for Living on Earth on a National Science Foundation grant. These days, with hot tubs, VCR's, wet bars, and nude snowmobilers, things have certainly changed since the days when early explorers and their dog teams sank in wooden ships at the bottom of the world. Bottoms up! (11:33)
New Mexico Forest Flap/ Richard Mahler
In the village of Truchas in northern New Mexico, the centuries old Hispanic community and the U.S. Forest Service have come to a temporary agreement on the taking of firewood for the community's use. The felling of small green trees will be implemented to protect more mature arbors said to house Mexican spotted owls. Richard Mahler in Santa Fe, New Mexico explores this sometimes violent controversy. (07:48)
True West/ Stephen Trimble
Commentator Stephen Trimble tells about his recent trip to South Pass, Wyoming and urges listeners to explore their sense of place. (02:58)
Listener Action: Furniture from Retired Tires
A Living on Earth listener in Winterville, Georgia takes old tires and turns them into new upholstered furniture. Steve Curwood catches up with him to find out more about his products. (02:58)
Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.
HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Stephanie O'Neill, Peter Klein, Brenda Tremblay, Katie Davis, Terry FitzPatrick, Richard Mahler
GUEST: Jack Doubrley
COMMENTATOR: Stephen Trimble
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Public health officials have long warned women of childbearing age against eating some freshwater fish, but many folks do it anyway. Now, research suggests their offspring may be less intelligent, and may be less able to tolerate stress, and the kids may get worse as they mature.
DARVILL: The babies whose mothers had consumed fish from Lake Ontario were actually scoring more poorly on the second testing than on the first.
CURWOOD: Also, we'll meet the winners of a national poetry contest. One first prize went to a boy 6 years old.
SANSGOULD: Oh sun, oh sun, oh sun, how does it feel to be blocked by the dark, dark clouds? Oh child, it doesn't really feel bad at all. Not at all, not at all, not at all.
CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this news.
NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing new tests to measure how pesticides may alter hormones. From Los Angeles, Stephanie O'Neill reports.
O'NEIL: The targeted chemicals are known as endocrine disrupters, which block the male hormone testosterone and mimic the female hormone estrogen. The fear is that use of such chemicals worldwide may be affecting fertility and reproduction in animals, humans included. Scientific studies blame pesticide and industrial chemicals for abnormal hormone levels and half-female sex organs found in wild animals. In humans, pesticide pollution may be causing increases in the rates of breast cancer, testicular cancer, and other reproductive problems. The chemicals also may affect the organs of unborn children. The EPA's existing tests screen pesticides for tumors, birth defects, and other more obvious health problems. The new guidelines are intended to measure the effect of the chemicals on hormones. Pesticide industry officials say they support the EPA guidelines, but maintain that their existing tests are adequate. Critics of the EPA guidelines, meantime, fear the new standards aren't strong enough and will miss what they're intended to measure. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill.
NUNLEY: Nineteen-ninety-five was the hottest year on record. A UN report says the global mean surface temperature last year was nearly half a degree Celsius warmer than temperatures from 1961 to 1990. That's the highest since records began to be kept in 1861. The report also notes that the seasonal Antarctic ozone hole lasted longer than ever in 1995, and there were more hurricanes over the Atlantic than in any year since 1933. The report appears to confirm scientists' warnings about global climate change. Six months ago a panel of international scientists agreed that human activity is having a discernible effect on the world's climate.
The Clinton Administration is being attacked for its decision to open up environmentally sensitive land for cattle grazing. In an attempt to aid cattle farmers hard hit by the worst price slump in a decade, the Administration announced it would immediately buy $50 million worth of beef for the 1996-97 school year, and allow grazing on 35 million acres of land currently idled under the Conservation Reserve Program. A spokesman for the Environmental Working Group says the move could be very damaging to wildlife habitat, and he blasted it as an attempt to win support for Clinton among farm state voters.
The National Park Service has imposed a ban on catching frogs in Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve. The ruling comes after passage of Federal legislation that would open all 508 national preserves and wildlife refuges to hunting, trapping, and fishing. From Miami, Peter Klein reports.
KLEIN: The decision to ban frogging in the Big Cypress National Preserve comes shortly after the disclosure that poachers have been making hundreds of dollars selling their illegal catch. The Everglades pink frog is an important part of the ecosystem the profitable frog trade has attracted a steady flow of air boats, which mat down the marsh grass, harming the habitat of 2 endangered birds. Three consecutive wet years have led to an abundance of the sought-after amphibian. Hunters were selling cleaned frog legs for $5 to $7 a pound. Frogging was actually allowed in the park, but selling the frogs was not. The rangers could only enforce the rule if they saw the poachers making money off the frogs. This new ban will give the Park Service time to close this potentially lucrative loophole. For Living on Earth I'm Peter Klein in Miami.
NUNLEY: For years Mt. Everest has presented mountain climbers with their greatest challenge, and now the government of Nepal is going to pick up after them. They're sending 15 sherpas to clean up trash left on Everest by people trying to scale the world's tallest mountain. The sherpas hope to bring down more than a ton of trash in the next 2 months, but that won't make much of a dent in the problem. There are an estimated 16 tons of trash on Everest, including empty oxygen and gas cylinders, cans, batteries, broken ladders, ropes, and tents, all left since 1952 when the first Western climbing expedition to Everest was organized. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached the summit of Everest in 1953.
A tiny Chinese monkey the size of a mouse, long thought to be extinct has been rediscovered in the Wuyi Mountains of eastern China. China's Xinhua News Agency says the miniature creature weighs only 7 ounces, has all the features of a monkey, and is highly intelligent. According to the agency, one 12th century Chinese scholar was renowned for keeping the tiny monkeys as pets, training them to prepare ink, pass brushes, and turn pages. The animals slept in brush pots or drawers and lived on soybeans and peanuts.
That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Hardly a week passes when we don't hear about some food or additive that may be unhealthy for us. In the recent case of mad cow disease in Britain, the public feels an immediate threat. But when the effects are more subtle, people are more willing to overlook the possible health risks. In New York State, for example, for years the Department of Public Health has banned commercial fishing on Lake Ontario, which is badly polluted with PCBs, dioxin, and other persistent toxic chemicals. The state advises against eating more than one fish meal per month, and it recommends that women of childbearing age and children avoid eating Lake Ontario fish altogether. Despite these warnings, half of all anglers there eat the fish they catch. In the small city of Oswego, New York, on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario, sport fishing is a deeply ingrained part of the culture and local economy. But researchers at the University of New York at Oswego are discovering that the community's penchant for fish may be affecting its youngest members, the babies and children. Brenda Tremblay of Member station WXXI in Rochester, New York, has our report.
(A boat motors; a jackhammer)
TREMBLAY: Oswego is a little city of big shoulders, a place where Stevedores unload cement and aluminum from Great Lakes ships. Where the same families have lived for generations, and where the character of the people has been shaped by the brutal an incessant winds of Lake Ontario. The winds of economic hardship have been brutal, too. Over the past 10 years, a steady loss of manufacturing jobs has made life difficult for the families that decide to stick it out. But one industry is booming: sport fishing. Oswego County sells more non-resident fishing licenses than any other Great Lakes county in New York State, and fishing related tourism generates $100 million every year. In early spring, almost all of the fishing action is concentrated in the Oswego Harbor area, where the Oswego River runs into Lake Ontario. Retired IBM worker Don Short is fishing for steelhead and brown trout this cold, early spring morning.
TREMBLAY: Does your whole family eat fish?
SHORT: Oh yes, absolutely. Have to catch them for the daughter and her husband. They all like them.
TREMBLAY: How do they like them prepared?
SHORT: The way I prepare them. (Laughs) See if I can explain it. You have to fillet them, remove all the bones, all the fat and all the skin, and then I soak them about 15 minutes in salt water, which removes a lot of the oil. And then just pan fried with a little butter and
garlic powder; they're very good.
TREMBLAY: Like Don, about half of all anglers eat some or all of the fish they catch in Lake Ontario, despite well publicized warnings from the State's Department of Environmental Conservation. The fish are contaminated with a wide range of persistent toxic chemicals such as PCBs, dioxin, lindane, and mercury. But how harmful are these substances to families which eat the fish? A mile west of Oswego Harbor, along the shore of Lake Ontario, a team of researchers is trying to find out.
WOMAN: Okay now, honey, I'm going to say some words and I want to see how well you can say them after me. Please wait till I finish saying all the words, okay, Abraham? Now listen. Say toy, chair, light.
ABRAHAM: Toy, chair, light.
WOMAN: Excellent. Now say: the boy said goodbye to his dog every morning before he went to school.
ABRAHAM: The boy did bye every morning before he went to school.
WOMAN: Very nice. Now say...
TREMBLAY: Four-year-old Abraham is one of the oldest participants in the Oswego Newborn and Infant Development Project, a long-term study taking place at the State University of New York in Oswego. The point of the study is to follow up on earlier animal research by examining the behavioral development of newborns, infants, and children of mothers who eat Great Lakes fish.
DALY: We have found that laboratory rats fed Lake Ontario salmon as part of their diet show huge behavioral changes. There had only been one previous study done to test the effects in humans.
TREMBLAY: That's the voice of Helen Daly, a member of the Oswego team who began the study in 1991. Dr. Daly recently died of breast cancer. Oswego County was a good place to do the study because it has a single obstetric practice. Dr. Daly and her colleagues were able to interview every pregnant woman in the community; more than half of the women interviewed volunteered to participate in the study despite not knowing exactly what the researchers were looking for. Currently there are 559 women and their babies participating in the study. Testers used the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale, a standard research tool, to examine the babies' behavior and reflexes, muscle tone and movement. The test was performed twice, once 12 hours after birth and again 12 hours later.
DARVILL: The babies whose mothers had consumed fish from Lake Ontario were actually scoring more poorly on the second testing than on the first.
TREMBLAY: Dr. Tom Darvill is a member of the research team.
DARVILL: We also saw significant differences between babies who had been exposed to the fish prenatally and those who had not on the number of abnormal reflexes that they exhibited. Now none of these are scores that one would consider to be placing them at risk. These are not certainly the kinds of scores you would see in fetal alcohol babies or something like that. But they are statistically significant, and they do indicate that there is a difference, statistically, on these 3 cluster scores between babies who are exposed to the fish and those who are not.
TREMBLAY: Dr. Darvill and his colleagues are following the babies' cognitive development over time. The oldest children in the study are now 4 years old. Like Abraham, the 3- and 4-year-olds are taking tests to measure whether or not early problems in short term memory and cognitive processing might lead to problems later on in school. Those results won't be available for some time, but so far the Oswego study's results have confirmed the results of a similar study conducted by Sandra and Joe Jacobson at Wayne State University in Detroit. The Jacobsons found that babies whose mothers consumed Lake Michigan fish had poorer short-term memories and slower cognitive processing speeds. Both teams found that these infants responded more slowly to new stimuli, and they showed a greater number of abnormal reflexes, tremors, and startles. Dr. Jackie Rheiman is a member of the Oswego team.
RHEIMAN: The similarities to this point are pretty remarkable. Given the different light, given a decade later, given technology has changed, given varying populations, we found the same results.
TREMBLAY: Both studies caught the attention of Dr. Theo Colborn, a senior scientist with the World Wildlife Fund and an expert on endocrine or hormone disrupting chemicals. Dr. Colborn thinks these results fit into a global pattern of effects caused by synthetic chemicals.
COLBORN: Certainly if we get evidence about a class of chemicals or a specific chemical and it seems to be linked over and over again with these problems, then we should do something about it.
TREMBLAY: In her new book Our Stolen Future, Dr. Colborn argues that synthetic chemicals disrupting hormone systems are having widespread effects on people, even influencing our ability to reproduce along with our behavior and the way our brains function. Fish are only one source of persistent toxic chemicals. Dr. Colborn says these chemicals are everywhere: in the water, soil, air, and food. The contaminants in the fish are not affecting the babies' brains directly, she thinks.
COLBORN: Something just doesn't go in and cut off short term memory. It has to be some part of the brain, therefore, that was not programmed right during development. And so we need to go back and get at the roots of this.
TREMBLAY: Dr. Colborn and other scientists assert that the contaminants are interrupting the precisely timed operations of the babies' endocrine system, by mimicking or disrupting developmental hormones: those chemicals that tell the body what to do and when to do it. A hormone fits into a receptor cell like a key fits into a lock. According to Dr. Colborn, pollutants can either open the receptor when it shouldn't be opened, or, like a rusty key, jam the receptor so it becomes stuck. In this case, the babies' developing brains may be getting the wrong message or no message at all. But the researchers in Oswego are reluctant to say their work confirms Dr. Colborn's hypothesis. As scientists who have to carefully record and analyze every minute observation, Dr. Darvill and Dr. Rheiman are a little uncomfortable with the broad, speculative nature of Dr. Colborn's work.
RHEIMAN: We have no idea of the mechanism that may be involved. And we are interested in chemicals and interested in their influence. But in terms of the mechanism, that would be pure conjecture at this point.
DARVILL: In her theory to me, she certainly seems very plausible, from what I know about it.
TREMBLAY: But as a theory.
DARVILL: As a theory. Again, in terms of its relationship to our work, I would have to speculate, and I'm not very good at speculating.
TREMBLAY: Dr. Joe Jacobson at Wayne State University is also cautious about drawing any broad conclusions from his research.
JACOBSON: Well I think you have to put our findings in perspective. We got a sample of the most heavily exposed infants that we could find, and even in our sample it was only the top 10 to 15% of the infants where we saw any behavioral changes at all. And these were relatively subtle effects, not something that is necessarily alarming or has massive consequences for the individual.
TREMBLAY: But Dr. Jacobson is less cautious in his writings. In a 4-year follow-up study of children born to consumers of Lake Michigan fish, he wrote that relatively subtle deficits in short-term memory and cognitive processing in infants might cause exposed children to have a tougher time later on in school learning to read, or mastering basic math skills. In his published article, Dr. Jacobson calls the overall effects of contaminated fish on babies "diminished potential." If his speculation turns out to be correct, the results of the Oswego project could have serious implications for everyone, especially for the families throughout the Great Lakes catching and eating lake fish year round. Dr. Bernard Weiss is a behavioral toxicologist at the University of Rochester who has theorized about the effects of small losses in cognitive ability across large populations.
WEISS: The average IQ is 100. If you shift the distribution by just a few IQ points, so the average is now 95, then you've moved many more people into the range below 70. That's a stupendous difference. Even if the Oswego group saw only a difference of 1, 2, or 3%, it would be a very costly finding for the community.
TREMBLAY: Those widespread social effects are far from being documented, but despite his caution Dr. Joe Jacobson says the Oswego study is all he needs to see to prove to him that mothers who eat Great Lakes fish can affect their children.
JACOBSON: Well, one study is clearly suggestive and a second study with essentially the same findings is very convincing, and I think you wouldn't necessarily need a third.
(Waves lapping on shore)
TREMBLAY: Nearly everyone fishing today on Oswego Harbor has heard the warnings about eating the fish they catch. But in a city where jobs are scarce and fish are free, people are skeptical and pragmatic. They don't seem particularly concerned about it.
WOMAN: But you know what? So you stop eating fish today and tomorrow, don't eat lettuce. And the next day, don't drink coffee. If you stop one thing, something else is going to get you anyway.
(Waves and sea gulls)
TREMBLAY: Ultimately, the findings of the Oswego research team could help these people know whether or not they should eat what they catch. It may also give us a better understanding of how synthetic substances throughout our food supply can affect our health and well-being. The latest findings of the Oswego Newborn and Infant Development Project will be published in June in the Journal of Great Lakes Research. For Living on Earth, this is Brenda Tremblay in Oswego, New York.
CURWOOD: Kids connecting with the natural world through poetry, just ahead on Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: We teach our children to memorize their telephone number, the street they live on, maybe even their e-mail address. But how many of them know their ecological address? What's the name of the nearest river or creek? And where does the rainfall go? What's the local watershed? These places we can't name as easily. The International Rivers Network asks students from kindergarten to grade 12 to draw a picture or write a poem about the body of water nearest them. In this way they would learn the nature of their neighborhood. The result was a veritable flood of images for the River of Words Poetry and Poster Contest. Producer Katie Davis caught up with 3 of the contest winners on the banks of the Anacostia. That's an urban river hemmed in by busy rail yards in Washington, DC.
(A train rolls by and blares its horns)
DAVIS: Begin this way. Begin with a cloud, where all rivers begin. A truth so simple it took the ear of a 6-year-old boy to capture it in a poem.
SANSGOULD: My name is Nicholas Jason Sansgould, also known as Nicholas Julian Sansgould, they forgot the J, and I'm from San Francisco and my poem is called "Sad Sun." Here it goes: Oh sun, oh sun, oh sun, how does it feel to be blocked by the dark, dark clouds? Oh child, it doesn't really feel bad at all. Not at all, not at all, not at all. A short one, too. I had to do it 2 times. OK. Oh sun, oh sun, oh sun, how does it feel to be blocked by the dark, dark clouds? Oh child, it doesn't really feel bad at all. Not at all, not at all, not at all.
DAVIS: How did that pop into your mind?
SANSGOULD: Well, I was kind of like thinking what it would be like, no sun is a very powerful force. I was like asking, you know, what it would feel like. And I just gave it my opinion, I didn't know. It's been doing this since the dawn of time.
DAVIS: So you think the sun, it doesn't get really upset of a big dark cloud goes by.
DAVIS: Why not?
SANSGOULD: Because it's been doing it, you know, in the prehistoric age, you know what I mean? Up, down, up, down, rain. You know, it's like that.
DAVIS: And it is like that. Up, down, up, down. The rhythm of life, the rhythm of water. Rain falls, then settles on a leaf or slithers under a rock. And then maybe the water goes deeper and stays underground, flowing along under cement and asphalt, but
(Music up and under)
DAVIS: Remember this: a river can start with a leaden cloud, and then just one drop. And then the drop slouches down a corn stalk, lurches left into a rivulet and then right, searching out its watershed, its passage to the ocean. All this twisting and turning, these contortions of water, caught the eye of teenager Maria Koorsguard in New Jersey. Maria Koorsguard stopped to let the river run through her heart and then spill onto her canvas. Her drawing, titled, "Sun, Water, Life, Earth," is etched with bold blue swirls roiling against the banks of a bayou, dense and searing, like the starry night of a Van Gogh.
COORSGUARD: To me, a river is just a way of life, kind of sometimes it's rough and sometimes it's easygoing, and sometimes it's in between. I had to grow up by myself since I was 15, and I haven't really had a parent figure or anything like that. So all... all...I do have a lot of anger and the anger that I have gets put into my pictures, and all the emotion. So I see a river, every time I see it, it doesn't even have to be the current of a river. I mean if it's polluted it's still endangered and it still hurts and you know, it's something that can be done. Like when you're angry, there's someone always to talk to or some way that you can be helped or some way that you can, your emotions can be let out. And with a river, when it's polluted, I mean, if there's nobody there to help it then it's always going to be hurt. And it's really a sad thing, to be hurt.
(Music up and under)
DAVIS: Return to that one drop of water. Watch it land in the red ooze along the banks of a deep New Mexico river. Sit while the ooze turns to paste and then to mud. Mud that inspired a prayer of sorts from this high school poet who lives in rural New Mexico.
TIBBIDEAUX: My name's Nicole Tibbideaux and I'm from Taos, New Mexico. And this poem, the water that is mentioned in this is probably the Rio Grande, which is the river in Pilar where I grew up. So. The mud shall cover our sins, and the water shall wash us free. And the brush shall cleanse our skin and the wind shall weave our hair. And the sun shall bless our face. The sky shall clothe us in blue.
DAVIS: It's almost like a chant or something that would be done in a ceremony.
TIBBIDEAUX: Yeah. I think it's like our way of having hope for the future, because it's in the future tense, you know it's like this will happen, you know. It's like people will some day be connected with nature again, and really understand it.
DAVIS: Why do you think you are?
TIBBIDEAUX: Because I grew up in a very small village that -- I didn't have a TV or anything like that, and I spent a lot of time outside and just hiking and -- I don't know, I really feel like nature is such a part of me, it's -- I don't know. It's just always been there. Maybe if people spent time out in nature more often, they could become silent with it and understand it. You just have to like settle down and feel it. Feel the peacefulness, you know?
DAVIS: And so, through words and images a young person can find his or her place in nature. A sort of living internal map. And as Nicole Tibbideaux suggests, it is a place we
can all find, if we can just be silent for a while. For Living on Earth, this is Katie Davis.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: The River of Words Poetry and Poster Contest, sponsored by the International Rivers Network in Berkeley, California, is preparing now for next year's contest.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Special thanks this week to member station WXXI in Rochester, New York, and producer David Slewberski. Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and is recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood.
(Music up and under)
ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues.
(Music up and under)
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
CURWOOD: Coming up: human life near the South Pole: it takes a special breed. That's in the second half of Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Two hundred and fifteen years ago, when the Virginia State Militia was running low on cash, Governor Thomas Jefferson ordered his officers to pay for military supplies not with currency, but with hemp. For centuries, hemp was a valuable crop used to make cloth, paper, rope, and money. But it was outlawed in 1937 because it can also be a source of marijuana. This year, Vermont is considering allowing people to grow hemp again. A bill has already passed the Vermont House of Representatives. Supporters say hemp yields 4 times more fiber per acre than trees and is relatively environmentally friendly. It's naturally pest resistant, and when used as cloth repels water and doesn't mildew. Hemp paper is easily bleached with peroxide instead of chlorine. Advocates say industrial hemp contains only tiny amounts of the hallucinogen THC, the source of the marijuana high. But law enforcement officials oppose hemp legalization, saying it would create an enforcement nightmare and increase drug abuse. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: For the past few weeks, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick has been telling us about the glaciers and wildlife of Antarctica. But some of the most fascinating stories from his 2-week journey involve the sometimes-wild lives of people who ventured to the world's most hostile continent to conduct scientific research. This week, Terry concludes his special series of reports with a slice of life at the bottom of the earth.
(Music up and under: "Like sitting on pins and needles, things fall apart. It's scientific. Check it in, and check it out....")
FITZ PATRICK: Despite its romantic appeal, Antarctica can be an exhausting place. People here work flat out, cramming as much research as possible into the short polar summer. So it's little wonder that at the end of the season, folks let loose.
(People going, "Whoo!" Music in the background)
FITZ PATRICK: These researchers have used their engineering expertise to convert an ice-drilling rig into a hot tub.
(People: "Whoo! It's hot!")
FITZ PATRICK: The wind chill is 15 degrees below zero. But that's nothing a warm soak and a little vodka can't conquer. People invited me to strip and join them.
(Voices: "Yeah!" "Are you serious about the Antarctic experience?" "You've got to live it." "Hey, take it off, Terry, take it off!" Laughter. "Terry. Terry...")
FITZ PATRICK: I wanted to hop in, but I was sick. And I was about to catch a plane to begin my trip back home. I tried to explain but folks didn't buy it.
(Voices: "Terry, you wimp! It's because you're a radio reporter; if you did television you'd have been in here!")
FITZ PATRICK: And so there I stood with bronchitis, bundled in my fur-trimmed parka, recording the revelry of a dozen nude Antarctic explorers.
(Voices: "Waterloo!" Singing along with a radio.)
FITZ PATRICK: I thought I'd seen everything but the best was yet to come.
(A motor runs)
FITZ PATRICK: As my plane arrived 2 plumes of steam came racing my way from the vicinity of the hot tub. A woman, naked, on a snowmobile, towing a man, naked, on skis. They circled the plane, hugged the pilot, and headed back to the party.
(The motor continues to run)
FITZ PATRICK: The hot tub drove home the work hard, play hard atmosphere in Antarctica. Research on the stability of the ice cap or the effects of the ozone hole can be stressful, involving difficult journeys to remote field locations. Wildly unpredictable weather can also make this a dangerous place. Fifty-six people have died on American expeditions since World War II. The dangers are emphasized the moment you arrive. Everyone who goes into the field must attend 2 days of survival training.
McCARTHY: All right! So everyone's got a harness, okay. Now the first thing you need, you're going to do, is...
FITZ PATRICK: Our teacher is back country guide Forrest McCarthy. He demonstrates the use of climbing harnesses and ropes, essential equipment for travel on the ice cap where crevasses can open up and swallow a person without warning.
McCARTHY: You've got to double back you harness. Now, see how I take this trap, and I double back through that buckle. Now people have died because they didn't do that.
(Chains clanking, footfalls on ice)
FITZ PATRICK: Roped up and underway on our first Antarctic day hike, we skirt the lip of an impressive crevasse.
McCARTHY: How are you doing?
FITZ PATRICK: All right.
FITZ PATRICK: Then we're lowered into the crevasse one by one, as fellow students practice the teamwork required for a rescue.
McCORMICK: The trick to surviving down here has a lot to do with attitude.
FITZ PATRICK: Instructor Bill McCormick says survival school is designed to instill a healthy regard for the elements.
McCORMICK: There is a lot of specific things to this environment. You have to start developing an eye for and a respect for -- the weather is, you know, maybe the major feature and most people don't have a sense of how ferocious it can be and how rapidly it can change.
(Metal against metal and/or ice)
FITZ PATRICK: Sometimes the only way to escape life-threatening winds is to build an igloo, or dig an emergency trench. So Mr. McCormick shows us how.
McCORMICK: Basically it's like digging a grave for yourself, but this is the grave that saves; I just made that up right now. Never used that line before.
FITZ PATRICK: Is that true?
McCORMICK: It's true. (Laughs)
FITZ PATRICK: After a difficult day of training, I slept 4 miles from base camp in a shelter made of snow. Because nature can be so ferocious, people are required to stick close to camp when they're not conducting research. As a result there's always a touch of cabin fever in the air.
FITZ PATRICK: That's especially true at America's main research complex, McMurdo Station, where 1,200 people crowd into the cafeteria every day.
FITZ PATRICK: McMurdo is more like a town than a camp, and its personality is shaped by a curious blend of 3 distinct cultures. Scientists make it feel like a college campus. Pilots make it feel like a Navy base. Cooks, mechanics, and other support personnel make it feel like a frontier town.
FITZ PATRICK: The 3 groups rarely mix and sit apart during meals. About the only time they do sit together is in church. That's where assistant chaplain Simon Eckleton conducts Catholic mass beneath a stained glass image of a penguin. Father Eckleton says the peculiar conditions make McMurdo a difficult place to live.
ECKLETON: People have to have outlets, and there aren't the normal outlets that there would be back home. And the family from which so much stability grows is entirely lacking. There are no children here. There are no elderly people here. There are no sick people here. So we may call ourselves a community and a town, McMurdo, but the fact is it's a very strange environment, and the harshness of the climate really is reflected in the harshness of life within the community.
FITZ PATRICK: You can see this harshness in McMurdo's 2 taverns. Especially for the support personnel, this is a hard drinking town. The most popular entertainment is karaoke night in a dimly lit bar called The Southern Exposure.
(A man sings Elvis: "I hear the train a'comin. It's rollin' round the bend. And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when. I'm stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin' on...")
FITZ PATRICK: The National Science Foundation, which runs the US Antarctic Program, is trying to curb the use of alcohol. Eric Chiang, the senior US official here, has closed a number of bars in town.
CHIANG: Not only were there 5 formal bars or clubs, you could find bars in all of the work centers. You know, under the excuse that you needed, that you might get trapped in a facility during a major storm. Alcohol was the recreational outlet, you know, years past.
FITZ PATRICK: Officials now promote other forms of recreation, including cross-country skiing, aerobics, even bowling.
(A bowling ball careens down a lane and hits pins. People go, "Oh!" and cheer.)
FITZ PATRICK: McMurdo is home to the world's southernmost bowling alley. Two lanes, with a manual pin setting. The bowling alley is where I met Shana Muldoon, a heavy equipment driver. Ms. Muldoon commends officials for trying to make McMurdo more livable.
MULDOON: When I first came down 3 years ago I thought about the basics. I was thinking, we're going to have only the basics and that's going to be it. I was shocked when we had VCRs and televisions and stuff like that. I was like, wow, I mean I was pleasantly surprised.
FITZ PATRICK: However, Ms. Muldoon did point out a different problem: the lack of women. There are 3 men here for every woman, which Ms. Muldoon told me can result in unwelcome come-ons.
MULDOON: Well, you just go into the bar and you're surrounded. Which like I said, it can be flattering, but then at other times it can be -- you don't trust them any more. You know that you're one of the few women so of course they're going to flatter you whether it's true or not.
FITZ PATRICK: Officials are trying to recruit more women, and in general are striving to transform McMurdo's social environment. With weekly movies, a coffee house, and satellite telephone service back to the States. Officials say healthy morale improves productivity and makes the base attractive enough for experienced personnel to want to return.
FITZ PATRICK: The improvements go beyond creature comforts. The laboratories here are as good as you'd find at many American universities. Marine biologist Donald Manahan from the University of Southern California appreciates how the infrastructure allows him to focus on his work.
MANAHAN: It's one of the few towns on the planet Earth where science comes first. Not only that, it's multi-disciplinary. When you sit down at dinner here, one day you're sitting beside a biologist, the next day you're sitting by somebody studying the ozone hole, the next day it's a geologist. So this is a very interesting area for collaborative interdisciplinary science, which is really an important thing for future environmental studies is to put together the different disciplines.
FITZ PATRICK: These different kinds of scientists come to Antarctica because it's the most isolated and least studied continent on Earth. And despite efforts to make this place a bit more like home, the rugged conditions give it a special appeal for a certain type of individual. It instills a frontier spirit that's difficult to shake. That's evident in the saying support personnel have about Antarctica: the first year you come for the adventure; the second year you come for the money, and the third year you come because you don't fit in anyplace else. For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.
CURWOOD: The latest in home furnishings are comfortable, resilient, and made from recycled tires. A new spin for old rubber coming up on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: For centuries, villagers in northern New Mexico have gathered firewood from the mountains that surround their communities. The people there still speak the language of Cervantes centuries after their Spanish forebears built adobe homes on these rugged hillsides. This age-old practice of cutting fuel wood has recently put residents at odds with the Federal Government, which owns and manages the land, and with environmental activists who have taken legal action to preserve it. But as reporter Richard Mahler tells us, the clash of interests has led one community to seek a peaceful solution.
(Sound of wood being chopped)
CORDOVA: The major source of heating is wood; although we live in our modern society it's very much needed.
MAHLER: Max Cordova has always lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico. His ancestors, who came here in 1754, were among the founders of the village of Truchas through a Spanish land grant. Cordova is now president of that grant, which holds land in common for use by all Truchas residents. The villagers are mostly Hispanic and mostly poor. In summer they grow hay and graze cattle in communal meadows. Winters here are long and cold, and most people still use firewood to cook their meals and heat their homes.
CORDOVA: We estimated that each household uses from 6 to 9 cords of wood a year to make it from one end to the other in the winter time.
MAHLER: In order to gather the wood they need, Truchas residents must obtain permits from the United States Forest Service, which designates trees to be cut. But that arrangement was complicated last fall when environmental groups won a lawsuit against the Forest Service. The suit faulted the Service for letting locals roam freely as they collected down and dead firewood, a practice said to disturb the Mexican spotted owl, an endangered species that nests in standing dead trees. Sam Hitt is the director of Forest Guardians, a plaintiff in the suit. Hitt accuses the government of ignoring the long-term impact of fire wood gathering, which he claims consumes at least 30 million board feet a year in the area.
HITT: We went to court, and we are forcing the Forest Service to comply with the law, which is to develop a sustainable fire wood plan. Years and years of planning, decades of planning, have not yet produced a sustainable fire wood plan.
MAHLER: But Gary Schiff, a spokesman for the Carson National Forest, disputes environmentalists' claims that fire wood gathering poses a threat to the spotted owl.
SCHIFF: We have yet to visually locate a Mexican spotted owl on the Carson National Forest. And we have probably spent $2 million plus out surveying with parabolic microphones and going out at night and looking for these animals as we're required to do. And I think a lot of local folks are concerned about that.
MAHLER: Many area residents say they'd like to see $2 million spent on improving the infrastructure of their communities, rather than searching for a bird that no one has seen in the area for 10 years. They feel the environmentalists' approach to forest management threatens their economic and physical survival. Truchas area resident Carol Miller.
MILLER: They bypassed an incredibly important step in the process of dealing with this lawsuit against the southwest region of the Forest Service, which was they basically ignored the communities. Since they knew what was best, they could just go to the courts and ask for a remedy without involving any of the people that live here. And that step, to me, was inexcusable.
MAHLER: The situation had all the makings of a nasty showdown. Environmentalist Sam Hitt was hung in effigy last winter by angry Truchas residents, and a ranger station was bombed: an event the FBI says may be linked to the controversy. But a compromise was finally reached. Environmentalists now support a Forest Service plan that allows small, living trees to be cut in order to thin an ecosystem that has become dangerously thick after decades of fire suppression. The Forest Service's Gary Schiff is issuing permits this spring for green fire wood that will be ready to burn next winter.
SCHIFF: They'll be thinning the forest in much the way that small, low intensity fires would do, taking a tree here and there. We're not talking about any kind of clear cutting or anything like that. And actually it would create what Mother Nature would do, only picking trees here and there.
MAHLER: The thinning program should provide Truchas with plenty of firewood over the next 20 years. Environmentalists hope village homes can be brought into the 20th century during that time, underscoring a conclusion all parties agree on. Truchas and other mountain villages must be weaned from their reliance on firewood as a primary fuel. Unfortunately, natural gas is unavailable and propane and electricity are too expensive for most residents. Experts say that if homes are weatherized and retrofitted to take advantage of New Mexico's abundant sunshine, many families could cut their wood consumption in half. But Carol Miller says few of her neighbors have the money to make such improvements. She fondly recalls a government program of the 1980s that trained residents to build heat-producing solar greenhouses.
MILLER: And that program was successful because it trained community people to basically build the greenhouses for their neighbors. So it dealt with some of the unemployment and it dealt with some of the changing to some new solar technology that we had just learned about. So I think that there are a lot of examples out there, but it's going to take money. Someone has to commit. I mean I think that's what will transform the communities.
MAHLER: But expansion of such programs is very unlikely in an era of government downsizing. That's according to Congressman Bill Richardson, the Democrat who represents the area in Washington, DC.
RICHARDSON: You can't promise the Federal dollar any more. It has to be self-reliance. It has to be self-help. If the government can be a catalyst and help with some loans, with some training programs, that's what we need to do. But we also have to have the private sector play a more active role. The days when we can deal with these problems through grants and funding through the government are over. It has to be more public-private partnership.
MAHLER: Max Cordova has seen no sign of those partnerships in his community, and without such intervention he predicts that many residents will be forced to leave the area. In the meantime, Cordova believes residents have no choice but to balance their priorities with those of Federal bureaucrats and big city environmentalists.
CORDOVA: We need to start finding that middle ground. We need to start working with each other. Nobody's going to get what he or she wants, but we're all going to be able to live with the agreement that we make. And what we're saying is, let's use the system itself to try to be all winners. Where the environmentalists win, where we win, where, you know, we start putting the friction between the groups aside.
(Bird calls in the mountains)
MAHLER: No one in Truchas is happy with the fire wood gathering compromise, but all parties concede that the situation could be worse. They agree that without effective, far-sighted management, there may be no forest left worth saving here 20 years from now. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Mahler in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
(Bird calls continue)
CURWOOD: It wasn't on a map, Herman Melville once said. The true places never are. Today, author Stephen Trimble tells us of the true places he finds in the American West.
TRIMBLE: Are you lost? Sometimes I am. On this day, however, when a cheery couple in their 60s drive up and ask me this question just as I step from my truck to photograph a dirt track climbing up over a small Wyoming hill, I am not. I had come to South Pass to pay homage to my history, to the history of my homeland, the West.
One hundred and fifty years ago, right here beneath my feet, past the thousands of overland wagons bound for Oregon and California, Mormons bound for Zion, the Donner Reed party bound for tragic destiny, this was the only gentle crossing of the Rockies. In Bernard DeVoto's words, the gate through which the United States would reach its empire. Here, in 1824, Jedadiah Smith and Jim Bridger, Jim Clyman, and broken-hand Tom Fitzpatrick crossed DeVoto's fundamental watershed and rode into the frontier of fable.
The modern highway version of South Pass lies a few miles to the north of where I stand. To find the historic pass I turned off onto unmarked dirt roads using my Oregon Trail guidebooks. My 7-year-old daughter wondered why I was so thrilled to be standing on this obscure sagebrush-covered hill with its 2 small homemade stone monuments. I'll try to explain.
To live as a Westerner means coming to grips with challenging facts. A short, violent Anglo history, aridity, intense weather, a barely vegetated landscape. Pondering these facts, becoming students of this land can lead to great joy. To see the West through the eyes of scientists, historians, writers, poets, artists, and native elders, is to learn about our home. Looking for South Pass geographically, historically, metaphorically, read. Read Bernard DeVoto, Wallace Stegner, John Unruh, Patricia Limerick, and then wander out to the Great Divide. Stand on the dirt track, and free your imagination to soar through time and over the sagebrush hills.
Learning and listening. Paying attention. Only in this way can we discover where we are and what that means. Knowledge of place gives us hope. It teaches us to value our home. It keeps us from becoming lost.
CURWOOD: Stephen Trimble lives in Salt Lake City. His books include The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Americans throw out more than a quarter of a billion automobile tires a year. Now, some of that round rubber is recycled into roadways, sneakers, or homes, but most of it ends up in tire dumps. A listener in Georgia has a solution in part to this problem. His name is Jack Doubrley, and he's turning old rubber into new upholstered furniture. As part of our series of listener suggestions to help the environment, we caught up with Mr. Doubrley at his office at Classic City Mechanical in Winterville, Georgia. Sitting down on the job, so to speak, in one of his own creations.
DOUBRLEY: It's round. Like people. But it looks more comfortable and real dressed up as much as anything else.
CURWOOD: Why did you start making furniture from old tires?
DOUBRLEY: Well, I noticed personally that tires were getting to be a problem for me. I had used the tread off of a tire which is actually less than 10% of the material it's made out of, and I myself had to find something to do with this good material that is left when you use the little bit of a tire that you're going to use in driving. So it just looked like furniture to me. It looked comfortable.
CURWOOD: You know, I've got to tell you, though. Sitting on tires doesn't really sound all that comfortable.
DOUBRLEY: Well, there again, if you think about the fact that the tire manufacturers have spent the better part of 80 years trying to make them indestructible, and yet they still have an inherent resilience and pliability that you're not going to get in a piece of furniture made out of a hardwood frame. If you look at the frame of a hardwood piece of furniture, it's all squared off angles; I've never known anybody that had a square butt. So my concept is something round, soft, and pliable.
CURWOOD: Have you sold many of these yet?
DOUBRLEY: It's like the old joke, I've sold literally dozens of them. It's a one-man operation right now. You know, if you get a piece at this point, you're getting it hand finished by the inventor.
CURWOOD: Sounds like they're expensive, though, if they're hand finished by you personally.
DOUBRLEY: I like to think it's one of the better bargains for a dollar now, because I price them, I think what is a moderate piece of furniture. But I've got something that will last you forever, and all you have to do is have it reupholstered. Like any piece.
CURWOOD: Well, I'm waiting to try one. Thanks so much for taking this time with us today.
DOUBRLEY: Yes, thank you. I certainly appreciate it.
CURWOOD: Jack Doubrley is a furniture maker and hails from Crawford, Georgia.
CURWOOD: And if you or someone you know has an interesting environmental story to tell, give us a call. Our listener line number is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. And to mail us a letter, the address is Living on Earth, Post Office Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238.
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CURWOOD: Special thanks this week to member station KPLU, Seattle, and the National Science Foundation for our Antarctic coverage. Senior producer for Living on Earth is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Liz Lempert, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson. We also had help from Mark Borrelli, Susan Shepherd, Michael Argue, and Emily Atkinson. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive
producer. Thanks for listening.
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ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics; and the Joyce Foundation.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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