Air Date: December 19, 1997
The Mercury Report
The Environmental Protection Agency has just completed one of the most comprehensive reports ever done on the sources of mercury and its effects on human health and wildlife. It says that about 80,000 pregnant women and half a million children are getting too much mercury mostly from canned tuna. The Mercury report which Congress requested in 1990 was completed a year and a half ago, but the EPA was reluctant to make it public. Finally a court ordered the report released this December 19th. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, has led the effort to make the study public. Steve Curwood asked the Senator why there was so much delay. (04:21)
M-T-B-E To Go?/ Cheryl Colopy
Momentum is building in California to get rid of the gasoline additive MTBE. MTBE--or methyl-tertiary-butyl-ether--was added to gas in California and some other areas to help clean up the air, but now the additive is contaminating drinking water supplies. Cheryl Colopy reports. (02:53)
Cali SUVs/ Brian Zumhagen
- There's another front now in California's seemingly endless battle against automobile pollution. Sport utility vehicles, vans and trucks are all the rage there. The boom in big, heavy vehicles is also threatening the state's air quality, and regulators there are considering steps to make these vehicles meet the same emissions standards as regular cars. Brian Zumhagen of member station KQED in San Francisco has more. (03:48)
When Congress returns in January, at the top of the list is how to divide transportation dollars. Historically, new highways have gotten the biggest part of this cash, but commentator Keith Schneider says, there is a growing cry in many communities for the road builders to stay away. Keith Schneider is the executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute and comes to us via station W-I-A-A in Interlochen, Michigan. (02:27)
Kids E-car/ Alexis Muellner
There's nothing like real world experience to enhance classroom learning, especially when it comes to job training. In South Florida, one group of students has spent the last year converting a gas powered Ford car into one propelled by electricity. When the automobile was ready for its first test-drive, reporter Alexis Muellner was there, and caught up with the crew as it prepared for a big national competition. (03:50)
Alaska Winter Solstice/ Geo Beach
All summer long, visitors from around the world travel to Alaska to the Land of the Midnight Sun. But commentator Geo Beach says those summer visitors are missing something special, namely the Land of the Noontime Moon. Writer Geo Beach arrived in Alaska fifteen years ago, on the winter solstice. He comes to us from K-B-B-I in Homer, Alaska. (02:55)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about..."ugly mix" to prevent the theft of roadside evergreen trees. (01:15)
Spell of the Sensuous/ David Abram
David Abram is a philosopher, ecologist, and magician who has traveled the world in search of the stories of indigenous peoples. He has lived with nonwriting communities in Nepal and Indonesia. In his book, “The Spell of the Sensuous,” he argues that the advent of the alphabet has had a profound and mostly unnoticed impact on our perception and our treatment of the natural world. (06:45)
Native American Winter Tales/ Joseph Bruchac
Storyteller Joseph Bruchac shares stories from the Iroquois and Abenaki traditions with yarns about a constellation of winter stars, and the singing of chickadees. According to Bruchac, these traditional tales provide both entertainment on long dark winter nights as well as information about ecology and the need for respect among all living things. (08:15)
Evergreen Triumphs Over Ever Greed/ Diane Edgecomb
Diane Edgecomb, accompanied by musician Margo Chamberlain, tells a British story about two brothers. One is content with hard work and nurturing the plants and animals around him, the other only wants to exploit what surrounds him. The nurturing brother is rewarded for his attitude, while the greedy brother gets put in his place. Edgecomb also tells a Cherokee myth about how the evergreen trees got to be that way. (10:48)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Cheryl Colopy, Brian Zumhagen, Alexis Muellner
GUESTS: Sen. Patrick Leahy, David Abram, Joseph Bruchac, Diane Edgecomb
COMMENTATORS: Keith Schneider, Geo Beach
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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
The Environmental Protection Agency has released a long-awaited study of mercury pollution, and the report may spur Congress to impose tighter restrictions.
LEAHY: Now we're going to go where the mercury pollutants come from. And if we know where we come from, the next obvious step would be to devise a strategy to stop them.
CURWOOD: Also, the popularity of sport utility vehicles is based on perceptions that may not be true.
CHERRY: The Ford Explorer offers that extra safety for them, you know, especially in the city driving here, you know, it's kind of dangerous. So a lot of people like to drive these now, especially housewives.
CURWOOD: But SUVs could be more dangerous than cars in some cases, and now some California regulators are concerned about what SUVs are doing to air quality. That and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.
(NPR News follows)
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Mercury is a powerful poison with harmful effects on the human reproductive system, the thyroid, and the brain. A millionth of a gram can be a dangerous daily dose for a child. Yet every year around 200 tons of the metal are spewed into the environment. The biggest offenders are incinerators, especially medical waste incinerators, which burn the mercury and fluorescent lightbulbs, thermometers, and batteries. Coal contains minute quantities of mercury. The stacks of power plants can send it hundreds of miles before it falls back to Earth. It then trickles into rivers, lakes, and the oceans, and makes its way up the food chain. The Environmental Protection Agency has just completed one of the most comprehensive reports ever done on the sources of mercury and its effects on human health and wildlife. It says that about 80,000 pregnant women and three million children, the most susceptible groups, are getting too much mercury, mostly from fish. Canned tuna has more mercury than any other commonly eaten fish, and the report shows that a young child consuming a tuna sandwich a day would eat up to 4 times the safe level. The Mercury Report, which Congress requested back in 1990, was completed a year and a half ago, but the EPA was reluctant to make it public. Finally, a court ordered the report released on December 19. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, has led the effort to make the study public. I asked the senator why there was so much delay.
LEAHY: It's taken far too long. If you look at it, it was actually due way back in November of 1994, but there have been a lot of differences between the various agencies, the Federal agencies. Then the fishing and electric utilities industry and others tried to delay the report. Obviously, this report, if it's followed, is going to bring about a lot of changes from our fishing industry. It's going to take changes in the utilities industry. I think everybody knew that, and everybody's worried how they might come out in the report.
CURWOOD: I'm wondering. You live in Vermont. I know this is a national problem. But does Vermont have a special problem with mercury as well?
LEAHY: Oh, we do. We've seen an increased rate of mercury accumulation in fish. We've seen it in some birds like loons. We see it in our waters. We have mercury, actually, throughout the northeast. We have it depositing higher than in other parts of the country in our lakes and our forests. And the indications are that a lot comes from other parts of the country, that the airborne mercury pollution from the Midwest, either their electric utilities and others, don't affect the areas that are creating the electricity, but rather the waste of it comes down in our lakes and our forests, and we bear the brunt of the health problems.
CURWOOD: What's significant about this report now from the EPA? I mean, we've known for a long time that even tiny amounts of mercury can be very dangerous to human health.
LEAHY: Well, there's no way that you can set up an overall strategy to stop this, unless you have a report like this and know exactly what is involved. We have an overall pollution control strategy for most of the major pollutants. We do not for mercury. And finally, the states and the Congress can get together and say here's an overall strategy to control it. We know that there's dangers. We know that children are going to face special dangers. Now, we're going to know where the mercury pollutants come from. And if we know where they come from, the next obvious step would be to devise a strategy to stop them.
CURWOOD: EPA is talking about redoubling its efforts to reduce the amount of mercury released into the environment. They want to require power plants and incinerators to reduce their output and to discourage the use of mercury in products. Do you think this is enough to do the job?
LEAHY: I think that's a good start, and I think that we should be doing that. And certainly, if you're a parent, for example, in the northeast, and you're wondering just what to feed your child, you've got to be greatly concerned about it. But eventually, we're going to need legislation. And it's going to be controversial at first, because it's going to appear to pit one part of the nation against the other. But it's not. What it's saying is, we want a better future for our children.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with me today. Patrick Leahy is a democratic senator from Vermont. Thank you, sir.
LEAHY: Okay. Take care.
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CURWOOD: High school students convert a car from gasoline to electricity. Environmentally aware job training is just ahead right here on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Momentum is building in California to get rid of the gasoline additive M-T-B-E. M-T-B-E, or methyl- tertiary-butyl-ether, was added to gas in California and some other areas to help clean up the air. But now the additive is contaminating drinking water supplies. Cheryl Colopy reports.
MOUNTJOY: This is out of the wells in the City of Glennville. This well is contaminated to the levels of 200,000 parts per billion...
COLOPY: At a hearing in Sacramento earlier this month, California State Senator Dick Mountjoy presented a sample of M-T-B-E-contaminated drinking water for US Senator Barbara Boxer to smell.
BOXER: It's really --
BOXER: It's vile.
COLOPY: M-T-B-E from gasoline has been getting into water supplies around California from Santa Monica to Lake Tahoe. And it's shown up in other parts of the country, too. At very low levels, M-T-B-E makes water taste and smell like turpentine. The health risks of any level of M-T-B-E aren't clear, but some researchers say it can cause cancer, immune system damage, as well as respiratory and neurological problems. M-T-B-E is one of several oxygenates, compounds which help gasoline burn more cleanly. Federal law requires that an oxygenate be added to fuel in high smog areas, and refiners in California and some areas chose M-T-B-E. But Senator Boxer says it's turned out to be a bad choice.
BOXER: A mistake was made back in the 80s and early 90s because this M-T-B- E was added without enough studies.
COLOPY: Senator Boxer has asked EPA Administrator Carol Browner to look into alternatives to M-T-B-E and to plan a phase-out of the additive. Senator Boxer's voice is the latest in a chorus of calls to get rid of M-T-B-E, including California's senior senator, Diane Feinstein, and 2 California oil companies. They want Congress to give refiners more leeway in making cleaner-burning gasoline. The EPA says it's unaware of any problems with M- T-B-E itself. The real problem, Agency spokespeople say, is leaking underground storage tanks and pipelines. The Agency hasn't taken a position on phasing out M-T-B-E, but Richard Wilson, the EPA's Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, says whatever components go into gasoline, air quality can't be sacrificed.
WILSON: The thing we're going to be concerned about is whatever steps are taken, that we're sure we don't lose the progress we've already made and we continue toward getting even cleaner gasoline.
COLOPY: M-T-B-E will remain in gasoline in California and elsewhere for the time being. But public concern is beginning to spread throughout the country, and it may be just a matter of time before M-T-B-E is phased out. But what will take its place is uncertain. Manufacturers of ethanol, an oxygenate that doesn't contaminate water, are gearing up. But there are other problems with that. Meanwhile, refiners say they can now make gas that meets air standards without any oxygenates at all. For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy.
CURWOOD: There's another front now in California's seemingly endless battle against automobile pollution. Sport Utility Vehicles, vans and trucks, are all the rage there, as they are across the country these days. Studies show that while these vehicles are often sold as safety enhancers, their poorer brakes and higher centers of gravity mean they are more likely to be involved in single-car accidents than cars. The boom in big, heavy vehicles is also threatening the state's air quality, and regulators there are considering steps to make these vehicles meet the same emissions standards as regular cars. Brian Zumhagen of member station KQED in San Francisco has more.
(Traffic sounds, motors, horns)
ZUMHAGEN: Time was when the Volkswagen Beetle was the unofficial vehicle of San Francisco. And through the 80s, the small Japanese import was the car of choice among the city's environmentally conscious residents. But nowadays, if you go to Market Street, the city's main thoroughfare, you'll see a steady flow of big, new vehicles: Chevrolet Suburbans, Jeep Grand Cherokees, and Toyota RAV-4s, to name a few.
(A car showroom)
CHERRY: This is a 1998 Ford Explorer over here.
CHERRY: Let me show you some of the features about this vehicle.
ZUMHAGEN: Ken Cherry is a deal at S&C Ford in San Francisco.
CHERRY: And it drives just fabulously. You know, it has dual airbags.
And speaking of airbags...
ZUMHAGEN: Ken Cherry says the Explorer is his biggest seller. He says the roomy interior and the powerful rear-wheel drive make buyers feel like rugged adventurers, although most of his customers probably never take the trucks off-road. Mr. Cherry says sitting in a big truck high off the ground makes drivers feel that they and their children are safer.
CHERRY: The Ford Explorer offers that extra safety for them, you know, especially in the city driving here, you know, it's kind of dangerous. So a lot of people like to drive these now, especially housewives.
VARENCHECK: They've become the station wagons of the 90s.
ZUMHAGEN: Rich Varencheck is Public Information Officer for the California Air Resources Board. He says about half of all new car sales in the state are now pickup trucks, minivans, and sport utility vehicles, or SUVs. And he says California's air quality is suffering as a result.
VARENCHECK: The general rule of thumb is that a pickup truck or a sport utility vehicle will emit about one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half times more air pollutants than a standard passenger sedan.
ZUMHAGEN: These vehicles don't have to meet the same pollution standards as regular cars because in the past they were used largely by tradespeople, like plumbers, carpenters, and construction workers. But now, California officials want to change that. The State Air Resources Board is considering new standards aimed at cleaning up the exhaust of SUVs and vans beginning with the model year 2004. But automakers remain resistant. They say the proposed regulations could price some prospective buyers out of the market. Richard Glemish is Vice President of Engineering for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.
GLEMISH: We could do it. It's just a matter of cost, and you know, what effect this has on the consumer and all that. But it's not that it can't be done. The question is whether it's cost beneficial, whether it's a good idea.
ZUMHAGEN: It certainly may not be good for automakers' profits. Detroit makes much more money from the sale of light trucks than from other vehicles. Environmentalists think the proposal is a good idea, but they say the regulations would only do half the job. Janet Hathaway, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out that California can only control smog emissions.
HATHAWAY: What they are not really given the authority to do is to set efficiency standards. In other words, to control the climate change emissions, CO2, carbon dioxide emissions, that occur from vehicles.
ZUMHAGEN: Carbon dioxide emissions are the direct result of fuel consumption. And SUVs, minivans, and trucks, which have far lower fuel efficiency standards, are the fastest-growing source of CO2 in the US. Changes in mileage standards would have to come out of Washington, but that's unlikely to happen any time soon. Still, California's move could start to turn the tide on sport utility vehicles. The State Air Resources Board is expected to rule on the proposed standards a year from now. For Living on Earth, I'm Brian Zumhagen in San Francisco.
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CURWOOD: When Congress returns in January, at the top of the list is how to divide transportation dollars. Historically, new highways have gobbled up the biggest part of this cash. But as commentator Keith Schneider says, there is a growing cry in many communities for road-builders to stay away.
SCHNEIDER: When highway engineers in Michigan unwrapped a plan 2 years ago to build a new bypass outside Travers City, they expected public delight. They were wrong. Hundreds of people turned up at public meetings to oppose the 4-lane road as a threat to the environment, neighborhoods, and downtown businesses. Right here, in the state that invented the mass-production of automobiles, pointed questions are being asked about how best to move people and goods. Increasingly, new roads are being rejected as the answer. Critics have amassed convincing evidence that more concrete not only does not solve transportation problems, it appears to aggravate them.
Consider this telling fact: nearly 1 trillion dollars has been spent on transportation since 1985, most of it on new highways. Yet congestion is worse than ever. And the toll on the environment is rising. Half of the air pollution in the United States is produced by cars and light trucks.
In 1991 Congress passed a transportation bill that anticipated the current debate. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act was designed to give citizens more authority to decide how transportation projects are planned in their communities. The law provided incentives for greater public investment and workable alternatives. As a result, St. Louis built a new light rail line, and Boulder, Colorado, established a popular system that gives riders unlimited access to bus routes in 6 counties.
It's true that when transportation choices are weighed, some places still want roads. In Maine, for instance, voters recently approved a $58 million widening of the Maine Turnpike to relieve congestion. But across the nation, many more communities are looking for alternatives. Pitched battles are underway to block new highways in Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, and 6 other states. The nation, in short, is in the throes of a different sort of road rage. The debate has advanced the public's understanding about the links between road-building, sprawl, and environmental degradation. By focusing on saving money, neighborhoods, and forests, local leaders are working to block bad ideas and rallying support for better ones. The public's call for alternatives to new roads certainly merits much closer attention from lawmakers in Washington.
CURWOOD: Keith Schneider is Executive Director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. He comes to us from WIAA in Interlochen, Michigan.
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CURWOOD: There's nothing like real world experience to enhance classroom learning, especially when it comes to job training. In South Florida, one group of students has spent the last year converting a gas-powered Ford into one propelled by electricity. When the car was finally ready for its first test drive, Alexis Muellner was there and caught up with the crew as it prepared for a big national competition.
MAN: On your mark. Get set. Go!
MUELLNER: It's third period in a rear parking lot at Miramar High School, 10 miles west of Fort Lauderdale.
(People cheering the racers on)
MAN 1: That's the same one I hit.
MAN 2: I know, it's the same one you hit every time.
MAN 1: That's what everybody did.
MUELLNER: A metallic purple sedan quietly kicks up gravel on a course made of orange traffic cones. Instructor Lowell Simmons and students in his Advanced Automotive class crowd around a stopwatch.
(More electric whirring)
MAN 1: Keep going! Faster!
MAN 2: Twenty-two, 22.6 but he had it going.
MAN 3: Open it up...
MUELLNER: It's a special morning for these high school seniors. After months of work, they've converted a flood-ruined Ford Probe into an electric car. Soon they'll take the car to a big national competition. Today they're having time trials. Whichever student drives the course the quickest gets to race in the competition.
(More electrical whirring)
MAN 1: Go, go!
MAN 2: All right!
MUELLNER: As the car passes, it makes a curious whine. Twelfth-grader
Paul Cook explains.
COOK: It's the potentiometer, that's essentially, in a regular car, what the gas pedal would be, okay? And what it is, is it's not quite letting all the power go. So it gives a little bit of a whirring noise.
MUELLNER: The class is part of a new school-to-work program at Miramar. The high school got the electric car project because for health reasons, one of its automotive instructors couldn't work around gas fumes any more.
MAN 1: You missed it, you hit a cone but you had a 20.2.
MAN 1: Five-second penalty.
MUELLNER: Converting the car meant learning about fuel cell technology, aerodynamics and systems design. As well as hands-on auto maintenance and wiring.
SIMMONS: Now they know how to use vertical mills and lathes and different things like that to make things and turn it into a project, and they have something to work for.
MUELLNER: Instructor Lowell Simmons said students had to work long hours after school, and over the summer, often crafting their own parts.
SIMMONS: People from all walks of life would touch this car. And, you know, some have different strengths in different areas and others in other different areas. It's just a medium that we've used to teach students something and, you know, they seem to be learning from it quite a bit.
MUELLNER: It's paid off for the students, Lowell Simmons says. They're already getting calls from local companies attracted by their willingness to work. Student Abdul Rozaknuhu.
ROZAKNUHU: We have, you know, a lot of people, you know, getting involved with it. And then, you know, we're going to perfect the technology and maybe one day, you know, we're going to have a lot of electric cars nowadays.
MUELLNER: Abdul Rozaknuhu is more optimistic than many in the auto industry. Efforts to get the electric vehicles on the road have moved slowly in the face of what automakers say is consumer apathy. That indifference is hard to see on the face of these kids, who not only understand electric vehicle technology, but they're likely to be its first consumers. Miramar high school seniors Danny Denaro and Robert Barton.
DENARO: When I took it around the track, it's quicker than most cars.
BARTON: Yeah, the handling is sweet. (Laughs)
MUELLNER: In the spring, students will continue to fine-tune the car. At the same time, they hope to add a second electric car to their racing team. For Living on Earth, I'm Alexis Muellner in Miramar, Florida.
MAN 1: Nineteen-forty-point-five. Fastest one.
MAN 2: I want to ride that!
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CURWOOD: All summer long, visitors from around the world travel to Alaska to find the land of the Midnight Sun. They usually steal south with the eternal sunlight captured in their cameras. But commentator Geo Beach says those summer visitors are missing something special: the land of the Noontime Moon.
BEACH: Our heavens have turned cobalt, and it's no use railing against the dying of the light. Not even the biggest dipper can bail out night this deep. Blue bruises to black, and a dark veil conceals all but a winking sliver of the Great White Alaska. This December packs a triple-play line-up of Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. But Alaskans start their holiday games a little earlier, on the 21st, the Winter Solstice.
Northern peoples have tracked the winter sun for millennia, stolidly surveying the skies from Stonehenge, boisterously burning the midnight oil in Roman saturnalias, and mischievously mumming across Manchuria. And succeeding religions borrowed and adapted these ceremonies that reflect life's intrinsic orientation to light.
But blinded by the blaze of commercialism, America has forgotten the reasons for these festivals of lights. Up in Alaska, we haven't forgotten. If light is life, it's only natural to be a little afraid of the dark. We live beyond the end of the road, past the last power lines. Like the sky overhead, there's a lot of black between a few minute points of light in Alaska. Winter Solstice is the beginning of the end of that night, the road back to the Midnight Sun. That's great reason to cheer.
This Solstice, we'll be standing outside around a bonfire, watching our world go round. It's traditional. The Anglo-Saxon's Solstice celebration was called heowl for Wheel, which became Yule in our vocabulary. Those guys had figured out the great circular course of the sun wheeling through the skies, and celebrated that everything that goes down must come up.
Alaskans have an expression that what goes around comes around. And on a clear night, you can really feel yourself riding around on top of a tilted planet, holding onto your firelight, your family, and your friends. And if we become brightened by a bit too much home brew, if we tilt and forget some of the words to those carols, our children will sing out the verses we passed along to them, and keep the music going around. And around again. Happy Solstice!
(Music up and under: Ding Dong Merrily on High)
CURWOOD: Writer Geo Beach arrived in Alaska 15 years ago on the Winter Solstice. He comes to us from KBBI in Homer, Alaska.
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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the David and Lucille Packard Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity; www.wajones.org; and The Bullitt Foundation.
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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
CURWOOD: Our annual storytelling feast is coming up in the second half of Living on Earth. Stick around.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: Last month it was turkeys, but this month evergreens are under the axe. With more than 30 million Christmas trees sold in December, that's big business and the merchants have made big changes over the years. In the 1950s, most Christmas trees were taken from the forest. Today there's a 98% chance that the tree you buy grew on a plantation. Now, most people decorate their trees with ornaments, but employees at New York's Department of Transportation dress roadside trees with a coating called "ugly mix" to scare off roadside thieves. In recent years a troubling number of drivers have been pulling over and chopping down landscape trees for Christmas. The Department hopes the stomach-turning mixture of hydrated lime and food coloring will send potential thieves to the nearest Christmas tree lot. In case that doesn't discourage, the highway workers spray on odor: bad smells like skunk juice and cat urine. Leave the trees be and you can breathe easy. Sprayed or not, one acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people every day. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: Every year around this time we break from our usual format to bring you stories to usher in the winter season. This year, we begin by talking with a man who has thought a lot about storytelling. David Abram is a philosopher, ecologist, and magician who has traveled the world in search of stories of indigenous peoples. He has lived with non-writing communities in Nepal and Indonesia, and he has written a book, The Spell of the Sensuous, in which he argues that the advent of the alphabet has had a profound and mostly unnoticed impact on our perception and our treatment of the natural world. He says storytelling ties us to the land. And for nonwriting cultures, it is the means by which knowledge is passed down the generations.
ABRAM: All the basic knowledge that one needs regarding how to live and survive in a place has to be preserved somehow. For us it's very clear. It's written down, we go to the library, we find the right book, look it up, and there's the information there on the page. How is this knowledge preserved in a culture without writing? And the answer is that the knowledge must be preserved in stories. The stories are like the ancestral encyclopedias of a nonwriting culture.
CURWOOD: I'm really curious. Could you tell us about some of the stories you've encountered on your travels?
ABRAM: Well, yes. There's one of the stories from the Swampy Cree people of northern Canada. The story is about a trickster fellow who's walking along, and he finds a wishing bone. And this wishing bone enables him to sort of wish up things any way that he wants. So he says, "Well, one day I wished all the squirrels had their tails pointing North. I made them point North just by wishing it. I walked along a trail and saw squirrels on the ground and up in the trees, all with their tails pointing North. It was as if a great wind was blowing North and trying to take those squirrel tails with it. "It's so weird you would do this to us," one of them said. "Well, I got lost once," I told them, "and I couldn't find my way North. If that happens again, I'll just follow your tails." Then the squirrels called someone for help. It was a skunk. I wasn't too happy about this. I was standing just North of that skunk, kind of close to him. He said, "Let their tails go, and I'll show you which way North is." Then he pointed his tail North, right at me! I wished the squirrel tails back their old way. But that skunk still had his tail pointed at me. I tried to get away but it was too late! I ran South shouting, "He sprayed me!" For days, everyone knew in their noses (sniffs) which way South was. Because of me. So this simple tale, it carries all sorts of useful knowledge for the culture. Knowledge about knowing your directions, and the importance of knowing your directions. About not being too cocky, because it can backfire upon you. Knowledge about the other animals in one's terrain.
CURWOOD: So in other words, in oral societies, storytelling is really about survival.
ABRAM: Indeed. If it didn't engage in storytelling all the time, the culture would fall apart.
CURWOOD: What role does land play, and nature play, in aboriginal storytelling?
ABRAM: Well you see, for nonwriting peoples, the question remains how, if all the knowledge is carried in the stories, how are the stories preserved and remembered? It turns out that they are remembered by being associated very often with particular places, particular sites in the natural landscape where those stories occurred. And when a tribesperson encounters those places, he remembers the particular events, the particular stories associated with those places.
CURWOOD: What happens then, when you develop a phonetic alphabet?
ABRAM: You see, the intimacy between language and the land begins to break down. Once writing comes in, and the stories begin to be written down, they are stripped from the creeks and the boulders and the clusters of trees that once held those stories. And they're stripped off those sites and inscribed on the page. The page and now the book becomes the primary memory trigger of the stories. And so the stories can now be carried elsewhere and read in distant cities and on distant continents and the place-based character of those stories, their rootedness in the particular ecology, is easily forgotten.
CURWOOD: All right. How do you propose that we reacquaint people with storytelling?
ABRAM: Well, I think it's something that is layered so deeply into us, and into ourselves as it were, we were all of storytelling cultures for so many millennia. It's really just a matter of scratching the surface of our skin to begin to remember what it is to tell and to listen to stories. Children know this, and it's only once they learn to read and write around the age of 6 or 7 that they begin to learn and accept what the adults are saying, that the tree itself does not really have its own awareness. And that the boulders themselves don't really have a life of their own. But I think it really is our spontaneous, ordinary human experience of the world to feel that everything is alive, and indeed that everything has the potential for speech. We don't only need to go to the movies to find a good story or pick up a book, but we can actually begin to tell stories ourselves, even improvising stories in the moment. Taking our kids out of doors and walking them over to the forest edge and telling a story, weaving a story with them about what happens just inside this forest every full moon. It's a beginning to weave stories about the places where we live. Is to begin to plant language back in the land and to begin to renew this ancient reciprocity between language and the landscape.
CURWOOD: David Abram, thanks for taking this time with us today.
ABRAM: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: David Abram's book is called The Spell of the Sensuous. It's published in paperback by Vintage.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: In many traditions including Living on Earth's, winter is the season of storytelling. The cold invites us to put on the kettle, gather together, and spend some times just listening to stories. Here's an encore presentation.
BRUCHAC: Long ago, the Iroquois people say there were 7 boys who wanted to do just as their fathers did. To have a special medicine lodge society. In such a lodge, they would play a drum and they would dance and sing and they would have a great feast afterward, and so they went to their parents and told them what they wanted to do. But their mothers and their fathers, they laughed at those boys: "You are too young to do this sort of thing! Go and play some other game that children play."
Those boys became very angry. They began to walk out of the village, and as they walked out, an old man was there near the edge of the village holding a drum. He said to them, "Here. You can have this drum." They took that drum, and they continued on until they reached a place on the other side of a hill and there began to dance and sing, louder and louder, so loud that the sound of their dancing and singing reached back to the village. And their mothers and fathers hearing it, said, "Who is having the meeting of a medicine lodge society? Who could that be?"
They followed the sound of the drum. They came to the hilltop and they looked down and they saw those 7 boys dancing in a circle, playing the drum and singing. But they were so angry that as they danced and sang, the power of their singing and dancing was such that their feet were no longer touching the ground. Higher and higher they danced, higher and higher. Their parents called out to them, but they continued to dance. Although it is said that one of the smallest ones looked back and fell down as a shooting star.
The others danced right up into the sky. They dance there to this day, those 7 dancing boys that are now called the Pleiades by European people. But those are those boys from long ago, whose parents did not respect them.
CURWOOD: Joe Bruchac, thanks for joining us on Living on Earth.
BRUCHAC: Mm hm. Thank you.
CURWOOD: You're a storyteller. You're a writer. You live in Greenfield Center, New York. That's in the foothills of the Adirondacks. And you remember the Abenaki Nation. But you also have roots in other traditions, too, right?
BRUCHAC: Yes, Slovak and English, that's also part of my ancestry.
CURWOOD: Well those all have some pretty strong oral traditions. And perhaps, not coincidentally, some long winters.
BRUCHAC: Well, winter is the time for telling stories in many traditions, especially for the Native people of this continent. Because the days were very short and the nights were very long, it was a good time to tell stories. And you would need a good story to get you through those long nights. It's also true that the stories were not supposed to be told in the summer. For example, a good story is so powerful that everything wants to listen to it, including the snakes who are awake in the summer time. So if you don't want snakes in your house, you don't tell these traditional stories when the days are long.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay. What gave you this bug? Why do you tell stories?
BRUCHAC: I was raised by my grandparents. And although my grandfather, who is Abenaki Indian, did not tell traditional stories, he ran a little general store and a gas station and people would come there and sit around the potbellied stove and trade tall tales. Usually from the Adirondack traditions. And I think if you grow up around elders and you listen, in a way you can't help but become a storyteller.
CURWOOD: Anything else you want to tell us from your Native American tradition?
BRUCHAC: This is a story that again comes from the Iroquois people. The great midwinter ceremony takes place traditionally at the solstice time of the year, although nowadays it takes place in January. They've moved it so it doesn't compete with Christmas. And at that solstice time, when the 7 dancing stars are in the exact center of the sky, they play a game called the bowl game in which you put a number of stones, painted black on one side and white on the other, into the bowl, shake it, and depending on how they come up facing black or white, you either score a point or you fail.
The story goes that long ago, Grandmother Moon looked down on the Earth and was not happy with what she saw. She said, "Life on Earth must end." Now the good mind, who was always a defender of the people, he said to his grandmother, "Grandmother, is there no way we can prevent this from happening? She said to him, "I will tell you what. We will play the bowl game and the one who wins will decide whether or not life will continue."
So the good mind went to the chickadees. He said to them, "My friends, I want you to help me." And he told them what he needed. And they said, "Of course. You can borrow our heads, which are black on one side and white on the other, put them in the bowl, and we will do what we can." So when the good mind took the bowl and he shook it, the chickadees flew up, their heads flew up looking just like little black and white stones, singing in mid-air. They flew around and then they landed and gave him a perfect score.
So it was that he won, and life on Earth continues. And so it is to this day that in the middle of the winter, you could hear the chickadees singing and celebrating the continuance of life.
CURWOOD: I guess I'll never look at the chickadee the same way again. You know, Joe, one thing that always intrigues me about Native American stories is and those from other traditional cultures is the way that you see the natural world in sort of human terms. Anthropomorphic, I think, is the long word. That the elements, that animals and plants have human qualities. And that's very different from the way that we generally see things in the modern world.
BRUCHAC: Well, the thing about traditional stories is that they remind us everything is alive and deserving of respect. And those stories have on the one hand the purpose of entertainment, but the reason they entertain is so that the lessons they teach will come across that much stronger. So if animals and plants are seen as being the equal and just as important as human beings, we're teaching a lesson that we need for survival. That was how my ancestors see it, and that is how I still see it to this day.
CURWOOD: Joe, we're just about out of time, but I saw you brought your beautiful drum. Could you do something with that for us?
BRUCHAC: What I want to share with you is actually a tradition from the Abenaki people, a tradition that is still carried out to this day. At this time of year, the December solstice, it was the time when people went from house to house greeting each other. And what they would say when they greeted each other this time, what they would say was, "An halom mawi, casia palwea walang." Which means, "Forgive me for any wrong I may have done you in the past year." And that was then followed by a friendship song and a friendship dance bringing the people together, back into the circle of life, forgiveness and respect restored. So I want to share with you that traditional friendship song. And its translation is very simple. It basically says, "I like this, and I like that." And that idea of caring for the people and the living things around you is at the center of the friendship song.
(Beats drum) We gai waneaaaa, we gai waneaaa, we gai waneaaaa, we gai waneaaa...
CURWOOD: Joe Bruchac, thank you very much.
BRUCHAC: Wole wanea, thank you.
CURWOOD: Joe Bruchac is a storyteller from New York State. He's also the coauthor, with Michael Caduto, of Keepers of Life: Discovering Plants Through Native American Stories and Earth Activities for Children.
(Music up and under: flute and bird twitterings)
CURWOOD: With us now in the studio is a horse goddess. Hello.
EDGECOMB: (Laughs) Neeeeeigh!
CURWOOD: Actually, this is Diana Edgecomb and she's a horse goddess and all kinds of things as she tells her stories. Thanks for joining us.
EDGECOMB: Hello. It's a pleasure to be here, Steve.
CURWOOD: Well, you use stories to explore the human connection to the natural world, and our estrangement from nature. That's why we've invited you here to the show. Tell us about the story you're going to tell now.
EDGECOMB: This first story I would like to share is actually collected by Ruth Tong, and she collected it from a man in Pittminster in England. And it's a Wassail story. And within the story there is a tree spirit called the Apple Tree Man, which we don't encounter very often now. But the Apple Tree Man was always responsible for the fertility of the entire orchard, so you can see that the Apple Tree Man was very important.
CURWOOD: Oh, yes.
EDGECOMB: And in the old days, instead of just Wassailing each other and getting drunk, people would actually do something to ensure the fertility of the orchard. They would have Wassail traditions. And include the natural world.
CURWOOD: Okay, well I'm ready if you are.
EDGECOMB: (Laughs) Yes, I am.
(Harp music plays; women sing: "Wassail, Wassail, all over the town. Our toast, it is white and our ale it is brown. Our bowl, it is made of the white maple tree. With a Wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee. Drink to thee! Drink to thee! With a Wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee.)
EDGECOMB: This is a tale of a hard-working chap, eldest in a big family, see? And so, when his dad die, there weren't nothin' left for he. Youngest gets it all! And youngest do give bits and pieces to all his kith, but youngest don't like eldest. All he do give eldest is his dad's old donkey, and an ox that was so skinny it was pretty much gone to anatomy. And his grandfer's old tumble-down cottage with its two dree ancient old apple trees. Only problem is, cottage doesn't have any roof. Only problem is, apple trees don't bear no fruit. But eldest don't grumble. No, sets to work. And he cuts the grass along the lane and feeds it to donkey and donkey starts to fatten. And he rubs old ox with the herbs and says the words for healing. And ox do pick himself up and walk smart. And then the eldest do turn those two beasties out into the orchard. And then those old apple trees flourish a-marvel.
Well one day, into the orchard came the youngest, and he says, " 'Twill be Christmas Eve come tomorrow when all the beasts do talk at midnight. Now I've heard tell and you've heard tell that there's a treasure buried hereabouts. And I'm set. I'm going to ask your donkey where the treasure is buried, and he mustn't refuse to tell me the truth, not on Christmas Eve. Now eldest, you wake me up just afore midnight. I'll take a whole sixpence off your rent."
Come Christmas Eve, the eldest don't forget the animals. He gives old ox and donkey a bit extra. And he fixes a bit of holly in the stables. And then he takes his last mug of cider, and he warms it and mulls it by the fire. And when it's warm and inviting, he outs to the orchard to Wassail the old apple tree. (A flute plays.) (Sings:) "Old apple tree, we'll Wassail thee, and hoping thou wilt bear. The Lord shall know what we shall need to be merry another year. So grow well and so bear well and so merry let us be. That everybody lift up a cup (Laughs) here's health to the old apple tree!" And he takes and throws the last of the cider on the old apple tree. "Good health to you, old apple tree!" And the Apple Tree Man within the tree, he looks out and speaks to the chap. You take a look under this girt didicki root of ours."
So the eldest looks under that girt didicki root. And the hard earth moves aside like it's sand. And he finds a small box, and within it, golden coins.
"You take it, and hide it, and bide quiet about it. 'Tis yours and no one else's."
So eldest does just that. And when he's finished, it's almost midnight. And he goes to wake up his dear younger brother. Well his younger brother wakes up and he's all in a hurry, push. He rushes out in his nightshirt with his hair all every which way. And sure enough, when he gets to the stables, the donkey is a-talkin' to the ox: "You know this girt greedy fool? A-listenin' to us so unmannerly? He do what we should tell him where the treasure is."
"And that's where he's never gonna get it," say the ox. "For somebody have a-tooked it already."
And the two animals, in concert, lifted their tails.
(Harp music plays. Women sing: "Oh here's to the ox and to his right horn. Pray God send my master a good crop of corn. And a good crop of corn that may we all see. With a Wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee. Drink to thee! Drink to thee! With a Wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee.")
CURWOOD: Well, that was terrific! Thank you. Diane Edgecomb is our guest here. She's a storyteller. I love stories, of course being in radio. In the news business, even, we call it a story; it gets edited. I think it's an essential part of us as human beings to tell these stories. But you tell stories about nature. Why in particular stories about nature?
EDGECOMB: Well, I think storytelling is such a connecting medium, and it really was a way for me to bring children and other people into a different relationship to nature through story. I could teach children, you know, the names of different birds and animals and processes. And stories are really the smallest unit of meaning, too, so I could in a way try and get them to see new meanings in the natural world.
CURWOOD: But much of your repertoire actually is for adults.
EDGECOMB: Yes. I think that that's because I'm also trying to make links for myself. Once I grew up and stopped climbing trees and building forts and I felt this loss of connection. And I had a few experiences, I think, that made me realize that I could find a medium, which turned out to be storytelling, that I could use to reconnect myself, and that needed to be in an adult form through seasonal folktales.
CURWOOD: Seasonal folk tales. Now, Joe Bruchac has just told us that the winter time invites storytelling. You're saying that adults need stories to unfreeze us in some fashion?
EDGECOMB: Yes. And the Wassail bowl can unfreeze you, too. (Laughs). But yes, a sense of community is really established through that, because it's not just the storyteller creating the story. It's the entire group of people having these images live in their mind's eye.
CURWOOD: Diane Edgecomb, we have time for just one more story. Do you have one that you could tell us?
EDGECOMB: I would really love to tell this Cherokee myth. It's a beautiful one for this time of year, and when I'm driving down the highway and I see the poor trees with no leaves and I see a few evergreens, I think of this story and I hope other people will as well.
When the plants and the trees were first created, they were given a task: to stay awake for 7 days and 7 nights. Now the first day and night, all of the plants and trees stayed wide awake and the second night as well. But by the third night, and the dawning of the fourth day, many of the small plants and some of the trees were falling fast, fast asleep. Who would be able to stay awake for 7 days and 7 nights?
But on the seventh night, and the dawning of the eighth day, there stood the cedar, the pine, the spruce, and fir, the hemlock, the holly, and the laurel. "You have endured," a voice said, "and you shall be given a gift. All of the other plants and trees will lose their leaves and sleep the winter long, but you shall never lose your leaves. You will provide a shelter to the birds during the harshest winds, and you will remind the people that even during the darkest times something remains. You shall be evergreen."
CURWOOD: Thank you very much. Diane Edgecomb is a storyteller. Thanks for coming by with your accompanist, Margo Chamberlain. Thank you so much for joining us.
EDGECOMB: Thank you very much for bringing us here.
(Harp music up and under)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Kim Motylewski is our associate editor. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Chris Ballmann is our senior producer, and Liz Lempert directed our program this week. Our production team includes Jesse Wegman, Daniel Grossman, and George Homsy, Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Roberta de Avila, and Peter Shaw. We had help from Dana Campbell. The storytelling segments were recorded by Jane Pipik. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Jeff Martini engineers the program, which is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Happy holidays, and thanks for listening.
(Harp music up an under)
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all- natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800-PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture.
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