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

December 29, 2000

Air Date: December 29, 2000


MT. Washington / Alex Chadwick

Mountaineers David Breashears and Rick Wilcox take us on an 800-foot ice climb on Mt. Washington, New Hampshire on this National Geographic Radio Expedition. NPR’s Alex Chadwick reports. (08:30)

Sun Song / Barrett Golding

The sounds of charged solar particles hitting the atmosphere and the voice of the man who records them, set to a swirly rock n’ roll beat by producer Barrett Golding. (03:00)

Health Update / Diane Toomey

Diane Toomey reports on a promising new treatment for bacterial infections as antibiotic-resistant bacteria reach crisis proportions. (00:59)

Dining with Birds

Hugh Wiberg, author of “Hand-feeding Backyard Birds,” shows host Steve Curwood the fine points of feeding wild birds out of the palm of one’s hand. (07:45)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about the first computer bug. More than 55 years ago the first actual computer bug was physically extracted from a primitive number cruncher. (01:45)

Cormorant Fishing / Bruce Thorson

The age-old Chinese art of cormorant fishing may be coming to an end because of pollution, population stress and tourism. Bruce Thorson reports from the Li River in southern China. (05:30)

Technology Update / Cynthia Graber

Cynthia Graber reports on how a TV police chase inspired hi-tech environmental detective work. (00:59)

Georgia Lost and Found / Jesse Wegman

Jesse Wegman travels the Georgia coast to bring us the story of the near-death of a unique African-American culture and of a small flicker of hope for its survival. The story of the community of black fishermen and farmers at Harris Neck is told through the eyes of Wilson Moran. Mr. Moran left Harris Neck as a teenager, and returned to re-cultivate his roots there nearly forty years later. (17:05)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Alex Chadwick, Barrett Golding, Bruce Thorson, Jesse Wegman
UPDATES: Diane Toomey, Cynthia Graber
GUESTS: Hugh Wiberg

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Climbing Mount Washington. It's not the world's biggest mountain, but its steep face and heavy winds make it one of the most challenging. Come along, but watch your step.

WILCOX: You would rocket down the gully, and there would be no way to stop yourself. And then you would go airborne over the first part of the cliff, which is up to 60 degrees, and then land down on a pile of rocks. There's no survival, falling all the way down this gully.

CURWOOD: Also, feeding wild birds by hand.

WIBERG: They're lining up, up there to come in, depending on where they stand in the chickadee hierarchy.

CURWOOD: This one is next, kind of a big one. This is amazing.

WIBERG: Isn't that fun?

CURWOOD: And when particles from the Earth and sun collide in space, it's music to the ear.

McGREEVY: It's beautiful. It's primordial. It's Mother Earth singing.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth. First, the news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

MT. Washington

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We begin our program this week with an adventure in New England's great outdoors. We travel to an icy, dangerous cliff face to meet two mountain climbers. They are among the best in the world. Each has guided others to the top of Mount Everest. Today they climb with each other and with recording gear for National Geographic Radio Expeditions. Here's NPR's Alex Chadwick.

(Chains clank)

BREASHEARS: Might as well climb it, right?



CHADWICK: David Breashears. Among climbers, world-famous for his daring feats.

BREASHEARS: Should be okay for about 100 feet up the right hand side there. You'll see a spot to belay, I think.

CHADWICK: His friend Rick Wilcox, well-known in the White Mountains for leading dozens of climbs.

WILCOX: You see how it sort of slates, goes toward the right?


WILCOX: Well, that's the way.

CHADWICK: The rock is New Hampshire granite. Eight hundred feet, frighteningly steep, every inch covered in thick blue ice.

BREASHEARS: Well, let's see what happens.

CHADWICK: They're going to climb. We are going with them.


CHADWICK: We are a pair of small microphones wired to their helmets. Some of what the climbers say is from those helmet microphones. Some is from interviews after the climb.

BREASHEARS: I'm kicking, and I'm trying to not kick too hard, because you can kick out the ice.

CHADWICK: David Breashears has boots with steel crampon spikes at the toes and an ice axe in each hand.

WILCOX: You're swinging an ice axe. It's attached to your wrist and your shoulder. And as you swing and swing, your feet get pried further and further out, and you can pop off the ice. If you watch really talented, experienced ice climbers, when they swing that ice axe, you watch their heels. Their heels don't move. And that's what I'm thinking about.

BREASHEARS: Well, I'm just above Rick here. Very pleasant little bit of ice. (Hammers) Typical problem early, when you're either new to the season or new to the sport, is to bash your toes in about 20 times harder than is necessary. Just get yourself tired.

CHADWICK: At 50 feet he sets the first safety point, a hollow, threaded, eight-inch shaft of titanium.

BREASHEARS: I'll belay.


BREASHEARS: Putting in a screw here.

CHADWICK: And slips his safety rope through a clip on the end of the screw. And now, Rick Wilcox on the ground below, not climbing yet, can belay for David. Hold the rope's other end, keep it taut, in case there's a slip.


CHADWICK: Then David climbs higher to set another screw, anchor himself to it, and wait. And now, Rick begins to climb.

WILCOX: Climbing! Well, I have to say the gully looks in excellent condition. Certainly as good as it gets.

CHADWICK: They're on Pinnacle Gully, high on a shoulder of Mount Washington, New England's tallest peak, though modest by many standards: 6,300 feet. Still, it has some of the world's strongest winds, and this ice wall has killed at least one Everest climber. A modest peak in New Hampshire, but don't slip off belay.

WILCOX: You would rocket down the gully, and there would be no way to stop yourself. And then you would go airborne over the first part of the cliff, which is up to 60 degrees, and then land down on a pile of rocks. There's no survival, falling all the way down this gully.

BREASHEARS: Okay, let me get you through here. You're still on belay.

WILCOX: Yeah, okay.

BREASHEARS: Find a place you like. Ouch. Well, I'm racking up again, getting ready for the next pitch. And we've just finished 165 feet of ice.

CHADWICK: They climb a series of pitches, set by the length of the rope. Two hundred feet, David in the lead.

(Hammering, clanking)

CHADWICK: He tries not to loosen any of the chunk ice that climbers call dinner plates. Platter-sized pieces but much thicker, falling heavy and fast. One could easily knock Rick off the wall, where he's waiting below. When he reaches the rope's end, David waits and Rick climbs, pulling screws as he passes. He reaches David. The process starts over.

BREASHEARS: We've climbed over a little bulge, and now I'm on easier terrain. Getting up a little bit. Steeper here. Kind of messy right here. Messy. But the ice is nice, they say. And will suffice.

Climbing, especially on ice, and rock as well, is very absorbing. What really matters is what's right in front of you. Staying attached to that piece of ice in that calm and self-assured manner. And yet, there's other things to keep track of. How much rope is left. And where am I going to place the next ice screw? How far below is the last ice screw? How do I kick and not hit the rope? Because sometimes the rope is running down right between your feet. And it's not a good idea at all to kick that rope and cut in half your lifeline.

A little bulge I'm on now, which is nice. (Hammers, breathes heavily) Stopping here. Hey, Rick? You're on, Rick!

WILCOX: Climbing!

BREASHEARS: It's not like a rock climb, where every time you climb a rock climb, each handhold is exactly the same. Each time you climb an ice climb, it is totally different. The bulges are different. The ice texture is different. The temperature is different.


CHADWICK: Seven hundred feet up now, near the top, David climbing.

BREASHEARS: Great. So I'm about 80 feet above the belay. Rick's encouraging me to put in an ice screw, which I shall. Because you can fall over 170 feet at the moment. But it's so unlikely to fall off. (Calls to Wilcox) Ice on the left! Big piece!


BREASHEARS: Sorry, Rick!


(Hammering, heavy breathing)

BREASHEARS: How much rope?

WILCOX: Oh, ten feet!

BREASHEARS: Okay! (Hammers) There's a nice place off to the left on rope, and it's flat. It's right at the top of the buttress. It's very beautiful. It will be spectacular today. It will be in the sun. Of course, anything on the right's going to be in the sun.

CHADWICK: In a little more than two hours of climbing, they emerge from the darkened slot of the gully, happily weary. Rick Wilcox, a Himalayan expedition leader who owns International Mountaineering Equipment in North Conway, New Hampshire; and David Breashears, the Mount Everest IMAX filmmaker, who is at work to begin another IMAX mountain project. In 20 years of friendship, this day was the first they'd ever spent climbing together.

WILCOX: It's fun to be out climbing, though.


CHADWICK: For Radio Expeditions, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR news.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our story on climbing Mount Washington was produced by Van Williamson and engineered by Flawn Williams and Charles Thompson. Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Sun Song

CURWOOD: The northern lights, or aurora borealis, make some of nature's most sublime performances. They're pulsating sheets of white and colored lights streaming down from the heavens above the North Pole. Auroras appear when surges of charged particles from the sun hit the earth's magnetic fields. The particles emit light, and, it turns out, they emit sound as well. But unlike the lights, you need special equipment to hear the sound of the aurora. Steve McGreevy has some of that special equipment. He calls himself a natural radio recordist, and he travels around in a van capturing the sounds of natural phenomena. Steve McGreevy invited producer Barrett Golding to turn these sounds of the aurora borealis into radio. The result is called Sun Song.

(Crackling and whistles accompanied by guitar)

McGREEVY: There's just a whole litany of different natural radio sounds to record.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: Whistlers and growlers and howlers and tweaks.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: Particles from the sun are hitting earth's magnetic field and generating these noises, probably several thousand miles out in space.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: It's beautiful. It's primordial. It's Mother Earth singing.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: Space weather.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: And it's wild. Oh, listen to this. Oh, this is beautiful.

(Sounds continue)


(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: It's Mother Earth singing.

(Sounds continue up and under)

CURWOOD: Sun Song was produced by Barrett Golding with natural radio recordist Steve McGreevy and the sound of the aurora borealis. Music by Jeff Arnsten and the band Racket Ship. Sun Song was made possible with a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as part of the Hearing Voices series.

Back to top

Coming up: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, especially when it's dinnertime. The art of hand-feeding wild birds is just ahead. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

Health Update

TOOMEY: Wait! Don't trash those leftover mashed potatoes from your holiday feast. Researchers at Miami University in Ohio say a potato extract can prevent both strep and E. coli bacteria from attaching to their target cells. They think it's the same plant enzyme that makes fruits and vegetables turn brown. But in this case, the enzyme disables the amino acid that allows bacteria to adhere to cells. Standard antibiotics kill those microorganisms outright, but in the last few years the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has reached a crisis. So scientists are looking for alternatives. The researchers also say a number of herbal medicines may help fight bacterial infections through this anti-stick mechanism. So pass the spuds, please. And that's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Dining with Birds

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. With me now is Hugh Wiberg. He's a freelance writer, and he's written a book called Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds. And we're out here at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary outside of Boston, something run by the Audubon Society, to hand-feed birds.

WIBERG: That's the plan, Steve.

CURWOOD: Ah, okay. How's this going to work? I like to think that I'm friendly and charming, and yet I don't think I've ever had anything aside from a rather assertive parrot or a cheerful parakeet land on my fingers.

WIBERG: Well, I'll tell you. Human beings have been conditioned since early childhood to believe that wild birds are going to stay clear of human beings. And for the most part that's true. But what I've discovered by wandering through various wildlife sanctuaries in Massachusetts is that if you have a lot of patience, and can take the time, you can condition the birds to take feed right out of your hand.

CURWOOD: So they get to know you. You become their buddies.

WIBERG: Exactly. You become their buddies.

CURWOOD: Okay, well what are we going to do now? Tell me what --

WIBERG: All right. We're going to take a walk down into an area in this sanctuary where the birds have pretty much come to expect that when Wiberg walks into the sanctuary they're going to get a free snack. And I've found, doing a lot of experimenting, that the wild birds, particularly the common birds that we see in this area, the nuthatches and the chickadees and the tufted titmice, they love walnut meats. And I'm holding in my hand right now lots of little bits of walnut meat. And with any luck at all we're going to have some company this morning as we wander down into the sanctuary.

CURWOOD: Okay, well let's go.


WIBERG: Now, we're coming into an area of pine trees here, where I usually am greeted by a small group of chickadees who are looking for their morning handout.

CURWOOD: Will they be scared by us talking?

WIBERG: They will not be scared if we talk while they're around. Their hearing mechanisms are decidedly different than ours. I think they're on a much higher frequency than we are. I'm not at all sure that they even hear us when we talk. Now, let's stand here for just a minute and see if any of these guys are aware of my presence yet. I'll be very embarrassed if they're a half a mile from here, but we'll see chickadees. Maybe not right in this spot, but we will see them. Good morning gentlemen, ladies. Anybody looking for a snack here today?

(Bird chirps)

WIBERG: Dead silence. That's the sound of a black capped chickadee that you just heard. All right, these guys are chattering to themselves about something else, so we're going to continue our little walk a little further down here. And we will encounter some chickadees as we walk down this path over here.


CURWOOD: How often do you come?

WIBERG: In the wintertime, at least once a week, usually on a Saturday or a Sunday morning. Here we go.

(A loud chirp; wings flapping)

CURWOOD: Well, look at that. There comes one, and now another one.

WIBERG: You see, we've got quite a little family in here that are - they have their own pecking order. They're lining up, up there, to come in, depending on where they stand in the chickadee hierarchy.

CURWOOD: This one is next, kind of a big one. This is amazing.

WIBERG: Isn't that fun?

(A loud chirp; a plane in the background)

WIBERG: Now, Steve, for just a second here I'm going to put some feed in your hand, and you're going to have one or two of these guys on you before you can say Jack Robinson. Stand right up there, close to that shrub. See now, they're a little cautious, because you're a stranger to them. But you're with me, and they know me. And there's a tufted titmouse up there, by the way.

CURWOOD: Oh there comes one.

WIBERG: You almost had that titmouse standing on your hand.

CURWOOD: He chickened out after --

WIBERG: He'll be back.

CURWOOD: Well there's a -- (Laughs) Oh, that's amazing!

WIBERG: And the first one is always the biggest thrill. I'd like to see that titmouse come down and stand there.

CURWOOD: Oh, here's another chickadee. And another one.

(Loud chirps; wings)

CURWOOD: Does it hurt the birds to feed them like this?

WIBERG: Hurt in what sense?

CURWOOD: What if they become dependent?

WIBERG: Okay, that's a very good question. The School of Ornithology at Cornell University did a controlled test on exactly that question. They had two groups of chickadees out in the field, one who were deep in the forest who had never had any contact with human beings, and another that were close to society and were getting bird food on a regular basis. And the birds that were being fed on a regular basis had their food cut off after six months, the warm summer months. Anyway, the long story short was that both groups of birds showed no drop off in mortality rates, whether they had contact with humans or whether they did not. So the consensus appears to be that this does not hurt them in any way.

CURWOOD: Is there any risk of disease, either to humans or to the birds?

WIBERG: No. As far as ornithologists are able to determine, diseases between humans and birds are not transferable one to another. So that's fortunate for us.

CURWOOD: Whatever got you started hand-feeding birds?

WIBERG: Well, I think what probably attracted my attention in the beginning was, I'd been feeding birds with my bird feeders back in Wilmington, Mass, for 25 years. And I noticed early on that the chickadees were the very last bird to fly away when I went out to restock the feeders. So I had, once in a great while I'd seen a picture of a black-capped chickadee standing on a human hand. And I decided one day to see, where the birds in my back yard seemed to be quite accustomed to my presence, to see if I could actually get one of them on my hand. So I set up a stepladder in the back yard, took the feeder down, put it in the house, and became in effect a substitute bird feeder. And after three or four weekends of trying this, in January I think it was, a chickadee came down and stood on my hand and took some seed. And his fellow travelers saw what was happening, and eventually many of them began to hand-feed also.

CURWOOD: Hugh, before we go --


CURWOOD: I just have to ask you about your other life.

WIBERG: Okay, and believe me, I do have another life.

CURWOOD: You grow giant pumpkins?

WIBERG: Yes I do. I am the director of an esoteric organization here in New England called the New England Pumpkin Growers Association, with over 500 members. We dedicate ourselves in a lighthearted manner to the fine sport hobby of growing these monster, giant pumpkins that you see at the fairs every fall. My personal best pumpkin, largest pumpkin, was a 674-pounder that I grew two years ago, that came in fifth in the all-New England fair. That year there was a 920-pounder grown that came in first place.

(Loud chirps, wings)

CURWOOD: Hugh Wiberg's book is called Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

WIBERG: My pleasure.

Back to top

(Loud chirps, wings; fade to music up and under: "Flying birds. Excellent birds. Watch them fly. There they go...")

CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for reporting on science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for reporting on western issues; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Surdna Foundation; and The Ford Foundation, striving to preserve our ecological values.

(Music up and under: "And I can land on my feet. Look out! This is the picture. This is the picture. This is the picture...")

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: One more story about how birds and humans interact. The elegant but dying art of cormorant fishing in China is just ahead here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

(Music up and under: Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Any day now, a couple of astronauts will have a problem with their computer.

BOWMAN: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

CURWOOD: More than 50 years before Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey chronicled the consequences of a computer gone awry, technicians at Harvard University found the first real computer bug. They extracted a crushed moth from a primitive number-crunching machine called the Mark II. It was the first known instance of a real insect causing a computer glitch, but the term "bug" had long been used to describe mechanical malfunctions. Early telegraphers would say there's a bug on the line whenever a strange noise emerged from equipment. Thomas Edison increased the bug's habitat by insisting that he would have an electric lightbulb up and working any day -- he just had a few bugs to work out. Electrical engineers then picked up the term, using "bug" to mean any flaw in an electrical system. Etymologists, not entomologists, recall that even Shakespeare used the word "bug" to connote a disruptive event. One example of just how powerful these little computer bugs can be? In 1962 a single omitted hyphen in its computer code caused NASA's space probe Mariner I to fall back to Earth. The missing punctuation cost tens of millions of dollars. But if you want to see the original, head to the Smithsonian Institution, where Harvard's infamous moth is preserved and can be seen by appointment. Unless, of course, there's a bug in the scheduling computer. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

(Music up and under)

HAL: This conversation can serve no purpose any more. Goodbye.

Back to top


Cormorant Fishing

CURWOOD: For generations Chinese fishers have used the cormorant, a dark water bird about the size of a penguin, to help them fish. Now pressures from pollution, population, and tourism are changing this relationship forever. Bruce Thorson reports from the river Li in China's southern Guangxi region.

(Splashes. A fisherman calls)

THORSON: Like his grandfather's grandfather before him, Won Jin Tsigh calls the big brown birds. He speaks to his cormorants.

(Won calls)

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: I treat these birds like they are my own brothers. Sometimes they get moody and bite, but I still feed them. I buy them good things to eat like duck meat and honey.

THORSON: In most of the world fishermen hate cormorants. They see these expert divers as competition for fish stocks. But in China, they've long been trained to work for the fisherman.

(Won speaks)

THORSON: Won Jin Tsigh grabs one of his birds. He tightens a small rope around its neck.

(The cormorant protests)

THORSON: The bird then dives into the clear water, and Won Jin Tsigh calls to his cormorant.

(Won calls)

THORSON: Cheering it into action as it shoots under the water looking for fish.

(Won calls, cheers)

THORSON: The bird dives, surfaces, dives again. Finally, it breaks the surface with a small, silvery fish wriggling in its beak. Won Jin Tsigh pulls the bird out of the water and holds it over a basket.


THORSON: With the rope tied around its neck, the bird can't swallow the fish. With a gag, it spits the fish into the fisherman's basket.

(Splashes, sounds from Wan and the cormorant)

THORSON: On a good day his cormorants will spit out about 15 kilos of fish. They're permitted to eat just a few.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: When they are very young, they are like a young person with a lot of energy. The old ones have done the same job day after day, and they need the young ones to ease by them to catch fish, I cheer them on like in sport.

(Splashes; Won calls)

THORSON: The river Li bends like a giant emerald snake through the Guangxi region. Here fall the shadows of limestone mountains jutting out above rice paddies. Women scrub the family laundry on the stones beside the river. Farmers dip buckets to carry off water to the fields. And water buffalo trudge to the riverbanks to take a drink. The cormorant fishermen balance nature and commerce on shaky bamboo boats. But it's changing fast.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: We can't fish too much any more. Now people throw rubbish into the water. The towns dump their sewage into the river. It's poison now. There are so few fish now that I'm fishing mainly to show the tourists how it was done in the past.

(Splashing; Won calls)

THORSON: The green misty mountains of Guangxi draw increasing hordes of tourists. And cormorant fishermen are now a top attraction for local tourism.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Life is better because of the tourists. We have more money even with the tourists. The birds bring my family much good, because many people come and pay to see the cormorants.

THORSON: Tourists bring money to the region, but they also put greater pressure on the river. There's more sewage. Tourist boats wind their way up and down the river all day. And after six generations, Won knows he's the last of his family to fish with the cormorants.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: With a one child policy, we can only have one child. I have a daughter, and it's only the men who fish. So I will be the last cormorant fisherman in my family. Many of my friends have gone to work on the tourist boats, but I will stay with my birds.

THORSON: When the birds themselves get too old to fish, Won buys them a kilogram of dog meat and some rice wine. These expensive delicacies are their reward for years of service. Then, for once, he lets them eat all they want. The combination of too much meat and wine kills the bird.

(Splashes, Won calls)

CURWOOD: Our feature on the fishers and the cormorant was produced by Bruce Thorson.

Back to top

(Cormorant calls)

CURWOOD: Coming up: The story of a culture lost and found along the Georgia coast. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

Technology Update

GRABER: One night, John Church, an Arkansas environmental official, was watching TV. And there on the screen, a police helicopter was chasing an escaping suspect on the ground using infrared detectors. Suddenly it dawned on him: maybe he could use the same heat-seeking technology to find the source of sewage polluting a nearby lake. Microbes that eat sewage release heat as they work, so sewage water is significantly warmer than ground water. Mr. Church flew over the lake using infrared technology that could distinguish heat differences as small as three degrees, and he found no fewer than 20 sources of sewage. A global positioning system allowed him to pinpoint the exact locations. Municipalities around the nation are interested in Mr. Church's technique. It could even be used to locate sun-warmed pools of water, the perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus. That's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

Back to top

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

(Music up and under)

Georgia Lost and Found

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. On Georgia's mid coast, there's a place that was once so isolated locals say it was three years before anyone there heard about the Emancipation Proclamation. The place is called Harris Neck. And while Lincoln's words finally did reach the community in McIntosh County, its isolation didn't end with the Civil War. Well into the twentieth century, Harris Neck was a world apart from much of the United States. African-American families fished and farmed and owned their own land and boats. They built a community and sustained themselves for generations through their own businesses. Today that community is almost gone. It's been eroded by forces far beyond its control. And the local African-American culture, with its close connection to the land and the sea and its past in West Africa, is almost gone, too. Almost, but not completely. Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman recently traveled to Harris Neck. He met a man there whose own life story is also the story of the near-death of this unique culture, and of a small flicker of hope for its continuation. Here's his report.

WEGMAN: If you ask Wilson Moran, the trouble started six months before he was born. It was the summer of 1942, and someone reported seeing a German U-boat in the waters off Harris Neck. Within days the military decided it needed an airbase there. The residents were given three weeks to leave.

(Bird calls)

MORAN: They took all the crops, carrying all the beans, peas, okra, tomatoes, all that stuff, carrying it out. Some houses they even tore down.

WEGMAN: Several older townspeople died of heart attacks from the strain. Wilson's grandfather, a farmer and crabber, refused to leave, and was removed by force.

MORAN: There is no sign that we ever lived there. Now, those people, they had a grade school, they had a fire house, they had a police department, which worked from the county seat therein. They had two oyster houses, two crab houses, and they had stores. They made everything, including their liquor. They made moonshine. They were good at it. Very good at it. (Laughs)

WEGMAN: Harris Neck had been a tight community, about 90 families, all black. Mostly fishers and farmers, the children and grandchildren of freedmen.

MORAN: And all this way of life was gone.

WEGMAN: The military seized 2,687 acres at Harris Neck. The families were offered plots of land a few miles away, a fraction the size of what they had left. Five months later, in November 1942, Wilson Moran was born on this new land, in a small shotgun shack his parents built with wood they salvaged from their original home. He was the fourth of 13 children.

(A vehicle drives on rough road)

WEGMAN: On a late spring afternoon with the sun low in the sky but the air still warm, Wilson drives his old Dodge pickup a mile or so down Route 2 to the land his family once owned.

MORAN: Now this land here, from here to the woods and back, my grandpa had 11 acres right in here. This was where his main house was.

WEGMAN: Today the land at Harris Neck is lush and seems untouched by human hands. Shaded groves of pecans and live oaks open into the wide, flat marshland of South Georgia's barrier islands. Wilson drives intently, hunched over the wheel. As the truck rounds a bend, he points to a large field.

MORAN: That was a big old point, that's where they grew rice in my grandpa's day. These are people's, you know, livelihood. And it really destroyed a lot of people. Two of my uncles left and never came back. Both of them lived in Philadelphia. They became porters on the railroad. But it was just -- this hurt them, you know what I mean? That somebody could be so powerful to move you, and after they were through with it wouldn't let you back. They wanted to use the airstrips right here.

WEGMAN: Out the window a dormant runway lies like an unhealed scar, its pavement cracked and overgrown with weeds. Moran says the military promised to return this land to the residents as soon as the war was over. But no one at Harris Neck remembers getting that promise in writing. So after the war, the land was turned into a county airport. Then in 1962, it was designated a national wildlife refuge.

MORAN: Now it takes an act of Congress for us to get this land back. And you know, the Audubon Society, and they have little bird walks and they have archery hunting and, you know, things like that. But this land is ours. Is ours. It's beautiful, man, you wouldn't believe it, man. And to walk or ride a bike in here and just listen to all the sounds, man, the red-headed woodpeckers, the larks, the sparrows, the cardinals, the bluebirds. They're all here.

WEGMAN: Do you come in here a lot?

MORAN: No. It's not a good feeling for me. I don't enjoy coming in here.

(The pickup advances)

MORAN: Now, isn't it -- you wouldn't believe this was here, would you? This is where we lived. This place here was called Thomas Landing. This was the main landing for the community. Would you believe?

(Car door opens, shuts)

WEGMAN: Wilson walks through dry marsh grass down to the water's edge.

(Surf, bird calls)

MORAN: This, it doesn't get any better than this.

WEGMAN: The water here is calm. It's protected from the open ocean by the barrier islands offshore.

MORAN: Now, when I was a little boy, we'd come down here, and we'd hit this river, and we'd crab and we'd fish. And, like, there are oysters right there, and we'd oyster. Man, it was amazing, you wouldn't believe it. We thought it was all ours. (Laughs) We sure got fooled, didn't we?

WEGMAN: When the families of Harris Neck lost their land, they also lost their docks. Fishing had been central to the community and to blacks up and down the Georgia coast for centuries. Many of the first Europeans to settle here were from cities and knew nothing about fishing. But the Africans who soon followed as slaves did. It wasn't long before they dominated the fisheries. Like their ancestors, they worked close to shore using small boats and cast nets. It was one of the last links they had. Even into the twentieth century, shrimping, crabbing, and oystering all remained virtually 100 percent black.

(A boat engine starts up; voices on radio)

WEGMAN: Then the diesel engine found its way into the area, which meant fishermen could use bigger, more powerful boats. If they could afford them. Within 20 years a new breed of fisherman had pervaded the industry. One with more money to spend, frequently northern, and almost always white.

(Voices, chains. Man: "I'll stop it right there...")

WEGMAN: After World War II thousands of white servicemen came home looking for work. Soon the Georgia fisheries were controlled by white families. By one independent estimate, of the more than 400 shrimp boats currently licensed in the state, blacks own and operate fewer than ten. When Wilson Moran was born, there were still blacks making a living on the water.

MORAN: But as we began to grow older, we saw that it wasn't a good way of life. Every year you were in debt. Every year it was getting harder. And I just didn't want to do it. And none of my brothers. We decided that there had to be something more. There had to be something better than crabbing and being the low man on the totem pole. We didn't have the farms like my grandpa did. So hey, next thing for us, everybody started going into the military.

WEGMAN: Wilson was 17 when he left McIntosh County and joined the army. Then he went north to Hartford, Connecticut, and became a cop. As American stories go, it's a common one. Young man from small town leaves home to find a better life. In Hartford, Wilson found it. He had a good job, and soon his wife Ernestine gave birth to their first child. But it didn't make sense to him that he should be doing well and yet be so far from home. He grew increasingly uncomfortable with his new life. Then in the late 60s, Wilson hit the breaking point. His unit was called to respond to a riot downtown. Amid the chaos, he shot a man. Not long afterwards, Wilson was on traffic duty, waving a group of children across the street, when a young boy pointed at him. The boy said, "That's the man that shot my uncle."

MORAN: And that was the end of me. And I couldn't last any longer. I didn't like it any more.

WEGMAN: Moran packed up his family and headed back to Georgia, settling in Glen County. He tried catching and selling crabs as his father and grandfather had done. He even tried police work again. Ernestine was losing patience. They had a young child, and their jobs up north had paid well. Here, Wilson was making as little as $86 a week. Eventually he landed a job with the phone company, one of only two black men he remembers being hired in 25 years. It was a decade after the Civil Rights Act, but Wilson was discovering that in small southern towns, things changed slowly.

MORAN: The mainstream jobs were closed, and even today some of them still are closed. There's no secret. You can't cover it up.

WEGMAN: Wilson Moran had entered this world literally surrounded by the wreckage of a once vibrant culture. Now, at the end of his working life, he had never worked in his own community. And he had never been able to earn a living doing what he had been raised to do. His own children were putting down roots elsewhere. Wilson knew as well as anyone what all this meant.

MORAN: When that way of life be interfered with, then the culture begins to fail. That subculture, the dialect, you lose the dialect. You lose the skills. Like building a boat. My granddad built boats. My father built boats. I cannot build a boat. You understand? My grandmother knitted nets. I can't knit a net. So therefore, we've lost these things. That was handed down through generations, is now gone. Now, I still have my garden, so I can keep myself informed. But my boys can't plant. They don't even know what season to plant in, right? That way of life is gone, yeah. It's gone. That's the end of it. Want to see my garden? Man, I've got a great garden. Come on, let's see my garden.


WEGMAN: Wilson's garden is out back, on the same acre of land he was born on. Unlike so many others who left McIntosh County, Wilson Moran has come home.

MORAN: This is my garden. You know what that is. Sweet potato. Man, they are something else. And there's my peppers. Sweet peppers...

WEGMAN: Wilson and Ernestine returned here to Harris Neck in 1992, moving into a modest brick house next door to his parents.

MORAN: I grow it and I can give it away.

WEGMAN: A few years ago, Wilson retired and started this garden. It's small, nothing compared to the hundred acres his family once owned. But it's growing.

MORAN: And this is just enough for me to keep me acclimated to what, you know, how to plant. And look how pretty and green they are. Aren't they pretty?

WEGMAN: It's easy to see the loss in the story of Harris Neck. But the way Wilson sees things, standing on this land he left 40 years ago, something is truly lost only when you stop trying to find it. And recently, he found something remarkable, right in his own back yard.

M. MORAN: (Singing) Wombay I walk a mon a cambaleali lily... [phonetic spelling]

WEGMAN: That's Wilson's mother, Mary Moran. A few years ago, an anthropologist named Joseph Apala heard Mrs. Moran singing this song. When he asked her where she had learned it, she told him her mother had taught it to her as a child. Apala traced the song to a region in West Africa that is now part of Sierra Leone. At less than half a minute, it's believed to be the longest text in an African language preserved by an African-American family.

M. MORAN: (Singing) I walk a mon a cambaleali lily. Wombay I walk a mon a cambaleali lily... [phonetic spelling]

MORAN: We found so much history, man, it is unbelievable, all kinds of stuff.

WEGMAN: Wilson immediately began to look into his family history.

MORAN: You've got the sentence, pictures. This is the root people right here. And all these people...

WEGMAN: In 1997, Joseph Apala and Wilson Moran helped organize a family trip to Sierra Leone. In a small village called Sanahungola they met a woman who knew the exact song Mary Moran sang. She'd learned it as a child, too. Wilson says the trip to Africa was like a fairy tale.

MORAN: Because me, being black, I don't know how many generations black in this country, called African-American, but ain't nothing African about me but my color, because everything about me is American.

(Mary Moran sings)

MORAN: So when they found out that this song took us to West Africa, yeah, it was unreal. How could I trace myself to not West Africa but almost the very village in which my grandmother's people came from? That's impossible. But it happened. And then, what was even more strange was, met a guy on the riverbanks, and this guy is knitting a net. The same way my grandma, Madie Dolly, knitted nets. And I said wow, this is unbelievable. And there are some guys making boats, the same way this guy here made the boats. It was unbelievable.

(A boat cuts through water)

WEGMAN: In Gullah, the West African English hybrid still spoken on the sea islands off Georgia and South Carolina, there is a proverb that says, "If you don't know where you're going, you should know where you come from." A song can't tell you where you're going, but the song that led Wilson Moran to West Africa helped him find a thread that runs through hundreds of years. From a riverbank in Sierra Leone through slave ships across the Atlantic, through his family's lost farmland, fishing boats, and nets, right up to his back yard garden, his mother, and himself, today. Wilson Moran knows he can't get back what's gone, but he also knows that the thread which ties his family to this stretch of Georgia coast isn't broken yet. And that he won't be the one to break it.

MORAN: My children don't know this, but my grandson, who comes every summer, I take him on the water. I get him acclimated. And now, this summer I teach him how to cast the net, at ten. I'm just giving him a taste of what it is. He'll never learn how to read the water. He'll never learn how to read the weather, other than listening to it on television. But he will get some knowledge about what we were about. And every year we teach him, and every year we put him in situations that he can know something about his environment, that it was unique, and it is almost gone, but it did exist. So he can tell his children about it.

(Bird calls, fade to flute up and under)

WEGMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Jesse Wegman, with Wilson Moran in Harris Neck, on the coast of south Georgia.

Back to top

(Flute continues, joined by clapping, singing)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, it's a new year with new faces in Washington and a new environmental reality for American politics.

SCARLETT: What I think we'll see is an understanding that, particularly with this tight election and in any event with the deep divisions that have separated industry and environment and Democrats and Republicans on environmental issues, that what is needed is kind of an olive branch, a coming together, attempts at some kind of convergence. And what that means probably initially is taking some small baby steps.

CURWOOD: George W. Bush's green agenda, next time on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Milisa Muniz. We had help this week from Steven Belter. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. And Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening, and Happy New Year.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human wellbeing through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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