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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

May 24, 2002

Air Date: May 24, 2002

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

Ecuador Pipeline / Reese Erlich

(stream / mp3)

Reese Erlich reports on the efforts by a group of oil companies to build a new oil pipeline in Ecuador and the almost daily protests that follow the construction project. (08:00)

Oil in the Sea / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

(stream / mp3)

A report from the National Academy of Sciences examines the problem of oil in our oceans. How much is there, where is it from, and what does it do? Anna Solomon-Greenbaum highlights the report’s findings. (03:10)

Department A/Health Note / Jessica Penney

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Jessica Penney reports on research into the ginseng berry, and how it might help fight diabetes and obesity. (01:15)

The Living On Earth Almanac

(stream / mp3)

This week, we have facts about sandcastles. This month’s International Giant Sand Festival in France is just one of many competitions master sculptors flock to for the perfect sculpting sand. (01:30)

Middletown / Jesse Wegman

(stream / mp3)

When the town of Middletown, New Jersey lost 34 of its residents in the World Trade Center attacks, residents tried to put aside their political and personal squabbles and come together for the good of the families of the victims and the town itself. In the process many residents found they were building something everyone agreed Middletown had always lacked – a sense of community. Jesse Wegman reports on the difficulties the town has experienced trying to keep the momentum going. (22:15)

Cracker Childhood

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Janisse Ray grew up in a junkyard just off Highway 1 on the southeastern coast of the United States. She never saw the forests of longleaf pine that were once so plentiful throughout the area, since logging decimated 99 percent of all natural stands just after the Civil War. She talks with host Steve Curwood about the disappearing forest, growing up in the South, and her book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. (09:40)

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Show Credits and Funders

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Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Reese Erlich, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Jesse Wegman
GUESTS: Janisse Ray
UPDATES: Jessica Penny

[INTRO THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Middletown, New Jersey was just another bedroom town for people who work in the skyscrapers of New York City. But when the unclaimed cars were counted at the commuter rail station that night, dozens of Middletown residents hadn’t come home.

The response to 9/11 changed this township of 60,000 on the Jersey shore in many ways. For one thing, it began to break down the walls of suburban anonymity.

ROTHMAN: I think some wonderful things came out of the horrible tragedy of September 11th. We had a lot of families that lost loved ones. But there have been really great things that happened. And, in a horrible way, it did pull some people together. Hopefully, we can keep some of the good momentum going.

CURWOOD: The remaking of Middletown, New Jersey, this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this.

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Ecuador Pipeline

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The nation of Ecuador relies heavily on oil from the Amazon rainforest for revenues. To get to market, the oil must flow through a single pipeline across the Andes Mountains and down to a port on the Pacific coast.

Now a group of oil companies is building a second pipeline they say will double capacity and use state-of-the-art technology to minimize oil spills. But not everyone in Ecuador favors this new pipeline project. As Reese Erlich reports, it’s drawing almost daily protest.

[SOUND OF TRAFFIC, PEOPLE TALKING, A SHAKING RATTLE]

ERLICH: In the center of Quito, a Quichua shaman shakes a rhythm instrument as he stokes a small fire as an offering to the Great Spirit. He and hundreds of others are protesting the arrest of environmentalists opposed to the building of Ecuador’s heavy crude pipeline, known as OCP.

[GUITAR MUSIC AND RATTLE SHAKING]

ERLICH: For months, there have been protests here in the city and along the route of the pipeline. The line is slated to pass through an Andean cloud forest area called Mindo Ridge, which Birdlife International says is used by 450 species of birds as a flyway.

In March, 17 people were arrested after sitting in trees for four months to protest building the OCP along the Mindo Ridge. Now, environmental groups have actually purchased land there in hopes of stopping construction. Patricia Granda, an activist with the environmental network Oil Watch, says laying the huge pipeline requires cutting a 25 to 30 yard wide swath through sensitive forests. She says it will disrupt bird migration and also harm local residents.

GRANDA: The ridge top splits two hydrographic basins, the Mindo Valley and Guyabamba Valley. These provide water for a lot of people, because the top part is the cloud forest reserve. So, we understand that, there, a lot of water condenses, and feeds these two basins. And .if the OCP goes through the land, Mindo area. A lot of people will not have the same ways to live. They don’t have work. They won’t have water.

ERLICH: Without vegetation, says Granda, the water in the cloud forest won’t condense in the same way. The 310-mile pipeline will stretch from Ecuador’s Amazon forest to the sea. It’s designed to move heavier crude out of newly developed oil fields. Ecuador’s existing pipeline moves mainly lighter crude. Most of Ecuador’s political and business leaders support the $1.1 billion project.

[SOUND OF DOOR OPENING]

ERLICH: Hernan Lara is the picture of a modern oil company executive in slacks and a sport shirt. Oil companies have a history of polluting farmland and rivers in Ecuador. But, Lara, who is president of OCP Ecuador, says the industry has changed. For example, the pipeline right of way will narrow to seven yards as it goes over Mindo Ridge. And Lara says workers will lay pipe by hand if necessary to minimize environmental damage.

LARA: We know how sensitive the area is. We’re working with people like CECIA, who are the local representatives of Birth Watch, to do studies for us on the habitat of the birds, and so on, so that we can implement practices that will reduce the risk of damaging the environment. It’s a beautiful area. I really enjoy going there.

ERLICH: Critics also worry that earthquakes or landslides will damage the pipeline, a problem that has plagued Ecuador’s original oil duct. U.S. experts say a big natural disaster can rupture any pipeline. But modern technology will quickly shut off the flow of oil.

Dr. Stewart Scott, an associate professor of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University, says the OCP does use modern computerized shutoff valves, but not the very latest technology. He says some U.S. companies now use a small sensor pipe attached to the main pipeline to detect any leaking oil. Dr. Scott says that’s a far better way to find small leaks that plague underground pipelines such as the OCP.

SCOTT: If there’s any release, even a very, very small release, it can be detected.

ERLICH: Local residents are concerned about pipeline leaks, but they have many other worries as well.

[SOUND OF TRUCKS]

ERLICH: Here in Nueva Loja, in eastern Ecuador close to the Columbia border, trucks hit the gravel roads 24 hours a day to speed up construction of an OCP pumping station.

Mayor Maximo Abad says local residents don’t want the station so close to town because it brings noise, the possibility of an accident, and disruption of animal migration. The mayor resents what he considers the OCP’s arrogant tactics.

[ABAD SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: The consortium doesn’t observe the laws of our country. For example, the constitution says when the state is going to build a project that effects the environment, it must consult with the affected communities and fully inform them. But the OCP didn’t do that.

ERLICH: But Hernan Lara says the OCP convinced a majority of city councilmen to support the pumping station. He says the OCP will repair roads and schools in Nueva Loja and pay for other public works projects in towns along the pipeline’s route. Mayor Abad says the city council actually rejected the station. But the OCP and national government ignored the decision. And Abad says so far, the region has seen few of the 50,000 jobs the pipeline was supposed to bring.

[ABAD SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: The oil well isn’t reinvested here. That’s ironic. We don’t have anything close to decent electric power. Many places don’t even have potable water. But we are one of the richest provinces in Ecuador. In reality, we leave a negative impression with foreigners. Other places have good roads, good services. Here, no.

[SOUND OF PROTEST]

ERLICH: In February, peasant farmers, workers and indigenous groups organized a work stoppage that virtually shut down Ecuador’s two eastern provinces for 11 days. They demanded the government provide more electric power and better roads and that it shut down the pipeline construction.

Instead, the government imposed marshal law in those provinces for three weeks. Four protesters were killed and dozens injured. Anselmo Salazar is a leader of the local Quichuas, Ecuador’s largest indigenous group.

[SALAZAR SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: We supported the work stoppage. We are struggling for many things in this province. The OCP is supposed to be the most modern, most technologically advanced pipeline that won’t break or cause environmental problems. But many small farmers don’t want the pipeline so close to our homes, or to populated areas.

ERLICH: Pipeline opposition keeps growing. An increasing number of Ecuadorians now say any jobs and government revenues derived from the OCP are not worth the damage to the environment. Oil Watch activist, Patricia Granda.

GRANDA: The oil that will fill up the OCP pipeline will come from protected area, indigenous territories in the Amazon.

[SOUND OF OFFICE]

ERLICH: Back at the high rise OCP office in Quito, Hernan Lara vows the OCP pipeline will be completed despite the protests. Ecuador’s economy collapsed last year, and the government defaulted on international debts. He says the $2 billion a year oil industry, which provides 50% of the country’s export earnings, is crucial for the country’s economic survival. And the pipeline is crucial for the oil industry.

LARA: The country without oil would be in a heck of a mess. I wish it was different. But, as long as that is the situation, you need to exploit what you have. And what we have here is oil.

ERLICH: Opponents say their protests and legal action have slowed progress on the pipeline. OCP managers are rushing to complete construction by working some crews 24 hours a day. Still, the pipeline is only about one-third finished. And Lara hints that it may not be completed by the announced deadline of May 2003.

[SOUND OF PROTEST]

ERLICH: For Living on Earth, I’m Reese Erlich in Quito, Ecuador.

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Oil in the Sea

CURWOOD: Closer to home, the National Academy of Sciences has released a report it calls "Oil in the Sea." A key finding, some 29 million gallons of petroleum enter North American ocean waters every year as a result of human activity. But the sheer volume of oil is only part of the story.

Much of the Academy report tells where the oil comes from, and what happens to it when it gets into the ocean. Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum has details.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The results of the Academy’s research may surprise the average person who probably thinks "Exxon Valdez" when the words "oil" and "ocean" are mixed. The report finds tanker spills and pipeline leaks are responsible for less than 10% of the oil released by humans into the oceans each year. Most of the oil, 85% of it, comes from seemingly minor sources, like your uncle’s outboard motor, the oil that drips from your car, or the fuel that’s dumped by airlines.

In the past, the impact of these various sources has been hard to measure, and not nearly as dramatic as blackened shorelines and dead birds left by a major oil spill. Dan Walker, staff scientist on the Academy report, says the little spills are more significant than imagined.

WALKER: We’re talking about a few ounces each year that each one of us accidentally release. But there’s a lot of us, and it tends to accumulate. And what we’re seeing is, is that, in many cases, there seems to be a clear-cut relationship between these low concentrations of some of these toxic compounds, and adverse effects on marine organisms.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Walker says oil companies have dramatically reduced the amount of oil spilled from tankers, wells and pipelines. And the industry says their operations are safer than ever before. But environmental groups warn vigilance is still needed.

SPEER: How much oil is only one part of the equation?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Lisa Speer is a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Academy’s report, she points out, finds even a small spill can have a big impact if it ends up in a sensitive ecosystem. Speer says land runoff is the number one source of coastal pollution in America, and she’s glad to see it getting more attention.

SPEER: But that doesn’t mean that we can ignore the threats posed by offshore oil and gas development and transportation in sensitive areas. We need to do these things together. And we need to keep working towards reducing pollutants that get into our oceans, both through land-based runoff, as well as through major oil spills.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Both land-based runoff and oil spills at sea are dwarfed by a third source of oil in the oceans, natural seeps from the seabed. Their impact is unique, according to Dan Walter, because organisms living near these seeps have, for the most part, adapted to the toxic compounds that petroleum unleashes in their ecosystem. Still, Walker says, natural seeps can make good study sites for scientists trying to understand the slow, subtle effects of oil from land-based runoff.

WALKER: That gives us a little bit of a idea of how the introduction of large amounts of petroleum, a little bit at a time, small dribs and drabs, but everyday, over the course of many, many years, how that can effect an ecosystem.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Policymakers have been exploring ways to control runoff. So far, most of their effort has focused on nutrient runoff from pesticides and waste. The Academy’s report may raise the profile of petroleum runoff as another part of the problem. For Living on Earth, I’m Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington.

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Department A/Health Note

CURWOOD: Coming up, a bedroom town in New Jersey reaches for a sense of community in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. First, this environmental health note with Jessica Penny.

[THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

PENNY: For thousands of years, traditional medicine has used the root of the ginseng plant to treat a variety of ailments. But people haven’t made much use of the ginseng berry. Now, a new study shows that fruit may have medicinal properties, too.

Researchers at the University of Chicago say the ginseng berry, compared to the root, had different amounts of chemicals thought to be useful. So they tested the berry’s effects on a common disease, type II diabetes.

Obese, diabetic mice were given daily injections of an extract from the berry. And after two weeks, the mice regained normal blood sugar levels. The substance also seemed to rev up their metabolisms. Their body temperatures increased, and they lost 10% of their body weight. Even their cholesterol levels went down.

The researchers are now trying to discover which chemicals in the berries were responsible for the rodents’ improvement. They say the berry might one day serve as a basis for new diabetic medications that people could drink or take as a pill. They said they had to inject the mice because these rodents were finicky eaters. Ginseng berries are said to be quite bitter. That’s this week’s health note. I’m Jessica Penny.

[MUSIC UNDER]

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

[MUSIC: Mission of Burma, "Trem Two," VS (Ryko – 1985)]

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The Living On Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Sugar Bells, "Shake Up Adina," GRAVIKORDS, WHIRLIES & PYROPHONES (ellipsis – 1996)]

CURWOOD: For the next month, sand sculptor from the world over will be heading to the small coastal town of Hardelot, France for the International Giant Sand Festival. They’ll compete for the grand prize of about $4000. And they’ll express their talents using more than 900 tons of special sculpting sand trucked in from Holland just for the event.

Over the past century, building sandcastles has become a blend of art and material science. The type of sand can literally make or break a sculpture. Ocean sand, rounded out by the surf, stacks like marbles. So the coarser the grain, the better. The best sand with rough angular grains is found at the mouths of rivers. Getting the right mix of sand and water is also key. Water forms bridges between grains of sand, causing them to stick together.

So competitive sculptors spend most of the day constructing a wooden frame and packing sand and water in layer by layer. Then they climb to the top of a scaffold and start carving away with any number of tools. Popsicle sticks and plastic spatulas are popular instruments. You want to compete? You could try to top the Guinness record for the world’s tallest sand sculpture, just over 24 feet tall. Or, you could try for the longest, 86,500 feet. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Middletown

CURWOOD: The cleanup and search for remains at Ground Zero is coming to a symbolic end, almost nine months after the World Trade Center attacks. New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, will honor rescue workers and remember the victims in a ceremony to be held May 30th.

While the physical dimensions of the disaster can be measured in number of lives lost and tons of debris removed, the emotional wreckage is harder to tally. We sent producer Jesse Wegman to Middletown, New Jersey. It’s a commuter town outside New York City where the events of September 11th hit hard. He’s found that the attacks have changed Middletown in ways its residents could never have imagined.

[SOUND OF OCEAN WAVES]

WEGMAN: On a clear day, you can stand on the beach in Middletown, New Jersey and see the skyline of New York City, 25 miles to the north.

GILBERT: Straight across here would be Staten Island. And then you would take the Verazzano Bridge over into Brooklyn. So, beyond the Verazzano Bridge is where those towers were.

WEGMAN: Jim Gilbert was getting his morning coffee at Peppercorn’s Deli on September 11th, when news came over the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. He started to worry because his wife Allyson was at a business meeting in Manhattan. So he drove down here to the beach to see what he could see.

GILBERT: Basically, the only thing that you could really see from this location was the smoke. And walking up and down the beach, after it happened, you could just smell the smoke. You could smell the odor across the river and the bay.

[SOUND OF TRAIN WHISTLE]

WEGMAN: On September 11th, Allyson Gilbert parked her car at the Middletown Rail Station to make the hour-long commute into what everyone here calls "the city." Thousands of Middletown residents take that ride everyday. So it was not surprise the town lost some of its population in the terrorist attack.

But concern turned to dread later that night when Middletown Police counted nearly 200 unclaimed cars in the train station’s parking lot. Most of the cars were picked up over the next few days as residents who had been stranded in Manhattan made their way back to Middletown. Allyson Gilbert was one of them. But she knew that plenty of others weren’t coming home.

GILBERT: You’d be at the bridge and you’d hear, "Oh, do you know this person is lost?" And, "Dan, we haven’t heard from this person." So you’d hear, slowly, day by day, little trickles of information that you’re not sure, is it exactly right? It is correct? Is it not correct? And it really wasn’t until we went to the police that we actually had, or felt like we had, a firm confirmed list of names.

WEGMAN: Names like Patrick Hoey and Steven Cangialosi and Lorraine Del Carmen Antigua. Middletown lost 34 residents in the Trade Center, one of the largest single town death tolls outside New York City. Most of the dead were young. Most were men with families, who left the city years ago to make a life in the suburbs.

MINERVINO: My husband Louis worked on the 98th floor of One World Trade Center. He worked for a company called Marsh McLennan.

WEGMAN: Barbara and Louis Minervino moved to a small ranch house in Middletown 20 years ago to raise their daughters, Laina and Marissa. Laina also worked for Marsh McLennan in the company’s mid-town offices. Everyday, she and her father would ride the 6:51 into the city.

MINERVINO: On the morning of the 11th, she would also fall asleep on his shoulder on the train. And he had to wake her up. And he woke her up, and he said, "I’ll see you later." And that’s the last she saw her father.

WEGMAN: Barbara turned on the television that morning and feared the worst. She tried to call her husband, but there was no answer. So she called Laina.

MINERVINO: Then I told her, "You have to come home. Daddy’s dead. They’re all dead." So the company sent her home in a limousine. And she was one of the last people over the bridge. She watched the towers fall.

WEGMAN: Because Louis put in long hours at work, the Minervinos didn’t socialize much. And they didn’t get to know their neighbors very well. But in the days after September 11th, an endless stream of visitors came to Barbara Minevino’s home. They were neighbors, colleagues, her daughters’ old nursery school teachers, and people she didn’t even know.

MINERVINO: Everyone on this block has come to my house, has offered services, expressed their sympathy, brought food. And everybody thinks that because the name is Minervino, they have to make baked ziti. At one point, we had eight trays of baked ziti. And it’s very nice. It’s not a point to say we didn’t appreciate the food. But after a while, how much baked ziti can we eat?

WEGMAN: Barbara says the kindness was overwhelming, and unexpected.

MINERVINO: I can tell you that no one on the block spoke to one another, other than waving, before the 11th. And in the bank, or in line in the grocery store, there are people that actually come up to me, and give me a hug, and I don’t know who they are. That is different. I don’t know how long it’ll last. But it’s okay. It’s really nice now.

WEGMAN: Nice, for sure. But, the outpouring of compassion was also significant because it seemed to mark a turning point for this town. Middletown is not known as a place with a strong sense of community. Some would say it has no community, period. That’s not what people come here for.

Like many commuter towns, Middletown appeals to people who value their privacy and whose lives exist, for the most part, somewhere else. Even the name, "Middletown," sounds like somewhere you pass through on your way from one place to another. And the main drag through Middletown is Route 35.

[SOUND OF TRAFFIC]

WEGMAN: Route 35 is a heavily traveled, four-lane highway, lined with strip malls and big box chain stores. It cuts a swath through the suburbs of central Jersey, the kinds of places Randall Gabrielan knows well.

GABRIELAN: Notice how close together the houses are and how so many of them are new.

WEGMAN: Randall Gabrielan heads Middletown’s Historical Society. And he’s giving me a tour of the area. It’s a driving tour, because driving is about the only way anyone gets anywhere in Middletown. You drive from home to the train station, from the post office to the supermarket, from the high school to the Burger King.

Few people walk in Middletown, in part because it’s so big, almost 41 square miles. But also for a more obvious reason; the township has almost no sidewalks.

GABRIELAN: Well, basically, business in this town is conducted on the highways.

WEGMAN: That’s how it’s been since the 1950s, when improved rail service and the construction of the Garden State Parkway quadrupled the population of little communities along the Jersey shore. People came down from Brooklyn, and Queens, and Staten Island. Farmland and pasture gave way to split-levels and manicured lawns.

GABRIELAN: As time went on, and the houses were larger and more expensive, you may have gotten a different economic social profile of the residents.

WEGMAN: About 66,000 people live in Middletown today. Some, like rock singer Jon Bon Jovi and TV star Connie Chung, keep homes in the swankier part of town, along the Navesink River. Not far away fishermen scrape out a living from their shanties near the bay.

But most Middletown homes belong to middleclass families, ones in which both parents leave for work before the sun rises, and get home after it sets. Families might know each other casually through their children’s school activities. Other than that, people pretty much keep to themselves.

But in the days after September 11th, something began to change here. A new sound could be heard around town [Knocking], the sound of neighbors getting to know each other.

[CONVERSATION, TWO FEMALES]

WEGMAN: The group most responsible for this turnaround is called "Middletown friends assisting victims of terror," better known as "FAVOR." Today, its members are dropping off a food basket for a victim’s family. FAVOR formed days after September 11th, when Allyson Gilbert and her friend Janet Dluhi were searching for a way, any way, to help.

The knew they’d never be able to raise large amounts of money. So they came up with a different idea.

[SOUND OF CONVERSATION IN BACKGROUND]

GILBERT: What we thought was that, when the budget is strained in a household, all those seeming extras -- dance lessons, baseball -- would get cut. And so we didn’t want that to happen. And one of those extras, we thought, was going out on a Friday night for pizza, or going to the movies, those kinds of things.

So that was a really big push to get all these people to try to donate that, so we could at least retain that normalcy of what their activities were.

WEGMAN: FAVOR started contacting Middletown businesses and residents, asking them to donate goods and services. The response was astounding. Everyone had something to give; from pizza parlors and movie theaters, to plumbers and dry cleaners. Even the local pet therapist offered her services. Every week, the women who coordinate the effort would meet to plan events.

[CONVERSATION]

WEGMAN: In other parts of Middletown, high school students volunteered to baby-sit and rake their neighbors lawns. People offered to help write letters, take their dog for a walk, or the kids out fishing. Even the police helped deliver food to people’s homes. Allyson Gilbert says she never could have predicted the result.

GILBERT: Taking care of people. Like, the definition, typically, has been, "write the check." But, what we’ve kind of learned is that’s not-- it has nothing to do with the money. Because, in essence, what happened is, had we been able to give them the check, that would have been great. We talked about that. Give them $100,000 would be great. But I wouldn’t have known any of them. And there wouldn’t have been any relationship. It would have been, "Here’s your check. Go home and drown your sorrows."

But now, at least you feel like we took care of them in a different way, which is the more daily, little thought things. And there will be a lot of relationships that have kind of come together as a result of that.

[SINGING]

CHEVALIER: I’ll just show you the end part.

WEGMAN: Across town, on a hill overlooking Middletown’s exclusive Navesink River Road, Brittany Chevalier stands in front of a large TV in her living room and plays me a videotape of a September 11th benefit concert.

CHEVALIER: And this random guy came up to us at the end and just put his arm around me. See, Bruce comes over.

WEGMAN: Bruce is Bruce Springsteen, a local resident, and new favorite of Brittany’s.

CHEVALIER: It’s pretty cool.

WEGMAN: She’s 15. And when she talks about getting up on stage and singing with a rock star, she sounds like any 15-year-old.

CHEVALIER: And then Bruce Springsteen gives me a kiss on the cheek. So, I love the part where -- right there!

WEGMAN: Brittany stops sounding like a 15-year-old when she sits down on the couch to talk about her brother, Swede. Swede worked and died at the World Trade Center. Brittany says counseling she got at school was helpful. But she wanted to connect with kids her own age. And she felt other kids wanted that, too.

So Brittany and her friend Brad Smith, whose father was also killed in the towers, started a group called "Teens for Teens." Every few weeks, Brittany and Brad gather a dozen or so teenagers from the area who lost a loved one in the attacks.

CHEVALIER: You know, when you’re put in a room, like I’ve been put in a room, like in a group of kids-- that you’re just put into a room, and you’re told to, like, speak your feelings. And, you don’t know these kids. You don’t really feel comfortable. And like I hate that feeling.

So the idea was to just have a very comfortable atmosphere where we could do stuff together, like go to the mall, or we’re going to Liberty Science Center. So I mean, it’s just a way for us to feel comfortable, to get to know each other, and for us to have fun, and get back to our normal lives, even though they’re never going to be the same.

WEGMAN: From Teens for Teens, to FAVOR, to hundreds of small acts of kindness, a new mood seemed to be spreading over Middletown in the weeks following September 11th. Squabbles over zoning matters were put aside. Candidates for mayor quit sniping at each other. Teachers put a threatened strike on hold. Middletown’s police chief John Pollinger noticed a change, too.

[SOUND OF TRAFFIC]

POLLINGER: Accidents went down, motor vehicles violations dropped off.

WEGMAN: The town’s notorious drivers were slowing down, being more courteous.

POLLINGER: That’s by barometer of the traffic flow, and the aggressiveness of people driving, and the selfishness of "I have to get where I need to go no matter who’s in my way," or what you need to do.

WEGMAN: But just two months after September 11th, Middletown had another crisis to confront, and the town’s newfound sense of community was strained to the breaking point.

[CLAPPING AND CHANTING]

NEWS REPORT: So far, 47 teachers have been jailed, and hundreds more could face a similar fate.

WEGMAN: In November, the dam holding back tensions between Middletown teachers and the school board burst. Salary levels and healthcare contributions were the sticking points in the long and contentious dispute. And finally, the teachers went on strike. When they refused to return to work, they were carted off to jail, 228 teachers in all. In post-September 11th Middletown, the walkout didn’t sit well with many residents.

[SOUND OF TRAFFIC]

POLLINGER: Personally? I think the timing couldn’t have been worse.

WEGMAN: Police Chief John Pollinger.

POLLINGER: When you had people who suffered as greatly as they did in the community, and you have the economy which was slumping at the time, and is still recovering, to loudly complain and stamp your feet and say, "I want a raise. And if you don’t, I’m closing the school," well you picked the wrong time. I’m sorry.

WEGMAN: A lot of people in Middletown shared Chief Pollinger’s sentiments. The strike split the community. And much of the goodwill that had emerged after September 11th vanished. In the same way the town pulled together to take care of victims’ families, some residents turned an intense anger toward the teachers.

[SOUND OF CLASSROOM]

WEGMAN: Jacqueline Pfennig teaches biology at Thorn Middle School. She was born and raised in Middletown and has been a teacher here for 33 years. She says she’s devastated and angry by the reaction of many parents to the strike. And, she says the positive feelings that spread across town after September 11th didn’t reach everyone.

At the stores where Barbara Minervino still gets hugs from strangers, teachers like Jackie Pfennig get a hard time.

PFENNIG: We can’t go to the supermarket without being harassed by people in line, if they know you’re a teacher. Heaven forbid, someone finds out that you’re a Middletown teacher. You can’t jog down the street. We shop out of Middletown now. How is that? I mean, I’m a lifelong resident. I always give my business to Middletown businesses. I have to go to the food store outside of Middletown. It’s not okay what happened. And we are not better.

WEGMAN: In their search for common ground, Middletown residents realized they were still on pretty shaky ground. Before long, the pendulum swung back. The police chief noted the traffic problems were on the rise again. On front lawns, signs about zoning disputes started replacing American flags and "United We Stand" banners.

Old conflicts resurfaced, including a row over a developers proposal to create the one thing everyone agrees Middletown doesn’t have, a town center.

[ZONING BOARDMEETING]

WEGMAN: At a zoning board meeting, hundreds of residents turn out. Some wear red shirts. Others wear green. Green is for, red is against. And the issue is a plan to build, from scratch, what’s being called "Town Square at Middletown," a prefabricated downtown, complete with stores, restaurants, a skating rink, a main street, and a village green.

AZZOLINA: I love Middletown. But growing up, there was just nowhere to go, and nothing to do.

[SOUND OF OUTDOORS]

WEGMAN: Joe Azzolina is one of the local developers pushing for the Town Center. He and his partner Phil Scaduto say that, after September 11th, it’s even more important for residents to have a place to gather.

SCADUTO: It’s a great place to live. I mean, we enjoyed it. We were here our whole lives. In fact, we raise our families here now. But one of the things it really lacks in the community is a central place where people can come together for good times, and also to share in bad times.

And, we don’t have an identity as far as a core place in the community that allows that to happen. For instance, in Middletown right now, we don’t even have a community area where we can light our township Christmas tree during the holidays. Our current place is in the middle of the jug handle right up the highway. We want to create a sense of place where the entire community can come to one location, and say, "This is our town."

WEGMAN: While the town center idea has caught on with many Middletowners, not everyone’s buying it.

[SOUND OF TRAFFIC]

ROGERS: This rather ugly, yellow, dumpy-looking house is mine.

WEGMAN: The dumpy-looking house is the oldest in Middletown, a small Dutch farmhouse off King’s Highway East, well over 300 years old. It’s the home of Bettie Rogers. She came to Middletown in 1958, when Route 35 was a two-lane road without a median strip.

Today, her house is just two blocks from the proposed town center. So naturally she’s concerned about potential traffic problems and the loss of open space. But she’s also skeptical of the developer’s claim that Middletown is missing something by not having a central gathering place.

ROGERS: I think the people who are for it have been more or less sold some kind of ideal picture of people walking around there, and meeting their neighbors, and strolling around, and sitting outside in sidewalk cafes. I don’t know that that would happen. I can’t see people driving down there to do that.

WEGMAN: Local historian Randall Gabrielan doesn’t understand the desire to create a town center either. Some people, he says, may wish they had a traditional town. But Middletown just didn’t develop that way, he says, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

[SOUND OF TRAFFIC]

GABRIELAN: Most people live in newer areas on suburban lots where we have our half, three-quarters, our acre of plots. And we drive to everything. And we knew that would be the case when we came here. And we like it.

WEGMAN: Still, the proposal to create a Town Center is starting to find acceptance even among people initially opposed to the idea, like Police Chief, John Pollinger. Pollinger grew up in Middletown, bought his first house here, and has never left. Pollinger was, at first, concerned about the traffic and other problems that yet another shopping complex would create.

POLLINGER: But then I looked at it. I said, "The towns on either side of us are developing like crazy. They’re getting tax revenues." If you want to go to a real nice restaurant, people go out of time. This will give Middletown an identity. And I think it’s a great idea. I’ve changed my mind. I think it’s a great idea now. Traffic is going to be here whether that thing is developed or not. So, you know what? Why not have it here?

WEGMAN: Since Chief Pollinger joined the force, Middletown’s crime rate has dropped to the third lowest in the nation for towns of its size, giving the chief time to attend to even the smallest detail.

[SOUND OF POLICE RADIO]

POLLINGER: I just want to go up on the beach here for a second. We have a baby seal who’s stranded on the beach. And I think one of my officers is down here. I just want to check on him. It’s one of the things we do.

[SOUND OF CAR DOOR, OCEAN WAVES]

POLLINGER: Oh, there’s our little baby. Hi, sweetheart. He’s hoping it’s not in any distress or pain. But, she’ll be in good hands in an hour or two. So you’re going to hang out until they get here, right?

MALE OFFICER: Yes, sir.

POLLINGER: Okay, good. See you later.

WEGMAN: On his way back to the cruiser, Chief Pollinger glances to his left, across the bay toward Manhattan.

POLLINGER: It’s eerie. This is the section of town I grew up in. And I used to come down here as a kid, swimming all the time. But even when I was down here yesterday, just driving around, you just look left, you look for the towers that aren’t there.

[SOUND OF CAR DOOR, DRIVING]

WEGMAN: During the ride back to police headquarters, I ask Chief Pollinger how September 11th has changed Middletown. He says he’s not sure about those big picture questions. But he does tell me that his relationship with the town has changed dramatically.

POLLINGER: I had begun to think that I would retire at a certain point and move to Tennessee and fish for large mouth bass for the rest of my life. But September 11th changed that. And it made me finally look at myself in the mirror, and realize that there’s no way I could retire, and there’s no way I could leave Middletown township. Because it’s my home, and it’s my community, and it’s a place that I care deeply about. And I feel a sense of responsibility for the people who live here. And I’m not going to leave.

WEGMAN: No doubt, September 11th has changed the lives of many individuals in Middletown. You can start with the families of victims, with the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and the more than 60 children who lost a parent that day.

As for the community of Middletown undergoing some fundamental change, well, most residents I asked seemed to want that to be true more than they thought that it was true. For the community of Middletown, real, lasting change is more likely something that happens out of range of the media spotlight. Something subtle and elusive that unfolds over time, like when a new train line lets people commute into the city, or when housing developments replace farmland, or, perhaps, when a town center is built.

Joy Rothman has raised three children in Middletown. Today, she runs a group that raises money for under-funded school projects. Usually, Joy Rothman doesn’t hesitate to share her thoughts about Middletown. But when I ask her about the future, she adopts a cautious tone.

ROTHMAN: I think some wonderful things came out of the horrible tragedy of September 11th. We had a lot of families that lost loved ones; the children that lost parents. It’s still hard to think about that. Sorry, I don’t know where that came from. It’s still very much--

But there have been really great things that happened. And, in a horrible way, it did pull some people together. Hopefully, we can keep some of the good momentum going.

WEGMAN: Do you think that will persist?

ROTHMAN: I have to have faith in human nature to believe that. I hope so.

[MUSIC: Bruce Springsteen, "My Hometown," BORN IN THE U.S.A. (Columbia – 1985)]

WEGMAN: For Living on Earth, I’m Jesse Wegman in Middletown, New Jersey.

CURWOOD: Our story on Middletown was edited and produced by Chris Ballman. Special thanks to New York Times reporter, Andrew Jenkins.

Back to top

 

Cracker Childhood

CURWOOD: If you were to travel throughout the southeastern United States in the time before the Civil War, you would have seen a forest of unending trees stretching from Texas to Virginia. And the dominant tree in this forest was the yellow or longleaf pine. The longleaf stood as high as 70 feet and stretched across 93 million acres of the Atlantic coastal plains. Drive down U.S. Highway One today, and you have to look pretty hard to find a single stand of longleaf.

Janisse Ray grew up in a junkyard just off Highway One. She writes about the disappearing forest, and growing up in the rural south, in her book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Janisse Ray, welcome to Living on Earth.

RAY: It’s good to be here.

CURWOOD: Now, I want you to tell me about the place where you grew up. How did you come to be raised in a junkyard?

RAY: I grew up in southern Georgia, which is very flat, piney woods. The people tend to be very poor. The towns are spaced far apart. My father, he didn’t finish high school. And so, to support himself, I think he had this idea of doing a junkyard.

We may not have had the material possessions that, as children, we desired. But the junkyard offered so many possibilities for the imagination. Instead of me being thankful for some new toy, or game, or a Barbie doll, or so forth, that I was paying attention to when the blackberries ripened, when the plums came on.

CURWOOD: From living in a junkyard, what did the things that people were throwing away tell you about their lives or world?

RAY: What mostly came to the junkyard was damaged in some way. Now what I see, that people throw away, are very functional things, and lots of them. I could not believe the things my neighbors threw away. How, every week, before the trash truck came around, I was out gathering what I wanted. We got a new tent. It’s pretty amazing.

But you know what I did with it? I’m not a hoarder at all. I just filled the back of my truck with what I thought other people could use and took it down to Goodwill.

CURWOOD: Why?

RAY: I’m really not a junk collector. It’s just, I cannot bear waste.

CURWOOD: There’s a place in your book, Janisse, where you quote from a letter that your brother Dell wrote you, about your childhood home in a junkyard. Could you please read a little from that?

RAY: I’d be glad to. "There’s a place in the old junkyard that, when I encounter it, turns magical. I become a future savage, half naked, silently creeping through the dense canopy of trees and scrub. A feeling of dread increases with each step. But curiosity draws me on. Suddenly, I see mammoth beasts, eyes staring sightless forward. I see huge shining teeth in these monsters. As I move my hand gently among their flanks, I realize that I am in a graveyard speckled with dead prehistoric creatures. I am filled with awe. I can only speculate about their lives, imagine them roaring about, and shudder at what they fed on. I know that this is hallowed ground. And I remember that this place was spoken of in soft mutterings of the old ones, long dead, around the fires at night. As I grope the shaft to the spear and prepare to leave, I wonder if the pangs are from hunger or from a sense of loss."

CURWOOD: It’s so interesting that your brother describes this junkyard as-- well, it’s almost a wilderness. It’s very much alive. What sort of similarities do you see between the junkyard and the forest?

RAY: The similarities between a junkyard and a forest are that both are random and so full of unusual, interesting things. You never know what to expect in a forest, in a wilderness. And you never, never know what could be around a bend in the junkyard: a part of a doll, a piece of an airplane, a huge stack of bicycle parts. And the same in a forest. You know, suddenly you come upon a black bear, standing right on the trail. And yet, in the randomness of both of them, is logic, a semblance of order.

CURWOOD: What’s special about longleaf or yellow pine, which is the type of pine which used to be rather plentiful there in the South?

RAY: The wind has its own song in longleaf pine. When a wind passes through a magnolia, it clatters. It clatters the leaves. They’re thick. But because the needles of longleaf are long and wispy, it’s a brushing sound that comes through. But it’s also very loud. There are many, many needles. And, I wish I could explain it to you. It’s a very distinct sound, to be in a tall, longleaf pine forest, and hear the wind come sweeping through. It really sings.

CURWOOD: Janisse Ray, you entitled your book "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood." What does it mean to you to be a cracker?

RAY: If you ask anybody around here, they say, "Oh, it’s because we ate our corn cracked," meaning grits. Or, the settlers habit of cracking their whips over the heads of the cattle as they drove them to market. But really, it means bragger or boaster. Crackers are the boarder-landers who settled most of the southern United States.

CURWOOD: What was the cracker relationship with the land?

RAY: We used the land, Steve, as we needed it. I don’t think we would have used it up. But what happened is that, after the Civil War, our part of the country was needed for reconstruction, to rebuild the nation. And because we had been humbled by our loss and by the changes, and also by the destruction, that we became the wood basket, then, for the nation. A cutting cycle ensued. It was so fierce, we lost almost all of our old growth then, following the Civil War.

The cutting cycle lasted through the turn of the century. We built little cabins, little cracker shanties, shotgun cabins, all through the woods here and there. We cut the trees and drifted them down the Altamaha River to Darien. You know, we are the people responsible for the destruction of that landscape.

CURWOOD: Janisse Ray, could you read a little from the introduction of your book, to give us a taste of the South that was your childhood?

RAY: Sure. "In South Georgia, everything is flat and wide, not empty. My people live among the mobile homes, junked cars, pine plantations, clear cuts, and fields. They live among the lost forests. I was born from people who were born from people who were born from people who were born here. The crackers crossed the wide Altamaha into what had been creek territory, and settled the vast, fire-loving uplands of the coastal plains of southeast Georgia, surrounded by a singing forest of tall and widely spaced pines, whose history they did not know, whose stories were untold."

CURWOOD: You write that your family dates back almost 200 years in the South, and that you got a lot of wonderful characters in your family. The story of your grandfather Charlie, or as you entitle him in your book, "Iron Man," had quite a relationship with the southern woods. I’m wondering if you could tell us, briefly, the story of your grandfather, Charlie.

RAY: The tragedy of my grandfather is that, from a very young age, he inherited this tragic disease, mental illness, that’s run through the Ray men. And so, I believe what happened is that he turned to wilderness for a kind of solace, for a place where he knew he could find even our basic necessities, like food and shelter.

And also because, in so many places, he had not found love. There was a place in the woods where he didn’t need that. And he was truly a wild man. He became a folk hero in my part of the country. People still talk about him. He could dive into the Altamaha River, head and all, and feel among sunken tree roots, and come up with a catfish in each hand.

Sometimes when I’m walking in the woods, I envision my grandfather a ghost. I mean, it’s almost so real that I’ve seen that, the ghost of him emerging from the woods. You know, the South is full of ghosts. I don’t know why. I think it’s our love of stories, our love of spirit, and mystery. And I really think that there is this part of the inexplicable that flourishes in wildness in wilderness. And that, as we lose wilderness in the South, we also lose something like ghost stories.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder, "Theme to Southern Comfort," MUSIC BY…(Warner Bors. – 1995)]

CURWOOD: Janisse Ray is author of the book, "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood," and lives in her hometown of Baxley, Georgia. Thanks for speaking with me today.

RAY: Thank you so much.

Back to top

 

CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. Next week:

MALE: Welcome to the might Rio Grande. It’s not very mighty right now.

CURWOOD: Three years of prolonged drought have left water levels in southwest states dangerously low. And with no relief in sight, the only thing going up is competition for the water that remains.

[SOUND OF FLOWING WATER]

MALE: Normally, we’d have, at this time of the year, probably 3000 cubic feet per second going by the dam here. Right now, I’d guess we’ve got less than 100.

CURWOOD: High and dry in the arid Southwest, next time on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC OUT]

[SOUND OF WILDLIFE]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week with sounds from Janisse Ray’s neck of the woods, The Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia.

A solo by a Carolina Wren dominates this recording by Lang Elliott and Ted Mack. But in the background, listen for the calls of the sandhill crane and a gray catbird, the drumming of a pileated woodpecker, the quack of herons and croaks of various frogs.

[Lang Elliott & Ted Mack, "Carolina Wren (Okeefenokee Swamp)," SONG BIRD PORTRAITS (EarthEar – 2002)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org. Our staff includes Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger and Al Avery, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Milisa Muniz.

Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help his week from Rachel Girshick and Jessie Fenn. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.

Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. Diane Toomey is our science editor. And Eileen Bolinsky is the senior editor of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

FEMALE: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include The Educational Foundation of America, for coverage of energy and climate change; The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; The Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues; and The Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of marine issues.

MALE: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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